Cataclysm Now
By Daniel "Stone Cold" Kraus

From Gadfly Sep./Oct. 1999


The interview is over.

I'm standing up, shaking hands with local wrestler David "Renegade" Register, and suddenly he starts getting fired up. Maybe it's because we're no longer sitting down, maybe he's had it building up inside him the whole time.

"I've lost two wives because of wrestling," he declares, "and all because I just wanted to do something, to be somebody." It's a conspiracy against wrestling by the major networks, he says. Friends are becoming alcoholic, getting into drugs, losing family and friends over the stress, he says.

Suddenly, he grabs my arms.

"No other athlete from any other sport can get in the ring and do what we do!" He pulls my arms down to my sides. "Oh, I'm so special because I can dribble a ball up and down a court?"

Renegade draws back his hand.

"Just relax," he says.

Renegade is six-foot-one, 325 pounds and angry.

And, I suddenly realize, he's about to hit me.

Owen Hart dropped seventy-eight feet from the ceiling of Kansas City's Kemper Arena on May 23, 1999. He struck the ring turnbuckle and rope at fifty miles per hour. His head raised for a brief moment, then fell limp. Medics rushed to the mat. Audiences didn't know if it was real or part of the show.

It was real.

Owen Hart, brother of the legendary Bret "The Hitman" Hart and a World Wrestling Federation (WWF) star in his own right, instead of dropping from the skies like a superhero avenger, had dropped out of the picture altogether. His aorta ruptured and filled his body with blood. On June 15, his family filed a 118-page lawsuit against the WWF detailing forty-six separate accounts against thirteen different defendants. If involuntary manslaughter is charged, it carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years.

At Owen's funeral, the mourning presence of WWF character "Paul Bearer" had a dark irony.

Two weeks later, Rena Mero, known to wrestling fans as "Sable," quit the WWF and abruptly sued them for $110 million. The WWF "Women's Champion" star sexpot and recent Playboy model (their best-selling in fifteen years) claims that the WWF wanted to have her dress ripped off in the ring again C but this time her bra would "accidentally" be ripped off as well, leaving her breasts exposed on national television. She also cites her opposition to a developing lesbian story line.

Less than two weeks later, Kuwaiti talk-show host Al Othman filed a $1 million lawsuit against the WWF. On a 1997 episode of Othman's Good Morning Kuwait, WWF wrestler Vader responded to Othman's question about whether wrestling was "real" by staging a physical attack on Othman. Having apparently gone too far in his "staging," Vader was slapped with criminal charges from Othman, landing Vader under Kuwaiti house arrest for nine days. Now Othman is suing the WWF for using this embarrassing footage on their show.

About two weeks later, a seven-year-old wrestling fan in Dallas, Texas, got a ten-foot running start and slammed his arm into the neck of his three-year-old brother. The seven-year-old said he had seen it on television. The three-year-old died of brain swelling.

These all-too-real breaches of wrestling's assumed contract of fantasy have fueled the ever-present disputes over professional wrestling's worth or lack thereof. It has become difficult to sort the real from the unreal. Mike Tyson appeared on the program as himself and got into a fight. Considering what we know about him, we believe it. Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone have squared off in the ring. Jay Leno has gotten in, too, only to be saved by his bandleader, Kevin Eubanks. Wrestler Buff Bagwell, after turning evil (or "heel") was decried by his own ashamed mother on national television. Sable's turn in Playboy is hotly debated by WWF announcers as possibly interfering with her performance in the ring.

But which one is her real "performance"?

What seem like sordid plot elements are now, supposedly, legitimate. Sable claims certain wrestlers smeared feces on her personal items. Her onscreen feud with WWF owner Vince McMahon has spilled over into real life, climaxing with her appearance in the audience of the rival World Championship Wrestling (WCW) league for a purported $50,000. Not to mention Owen Hart's spectacular departure. It almost makes you wonder uneasily whether Owen will miraculously return from the grave, part of the greatest plot trick in professional wrestling history.

