Personal Reflections on Pro Wrestling

Brett Whitehead
December 2, 2011

O
n May 2, 2011, Osama Bin Laden was killed by American troops in Pakistan. It was announced on a Sunday night and by Monday morning, the news had traveled around the world and was featured by many, if not all, popular culture media. [see, even http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkftxaRmiAk (John Cena announces Osama Bin Ladenís death)]. I went to bed that night at 8:30 p.m. because I spent the previous two days staying up too late at Rayís wedding, and therefore I did not hear the news before I went to bed. No one called or texted me the news overnight while I was sleeping, so I first learned the information from SportsCenter about an hour after I had been awake.

On Friday, May 20, 2011, I was in the middle of a business meeting with a person of regional public importance. In the midst of this meeting, my iPhone buzzed five times, each buzz representing a message from a friend or family member letting me know that professional wrestler Randy Macho Man Savage died when he suffered a heart attack while driving and crashed into a tree. These messages were mostly in jest, but they still asked if I was OK and if I had heard the news. The news was reported sometime around noon, and all of the messages were sent by the time my one hour meeting was complete around 2 o’clock. This means that unlike Bin Laden, these people most likely thought of me immediately after hearing the news and felt it necessary to contact me.

The purpose of this comparison is not to compare the death of Bin Laden and the Macho Man, as that would be crass and tasteless. This is less a statement about society and more about me and my interests, because I, a 30 year old male with 19 years of formal education, love professional wrestling. I have always loved professional wrestling and most people who know me know that I love professional wrestling. For a brief example of the level my interests, two of those messages asked specifically about a Pro Wrestling Death Pool that I started with three other people after the death of professional wrestler Umaga on December 4, 2009. Since that draft, only one person has scored points, and that person is yours truly. My first pick in the draft was Rowdy Roddy Piper, because I knew that two months earlier Piper was diagnosed with terminal cancer [see http://www.blippitt.com/roddy-piper-has-terminal-cancer/]. I seriously doubt that anyone else in the draft was privy to such information because no one else still DVRs Monday Night Raw, no one else checks pro wrestling rumors every day, no one else regularly purchases wrestling DVDs, and no one else has iconic wrestling magazine The Pro Wrestling Torch download-able iPhone app on their iPhone.

I would like to use this website to comment on the world of professional wrestling; however, I am concerned it will be hard to understand my opinions without knowing my history with sports entertainment. My intent is to continue my pro wrestling scholarship, as I previously published two other articles with widely circulated pro wrestling websites [see http://pwtorch.com/artman2/publish/ROH_News_29/article_47397.shtml, http://www.canoe.ca/SlamWrestlingGuestColumn/rollo_00may2.html]. Anyway, the point here is that I think non-wrestling fans need to understand a few salient points that I believe most wrestling fans share. These points include (1) the antiquated debate over whether wrestling is real, (2) how most wrestling fans look at the current wrestling product, and (3) how the Internet and nostalgia preserve my interest in wrestling despite the current condition of the product. Hopefully, this article adds some clarity to my lifelong appeal to 300 pound men in underpants pretending to punch each other in the face.

A. I know professional wrestling isn’t real.

1. And so does everyone else.

The first question everyone asks me about wrestling is important, but not for the reasons people think it is. Obviously, I know that pro wrestling is not “real.” The matches are not real competitions any more than the pro wrestler Kane is the real fire-burned brother of the Undertaker, who spent 20 years in hiding before costing the Undertaker a Hell in the Cell match against Shawn Michaels in 1997 [see http://prowrestling.about.com/od/wwerawwrestlers/p/kane.htm]. Finding out that wrestling is staged was a lot like finding out there is no Santa Claus. While in elementary school, I heard rumors that it was fake, but I didn’t want to believe it, so I held out hope that wrestling was real in the face of public doubt. I ended up finding out for sure from an episode of 20/20 in the mid-1980’s, which is a piece of television that seems incredibly ridiculous in hindsight [see http://www.wrestlingrevealed.com/next/content.php/2503-20-20-Expose-On-Pro-Wrestling]. I remember being disappointed when I found out wrestling was fake, but it also didn’t bother me to the extent that I stopped watching. It was much like how getting presents at Christmas is super rad when you’re six years old regardless of whether theyíre coming from your parents or an omnipresent home intruder being carried through the sky via magic deer (damn, put that way, kids will believe anything -ed.).

