The first image of a professional wrestler on a printed card dates back to the late 1800s when the Allen & Ginter Co. produced their first tobacco cards. The company was based out of Virginia and is the first known producer of cigarette cards for collecting and trading. In 1890, it became part of the American Tobacco Company which would continue to produce sports cards well into the 1900s. These card sets were not dedicated to one single sport or form of entertainment. They featured an extensive selection of baseball players, Indian chiefs, actresses, boxers, as well as wrestlers and other prominent athletes. The first wrestlers of that era to appear on a card included names like William Muldoon and Theobaud Bauer. Other tobacco companies that also produced cigarette cards with wrestlers included Goodwin & Co., John Player and Ogden’s in the United Kingdom. Some of these sets of cards number over 100, featuring mostly baseball players, film stars and military heroes. For the most part, these cards measured approximately 1½” X 2½” which is smaller than today’s standard trading card size.
ii. The 1950s and1960s
In 1951, Topps released its Ringside Boxing set that included five different wrestlers alongside all of the prominent pugilists of that era. The first dedicated wrestling trading card set was manufactured by Parkhurst Products of Toronto, Canada. Their first set of 75 full color cards was produced in 1955 and featured early wrestling greats such as Lou Thesz, Whipper Billy Watson, Argentina Rocca and Verne Gagne. The second and larger set of 121 cards was released a year later and included stars like Gorgeous George, Bobo Brazil, Don Leo Jonathan and Johnny Rougeau. Featuring portraits of wrestlers as well as in-ring action, these colorful sets remain one of the few sources we have today to remember the great wrestlers from that era.
Sadly, there aren’t anywide-release wrestling trading card sets from the 1970s. Even though professional wrestling was as popular as ever and was dominated by large, territorial promotions during these years, the professional wrestling collectibles from this era are limited to photos, magazines and event programs. There are some magazines that had trading card style sheets of nine with wrestlers bios on the back. Recently, some collectors have die-cut these paper sheets into individual cards and had them graded and it is not uncommon for these “cards” to sell for quite a bit of money.
iii. The 80s
The first wrestling trading card sets of the 1980s were The Wrestling All Stars series made by Pro Wrestling Enterprises. These three releases featured many of the first trading cards of wrestlers who would dominate over the next decade. An unprecedented number of first time wrestler images on cards are to found in these sets, including such names a Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Andre The Giant, Harley Race, Dusty Rhodes, Bobby Heenan, Jesse Ventura and a not quite yet perfect, Curt Hennig. Although these sets were the first ones to contain many of these wrestler’s images on them, they are not actually considered “rookie cards” since they never had a formal wide release. These cards have become very popular lately, especially if they are graded highly.
Topps became the first mainstream card manufacturer to produce wrestling sets for the WWF during this era. The company’s first dedicated wrestling releases were the Pro Wrestling Stars cards in 1985 and 1987, which are still highly sought after today. They were also the first packs of wrestling trading cards to include a sticker card. A second sister set, also named Pro Wrestling Stars, was produced by O-pee-Chee in Canada in 1985.
Other memorable sets from the 1980s were the smaller Monty Gum wrestling cards, as well as the hefty 343 NWA card set by Wonderama. This set featured the first ever card of future superstar Sting. Smaller promotional sets were released by food companies like Quaker, Carnation and Swanson. 1988 would be the first year that wrestling cards would be inserted into ice-cream bars. Riding the wave of pro wrestling’s newly found popularity, Gold Bond made ice cream bars with WWF wrestler’s images on the outer coating. The combined ice cream sets made by Gold Bond and later Good Humor and Unilever have become the longest running series of wrestling cards. There have been a total 16 ice cream sets spanning the years 1988 to 2008.
iv. The 1990s
The 1990s continued with even more professional wrestling trading card sets being produced than the previous decade. In 1991, a black and white wrestling legends set was released by Imagine Inc. These cards featured many of the stars of the 60s and 70s that never had their images on trading cards back in the day when they wrestled. This elusive set also features eight gold-border autograph cards of some of the greatest wrestlers ever, which still remain very hard to come by to this day.
During the 1990s, most of the wrestling trading card sets were released for the top two leading wrestling promotions, WWF and WCW. Trading cards were also available for most of the mid-1990s in the WWF Magazine. Over four years, 300 cards were issued through the magazine subscriptions. In 1994 and 1995 the first WWF embossed card sets were made by Action Packed. There were also four WWF sets produced in Europe in the early 90s by Merlin Inc. that were released in Italian and German as well as English. The late 1990s was well represented by the “WWF Superstarz” and “WWF Smackdown” trading card sets released by Comic Images. They also produced a dedicated trading card set for Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in 2000. The Rock remains the only wrestler to ever have his own official trading card set produced and marketed solely around himself.
There were several WCW sets made over the years by Impel, Championship Marketing, and an early Topps set in Europe. In 1998, Topps released its first WCW/nWo complete trading card set. This was a very significant release in the history of wrestling trading cards. It featured a base set of 72 cards, as well as a 10 card chromium insert set, a 10 sticker insert set, 5 promotional cards and 37 official superstar autograph cards. These autograph cards would continue with the 1999 Nitro and Embossed sets. They still remain to this day one of the most popular autograph series ever released. These first WCW sets showed that professional wrestling could have the same kind of premium cards that had existed for years prior in other major sports card releases.
