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I will be 54 years old on January 14. Okay, I got a few days ahead of myself in the headline. Nonetheless, I certainly cannot be the only fairly intellectual college grad of my generation - with a B.A. degree in Special Education, and a minor in Abnormal Psychology - married without human children, who is still addicted to watching grown men bounce around in their underwear.
Right? I can’t use “My kids love it” as an excuse.
This head-scratching habit started so long ago, in 1972 ...
The giant, wild-haired “good guy” (I wasn’t yet a “mark,” so “babyfaces and heels” were not in my vernacular) was wrestling some shorter skinny guy in the WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation). What a mismatch! Andre the Giant, as expected, won the bout, and I couldn’t stop booing! Though he was cheered by everyone else, he infuriated me!
The match was so unfair! He was over two-feet taller than his opponent, and two hundred pounds heavier!
Though the crowd loved him, I could barely wait until the following Saturday for that “dirty son of a bitch” (had my mouth washed out with soap that day; even back then I could never hold back on my feelings) to watch him get what was coming to him. This was not justice. He took advantage of the other guy, the weak guy ... someone I could relate to due to a host of medical issues related to severe asthma.
Give me a minute, there.
Andre missed the following week’s show, surely for some nefarious reason, but I was equally incensed with that episode’s other “good guys,” primarily the World Heavyweight Champion Bruno Sammartino. He was quick. He was stocky but had muscles. He was in great shape with amazing punches and the crowd was even louder for him than for Andre.
Forget it. I was apoplectic. Bruno took advantage of yet another scrub. What kind of fighting was this, and why were the fans loving them so much?
Maybe a colorful bad guy would return next week and turn good so I could boo him too! Nah, that didn’t happen.
And then ... life.
My medical battles were tough. I was severely asthmatic and living in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. I was raised, to then, in the Sheepshead Projects, a housing system for low-income earners. I visited the evil Dr. Mercsimer (a close approximation) once a week for allergy shots, and also the hospital with some frequency for breathing-related treatments.
My late dad and my mom elected to, effectively, save my life. They uprooted my two brothers and I to Colorado, a better climate for asthmatics like myself. My condition was so poor that at seven years old I was placed in a wheelchair while waiting for the taxi, then put in the chair again once we arrived at the airport.
We made it to Aurora. Almost immediately, I felt better. Healthier. I was able to breathe. Regular doctors’ appointments continued, but I became active. I shoveled snow for $5 a driveway, and when it wasn’t snowing I returned shopping carts for ten cents a pop. I became an avid comic book collector with that new cash, and made some great friends.
I’ll save you some trouble. My personal psychology to then was not rocket science: I wanted to be strong. I loved pro wrestling, as those athletes (and characters) were strong, and quick. So unlike me at the time (and also in the passage of time to now, but alas). When we moved to Colorado, I replaced that quick obsession with comic books, because with increasing strength I was feeling like a superhero myself.
And I forgot about the wrestling. My new friends said it was all fake anyway. They were “exhibitions,” one of the parents said, not real matches. “Listen to me,” the parent said, “I don’t let my son watch it. If these guys really hit each other with unprotected fists, they’d never get up.” I was shocked! Dismayed! And yet happy, in a roundabout way. Bruno let me down! I knew he wasn’t any good anyway. Remember, he never had fair fights!
I had no room for that “fake stuff” anymore. I was validated, to a large degree. The good guys were the phoniest of all. At least the bad guys were angry. Maybe they were pissed off for the same reasons I was, but they couldn’t convince their promoters to let ‘er rip. On TV, they would only show matches where the good guy looked strong, so the fans could pay bigger money to see the better fights in Madison Square Garden. I came from the projects, and even then I knew people paid hard-earned money to see these matches. I didn’t want anyone to be cheated! I really did want to be a good guy in real life. But a real good guy, who would never take advantage.
I decided to fight for "Truth, Justice and the American Way." I wanted to be the next Superman.
And besides ... the week before I snuck into the living room and turned on the Colorado television to see if anything changed in that other underwear and spandex universe. Instead, I found Felix the Cat at the time and station where wrestling was supposed to be. It was an easy transition. Wrestling didn’t belong on my TV anyway. I was an asthmatic kid feeling better and feeling his oats. One day, I promised myself, I’ll lift weights and get muscles too. Screw the wrestlers; Metropolis beckoned. Or Batman’s Gotham City, one or the other.
Best-laid plans. While again turning the channels on a Saturday afternoon, maybe a month later ...
There it was again. Wrestling. This time, however, it seemed to be a different ring, with an all-different cast. The bad guy, Superstar Billy Graham was the most muscular and colorful guy I’d ever seen. I loved him; I wanted to look just like him. The potbellied Crusher and his cousin Dick The Bruiser, were beer-swilling good guys, and man were they cool! Mad Dog Vachon, a whole other mess, turned good, and helped Crusher when he was being double-teamed! Holy f’n shit! My allegiances were changing ... but wait! I wasn’t supposed to be watching this garbage anymore.
