Thursday, November 10, 2016

Getting Wrestling

By Jerry Chandler
I have a birthday this week. It makes me reflective. So as I get within comfortable (Uncomfortable?) striking distance of 50, I'm of course thinking about matters as important as wrestling. Yeah, I don't get the way my mind works sometimes either.

I had a friend some years ago who said that, in one regard at least, pro wrestling was a little bit like sex. You either got it or you didn’t, and the difference between those two states of being was both large and noticeable. While maybe a little more colorfully put than most people might try to make the point about people who are fans of pro wrestling and the people who seem wholly incapable of understanding how anyone can be a fan of pro wrestling, it’s pretty damned close to spot on.

Me? I’m a fan of pro wrestling, and I have been for a very long time. I get it. Now, the reasons for why I “get it” have changed a little bit over the years with some greater understanding of the profession coming in different phases as I grew older.

My first real memories of being exposed to wrestling (although I know that I’d seen it before then) go back to ’76 or ’77. I was very young, no more than five or six years old at the time, and wrestling seemed to be right in line with the things that I was getting more into at that time. I had been moving away from the comics my parents thought were the appropriate titles (Archie comics, Disney comics, Hot Stuff the Little Devil, etc.) for a young child to learn to read with, and began my lifelong love affair with the modern superhero comic. My television viewing habits ran along those lines as well. Sure, the usual Scooby mystery or similar cartoon was in there as with everyone else, but I lived in an area where the after school television and early Saturday morning television included things like Ultraman, The Space Giants, more than a few giant robot anime, and plenty of Godzilla. Mixed in with all of that, every weekend on WTVR 6 out of Richmond, VA, was Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling.

It really did fit in perfectly with all of those other things, especially to my young sensibilities. I mean, it was very much a comic book brought to life, and, while not having the giant, rubber suited monsters that some of my favorite Japanese imports on the TV did, it did share a lot in common with them. One aspect of those types of comics and cartoons and those types of TV shows, was the larger than life characters, both heroes and villains, doing battle week in and week out, month after month in fairly straightforward storylines. Wrestling may not have had as many colorful costumes or skyscraper sized monsters ripping Japanese cities apart, but the basic fundamentals were all there.

Wrestlers, the good ones at any rate, are larger than life characters. They also exist in storylines where the good guys and the bad guys fight it out in epic confrontations. There are low points for the heroes, there are betrayals, there are moments when the sheer force of what’s right was able to turn a villain towards the path of good, and, much like the Joker with the Batman (for whatever reason) the heroes can never quite get rid of their greatest arch enemies for long. But, unlike the adventures in the four-color world, the cartoons, and the land of rubber suited monsters, this was real.

Yeah, it was scripted. We all know that now. But this was the era that they were still trying to sell it as a legitimate sport, even letting themselves be governed by various sports sanctioning bodies and paying the same dues and fees that boxing, football, etc. paid out. Plus, well, I wasn’t even a full decade old yet. To me, this was everything that the comics, cartoons, and rubber suited monster shows that I was gravitating towards were, but it was “real.”

By the time the 1980s were well underway and I was entering my teen years, I admit that my brain had developed at least a little more, but the same skepticism eventually hit me with regards to wrestling that had hit me years earlier with regards to Santa. But for the most part it didn’t matter. Not only had wrestling always been, to my relatively short relationship with it, somewhat in line with the heroic and super heroic fiction that I enjoyed, but it was about to get a lot closer to that concept in very short order. In 1982, Vincent Kennedy McMahon Jr would buy his father’s wrestling company, the World Wrestling Federation, and begin to push his vision of what professional wrestling should be like. It was a vision that was custom made for both the youth market and the 1980s.

When it came to the various wrestling organizations, you could usually see a trend with how each owner wanted his champion booked. A few organizations would simply go with whoever seemed to be the hottest guy on the roster at the time whether he was a heel or a face. That was probably not the strongest option for booking though.

Other organizations believed in building the hero up based on the quest, on the chase for the gold. You’d have a guy like Ric Flair holding your championship belt, and the face of the moment, like a Sting, would be built up into (usually) a superstar by facing Flair in a series of confrontations where cheating and other dirty tactics allowed the heel champ to prevail before ultimately, despite interference from the other heels, having the face beat the champion, taking the belt, and being the hero of the moment. A little later the belt would find its way back to guys like Flair, and the cycle would begin anew with someone else.  

