Why I Never Grew Out Of Watching Professional Wrestling
Updated: Apr 19, 2020
I hope everyone's doing okay out there in our strange new temporary existence! This week’s post was inspired by what is still, for me, the most surreal and bizarre thing I’ve seen since we fell under the spell of this nefarious disease: namely, iconic WWE wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin delivering a ‘stone cold stunner’ to another hapless victim, then celebrating in typical fashion by cracking open a couple of beers and serenading… a completely empty arena.
The image of Stone Cold enjoying his lonely beers with absolutely no-one will live long in my mind… but at least it reminded me of better times, when WWE was at the top of its game (back when it was still WWF, before it got sued by the panda) and we all worshipped our childhood heroes like the gods they pretended to be, and in some cases definitely thought they were! If ever there was a blog post I thought would be fun to write, this is it… so without further ado, even though any shred of doubt that it’s completely scripted have long since been dispelled, I’m going to attempt to explain why I still love professional wrestling!
It features real-life superheroes
Like a lot of people, I used to love watching ‘the wrestling’ when I was younger, and was enthralled by the antics of the premier performers of the time. They were like the roster of a beat-em-up video game made flesh, or a strange hybrid between bodybuilders and cartoon characters. The particular cast of musclebound madmen you remember most fondly will be dictated by your age – I’m lucky enough to have grown up in a golden era when the likes of Hulk Hogan, Andre The Giant, Bret ‘The Hitman’ Heart and The Undertaker were on TV every week, while others will more fondly remember UK legends like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks.
People around my age (36) will probably also recall the resurgence of wrestling in the late nineties, when a new wave of irreverent, foul-mouthed badasses like The Rock (a future president, mark my words), Chris Jericho and good old Stone Cold himself were ascending to mega stardom and attracting older audiences to the product.
Although the latest crop of superstars are often criticised for being too sanitised, family-friendly and unable to ‘let loose’ by current creative restraints, the point is that each generation elevates another collection of unique individuals to prominence in wrestling’s weird alternate world, where everything happens on camera, people can be pile-driven through wooden tables and right as rain the next day, and scores are always settled in the ring (occasionally along with weddings, divorces, custody disputes…) These people are often incredible athletes with magnetic personalities, and we have wrestling to thank for unearthing them!
It features real-life tragedy (and redemption)
However, there is a dark side to wrestling, which was brilliantly explored in Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 movie The Wrestler. This story showed us what can happen when our favourite stars get older, and their bodies succumb to the very real battering to which they have been subjected for countless years; the violence might be scripted, but the pain is real. The ‘mat’ of a wrestling ring is basically a piece of wood, and these performers have to hurl themselves onto it almost every night in their constantly-on-tour roadshow lifestyle.
Many of my favourite childhood wrestlers, including The Big Boss Man, Yokozuna, The British Bulldog (hailing from my home town of Wigan!) and Macho Man Randy Savage to name only a handful, all sadly died at shockingly young ages. I don’t want to speculate on any specific case, but the combination of a gruelling work schedule, a dependence upon painkillers to manage the effects of their job, and a testosterone-fuelled culture of hard drinking, along with possible drug-taking and steroid abuse, has undoubtedly contributed to the death toll amongst the wrestling elite of yesteryear.
One particularly moving story of this downward spiral, and ultimate redemption, is the case of Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts. A huge star in the 1980s and 90s to a lesser extent, his battle with alcoholism and drug addiction is poignantly documented in The Resurrection Of Jake The Snake Roberts. I was actually lucky enough to meet Jake when he wrestled at Blackpool Tower in the early noughties, and I remember him looking pretty worse for wear (although he was still on fine form from a banter perspective, asking my mate as he posed for a photo ‘are you pinchin’ my ass, kid?’) At his lowest point, he actually exposed himself in the ring when the crowd barracked him for clearly being drunk on the job, and as his weight spiralled to the point where he could barely walk, it seemed that his career and possibly his life would soon be over.
Happily, with the help of his friend ‘Diamond’ Dallas Page, Roberts was able to overcome his demons, and made an emotional return to in-ring activity with his recent appearance as a manager in AEW (the new upstart rival promotion financed by Fulham owner Tony Khan). I defy anyone who remembers Roberts in either his heyday, or his darkest hour, to watch this speech (or ‘promo’ as its known in wrestling) and not to find themselves tearing up a little.
It's not a sport - it's a violent soap opera
The first question non-fans often ask me is 'why are you wearing Spandex pants and a luchador mask?' The next is ‘why would you want to watch a fake sport?’ My answer, to the second one at least, is simple: it isn’t a sport, it’s a soap! A hilarious, unpredictable, and deliciously violent one.
