Posted: Monday July 17, 2006 3:07PM; Updated: Monday July 17, 2006 4:05PM
One day soon after I was reading the local sports section and I read that while driving between venues, two wrestlers who had spent the better part of a year feuding (I believe it was Nikolai Volkov and Hacksaw Jim Duggan, though the Iron Sheik might also have been involved) were involved in a traffic incident. While that wasn't surprising in and of itself -- as big and mean as those guys were, I just assumed they went around crunching cars all day long -- the shocking bit was that the two enemies were in the same car!
I was flabbergasted, theorizing perhaps that one of them had simply helped out the other because his car had broken down, but even then I liked to think there was no way they would have willingly helped each other out. I couldn't even get along with sister in the car for 20 minutes, and yet these men were filled with such hatred for each other that in the ring the only way to express that anger was to hit each other in the head with two-by-fours.
That was when I knew: Wrestling was fake. I'd had my suspicions in the past, but I didn't want to believe it was fake. I'd enjoyed thinking that Hulk Hogan was a nice guy and that King Kong Bundy was a jerk who would purposely bodyslam a dwarf, like he did in Wrestlemania III. A few years later, in the mid-'90s, Vince McMahon admitted under oath that the whole thing was fake, and many people thought the jig was up, that wrestling would be banished from 20,000-seat arenas back to VFW halls. Of course, the exact opposite happened, and wrestling became more popular than ever. By 1999 more than 35 million Americans were watching professional wrestling each week, and a staggering seven wrestling shows ranked among cable TV's weekly top 10.
Since then, the popularity of wrestling seems to have hit a speed bump. The WWF absorbed WCW, and without a genuine business rivalry, the "sport" seemed to sort of sag. Wrestling may have as many fans as it did in the '90s, but wrestling has certainly lost whatever cachet of cool it once had. (Some people attribute this to McMahon's acknowledgement that the story lines are prewritten, but in this Internet-driven world, wouldn't someone have figured that all out by now anyway and written a blog about it? It was destined to be unraveled eventually.)
I tuned out once I found out it was fake, then tuned back in during the late '90s when The Rock was on each week, mostly to watch his weekly, usually hilarious pronouncements from the ring -- I still think The Rock and Bill Clinton are the most gifted public speakers I've seen in the last two decades. But when The Rock left to go to Hollywood and star in bad remakes, I got out once again.
If everything in entertainment is cyclical, wrestling seems to be in a down arc. I don't know who the champions are, but I know Edge, who looks like a latter-day Fabio, is a contender, as well as the undistinguished Triple H and John Cena (whose theme music sounds like a ringtone). Maybe it's just me, but I miss seeing athletes like Ricky Steamboat flying around, and I want to see Hulk Hogan get a crowd riled up before improbably incapacitating someone with a signature leg-drop.
Recently I've found myself intrigued by the idea of watching wrestling again. The one thing professional wrestling has always done, at times better than others, is provide viewers and fans with an escape from day-to-day reality. We tune in, normal human beings, and see these inflated men and women perform superhuman feats, while in the background sinister story lines and plots bubble and brew away. At its best, wrestling removes us from reality and provide as much drama and comedy as TNT and TBS combined.
Lang Whitaker is the online editor at SLAM magazine and writes daily at SLAMonline.com.