Vince believed in super heroic champion, the hero of the day who, despite sneak attacks, betrayals, and setbacks along the way, would always turn back the bad guys at the end of the day. He also liked his heroes to be larger than life physically as well as with regards to their personality. And, wow, did have the right guy fall into his lap at the right time for that role. That guy, as I’m sure you know whether you were a wrestling fan or not, was Hulk Hogan.

If you were a young kid or even a teenager at the time, Hogan was practically a comic book character come to life. Compared to a lot of the wrestlers of the day, he was physically a giant of man. While he may not have been as chiseled and defined as the average George Perez drawn hero, his muscles more than made up for that in sheer size, and, more importantly, he was also one of the single most charismatic performers in the history of professional wrestling. In that era, he was practically a rock star, and that made him the perfect champion for an era where rock and wrestling would meet. MTV was a big thing with my generation. The WWF meeting MTV made it huge.

Hogan also allowed Vince to usher in a new era in wrestling. While Hogan started out his most memorable WWF run on a patriotic note, toppling the evil Iron Sheik, an Iranian heel who spit on America and all she stood for, he soon turned to facing, and defeating, giants. It was around that time he even faced a dead man controlled by the powers of a mystic urn playing the role of the villain. From there the floodgates blew wide open, unleashing wave after wave of colorful characters (in personality and in wardrobe) that would almost turn the WWF into a living, breathing cartoon. Actually, for my tastes, it started getting a little too much like a cartoon.

But that was okay because there were other options out there. Maybe I was getting a little too old for Vince’s cartoon as the 1980s turned into the start of the 1990s, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t others out there that were a little less in the mold of the Vincent Kennedy McMahon wrestler. For a short time in this period there was still the AWA and WCCW, and there was always the wrestling on WTBS. It was also about this time, starting in my twenties, that I started the next phase of appreciation of professional wrestling.

By my twenties I was noticing an aspect of wrestling that I would have never really been able to appreciate a decade-plus earlier. I was becoming a fan of the storytelling. No, not the promos or the basic plot of good guy VS bad guy, and not the rationales created for why these guys had to fight. That appreciation had always been there. This was an appreciation of how well two great wrestlers could get into a ring and tell a story in the match.

One of the things I’ve always been asked by those who don’t get professional wrestling is why I want to watch a “fake sport” where there’s no real competition, but where guys (and gals) claim to be champions. My answer has (more or less) always been a simple one. It’s for the same reason that you watch anything else. It’s entertainment. In the case of wrestling, it’s just more in line with action based entertainment.

If you watch a Bond film, a martial arts action film, or anything else along those lines, the good ones feature fights that have you sitting on the edge of your seats. You know you’re not watching the two lead actors beating the snot out of each other. You know that there are stuntmen doing the really dangerous or complicated bits and makeup artists creating their blood and wounds. You also know that they’re using camera angles and multiple takes (and maybe even wires) to get the fight to look the way it does. When they pull all of that together though, when they pull it off to perfection, you can have a well choreographed fight that takes you through a carefully constructed back and forth between the hero and the villain. The end result should be feeling like the hero actually accomplished something that was amazing difficult to do, that he beat an almost unbeatable villain, and that the outcome, while never truly in doubt, at least felt that it could go either way. That’s what makes the victory strike a chord with the viewers.

Well, that’s a wrestling match (minus wires, stuntmen, and makeup) when you have two or more guys in the ring who really know what the hell they’re doing and how to do it. It’s not just two guys pretending to fight with one falling down when the time is right. If you have two guys who understand what’s known as wrestling psychology, whether you understand it or don’t even realize it exists, telling a story where the upper hand shifts back and forth between the two, the momentum builds bit by bit, you can have there at the end a winner that will either makes you cheer them or hate their guts over the cheap way they scored their victory. You can know it’s scripted and pre determined, but two pros can have you every bit into the match, hanging on every near pin fall, in the same way that a well choreographed fight in a film can.