People asking me if I know wrestling is fake does not insult me, but I do take issue with people asking me if the rest of the people who like wrestling know that wrestling is fake. I will refrain from delving into a socioeconomic diatribe about how the world looks at wrestling fans, and simply re-state the Santa Claus analogy stated earlier. Everyone over the age of 11 knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that wrestling is fake, just like everyone over 11 knows that Santa Claus is fake. Wrestling has changed a lot from when we were kids and doesn’t even present itself as a real competition. Aside from it’s self-imposed classification as “Sports Entertainment”, the advent of cartoonish pro wrestling storylines makes it impossible that anyone could believe they were watching an unscripted competition. Compare these two wrestling videos to see how wrestling has changed, essentially obliterating the illusion of reality.

a. Ric Flair v. Lex Luger

July 10, 1988
NWA Championship Match at the Great American Bash
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKNYSzkfGEE&feature=related

I chose a match from WCW because WCW in the 1980s really went above and beyond to present wrestling like it was a real sporting event. The wrestlers are two athletic blond guys who look like athletes. They don’t have complicated gimmicks any more than they have a complicated back story for this match: Ric Flair is the champion and Lex Luger wants to be the champion. The rules to the match are meticulously explained and medical personnel play an integral role in the conclusion. From beginning to end, the presentation of the match is comparable to a boxing match. You could see how and why people in the 80’s believed wrestling was real because little of this match is far-fetched. At least compared to this next match.

b. Undertaker v. Kane

February 22, 1999
Inferno Match on Monday Night Raw
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PQGkadcYBY

The first line of commentary in this clip says it all. The only way to win this match is to set the other man on fire. There is no sense of competition, but only a desire to kill the other person in the ring by pushing them into fire. While the premise of this match seems like a special attraction, it should also be noted that the Undertaker has competed in Casket Matches—first man to put the other man in a casket wins—and Buried Alive Matches—first man to bury the other man alive in a grave wins. For a match with such serious consequences, i.e. death, there are no championships or titles are on the line, but the rivalry in this match is based on the ludicrous premise that would be better served for a police blotter than for athletic competition. There is also nothing realistic about the combatants. Both men are more cartoon characters than athletes, as one of the of the combatants is wearing a mask while the other is allegedly from Hell. Not in the figurative sense either. He is a character who actually resides in Hell.

My point is that sometime around the mid to late 90’s, professional wrestling gave up the illusion that professional wrestling was real. The product became focused primarily on selling the stories surrounding the matches, as opposed to the strict constructs of the match itself. The WWE went through a renaissance of public interest during this period in which audiences tuned into television, pay per views, and live events in record numbers because of the stories and the characters. People loved the Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin, even as no one remembers any specific matches. The focus turned away from the match itself and through that process the illusion of reality was scrapped completely. Matches in the present day still tell the same story, but the WWE adds so much window dressing that for the most part you’re watching an all-male soap opera. There are still avenues in which the matches do the talking, but even in those situations there are no illusions between the crowd and the product [see http://www.rohwrestling.com, http://dgusa.tv/]. Ultimately, there is more of a disconnect in the present day audience’s perception of what is real and scripted in reality shows than there is in professional wrestling [see http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1643803/hills-was-not-scripted-kelly-cutrone.jhtml].

2. But I like to pretend that professional wrestling is real.

In fact, I like professional wrestling the most when I forget that what I’m watching is scripted and instead believe that pro wrestling is a real match between real combatants. This is where the independent observer of professional wrestling gets tripped up on the points made above, and admittedly itís a little bit paradoxical. To help illustrate my point, I will make a logical comparison between similar forms of media.

When I was in college, my school’s theater company put on The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov [see http://www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/ac/sisters.htm]. The Three Sisters is fantastic representation of the Russian culture at the turn of the century and is an engaging piece from one of history’s greatest story-tellers. I had a few friends in the theater company so I saw many plays during college, specifically by this group of people. For some reason or another, I was completely engrossed in this production. The story of three sisters experiencing the decay of Russian aristocracy was completely engrossing. The end sequence, where Irina confesses that she cannot love her paramour before he dies in a senseless duel with the primary antagonist, resonated as the perfect climax to a story destined to have a disappointing ending for the the players involved. And in the end, I completely forgot that I was watching a play, and specifically the fact that I had spent the previous weekend drinking Keystone Ice pounders with Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony [see http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/keystone-ice/2334/].

