Thursday, March 7, 2019

Return to the Squared Circle

So I’ve started getting back into professional wrestling again.

Wait, come back, it’s not what you think.

I’m getting interested in the history and  amazing sub-culture that leads to the storytelling, weird backgrounds and character development parts of it.

There’s the in ring story telling, which centered on what used to be basically a semi choreographed (now completely choreographed) stunt show.  Then, over and above that, there’s the long term feuds and character arcs.  These guys were doing “season story arcs” years before all the network shows found it trendy.

It started as independent (originally carnival) based regional things, and how it grew to the national level is also a impressive tale.  Even when it initially reached its height as a national phenomenon, it stayed very close to its carny roots. The vocabulary (fans are still called “marks” possible from the Midway barkers marking the backs easy targets with chalk), the closed door society aspect, (kayfabe above all) and how much of it is generational family business. (Many wrestlers now are children of the one’s I watched, and grandchildren of the ones my Mom used to watch with her Dad.)

It’s a rough life. For years there was no healthcare, no pension and no transportation provided.  Painkillers and other chemical means kept everyone going.  This is why many wrestlers never seem to retire,  guys in their fifties and beyond show up back on independent circuits, and a tragically high number of them have passed on too soon.

There’s a great deal of writing and planning behind the scenes. Story arcs aren’t only based on fan reaction (or trying to generate the same), but also used as an internal reward/punishment system.  

An example:  Andre the Giant turned “heel” (bad guy) in order to lose to Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III and cement his popularity at the top of the order.  Then Andre became part of a tag team with Haku (a LEGEND behind the scenes) so he could still make appearances when his condition, causing him near constant pain, greatly limited his physical abilities.  Finally, at WrestleMania VI, he got berated for losing the tag team title by his manager and partner,  was able to turn on them, and leave the arena as a “face” (good guy - short for "Babyface")  to thunderous applause. 
The matches were pretty much extraneous to the overall story arc they were pushing to generate fan reaction and reward a legend. It’s this kinda stuff I’m finding cool now. 

Often the losing, or “worse” wrestler, is actually the one with the highest level of physical skills. They have to sell the greatness of the champions that are beating them, and have the athletic ability to be thrown, tossed and dropped without getting injured.

Or without getting overly injured. There’s just as many injuries as any highly physical activity, and they needed to have a series of secret signals to identify the real injuries to each other and the referee.  Often, a later match got scripted with a fake injury in order to explain a real one that occurred earlier.

Although sometimes it was intentional.  The Wild Samoans (patriarchs of the of the Wrestling Royalty Anoa'i family) were often used to teach rookies who thought they were too good for the unwritten rules of their "secret society" a painful lesson in public. The public, however,  was usually unaware anything different was going on. 

It also seems like some of the best known “heels”, especially managers, are among the most intelligent, well spoken, and well adjusted of the group in what passes for real life.  I think it’s because the roles they took on required them to excel behind the microphone and on the business side of it more than the “heroes” who needed only to look good and be loud.  It’s kinda like the villain face characters in Disney World, from a slightly insane perspective.

My reactions are similar to stage magic. As a kid, I’d watch any magician I could find. Then I lost interest on what I felt was built on lying to the audience.  Later I started to follow guys like Pen and Teller, finding the mechanics needed, the manual dexterity involved and the misdirection and storytelling more interesting than the tricks themselves.

And it makes it more impressive to appreciate the combined artistry of planning and on the fly decisions the masterpiece performances of the old days had.  The old days were back when the matches weren't all completely scripted, the wrestlers played to the arena more than the camera, the introductions were shorter than the matches, and kayfabe was king.

Oh yeah.  Kayfabe- sort of pig latin for "fake."  The idea that the wrestlers promote the relationships and actions in the ring as being what is actually taking place, and no one outside of their inner circles being allowed to know different. I will not use the words "real" and "fake" for this. There's nothing fake about a 300 pound man doing a leaping flip off the top rope and landing on another one.  Choreographed, practiced, misdirecting what happens on the impact maybe, but that level of physical skill should not be called fake.  How important was kayfabe back in the day?  (Besides being the late great Gorilla Monsoon's licence plate.)  Hacksaw Jim Duggan and the Iron Sheik got arrested for a DUI in New Jersey (which if I remember my health class, carries the death penalty) with marijuana and cocaine in the car.  I've read at least one account that said their punishment from then WWF stemmed more from a "face" and a "heel" being caught travelling together than what they did or what they possessed.

Not to mention "Mr. Wrestling" appearing in the ring two weeks after breaking his back in the plane crash that paralyzed Johnny Valentine to prove a "face" like him would never fly with "heels."
End Aside:

Hogan Vs. Andre may have been the main card, but the Dragon Vs. the Macho Man was the greatest demonstration of physical skill at WrestleMania III...or perhaps ever.  The tale of how they planned together on the pacing, execution and high spots is almost as riveting as the match itself.

For quite a while now, along with DVD movie commentaries and “making of” specials, I put in my old WrestleMania, Survivor Series, Summer Slam, and Saturday Night Main Event DVDs while I exercise on the treadmill. Unlike in my youth, I’m watching with an eye toward the storytelling and character mechanics.  The side benefit to this is I have much better exercise sessions. 

Ya can’t take it slow when Hulkamania runs wild, or the Macho Madness is exploding.

I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize to my family who has had to listen to me prattle on endlessly about this subject for quite a few years.  I mean,this started as an e-mail I wrote in 2010, but it's my birthday so I can cheat and use an old essay.

I probably should apologize to other readers as well, since there will likely be a wealth of posts about the "good old days" of wresting scattered about in the future now that I've opened the floodgate.

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