I’d seen wrestling before, but it never really made an impact on me until WrestleMania IV. I can’t imagine what my life would be like had I not decided to head over to Tommy O’Malley’s place that fateful day when “Macho Man” Randy Savage went over “The Natural” Butch Reed, One Man Gang, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, and “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase to win his first WWE (then WWF) title.
I was instantly hooked. In fact, if you went to Amvet Boulevard Elementary School in 1988, you might still have a copy of my first published piece of writing: a recap of the final match between Savage and DiBiase.
To say that I was “obsessed” is putting it mildly. Sure, my other friends liked wrestling. They didn’t read Pro Wrestling Illustrated religiously, or comb through TV Guide trying to find every wrestling program on every week. They didn’t rush home from school to watch World Class Championship Wrestling on ESPN. They didn’t dress up as the Ultimate freakin’ Warrior for Halloween (see bottom of page). Every Friday, I would spend half an hour in the sports section of Blockbuster agonizing over which Colosseum videotape to rent. At the age of 8 I would wax ecstatic about the Grand Wizard of Wrestling and Tony Garea on the playground like people knew what I was talking about.
But before or after I’ve never really cared much for what you might call “real sports.” I like boxing, but not enough to shell out for cable to actually watch it regularly. Football is alright in the background at a bar. That’s as far as my passion for sports goes.
But wrestling? You bet your sweet ass I pay $9.99 every month to get every WWE, WCW and ECW pay-per-view in history, along with whatever the WWE is offering that month. I’ll spend a Saturday afternoon watching old WrestleManias or working through a year’s worth of Saturday Night’s Main Event. I’m not quite as gung ho as I was at the age of 8, but man do I love wrestling.
Before I go on, let’s get one thing straight: Wrestling. Isn’t. Fucking. Fake. What you mean is the matches have a pre-determined outcome. For the most part, you’re correct and no one would argue with you. But when The Undertaker threw Mick Foley off the top of a cage into an announce table, climbed back up and fell through the roof of said cage, then continued to wrestle with a tooth hanging out of his nose, that was all very real, my friend.
No mattered how predetermined it might be, falling 20 feet onto a table cannot feel good. The announce table is not made of Nerf and foam padding. The ring’s surface is hard, tightly stretched canvas, not a pair of tits. It’s not too nice to think about, but people die wrestling, including Mexican wrestler Hijo del Perro Aguayo last weekend. At the very least, it hurts like hell and destroys your body. How Terry Funk is still able to walk is anyone’s guess.
The weird thing is, I can’t for the life of me figure out why grown men, some of the smartest I’ve ever known—including leading “real sports” observer Bill Simmons—get excited about watching two guys in their underoos pretend to fight. The “male soap opera” answer seems incomplete, as do other potential theories like nostalgia for childhood and smart guys wanting a few hours a week to be not so smart. Intellectualizing it as an operatic struggle between good and evil carried out in a highly physical form of synchronized swimming doesn’t really get at the answer, either.
But I do like it. I’ve reconciled myself with the fact that I will never “outgrow” wrestling. I might leave the fold for a few years here and there, but I’m always going to keep coming back. The last ten years I tried to ignore it as the WWE went public, went PG and lost its edge. Then everyone told me last year’s WrestleMania was actually really good. Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in again.
The thing is, what goes on on-screen is only part of the fun. The other side of things is what happens backstage.
Thirty years ago, no one knew anything about “backstage” unless they were super connected. Nowadays, I don’t know of any wrestling fan who isn’t at least as interested in the shenanigans and machinations going on behind the scenes. You don’t just watch RAW and the PPVs. You spend hours reading rumors about Haku ripping some dude’s eye out or how Harley Race is the meanest son of a bitch to ever enter a ring. You want to know what Jim Cornette’s take on ECW is and why Ole Anderson didn’t go into the WWE Hall of Fame as a member of the Four Horsemen.
The matches are cool and everything, but all that backstage dirt and mythology is even cooler. It’s not like contracts or trades or whatever happens in legitimate sports. What happens backstage is this convoluted power struggle between the boys in the locker room and the management team who, at least to a certain extent, pick who is going to be popular (“get pushed” in industry parlance).
Roman Reigns, who’s headlining this weekend’s Wrestlemania 31, is a perfect example: No one watching WWE actually likes him. Vince McMahon and Triple H have, for whatever reason (probably being gigantic and related to The Rock) decided that he’s the guy to lead us all into the future, even as he gets booed night after night. He’ll be facing Brock Lesnar, who recently swore off MMA, in a match that promises plenty of theatrics.
You don’t get this kind of intensity with real sports. All you get is a bunch of guys fighting over a ball. UFC? Please. Most of the time that’s two dudes falling asleep on each other for half an hour or some chump getting punched out in roughly 15 seconds.
One of the main benefits of a worked sport like pro wrestling is that you’re always getting something that’s planned to be exciting. Just think if nine innings of a baseball game were all loosely scripted for maximum dramatic impact. That’s basically what wrestling delivers. Sometimes it “gets over” (actually works) and sometimes it doesn’t, but the intent is to always give you the most emotionally engaging physical story possible.
And maybe that’s why me and other guys like wrestling. Maybe, far from being a time-wasting spectacle for children and lunkheads, it’s the true thinking man’s sport. Maybe you do need some kind of elevated level of intelligence and cultural awareness to be into it.
Probably not, though. I mean, have you seen the crowds at TNA? You get a better quality of people at low-level NASCAR.
That’s what we call “cheap heat.” Look it up.