Wednesday, May 30


In case you're a woman reading this, and you almost certainly are not (but hi! if you are), then let me tell you something that you may wish to know: men like wrestling.

We do. We like watching it, participating in it drunkenly, discussing it, and especially (as this post will meta-prove) reminiscing about it. There is simply something about wrestling that appears to appeal to the male psyche, and ladies, you're just going to have to accept that.

I'll keep this post's focus on professional wrestling, so I'll limit any discussion about drunken post-bar grappling, not that I have any experience with that.

There's a certain simplicity to wrestling that I think really works - it's the most unadorned athletic competition this side of running races. In the former, there's really nothing to it except moving your body faster than everybody else; no gear, no ball, no fouls, no teamwork. Run fast and win. (Incidentally, I think that's part of why I don't like cycling as a spectator sport - the technology. Why should one guy win because he has a faster bike? Cycling is an awful spectator sport for many reasons, but this one sticks with me.) Likewise, wrestling is an extremely simple, direct form of competition: you versus the other person, no equipment, nothing just strength and technique.

I'm glad we disposed of the Greek tradition of wrestling naked. I wouldn't be writing this were it not for that important step.

Professional wrestling has had an unusual hold on popular culture since first being broadcast in the 1950's. Of course, it became the first sport to be televised for a more practical reason: the squared circle is very easy to film. Since then, even as football, baseball, and basketball have easily surpassed it in popularity, wrestling has maintained a substantial audience. Of course, under Vince McMahon's guidance, the professional ranks have moved towards "sports entertainment" - it was always fake, but now it's more openly so.

The Onion captured this aspect the best, as they always do, with hard-hitting reporting on pro wrestlers being cleared for Olympic competition.

The popularity of pro wrestling seems to be cyclical, although I recognize that at least part of that may be just my own perspective, having had two periods in my life when I was very much interested in the WWF/WWE. Removing myself from the equation, I still think that those two eras were the two most fertile for the sport in modern times.

The first was during the 1980's, which I think might have been the all-time high-water mark for the popularity of wrestling. The first WrestleMania (just a fantastic name for an event) dropped in 1985, a time period that coincided with an real who's-who of the sport's superstars. You know the names: Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, The Ultimate Warrior, Rowdy Roddy Piper, The Junkyard Dog, The Iron Sheik, Shawn Michaels, Bret "The Hit Man" Hart, "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase, and I'm sure more. Wrestling had an unbelievably deep bench back in those days. I think most of the guys my age look back fondly on that era as something of a Golden Age in professional wrestling; bring up the topic and you'll have dudes throwing out names left and right in a matter of seconds.

For me, though, an even more important period was the late-90's / early '00's era, when the WWF changed its name to WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), you know, because people were constantly getting it confused with the World Wildlife Fund. After Hulkamania died down and I went to high school and college, I sort of forgot about wrestling, thinking that would just be a phase of my youth. Nope.

I've written before about how I ended up seeking refuge in WWE, but it had to do with a disillusionment with actual sports at the time; Art Modell had just moved the Browns, the Indians had lost another heartbreaking World Series, the Cavs were awful, and I had moved to Pittsburgh for school, separating me a bit from my Ohio-centered rooting interests. I can still remember bing home for the summer, attending First Town Days (an Independence Day festival at Tuscora Park in my hometown of New Phila), seeing people all over the place with "Austin 3:16" t-shirts, and wondering what on Earth that meant.

I found out soon enough that it was the catchphrase of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, one of the two men who spearheaded the wrestling revival of the late-90's. Playing off of the bible's famous John 3:16, Stone Cold coined his own chapter and verse: "Austin 3:16 says 'I just whipped your ass'."

There's nothing even vaguely subtle or sophisticated about this... and I loved it. Austin was simply a brilliant character - a beer-chugging, loudmouthed, jhort-wearing, finger-flipping anti-hero who seemed constantly pissed off at everyone around him and determined to lay waste to everyone and everything. He seemingly had a feud with everyone, especially WWE owner (and occasional character and wrestler) Mr. McMahon, and pretty much all of his appearances involved him yelling at someone and then delivering his finishing move, the Stone Cold Stunner, to said person. Can I interest you in this montage of Stone Cold Stunners?

