Monday, September 15, 2014

Entertainment is Disbelief

“Most detached observers of the phenomenon would not…accept the assertion that professional wrestling is indeed a legitimate sporting event. The doubters argue that it is rather a disreputable con-game, the outcome of each match fixed in advance with a keen eye toward the promotion of future bouts…What is the appeal of a wrestling event to the spectator?” –The Dramatic Conventions of Professional Wrestling by Gerald Craven and Richard Moseley

It’s no mystery that professional wrestling today is a fixed exhibition. The flaw in the above logic is simply a matter of perspective. If we were to look at pro wrestling and try to view it as a traditional sport, we would be met with all of these problems. We could not talk to our friends and say, “Gee, I hope my guy outperforms your guy tonight and wins,” or, “Man, my guy has been a little off lately. I hope luck is on his side tonight.” We could say these things, but they would mean nothing. This is the same for betting. It would be very unwise to bet or gamble as if it were a traditional sport because it is not one. The outcome is pre-written, the story-lines are created. The match (usually) has to exist the way it is planned for the story to move forward. If we try to view it as a sport from this perspective, it is indeed a con-game. It is necessary to view it as a sport, but only within the context of a theatrical performance.

When you go to watch a play, you are a spectator simply viewing the play. When you go watch wrestling, you are not just viewing, you are participating. The audience is also a player, just like the wrestlers. Their chants are just as valid as scripted lines. If you’re watching a play and you yell something at the stage, what you say is invalid—it has no merit and does not change or affect the play. At a wrestling match, if you yell something at the ring, it counts. It matters. It is acknowledged and becomes a part of the story. The audience is empowered in that sense. One does not need to “suspend disbelief” because that’s what wrestling is. Pure disbelief. Completely unbelievable. It is over-the-top and ridiculous and exaggerated. But when you are a part of that environment, there is a general, unspoken acceptance. When you leave a play, the play is over. You no longer need to suspend your disbelief. However, when you leave a wrestling match, it is not over. It is never over. It is a continuous, ongoing play that does not end unless you choose to remove yourself from it. You never need to suspend your disbelief because you are just accepting it wrestling for what it is. Pure madness.

“The ‘camp’ follower does not suspend his disbelief because his entertainment is his disbelief.”

So far, the article "Actors on a Canvas Stage: The Dramatic Conventions of Professional Wrestling," by Gerald Craven and Richard Moseley has been my favorite. It really explained a great example of why people could get into Pro Wrestling. The fans of Pro Wrestling see it as a "play," even though I'm sure that they would never admit that. I will never find Pro Wrestling appealing, however I do thoroughly enjoy viewing a play. So, I'm thinking of fans going to see "The Grudge Match" at Madison Square Garden as me going to see "The Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway. While the type of fan who would find each appealing, is opposite of the other, it's the same principle. Both sets of fans realize that they are watching a staged performance with actors who tell a story. In both, there are good guys and bad guys. They even both have stages.

"Tonight the Hulk vs Ox. Baker," by Randall Williams was quite an entertaining story for an article. The part that was most interesting to me was found at the end.  Two wrestlers happened to die after a fight with Baker. This become a part of him. It attached to his persona within the world of Pro Wrestling and there was no getting rid of it. Instead of letting this seemingly negative publicity tarnish his career, he embraced it and became known from it. The article ended with a story of a lady who hated Baker so much that she screamed at him during matches. The coincidence of two men dying after their fight with Baker seemed to be real to her and she hated him with all of her guts. This type of fan interaction is what makes Pro Wrestling so appealing. They can love a guy or hate a guy, but they would still go to the arena to see both. That way they can either cheer for a hero or cuss at a heel.

How This Class is Ruining My Ability to Suspend My Disbelief

While watching NXT and Smackdown over the weekend in conjunction with the readings, I am noticing more and more the structure of the matches and less the emotional content. Like Mark Twain and the river, I've transitioned to the analytical way of watching a match and the poetry is starting to go out of it.
In the fifth chapter of Ole Anderson's Inside Out, he discussed a match where he and another wrestler had gotten too crazy and Vern Gagne was upset because they're supposed to save the high-flying stuff for the main event. While musing on how scientific the first couple of matches on NXT were, I realized that this still holds true today. Even though NXT has a different, almost more chaotic feel than Raw or Smackdown, they're still following these formulas.
In "Actors on the Canvas Stage: the Dramatic Conventions of Professional Wrestling," Gerald Craven and Richard Moseley ruined the illusion of wrestling forever for me by writing out all the dramatic conventions pro wrestling utilizes to engage the audience.

