14 April 2013

Lords of the Ring

Imagine a world where good guys and bad guys fight out their grievances in front of an audience. Imagine a blood sport so intense fans not only confuse mythology with reality, but it spills over into the real world. That scene isn't ancient Rome and the venue isn't the Colosseum. It's modern day North America and the venue is the television set.

My excuse for today's article related to crime… umm, well, it's about a despised so-called sport– televised wrestling. I don't need much of a reason to relate it to a crime, do I? And as you'll see, it certainly involves story-telling.

It's always mystified me why grownups watch fake wrestling, but I'm told the reason isn't the bashing– it's the storyline. While Rob, Dixon, RT, Elizabeth and others sometimes appeal to intellect, I spent the weekend doing the opposite, reading about the ancient sport of wrestling.

And it does date back: The ancient Greeks wrestled naked, which I prefer not to dwell on, other than to mention my Aunt Rae– Professor Kemper to her students– included a sculpture slide in her art classes of a wrestler holding another around the waist upside down– and the upside-down wrestler seizes the advantage– or at least the delicate bits of his opponent. It all slid downhill from there.

Religion on Sunday

When my brothers and I were kids, my parents didn't allow television, which ruined our childhood but has proved immensely useful as an adult. Thus it came to pass, each Sunday after church, we boys ran down the hill to my grandmother's house to watch Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, Woody, Sylvester, Mighty Mouse, and Heckle and Jeckle. (As an aside, don't you love the classical music in those old Warner Bros cartoons?)

Unfortunately, my grandmother took in a boarder, my partially senile great uncle Ott. I say 'unfortunately' because Uncle Ott loved wrestling more than he loved Jesus, which was why he worshiped the idiot box. Having higher status in grandmother's home than we kids, he chose to watch it on the only television in the house to the exclusion of everything else.

His devotion to obviously fake 'rasslin' mystified us. How could a grown man watch this drivel? Even when it wasn't on, he fruitlessly checked and rechecked channels trying to find The Destroyer, Chief Don Eagle, Gorgeous George, or other denizens of the ring. It's claimed Gorgeous George, the Liberace of wrestling, prompted as many sales of TV sets as Milton Berle.

Uncle Ott's monopolization of the telly seemed unfair to us kids who had only a precious hour to watch, but he possessed an Achilles Heel, or at least an Achilles bladder. Every forty minutes or so, he'd totter off to the bathroom for several minutes. We'd immediately switch the telly to cartoons or that great science fiction program, The Invaders. Upon his return, Uncle Ott wouldn't immediately realize his channel had been switched. It usually took him another five or ten minutes to figure out his station had gone missing then snarling, "Those damn kids!"

We developed delaying tactics: "Oh, let us help you find it, Uncle…" (twiddle, twiddle) "Where, O where is that rasslin program?" Because he was one skinny-ass man with a petite intestinal system and we were devious, er, devoted and kind, we plied him with goodies. "How about another oatmeal molasses cookie, Uncle? Yum, lots of fiber."

lucha libre
Behind the Scenes

A couple of years ago, I read the opening of a new writer's novel about professional wrestlers. To them, it was just a job they shared with colleagues. In a clinch, a conversation might run something like: "Didn't hurt you, did I? Jane says you're not coming to the pub?" "No, we're going to Ben's bar mitzvah. You're coming, aren't you?" "Glad you reminded me. Ready for the next pinfall?"

Fighters are designated either 'faces' or 'heels'. Faces are the good guys and heels are bad guys, loathed by audiences, usually for cheating but sometimes for their personalities and peccadillos.

One thing that can't be argued is that most of these so-called wrestlers are athletes. Fake wrestling is hard work and they labor to avoid injuring themselves and others. Still things go wrong as Stone Cold Steve Austin learned when a mistimed pile-drive broke his neck. Even steroids became a problem as uncovered following the Chris Benoit double murder / suicide.

lucha libre
Get with the Program

As much as the action is choreographed, so are the 'story lines' scripted. They usually center around one or more contrived feuds among players, but can include subplots of affairs, one's sexuality, or abuse. Most feuds feature faces versus heels, usually involving cheating, underhanded tactics, or public humiliation. The heels story line possibly peaked during the 'Mr. McMahon' years, when executive Vince McMahon played the part of an abusive, dictatorial CEO who wasn't above bumping off his own wife.

Historians can't say when wrestling changed from competitive natch wrestling into pretense entertainment. Early promoters opted to maintain a constant and complete illusion for outsiders and considered it necessary to keep audience interest. Wrestlers who performed under their own names lived their public lives as though they were their character. Others maintained their secret identity much like Bruce Wayne and Batman.

I suspect wrestling gives devotees a chance to join in a sort of mythology greater than their immediate world. Fans find the story lines as immersive as sci-fi events and murder mystery gatherings and far more real. They take fake wrestling so seriously, that Wikipedia devotes dozens upon dozens of articles and thousands of words to the subject, usually treating the story lines as 'real'.

I don't get it, but I don't have to. The real winners are shareholders.

lucha libre
New Kid on the (Chopping) Block

I maintain a dim view of wrestling and the ongoing WWF and WCW soap operas are beyond me. But if you thought fake wrestling was passé, Latin American and especially Mexico have taken it to a new level called Lucha Libre.

