Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Why I Love Pro Wrestling (And Why You Should, Too)

Sure, pro wrestling isn't a sport. It's more than a sport. Got a problem with that?

By Dan Tobin

MARCH 30, 1998:  As a pro wrestling fan, I have to defend myself a lot. Not defend in the sense of blocking a double-arm suplex -- more like justify my love for what a lot of people consider a pseudosport. Sure, wrestling might not command the respect of "real" sports like baseball or hockey or monster-truck racing. It might not get much mainstream press coverage, and maybe evolutionists would rather pretend it didn't exist. But professional wrestling is older than Bob Dole, bigger than Scientology, and now -- as the World Wrestling Federation's Wrestlemania XIV stomps into the FleetCenter this Sunday -- it's in our back yard.

With Mike Tyson taking a turn as "rule enforcer" at Sunday's main event, the world's interest in professional wrestling has reached a peak not seen since Hulk Hogan teamed up with Mr. T at the original Wrestlemania in 1985. Laugh if you want, but Wrestlemania XIV is the most sought-after ticket in the FleetCenter's brief history: it sold out, according to publicists, in 90 seconds. You can bet our local news outlets will cover the event, and you can guess how: they'll mock it. They'll say Tyson's involvement with pro wrestling is a fate worse than prison. But they'll be wrong. Pro wrestling is not only fantastic entertainment, it's a cultural phenomenon. It produces epic battles worthy of Homer, and the most pointed morality tales since Hawthorne. Still not convinced wrestling will save mankind? Here are 11 reasons to love what the WWF and its rival, World Championship Wrestling (WCW), serve up:

1. Satisfaction is guaranteed. Sports are among the few things in life where nobody knows the outcome beforehand. That's what makes them exciting. And, let's face it, that's also what makes them disappointing. For every buzzer-beating three-pointer or ninth-inning grand slam, there are 50 games that end with a called third strike, or some putz holding onto the ball while the clock ticks down. Zzzz.

Not so in pro wrestling. Every match promises a monumental, bigger-than-life victory, courtesy of competitors who themselves are monumental and certainly bigger than you. And the capacity crowd always goes bananas. Being a wrestling fan is the opposite of being a Red Sox fan. Your heart is never ripped out as your boys fail grandly at the last moment. In wrestling, good guys always beat the bad guys in the end, even if they look like they're down for the three-count. If Bill Buckner had been a wrestler, he'd have been a bad guy, and everyone would have been ecstatic in Game Six when the ball went between his legs. Even Bostonians would have been cheering.

2. No annoying gray area. Albert Belle's a jerk, but he's also a phenomenal ball player who says he's misunderstood. So do we root for him or against him? Or Dennis Rodman, a great competitor who loves his daughter, and also an egomaniac prone to kicking cameramen in the cojoñes -- is he bad or just plain bad? Is Drew Bledsoe a bad guy for falling apart in the clutch? Is Dennis Eckersley a bad guy for having a lousy haircut?

These questions don't exist in pro wrestling. Wrestlers are either 100 percent good or 100 percent bad, with none of that in-between crap. If they cheat and threaten the good guys, they're evil. If they don't, they're saints -- at least until they turn bad and power-slam a good guy. They might switch back and forth every few years, but you always know who you're rooting for.

3. Wrestlers do all their own stunts. To skeptics, wrestling is like Pamela Anderson's chest: everyone knows it's fake, but guys love watching it anyway. But fake is the wrong word (for wrestling, at least). A better term is . . . assisted. There are microphones beneath the mat to make falls sound more painful, and most moves require cooperation from the victim -- it would be almost impossible to execute a brainbuster suplex on an unsuspecting opponent.

But those are real 250-pound guys out there, and when "the Total Package" Lex Luger military-presses an opponent over his head, he's not getting any help. Wrestlers really punch each other, really toss each other around like rag dolls, and really leap from the top rope to drop the elbow pretty darned close to an opponent's neck. In the more psycho leagues, such as the burgeoning Extreme Championship Wrestling, they even slash their own foreheads with concealed razor blades to pretend they've been cut. (How this is better than "really" getting cut is clear only when you consider that some ECW matches also involve a lot of barbed wire.)

Wrestling may be a silicone sport, but it still requires serious skills. Jackie Chan is considered the world's greatest action star in part because he does all his own stunts. So why can't wrestling be the greatest action sport for the same reason? No big deal if these guys wouldn't last 15 seconds against Mike Tyson -- he probably couldn't execute a flying elbow-smash. As for a flying ear-chomp . . .

4. We live in the golden age. Back in the '80s, the WWF had a near-monopoly on national wrestling, and its broadcast matches were little more than hype for pay-per-view events. Superstars would fight nobodies on Saturday-morning TV. A typical match would see the Ultimate Warrior face Barry Horowitz. Based on names alone, you know one guy could be beaten with a rake for 15 minutes and still lift a Volkswagen over his head, and the other guy is someone to settle things for you fairly, properly, when you've been injured on the job or in your home . . .

