Monday, February 13, 2012

Wrestling with the Facts

As you may have noticed if you've been following the blog these past few months, my blogging buddy Alex has been writing about wrestling a bit more that usual (read: at all). Traditionally, I'm the one to foist my fandoms on Alex (as was the case with Star Wars and Firefly), and traditionally, Alex is the one who misses the boat when it's his turn to make me watch Kevin Smith films (which I'm still waiting on, by the way). So, I figured I'd take it upon myself to exfand my horizons.

Between my grandfather and my middle school friends, I received enough of an exposure to know who some of the big names were in wrestling--Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, Sgt. Slaughter, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Undertaker, Big Show, Triple H, etc.--but I was always on the sidelines of the fandom. I'd seen a few matches here and there, and had sat in on plenty of conversations, but there were still huge gaps in my education. Names like CM Punk and Mick Foley meant absolutely nothing to me when Alex brought them up in posts over the past year.

Poking around Netflix yielded exactly the kind of learning tools I'd been hoping for: WWE: Top 50 Superstars of All Time and OMG! The Top 50 Incidents in WWE History. Learn who the major players are, and then learn about the biggest events that have defined their universe--just like I've been doing with comics. So far this has proven to be an effective way of surveying fandoms, and my 4-1/2 hours of immersion in all things wrestling was no different.

Top 50 Superstars was interesting, celebrating fifty of the most popular, successful, controversial, and influential professional wrestlers from the past six decades, as chosen by the WWE's 2010 roster.

There was Killer Kowalski with his murderously large hands; The Fabulous Moolah, who, in addition to having a fantastic name, stayed involved in the business for decades; Ric Flair, who's exactly as flamboyant as his name suggests; Mr. Perfect, who did this incredibly impressive--and perfect--pencil twirl on live TV; "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase, who perfectly embodied the excess of the 1980s; Bob Backlund, the guy who held the championship title forever; and Kane, who's just plain scary.

I was impressed by the grace, style, creativity, and skill of the likes of Eddie Guerrero, Rey Misterio, Randy Orton, John Cena, and Edge. I was fascinated by the parts that Gorilla Monsoon, Iron Sheik, and Gorgeous George played in the history and culture of wrestling. I was amused by the strong personalities of Rick Rude and Rowdy Roddy Piper, and charmed by Junkyard Dog, "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka, and, yes, Mick Foley. After a segment on Shawn Michaels, preceded by snippets of interviews with CM Punk (among others) about these superstars, I was finally able to return to this post and this post and get all of Alex's references.

Actually, I'm getting ahead of myself. I still had OMG! The Top 50 Incidents in WWE History to watch before that could happen. Superstars left me with that warm feeling of, "this is a cool fandom; I could get into this." OMG!, while informative, left me with that warm feeling in my stomach of being violently ill.

It started with the theme music: Some rapper shouting "OH MY GOD!" and nothing but "OH MY GOD!" for what felt like a whole sixty seconds (which, in reality, was probably closer to only a minute). I expected this grating introduction to be followed by a show similar to Superstars--a comprehensive look at the most outrageous, unexpected, and significant moments of the past six decades of wrestling history. Instead, I got everything Stone Cold Steve Austin ever did throughout his entire career, plus that one time in 1984 where Roddy Piper smashed a coconut on Jimmy Snuka's head.

To top it all off, each of the 50 incidents was introduced with "OH MY GOD!" and the same ten or twenty seconds of obnoxious vamping from the song. I was ready to pull a Tim White by the end of it, and the fact that I even know what I'm referencing somewhat disgusts me.

I get that these were supposed to be the most shocking moments in wrestling, and I freely acknowledge that I'm a little sensitive about certain matters and a little squeamish about others. I was on board with anything that was extra theatrical for the sake of looking cool--like Jeff Hardy getting caught in the explosion of his own pyrotechnics, or Brock Lesnar collapsing the entire ring with a superplex, which was awesome--but so many of these incidents were just disturbing to me.

Impaling Randy Orton on a floor full of thumbtacks? Humiliating the tiny Haiti Kid by hoisting him up and shaving his head? Destroying aisle after aisle of a grocery store just to beat somebody up? Kidnapping the chairman's daughter and forcing her into some kind of unholy marriage rite? Driving away from a funeral you've interrupted with the coffin dragging from your truck?

These things look innocuous and even slightly silly in writing, but they made my skin crawl when watching them. Whether or not they were staged is beside the point; I was floored by the number of children I saw in the crowds--small children, at that--and glorifying these ideas with that kind of audience is downright twisted.

After watching the Superstars show, I had a debate with my wife--she argued that wrestling was senselessly violent, and I argued that it's really no different than any other violence taken out of context. Each of these characters in the ring has their own motives and backstories that are driving them to hit Jimmy Snucka with a coconut; The Dark Knight looks pretty senseless, too, if you only see the part where that dude gets stabbed through the hand with a pencil. The violence itself might still be distasteful to you, but it's unfair to judge it as senseless without the proper context.

After watching OMG!, I wasn't sure where I stood in that argument anymore.

The wrestling I remember from what I caught on television was good old-fashioned beatings. Some theatrics, to be sure, but nothing more outrageous than swinging around a steel chair or slamming someone against the wall of a cage--it's all blunt force trauma anyhow, whether you're using your hands or falling on people from the rafters. Barbed wire on a baseball bat? Well, maybe that's just me being squeamish.

What makes this so difficult for me--and what makes wrestling the spectacle it is--is how tough it can be to determine exactly what's real and what's just for show. There's a visceral thrill in the uncertainty of it all. If somebody gets tackled on a football field, you know the kind of injuries to expect. If somebody gets tortured in a movie, you can be confident it's all just make-believe. If "Macho Man" Randy Savage gets bitten by a snake in a wrestling ring, your imagination runs wild with possibilities, foiling all attempts to properly rationalize what's just happened.

Even with all the stomach-churning moments I endured throughout OMG!, I'm glad to have had the exposure; this blog was founded on the principle of promoting an understanding between geeks, and this is one fandom where I've been out of the loop for some time, and to a bigger degree than I ever realized. Am I an expert yet? By no means. But I finally understand what it means to be the "Heartbreak Kid," and I think that counts for something.

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