interview is over.
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.
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.
he grabs my arms.
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?"
draws back his hand.
relax," he says.
is six-foot-one, 325 pounds and angry.
I suddenly realize, he's about to hit me.
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
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.
Owen's funeral, the mourning presence of WWF character
"Paul Bearer" had a dark irony.
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.
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.
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
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.
which one is her real "performance"?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!"
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."
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.
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.
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"
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
only real display of power has been her lawsuit.
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.
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."
hard for them to see their father booed and pelted
with glasses of water night after night.
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."
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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."
fifty-seven people here," says Renegade, pulling
on his Confederate hat, charging out of the locker
room. "Let's have some fun."
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.
"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."
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."