Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Squared Circle - Why I Loved Pro Wrestling

When I was a child, Saturday mornings meant three things: cinnamon toast, cartoons, and professional wrestling. This was long before the days of the WWE. When I was a boy, professional wrestling was locally produced, and what you watched on TV depended on the "territory" you lived in. Growing up in central Kentucky, I lived in what was called "the Memphis territory," a promotion run by Jerry Jarrett. The big stars were folks like Superstar Bill Dundee, Handsome Jimmy Valiant, Dirty Dutch Mantell, and the biggest of them all, Jerry "the King" Lawler.

Every Saturday morning I got a chill when the music from "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (the 2001 Space Odyssey theme) began to play, and a statue of ancient Greek wrestlers began to rotate on the screen. "Memphis Championship Wrestling" was filmed live in a TV studio, and the storylines established each week set the stage for the live appearances the company would make around the territory. For me, this meant monthly trips to Rupp Arena on Thursday nights, where I sat in the cheap seats but got more than my money's worth in entertainment.

During this time an "outlaw" promotion formed in Lexington (meaning it did not work within the established parameters of the territorial system). Its show came on late at night on Saturdays, at 11:30 on Channel 62 (yes, in the old UHF days!), which made it possible to begin and end the day with wrestling! Since it taped at the WTVQ studio, many times my friends and I went over and sat in on a live taping, so close to the action that my knees were often under the ring apron. Looking back, I had no idea at the time what an array of talent this little promotion had assembled. I would have never imagined that in just a couple of years, Cowboy Boy Orton Jr would be in the main even at the first Wrestlemania, Ronnie Garvin would be NWA World Champion, and that "Macho Man" Randy Savage was going to be in what many consider the greatest match of all time against Ricky Steamboat in Wrestlemania 3. 

My championship belt, made with vinyl,
shoe-box cardboard, aluminum foil, and a labelmaker.
My friends across the street, the Bush's, had a huge enclosed front porch, with a kind of carpet that resembled soft Astroturf. So of course that became our ring for countless matches. We went down to a local carpet place and got materials to make our own championship belts. They owned a video camera (pretty exotic for the time), and we would film interviews before our big matches. It was awesome. 

Now if you are still reading, my guess is that you were a pro-wrestling fan as well. Notice I spoke in the past-tense. I don't follow it closely any more, preferring instead to collect DVDs or youtube clips from the good ole days. But perhaps it is possible that you are still reading because you are mystified how anyone could be a fan of this stuff. After all, "It's fake!"

My usual response to a friend who used the "F" word was to say, "Let me body slam you on the floor and we will see how fake it is!" After all, whatever you may think about the legitimacy of the sport, the action taking place in the ring involved real bumps and bruises. 

It is true that pro wrestling matches have predetermined finishes. And it is also true that most of the violence is really only an illusion. But the same is true of TV shows and movies, yet no one disparages Law and Order because "It's Fake!" I am sure there were a few fans who did actually believe the action was completely legit (my grandfather being one of them!). But as I once heard Jerry Jarrett explain, the goal of the wrestlers was to be real enough that it permitted fans to engage in a momentary suspension of reality that allowed them to enjoy the sport as if it was completely "real." He said he guessed that only about 10% of fans were like my granddad, and I would agree. I never thought the action in the ring was "real," but I often got carried away by the performance, which did indeed evoke real emotions.

For me, professional wrestling was a dramatic production. There were characters, good guys ("babyfaces", or "faces" for short) and bad guys ("heels").  There were plots (storylines), and the greatest wrestlers worked hard to tell a story in the ring (frankly, a lost art nowadays). A great match could take you on a rollercoaster of emotions. But instead of this drama playing out on a stage, it took place within a very physical, very athletic context. The old cliche that pro wrestling is a "soap opera for men" is  not far from the truth.

For years those in the wrestling business never publicly acknowledged what most of its fans already knew - that it was "sports entertainment." And some of my friends who did not understand my obsession would point this out - "why don't they just admit it's fake?" But if the point is to temporarily suspend reality, you cannot just say "well of course it's fake" in such a casual, cavalier manner.I always enjoyed it when wrestlers being interviewed in the media steadfastly denied that wrestling was fake - I thought it was hilarious that they would do so with such a straight face, greatly annoying the incredulous reporter, and as a fan, it made me feel like I was in on a fabulous practical joke. 

From time to time on Saturdays I am going to post some thoughts about the great performance art that was old school pro wrestling. If you have similar memories, I'd love to hear them! And each week I will post a great old time match - here's one with my favorite all time wrestler, Jerry "the King" Lawler!

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