SI Vault
Bruce Newman
April 29, 1985
Pro wrestling has gone big time, thanks to a show-biz send-up that has bred stars like the Missing Link—who's not missing, he's right here
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April 29, 1985

Who's Kidding Whom?

Pro wrestling has gone big time, thanks to a show-biz send-up that has bred stars like the Missing Link—who's not missing, he's right here

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First will come the inevitable transition period, or the crossover, as they call it in the Business. And when we say the Business, of course, we're talking about the Industry. One MTV executive has already suggested the next step will be midget mud wrestling. All right! Fabulous concept. Love it, love it, love it! Love him! But where is that concept taking us? Has anybody thought about how we're going to get Prince down in that mud for the video? Has anybody thought about that"!

The thing to do is keep all these ever-so-subtle concepts coming as long as the numbers keep saying: Pro wrestling, you look mah-velous!

And it does! Wrestling, the original sham-sport, has been in the midst of a boom since its fusion with rock began to roll last year. The "rock and wrestling connection," as MTV has dubbed this heady brew, has become the hottest thing in the Industry since the Video, dahlings. "Rock and wrestling," says World Wrestling Federation heavyweight champ Hulk Hogan. "It's not a dream, it's the way we live."

Fabulous concept, Hulkster! And more and more it's the way America lives. In the most recent Nielsen ratings, four of the nation's 10 top-rated cable-TV programs were wrestling shows. Two of them are produced by Vince McMahon Jr., commander in chief of the WWF; on the USA Network, McMahon's wrestling shows generate higher ratings than college basketball, tennis or hockey. The other two wrestling shows, which until last month were also McMahon productions, are on the WTBS superstation, where wrestling does better than college football. In Memphis, a Saturday morning wrestling show is the third-highest-rated television program, trailing only Dallas and Dynasty. And when Rowdy Roddy Piper, a 250-pound yapping adrenal gland, appeared last month on Boston's Sports Huddle, the switchboard at WHDH was swamped with a record 48,000 calls. Wrestling mania is also reflected in a proliferation of posters, product endorsements and talk-show appearances by America's burly new heroes, not to mention plenty of newspaper people-section pictures of Andy Warhol, Brian De Palma and Joe Piscopo watching the sleeper holds.

It scarcely matters that wrestling's reputed popularity with the quiche-and-Volvo crowd is largely the result of media manipulation. The man doing most of the manipulating is McMahon, who has given wrestling the upscale demographics—or the illusion of same—it never had before. Somehow McMahon and his WWF have convinced a good part of the press that the knuckledraggers who traditionally made up wrestling crowds have been booted out of the bleachers and replaced by Wharton graduates.

"The WWF is the force behind this new perception of wrestling," says Bob Costas, who recently announced a match in St. Louis for KMOX radio, the first bout the station had carried live in 22 years. "Like it or not, what's causing wrestling to go mainstream is the McMahon approach." McMahon is despised by pro wrestling purists and by rival promoters for turning wrestling into schlock and roll, but others see him as a visionary. "There's that fine line between genius and insanity," WWF announcer Mean Gene Okerlund says of McMahon, "and he walks it."

Very visual, Mean Gene! Love it to death! And isn't that what wrestling is really all about—walking the fine line between the ridiculous and the supine? The funny thing is, wrestling's cable ratings have been going through the roof at precisely the same time that some of the TV numbers for real sports have been declining, and something must be compelling viewers to tune in. "They're putting too many rules on everything now," says wrestling manager Bobby Heenan, hazarding a sociological insight. "No more sack dances, no spiking, no high fives. In wrestling they've got rules, but they're not too strict about enforcing them... what other sport lets you kick a guy when he's down?" That's simplistic, of course, but given the phenomenon we're dealing with here, probably as good an explanation for what's going on as any.

And so, until the big shakeout comes—when wrestling no longer needs rock and can slam-dance its own way to the top, or into oblivion, or to wherever it's heading—the thing to do is try to keep the matches interesting. As a concept, maybe you match Tito (the Burrito) Santana with Julio Iglesias in a Tijuana Stretcher match. How about David Lee Roth versus the Missing Link in a one-fall California Lobotomy match. Or Ravishing Rick Rude and Brutus Beefcake facing off against Madonna and Vanity in a Chippendales Intergender Bimbo Match. Excellent demographics. Mahvelous concept!

Before you know it, we've got Kamala the Ugandan Giant and Michael Jackson in a Steel Glove match, with closed-circuit locations at every nouvelle cuisine restaurant in the country. Fabulous! Kamala turns the kid inside out, but in the final frame of the video we see Michael teaching the Giant to moonwalk. Very visual! Finally, we build to the big benefit video for Ethiopian wrestlers and call it We Are the Hurled. Tasteless? Of course. For that one we'll need to have the biggest stars in the business. And when we say the business, we're talking about the Industry. Some of the names we'll need are:

HULK HOGAN—Zoomed to stardom after playing bad guy named Thunderlips in Rocky III. Hulkamania! Before that, was a journeyman heel wrestling under the name Sterling Golden. "I was a young kid, lost and misguided," explains Hulkster. But silent was Golden. Conversion followed in which Hulk developed "a relationship with the Big Dude upstairs." No more heel. Now he's the ultimate babyface to the baby-boomers, who don't seem to mind a hero with a receding hairline. Hulkamania! Not noted for wrestling technique. "His entire repertoire," says one critic, "consists of the Eye of the Tiger, a shredding muscle shirt, a few minutes of inept brawling and the infamous leg-drop finish out of nowhere." Tag-team partner is Mr. T. Between them not one decent head of hair.

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