Thursday, February 15, 2024

Can Professional Wrestling Be Comfort TV?


If TV Land were a real place, professional wrestling would be located in one of the sketchier parts of town.


It’s a violent place full of tough men and women striving for gold and prepared to beat up anyone who gets in their way. It’s a neighborhood populated by masked men from parts unknown, who at any moment might hit you from behind with a steel chair. It’s home to some heroes as well, but don’t get too attached to them, as they can turn on you when you least expect it. 



If you’re wondering why wrestling even claims any real estate in this otherwise wholesome place, then you don’t know much about the history of television. In the 1950s, the first decade when TV evolved into a major entertainment medium, the wrestling shows that aired on all four networks (the fourth was Dumont back then) were as popular as Lucy and Howdy Doody and Milton Berle. Guys like Dick the Bruiser, Gorgeous George and Killer Kowalski were household names, and fans of all ages would gather around the set to watch the action from Chicago’s Marigold Arena, the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, and the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis. 



Professional wrestling is at the moment getting renewed mainstream media attention, but for all the wrong reasons. A 60-page civil lawsuit was filed against World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon, arguably the most significant figure in the business over the last 50 years, and the allegations against him levied by one young woman are as unsavory as one can imagine. 



So this is probably not the best time to devote a blog to this subject, but even its more ardent fans surely recognize that there has always been a seedy underside to the whole enterprise. Its entire existence is based on a lie – that you are watching a real match between two opponents, and not a choreographed performance with a pre-determined outcome. Its roots lay in the carny circuit, where conning the suckers out of their cash is the name of the game. Championship belts are not awarded to the best wrestlers, but to those who could pack the biggest houses and sell the most merchandise. At the end of the day, it’s all about money.


But when it worked, they made you believe it.  By the time I was in my 20s and still a weekly viewer of the Monday night wars between the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling, I was no longer the mark (slang for a gullible fan) I was when Hulk Hogan had finally met his match in The Undertaker. I knew it was just a show, and the wrestlers were “calling” their matches with whispered words and hand signals that were imperceptible to all but the smartest fans.


Still, when a feud was built property over weeks or months, culminating in a pay-per-view match in front of 60,000 fans, we suspended our disbelief, just as we did when George Reeves flew as Superman, and Samantha Stevens redecorated her living room with a twitch of her nose.


One reason it once seemed so convincing is the lack of distinction between actor and role that is obvious on any other scripted series. Many wrestlers incorporated details from their own lives into their characters; others created entirely different altar-egos. No one did it better than Ric Flair, who came from humble beginnings but fashioned the persona of an arrogant self-aggrandizer who flaunted his success and the lifestyle that came with it. Flair had the perfect combination of skill in the ring and skill on the microphone – the promos he cut are legendary among fans. 



Did most of those fans realize they were just watching a show, or did they really buy into it? Ask the heels – the bad guys who did everything they could to get people angry enough to buy a ticket to watch them lose. Some were stabbed on the way to the ring; others found their tires slashed when they left the arena.


“Kayfabe” is the term and the objective that defined professional wrestling from its first TV heyday up until about the turn of this last century. It means to preserve the illusion that the fights and feuds were real. It’s pretty much disappeared now – the artifice was impossible to maintain in the Internet era. Those of us who were once drawn to the characters and the stories miss that time when we were as excited about Hulk Hogan pinning Sergeant Slaughter as we were when our favorite baseball team won the pennant.


I have so many happy memories of those times, just as I do of the other classic TV shows celebrated in this blog. I cheered for Hogan like any mark, but my first favorite wrestler was Rowdy Roddy Piper, Hogan’s nemesis in the first Wrestlemania event in 1985. The intensity in his promos could make you seriously doubt his sanity. 



Beneath the spectacle and the fantasy, just as with any other successful series, wrestling is a business, one that demands much of its stars.  The travel, the nightly wear and tear of 300 matches a year, the schedule that demands you perform despite ruptured tendons and fractured bones – no wonder far too many wrestlers die young, and those that reach retirement age do so with broken bodies and substance abuse issues.


But they did it willingly because, for reasons most of us will never understand, they loved what they did. It won out over family and relationships and personal safety. And still after all of the tragedies and scandals, there is no shortage of young men and women who are paying their dues right now hoping to become the next superstar.


That is why every time you think wrestling has run its course, someone new emerges to revive the entire business. In the 1990s, just as I began to lose interest, along came the Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin, and just like that I reverted to the mark I was at age 14, and couldn’t wait to see what they were going to do next. 



But even that is a long time ago now. I don’t watch the current stuff anymore, but I will still spend an evening watching old matches on YouTube. And as much as I can still be impressed by the spectacle of the huge main events, I appreciate just as much the clips from the old territory days, where there were maybe 500 people in attendance, and some of the hopefuls on the lower part of the card probably earned $20 for getting tossed around by one of that territory’s stars.


Is there something almost, I don’t know, noble in that? Something admirable about that dedication to this odd mix of sports and theater, and how much it meant to the fans that went on that ride with them? I think so – but don’t ask me to get more analytical than that.


Instead, let me list three of the best matches I’ve ever seen. If you’re among the uninitiated, maybe they’ll make you a fan as well.


1. Macho Man Randy Savage vs. Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat

Wrestlemania III (1987)


The main event was Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant, in front of 90,000 fans at Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome. This was the match that happened right before the much-publicized headliner, and it stole the show. 


Every spot in the match – every hold, every reversal, every fall, had been laid out and choreographed beforehand. The action was non-stop, with 19 two-counts in under 15 minutes, each one generating a huge crowd response. When Steamboat finally covered Savage for the pin, he heard Randy whisper, ‘We got ‘em, Dragon.” Yes, they did.


2. Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon

Wrestlemania X (1994)


New York’s Madison Square Garden had been home to countless famous matches over the decades, but none perhaps as exciting as this one. It was a ladder match, meaning that the title belt was suspended above the ring, and an eight-foot ladder was placed outside. The first man to climb the ladder and retrieve the belt would win. For nearly 20 minutes, Shawn and Razor used that ladder in ways that Bob Vila could never have imagined. 



3. The Undertaker vs. Mankind

King of the Ring (1998)


Outside of the insane hardcore matches from Japan, which incorporated barbed wire and C-4 explosives into the clashes, this “Hell in the Cell” match from The Igloo in Pittsburgh is likely the most brutal contest ever staged. The ring was covered by a 15-foot steel cage, but much of the action took place on the top of the structure, culminating in…well, see for yourself. 



Perhaps the most amazing thing about that spot was not that it was even attempted, but that the match continued after it happened, with more carnage to follow.

1 comment:

  1. My Dad and Grandma (his mother) were avid wrestling fans. If they weren't down at the Chase in person, they were watching it on TV Saturday nights in the 50's. Later, Wrestling at the Chase moved to Sunday mornings here in St. Louis and my dad would watch religiously after church (no pun intended). My Dad and I didn't bond on much and wrestling was no exception. He insisted on watching it alone. I think maybe he was a little embarrassed that he bought into it so heavily. Consequently, wrestling doesn't strike a particular chord with me, but I do recognize the old wrestlers you mentioned simply through osmosis of the TV playing in the background every Sunday morning throughout the '70s. By the late 80's when wrestling became closer to a music video, my dad started losing interest.