Wrestling is art, opera for the masses. In both, overweight people dress in outlandish costumes and act out over-emotionalized dramas in highly staged spectacles. And like opera, it is a more honest version of the morality play. In morality plays, good always wins out. In opera and wrestling, as in real life, not so much.
As art, it is a window into our fears and insecurities. Whatever middle class America secretly fears at night, wrestling gives it a name and puts a costume on it, ten years before the New York Times writes a dry article discussing the trend. In the ’50s, the effeminate Gorgeous George drew the hatred of audiences by mocking traditional stereotypes of masculinity. In the ’60s, when Japanese manufacturing was starting to eat at American dominance, the next generation of fans booed Hiro Matsuda (whose claim to fame is that when asked to train a young Hulk Hogan, broke his leg to discourage him). There are Arabs (or A-rabs,) Nazis, communists, blacks, survivalists, the ultra-rich, punks and assertive women.
Like most mirrors, the one wrestling holds up to our society is not always kind. Wrestling showed us the extreme results of drug abuse long before the other major sports, along with inevitable tragedies like that of Chris Benoit, who killed his wife, son and himself. There is every shade of bigotry, both implied and overt. In the ’70s, I remember watching the TV incredulously as a wrestler boasted about winning the championship belt back from an Asian and having to “clean rice out of the cracks.” I was a not-very-aware kid growing up in the Deep South and even I knew that was over the line. And Bobo Brazil, the first mainstream African-American wrestler (who was known as the Jackie Robinson of wrestling) had as his signature move the “Coconut Head-Butt,” which played on an old Southern myth that black people had extra-thick skulls because their brains were smaller.
But wrestling isn’t trying to be kind, it’s trying to sell tickets, and ugly sells.
Wrestling is still a niche entertainment, exuberantly lowbrow, but increasingly the line between wrestling and the true sports world is blurring, as stars like The Rock and Brock Lesnar cross over, but also as mainstream sports reporting (like ESPN) focuses less and less on the actual sport and more on the attendant drama. (Yes, that was a Tebow reference.)
Anyway, all of us have a little lowbrow in us, even the extraordinarily erudite crew of Scholars & Rogues. So here’s my question to my colleagues at S&R, and to you: Who’s your favorite (or least favorite) wrestler and why? Bobby the Brain? Ted DiBiase? Hulk, brother? Mankind? Ric Flair (wooooooooo!)? John Cena? Chris Jericho? The Rock? Stone Cold Steve Austin? Undertaker? Andre the Giant? Dusty Rhodes? The Masked Pavarotti?
Let’s hear it.
Hulk Hogan’s appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated was a watershed moment for me. The April 29, 1985 issue proclaimed him “Pro wrestling’s top banana.” The cover story focused on the Vince McMahon-driven transformation of wrestling from high school auditorium sideshow into mainstream—if lowbrow—entertainment. (McMahon eventually parlayed that into the multi-bizillion-dollar entertainment empire that it is today.)
It was my sophomore year of high school, and I was just in the earliest stages of transforming myself from an introverted, nerdy kid who loved comic books, sci-fi, and wrestling into a more mainstream class clown. Hogan’s teeth-gritting grimace on S.I. provided instant credibility. My world and the larger world suddenly overlapped, and I was an expert.
Cyndi Lauper was singing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” with Captain Lou Albano appearing in the video as her finger-wagging father. Rowdy Roddy Piper was yelling red-faced on TV about her song “She-Bop” and the evils of masturbation. The WWF stars released The Wrestling Album. Someone even unearthed Classy Freddie Blassie’s “Pencil-Necked Geek,” and everyone in school suddenly knew it. “Rock-n’-Wrestling” became a pop-culture buzzword. “Hulk-a-mania” was running wild.
It didn’t take long for the wrestlers to start leaving the ring to invade other media. In 1998, Piper was yelling about an alien takeover of earth in John Carpenter’s They Live. Hulk Hogan suddenly had a real first name, “Terry,” for his string of family-friendly cheeseball movies. Andre the Giant appeared in Reader’s Digest. I still remember a photo of his hand, which dwarfed the beer can that lay in his open palm.
I ran into Andre in a hotel in Buffalo one morning. He filled the hallway. He’d apparently left his wallet there a day or two before and had come back to find it. “No autographs, boys,” his manager said to my brother and me. I was too in awe of the Eighth Wonder of the World to protest. I had just come back from a week at Disney World, and seeing this hulk of a man overshadowed everything.
Once every month or two, the WWF came to the Bangor Auditorium, and herds of us would fill the seats. Between bouts, I would stand in the hallways and wait for autographs: Junkyard Dog, Sgt. Slaughter, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, the Sheepherders. Bob Backlund, who’d recently lost his belt to the Iron Sheik, made everyone say “please” before he’d sign, and I glowered at the philistines who didn’t know better.
