Two weekends ago I saw RAW live at MSG. I readily admit to some ironic posturing here--easier to do when your $200 ringsides come gratis, granted, which is to say you deserve the whole story and range of sentiment. There I sat surrounded by sons and fathers of all races and blackberry plans, watching two grown men with spray-on tans wrestle two black guys in timberlands and embroidered jeans. It was an important match; the winners would take the WWE Tag Team Championship Belt. The black guys were named Cryme Time. They came kayfabe from NYC--so your hometown heroes, lovable thugs, the match's Faces. I cannot exaggerate the sheer amount of embroidery on the seats of these men's jeans. If you want Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants crossover, there have to be easier ways than needle and thread.
As for the heels: I forget the one guy's name with the really bad spray-on tan. I just looked it up though. His name is Cody Rhodes--the son of Dusty Rhodes, and nephew of Tugboat aka Typhoon, one half of the Natural Disasters. (This is as good a time as any to mention that there was another guy that night who had a pretty bad spray-on too. He was shorter and sorta looked like this guy who gave me a hard time in grade school.) The other guy was Teddy DiBiase--the son (yes) of Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase.
Rhodes was born in 1985, DiBiase in 1982. Both are younger than I am. And it occurred to me, as I dropped eaves on fathers regaling their sons with stories of this man-myth named The Million Dollar Man, who had a Million Dollar Belt ("every last inch covered in diamonds--covered in diamonds"), who had a song that went MONEY MONEY MONEY MONEY MONEY, who had a black man-servant named Virgil, who (Virgil) wrestled Million Dollar Man for his freedom way back in Wrestlemania VII--it occurred to me that I was closer in age and reference to these fathers than to their sons. This was reiterated to me every time I yelled some kind of heinous insult towards the ring, and the little boy who sat in front of me wearing a John Cena shirt looked back at me in utter fear. Would I yell at him? Would I maybe hurt him?
(The John Cena t-shirt design rips off the box design of early NES games, an 8-bit Cena made to look like a Punch-Out character, pumping his fist in triumph as his competition lies dead on the mat. Cena released a rap album in 2005.)
The match drags. Like really drags. Pro Wrestling, the physical in-the-ring act of it, is not spectacle without the TV angles, the smart editing, the commentators, the fake news sideshows between matches. Forced to watch two men pretend to injure one another, at a distance so close that the un-reality of it does in fact begin to feel like an insult, I marveled at the young people around me, who (in contrast) watched every moment enthralled. These are the same young American people, I'm told, who have the world's shortest attention spans, who need at least three or four jokes per page of a script or they will turn off the tv. WWE, minus commentary, minus chairs, is tortoise-speed entertainment.
Like many people my age, I believe that professional wrestling reached some kind of peak in 1992, 93, 1994, when Randy 'Macho Man' Savage served as WWF commentator alongside Bobby 'The Brain' Heenan. Philly had ECW too, and I got my ass down to the bingo hall at least twice that I can remember, and caught the rest late night on Channel 48. Every major league had at least one wrestler who looked like someone in my extended family: My dad looked like Skinner; my aunt's mobster ex-fiance was a wop Million Dollar Man; my uncle somehow looked like both Rod Van Dam and Hulk Hogan, though neither man looked like the other; Earthquake looked like my dad during dad's fatter/intestinal disease period; Ric Flair was a less effeminate Pop John.
I retired from my career of professional wrestling spectator in 1998, 1999 or so, after the twins Matt and Andy bought tickets for Pandemonium in the Spectrum, and we went with their dad and a few of their Catholic high school cronies. We were way up, it was tough to stay interested. All I remember is that I had a camera with a 500mm lens and took shots of every partially exposed breast that entered the ring. I also remember a guy named Val Venis, and I also remember being perfectly capable of saying his name without, you know, going for the obvious. In fact I also-also remember maybe being a little bothered when people did go for it: Like, grow up, guys, that's his name, just deal with it.
What had to be a half-hour later, DiBiase and Rhodes beat Cryme Time by cheating. I think Rhodes distracted the referee and it was all over from there. The ref between them, DiBiase and Rhodes lifted up the Tag Team Belts over their heads in celebration--and seconds later, Cryme Time ambushed them from behind, stole their belts, then ran out of the ring. I know what you're thinking, big deal, they're still the Tag Team Champions. But that's not how this works. You are the Tag Team Champion if and only if you possess the physical Tag Team Champion Belt. Kayfabe, I imagine there is no official record of the Champion outside of who is wearing the belt--a hundred-million dollar business, the WWE still keeps its championships analog.
DiBiase and Rhodes are fuming, but when they settle down, they sneak in a quick hug, as if to tell each other everything is going to be OK. Instinctively, the entirety of Madison Square Garden shouts "Awwwww." Rhodes suddenly notices what's happening, and begins to mime that there's been some kind of misunderstanding--no, no it's not that, it's definitely not what you're thinking.
The day after I spent some time digging up what I could of Writing on Professional Wrestling. There was that pro wrestling class at MIT, which had a blog, and I read that all the way through. A few university presses have put out essay compendiums on the subject, and there are a few pieces scattershot on the web. Most of the discourse, as with any academic writing on pop culture, is largely a self-serving defense of the subject as worthy of academic inquiry. Roland Barthes. Hypermasculinity. Revisions of Masculinity in the Post World War II era. Wrestling as Spectacle. Role of the Mask! Authenticity vs. Inauthenticity! Wrestling Is Sort of Like Pornography! Sexism. Wrestling As Modern Epic Storytelling. Heroes and Villains. Everything I've read keeps an arm's length from the subject matter, and my guess is that most of them have never liked pro wrestling anyway. For the sake of being "critical discourse," the critical discourse on professional wrestling fundamentally misunderstands the humor and appeal of professional wrestling.
I didn't fear Papa Shango because he is playing on stereotypes of non-Christian religions and a continental fear of witchcraft as handed down to us through children's stories. Rather, I feared Papa Shango because he is an enormous man who paints his face white and carries around a skull with smoke coming out of it. I didn't love Big Boss Man because he is an archetype of the Spirit of the Law, and I didn't hate the Mountie because is an archetype of the law's Letter. Actually, I loved Big Boss Man because, for such a ridiculously fat man, he was pretty fucking nimble, and he used to do this thing when he would slide into the ring on his belly, sorta like a penguin. I loved Big Boss Man because, for a good six months, I had trouble putting on my shirt, on account of all the rug burn I suffered imitating him.
Aside from the occasional riff on Mankind, you'll never read anything that concedes hey, maybe these wrestlers knew what they were doing--that maybe the humor wasn't so unintentional. For all the talk of suspension of disbelief, you'll never read anything that has the courage to buy into the gimmick a little--to get past the fact that the commentators "serve a key function in disseminating important storyline information to the audience" and into the nitty-gritty: Why is the stare down Macho Man's favorite part of the match? What was going through Jim Ross's brain as he had to narrate the Owen Hart fall? Who played the best Doink?
Since the match I have found myself watching about an hour of WWF on Youtube every day--matches I remember mostly, but others to fill in the cracks too. As a closed and profitable and fantastical and self-perpetuating universe, the WWF in the early/mid-90s remains deeply fascinating to me--not just culturally but aesthetically.
LADDER MATCH is an ongoing effort to understand why.