The episodic format of WWE television lends itself perfectly to developing storylines, dramatic revelations and plot twists, and hugely-anticipated conclusions to long-running feuds between the characters. It’s like watching Coronation Street or Eastenders, but with the violence ramped up to maximum… yet still grounded in a cartoonish, largely bloodless version of reality. Imagine if Mike Baldwin and Ken Barlow had been able to settle their differences in the ring??
Even the industry’s love of unexpected comebacks mirrors the world of soap opera, with wrestlers returning from lengthy absences, sabbaticals or injuries (sometimes real, sometimes part of the story – you’re never quite sure) timed to make their return as impactful as possible, often to huge eruptions of delight (or loathing) from the watching audiences. The often-blurred boundaries between wrestling storylines and genuine reality lends an added element of intrigue and emotion to these returns; take, for example, the recent comeback of popular grappler Edge, who had been forced into early retirement due to a neck injury suffered a decade ago. New surgery has enabled him to make an unlikely return to the ring, and the emotion on his face as he emerged in front of an uproarious crowd was plain to see.
The emergence of AEW, the first credible rival to the WWE monopoly for over twenty years, should also spur both companies to create some compelling television. In the 90s, when WWF famously battled with WCW for ratings in what became known as the Monday Night Wars, the vicious rivalry created a sort of ‘meta-plot’ where the feuding federations would castigate each other on live TV, as well as ruthlessly poaching talent from one another’s rosters.
My dad has had a long-standing theory that all of these companies are in fact owned by the same person, and that the on-screen competition is just part of the narrative… I think he’s venturing a little too far into conspiracy theory territory, but I wouldn’t put it past them!
It's the best comedy on TV
Perhaps because of the tastes of infamous industry mogul Vince McMahon, the chairman and CEO of WWE, wrestling has for many years been associated with lowbrow slapstick comedy and toilet humour. It isn’t always funny, and certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea… but in my opinion wrestling has spawned some of the funniest moments on television in the past few decades (sometimes unintentionally!)
Personal favourites include almost everything that came out The Rock’s mouth in the late nineties (this man mastered the art of talking trash), Stone Cold Steve Austin’s famous bedpan-based assault of a hospitalised McMahon (here it is – that clang still makes me wince), and of course the notoriously-botched debut of the short-lived ‘Shockmaster’… click here and prepare to cringe!
The entrance music is great
Mention must be made of the array of iconic entrance themes that the wrestling industry has spawned over the years. From the haunting strains of the Undertaker’s funereal motif to the self-obsessed crooning of Shawn Michaels, these tunes conditioned a generation of fans in an almost Pavlovian fashion to cheer, boo or gasp whenever the first couple of notes kicked in.
In case you’re interested, composer Jim Johnston was the architect of many of these memorable melodies, working for the WWE from 1985 until his departure in 2014, when he was replaced by CFO$ (who themselves recently parted ways with the company due to a reported publishing dispute).
Personally, I’ll always have a soft spot for any entrance theme that is sung by the wrestler himself, so I think this one is my all time favourite…
It's spawned some surprisingly good books
As well as an array of compelling autobiographies (Mick Foley’s and Goldust’s spring instantly to mind), there is also a surprising array of wrestling fiction. Legendary hardcore wrestler Mick Foley himself penned the hugely entertaining Tietam Brown (which, despite its American setting, even features a character trained to wrestle in my hometown of Wigan!) and I recently enjoyed hard-boiled detective thriller Anaconda Vice by James Stansfield.
My own debut novel was about the murder of a professional wrestler on a sinister, isolated UK island; check out Deadly Burial to find out who killed Vic Valiant, and see if you can spot one or two similarities with the afore-mentioned Mr Jake Roberts…
It's making a comeback
As well as blossoming competition at the elite level, with promotions like AEW and New Japan Pro Wrestling giving Vince McMahon's monopoly a run for its money, the independent wrestling scene has also experienced a massive resurgence in the past decade. This has been particularly evident in the UK where a number of successful promotions have sprung up across the country, drawing much bigger crowds than anyone thought possible, like PCW in Preston or Progress Wrestling in London. However, the WWE has predictably snapped up a lot of this emerging talent in recent years, so now might be a great time to get yourself along to an indie show before it’s too late.
And there you have it! I hope you enjoyed this article; I wanted to leave you with an immortal wrestling quote, and in the end I’ve chosen the brilliantly deranged ramblings of the late, great ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage:
‘In the tower of power, too sweet to be sour; I’m funky like a monkey, sky’s the limit, and space is the place!’
Truer words were never spoken.
Until next time,