Cry, eat, sleep, poop, crawl, walk, fall, walk, run, fall, cry, grow up, get married, toil, spend, save, sweat, get a dog, teach the dog, clean the dog’s poop, make a baby, have a baby, teach the baby, clean the baby’s poop, get a house, move to another house, marry off the kids, get old, travel, reminisce about kids, see grandkids, die, come back as a dog, if you are lucky. That’s not a bad lifecycle for a U.S. male. Could be a lot worse if I was born in nearly any other country where 90 percent of those things listed could be considered luxuries or blessings from God. But a lot happens between the crying, the growing up, the babies, and the grandbabies. Sometimes we dream, fantasize, goof off, aspire, or zone out. This tends to happen in married life, not because married life is necessarily mundane, but because the saving, the spending, and the poop cleaning can sometimes breed a certain kind of tedium. A restlessness can build within married man’s ribs, something lurking beneath the surface when life blurs into a three-hour car ride through Kansas. Like a child putting underwear on his head and a towel around his neck, I want to be a super hero. I yearn to put on a mask and become someone else, someone bigger, stronger. For these moments, we have Monday nights. We have pro wrestling.
A husband acting stupid holds a special place in mankind’s history. The annals of dumbassery are filled with dumbass men doing dumbass things. We’ve got 40-year-old men dedicating hours to fantasy football—a pursuit as embarrassingly stupid to pursue as it is to explain. Yes, I’ve had a team forever. I’ve tried to explain it to my wife and lasted about 47 seconds before crawling into a pit of shame. “You see, honey, my friends and I meet on the internet and pick the best football players for our imaginary team and we play imaginary games and then…” And then I stop as my wife turns away with that look, the one that screams, “I married this nerd?” If you’re married, you know. If you’re not, you will. But this isn’t even the height of my dork life, not even close. My video games, my Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Dune novel collections, or my music library—too dorky for words but if you’re following me so far, it’s a safe assumption that Rush makes more than one appearance on the iPod—aren’t even a flicker of light compared to the raging inferno of nerdiness that is my Monday night habit. Oh, it’s shameful all right. So much so it must be hidden from my wife’s sight. I’ve lost enough of her respect between the saving, toiling, and poop-cleaning duties.
When I watch WWE Raw, it’s hidden. I make sure the football game is the other channel on the remote control in case someone walks in on me, lest they know that a grown-ass man still watches other grown-ass men beat each other with chairs, steel steps, and other props. Just like De Niro, if I feel the heat coming from around the corner, zap, back to Monday Night Football. Wrasslin’ slapped a full nelson on my soul a long time ago, and it’s still latched on tight. Something about the show, the spectacular spectacle, speaks to me, even against my better logic. A young man enters the arena, hears the crowd, and becomes a god, immortal, if only for a few minutes. I close my eyes and I am that god. It's a good feeling.
Before I go on too much further, it’s important to know that, after about three or seven Miller High Lifes—the number is not important here, though the ratio between the number of beers and willingness to divulge embarrassing information is pretty much 1:1—I admitted all this to my wife, but with a caveat—one gigantic caveat. “Honey, I still watch pro wrestling. I sneak it in on the sides. What’s more, everything I’ve probably ever learned about drama, English, story telling, and performance is from pro wrestling.” See, honey, it’s for my work! Guess what happened next? If you guessed the look, then a winner is you. But there was genuine, piteous love in that look, which is why married life is pretty great. A loving wife can take your dorky faults and dismiss them, letting you wallow in your own nerdiness as long as it doesn’t interfere with the saving, the toiling, and the plans for grandkids.
I couldn’t tell you the exact moment when I first started watching pro wrestling. When I was a kid in the early 80s, I didn’t have too much to do on Saturdays. The cartoons normally ended around 10 a.m., leaving the day’s remainder, which should’ve been used cleaning my room or learning phonics, but was instead spent watching more TV. There wasn’t much on after Transformers or Mr. T, but there was WWF Superstars. Every show started with the same stern warning, “What you are about to see are the actions of highly trained professionals. Do not try this at home!” Oh, you know I was hooked at that point. That was the 80s equivalent of buying a tape with a “Parental Advisory-Explicit Lyrics” sticker. The show itself, however, wasn’t special. It featured plenty of “squash” matches, where a star would be put over by a bum in order to look impressive. These monsters were supposed to so impress you by beating up the overmatched no-name that when he cut his promo stating, “Greg Valentine, I’m coming for you, April 23, the Spectrum, be there if you ain’t no sissy,” that you might be interested enough to drop $35 for a ticket to see if he really could kick Valentine’s ass. King Kong Bundy, Big John Studd, Junkyard Dog, Koko B. Ware, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff, “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase—these were the guys with whom I spent my Saturdays. Later, in the mid-80s, we got cable, which meant the National Wresting Alliance from Atlanta on TBS. Ric Flair, The Four Horsemen, The Minnesota Wrecking Crew, The Road Warriors, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, Lex Luger, Jim Cornette, The Midnight Express dominated the southern scene. ESPN showed the Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association with Greg Gagne, the Von Erichs, The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express (not to be confused with the Midnight Express), Larry Zbyszko, and Baron Von Raschke. These are just a few, the ones that stuck in my brain.
