Circuses And Kings

The Canadian Forum – August, 1950
By D.M. Fisher

Several years ago Time magazine hinted that the large crowds drawn by wrestling in Toronto reflected the gullibility of the citizens. Now, with the surge of television, wrestling has come to the fore in the States; the top men are national figures, and the critics and publicists are debunking or glorifying the show. This is one matter where Canada has kept pace with America. We have the chance, even in the smaller towns, of seeing wrestling, and the attendance has risen until it probably stands behind only hockey and baseball as an athletic draw. No populated area fails to support the grapplers; Toronto, Montreal, and Hamilton turn out supporters enough to gross nearly a million and a half dollars a year. What does wrestling offer for the husky admission it charges?

The meaning of sport as a fair contest does not apply to wrestling; it is entertainment, generally of high calibre in execution, with features of the circus and the drama added to its athletic elements. The basic parts of an exhibition are two opponents, one referee, and the crowd. Color is supplied by the beautiful robes of the wrestlers, their wonderful or grotesque bodies, and the carnival informality of the show. Four or five matches make up the card, but many variations are common. The winner is usually pre-determined, but it is not a “fix” in the gambling sense. Team tag-fights, two against one, man against alligator, mud-floored rings, or the cockpit effect gained by a chicken-wire enclosure, keep the orthodox from becoming stale. Thought title matches are held, they signify little since each area has its “world champion” and, in Canada, its “British Empire champion.” Because they advertise, promoters are given good coverage from local papers (and with a straight face), but there is little inter-city or international publicity on a press-service scale. This frees a man in a main event in Toronto on Thursday for a preliminary match in Buffalo on Friday. (It is disconcerting to find the invincible hero in Toronto being featured as a cad in the Montreal press.)

Despite this lack of geographic integration where rating or morality is concerned, the reciprocity of the different promotional centres is a marvel. There is a repetitive, rise, decline, and fall of wrestlers so geared that the public in each area has an ever-changing troupe to watch. A wrestler will usually draw well in his home town, but long jaunts on circuits, perhaps in Missouri, Texas, or in the Maritimes space out such appearances. Canada is turning out many of its own entertainers although their names generally lack the phonetic lilt of the importations. Mike Sharpe, Al Korman, Yvon Robert, or Pat Flanagan are Canadian leaders who sound dull beside the Warren Bockwinkles, Suni War Clouds, or Gorgeous Georges from the south.

Instructions about his next match often come to the wrestler by phone and rarely, unless the publicists have been creating a “natural” rivalry, does he know whom he is to fight. Much leeway is left the contestants and the referee whenever the bout is not part of a build-up sequence. They know how much time to allow before the finish and the scope of their play is sensitive to the crowd’s reaction. That is, inattention comes when too much applying for breaking of holds is presented so, sensing this, something sensational like tossing each other out of the ring is resorted to. Normally, action see-saws to a climax that may rest on the virtue versus evil theme, on a quirk of the referee, or upon an accidental slip or skid. A favorite ending is Prometheanlike: some daring manoeuvre backfires and the fall is lost with explosive suddenness, leaving a “Well! You never know” hush upon the audience.

Most matches pit good against evil and as a rule justice does not triumph. But it will. Rematches go on until the routine becomes jaded; then right prevails. The most entertaining match to the sensitive fan is the first contest between two wrestlers who hitherto have borne the true-blue stamp. Action will be very fast, ostentatiously clean, and may continue so to the end. This is rare. More likely, one man displays a character flaw. Chances for perfidy prove too tempting; then, as his baser nature revealed, the crowd takes up the chant against him. The spectators do not split into two factions behind either fighter. They await the cue of one’s fall from grace. (Of course, there may be the odd agitator perverse enough to applaud roguery.) The character of the contestants fixed, the hero is, of course, justified in using any means to gain his ends, but often he will give the rascal another chance and extend the open hand of forgiveness. If the handshake is accepted, the crowd becomes uneasy, for past performances have indicated that reform is never lasting.

The spectator’s participation is not unlike the chorus in Greek drama, explaining and warning. In combat there are a number of conventions which theoretically must be upheld: when action comes to the ring border where either wrestler touches the ropes, they must break openly, as boxers from a clinch, and begin anew; strangle-holds, eye-gouging, punching, or the use of abrasive materials such as adhesive tape or peanuts, are technically forbidden. However, the referees as a group are typically ineffectual, a failing which the villain does not hesitate to exploit shamelessly. Thus the responsibility devolves upon the crowd, to call the arbiter to his duty, to warn the hero and to shame the villain. There is a quality, not unlike the responses in a prayer-meeting, appealing but dignified, which inhere in the cries of “Rope!”, “Peanut!”, etc., that rise from the crowd. In most matches, the opportunity arises for the hero to apply a hold whereby every rock of his body stretches the villain in a rack. The measured roar of “Hip. . .Hip. . .” that this occasions is in the spirit of the regatta. This eultant note has a rival in pure feeling when shrill despair settles in after the hero is beaten. The villain crows, defies the crowd, and often beats a coward’s retreat under the fire of fists, fingernails, parasols, or burning cigarettes with which the fans assault him. Then, a hush of respect comes as the hero is solicitously helped away. A curious note about the mob scene around the villain is that the women show far more courage than the men.

