Some of my favourite childhood memories revolved around the world of pro wrestling.
Thursday nights, Channel 10, 9.30.
Of course I wasn’t allowed up that late, but we had a video recorder (a Beta one – what was my dad thinking?!) and for the most part, someone remembered to hit ‘record’ for me. And when they didn’t … oh the grief.
I didn’t think it was real, but like with Santa, I didn’t care. The theatre, the athleticism, the drama, the friendships. It all added up to one irrepressible concoction and I was hooked.
Wrestling fans remember dates in terms of ‘WrestleMania’, the premiere event of the industry, held at the end of each March/start of April. I came along before WM 2, just in time to see the Hogan-Bundy steel cage match, the British Bulldogs become the tag champs, Andre the Giant dominate a battle royal where a certain young Bret Hart caught my eye and Ricky Steamboat announced himself as a star.
WM 3 (1987) was a proud moment for any wrestling fan. It set a worldwide indoor attendance record of 93,173 fans in the Pontiac Silverdome. (I did not have to look up those numbers or the venue – they are ingrained in my skull, as are all 12 matches, in order, who won, and how…) The anticipation of the match ups, the crowd, the quality of the matches – Savage-Steamboat and Hogan slamming Andre just to name two, has not since and will not ever be surpassed. The modern media age defies it.
I’ll stop there, as this is not a fluff piece on one person’s love of pro wrestling. However, a slice of necessary background was needed to set the tone. Tuesday’s post was a genuine effort to present the anti-wrestling point of view – that it is not a sport, and is in fact, farce.
Today, the case is unashamedly presented for the fact that wrestling is indeed a sport.
Part of wrestling’s issue with being embraced by the mainstream was its propensity to continually present the case that it was real right throughout the 80s and even into the 90s. Watch David Schultz slap a reporter twice across the mug (for real) in defence of his industry and you’ll get the gist of what I mean. Ridicule was deserved.
It took until 1989 for the first public utterance that wrestling was fake from someone within the inner sanctum. Vince McMahon, WWE owner, was the first to cross the line when justifying in court why he had not paid taxes on sporting events. ‘The matches are fixed’. Even then, years passed without further provocations of that ilk. It was like Rocky V … never happened.
Of course, every wrestling fan (aged 10 and over) knew pre-determination to be the case. It was infuriating that that one stigma was the catalyst for non-stop ridicule. Most teenagers gave it up. Me … not so much.
One of the realities of wrestling is yes, it is pre-determined, but no, it’s not fake. How so? Bret Hart, the best wrestler of all time, communicated it as well as anyone in the classic documentary, ‘Wrestling with Shadows’ – ‘The art of wrestling is doing it full contact but not hurting your opponent.’
Sound like a complex skill? It is. Yet he took pride in the fact that every wrestler he was ever in the ring with showed up for work the next day.
When you consider that anywhere between 20-33% of a wrestling stable is out injured at anytime and a vast majority of them are working hurt, that is not an insignificant stat.
Ironically, later on in his career in WCW, Bret was kicked in the head so hard by Goldberg that he was forced to retire due to concussion syndrome. He later suffered a stroke. (If you watched that clip, could you envisage the damage it would end up doing? Me neither…)
So yes, they’re not trying to hurt each other, but neither are they stomping the ground or slapping their leg when throwing a punch.
‘They know who’s going to win! How can you label it a sport?’
This one has always amused me, due to the fact that if I don’t know who’s going to win, why the hell should it bother me that they do?! The drama, the swerves, the anticipation and the hype is not diminished one bit due to this factor. So long as the players play their part to perfection, the audience is none the wiser.
There are many Olympic events that are routine-based at both the summer and winter events. If it’s good enough for the International Olympic Committee, that reputable, good-standing global citizen, then it’s good enough for me!
That wrestling defies competition is where I become at loggerheads with wrestling atheists.
It is competitive
Pro-wrestling is incredibly competitive.
You don’t come in to the WWE, bulk up, step into the squared circle and win a title a couple of months later.
To win and hold a title or be in the ‘main event’ slots, you have to win over fans. This does not happen in one match, well, unless you’re Rey Mysterio. You need a body of work on which to be judged, both in-ring and on the microphone, as well as your character development. This takes time.
Wrestling fans will spot something or someone being shoved down their throats quicker than any. A university degree they may not hold, but an undeserving spot on the roster they will sniff out instantly. They will be relentless in their disapproval until change occurs. And change it will.
The role of the fans in this industry is one element that differentiates wrestling from all others. Not only do they have a major say in who ‘makes it’, but it’s the fans that can build the competitive drive within matches themselves for the wrestlers.
When a crowd is ‘into it’, it can engender an incredible amount of effort, sacrifice and energy as the wrestlers strive to ‘tear the house down’. Yes they’re striving to entertain, not to win the match, but one leads into another. You win the fans over and wins, notoriety, $$ and main event slots will soon be beckoning. (Generally speaking, unless Vince or HHH, the greatest backstage power player ever, hates you.)
A modern disjointed family
Pro wrestling is an intricate web of skilsets. To win over the fans, you need also to earn the trust and respect of your ‘competitors’. You can’t put on great matches if your opponent is unwilling to go the extra mile with you.
How do you do that? Well, it’s quite intricate. A wrestling dressing room is like a big modern day family; loving, broken and combustible. Each individual will have different approaches, likes and dislikes – in-ring style, personality clashes. It’s extremely complex.
Yes they’re told who to lose to, but your in-ring partner can make you look either very good or very bad, win or lose, depending on how they feel about you.
The anti-wrestling voice was heard on Tuesday. Today, a rebuttal. Great friend, sports journalist and previous contributor Craig O’Donoghue gets to have the pro-wrestling opinion voiced. He and I watched a number of quality pay-per-views ‘back in the day’ and I was also in his house when I saw the most amazing thing in my 25 years of being a fan.
(For all that is good in the world, click on that link! It also includes the great Jim Ross with his most memorable lines ever – ‘Good God Almighty they’ve killed him! With God as my witness, he is broken in half!’ ‘Will somebody stop the damn match!?’)
From the defence
‘Competition, athleticism and an ability to perform under physical pressure. That is what sport is about.
Wrestling isn’t result based sport, but it is a competition in strength, athleticism, explosive speed, courage and skill.
Rank these men according to athletic ability – Tiger Woods, Valentino Rossi, Shawn Michaels, Damien Oliver, Usain Bolt and Denzel Washington. Golf, motorbike racing, horse racing and sprinting are popular sports. Acting is not. Michaels must produce athletic feats under fatigue. There are no second takes because he isn’t an actor.
All sports are different. Rossi and Oliver need horsepower, Woods’ opponents are nowhere near him on the course. Sprinting is pure competition…but they love to entertain.
Wrestlers are competing in a sport. It’s just a different type of sport.’
These wrestlers give so much of their lives and their bodies that there are many who passionately defend them. So, so many have lost their lives before their time, and it’s not ‘all steroid-related’. The toll that their jobs take means that there are far too few success stories who live long, prosperous lives.
From Owen Hart, Davey Boy Smith, Randy Savage and Elizabeth, to the Chris Benoit saga, there are too many examples to name. Heck, there’s even a web site for dead wrestlers. (And yes, I just said ‘heck’.)
It exacts a terrible price. Yet they can’t even form a union or receive health insurance or benefits.
They’re in the business of sports entertainment and you don’t have to consider their trade a sport. But nor are they deserving of contempt and ridicule. They are courageous, strong, skilled, elite athletes.
And I’ll just have to wait until late May to enjoy them again.