I made a special deal with myself. I would watch it in secret; I’d go underground. There was nothing wrong with reading comic books and watching this whole other thing called “AWA” (American Wrestling Association). I got this. If wrestling was make-believe, then it was make-believe. It was also hellaciously entertaining.
I just wouldn’t tell my friends, is all.
From there, the obsession took hold. We moved back to Brooklyn after four years away and a newly-diagnosed clean bill of health. I was fine. I caught up with the WWWF and, to my surprise, became Bruno’s biggest fan. He made the fans smile, and I decided there was nothing wrong with that reality. Andre too. And even Superstar Graham was there too! I was in hog heaven. I didn’t care much for the occasional midget special attractions, or back then the womens’ matches, both of which seemed to veer on exploitation to me, but now I would never miss a show. Saturday nights at midnight on WOR Channel Nine was mine!
Manna, of sorts.
The years went on. The WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation) eventually morphed into the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) and finally the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) so the other WWF, the World Wildlife Fund - which initiated legal action for control of the anagram - would no longer send the ambulance chasers over complaints of unfair trade practices.
Spanning back and forth through the decades, with the advent of cable television, I caught up with the then-NWA (National Wrestling Alliance), which introduced me to the great Ric Flair, and Animal and Hawk, The Road Warriors, and ultimately morphed into the late WCW (World Championship Wrestling), as aired by Ted Turner. There were numerous other, smaller organizations that variously thrived in the 70s-90s. Territories, most eventually usurped by Vince McMahon’s 80s and 90s expansion. Jerry Lawler was the king of Memphis Championship Wrestling. Loved it. I was also particularly riveted with the ultra-violent ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling), and the family-run WCCW (World Class Championship Wrestling), where the Von Erich brothers ruled the Texas territory.
The famed Monday Night War represented the mainstream explosion of pro wrestling in the late 90s, which concluded when Vince McMahon’s then-WWF purchased the rival that nearly brought its long-running organization to its knees, Turner’s WCW.
As an adult, I began to get to know some of “the boys.” I supplemented my Special Education teaching income writing for many of the popular newsstand professional wrestling magazines at the time. I did that for a period of four years, until “retiring” for a shot at more writerly respectability (novels, films, etc.)
I developed a great respect for these athletes. And make no mistake, they are athletes. Veritably living on planes traveling from state to state and country to country, having to perform in front of sometimes monster crowds ... the styles, and the business, have evolved. The now-WWE is a publicly-traded company. “Kayfabe,” the term representing the old school maintenance of industry-wide secrets, ended in the 90s. Pro wrestling is now, openly, “entertainment.”
And so what? They really may not punch each other after all, but understand this. Many of the boys have passed away at an early age. The rigors of schedule have caused more than a few to fall into substance abuse, and an early grave. Of the four aforementioned Von Erich Brothers - at one period arguably the biggest stars in the business (next to icons of Japan, Mexico’s Lucha Libre, and Vince’s 1980’s run led by the U.S.’s biggest icon, Hulk Hogan) - one passed of a drug overdose (to save face, David Von Erich’s passing was recorded in the family “mythology” as “acute enteritis” while wrestling in Japan), and three (Michael, Chris, and Kerry) committed suicide. Numerous others in that now-extinct league had also prematurely passed. In the WWF, over a dozen of their top 1980s superstars died before their 60th birthday. In the latter WWE, Chris Benoit’s murder-suicide (himself, his wife Nancy, and their young son) made international headlines; steroids became a convenient excuse.
The so-called WWF Attitude Era, led by Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock (with massively-popular support by Mick Foley, Degeneration X and The Undertaker), was a highly-controversial period of sexist and violent angles, taking a page from ECW’s playbook, and the organization’s greatest period of commercial success. Eric Bischoff, who ran WCW for Turner, incorrectly believed that the WWF would lose their advertisers, and would be out of business imminently. The opposite happened when WCW creative, for all intents, rested on their own highly-rated laurels and got lazy.
The pro wrestling road is fraught with temptations. Cynical, bored crowds demand more action. They believe the stunts must be more dangerous. The flying that much more risky. Higher and higher falls. Thankfully, the modern-day WWE has their limits. These limits are sometimes ignored (or scripted still, for box office on a marquee show), but for the most part, the wrestler’s health has become priority. Drug tests, controversial though they may be in terms of efficiency, are randomly implemented.
There are no “perfect systems” in this circus-like universe, but it’s better than it’s been.
Anyway ... I’m going long. It’s time to wrap. To answer an expected question, in terms of legitimate sport, boxing is my be-all and end-all. Has been for years. I watch UFC, but it’s not must-see viewing for me.
And, last night I watched RAW, WWE’s flagship program. I subscribe to the WWE Network, and I’ve been a subscriber to David Melter’s Wrestling Observer newsletter, which effectively broke Kayfabe years prior to its official unraveling, since the 80s. I’m developing a pro wrestling-based dramatic television series. Tonight, I’m watching Smackdown. I even reverted a bit to my old anti-establishment stance. Maybe I was a pioneer, rooting against those we’ve been programmed to love, as so many fans are now with me: John Cena and Roman Reigns get on my last nerve also.
I guess it just is what it is.