This play would later become my gold standard for an enjoyable entertainment experience. If I could forget that I was watching a scripted medium and become engrossed in the product, that would constitute a worthwhile endeavor. For example, I have a hard time watching Will Smith movies without thinking “I am watching a movie with Will Smith fighting aliens” or “I am watching a movie with Will Smith fighting robots.” Forgetting the scripted nature of professional wrestling is easy because of the mix between sports and entertainment. I am conditioned to believe that sports are real, so suspending my disbelief is easier than while watching the Fresh Prince of Bel Air punching space monsters in the face [see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfPWpEKhgfk (Welcome to Earth!)]. Besides, sports entertainment is the perfect marriage between sports and, you know, entertainment. Sporting events are usually entertaining by accident. I have owned season tickets to the Phillies for the last eight years and there is no telling when a game will be exciting or hellishly boring. To that extent, I wish all sporting events had clearly defined good guys and bad guys and I wish that every sporting event had a better back story surrounding the game. Sports is also defined by its iconic moments and so sports entertainment simply tries to artificially make iconic moments at the times you would expect them, which is pretty damn convenient for a guy who watches more boring baseball games than he’d care to admit.

It is easiest to pretend that wrestling is real while attending a live wrestling event. Live wrestling shows feature audience interaction similar to your average sporting event, but in this case the people you are trying to engage with very often react back to you. I previously linked to an article I wrote about friends and I attending a live Ring of Honor show. Immediately when the show started, I began yelling and shouting at the wrestlers, because it was more enjoyable to pretend the experience was real. Once everyone joined in, we all forgot what we were watching was fake and commenced yelling and giving the middle finger to everyone. Like, seriously, everybody. Almost all the wrestlers responded to us and the crowd in general, and one wrestler playing a smarmy European villain took it far enough to arrogantly goad a group of 15 year old boys who were raining obscenities on him. By the end of the night, the whole arena was whipped into a frenzy, which created an unrivaled atmosphere during the matches. By comparison, Ray and I went to an Eagles game a few years ago where the Eagles went up two touchdowns early on the Redskins and then slowly gave away the game. A guy two rows ahead of us was so upset while this was happening that he started screaming at Andy Reid until his face turned red. Unlike our experience at Ring of Honor, Andy Reid did not turn around and tell this guy to go fuck himself. He instead stood there like an idiot, wasted his timeouts, and let McNabb throw passes into the ground. But I digress.

This is where it gets weird when you’re a wrestling fan watching pro wrestling around non-fans. It is more fun to pretend wrestling is real and act like you’re watching a legitimate sporting event, but in the same token, you can’t pretend its real or you’ll look like a huge moron to the independent observer. I suppose though, that this is the way of the world and at the end of the day, that’s fine. Just for reference, though, I know that wrestling is fake and I like it a lot better when I’m not reminded every five seconds.

B. For the most part, I am disappointed by modern professional wrestling, but I continue to follow for reasons unrelated to the advertised product.

On May 23, 2011, the television show Lost capped off a maddening and semi-enjoyable 6 seasons of network television [see http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/The_End]. Despite being one of the most successful network television dramas of the past 10 years, Lost was constantly criticized by fans and critics who believed (1) the show never recaptured the glory of the first season, (2) the story writing got worse as the show progressed, and (3) that those writing about the show on the Internet were better at telling the story than the writers themselves [see http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/24/more-critics-react-to-the-lost-finale/, http://www.fanfiction.net/tv/Lost/ (WOW, btw…)].

Professional wrestling operates under the same three principles. Every wrestling fan who posts articles on the Internet, even those who I personally interact with, complains about wrestling. Every wrestling fan overvalues nostalgia and wishes that wrestling was back like it was in the 80’s or late 90’s. Pro wrestling has a form of fan fiction, but its called “fantasy booking” and it involves people describing how they would play out the storylines [see http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6772996/on-wrestling-reality, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnVF2tYCx0Y]. Pro wrestling writing, i.e. the decisions on who wins the matches and how the matches play out, draws the most criticism, mostly because the writers are influenced more often than not by office politics. Throughout the history of professional wrestling, wrestlers with high seniority infiltrate the decision making process and end up ensuring that their character wins more matches and championships than less influential wrestlers. Sticking with the same Lost comparison, it would be like the Lost actor who played John Locke bullying his way into being the show’s head writer, and then making Season 5 be about John Locke beating up the younger, more handsome actors before sleeping with Evangeline Lilly. That is, as opposed what actually happened to the main characters in Season 5 of Lost, which is that they were sent back in time to the 1970s so they could better defeat ghosts and doppelgangers [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_season_5].

