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The Comedy of Errors

Geek Mythology #3 - Wrestling

14 May 10 words: Duncan Heath

There's no other 'sport' out there that blends such high-level Gonzo weirdness with impressive feats of agility and strength than wrestling

Geek Mythology - image by Duncan Heath

Back from doing the big shop at Normid, eating a pastie and watching Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy bump bellies about some sports hall in It's A Knockout comedy style was a pretty good Saturday afternoon when I was a kid. Later, if we were lucky, Dad'd throw down with us for the World Heavyweight Championship of the Living Room Belt in a russle and tussle. The only loser in those bouts was usually the couch and the beanbags...

I think every kid likes stunts and drama. Hey, I was really interested in being a cop when I was little. When I realised that that didn't necessarily mean sliding over car bonnets, high speed pursuits and knocking over cardboard boxes down the docks – not so much. Fun then was watching the Acromanics dressed like superheros jumping over a box at some Royal Variety Performance – and trying to do the same before something got broke/ someone got hurt/ adults halted the proceedings/ all of the above. One rainy Saturday, a friend's uncle's satellite disk brought forth the neon war-painted, arm-tasseled insanity of the World Wrestling Federation into our lives, and as the bright orange Hulk Hogan bellowed, 'Watcha going doooo, brotha?' Us? We got us some of that Old School Wrestlemania, daddy-o. Aw yeah!

Hulk Hogan - Advertising pasta
Hulk Hogan - Advertising pasta
ECW - Land of the extreme, apparantly
ECW - Land of the extreme, apparantly
Playstation Smackdown series
Playstation Smackdown series
Vince McMahon - CEO of WWE
Vince McMahon - CEO of WWE
Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler
Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler
Wrestling toys - Bret Hart and Shaun Micheals
Wrestling toys - Bret Hart and Shaun Micheals
 Macho Man Randy Savage
Macho Man Randy Savage
 Wrestling fans
Wrestling fans

Many front room leg drops off the big armchair later, as I grew up - wrestling faded away for a bit. 'Mr B.A vs Power Ranger' would be the Main Event in the bingo hall in town, but even the high camp of that match-up wouldn't be enough to drag us in. I moved to Notts, and eventually, new friends brought me back to the rasslin'. Watching new 'bad boy' promotion Extreme Championship Wrestling on telly gave me back those stunt show thrills. And the N64 WCW and WWF games and PlayStation Smackdown series reminded me of the other reason why I liked wrestling. Why? Create a character mode - fiend's team-ups and dream-ups! The storylines!

So, why go back? The main opposition to wrestling always seemed to be that it was 'fake'. Meh. Does it matter? That's missing the point! It's 'Sports Entertainment', baby - Vince McMahon, CEO of the WWE* (arguably only real game in town now with World Championship Wrestling gone), made sure it was reclassified as entertainment during their Attitude era, to deregulate the sports aspects of the business. Still, the cartoon violence of wrestling is as real or dangerous as any stunt display show – and with the grueling road schedule and all year touring most likely more so.

Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler showed a harrowingly accurate depiction of the other side of the dream of being the All-American wrestling hero. A lifetime of 'death defying drops' take their toll. Reportedly, Vinny Mac really disliked the film. The destructive reality of the tale being too close to the bone and contradicting the idea that these Wrestling Legends are immortalised in the Wrestling Hall of Fame, grappling on in some spandex Valhalla till Ragnarock'n'Wrestle. Who would put themselves through all that guaranteed pain for a 'fake' sport? So, if it's '4real' why not just watch MMA or the sweet science of boxing? Well, where's Campbell's 'heroes story'** in that? Maybe you can say that we've got used to the pre-packaged nature of entertainment. I guess I just like the showmanship, straight from the old carney roots - and arguably prior. Hey, Roland Barthes equates it with oldest forms of theatre – theideals of Suffering, Defeat and Justice. Building on this, and with the obvious subversions, we get storylines and characters. The end result being a good wrestling match can be the Rocky films, the comic books and live spectacle of sport combined.

So, it's modern day morality tales for amoral times. Goodies vs baddies – 'babyfaces' versus 'heels' – depending on who's decided to be good or evil this week. It's a world where CM Punk's Straight Edge lifestyle choice can also be his gimmick, his brand to make him different. And also, strangely enough for an actual IRL conviction, can be played as good or evil – the two split seemingly as to whether he has a beard or not. Overly simplistic? Yup. The lowest common denominator is usually the money-spinner, so big money wrestling plays over to nostalgia and the big winners with the crowd and kids, pushing the easy sell over the more talented wrestler. In these info savvy times, when everyone and their Pokemon has a Wikipedia page written about them, the old roots of keeping 'kayfabe'*** about the show has added another term to the usual carney classification of fans into marks (people who think the action is real) and smarts (those who realise it's staged). The smark, or smart mark; one who knows it's all show but is caught up hook, line and sinker in the product anyway. Time to activate intellectual slumming and enjoy the fandumb.

