Pro Wrestling – A Ritual With A Bad Attitude

Orlando Sentinel – March 24, 1999
By Ramsey Campbell

I’ve never understood folks who look down on professional wrestling because it is rehearsed.

It kind of reminds me of when I was a kid reading science fiction novels and my mother occasionally would ask if I believed that stuff with the wild illustrations of UFOs and Bug-Eyed Monsters.

I’d give her an exasperated look and remind her that it was called science fiction for a reason.

That anyone could mistake fiction for reality simply defied belief.

Pro wrestling is kind of like that. No one with a lick of sense could confuse it with an actual sporting contest. Although it contains some aspects of sport and requires a great deal of athleticism from its participants, it is altogether different.

It is a show in which behemoths with attitudes and loud costumes act out the age-old battle between good and evil. Sometimes the good guys win, sometimes the bad guys are the victors in the wrestling world.

The bouts are exciting because they are rehearsed. No chance of a dull, low-scoring game, as in soccer or football. Wrestling is guaranteed slam-bang excitement.

It doesn’t matter who wins on any given evening. It is the spectacle that counts, and everyone understands that down the road the good guys will win out.

Sometimes the bad guys turn into good guys in the wrestling theater. Talk about morality plays!

I used to get a kick out of wrestling. I don’t know any kid who doesn’t, at some point or another. My playmates and I would scurry home to catch Dick the Bruiser, a local hero in Indianapolis, on television most Saturday afternoons.

I had the good fortune a few years ago to do a story on professional wrestling. I got to hang out at a professional wrestling school for several weeks, watching the players practice holds and carefully choreograph their moves for an upcoming bout.

It was cool. Even though everything was carefully rehearsed, there was no way I would ever step into the ring. You can practice a body-slam with your opponent all you want, and it still will take your breath away. Wrestlers earn their money.

And now wrestling – World Wrestling Association-style – is slated to make a regular monthly appearance at the Leesburg Armory. The fledgling association features a lot of young up-and-coming talent, and many of the wannabe wrestlers are from Central Florida.

My enthusiasm for professional wrestling faded about the time I entered middle school, but I can understand wrestling’s increasing popularity, even if I don’t count myself a fan today.

Wrestling is not a contest, like football, basketball or boxing. Vegas bookies don’t make bets on wrestling championships for a reason.

That confuses some people, who assume everything is either theater or sport. Wrestling is neither. It is a bit of both, and fans appreciate that fact.

There has not been whole lot of scholarly interest in wrestling or its history, but those interested should check out Wrestling to Rasslin’: Ancient Sport to American Spectacle by Gerald Morton and George O’Brien.

Morton was a member of the English Department at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and O’Brien was a professor of German and Latin at the University of Minnesota when they wrote the book in 1985.

Unlikely wrestling fans, they argue that wrestling deserves the distinction as the oldest sport on Earth that has transformed itself into an American ritual in modern times.

Rituals are powerful influences found in every society, both primitive and sophisticated, and they serve a particular purpose.

“In most cultures, ritual often evolves as a means of dealing with crisis, be the ritual an elaborate ceremony for the burial of the dead, a dance to bring rain to drought-stricken crops or a drama depicting man’s confrontation with the divine during which he exposes his moral frailty,” wrote the authors.

Theater is never real – it is too symbolic to function as ritual. Football and other sports contests, on the other hand, are too real to serve as rituals.

But wrestling, with one foot in theater, the other in sports, fits the bill, according to Morton and O’Brien.

“What wrestling does as ritual that helps us through bad times is that it does prove that villains can be defeated, that heroes who embody good American ideals can win and that, whatever else, determination and dedication can and do triumph over deceit and treachery.

“And if nothing else of value can be found in professional wrestling, it does give us hope … because we see it happen every Saturday night in some local high school gym, a National Guard Armory, or run-down old civic center where we come together to witness what we know to be true and hope for what we know to be possible.”

Let’s get ready to rumble.

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