The astute nerd among us probably notices one exceptionally glaring omission in my list—Hulk Hogan. The former Terry Bollea was bigger than Jesus in the 80s, and not just in terms of physique. Working for the World Wrestling Federation, then the only true nationwide wrestling company, Hogan was bigger than life in a bigger than life decade. Hulkamania ran wild in a blur of banana yellow and crimson red. He never lost. He always triumphed over evil. If the devious King Kong Bundy got the upper hand with a kick to the groin or an eye-poke, you just knew the Hulkster would draw strength from the millions of Hulkamaniacs to make sure goodness prevailed. Telling kids to “Train, say your prayers, eat your vitamins, and believe in yourself,” people followed him in droves. The apex came in 1987 when 93,173 (allegedly) filled the Pontiac Silverdome outside Detroit for Wrestlemania III—an attendance record for an indoor entertainment event that stood for 23 years—to watch Hulk Hogan body slam Andre the Giant and become the world’s most popular performer.
But I didn’t see any of it. In fact, I never really got to see Hulk wrestle at all. Back then, the whole idea was to get pay-per-view buys and ticket sales, which meant Hulk never, ever wrestled on free TV. To see the WWF’s biggest star, you had to pay. So for a kid like me, who couldn’t afford a $10 t-shirt let alone a $50 pay-per-view buy, Hulk became a paper champion. I could watch Tito Santana deliver his flying forearm or see The Iron Sheik force some fool to submit to his dreaded camel-clutch on free TV, but that blonde, balding punk would just say a couple words about the next show or his next opponent, then go on his way. Everyone else wore Hulk T-shirts, but I watched the other guys. I just didn’t get him. Hulk served as the hero, the epitome of the American Way for millions upon millions of Hulkamaniacs, but not for me. How could he be my hero if I couldn’t afford to see his magic and experience the charisma?
So I watched causally, but one day it became more than casual. I still remember when I fully marked out. The National Wrestling Alliance, since rebranded World Championship Wrestling, decided to use TBS’s superstation status to put on a pay-per-view quality card known as Clash of the Champions. The main event—April 2, 1989—had months of build-up and featured world heavyweight champion Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat versus Ric Flair in a best two-of-three falls match for the title. Steamboat played the babyface, or hero, in a much more modest manner than Hogan, which provided the perfect foil to the utter late-80s bombast of the platinum-haired Nature Boy. Flair would perform these breathless promos of how he was “a stylin’, profilin’, jet flyin’, limousine ridin’, kiss stealin’, wheelin’ n’ dealin’, son-of-a-gun, whooooooo!” while flanked by four or five women with Aqua Net hair and shoulder-padded dresses. In contrast, Steamboat, dressed in a karate gi, would deliver stilted monologues centered on his humility, “You wear a Rolex? Well, I wear a Timex.” But it never came off corny because Steamboat’s amazing athleticism and modest demeanor allowed him to show a greater range of emotions. An incredible in-ring performer, Steamboat made you believe that he felt pain, that he could lose, forcing him to delve into the deepest parts of his soul to overcome evil. Unlike Hogan, whose character was invincible, Steamboat could play a vulnerable babyface that needed to tap every reserve of intestinal fortitude to prevail. Like a great play, the match unfurled slowly before the action intensified. It lasted nearly an hour—unthinkable by today’s ADD standards—allowing Steamboat and Flair to methodically build the drama and tell the story. Flair slaps Steamboat in an effort to intimidate him, Steamboat slaps him right back. Interminably they exchange holds, each getting the upper hand on the other. Flair gets the first fall, Steamboat the second with an incredibly arcane maneuver, the double arm chicken-wing, pinning both of Flair’s arms behind his back by the elbows and lifting him in the air, forcing a submission. To me, this was better than any movie, any song, any poem every performed. Eleven-year-old Tim—scrawny, glasses-wearing Tim—was enthralled.
