(FORTUNE Magazine) – The reason Time Warner is buying Turner Broadcasting for $7.5 billion is of course that the company covets Turner's choice media properties: CNN, TBS, the Atlanta Braves, and MGM's film library. But lurking deep down in the Turner empire is another, little-known asset that may really have Time Warner management jumping up and down. It's professional wrestling.

Turner, it happens, is the proud owner of World Championship Wrestling (WCW), a league whose pummelings penetrate 9.4 million households. Traditionally it has taken a ratings beating from archrival WWF (World Wrestling Federation), owned by sports impresario Vince McMahon. Now Turner is gaining on McMahon, and help from Time Warner--which already airs events on its cable franchises and might now put them on HBO or pay-per-view--could put Ted on top. At stake: $150 million in sales of advertising, tickets, and merchandise.

Turner and McMahon went toe-to-toe last month when Turner launched Monday Nitro Live, a cavalcade of grappling to compete directly against McMahon's Monday Night Raw, among the highest-rated original series on basic cable. Raw featured a man in a white smock--a wrestling dentist ("Dr. Isaac Yankem"); Nitro, a devil in red tights and tail who speared opponents with a fork. Referees, knocked unconscious, missed crucial pins. There were tights pulling, gross interference, illegal use of folding chairs, and the splintering of a ringside table--in short, the full panoply of wrestling arts. When the smoke cleared, Turner's Nitro, with a 2.5 rating, had beaten Raw (2.2)...uh, raw, though their second matchup was a draw.

Several of the biggest names in wrestling, including Hulk Hogan and "Macho Man" Randy Savage, have jumped from McMahon to Turner. At least one advertiser has too: Goodmark Foods, makers of SlimJims. Says executive Andrew Modlin: "WCW is more aggressive and seems a little hungrier."

McMahon's WWF is still bigger, grossing an estimated $84 million. Turner's executive producer Eric Bischoff, says, "My goal is to break $50 million." With a push from Bugs Bunny & Co., why not?

--Alan Farnham