Lucha means fighting or combat in Spanish, and lucha libre means freestyle fighting. They do the 1950s TV wrestlers, er, proud, if that doesn't sound contradictory. They're loud, flamboyant, and all about the show. These players aren't merely athletic, they're acrobatic.

Then there are the babes. Spanish television is known for hot women. I used to watch Jorge Porcel's variety show on Telemundo without understanding a word and loved every minute.

Lucha libre mixes male and female fighters, which offends my sensibilities. My chivalrous instincts kick in when I see a woman hit, even if it's sport, even if it's fake. It's bad enough men can be persuaded to hit each other, but I worry lucha libre gives tacit permission for a guy to hit a girl.

Refereeing is a loose term. Refs like Sexy Starr are often buxom beauties in skimpy outfits who waggle their derrières as much as their fingers. I'm not sure they know the rules, assuming there are any.

Skip the first third of this clip, Hèroes Inmortales VI. It's oddly hypnotic as if I'd been transported back to my grandmother's living room with my great uncle watching television. But now the wrestlers have become cartoons– or perhaps they've always been. I begin to see this as grist for a Stephen King novel.


  1. Leigh, For the people who watch television wrestling, it's entertaining and every bit as real as the "reality" shows of the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo. I don't watch any of the above, but if I found it entertaining, I would.

  2. A post that took me back to my childhood when my family and friends adored the wrestling bouts.

  3. Good, Janice, that's what I was striving for.

    Fran, you're exactly right. Who's to say how many people tuned to golf following Tiger Woods' personal debacle? Wrestling gives fans an opportunity to join in a sort of mythos of their own. Could anyone ask for more?

  4. Last night at a restaurant, we listened (they were very loud) to a group of nerds from the local university debate, with passionate intensity and in great detail, about the relative strengths of Wolverine, the Silver Surfer, Wonder Woman, and Ghostrider, along with commentary on the success/destruction of movies made about the same. Everyone needs their mythological heroes. What is a mind-bogglingly stupid discussion/viewing pattern to me is the breath of life to others. My membership in groups that passionately discuss Anthony Trollope, Shakespeare, Charlotte Yonge, and mysteries would appear to be the same to others. At the same time, I don't get it: it's fake, it's obvious it's fake, it's all made up, and the fate of the world doesn't hang on it. Why? Why? Why?

  5. I remember Gorgeous George and his peroxide curls and the fan or other wrestler who suddenly came into the ring with a folding chair late in the match to hit someone over the back and the officials had to clear the ring. Early wrestling drama.
    Mostly on Sunday noons, we watched Hopalong Cassidy and the boys head the bad guys off at the pass. Somehow, Lucky always got winged. His arm had to have more bullet scars than pores. More early drama in black and white.

  6. Eve, I tried to achieve a balance. I might not get professional (fake) wrestling, but I can't be a snob regarding what I don't understand.

    RT, we enjoyed Gene Autry and Roy Rogers too. I can't recall whether it was a TV series or a movie, but the sidekick slung his pistol like he was throwing the bullets out of a tube. I wondered if he'd ever fired a gun in real life!

  7. Your post took back to days when my friends and I sitting in the balcony of the Bijou Theater, which being Black was as close to the ring as we could get, watched Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Killer Kowalski (not sure of the spelling), and a few others whose names I’ve forgotten go at each other. None of us had TV yet in the 1940s and early 1950s. We knew then that it was fake, that is, we knew the face would usually win, but sometimes the heel won. The next day, we’d all meet in the Rec Center and practice some of the moves, but careful not to hurt each other. We learned the various holds and how to fake hit a guy without breaking his jaw for real. Those were good old days.

    I never liked wrestling or rasslin’ on TV. For some reason it no longer entertained me as it did when I was a kid and watched the performances in the Bijou.

    Like the post.

  8. Leigh, I'm 61 & I was rarely permitted to watch TV as a child. We had a TV but it was kept in the basement. My sisters & I were only allowed to watch by prior arrangement & then only if the show was "educational". To this day, I cannot stand channel-surfing & will only watch a show from beginning to end, giving it my undivided attention ... LOL.

  9. Anon, I confess during news programs I surf like mad trying to avoid the ads. But when a movie or good mystery is on, I'm glued to that channel.

    Louis, I've heard of those guys but never saw them, not even on television. No wonder you knew so much about Hemingway, knowing both about the writer and about the subject.

  10. I like the mythology theory. My uncles used to argue whether pro wrestling was real or not. It seemed so obvious it wasn't, but I guess many wanted to believe.

  11. As with many genres, the narrative controls the performance. Fortunately, most of us can find one story or another to enjoy.

  12. Hey Leigh! Thirty years ago, or so, lotsa us watched WWF. And I don't mean the World Wildlife Fund which filed suit and won. Early eighties, Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Cindy Lauper. Wrestling and Rock&Roll. Fun entertainment. As far visiting grandma, guess what Brenda I have in stock for when our Baby Girl is old enough for sleepovers with YaYa and Baboo? Jane and the Dragon, some Disney, and the enire Looney Tunes collection (my contribution, of course.) Like you said, what a great introduction to classical music for our grandkids. Yours truly, Toe.

  13. Toe, I wondered why the WWF changed its name to WWE (now World Wrestling Entertainment).

    Cindy Lauper… (laughing) She could throw a good one. As much as I enjoyed Disney cartoons, no one could beat Warner Bros for the music.


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