“But it’s fake, Tim!” Fake? You mean Gladiator isn’t real? There really isn’t a Vito Corleone? Rambo really didn’t kill all those people? I’m not supposed to jump back when Indiana Jones goes into the snake pit? Bruce Lee didn’t really kick the asses of both Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Chuck Norris? George Clooney didn’t get the girl? Superman didn’t save the world? Justice is never done? Evil always wins because good is dumb? You don’t get it, do you? This is drama—the ultimate climax following months of pressure and turmoil. The final fight to determine who will prevail—the Dragon or the Dirtiest Player in the Game. I know Romeo and Juliet are going to die, I know Sonny’s going to get it at the toll booth, and I know Keanu Reeves didn’t learn kung fu until Lawrence Fishburne put a chip in his brain. Just because I know these things are going to happen doesn’t make it any less special if it’s executed well. You know the roller coaster is going to stop and start at the same place. There’s no magic in that on its surface. The drama is in the ascent, the breakneck speed, the G forces, the loops, the turns, dips, dives, pushes, and pulls. Christ, don’t you like roller coasters? Are you even American? You socialist.
In true wrestling fashion, the match ended in controversy. Tied at one fall each, Steamboat again applied the chicken-wing on Flair, but fell back. He held on as Flair’s shoulders hit the mat. The referee counted three, but “was unaware” that Flair’s foot slipped under the ropes, which “by rule” would have stopped the count. Despite the inconclusive ending, I realized I saw something special, despite my mother’s eye-rolls and my dad’s sheepish grins. Like when the lights come on in the theater during the closing credits of a great movie, I exhaled. I bought in for the full hour, feeling the bumps and leaping at the near falls. The two wrestlers told a story—replaying the immortal battles between good and evil, of arrogance and humility—on a little screen broadcast from a small southern arena. Steamboat, a babyface to the end, realized what happened and offered Flair a rematch for the belt, knowing that winning under such controversy wasn’t really a victory. The rematch would take place, of course, on a pay-per-view card. The lifecycle continued in the world of wrestling.
The game started to change as the decade turned. McMahon ended the charade in February 1989—about two months before Steamboat-Flair—declaring pro wrestling “sports entertainment” and telling the New Jersey state Senate that the outcomes were predetermined. While most people already knew writers determined a wrestling match’s outcome, this marked the first time it was publically admitted by someone in the business. For more than a century wrestlers strictly adhered to kayfabe—the act. The wrestlers not only played the bad guy in the ring, but also in public as well so fans knew it was “authentic” when they paid $30 to boo him at the arena. But this admission forced a change. The good guy/bad guy dynamic proved almost pointless now since they didn’t have to embody everything the role called for.
The lines blurred even more when Ted Turner, of TBS fame, purchased World Championship Wrestling, making it the first nationwide wrestling organization to directly compete with McMahon’s WWF. Flush with money, Turner started purchasing the best talent the WWF had, names like “Macho Man” Randy Savage and, most notably, Hulk Hogan. Then the unthinkable happened in 1996, my freshman year at the University of Minnesota: Hogan turned heel. Children wept openly as parents stared, gobsmacked. Telling the fans, in true heel fashion, that they didn’t appreciate his talent and drawing power, Hogan turned on his friend, Savage, and aligned himself with other bad guys to create a New World Order of wrestling. The fans were outraged—and thrilled. Hogan traded his yellow and red for a villain’s black. Soon, fans followed suit. Many booed him; many more wore black “n.W.o.” shirts in support and appreciation of the “swerve”—or drastic departure of the expected story line. The WWF soon followed suit with its Attitude era, turning up the profanity and sex while creating anti-heroes like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock. Austin swore, drank, and routinely beat up his “boss” with chairs and bedpans (don’t ask). But he was a face; the fans loved him and saw him as the embodiment of blue-collar vengeance, assaulting the corporate owner for his arrogance and abuse of wealth and power.
Of course, it was the late-90s. The economy hummed along and with no wars or recessions on the horizon, it seemed okay to take a shot at authority. After all, we’re feeling good about ourselves so you might as well sing when you’re winning, right? Not like the 80s, the Reagan years. Money flowed, but for a lot of us, especially us wrestling fans, we waited for our shot at the new prosperity. TV spots about Wall Street, Mercedes-Benzes, and cocaine seemed like another world while the trickle-down backlash clubbed us pretty good. My dad sold sneakers and tennis racquets for five years in my youth, preparing to takeover the neighborhood sporting goods store. The store’s owner, however, screwed my dad out of his money, getting him to sink his savings into the business with the lie that one day he might become co-owner. Dad never had a shot. Broke, with two kids and a third on the way, he worked one year at at a family-run sporting good shop in downtown Wilmington, Delaware for minimum wage in an effort to stay in the game and keep that entrepreneurial flame, that hope of ownership, alive. The owner was a good guy, but couldn’t offer what Dad needed. Dad later turned to selling cars, which he did for about 20 years right up to his death in 2006. Sure, some people made lots of cash in the 80s, but a lot more were like Dad, steamrolled by this capitalistic juggernaut with no recourse, no way to fight back. French philosopher Roland Barthes said, “Wrestling fans certainly experience a kind of intellectual pleasure in seeing the moral mechanism function so perfectly.” Maybe we needed a Hulk back then, someone who always stood tall and prevailed over any sneaky underhandedness, any cheating, any one trying to screw you over. Someone telling us to say our prayers, train, believe in ourselves in the face of a seemingly monolithic power of greed, naked financiering, and capitalism felt good, I suppose. Maybe I didn’t get Hulk because I didn’t think he’d come through for me, like a poor kid at Christmas.