I can't watch that enough times. I love how often he does it in non-wrestling situations, how he always uses that kick to disable the opponent's defenses, how indiscriminately he applies it (wrestlers, announcers, women, McMahon family members...), how it's usually a cheap shot, and just how comically awesome it is. I went to a WWE taping circa 2000, and it was worth the price of admission just to hear the breaking glass on the PA announce his arrival and watch him run out to the ring to deliver a Stunner to some chump. Hang on a sec, I'm going to watch the video again. And link to another one:

And...I'm back!

Apparently this time period I'm describing was called The Attitude Era, which sounds about right. This was also when WWE/WWF and WCW were competing for viewership, going head-to-head on Monday nights with WWF's Monday Night Raw ("Raw is War!") and WCW's Monday Nitro. I remember looking at anyone who said they watched Nitro with a sort of puzzlement, like they were a zoo animal. Why would you not watch Raw, the obviously superior program? Eventually WWE absorbed WCW into its empire, and that settled that. There was a period for about two years where I don't think I missed a single episode of Raw, nor did I watch any Monday Night Football to speak of.

While Stone Cold unquestionably headlined the Attitude Era, he had plenty of memorable characters in support: Triple H, DX, Chyna, the Big Show, Shawn Michaels (again), Al Snow, The Godfather, Kane, and others. It also featured Mick Foley as Mankind, one of the more unique and fascinating characters in the WWF's history. Foley, who was also known as Cactus Jack and Dude Love throughout his career, never seemed to have much of a wrestler's body, but he was responsible for some of the finest matches I've seen. The guy was simply indestructible - he'd come out as Mankind, this nattily-dressed weirdo with a weird leather half-mask and a sock puppet, and just absorb an astounding number of falls and beatings. He was something to watch.

Eventually, Stone Cold was replaced at the top of the WWF pecking order by an even more charismatic wrestler, one equally as comfortable behind the mic as he was in the ring.

That man was, of course, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

It's hard to overstate just how entertaining this guy was during his heyday. An entire two hours of Raw was worth watching just for one of his crazy five-minute interviews (this was before YouTube). He was an absolute artist at talking trash, deploying a staggering array of ridiculous catchphrases and rarely if ever referring to himself in the first person.

Did you watch the video..."IT DOESN'T MATTER IF YOU WATCHED THE VIDEO!" I hope you at least caught the end, where he delivers the legendary line "If you smell...what the Rock is cookin'"

He was also a monster in the ring, capping off his victories with the devastating "Rock Bottom" followed by the unnecessarily and hilariously complex "People's Elbow," which is of course the most electrifying move in sports entertainment. Do yourself a huge favor and watch a typical Rock match finisher:

Classic. Eventually I outgrew wrestling, and even though I'm sure there's some entertainment to be had from today's crew, I think I've had my fill. Good times while they lasted, though.


Pete said...

Nice. I agree that the 80's were the high point in wrestling's history. I think that the amount of talent in the then WWF produced both sides of the Monday Night Wars of WWF/E and WCW of the late 1990's. As a thirty something who hadn't paid attention to wrestling in a decade I have found myself watching a ton of it since the end of last football season. A friend and I even split WrestleMania 28 on PayPerView in April. I have always equated pro wrestling to a live action comic book or a male oriented soap opera. Also with wrestling you at least know the fix is already in.

Figgs said...

Being a few years younger, I missed the 80's era, but was diehard in the 90's. Shawn Michaels, my all-time favorite, was at his peak, while Bret Hart, the Undertaker, Diesel, and Yokozuna, among many others, were at the top of their game as well.

I continued to follow through The Attitude Era you described, and agree that the Stone-Cold Stunner is the single most bad-ass move in the history of the world. My favorite was when he would be celebrating with someone who just helped him/he just helped by chugging beers together, then inevitably Stun them. He simply didn't give a shit - and it was awesome.

Also for your viewing pleasure, listen to The Rock rip Sacramento. Fuck you, Chris Webber.