Hitting the Ropes: Keeping It Real By David Buckler, OWW editor-in-chief
By now everybody knows that professional wrestling is scripted entertainment. That bridge was crossed long ago, and although that may have been evident to most people early in their lives, those of us who grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s (and even earlier) enjoyed a sense of “realism” to the business that certainly isn’t there today. Although I never totally bought into the gimmicks and storylines when I was watching the WWF in the days of Hulkamania, I didn’t know all of the back stories either. I didn’t know all of the politics. I didn’t know all of the relationships. I knew Kamala probably wasn’t a REAL Ugandan Headhunter but I was also a little frightened of him. I mean for God’s sake he needed a manager AND a handler just to get to the ring! It was actually a fun place to be – caught in between the realism and fantasy that professional wrestling tries so hard to create.
That all changed for me in 1987 when the Iron Sheik and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan got stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike. The drug bust bothered me but not nearly as much as the fact that the Jim Duggan, a symbol of freedom in this country, was riding alongside the Iron Freakin’ Sheik, his arch enemy. What?!? C’mon, most people were smartened up by then, but to blatantly throw it in our faces like that was an insult. What, Tito Santana wouldn’t carpool with Duggan? I know how the business works now and the Sheik and Duggan were working the circuit together. Long road trips were a huge part of the lifestyle and it made the most sense to share a ride. But you can’t get caught together like that because it hurts the fans that want to “believe” in things like heroes and villains. Most people live hard lives and turn to wrestling to entertain them. There is a reason this incident in New Jersey is still so fresh in many people’s minds. Like the old song goes, it was the day “the music died”.
Maybe I should have known the entire picture long before that, especially when my brothers would run around the house like the Strongbows and use me to set up their finishers. I took a lot of knee lifts and headlocks in our living room! Those matches in the family room were always more about showmanship, not real punishment. Maybe I should have thought more about the fact that the match results posted in the weekly wrestling magazines were a little TOO similar from city to city. Maybe I should have thought about the fact that guys who were from “parts unknown” were still literate enough to find the Hershey Park Arena on time. But I was 14 at the time and I WANTED to be fully invested in my heroes and their struggles in the ring so to some degree I willfully played along.
The Sheik and Duggan incident was tough to swallow.
Even after this incident I was still a little naïve about the backstage storylines and politics. For example, I didn’t really know that Macho Man and Miss Elizabeth were married. Or that the Hart Foundation and the British Bulldogs (one of my favorite feuds) were all buddies or related to each other. I had no concept of wrestling history when Harley Race joined the WWF and started wearing a robe and fancy crown. Or when Dusty Rhodes took a bet he could still get over wearing polka dots. As I continued to watch WWF, though, I started to learn about these things and it all came into focus.
And then The Steroid Trial changed everything for me (and many others). Vince McMahon blew the roof right off the entire business when he testified in court to basically save his own ass. Steroids and drugs were rampant in the early 90’s WWF and it was time for Vince to answer for the way he ran his company. Was he supplying the drugs? Who knows?! Was he pressuring guys to use performance enhancing drugs? Who knows?! We all have our own suspicions about the exact details but it would certainly seem that the WWF at the time was out of control (and sadly the many premature deaths seem to confirm all of our worst fears). But one thing is for sure, Vince McMahon admitted his company provided sports entertainment, not legitimate wrestling competition. Game. Set. Match.
The business changed forever. The WWE’s entire structure, management, and ethics were now fair game, not just the match results themselves.
I found myself less interested in the actual in-ring product. Part of this had to do with growing up and heading to college…beer and girls took the place of action figures and pay-per-views (admittedly this should have happened a few years earlier; maybe I would have had more dates!) Part of my growing disinterest had to do with the “cartoonishness” of the WWF at the time. Wrestlers have always been bigger than life, but my God the WWF stars were literally BIGGER than life. And not Andre the Giant bigger. They were “the Warlord and Davey Boy Smith look like they’ve gained 100 pounds of muscle since last week” bigger. It was strange and it turned me off. Then legends like Ricky Steamboat started coming to the ring with green wings and pretending to breathe fire, and I couldn’t help but feel sad for where the business was headed.
I definitely started to become more interested in the history of the business and the actual backstage storylines at this time. The wrestling was too “fake”, but the people involved in pro wrestling became more “real” to me. I studied up on the NWA, on the AWA, on the GLOW girls, on the territories, on the way Vince Jr. took over his dad’s business and put his grand plan in place, using cable television and Hulk Hogan as his most important chess pieces. But this was the early-to-mid 1990’s and it wasn’t real easy to dig up all of this information. The internet had yet to explode and become a fixture in our daily lives. But when it did, boy oh boy that was pretty exciting!
I look back now and realize that the growth of the Internet Wrestling Community seemed to coincide nicely with the rise of the Monday Night Wars. Talk about perfect timing. WWF and WCW become engaged in a legitimate, heated weekly tug-of-war, and not only do wrestling fans get to flip back and forth every Monday night to see what happens next, but they get to follow the action all week long on their computers! Sure 95% of the rumors were false, but it was fun! My friends and I fell for it every week, the “big WWF star will be backstage at Nitro tonight!” rumor that seemed to be posted every Monday morning. Who would it be?! Bret Hart?! Shawn Michaels?! The possibilities were intoxicating.