That’s what I was starting to learn to appreciate as I got older. I even started to learn to appreciate guys who I didn’t truly understand the value of only a short decade earlier. The younger me never could figure out why Arn Anderson seemed to have such a special place on so many wrestling cards. Yeah, he was “The Enforcer” of the Horsemen, but that was pretty much just standing behind Flair a lot or helping him cheat in his matches. He wasn’t flashy, he didn’t do any really fancy moves, and he didn’t look like the baddest guy on the roster. But by the time I was finally learning to appreciate the art of professional wrestling, I realized that Arn was one of those guys who were kind of like the most sought after fight choreographer in Hollywood. You could put guys like Arn in the ring with damned near anybody, even guys that weren’t the best talents on the roster, and he would both draw a good match out of them and make them look better than they would look in just about any other match they’d be in on TV that month. Put a guy like Arn in the ring with a talented up and coming challenger for the champ’s gold? You could have a damned near classic match on its own right that would also make the anticipation for the championship match that much greater.  

Still don’t quite get that? Go watch Bruce Lee (or the more modern film hero of your choice) go through henchmen, each stooge getting better and better, before going through the main right-hand man of the film’s big bad. How ready are you for the big showdown at that point? It’s the same formula, just a different medium of storytelling.

And that’s what I was learning to appreciate as I grew older in my wrestling fandom. I still liked the characters, I still liked the larger than life nature of it all and the plays on good VS evil, right VS wrong, but I was really starting to learn to appreciate the guys who could tell a complete and compelling story with their bodies inside that squared circle. It was even enough to make the WWF product a little more bearable. Yeah, you had guys like Mabel, Oscar, and Mo, otherwise known as Men on a Mission (abbreviated as MOM either way you looked at it) doing painfully bad raps while wearing goofy outfits, wrestlers who were also supposed to be garbage men, racecar drivers, convicts, and prison guards, but there were still guys who could just flat out wrestle in a WWF ring, and you could tune in for that while ignoring all the other stuff in between the matches.  

The 1990s was also the heyday of the tape trader, and I was one of them. You could get with a network of other wrestling fans and trade VHS tapes of organizations that you couldn’t see in your local market, and I got to see stuff from the now defunct territories that I never had the chance to see before. For that matter, I got to see wrestlers from all over the world that I would have never been able to see on my local television at that time. That really opened up a richer variety of wrestling styles to fans. It’s also how I first encountered ECW after hearing about a bit of a buzz over Shane Douglas winning the NWA title and declaring the NWA basically dead before announcing the birth of a new wrestling federation.

A lot of ECW fans will hate me for this, but my relationship with ECW as a fan was on and off at best. There was a lot about early ECW that lived down to the worst stereotypes about it, certainly guys basically cutting each other to ribbons just for the sake of covering a ring in blood, but there were undeniably technical wrestling highlights as well because ECW had guys who could just flat out wrestle. These were guys who I had seen only from tape trading, who didn’t seem like they were getting a shot at either WWF or WCW.  It was also highlighted by the mad genius of Paul Heyman. He took guys that were seemingly written off and cut loose by the Big Two and turned them into interesting characters by just riling them up and letting them be themselves. He gave guys the opportunity to bring back a fire to their work, especially their promo work, that almost made even the jaded fan feel like what they just watched might not have been what was supposed to happen, and maybe someone got a little real with it. It was, as cliché as the word is now, full of attitude, and it was a big kick in the butt for wrestling as, even as ECW died, its influence spread.


That’s what Vince called it. I just called it fun, certainly as the late 1990s saw what everyone now calls The Monday Night Wars. That was also the true start for the next phase in my love of wrestling.

The competition for rating between WCW and WWF created an amazing period in wrestling history. All the things that I had loved before were being showcased to the nth degree, but the competition pushed stories into places that they hadn’t really gone before. I don’t even mean the adult aspect of some of that era either. I mean the sheer level of, well, attitude. Between the original rise of the n.W.o and the peak of Stone Cold’s run, wrestling was tapping into that rebellious desire that a lot of teens, twenty-somethings, and even thirty-somethings had in spades. You had the cocky, cool bad guys, you had the guy who got to do to the boss he hated what a lot of people at one time or another probably wanted to do to a boss they hated, and you had characters that personified that rebellious energy that their audience likely wished they could express in their day to day life. You also had something that was entertaining, but maybe also a little unfortunate.

The competitive attitude of the individual wrestlers of that era to be the guy that everyone wanted to see, to be the man who stole the show, went through the roof. Some of the things they did at that time were entertaining as hell when you were caught up in it all, but they were also just a tad insane.

