Wrestling Rumbles With Worldly Wisdom

The Daily Cavalier – April 2, 1999
By Rawley Vaughan

I’d like to say some words in defense of professional wrestling.

Some parents say it’s a violent influence, some patricians think it’s pathetically rednecked and some patsies hate rasslin’ because it’s “fake.”

Professional wrestling is actually quintessentially American, extremely entertaining and culturally indicative. Now, let’s get ready to rumble!

To say that wrestling is merely on the margins of American culture would be wholly inaccurate. Twenty-one of the 25 top-rated programs on cable television involve professional wrestling.

Besides the industry’s self-promotional merchandise, one finds Bill Goldberg testifying on Capitol Hill, Stone Cold Steve Austin acting on “Nash Bridges,” Sable on the cover of Playboy and Jesse Ventura governing the state of Minnesota.

Many celebrities mimic wrestling lingo and gestures. In hopes of luring even more fans, there have been matches with the likes of Jay Leno, Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman. Malone and Rodman’s involvement point to an underappreciated aspect of professional wrestling.

Although it is “just” sports entertainment, not a sport, wrestlers are, indeed, athletes. Goldberg and The Rock are former football players, Kevin Nash played college basketball, The Cat was a karate champion and many competed in freestyle, or “real,” wrestling.

Sure, there might be some steroid use, but the wrestling industry’s drug-testing standards actually are stricter than those of Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. But what exactly is sports entertainment?

Perhaps I can define it as an activity in an athletic setting that is irrelevant to the sporting contest that the setting suggests. The classic examples are professional wrestling, roller derby and now boxing. I’d say that sports entertainment also includes a fight during a hockey game, Dennis Rodman’s hair color and post-score celebrations. Even dunking a basketball qualifies as sports entertainment, as it is unnecessary in order to score. But it sure is fun to watch.

Yes, fun to watch. The World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling, rival titans in the business, produce hours of programming that boast a massive and loyal fan base, so they must be doing something right. The WWF attracts fans with profanity, sex, beer and Satanism, and WCW uses conspiracy triangles, aging legends of wrestling, sex and Mexicans. But what wins and, more importantly, what keeps fans, are the wrestlers’ characters and the creative plots. It’s like a soap opera.

Okay, it is a soap opera. Spectacular characters befriend each other and then stab each other in the back. But you won’t see someone get hit on the head with a steel chair inside a ring surrounded by barb wire on “Days of Our Lives.”

Still, if you’ve seen one chair shot, you’ve seen them all, so the producers must feed the fans a story line mind-blowing enough to keep them hungry for more. The wrestlers who are the greatest thespians are the ones who keep me interested from week to week. It’s both athletic wonder and performance art. It’s also quite American.

When I was younger, there seemed to be a wrestler for each ethnicity. Also in those days, some wrestlers projected a patriotic image. For example, during the Hulkamania craze in the 1980s, Hulk Hogan was our David, doing battle with the Goliath-like Andre the Giant. He was the good guy, fighting a bad guy-simple as that. It was the ’80s and professional wrestling reflected society’s acceptance of a Zoroastrianistic duality between good and evil: The Hulkster told me to take my vitamins and Andre had a foreign accent that inflected an international communist conspiracy.

Professional wrestling in our post-Cold War world has scrapped such dualism, as a representation of the general will of its fan base. Hogan has been the worst bad guy in all of wrestling, leading the New World Order posse threatening to destroy WCW. And the fans cheer.

The popular favorite in the WWF is Stone Cold Steve Austin, a character who epitomizes disrespect and infamy. There is no “good,” so there can be no good guy. There only are varying degrees of bad guys, as the wrestlers who have all the foibles, the hubris and the physiques of the Greek gods.

This is not a cultural force, but a cultural indicator. It’s a low brow translation of high brow philosophy, as the moral relativism suggested by postmodernism is played out before us every Monday night. The only ethical constants are deceit, revenge and rebellion.

And I love it, brother, because it’s just too sweet.

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