Then, in 1993, WWF owner Vince McMahon was indicted for intent to distribute anabolic steroids. (My analysis: well, duh.) In the wake of the scandal, WWF superstars began defecting en masse to the WCW, a rival league owned by Ted Turner. These days, the real battle isn't being fought in the ring. It's being fought during the 9 to 11 p.m. slot on Monday-night television. The USA Network now programs WWF's Raw head-to-head with TNT's WCW Monday Nitro -- and in the battle royale for ratings, big matches happen weekly. Hulk Hogan, who never wrestled on TV in the '80s, now fights almost every Monday. Barry Horowitz, apparently, is out of a job.

Then again, one of the most intimidating wrestlers in WCW is named Bill Goldberg. Seriously.

5. It's no worse than soap operas. Despite an abundance of babes, soap operas have never appealed to males. Professional wrestling fills the void and then some. It trades on the same need to follow tawdry relationships, complex plot lines, and a cast of characters who betray each other and feud endlessly. Of course, there's better acting in wrestling. And more punching and kicking. And steel chairs.

6. It rewards the study of history. Harvard philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Likewise, they're condemned to never truly appreciate the relationship between Hulk Hogan and "the Macho Man" Randy Savage, whose rivalry is reaching the length and complexity of a Tolstoy novel.

Back in the '80s, Hulk Hogan was the blond hero supreme of the WWF, and Randy Savage was still an up-and-coming wild man. After capturing the heavyweight belt at Wrestlemania IV, Savage teamed up with Hogan -- until the Macho Man suddenly attacked his teammate during a tag-team bout. He soon lost his heavyweight belt to Hogan, then enjoyed a brilliant career as a bad guy, dumping long-time companion Miss Elizabeth and providing a popular foil for crowd-pleasers like the Hulkster.

Now, having defected to WCW, Hogan paints on a five-o'clock shadow and wrestles as the leader of the New World Order, a cabal of bad guys. Savage turned on Hulk and became a hero again, although his current status is questionable because he's also part of the NWO. Two weeks ago, on a pay-per-view event called Uncensored, the two fought in a steel cage.

While this high drama and furious action are ridiculously entertaining even to the uneducated (okay, especially to the uneducated), only the well-schooled historian can appreciate the intricacies. Are Hogan and Savage destined to battle forever? Will their offspring blindly hate each other like modern-day Montagues and Capulets? Will Hulk go completely bald? Only time will tell.

(The really astute scholar will recall that this weekend's celebrity official, Mike Tyson, was scheduled to referee a WWF match on NBC back in 1990. Only thing is, he lost his boxing title 12 days before the meet and was replaced by the new champ, Buster Douglas. The match he refereed? Hulk Hogan versus Randy Savage. Those who do not remember the past . . .)

7. It's guilt-free violence. In ancient Rome, gladiators battled against lions, a spectacle that by all accounts was extremely diverting. Morally, though, it was a little suspect -- plus, it wasted a lot of gladiators. Today we've got boxing, which fulfills a similar voyeuristic need for violence. Again, it's morally suspect, and Don King wastes a lot of styling products.

Professional wrestling, by contrast, is guilt-free. Nobody's really getting hurt -- they're just pretending to suffer from that flying drop kick. When an aging "Nature Boy" Ric Flair was carried out of the ring on a stretcher a few months ago, he was back on TV the next week, talking trash, preparing for battle. It's just like when Wile E. Coyote gets smooshed by an anvil, falls off a cliff, then picks up the chase exactly where he left off. He bounces back, ready to buy more Acme products, ready to put the Roadrunner in a figure-four leg lock.

Hulk Hogan built an entire career out of bouncing back. His schtick was to suffer a monstrous beating -- including his opponent's signature, lethal finishing maneuver -- then suddenly spring up and win the match. I grew to hate the Hulkster for this, but the average wrestling fan didn't seem to mind (or notice) that every match ended exactly the same way. And they loved that Hogan could take a lickin' and resume ass-kickin'.

8. It's, uh, homoerotic. Mention this to the wrong fan, and you could find yourself on the receiving end of an inverse atomic drop. Remember: WCW, at least, is rooted in a part of the country where gun racks are as common in cars as tree-shaped air fresheners. But let's call a spade a spade: wrestling's a bunch of beefy, pumped-up men rolling around together in bikini briefs, touching each other in naughty places. Executing a body slam requires scooping up your opponent by his crotch. Winning a match means sweating, straining against other men, and lots of flexing. The predominantly male audience cheers wildly.

Since the average wrestling fan isn't too comfortable with what this might mean, wrestling creates lightning-rod characters like "Ravishing" Rick Rude, who in the late '80s wore a Freddy Mercury mustache, made strutting entrances to stripper's music, and swiveled his hips seductively. Things got way more mean-spirited with Goldust, currently one of the most hated bad guys in the WWF. He dresses in leather and spandex, lasciviously praises his opponents' physiques, then fondles them during matches. Fans hiss vigorously, call him a faggot, then go home to leaf through their Muscle & Fitness magazines and argue about whose pecs are bigger.

