Monday, September 29, 2014

The Person and the Personae

There are plenty of broad topics to discuss from these few chapters of Drawing Heat, but I really enjoy focusing on the individuals.  The disparity between images defined in the ring and the men who actually exist outside of it fascinates me.  I, like Jim Freedman, realize that it is “na├»ve to wonder at the gap… between the person and the personae,” yet I still find myself caught up in my disbelief.  

I love the image that Freedman is painting of Dave “the Wildman” McKigney.  From crazy, to a softie, to someone you don’t want to make angry…  Compared to Tunney, who remained a brick wall both inside and outside the ring towards Freedman, Dave is an open book.  He doesn’t really fit into the “wrestling” image; he’s big and loud, with “booming presence,” sure, but underneath he is gentle, loving, and maybe even vulnerable.  His heart shines through when you know where to look.  You can see it in the tender way he loved and cared for his bears— animals that others might treat as dumb and vicious beasts.  Even after his girlfriend was mauled and killed tragically by one of his own bears, Dave still loved them and wanted the best for them.

Apart from the Wildman, Freedman also describes a conversation with Chris Tolos, “The Golden Greek” (pg. 82).  In the ring, Tolos is the kind of guy that abuses both his opponent and the audience.  Jim Freedman describes the real-life Chris as a “self-effacing and self-sacrificing” family-centered man: a direct contradiction to his stage persona.

I look forward to discussing and reading more about the Wildman and others that Jim Freedman meets and writes about in his book.

Wild man

Wild man is an interesting tale told throughout Professional Wrestling. All other matches, that I know of, have been human on human and the match is usually fixed before it even begins. However, you can't always fix a match with a bear. Even trained animals do things out of character sometimes. Maybe that's what gave fame to Wildman. His matches were seen as being more unpredictable and adventurous. If it was me, I don't think I would want to see a man wrestle a bear. It seems like the odds of the guy getting hurt would be too great for me to want to watch. Maybe that's why some people paid to see the show. It's like NASCAR, to me. All of my friends who like NASCAR, and that's a VERY small percentage, say that they like watching the cars go around and around for the chance of a wreck. It seems only human to watch horrific accidents, for some odd reason. Maybe that's what people were hoping for when the bought tickets to see the Wild Man 

Wrestling with Nature

Drawing Heat gets into some bizarre territory in the Night Bears chapter. I didn't realize bear wrestling happened in the 20th century, and the Wildman both benefitted and suffered terribly from it. The explanation for why this phenomenon would be so interesting to spectators was thought-provoking though. Freedman describes how southern Canadians reacted with fear that the wild animal would somehow escape and rampage through the streets and the northern Canadians met the bear with respect and recognition because they had them in their own backyards. Regardless, people look at a wrestling bear as a force of nature, and that completely changes the dynamic of the wrestling match. The match is no longer about a face, a heel and an incompetent referee, the struggle of the proletariat, but now the struggle of man to tame the wilderness, to assert his divinely-imparted dominance over the natural world. Again wrestling dips into it's carnival heritage and pulls a different sort of "freakshow" out for the amusement of the audience, but in delving into this demonstrates that there is more than one type of conflict that can be elaborated through the dramatic lens of wrestling.
In a way, this special attraction is evoking the only conflict older than the struggle between the haves and the have-nots, the struggle for primal man's very existence. In coming to see the Wildman wrestle a bear, the audience is coming to see a dramatic interpretation of mankind's rise from the primordial soup. Wrestling is amazingly and casually profound, and I wonder how many types of stories one can tell through it.

Tunney, the Wildman, and Emotional Investment

After Freedman's beautiful summation of what draws people to wrestling in his book Drawing Heat, bookending we've been tossing around the last few days, I found interesting the extra praise he gives to the Wildman. The foundation of his analysis of wrestling comes from what he learns watching Tunney's promotion, but Freedman quickly decides that the real magic to be found in wrestling comes from these smaller promotions, and goes so far as to say that watching wrestling on television deadens the performance. Night of Champions was the first time I had attended a WWE match, and after reading his sweeping declarations about the authenticity and depth of feeling to be experienced from these untelevised, local matches, I feel like I am missing out. We talked in class a little about the disconnect between the WWE and fans because of their tour schedule and the sheer volume of spectators, and while there is more a sense of inclusiveness when one is physically present at the match, I felt more connected with the audience members than the wrestlers by any means. Freedman argues that Tunney's promotion is all glamor and no substance, and by extrapolation the modern wrestling performance must seem all the more insubstantial. In comparison to the fervor Freedman expresses in his description of the original Sheik versus Igor the Polish Strongman match, my own emotional investment in wrestling pales.
The opinions of Freedman and I mean relatively little by themselves, but if the model of the Wildman's promotion represents wrestling at it's most simplistic (and, in Freedman's opinion, emotionally valuable), the further commodification of wrestling seems as though it is detracting from the emotional weight of the matches. There is probably no way to measure this empirically, but even with the advantages that the WWE has (writers, technology, social networking, money), it would be interesting to see if there is a difference in emotional investment between larger and smaller promotions. Ideologically, the local promotion is more in keeping with what wrestling seems to tout, and the idea of large, televised productions of wrestling becomes a subversion of these original ideals. The Wildman not only has a hillbilly resemblance to Karl Marx, but is a better embodiment of the lower class struggle than Tunney, and that is why Freeman has a greater demonstrated respect for him, and I hope someday I have the opportunity to see a smaller promotion and click into that depth of feeling that Freedman writes about so passionately.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Promoter’s Dream



In Meltzer’s Tributes II, Freddie Blassie becomes known to me as any promoter’s dream in his ability to get a crowd going, creating heat and selling tickets. Blassie did this by inventing new ways to antagonize the fans so that they would come to the matches. In short, he had tremendous drawing power. For example, Freddie dove over a table to attack Dick Beyer, a face who was being interviewed at half-time, on a widely televised football game. The next day, the arena was sold out.  According to the reading, Blassie had a following of several prominent fans including Elvis, Andy Kaufman and Muhammad Ali. Fans loved to hate him.