In college, before I washed out in ’99, I watched what became known as the Monday Night Wars as the WWF and WCW battled for ratings, soaking in everything. I have fully become a “smart mark”—someone not only geeky enough to be in on the joke but so absolutely nerdy that he can appreciate good swerves from bad ones. This coincided with the launch of my sportswriting career—even more nerdiness! Born with a Philadelphia fan’s cynicism and now armed with knowing how to build a story thanks to wrestling, I took to it quick. Old-time sportswriter Grantland Rice called the profession “myth-making.” He must have been a wrestling fan. Before television, the three most popular sports in America were horse racing, boxing, and baseball. For me, these three sports remain the most fun to write about because of their innate, pro-wrestling style drama. Baseball is about the pitcher and batter, boxing is two men locked in combat with nowhere to run, and horse racing is about the strength of will between animals. And the rivalries! Yankees-Red Sox, Affirmed-Alydar, Ali-Frazier, and so it goes. I think Steamboat-Flair deserves a spot up there. Grantland would agree with me. If not him, then Red Smith definitely would've had my back. Or Frank Deford.
So here I am now. Married with two kids, thankful to still be working. The WWF, since rebranded World Wrestling Entertainment, now just WWE, eventually bought out Ted Turner’s company. WWE now shows at least three different shows during the week. Men and women remain more than willing to, as Flair would say, “walk that aisle.” The greatest rush in all the world is the bodily reaction to a crowd’s reaction. To have your own personal theme music play in time to highlights of you on a TV screen the size of a three-story McMansion, to have tens of thousands loving or hating you at your whim, to command the spotlight. It never ends because the battle between good and evil never ends, and we will always be in need of new heroes. The show always goes on because it’s not a story arc; it’s a story circle.
While currently not “champion,” John Cena serves as the company’s number-one face. The biggest star in the WWE, beloved by parents and kids, Cena is the modern-day Hogan. He almost always wins, but when he loses, it’s solely by underhanded means and Cena will exact his revenge. He fights for what is right, never gives up, never swears, and never turns his back on his friends. Hustle. Loyalty. Respect. As a nation, we’re in the midst of two wars and people are losing jobs left and right. Maybe we need a face like Cena again, much like the one the Hulkster played 25 years ago. I wonder what Barthes would say about that? He called words signs and said our mind plays unconscious games with them, creating infinite definitions and pictures. Maybe Hogan, Austin, and Cena are signs. Our minds can create infinite stories and characters, but we always return to the hero and villain, the babyface and the heel.
At its core, though, pro wrestling is theater of the fantastic and absurd, hence the sneaking of a grown-ass man. Hellacious slams, crimson masks, jobbers, faces, heels, marks, smart marks, spots, high spots, bumps, falls, swerves, kayfabe, works, shoots, and screwjobs litter its lexicon. Will I be watching this when I’m 40? 50? Old as hell, traveling with my wife, visiting the grandkids, watching the show continue for its 135th consecutive season? Maybe. It is part of the human psyche that needs to be explored, exploited, and mocked. People will find new ways to create characters, perform stunts, and hit people with steel chairs and trashcans. It is immortal. Maybe I want to be in touch with that immortal force, and have some fun with it.
Barthes killed it. There is something in my brain that wants to see morality work the way it should. From a very little age, Mommy and Daddy taught me right from wrong. Doing the right thing led to hugs while doing the wrong thing led to a whuppin'. That’s morality, as clear as glacial ice. In the adult world, though, morality becomes a character deficiency, a lacking of killer instinct. Nice guys finish last, the poor bring it on themselves, and addiction can be conquered by force of personal will rather than admitting weakness and the need for help. Success is determined by how much you can consume rather than how many you can lift up. When my daughters look at me, I want them to see a man who retained his integrity in a collapsing world, regardless of paycheck size. However, I also want them to be fed, clothed, and healthy, which costs money. On Monday nights, though, I can put my personal moral pressures aside and put on my mask and cape, and pretend to be a superhero. For those two hours, goodness battles evil and makes it tap out, submitting to a cosmic double-arm chicken-wing, and I exhale, just like my 11-year-old self, before morality became muddled.