And it is a history ruled by Warriors, not CEOs, by "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, not Bill Gates. Like a barbarians' feast, it is a gleeful celebration of excess, feeding the audience everything they dare desire, overwhelming and overstepping everything C the referee, the ropes, the crowd barriers, the time limits. When a wrestler spills from the ring, the audience touches him, slaps him, grabs him, as if they would tear him to pieces like an animal if only they could. Instead they display their sovereign power with a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" of decibelic response.

When McMahon made a public statement of sorrow regarding Owen Hart, was it real? When his funeral was shown on WWF, was it just for the ratings? Many journalists have noted the possible suggestion of Owen Hart's own trademark phrase: Enough is enough.

My chest tingles. I've just been given a "chop," the most basic of wrestling hits. It was loud. People are looking at us. Renegade says, "Now imagine if I had my weight behind that, running across the ring." He has made his point.

The locker room is green and dark, smelling of sweat, cigarettes in the toilet. It's twenty minutes to show time in Kenansville, North Carolina (population: 856), and Renegade is frantically pairing the wrestlers off, telling them who'll fight whom. Some are just meeting for the first time, like the Samoan Giant (6'4", 325) and Giant Thundercloud (6'4", 385), who barely fit into the tiny shower room where they run through their moves. Twenty-year-old Atlantic Coast Championship Wrestling (ACCW) veteran "Too Smooth" Tracy Gilbert runs in, trying to describe a move he wants Thundercloud to perform, one that's sure to get a good crowd reaction, or "pop." Too Smooth is frustrated, unable to describe it correctly, and Thundercloud refuses to do it. "It's stupid," he mutters to me.

Referee Constance Wilder rushes into the already cramped shower, leading two women, Miss Kitty Goodheart and the Ice Princess. They are introduced to the two giants, shake their hands. In half an hour, they'll be giving these two men their undying loyalty, screaming at ringside and slipping them foreign objects. I ask the Ice Princess how to spell her first name, and she makes it clear that she'd rather not say.

Mr. Unique (who only minutes ago was going to play Mad Heart the Canadian Reject) charges in with a five-foot-tall metal street sign that reads, "Littering Is Illegal." Mr. Unique will use it later to hit a few chaps over the head. Renegade blusters through, clipboard in hand. Two minutes to show. Two characters swap masks. The Samoan applies baby oil to his muscles. Renegade shouts out changes in order. Two kids from the snack bar appear, calling to Constance, "Mom, we need more ice!" She rushes away, hollering back to the men, "Unless you brought your own chairs we can't use any, you mess these up and we gotta pay for 'em!"

Renegade is too busy running the show to wrestle, and today he curses the WWF. "They just cost me $2,500," he says bitterly. "We got offered to do a church carnival. But when we went to collect our first check, it wasn't there. They declined because of all the bad Owen Hart publicity." He looks at the fifty-seven people waiting in the dingy, fluorescent-lit auditorium and shakes his head. "And that's money out of my pocket."

"Stone Cold" Steve Austin has just pinned Big Boss Man. He leaps up on the top ropes, each hand made into a victorious middle finger. He cracks open two beers, smashes them against his head, then pours them down his throat.

The crowd, much of it made up of children, howls in appreciation. Out of all the signature wrestling moves (the Diamond Cutter, Last Dance, Rock Bottom, Shattered Dreams, Rocker Dropper), Austin's "Stone Cold Stunner" brings the rowdiest ruckus, not to mention $300 million in merchandising last year alone. Kids in the crowd wave the ten-dollar foam "Stone Cold Finger," and adults will soon have the chance to buy "Stone Cold" cologne. Austin is a good guy (or "babyface," or "face"), and his no-bullshit redneck appeal is exemplified in statements like "I gave him a cup of Shut the Hell Up" and "I brought along a twelve-pack of Whoop-Ass." His vocal disdain of vain wrestlers who "dance around in little sparkles" provokes a direct comparison between him and the major "face" of the past, Hulk Hogan.

On March 29, 1987, at the Silver Dome in Pontiac, Michigan, Aretha Franklin sang "America the Beautiful" to 93,173 people as Wrestlemania III shattered the Rolling Stones' indoor attendance record. The main event: the Hulkster versus seven-foot-four, 525-pound Andre the Giant. In pre-match interviews, the colorfully dressed Hogan urged all the little "Hulkamaniacs" out there to eat their vitamins and pay attention to the "golden eyes" of God.