Conversely, although Blassie maintained major beefs with the fans, having been stabbed several times over the years, he was well liked by his fellow wrestlers such as his archrival John Tolos. Blassie is also credited with forging and enhancing the careers of several wrestlers, most notably Pedro Morales. Morales stated that they sold out wherever they went, and that the “Spanish boys” loved him. Freddie also started the career of Ernie Ladd who came over from the NFL, and became very popular.

Blassie’s most famous move was that he bit his opponents and he was hyped as “The Vampire” before going to Tokyo. According to Meltzer, once Freddie landed in Japan, he began to file his teeth. This new stratagem was powerful enough to make him the hottest foreign star in Japan, surpassing Lou Thesz.

Later in his career, Blassie became a manager, even though he was still one of wrestling’s biggest stars. He mainly managed foreign stars, such as the Iron Sheik, and overseas in Japan, Freddie was the manager for Adrian Adonis and later Hulk Hogan, which I found interesting. Freddie really taught these two the wrestling culture of Japan—how to act as a star.

So we have a TV interviewer’s nightmare, a heel who is probably best remembered as the most “vicious biter” in the business, which is a complete and flagrant disregard of the rules, who could pack in houses on a whim for any promoter. In addition, fans hated him to the point of stabbing him, yet wrestlers loved and respected him. Sounds like the main event of wrestling culture to me.

The Booker (post for 9/22)



Of particular interest to me in the chapters of Inside Out were the chapters of Ole’s life as a booker. Ole gave great insight into the inner workings of a booker, from having to put up with the “stars” and saying it was the star’s decision or idea, to managing the business in every detail in every wrestling location (p. 160). Ole made the analogy of being a booker is like a salmon swimming upstream, taking the path of least resistance, and when it (he) reaches his goal, it dies (he gets fired). These chapters show how Ole took away the power from Dusty Rhodes in Atlanta and Ole mentions how he always took a stand on important matters otherwise the wrestlers would walk all over him.

These chapters also give us insight into his philosophy which was that he wanted all matches to have a finish in every town, whether it be Atlanta, North Carolina, Georgia or Charlotte; he did not want any draws or disqualifications. Ole also wanted his wrestlers to do real life stuff. He said he didn’t do anything that could not happen in real life. It was interesting that his wrestler baby-face Tommy Rich just had his butt kicked by Abdullah and Barnett wanted to fire the kid, Rich, but Ole said no. Ole had Rich in three rematches—all great bookings—and he lost them all. According to Ole, Rich had a heart of gold and was a fighter who never quit and that was how he was billed by Ole. The fans loved Rich for this. Barnett wanted a 1950s style or formula to make Rich a star, where Rich would beat half of the other faces, and then faceoff against a heel who beat his half of the heels.

Another item that came to life was how much money the bookers, or at least Ole was making at that time, $140,000 in the first year in 1976, and $180,000 the second year and well over $200,000 the third year. Without doing the CPI calculations, it is a safe bet to say this would be well over $500,000 in today’s dollars. This is huge money!

It amazes me how Ole gave this all up for a few years so he could get into the sawmill business. He says he was burnt out, and given the detail of what his booker work entailed, I can see why.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Keeping Kayfabe

          Reading the very beginning of the first chapter of Drawing Heat, I immediately became intrigued by the secrecy and mysticism of the wrestling world. If you were a cog in the machine of wrestling, then you were allowed to know the ins and outs. But if you were not, it all (intentionally) remained a mystery. Freedman tries to interview some of the head honchos in the business and is unsatisfied by the results. Their responses seemed scripted, their physical appearance staged. They seemed to rattle off the answers they always gave. Because they were the answers they always gave. Just like the first rule of Fight Club, kayfabe is wrestling's first rule. A rule that should never be broken.
          Granted, this was the 80's and I'm sure the veil of mystery was a bit more opaque then. But there's still a great deal of charade today. When I was interviewing Jason, I could tell he was being careful with his words. And even after the interview, there were certain things he wanted me to go back and take out and rephrase. He had an image to maintain and a veil to keep up. Fans may know certain truths about wrestling and certain aspects of the business are understood by all to be a facade, but everyone still goes along with it. Wrestlers and managers and fans alike maintain kayfabe. Everyone does their part to treat the spectacle as if it were completely real and true. It's an unspoken understanding. And it's part of what makes wrestling so fun and exciting to watch.

Shush, don't talk



In Freeman’s Drawing Heat, I found it interesting in the insight given of Frank Tunney, the promoter in Toronto for 50 years. Freeman had so much trouble getting the initial interview with Tunney, and when it finally came to pass Tunney was a brick wall. It was a code of silence of the genre of wrestling towards the reporters and outsiders in general during the renaissance of wrestling, and in many ways to this day.

Freeman refers to this secrecy or private stigma in which the promoters kept to themselves and would not entertain rogue inquires about the profession. I found this interesting and can draw parallels to our modern times. Rarely do promoters talk about the inner workings of wrestling or how they operate. It seems the only way to get the inside information is to read the books that retired wrestlers wrote. Promoters just knew that had to change the business model after the Gotch era in order to grow a fan base and increase the anger of the fans so they casted the characters, further defined heels and faces, made intricate story plots and grudge matches, and here we are--still in the dark.