“Jeff Hardy, chest 50!” he said.
“Hulk Hogan, chest 48,” I cried out.
Jeff Hardy was an incredibly bad wrestler. He was ranked a lousy 42 in the world, was just 6’1”, weighed a mere 225 pounds. By any account, he was the “kaccha limbu” of WWF trump cards. But he had the one thing Hulk Hogan (World number one, blessed with 303 pounds of muscle and a towering 6’3” frame) didn’t have. A chest that measured 50 inches. And because of those two measly inches, I had to part with my Hulk Hogan card. The card which was to have helped me mount a stirring victory. The trump card which gave the game its name. I may have had no idea what ‘chest 50’ meant, but I realised for the first time what Prime Minister Narendra Modi always knew: Chest 50 is something truly magnificent.
Trump cards were, for most kids who grew up in the '90s, our first introduction to World Wrestling Federation — later rebranded as World Wrestling Entertainment. And that in turn would take up pretty much all our free time. And then some more. We would spend entire weekends watching wrestlers perform catchily named moves like ‘sharp-shooter’ and ‘choke-slam’, then spend weekdays enacting these very moves with siblings, cousins, classmates, friends, perfect strangers, anybody in whom we saw a kindred soul. And there were several kindred souls about.
WWF entered our lives in the early 90s, the rise of satellite television making it possible for Indian teens to watch one man pound another to within an inch of his death. We were never happier. This was violence, brutal, state-sanctioned violence, beamed in glorious colour, right into our living rooms. It was so popular that WWF superstars featured in a mainstream Bollywood movie, the Akshay Kumar film Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi.
Whether or not you accepted that all wrestling was fake, stage managed and theatrical, you couldn’t deny that it was — and still is — incredibly popular. Rukn Kizilbash, general manager of WWE India told The Economic Times that the sport drew 110 million viewers annually. Through merchandising and TV rights, they draw in large numbers of fans even today. “Fans love WWE superstars and follow them any way they can: On TV, at live events, in video games, through social media and online. Fans buy their CDs, merchandise, and programming on demand. They go see their movies, buy their books and carry their favourites with them on their mobile phones. We’ve been at the top of the sports-entertainment industry for over half a century, and every year we’ve found new ways to grow,” Kizilbash had said.
And though the wrestling stars had incredibly busy schedules, fighting in front of arena-style stadia across the US, one particular event in 1996 in Bangalore drew as many as 30,000 fans. An astronomical figure, something few cricket events would be able to manage. Just a testament to the incredible popularity of the sport in the 90s.
The wrestlers themselves, they were gods. Especially personalities like the Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart, they were household names, our heroes, they could do no wrong. When faced with a cynical parent who’d try to wean us away from the sport by mentioning it’s all stage managed, we were vociferous defenders of the faith. “It is all real! You see the blood pouring out of his head, that’s not fake. He’s getting beaten up just to make us happy,” we’d cry out, incredulous that even a sacrifice such as this wasn’t enough to satisfy some cynics.
Everything about the events is larger-than-life. Everybody involved — wrestlers, referees, owners, even commentators — is dramatic and over-the-top. Everybody has a role to perform, a theme, and a backstory that would be allowed to become a legend in its own time. For example, the Undertaker, an extremely macabre wrestler who invokes the supernatural, is also a mean fighter; with him was his manager, Paul Bearer, a ghostly character who carried around an urn that was believed to carry the Undertaker’s ashes. The wrestler was said to have nine lives, and once was “killed” on stage, only to make a reappearance the next week. Another wrestler was Jake “The Snake” Roberts, who would carry a snake, usually a python, to the ring and wear it around his neck.
Moreover, the organisers almost always played to the gallery. With most of their viewership coming from the US, and blue collar middle America at that, patriotic themes were a sure shot win. There was Kurt Angle, who proudly displayed his Olympic medals, Hulk Hogan, the all-American hero who said he’d fight for his countrymen, a wrestler just known as The Patriot, and Mr America, who was actually just Hulk Hogan in a mask. Even we knew that.