For the most part, I agree with all the points listed above. The storylines on RAW are contrived and I often believe that the wrestlers I like the most do not get the attention they deserve. Yet in the midst of this criticism, I continue to follow wrestling religiously. I check wrestling websites every day and I know what happened on every television show, even if I didn’t watch the show myself. It would seem that I should just give up this endeavor and follow some other hobby; however, I can clearly articulate two primary points that keep my interest despite that fact that more often than not, watching televised wrestling disappoints me.

1. The Internet has Completely Revolutionized Wrestling Fandom.

ESPN sportswriter Bill Simmons often says that of all its influence, the Internet had the greatest effect on the popularization and exposure of pornography and fantasy sports. I would submit that the world of professional wrestling also deserves inclusion in that winner’s circle, as the Internet’s exposure of the backstage world of professional wrestling has opened up an entirely new interest in wrestling that has sustained most of its older audience above and beyond its advertised product.

Wrestling rumors and backstage gossip have been circulated publicly since the early 1980s, when David Meltzer began mailing the Wrestling Observer Newsletter to paid subscribers [see http://www.f4wonline.com/]. The public’s interest in gossip was later capitalized on by the wrestling promotions themselves, who often offered 1-900 number hotlines for people to call and receive information from “backstage sources.” Despite the availability of these options, the requirement of having to pay for the information stood in the way of the average fan’s interest. As is true with many media in the late 1990’s, the advent of free accessibility on the Internet popularized the content simply by making it easier to obtain. While that would be an easy explanation for the rise in wrestling gossip, it doesn’t tell the full story.

In 1998, the annual WWE pay per view entitled Survivor Series featured an incident that has been popularly titled “the Montreal Screwjob.” As the story goes, Bret “the Hitman” Hart was to defend his title against Shawn Michaels in his hometown of Montreal, Canada. To the viewer, it appeared that Bret Hart gave up via tap-out while being held in his own finishing maneuver and Shawn Michaels won the title. Immediately following, all hell broke loose, including both wrestlers looking pissed off and Bret Hart spitting on Vince McMahon on live television. I watched this match live and couldn’t understand what exactly was happening. By all appearances, it was just a regular wrestling match with a weird anti-climactic ending. I would later find out on the Internet that Bret Hart was not supposed to lose the match, but Vince McMahon, the true-but-not-then-revealed owner of WWE, changed the ending without telling Bret. Apparently, Bret was to leave the WWE for WCW and Vince wanted to prevent Bret from departing as the WWE champion. The reactions in the ring were not staged, but instead reflected the true anger and heartbreak of Bret Hart, who was embarrassed in front of his home crowd. The full story is much more complicated than my condensed version, so if you’d like to learn more, there is a fantastic documentary entitled Wrestling with Shadows that is both awesome and on Netflix [see also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montreal_Screwjob].

The “Montreal Screwjob” has been over-analyzed by wrestling critics to death (no, really), but in many ways this was the seminal moment that brought the casual fan into the backstage world of wrestling politics. By exposing its dirty laundry on a national stage in a compelling and dramatic form, fans realized that the backstage interaction between the wrestlers themselves was often more interesting than the wrestling that was going on in the ring. Wrestling websites thrived during the wrestling resurgence in the late 1990’s, providing fans a previously unseen look at how grown men strung out on steroids interact with each other while putting together a dramatic performance. [For reference, see http://lordsofpain.net, http://prowrestlinginsider.com.]

When you think about it, the obsession with backstage wrestling gossip shouldn’t be that surprising. The public’s interest in gossip and rumours concerning figures in pop culture is a multimillion dollar business and any person who has gone grocery shopping and seen magazines touting Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Aniston is well aware of this. I suppose the question to the outside observer is why professional wrestling would fall into that same category. Well, I’m glad you asked!

For starters, wrestlers are, at the heart of it, just actors. If it makes sense for movie stars to be petty and jealous, the same should be expected of professional wrestlers. Their success is primarily dependent on the whims of predetermined sporting events. The fragility of success in pro wrestling makes people do anything to keep that success and that often results in people doing weird things to “keep their spot” on the top of the marquee. Also, I do not want to trade in stereotypes, but it seems like when you are making millions of dollars by being in the public eye, you start doing weird things [see http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/Health/story?id=2885048&page=1]. Once again, pro wrestlers are instantly recognizable people who get very little to no free time to be normal. The bubble of professional wrestling causes weird behavior, and as a society of rubberneckers, there is a market for bizarre people doing bizarre things [see http://www.oowrestling.com/OOForums/viewthread.php?tid=21720 (this link is crazy, but there is no better example of what I am talking about)].

