How pro-wrestling’s combination of sports and spectacle won me over (and helped me understand America)

At the turn of the millennium, when most Indian households such as ours did not have access to the internet, it was pro-wrestling that helped me understand what America was thinking on a weekly basis.

Devarsi Ghosh November 27, 2021 11:05:58 IST
How pro-wrestling’s combination of sports and spectacle won me over (and helped me understand America)

When the going gets tough, we turn to our favourite guilty pleasures. But when entertainment is concerned, is there even any guilt to what gives one pleasure? In our new series Pleasure Without Guilt, we look at pop offerings that have been dissed by the culture police but continue to endure as beacons of unadulterated pleasure.

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It’s hard to profess love for professional wrestling as an adult. For sports fans, it’s "fake." For film and television viewers, it’s too crass, camp, or sometimes both. It’s a weird bastard child nobody knows where to place. Pro-wrestling industry mogul Vince McMahon correctly calls it "sports entertainment."

It was hard to miss pro-wrestling if you had a cable TV connection in the late '90s. Raw Is War, the weekly flagship show of McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), was telecast on Star Sports. Its rival show Nitro, part of Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling, came late at night on the TNT channel.

On the one hand, pro-wrestling offered the physicality, violence, and gladiatorial spectacle of combat sports. On the other, it featured storylines, characters, and interpersonal drama, not dissimilar to those found in a film or a television show. Add to the mix the theatricality of rock concerts, the humour of comedy sketches, and the experience of watching live sports, with generous servings of sex, questionable humour, and an anything-goes attitude. These disparate influences lent pro-wrestling a lunacy whose roots lie in American circuses and carnivals of the late 19th century.

The final concoction, to an impressionable nine-year-old, was an incredibly addictive form of candy — perhaps, the best candy I ever tasted before cinema and rock music pulled me away from pro-wrestling, which, by the mid-2000s, had stopped being cool because of the gradual gentrification of the product. That is what happens to any cultural phenomenon when attracting the widest possible audience becomes the bottomline.

But I am not here to get nostalgic about the Attitude Era or the Monday Night Wars. I am here to talk about why pro-wrestling rocks. Secondly, I want to talk about why pro-wrestling, in toto, is as culturally significant as The Beatles, Quentin Tarantino, or David Beckham. Lastly, I want to touch upon why studying pro-wrestling history is often an intellectually stimulating experience.

Before we get heavy, a quick tour of what makes wrestling superfun. It’s not just two guys fighting. There is a two-pronged process at work here.

The live performance aspect includes scripting, acting, make-up, costume, music composing, light design, art direction, pyrotechnics, the works. It even needs filmmaking skills because the talent walks into the ring to their respective music videos which play on a giant screen. (This is where I saw my first music videos, before I discovered MTV). For a budding cinema fiend, pro-wrestling was naturally seductive.

And then, of course, there’s the in-ring fighting. What makes the matches interesting, apart from their different types, such as tables-chairs-ladders match, hell-in-a-cell match, or buried-alive match, is that pro-wrestling includes many fighting styles: traditional brawling, Greco-Roman-style grappling and submission, high-flying aerial sort of stuff.

So you would have a superb technical wrestler like Kurt Angle, an Olympic gold medallist in freestyle wrestling, square off against Rey Mysterio, an icon of the lucha libre tradition. An Undertaker, who is reportedly close to seven feet tall, and weighs up to 140 kg, would have to adapt to the fast-paced, reckless, and jumpy wrestling style of the far smaller Jeff Hardy. And then there were those rare talents who merged all kinds of styles, like Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho.

It is hard to explain to a nonbeliever the ecstasy of watching the Dudley Boyz, Edge and Christian, and the Hardy brothers throw each other off ladders. What better than seeing Triple-H beat his enemies to pulp with a sledgehammer? And how can anybody who has seen the Undertaker drop Mankind off a 16-feet steel cage onto the announcers’ table not want to watch it again and again?

Did they hurt? Of course, they did, as Darren Aronofsky’s excellent 2008 film The Wrestler showed. They put their bodies on the line to entertain us. How can you not love them?

But, like it is with the movies, it’s a great match only if you care about the characters. You care about the characters only when you care about their story. And a good story is that which reinforces the time-tested myth of good-versus-evil.