So the Internet helped regenerate my interest in pro wrestling, but the main reason I started to care again was the real animosity between WWF and WCW. The heat between the companies could be felt not only in the backstage politics (signing wrestlers, publically dismissing the other company, moving their programming times, etc.) but in the actual wrestling ring itself! The characters weren’t as outlandish…the characters weren’t dumbing down the business (sorry, Repo Man)…the characters were coming to the ring to kick some ass. There was still showmanship (and sex appeal, as the Divas and Nitro Girls became popular) because after all this IS pro wrestling…but everything felt more REAL. Even storybook characters like the Undertaker and Kane were serious, threatening monsters. The New World Order, the Rock, DX, Goldberg, Sting, Bret Hart, Diamond Dallas Page, Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho…each roster was loaded with top-end talent, none bigger and better positioned for the Attitude Era than “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
(Ironically it was WCW’s occasionally foray into “entertainment” that really hurt their credibility – the KISS Demon, Jay Leno, Karl Malone, and (oh God) David Arquette are just a few examples. Meanwhile they have a superstar talent like Chris Jericho languishing in the middle of the card.)
So I fell back in love with pro wrestling during this time and since then I have really enjoyed seeing the business grow and change. I know there are a lot of areas of wrestling that people still complain about. Everybody thinks they can be a booker and run a promotion! But in general pro wrestling has settled into a nice balance of using social media and modern technology to promote and enhance its product. I like reading the dirt sheets and watching WWE Network. I like watching matches on YouTube. I like following stars on Twitter. The mildly successful “Total Divas” program can be entertaining if taken with a grain of salt (there is no such thing as true ‘reality television’, is there?) Sure WWE has a virtual monopoly on the North American market, but other promotions can be viable if they utilize technology and present a strong in-ring product.
Obviously not ever gimmick works and not every show is well-booked. Even WWE makes major mistakes, like the awful Legends House or the ill-fated Adam Rose character. But there is still a lot to like and each wrestling fan can ingest the product in a unique, individual way. For me personally I like when the actual in-ring characters feel authentic. That’s when I get invested. I can overlook all of the fancy wrapping paper, but the passion play in the ring has to be riveting to me and that only happens when the performers emote a sense of themselves in their characters…a sense of realism. No offense to Fandango but “Johnny Curtis in tights pretending to dance” just doesn’t make me tune in. No offense to Los Matadores, but I could do without any more El Torito matches.
I get it though…I watch WWE with my 11 year old son and those characters make him laugh. Wrestling has always been about midgets and monsters as well as mat technicians and legit badasses, which is the style I prefer. I prefer someone who comes into the ring ready to destroy someone. I prefer someone who wants to EAT, SLEEP, CONQUER, REPEAT. To me Brock Lesnar is the perfect modern day superstar: incredibly intense and life-like. I believe that Brock Lesnar can dominate every one of his opponents. Aside from his obvious UFC success he brings real power into the ring. I felt this virtually first-hand.
I was ringside for WrestleMania 29 in New York (or New Jersey, or wherever the hell we were…God there were a lot of LONG bus rides that week). During Brock’s match vs. Triple H there was a sense of actual danger around the ring. I don’t know how many times Brock and Hunter went over things in the back, but during the match it felt REAL. The anger and force between the two men was tangible. I didn’t really care who won I was just excited to feel like I was in the lion’s den.
The next year I was ringside for Lesnar’s match against the Undertaker. If you look closely I am the only one in the first few rows clapping when Brock breaks “The Streak”. I’ve been very vocal for years that a record based on predetermined matches isn’t that interesting so I was happy to see it end. The Undertaker was once an amazing athlete and pro wrestler, but his time has passed and it just isn’t believable to see him winning matches. My friends have a different opinion and felt nostalgic about Taker’s victory over Bray Wyatt this past April. But they all admitted that Taker looked slow and somewhat weaker. I used the word “terrible” but they disagreed. Whatever. The point is when a pro wrestler is just hanging on it is time to get out. Seeing Ric Flair nosedive one more time just feels awkward.
That’s not the case with Brock Lesnar. His legacy is already secure in both MMA and pro wrestling but now that he is focusing on WWE fulltime (well…somewhat fulltime) he feels more a part of the action. His matches are something not to be missed. Even his recent beatdown of Kofi Kingston felt important and that was basically a squash match. So I’m excited for Brock’s match this weekend with WWE world heavyweight champion Seth Rollins at Battleground. Lesnar won’t be in there with a creaky old Mark Calaway, he’ll be in there with a polished, professional, world class athlete in a match that will bring out the best in both men.
As a pro wrestling fan I can’t ask for more than that…and I love the fact that I can read fan reactions and rumors the next day on the Internet. Maybe I’ll even send out a Tweet or two and join the fun.