Just before the start of my junior year, I moved to a different state. As I once again reinvented myself, I left my ringside seats in front of the TV. I moved on to other adventures—but it was those halcyon days of wrestling that helped me do it.
At first I thought that I’d have to be counted out of this one. I only watched wrestling as a kid and didn’t pay much attention (wrestling was OK for me to watch but Star Trek was banned for me because it was “too violent” and gave me nightmares). My fondest wrestling memory was of a senior honors student doing a research project for me on wrestling as male-targeted soap opera. She gave summaries of the plots, backgrounds of the McMahon family members, all while wearing a wrestling action figure of Hulk Hogan on a cord around her neck. One of my most disturbing dreams ever (as in waking bolt upright) was about my getting ready for a BIG DATE: fancy long dress, hair done, etc. and going to answer the door and finding Hulk Hogan in a tux, with roses. Scared the crap out of me.
My only other wrestling-related memory was of Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride. I loved that movie immediately–I can still run lines with it (yeah, I’m really annoying to watch that one with, if such things bother you). I don’t know what his wrestling persona was like–but the character of Fezzik was definitely a gentle giant (who lacked both an appreciation of his own strength and the desire to use it for ill except when necessary). As Fezzik described himself: “I fight gangs for local charities and stuff.” He had a certain amount of self awareness:
Vizzini (Wally Shawn): Finish him. Finish him, your way.
Fezzik: Oh good, my way. Thank you Vizzini… what’s my way?
Vizzini: Pick up one of those rocks, get behind a boulder, in a few minutes the man in black will come running around the bend, the minute his head is in view, hit it with the rock.
Fezzik: My way’s not very sportsman-like.
And a love of peculiar rhyming games:
Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin): Fezzik, are there rocks ahead?
Fezzik: If there are, we all be dead.
Vizzini: No more rhymes now, I mean it.
Fezzik: Anybody want a peanut?
Andre the Giant’s performance of Fezzik was not Oscar-worthy, but certainly an important part of a now-classic movie. RIP, Andre.
If you’ve paid close attention over the past few years, it has probably already occurred to you that I know way more about pro wrestling than a PhD really ought to. It’s true. Oh, it’s damned true.
The reasons are fairly simple. I grew up a simple redneck kid in the North Carolina Outback where everybody loved wrestling. And as I got older and developed as a student and scholar of popular culture, I got really interested in the industry itself. The financial and structural elements of the evolving “sports entertainment” sector were mildly intriguing, but as a writer – a creative and an artist and a storyteller – the culture of the soap opera fascinated me to no end.
Mock me and I’ll come to your house and bore you to tears explaining why pro wrestling is a contemporary analogue to medieval passion cycles like N-town and Oberammergau.
Anyway, to the question: who is my favorite pro wrestler? There are all kinds of candidates, from mid-card goofs to main event monsters. Steve Williams (aka Stone Cold Steve Austin). Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Steve Borden (Sting). André Roussimoff (André the Giant). Mick Foley (who was a crowd-thriller in each of his three incarnations – Cactus Jack Manson, Mankind and Dude Love). Aaron Rodríguez (lucha legend Mil Mascaras, uncle to current WWE worker Alberto Rodríguez, aka Alberto del Rio). Eddie Guerrero. Christopher Irvine (Chris Jericho). Kurt Angle. And maybe the brightest light of the current generation, Phil Brooks (current WWE champ CM Punk). I love them all, and there are lots more I’d ramble on about if I had space and time.
To be truly great, there are three criteria:
- Charisma: You have to be able to pop a crowd as both a face and a heel. Some of this is the result of craft – that is, you can get better at it – but part of it is innate. We all know people who are just attention magnets and others who have the personality of stale dishwater. The luminaries in this industry are usually combinations of both nature and nurture – they tend to be born hams who study and perfect the art of working a crowd into a lather.
- Technical ability: There’s more to it than looking good and posing (and executing a hurricanrana or a shooting star press without killing either yourself or your opponent). You have to be able to actually work in the ring, to make what’s happening seem credible. You not only have to be a convincing presence, it’s also nice if you can make the guy you’re working with look good.
- Storytelling ability: Pro wrestling isn’t ultimately about the high spots – those are means, not the ends. There’s a narrative that in some way comments on either archetypal good vs. evil themes, current political and social events themes, or personal conflicts that will resonate with the audience. Both in and out of the ring, you have to be an actor, selling the story being advanced by the creative team. If it helps, think of wrestling as soap opera meets gymnastics, as an action movie where the stars are their own stunt doubles.
It helps if you’re big and cut like an action figure, although a basic athletic physique will do. And many of the greats really didn’t even have their bodies going for them.