Changes happen with the times. Currently, every wrestler seems to want to be Black Pants Man. Neither heel or face: the 'Tweener' or anti-hero. The Badass. Mr Cool ignoring the rules. Past the 80s, the neon may have faded from view but America still hasn't let go of Might is Right. Since back then they've had He-Man punching the inside of your big boxy telly screen every week in an attempt to get rid of unsellable Conan toys. The all-selling telly is the reason we have toy lines with cartoons rather than cartoons with toy lines. That continuing big push after the merchandisers dream that was Star Wars. T-shirts. Posters. Toys. We can still be bought. Nostalgia'll still have the All-American Hulk Hogan hobbling down to the ring at age 57 to do in-ring work and shill t-shirts. For the WWE - everyone's still got a price for the Million Dollar Man.

Yet, for me, there's no other 'sport' out there that blends such high level gonzo weirdness with impressive feats of agility and strength. Yeah, I'm on-board for the crazy. The Wrestlecrap, if you will. Sure, that tars it with a a freak show quality, but hey, it's the Bloke Soap. It's a copy of Nuts – all pants and tans and sports and violence and heroes and boobs and dumb, dumb fun. Blokes being social animals as much as girls, sports gives us a chance to bridge that gap betwixt The Dark Knight and Hollyoaks. On one level, it's pure gossip; “What's he doing? Who's he? Why are they fighting/teaming up?”. On another, there's arguing stats, rating levels of skill and endurance, gleaning prized insider info and nuggets of history. The more geek applied, the more attained. Once you succumbed to the bug, therein lies the spiral of fanzines, fansites and in-jokes. Usually with wrestling, the reality of situations are far weirder than anything the story writers can come up with...

Overall, wrestling is really just fighty man panto, with all the interaction that suggests, working on different levels for the different ages and types of fan. The youngster with his John Cena t-shirt and Rey Misterio mask. His dad, remembering watching the Macho Man Randy Savage fighting over Miss Elizabeth. The casual fan up for a night of drinking beers, ogling the eye candy and chanting. The internet fan with his prized puroresu and luchador tapes. The interactiveness of crowd signs****, especially at any untelevised live events, show a bond from fan to wrestler. Even if just watching at home, you're a stronger man than me if you can hold off shouting at the TV screen as the action unfolds, brotha. Nowadays, computer games seek to drag you in further – no longer just sitting and watching, you can be that hero and get a taste of the resentment and adulation.

After watching the Wrestlemania trailer this year, I'm glad I didn't do my jokey drinking game after I realised they'd got a new catchphrase in 'WWE Universe' (*finishes drink*) for the Main Event. I'd probably have been comatose by the end of it. By purposely trying to bring the fans further into being part of a Universe, the WWE definitely see the need for a belonging in America. For the jaded, that's just another way to get the marks hooked and parted with their cash. But there's a need there too. The need for a modern mythology,
for heroes.

Still - Wrestlemania XXVI. Dave's gaff. Four hours of beers, crisps and sarky comments. Larger than life characters in larger than life fights. Top of the bill? A 7 ft tall Zombie Mortician turned All American Biker turned Zombie Mortician again versus a 44yr old born-again Christian, Sexy Toy Boy, all crotch chops and leather chaps. No jokes. Rolled out as ground-shakingly Serious Business. Top stuff! Tell someone around the water cooler all bleary eyed the next morning what you were up to last night and they'll still probably respond the same way. 'Wrestling? It's all fake you, know.'

No durr. Wouldn't have it any other way! I like my escapism escapist. That's what it's for.

Read more Geek Mythology

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* They changed their name after a legal battle with the other WWF, the World Wildlife Fund. The panda won that match.

** Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces - As opposed to his Cream of Mushroom Soup.

*** 'Be fake' – Keeping in character and keeping to writing of the show as if real. Even if that means that yes, you are actually a pirate. Or a vampire.

****We 'hijacked' a whiteboard for a live show - to keep the crowd gags coming to amuse ourselves, the wrestlers and some mates on the other side of the Ice Arena. R&D report : Too shiny to read from ringside, with the lights and all that. Back to the old drawing board...

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