Twelve years later, pay-per-view attendance is up to nine hundred thousand, the WWF Web site is the ninety-second most hit in the world, and the extravagant Hogan has been replaced by the unadorned Austin. Gone also is Hogan's moral-religious message, having been replaced by Austin's trademark "Austin 3:16." A play off of the "John 3:16" sign seen at many sporting events ("For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."), Austin's 3:16 seems to have no purpose other than to align him with the conservative moral majority of his audience and give him an excuse to say things like, "We've heard of John 3:16, but Austin 3:16 says "I just whooped your ass!" In one such memorable bit of modern-day morality, Austin broke into an ambulance where the injured Bret "The Hitman" Hart lay and continued brutally beating him, just like a good Christian.

When did being bad become so good? The answer lies within today's universal distrust of "the system" and the belief that the man who can find a way to buck the system and play by his own rules is the true hero. Vince McMahon deftly chews the scenery as the corrupt WWF owner, pitting his sinister corporate power against the valiant struggles of Austin. In a recent plot, McMahon challenged Austin to a ladder match for total ownership of the WWF—a match in which the ownership papers themselves dangle atop "the corporate ladder" in the center of the ring.

In an attempt to reclaim some of his popularity, Hogan has turned heel. He has personified evil by quite literally removing his "face"—his facial features have all but been erased by a bandanna, sunglasses, mustache, leather, and spray-on black stubble (whereas Austin is open-faced, bald, hairless and practically naked). Hogan has very recently tried to turn face again, drawing the noteworthy announcer comment, "The Hogan we're seeing now, who's playing to the crowd and posing, seems like an actor." That means he's an actor acting like his previous act. Confused yet?

The popularity of this "badness" is based on the stereotype of a rebel, neatly summarized by "The Total Package" Lex Luger while describing a fellow heel: "He gave up his WCW office, decided to ride Harleys and put on a leather jacket, become a rebel." Rebels, however, aren't the only social group stereotype epitomized by a leather-and-stud-clad biker.

"Is this sex?" asked a flustered friend opening a wrestling fan magazine, with its pages and pages of nondescript flesh-on-flesh and half-folded centerfolds. The homosexual undercurrent in pro wrestling has led to many of its fiercest critiques, especially when coupled with the bondage and sadism that are one part Grand Guignol gory theatrics and one part humiliation/submission.

It's easy to see how so many arrive at this reading. The fake orgasm becomes the fake scream of pain; focusing on a G-spot or fetish becomes focusing on your opponent's Achilles' heel—if a wrestler has an injured knee or back, you can be sure that it will be excessively tortured with chairs, two-by-fours, belts, barbed wire and microphone cords. Handcuffs are almost a nightly affair, especially in "submission matches," matches that don't end until somebody pleads for mercy. In one such match, "The Nature Boy" Rick Flair was handcuffed to the steel cage and "guillotined"; that is, his head was slammed in a steel door again and again. In another, Bill Goldberg was handcuffed to the rope, stripped by eight men, shocked with a Taser and spray-painted. In yet another, Val Venis handcuffed Prince Albert (whose own name is a synonym for a penis piercing), pulled down his pants and tattooed his initials on Albert's buttocks.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Go back to Wrestlemania III and you'll see the Haircut Match, in which the loser gets his hair cut by the winner or bows to the winner, or is forced to eat dog food served by the winner. There is never the competitive give-and-take of a boxing match. Instead, the matches are always polarized into a dominator/submissive or master/slave binary.

However, to say that wrestling simply plays off the latent homosexuality of its fans and the position of victimhood or femininity that it offers is far too easy. Instead, pro wrestling actually uses (and mocks) its homosexual appearance to align its viewers in an identification of masculinity, often via the rape-revenge plot. The flagrantly drag characters, like the sparkling lamé Golddust, ultimately ridicule or demean their supposed femininity. In fact, any hint of homosexuality is instead proven to be homophobic by the very ease with which it is tossed aside by suddenly turning face, or simply by the highly masculine athletics that succeed it, the wrestler emerging victoriously male. The bulk of hip-gyrating and homosexual posturing comes from the heels, and by nature heels mock the manly ideals presented by the faces. At the very least, any mask of femininity is proven to be just that—a mask—when the "real" women, the managers and Sables of pro wrestling, show up.