Aside from an interest in the behavior of the wrestlers, there is a considerable market for “spoilers,” meaning backstage gossip regarding who will win upcoming matches. Once again, this creates an inconsistency from the point referenced above, that wrestling fans want to believe the matches are real. Despite wanting to suspend disbelief, the desire to know the outcome of matches and storylines is often too irresistible to pass up. As a sports fan, ask yourself if you would be able to resist going on the Internet and finding out if your team would win their next game, especially if it was a playoff or championship game. It is easy to say you wouldn’t, but I can assure you that the temptation is often too great to pass up. While this often ruins a great deal of the surprises that the product produces, it also makes the surprises that do shock you even better, since you really feel like the wool was pulled over your eyes.

2. Nostalgia is the best reason most fans continue to follow wrestling.

In the wake of Macho Manís passing, nostalgia for Randy Savageís career was at an all time high [see http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/110524, http://deadspin.com/5804679/dead-wrestler-of-the-week-macho-man-randy-savage]. My two personal favorite Macho Man matches were his Wrestlemania victory over Ric Flair at Wrestlemania 8 and his retirement match against the Ultimate Warrior at Wrestlemania 7. The humor in those two specific matches is that second match was a retirement match and it happened a year before my first favorite match. My earliest memory of Macho Man is not so much my own memory but actually a funny story my dad likes to tell about me from when I was six. In 1987, my dad took me to the Spectrum to watch Wrestlemania III on closed circuit television, which was a popular option at a time before the advent of pay per view. Randy Savage fought Ricky Steamboat in what is largely considered the greatest Wrestlemania match of all time [but see, Undertaker v. Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 25 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KehlYJ9Hfvw&feature=related]. The match is celebrated for its back-and-forth action; however, the action was too much for little Brett to handle. My dad’s recollection is that I got so excited that I started crying and threw up in my seat.

I donít remember this happening, but the more I think about it, I donít remember how/when I became interested in pro wrestling in the first place. Like an uncle who has known you your whole life and “canít believe how old youíve gotten,” I remember Macho Man and the WWE as a part of my memory with no introduction. The Macho Man both entered and exited my memory in the same way: covered in florescent tassels and waiving his index finger in the air while yelling “dig it!” I donít remember first seeing Macho Man any more than I remember meeting my Uncle Pete. Both were just a fact I assumed as a part of life once I reached the age I was able to make cognizable memories.

That kind of connection is hard to abandon, especially considering how wrestling has provided a connection between my dad and I. I grew not being crazy about organized sports, so pro wrestling was the event my Dad and I watched together and bonded over. He would later tell me that he did the same thing with his mom when he was growing up. My dad and I still email about wrestling and I still get texts from him at 9:25 on Monday nights saying “Randy Orton stinks.” He doesn’t get that involved in the Internet aspect of wrestling, but I feel like he enjoys a more pure product than I do. Sometimes, itís fun to talk with someone who just watches wrestling for the matches and not for who is doing what backstage. As I get older and fewer of my friends watch wrestling, itís good to have someone to connect with over your favorite form of entertainment, especially because itís my dad.

Conclusions

Professional wrestling is an interest that I am proud to enjoy and that I am proud to share with as many people as possible. To that extent, I have a reputation in my circle of friends for drinking beers, bringing people home to my house, and making them watch wrestling DVDs. It is an accusation that I cannot deny; however, my intentions are just to enjoy wrestling in the forum it is meant to be enjoyed. If you were the only person you knew who watched football, you would want to share football with every person you just spent three hours with drinking Bud Light Limes. You would want explain to them the intricacies of how to enjoy football and hope they would get the same joy you get out of it. I, in turn, feel the same way. Professional wrestling is the annoying, occasionally brilliant friend that I want to share with everyone that I know. I don’t expect that everyone will enjoy wrestling, because there are a lot of flaws with it, but I only hope that they too can suspend a little disbelief and enjoy professional wrestling for the exciting, faux-sports sideshow that it is. And if you end up at my house at 1 AM watching a two hour documentary on the Ultimate Warrior, I can only hope you’ll indulge me. I know professional wrestling is fake, but for my sake, let’s all pretend together.

brett.whitehead@brutalhorse.com
ink splash

Jacques Dangereux, app by WildTaters

Check out The Ringer by Camp Dracula,
available now.

The Ringer, album by Camp Dracula