Trading card companies started to make huge improvements in the quality and appearance of wrestling trading cards. The first 3D Lenticular wrestling trading card set was released in the late 1990s by Artbox Inc. By the end of the 1990s many companies were committed to making wrestling trading card sets. This included the production of a series of gold-plated cards from the Danbury Mint in 1999. A total of 120 gold cards, along with an official card holding binder and special Danbury Mint pages would be minted in the six years that followed. By the time the new millennium was upon us, wrestling trading cards were starting to become a dominating force in the trading card hobby.
vi. The 2000s
The ushering in of the new millennium will likely be remembered as the best of times for wrestling card collectors. In 2001, Fleer released its WWF Wrestlemania set which would be the first of many sets that they would produce over the ensuing years. Many of the Fleer wrestling sets produced in between 2001 and 2005 included additional insert sets, memorabilia cards, autographs and the first ever Diva Kiss cards. The 2000s were definitely the decade of the Divas for wrestling trading cards. The rise in popularity of females in the wrestling business made for some very interesting trading cards. Stars like Trish Stratus, Chyna, Lita, Sable, Stacy Keibler, Torrie Wilson and many others had memorabilia, autograph and kiss cards seeded throughout the Fleer sets. There were four dedicated Divas releases that featured some of the most popular cards ever printed. The Diva cards remain particularly valuable, especially the Kiss cards and the dual memorabilia/autographs (numbered only to five) from Fleer’s Divas 2005.
As with almost every single trading card release of any kind, wrestling sets began to see purposely short printed cards. One of the very first known purposely short printed wrestling trading cards was the Farooq Knee Brace card from 2001’s Championship Clash. It contained a spelling error on the card itself, and was also hard to produce due to a brittle knee brace supplied to Fleer. It was only limited to eight cards. The Hurricane mask card from 2002’s All Access set is also limited to fewer than a dozen. Several Divas cards were also short printed from the various sets. Examples include the Terri Ring Accessories blouse card from the Ultimate Diva collection as well as the Victoria Uncensored ring trunks and Gail Kim Uncensored shirt cards from Divas 2005. There are also a few autograph cards that remain amongst the most popular, highest sought after, and most valuable from the Fleer releases. The Raw is War Undertaker War Booty autograph, the All-Access Triple H Off The Mat autograph, and the Stacy Keibler Divine Divas Hugs & Kisses autograph are still highly sought after by collectors. Since they had very low and limited print runs, the existing supply simply cannot meet the continued demand for these cards.
In 2005, following Fleer’s demise, the WWE license was once again acquired by Topps. Their Heritage release in 2005 became the first of three more that would follow and the last to feature the wrestler’s signatures directly on the cards themselves. The Heritage chrome series was the first to offer base card parallel Refractor, X-fractor and Superfractor cards, the latter in which each card was sequentially numbered to only 25. The introduction of these kinds of cards into a set made ever assembling a master set virtually impossible. Later Topps releases would include magnets, tattoo cards, lenticular chase cards, commemorative Allen & Ginter style cards, dual autographs, and wrestler sketch cards.
In 2008, the first of many quality sets were produced for TNA – (Total Nonstop Action Wrestling) by Tristar Productions. At the time of the first Tristar TNA card release, “Impact!”, TNA had many former wrestlers that worked for other large promotions in the past now on their roster. Following in the footsteps of the later 1990s Topps WCW wrestling trading card set releases, Tristar kicked off their inaugural 2008 set producing an autograph trading card of every member on the TNA roster at the time. These sets contain up to four parallel card subsets, memorabilia cards featuring event worn articles of clothing worn by the TNA performers, female Kissed cards, and even single, double, triple and quad autographed trading cards.
The last few years have seen some very large and power-packed sets from both Topps and Tristar. Topps 2010 Platinum series was very popular with collectors. There has also been several independent wrestling card releases lately which shows how popular wrestling trading cards have become.
This new millennium has seen the advancement of the Internet which altered how trading cards of all types were to be bought and sold in the future. eBay’s rise to prominence as the number one online marketplace to buy and sell goods made it the obvious choice for the collectibles market to reach a world wide audience. It now has become very easy for card collectors and sellers to do business with each other on a world-wide large scale basis. It is also much easier for collectors who may not have been able to buy wrestling trading cards locally to enjoy total access to most of the major product. Although eBay remains the number one place for wrestling trading cards to be bought and sold, more bricks and mortar stores in cities all over the world have started to carry wrestling trading cards due to the hobby’s huge climb in popularity.
The Internet has allowed both card collectors and dealers to create on-line websites dedicated to the wrestling trading card hobby. Sellers now ship wrestling cards all around the world from their online card shops and stores. The most informative website today for wrestling cards is www.wrestlingtradingcards.com. This collaborative site has complete checklists for all known sets and often provides images for many of the cards. The site also features a chat forum where fans of the hobby can communicate with each other. It also provides valuable links to some of the best places on the internet to purchase wrestling trading cards.