Wrestlers began to push their bodies to the absolute limits with regards to what a human body could do. They weren’t just throwing each other around a ring anymore. No, they were doing stunts, high falls, fire gags, acrobatic moves, and other things in their performance that most people would have never thought that anyone could do multiple times in a day, let alone multiple times in a thirty-minute match, and walk into an arena the next night to do it all again.

At that point… Forget just appreciating it. I was flat out in awe of and respecting the physical abilities of some of these wrestlers. I’d been a fan of things like gymnastics for quite some years, and I’m a huge fan of things like Free Running now. The reason for that was that I have always appreciated the dedication and skill it takes and loved watching performers who could take the human body past the physical limitations that most people believed that we had. There were a lot of wrestlers in the Monday Night War era that were doing that. If there was ever any doubt in anyone’s mind, they showed the world that they weren’t just great performers or guys who were once great athletes back in the day that had transitioned over into an entertainment based way of making a living. No, they put an exclamation point on the fact that quite a few of them were also flat out some of the best athletes in the world as well. They showed that they could push the human body to limits in ways that most sane people would probably never do, and that they could then get up, dust themselves off, and do it again that night, the next night, the next week, and the next month. Thankfully, for their own health, wellbeing, safety, and career longevity, they’ve kind of reined that in a bit these days. But, damn, oh what a sight to see it was on some of those nights.

The Monday Night Wars ended with WWF buying both ECW and then, ultimately, WCW. There was a nice period for a few years afterwards where things were ticking along in much the same way that the Wars/Attitude era had been, but the creative adrenaline seemed to be gone with the loss of any real competition, and the now WWE slowly moved back to something closer to its early 1990s form, just not quite as cartoonish. But it kind of didn’t matter, because, for me at least, I think I was seeing wrestling differently than I did back in the early 1990s.

These days I think I’m a much more complete fan. The reality of it is that aspects of all the various phases I outlined were likely always there, but certain ages of wrestling combined with my maturity as a fan did cause some things to be much more noticeable at some points than in others. I think that, now, I’m probably at the best point that I could be at as a fan. I can appreciate it in ways I might not have been able to do years ago, and I even get sucked into the “reality” of it from time to time.

Yeah, that still happens. Sometimes it’s because of an amazing performer playing his part to perfection. CM Punk’s “pipe bomb” promo from a few years ago had everybody talking, and had more than just a few people questioning just how far “off script” he went. Sometimes it’s from being a “smart” fan, believing knowledge of what’s going on behind the scenes is maybe more than what it is. It’s easy to get sucked into the “reality” of seeing a guy you like but feel is being overlooked or deemed unworthy of being “The Man” finally getting that spot against the perceived backstage politics and odds.

I also think I’m in a pretty great age to be a fan in. Between DVDs, Blu-Rays, the internet in general, and the WWE Network, I can get a nostalgia fix from just about any point in my memories of wrestling and quite a few that predated my love of it. I can also watch the modern product and better appreciate it for what it is. But when the primary modern WWE product feels a little bit lacking, NXT is always there to get me that extra bit of fix I need to cover that craving.

For me, looking forward to next week’s wrestling show is like looking forward to the next episode of The Walking Dead for a zombie fan. I’m looking forward to finding out what comes next, and I want to be able to be surprised or amazed by the highlight moments of each show.

If you don’t get wrestling, if you don’t get any of what I’ve said here, then you’ll probably never get it. If you think that maybe you get it, but you’re not sure why, try this. Sit down and watch an action movie that you like. Actually look at what goes on. Follow the story, the ups, the downs, the struggles, the setbacks, and the ultimate victory by the story’s hero that gets you pumped up there at the end. Then you should go out, find a friend who has a classic wrestling feud or two on disc, and ask to borrow one.

Don’t just turn on an episode of Raw or Impact and watch that. Why? With a show like that, you’re not looking at a single story, but rather a series of chapters from multiple stories with each chapter told every week. Look at a classic feud from start to finish. Look at a few if you can. You’ll realize that what you’re seeing is just like your action film. If you can see the story from start to finish and appreciate it, if you get it, then you can figure out the appeal. You might even find yourself tuning in to follow the ongoing stories with the rest of us.

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.

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