Less than half the actual fighting time is spent at grips. A goodly bit passes in appeals to the referee and the crowd, and much to pacing and circling with gestures and grimaces of pain, wrath, or steely determination. The latter is the perquisite of the hero, and the villain’s counter is the skulk or leer of menace. Naturally, there is a great range in ability of expression but a similarity in technique. For example, all good fellows must simulate blindness since, sooner or later, the villain rubs a peanut or a thumb into his eyes. Every Toronto fan knows that their nonpareil, Whipper Billy Watson, is literally blind in one eye. This intensifies the pathos of poor Whipper, staggering around the ring, groping at his face, while the dastard blandly assures the referee he has no peanut hidden in his trunks. The crowd knows better; sympathy and love for justice weld in a mighty current of feeling.

Other heroes can hardly match Watson in this specialty, but many, because of greater purity of feature and physique, are better in limning the role of righteous indignation. At present a new hero, Timothy Geohagen, is rising on the Toronto scene. Tim is young, blond, and handsome. His special characteristic is mighty strength, his special hold the “Irish Sleeper,” and his dramatic forte the pure rage of the righteous. When Tim gets his Irish up, when his patience is gone, his clear skin pinks, his arms writhe, and he vibrates from the floor in anger. The crowd approves, the villain shows yellow and hides behind the referee who wags a finger at Tim. Tim brushes this obstacle aside and metes out justice. (It is hard to imagine a clearer show of the cliches of histrionics than those in Tim’s bout, providing he is given a villain of merit.)

Often one finds former boxing “greats” such as Jack Dempsey, Jack Sharkey, or Max Baer headlined as referees. The idea is that they are impartial and able because of the supposed power in their fists to keep the villain in line. This myth is rooted in the “knock-out” punch and it promotes bizarre situations. Once a feud between Watson and a huge Pole, Wladislaw Talun, had grown so bitter that only a strong referee seemed to promise order and a decision. Jack Sharkey was brought in, and early in the bout he had to remonstrate with Talun for underhand tactics. Failing to impress the Pole verbally, Sharkey cocked his fist. Talun’s reaction was swift; he cowered, fawned, and then carried on fairly, long enough for Watson to down him cleanly. The paradox here is the appearance of Talun and Sharkey. The ex-boxer is grey and paunchy, a flabby two-hundred pounder; Talun is at least six-foot-eight, weighs over three hundred and fifty, and ripples with muscle.

To most people, all these wrestlers are big, but the size range is broad — a small man is from two hundred and twenty to two hundred and forty pounds in weight, while the giants range to four hundred pounds plus. The bigger men tend to be the villains. This supports the proverb “the bigger they come the harder they fall.” About fifty years ago Bob Fitzsimmons coined this phrase, just before his fight for the heavyweight crown with the giant Jim Jeffries. Fitz was crushed by Jeffries, but his words are the prop for the multitude who resent superior stature; thus the wrestling addict has the vicarious thrill of the human dreadnought’s fall.

One of the two groups of people whom wrestling infuriates are the sport purists who feel it as a satire on genuine competition. The other critics are the calamity howlers or disillusioned do-gooders. A sample of the latter was offered some years ago by Alan Sullivan. Writing in Maclean’s he rued wrestling’s appeal in Toronto: “Is the public appetite of this city so jaded, surfeited, dissipated, so lacking in what one may call ‘tone’ that the sensory receiving apparatus of eight thousand Torontonians demands the floodlit brutalities by mountainous grapplers . . .”

The brutalities are exaggerated. When giants begin somersaulting and leaping at lightning speed, there is a chance they may be hurt, but if it were brutal the men could not sustain their three to five matches a week schedule. An elbow-smash, a kick in the face, or a bite in the leg does seem rugged, but the recipients live to fight next day simply because their simulation is unbelievably good. The crowd’s savor for the rough stuff intrigues the analysts who deal in psychological jargon. Mob hysteria, persecution mania, blood lust, and sexual sublimation have been put forward. The fact that women form a large part of the attendance disturbs many. To those who suggest that they are attracted by the exposition of virile bodies, one could point out that many wrestlers are very ugly and malformed. One entertaining theory is that men readily take their women to contests where gambling is not a factor. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine even the staunchest fan wagering on wrestling. But then, this does not account for the ladies leading the chorus as they do.

Those who see the wrestling of today as another symbol of social decadence, might try attending some bouts in a relaxed state of mind, or if they are blessed with a TV set, watching it in their parlor. If they can’t get delight from listening and watching the people around them, there are always marvels of muscle to admire and acrobatics in a grand manner. Besides, the orgy of disbelief at other people’s tastes can bolster one’s more cultured ego.

Historians place wrestling as the second oldest sport of all. For those who never saw the sport when it was the focal point of people who were sure of its validity as a contest, it is hard to imagine this past. Books tell us that Henry VIII once tried a fall with Francis, King of France, at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Perhaps the pageant of today is a reversion to such a show. If nothing else, it reveals that Canadians, or at least many of them, are not so staid in expressing their emotions as we’ve been led to believe.

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