So Hulk Hogan, probably the most famous pro-wrestler ever, was the All-American good guy asking young "Hulkamaniacs" to "say your prayers," "take your vitamins," and "be a real American." Pitted against him would be bad guys like Andre The Giant, whose size and meanness were symbolic obstacles for the god-fearing, hard-working hero. Or The Iron Sheik, who would walk into the ring, waving an Iranian flag, at the height of Iran-US tensions in the early 1980s. With his Russian partner, Nikolai Volkoff, beside him, he would speak into the mic in his pretend-Iranian accent: “Iran number one, Russia number one, America wack thoo”.

Entertaining, maybe, but simplistic, cartoonish, and racist, right? Although WWE’s storylines and characterisations did become complex and darker over time, and the company slowly pivoted itself to be on the correct side of America’s culture wars in the past 20 years, some traditions just never go away.

At the turn of the millennium, when most Indian households such as ours did not have access to the internet, it was pro-wrestling that helped me understand what America was thinking on a weekly basis.

Of course, I wasn’t tuning into Raw or Nitro with the adult intention of trying to understand America. But watch the first three Rambo movies back-to-back at that age, and you know more about America’s foreign policy (communism/Russia = bad) than anybody in class four.

So it was pro-wrestling that streamed the first images of radical Black politics into my brain. The WWE wrestling stable Nation of Domination, to which Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson once belonged, was inspired by the Black Panther party and the Nation of Islam. Of course, they were the heels. (In pro-wrestling jargon, a villain is a 'heel,' a hero the 'babyface' or 'face,' and the business’s entire modus operandi of passing off staged and scripted feuds and fights as supposedly real is called 'kayfabe').

Note that the Nation of Domination made its debut in 1996, four years after the race-based Los Angeles riots, and two years after the Clintons’ Crime Bill became law, which is said to have only intensified the criminalisation of people of colour in the US.

Likewise, the WWE’s villainous Hart Foundation, comprising Canadian and British talent, was positioned as a bunch of uppity anti-American fellows. Other heel stables like D-Generation X embodied Generation X’s cynical and nihilistic perspectives, or The Brood, which, in kayfabe, were a trio of vampires, fashioned themselves mall-goth style, which was just coming into vogue in the late 1990s.

Straightening these heels out were faces like Stone Cold Steve Austin, a beer-guzzling, truck-driving, foul-mouthed brawler who flipped off anybody he didn’t like, and the crowds couldn’t have enough of him.

Austin’s greatest heel ever was Mr Mcmahon, an image-obsessed, money-minded, corporatist boss-from-hell that Vince McMahon himself played. The image Austin cultivated was that of a working-class hero. Austin vs McMahon was, at its core, the feud between a son of the soil, not unlike Hogan, and the evils of corporate America. In fact, the suit-wearing, materialistic, power-hungry persona has been milked by numerous heels over the years: Ted DiBiase, the Evolution stable, and JBL to name a few.

Pro-wrestling then is a morality play where the squared circle becomes the venue to settle scores, much like the climax of Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator. Its largely conservative interpretation of good and evil offers great insight into Middle America. The McMahons have been Republican donors for decades. Former US President Donald Trump, who has appeared on WWE shows a few times, is a close friend of Vince McMahon. (“This is seriously the peak of American culture. Nothing will ever top this,” says a comment with over 4,000 votes on a YouTube video of Trump starring in a Raw episode). His wife Linda McMahon was part of the Trump administration. It is no surprise that Mike Judge managed to predict Trump-era America in his 2006 film Idiocracy, in which the American president in the year 2505 is a macho, dim-witted pro-wrestler.

Although pro-wrestling’s populist thrills still excite me, it is learning about its 150-year colourful history, which is also the story of how monopoly capital works, that sustains my interest in what is commonly seen as kids’ entertainment. Arguing any more for pro-wrestling will either make me look like PR for WWE, or this will turn into a dissertation. I will just leave you, dear reader, with a great 5/5 match: Shelton Benjamin vs Shawn Michaels. Enjoy!

Read more from the Pleasure Without Guilt series here.

Devarsi Ghosh is a journalist, writing on film, culture, and music.

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