"Austin 3:16" is sexualized in a sign being waved in the audience: "Sable 6:9." Likewise, Sable's infamous "Evening Gown Match" against female wrestler Luna eclipses the "sports entertainment" arena with pure titillation. The object of the match: to be the first to strip the other woman down to her bra and panties. Sable followed this with a straight-out bikini contest with Luna, where Sable lost, but only because her use of body paint disqualified her (to the delight of the crowd). When jealous boyfriend Mero made her come out in a potato sack, she ripped it off to reveal a leather mini-dress, saying, "I'm not going to be submissive."

But even her aggressiveness is ultimately submissive. The woman's physical prowess, impressive as it may be, will always be little more than a bikini contest, immediately rendered irrelevant when the men's bodies replace them and begin fighting. Even then, the presence of any woman near the ring is a distraction; it makes the men jealous, careless, and diverts them from kicking ass. At a WWF RAW event, the crowd was predictably against heel Jeff Jarrett and curvaceous manager Debra. But instead of the harmless booing Jarrett received, the crowd was whipped into a degrading frenzy of aggressive sexual anger toward Debra, crying "Take off your skirt!" "Have sex in the ring!" and "Show me your puppies!" (a popular term for breasts). The announcement of a new women's league, Women of Wrestling (WOW), described as featuring "young, attractive and athletic female wrestlers with colorful characters," means that women will again "play wrestling" for the sexual satisfaction of the male audience. The female audience that is "demanding" its own league doesn't really exist, and, as spectators, women will probably view it as many of them view a male (or female) strip show—as humorous fun, not titillation, and rather uneasy fun at that.

Sable's only real display of power has been her lawsuit.

Renegade once went over the railing into a circle of grey-haired ladies. He had been beating a young stud to a pulp, scratching his eyes, kicking him in the groin. The old ladies looked down at Renegade. Then they picked up their canes and umbrellas and began to beat him.

Renegade's young son once wandered too close during a match. Trying to stay in character while removing his son from danger, the evil Renegade lifted the kid back up into the stands, muttering, "Take this brat."

It's hard for them to see their father booed and pelted with glasses of water night after night.

"I was a bouncer for twelve years," remembers Renegade. "I was a bounty hunter, a bodyguard too, and I got shot. In the chest. I had promoters coming up to me saying I needed to be a pro wrestler, and I said, "I don't wanna be in all that fake crap." Then one night I had a nineteen-year-old kid pull a twenty-five-caliber pistol on me. So I broke his arm."

Crystal, girlfriend to a wrestler called Rampage, sits beside me, emptying her second roll of film that evening. Crystal confides to me that Rampage "has the look and the want" to make it all the way to the WWF/WCW. "We watch wrestling Monday, Friday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, and every pay-per-view," she claims. She also claims not to worry about Rampage's safety in the ring, although I don't believe her.

Only minutes later, Too Smooth leaps from the ropes to the floor outside of the ring. Immediately, all of the wrestlers know something is wrong. Moments later, he's in the locker room, a grimace on his face, bandages being coiled around his twisted ankle. Another wrestler blames the injury on the nefarious opponent and a mysterious-looking "puddle of water."

"I want to show my kids that you can do anything," says Renegade. "I love performing. I have a good time. And I don't have to worry about someone shooting me or cutting me up." What he's saying is that it's more violent outside of the ring than in.