A lot of the guys I mention above excel on these criteria, although maybe unevenly. For instance, Dwayne Johnson is the best on the mic in the history of humans talking. Seriously, I’d pay to hear him run smack for an hour. His recent string of promos against John Cena leading up to WrestleMania were the stuff of legend. But he’s not great technically. Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea) had charisma that would light a city, but he’s been clocked with steel chairs that have more technical ability. There are zillions of guys with top-tier technical skills and epic workrates who couldn’t get over in a women’s prison with a handful of pardons, and unless you follow the industry closely you’ve never heard of any of them. Williams was good across the board, although his storytelling was a lot better than his technical ability. Kurt Angle is as close to being a born natural as I have ever seen. Brooks isn’t a terribly imposing physical specimen, but makes up for it in every other way (the same goes for Irvine, who was held back early in his career because he’s comparatively short and Vince McMahon has a “big man” complex that deserves every arched eyebrow you care to raise in his direction).
All in all, though, I think it comes down to two guys who were very similar in a lot of ways: Jerry “the King” Lawler and the Nature Boy Ric Flair (Richard Fleihr). I’m almost tempted to pick Lawler based on his epic feud with Andy Kaufman, which remains to this day the greatest work in wrestling history. For years afterward a lot of people still weren’t quite sure if it had been real at some level, and the fact that Lawler could run with a genius like Kaufman is testament to a particular brand of greatness.
But in the end, it has to be the dirtiest player in the game, the stylin’, profilin’, limousine riding, jet flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin’ n’ dealin’ son of a gun, Ric Flair. He rose to greatness in the old Mid-Atlantic territory in the 1970s and established himself as one of the most infuriating heels the industry had ever seen. My friend Jesse’s snuff-dipping mother and his toothless 185 year-old grandmother would have beaten Flair to death with Grandmaw’s walker if they could have gotten close enough (and I did, in fact, see an old disabled lady go after Dick “The Bulldog” Brower with her crutch at a house show once, so stranger things have happened). But then Flair pulled a face turn and proved he could electrify a sold-out arena working as a fan favorite, too.
Technically there have been few better. A consummate professional, he brought his A-game every night and it was generally acknowledged that he could “carry a broom to a five-star match,” a tribute to his ability to make his opponent, no matter how talentless, look like a superstar in the ring. If you beat Flair, you walked away looking like you had been anointed by the gods themselves. And if he beat you, he did so in a way that allowed you to keep your heat – you walked out of the arena a bigger star than you were when you walked in.
And there was never a better storyteller. Whatever the plotline was, Flair inhabited it as completely as a method actor. You believed it in the ring, you believed it out of the ring.
I’m certainly not here to sing the praises of Richard Fleihr the man, and a cursory review of the events of his personal and political life will make clear why. But as an industry icon, none has ever been his match.
If Eddie Guerrero was a singer, he’d be one that tore his heart into little pieces with every song and let the fragments fall to the floor, like Billie, Edith, Judy and Janis. Eddie Guerrero was a performer who couldn’t quite maintain any distance between the performance and real life, conspicuous in the world of pro wrestling because he was the only one up there whose pain was real.
Was the storyline where Eddie was angry at WCW for not giving Latino wrestlers star billing true or invented? Did WCW president Eric Bischoff spill coffee during a meeting or hurl a cup of coffee at Guerrero and tell him to get out? At various times, Eddie told it both ways. Were the allegations of steroid use real or was his increasing size simply the result of a gifted college athlete filling out as he grew older? The marital problems and rumors of infidelity? The drug abuse? Was he really an outspoken proponent of Latinos and did he really think that Latinos never got the big opportunities in pro wrestling? Or did he enjoy playing to the stereotypes? After all, his motto was “I Lie! I Cheat! I Steal!”
A high school buddy of mine got drunk and totaled twenty cars by driving down the street weaving from side to side smashing full on into one, reversing, starting over and hitting the one on the other side. That’s what Eddie’s life was like – starting as wrestling royalty on the Mexican border and ending by himself in a motel room in Minneapolis, and in between smashing back and forth between his profession on one side and his life on the other.
The in-between, though, was fabulous. He won in Mexico. He won in the U.S. He won in Japan. He won on the big circuits and on the small independent ones. When he left ECW they carried him around the ring while people cheered. People had problems with Eddie, but no one ever said the dude couldn’t wrestle. Really wrestle as he did in college, and pro wrestle, as he did with his armory of hilarious (and sometimes dangerous) moves like the Frog Splash. Or the Smoking Gun, where when the referee’s head was turned he would toss a foreign object to his opponent and then pretend to be knocked out, with the idea that the ref would then turn around and DQ his indignant opponent.
So that’s my nomination, guys-Eddie Guerrero. Yeah, he never was a superstar like Nature Boy or Hulk. But if you have a problem with it, just wait until the ref looks the other way.