On the other side were all the countries which may have pissed off America at that time. In the 90s, Bret Hart lost his immense popularity with Americans on account of being Canadian. There would even be routine “flag matches”, which, if you think about it now, have to be quite cringe-worthy. In the months following 9/11, when France was the country of choice to be reviled (remember French Fries being renamed Freedom Fries?), the WWE put up La Resistance, a team of three French wrestlers who were basically on the show just to unite all the feuding good guys. Rusev is a Russian — how could they leave out the old enemy — who carries about the Russian flag with him and polarises opinion.
The point is, this is 2016. The World Wrestling Entertainment is about 40 years old. It’s still using the same old tropes that it used so successfully back in the 90s. Everybody today knows the entire thing is fake and dramatised for user consumption. But it’s going as strong today as it always was. The flagship event of the year, Wrestlemania, just had its 32nd iteration. And it drew 100,000 fans at the venue, with another 2 million watching it on live TV. And this doesn’t even begin to mention the fans like those sitting a few continents away in India, waiting for a delayed telecast. As always, it featured ladders, cages, hammers and belts. Add to hundreds of pounds of flesh and muscle, it was carnage.
The biggest star of the 40-year run of the WWE, Hulk Hogan, is fighting a sex tape battle in court today. The most enduring wrestler, The Undertaker, is over 50 years old and has already died three times. Go back and read it again. He has died three times. He was recently resurrected as a biker dude to pull in the crowds. The other stars like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, have made it clear they’d rather be in Hollywood.
That actually is the biggest challenge the event faces. It’s not drawing in the heroes. If it is all stage-managed, and everybody accepts it is, you need the larger-than-life stars to have the fans hooked. The personalities who can guarantee crowds at stadia and fans gathering around TVs. You need that one man everybody would talk about on Monday mornings, the guy whose face can be on merchandise. And if an ageing Undertaker is being asked to get on a bike to do that today, it clearly means a younger batch is not coming through.
The hottest new property they have now is Roman Reigns, a long-haired extremely well built “nice” guy. A big part of the entire WWE circus is the personalities they construct. And Reigns has no personality to speak of. All wrestlers are essentially one-dimensional men who stick to their stereotype. A person supposed to be the bad guy will cheat, fake, bribe his way to victory to turn the tide against him. While the good guy will have everything pit against him, but will heroically overcome major odds to triumph.
Reigns does neither. And he can’t even trash talk very well, so essential to a good bout. He’s the man the entire future of the conglomerate rests on. The powers that be have done everything they can to promote him, even ensuring he wins the title, which he did at Wrestlemania 32. Despite all that, nobody likes him one bit. If we still had trump cards today, his would be the most despised, the one nobody would want to use.
Until they can create something out of Reigns, or get someone else to fill the gap left by Hulk Hogan and Undertaker, the sport will face an incredibly fast decline. That, ultimately, will be its biggest loss. If it is sport entertainment, it is already competing with the likes of IPL for teenage eyeballs. Reigns will not help them do it. The kind of adrenaline rush we experienced while watching our favourite wrestler stoically endure a violent pounding before mounting a phoenix-like comeback and avenging swift and brutal revenge is possible only when you have the force of personality to pull it off. Personality is everything in the sport entertainment business, and the WWE currently has none.
It will not be the loss of the federation, which is still making a $1.2 billion business out of it. It will be the teenagers’ loss. They are spending precious hours and forgoing far more important things to huddle around the television set. They need the theatrics, the costumes, the larger-than-life cults. Continue feeding them this insipid diet of two middle-aged men landing feeble slaps at each other’s torsos, and they are likely to believe that this is as good as it gets. Which it is not. It used to be glorious. It made you jump out of your seat and punch the air in front, imagining it to be a fierce opponent. And waiting for an obliging younger brother to come home, so you can perfect your choke-slam.