Whereas the ACCW has the Ring and the Crowd, the geography of WWF and WCW has become increasingly complex. It now includes the ring, the outer ring, the crowd, the ceiling, the locker rooms, the hallways of the arena, the escalators, the food courts, the parking lots and more. The "backstage" region is always a strange white maze of nondescript rooms with handy piles of trash cans and coat racks. The entire complex is supposedly wired with cameras. Cameramen are everywhere, capturing everything, and when the space is even too tight for them (such as when Steve Austin dunked Brian Pilman's head into the men's toilet) security cameras offer immediate live access. And the only thing that makes fans more rabid than a "Stone Cold Stunner" is a camera pointed at them. This combination of the super-technical with the rather primitive display of naked brutes extends outward with steel cages, fireworks and men born from showers of sparks, their mirror images looming three stories high above them on a video screen. Men are "made of steel," and their body measurements are clicked off like computer code: "Hulk Hogan, 6'8", 294, Chest 58, Neck 21, Biceps an amazing 24 inches, Forearm 18, Wrist 9, Hands 13 1/2, Thighs 30 1/2, Calves 20," reeled off Jesse "The Body" Ventura as Hogan approached the ring in Wrestlemania III. Body parts are isolated very specifically, as if out of an anatomy book: "a powerful blow to the larynx," or sternum, or cartilage, or ligament.

The seething humanity inside of this techno-biological machine is the audience, the ever-present third character, super-aware of its role. The number of signs waved at a WWF event is ludicrous; from the stands, it is almost impossible to see the show. Unlike theater characters, the wrestlers were not cast to fill a role. Instead, the audience decides who will play what through a delicate tug and pull of response and silence. Pro wrestling is more than a male-centered soap opera. At its best, it is a clever epic of Shakespearean proportions and a smart parody of traditional sports. Instead of the dull stock responses given by athletes on ESPN, we have wrestlers grabbing the microphones, pushing the interviewers aside, spitting into the camera. Instead of objective announcers, we have announcers who take sides and cut each other down.

Unlike theater, however, the audience is not hidden in the darkness. Instead, we're implicated in the act. We're supposedly "guilty" of participating, of watching, of celebrating the excess and hoping/fearing that it will spin wildly out of control. Pro wrestling has reminded us that we are ultimately in charge. It's how we use that power (thousands of children screaming Road Dogg's "Suck it!" in unison) that is dangerous.

With subplots like the WCW's New World Order (a bunch of heels succeed in taking over the WCW), referred to by the WCW itself as "all that is wrong with wrestling," pro wrestling continually proves its self-awareness. Viewers, young and old, do the same thing, joyfully analyzing each wrestler's performance for realism, approving or disdaining each new plot twist in fan magazines so laden with insider jargon that the stories are hard to follow. A dad in front of me at a WWF event continually insisted that I see the action through his binoculars. "He's not even hittin' him!" he claimed, not angry over the fakery, but the level of craft applied to it. His son, meanwhile, delighted in telling me about the secret blood bags hidden in the chairs.

Right now, wrestling is the only sport that loses legitimacy on going pro. But with the NFL's heavy reliance on space-age graphics; NBA stars' ubiquitous presence in commercials, television and film; and the Olympics' shameful overuse of tear-jerker success stories, other sports seem to be edging towards wrestling's once-exclusive classification as "sports entertainment."

"There's fifty-seven people here," says Renegade, pulling on his Confederate hat, charging out of the locker room. "Let's have some fun."

He has masterminded a last-minute twist, leaving the announcing booth and entering the fray himself in an impromptu Battle Royale. The ACCW is pure theater unlike any improv today, changing minute to minute, riding the crest of the audience's moods, absolutely dedicated performers putting their own bodies on the chopping block for the enjoyment of the fans.

David "Renegade" Register is a passionate, articulate man who cares deeply about the direction his sport is taking. He has no sympathy for Sable ("It's the nature of the business. You can't tell me you've smoked for fifteen years and never noticed the little writing on the side that said it was hazardous to your health"), and he does not want Owen Hart's death to lead to the dismantling of the WWF and professional wrestling at large. "Ratings are important," he admits, "but it was just a simple, tragic accident."

At the end of the night, Register does what most wrestlers and wrestling fans alike do. He leaves wrestling in the ring. "Right now I'm David Register, ACCW representative," he tells me. "Because when the Renegade comes out of that ring and it's time to go home..." He shrugs, patting the gym bag beside him. "I put his ass right back in the bag."