Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Watching Wrestling

Lately, I've been spending considerable time indulging in one of the more outlandish pass-times of my younger years: watching wrestling. What can I say? Partial employment leaves ample time to over analyse things that seem like a complete waste of time. And pouring over old wrestling videos could certainly be qualified as such. Nevertheless, I suspect there may be something more to this nostalgia of nonsense. And at the risk of trying to intellectualise the unintellectual, I'm going to try and explain why.

For the benefit of readers who haven't experienced the madness of professional wrestling, allow me to provide a brief synopsis. Professional wrestling is a hybrid of athletics and theatrical performance in which any number of wrestlers engage in a contest that is pre-determined. The modern form of professional wrestling, popularised by the American based WWE, is an amalgamation of various forms from all over the world, some of which trace their origins to the 19th century. Since a boom in the 1980's, professional wrestling has evolved into a storyline driven phenomenon formatted for mass consumption via television.

I started watching wrestling in 1994, just as the WWE (or WWF as it was then known) was gearing up for its annual showpiece, Wrestlemania. In those days wrestling played up to the traditional struggle between “good guys” and “bad guys”. The former were characters with whom the audience had a natural empathy. They played by the rules, promoted wholesome living and were always portrayed as the superior wrestlers. Bad guys were dishonest, manipulative and usually relied on cheating to win. It doesn't take a genius to work out why this format was so successful. On a base level, it reflected the conflict between what life should be and what it actually is.

The main event of Wrestlemania X pitted the 500lb Yokozuna, a sumo wrestler whose waving of the Japanese flag stoked the flames of western xenophobia, against the hero character of Bret “Hitman” Hart. Having been beaten by his rogue brother Owen earlier in the evening, Bret was the perfect underdog. For most of the match, Yokozuna seemed to pound him into oblivion. Watching on, I was desperate for the hero to pull off the “unlikeliest” of victories over the villain. Imagine then my elation when Bret scored the 1-2-3 after Yokozuna, while poising himself for the deadly “banzai drop”, suddenly lost balance and fell from the ropes.

When I look back now, I can't believe how ridiculous this particular stunt looks. Yet Bret's post match celebration, in which he is joined by all his “good guy” friends and a host of invited celebrities is a little more interesting. The exhausted Hitman can barely stand, but with the WWF championship belt over his shoulder, all is right with the world again. I'll leave it to the ambiguities of human emotion to explain why, after eighteen years, something about this scene still appeals to me.

Yet, even at the age of eight, I was well aware that Bret Hart and Yokozuna were actually just actors playing out a convenient illusion. But it didn't matter. The ability of the wrestling audience to temporarily suspend disbelief is without equal. Watch any wrestling match and you will see people of all ages, genders, races and creeds embrace the spectacle with maximum enthusiasm. This really does work.

In fact, a few months after Wrestlemania X, I was so disturbed by the prospect of Bret losing the WWF belt to his "evil" brother that I prayed that it wouldn't happen. Not in a metaphorical sense. I remember actually being at Mass, receiving holy communion and begging God to ensure Bret's eventual victory. If ever there was evidence that the WWF was doing a good job, this was it. Though on that particular incident, they may have had some help from the Catholic Church.

After a year or so, the allure of wrestling started to wane. As it happened, I was so disillusioned after Bret lost the belt to Shawn Michaels, a former “bad guy” who had been positioned as the new hero, that I simply stopped watching. For me, that wasn't the way it was supposed to be.

In my teenage years, I tuned back in and found the WWF had become a much more violent spectacle in which a beer guzzling redneck, Stone Cold Steve Austin, had become the new favourite. This coincided with an era when the WWF enjoyed it's biggest commercial success to date. Consequentially, the wrestling world had become a lot more secure with opening up its workings to fans' long held curiosity.

This led to my viewing of a documentary which followed Bret Hart's last year in the WWF. Wrestling with Shadows still ranks as one of the most interesting films I have ever seen. Whilst mainly dealing with Bret's struggle to keep pace with the WWF's new direction, it also uncovers an even stranger backstage world where the line between fiction and reality becomes remarkably vague.

I haven't had much time for wrestling in the intervening years. Hyper communication via the world wide web has left wrestling's previously guarded secrets exposed for all to see. In turn, it is much harder for fans to abandon the knowledge that it's all just entertainment. 

I could also put my indifference towards the modern WWE down to the fact that in my ever expanding “maturity”, I've simply outgrown the senselessness of it all. But the fact that I've been spending so much time trying to reconnect with a world where right and wrong is so cut and dry seems to suggest otherwise.