9. It's a window onto the Zeitgeist. As Goldust demonstrates, wrestling villainy is an excellent indicator of what makes average Americans nervous. During the Cold War, Russians were the worst bad guys, and a tag team called the Bolsheviks would sing the National Hymn of the Soviet Union before matches. The Iron Sheik was similarly hated for his Iranian patriotism. Then the Berlin Wall came down and the Iron Sheik turned 50. So the WWF sought new bad guys. Its search for a villain has produced the following:

Accountants: Out of the depths of the 1991 recession crawled Irwin R. Schyster (a/k/a IRS), who announced before his matches how many months were left until taxes were due. He lasted well into the Republican revolution.

Fat people/the Japanese: In the early '90s, Yokozuna weighed in at 589 pounds and defeated Hulk Hogan by distracting him with Eastern fireworks. He was managed by Mr. Fuji, who spoke broken English and threw salt in the eyes of opponents.

Gays: In the past few years, Goldust's look has evolved from two-bit drag to a more sophisticated S&M getup. But the message is still the same: Smear the queer.

The self-involved: "Buff" Bagwell turns to the camera and announces, "Do not adjust your television -- I am this good-looking!"

Dentists: Dr. Isaac Yankem embodied everyone's fear of drills, Novocain, and gingivitis. Or something like that.

Canadians: The Mountie, who looked like Dudley Do-Right, was a notorious cheater. And Calgary native Bret "the Hitman" Hart taunted Americans for being bad hockey players. Ouch, Bret. Hit us where it hurts.

10. Andy Kaufman loved it. Kaufman, never the most predictable of comedians, once announced he was going to sue NBC, then buy the network and turn it into a 24-hour wrestling station. The deadpan Kaufman was a devoted wrestling fan; he became famous for wrestling women, and his self-declared title as World Intergender Wrestling Champion led to a notorious battle against Jerry Lawler, who's now a commentator on Raw. Courtesy of a pair of Lawler pile drivers, Kaufman seriously injured his cervical vertebrae and had to wear a neck brace for months. Was the match a big joke, or was he serious about the feud? He never let on. This is the great pro wrestling dilemma, and Kaufman's perpetually straight face made it all the more confusing.

11. There's no escape. Jesse "the Body" Ventura has had roles in several movies, including Predator and Batman and Robin. In 1991 he was elected mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Now he's running for governor on Perot's Reform Party platform, against Ted Mondale and Hubert Humphrey III. That's right -- two sons of vice presidents and a guy who used do commentary alongside Gorilla Monsoon.

Randy Savage received a Real Man of the Year Award from the Harvard Lampoon, thanks in large part to his brilliant, if incoherent, work in Slim Jim commercials. The Hulkster recorded an album, did some cameos on Baywatch, and starred in classic films like Piledriver and No Holds Barred. Andre the Giant was unforgettable in The Princess Bride, and George "the Animal" Steele scored a major role in Tim Burton's Oscar-winning Ed Wood.

Wrestling is indeed everywhere. And if you think you're safe, just turn on WBZ -- nightly news anchor Sean Mooney cut his journalistic teeth as Events Center host for the WWF. Wrestling cannot be stopped. It cannot be contained. It's a fixture of American life, it's here to stay, and it's going to the top rope! It's dropping the elbow! It's going for the pin! What an amazing display of athleticism and bravery! This capacity crowd is going nuts!


Brawling in Beantown

This Sunday's Wrestlemania isn't the first time major wrestling has come to Boston. In 1993, the Garden played host to the WWF's Survivor Series, where Bret "the Hitman" Hart defended his world title against "the Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels. And out in the 413 area, the Springfield Civic Center hosted the WWF's DeGeneration X last December, when Taka Michinoku became the first WWF lightweight champion.

But otherwise, we're not exactly living in a wrestling mecca. Of the more than 650 wrestlers listed in The 1998 Wrestling Almanac and Book of Facts (which is the source for the above information; I'm not that big a loser), none claims Boston as home. None even hails from Massachusetts, unless "parts unknown" refers to Chelsea. The only wrestler from Boston I can recall is Kevin Sullivan, a squat, thuggish little man with a Southie accent who was renowned for excessive violence and cruelty. He was a bad guy. Really bad.

This town's greatest gift to wrestling, of course, is the dreaded submission hold known as the Boston Crab. The only wrestler I know who uses it is Rick Martel, a Canadian. To execute: lay your opponent flat on his back. Grasp both legs, one in each armpit. Roll your adversary onto his stomach so you're facing away from him. Lean back to apply pressure until he submits.

This weekend, Tyson et al. are putting Boston back on the map. Unfortunately, the really good ancillary stuff -- a fan reception and the "Slammy" awards that usually accompany Wrestlemania -- aren't scheduled this year, and the event itself sold out long ago. But there's always pay-per-view, and the really desperate can hang out by the FleetCenter in the hopes of capturing some celebrity sweat.

Weighing in at 180 pounds, hailing from parts unknown, Hacksaw Dan Tobin can be reached at dtobin@phx.com.

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