To recap for blog purposes:
Sport-derived conventions
1. Blind/stupid referee
2. Special finishing holds over scientific wrestling
3. Disqualification and grudge matches
4. Post-match confrontations
Theatrical conventions
1. Evil wrestler initiates illegal/unfair action
2. Use of props
3. Evil plots that backfire
4. Illegal use of the stage
5. Illegal use of the sub-stage

While the majority of these are really common sense, without ever having them spelled out so explicitly I was able to quite easily suspend my disbelief to watch the match. Upon reflection though, I realized a lot of these are present almost constantly. I cannot recall a tag team match that did not involve some sort of illegal use of the stage wherein the partner of someone in the ring breaks the rules and jumps in too, leading to an all-out brawl (uncontainable because of an inept referee). And sure enough on Smackdown, Big Show, Mark Henry and the Usos were teamed up against Gold Dust, Stardust, Luke Harper, and Eric Rowan, and the whole thing turned into a brawl.
All throughout the program scientific wrestling was downplayed, but during the Divas match, Paige  used AJ Lee's special finishing move the "Black Widow" on her opponent Summer Rae, to which AJ replied by stealing Paige's "Paige Turner" and using it on Layla, who was trying to attack Paige. This was received as extremely offensive to both wrestlers, fueling their grudge match.
During the arm-wrestling match between Mark Henry and Rusev, Rusev not only initiated unfair behavior by demanding a rematch with his left hand, he and Natalia tried to play dirty and it didn't work. Even though Natalia blew chalk into Mark Henry's eyes, Rusev didn't win the contest.
In the main event, a tag match between Chris Jericho and Roman Reigns against Seth Rollins and Randy Orton, they (of course) broke the rules and turned it into a brawl again, and Roman and Seth also made illegal use of the sub-stage as they took their fight out into the space around the ring and into the crowd.
I guess I was looking at these as if they happened only every once in a while, as opposed to each convention happening multiple times per match. Now it's all I see, and while I can still enjoy watching wrestling, I am left to wonder whether I have gained most or lost most by studying it.

The Canvas Stage

Professional wrestling is an assembly of blood, sweat, and dramatic flair: “a kind of gladiatorial theater in which showmanship counts for more than genuine athletic skill,” according to William Martin, writer of the article Friday Night in the Coliseum.  Most fans realize wrestling is fraudulent, which is what makes their response so interesting, Craven and Moseley write in Actors on the Canvas Stage.  The degree of understanding among fans may vary, but most willingly suspend their disbelief when watching wrestling.  Why?

Wrestling is a theatrical production, combining violence & dialogues, sweat & spandex, and real blood & fake tears.  “The emotional response which professional wrestlers seek to invoke in their audience… is significantly different from that experienced by other sports fans who want to see their favorite athlete or team win a contest” (Craven and Moseley, 332).  The “contest” wrestling fans come to see— take a grudge match, for example— is just the manifestation of the drama swirling below the surface that erupted into that moment in the ring.  Months of fighting, yelling, name-calling, and general uncouthness may have led to the match that sold out every seat.  It’s not simply two men’s physical strengths that are pitted against each other; this match is “the eternal conflict of good versus evil personified in the physical struggle for dominance.”  They yearn for some kind of poetic justice that doesn’t always come to fruition in everyday life.  The fans come to watch the drama, “the Portrayal of Life;” the actual wrestling is just the means (Not that a wrestling match is uninteresting in itself, but the larger context of the drama makes every move more significant).  Like the motto displayed in Houston promoter Paul Boesch’s office says, professional wrestling is “the sport that gives you your money’s worth.”

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Friday Night in Dothan, Alabama

I just loved the article by Randall Williams, The Hulk vs. Ox Baker, as it really provided insight as to what southern wrestling was all about; in this case at the Houston County Farm Center, where 5000 fans, mostly working people, including farmers, entered a giant hot barn, walked upon a red-dirt floor, riddled with dried tobacco spit and Coke to watch matches. This was the backbone of southern wrestling at its best. Williams mentions that it was estimated that 60% of all the national attendance of wrestling was in the South, in arenas just like Dothan. Although the date of this article is not mentioned, it still typifies the southern wrestling experience, dating back to the 1920s.

In addition to the physical surroundings of southern wrestling, I found it interesting that the article brought out how southern wrestling was predominately a closed business, by that Williams meant a family business, either by blood or marriage. This esoteric folk group of promoters and wrestlers were most active in southern wrestling.

I also got a look at how the wrestlers’ esoteric group (from a folklore standpoint) behaved or was expected to behave. That is to say, there were two dressing rooms at Dothan, one for the faces and one for the heels, and how they did not associate with each other, even when the matches were over. The fans or exoteric folk group would not understand if the two groups were friendly towards each other. Faces and heels also had agreements between themselves so that they would not hurt each other.

Southern wrestling also called for fan challenges from the wrestlers, which were legitimate shoots. There was mention of the typical 10 minute, $500 challenges to all comers where the wrestler always won, while the fans whooped it up for their locals.

This article related a lot of folklore to me regarding the textual nature of southern wrestling, how it was deeply seeded both by environment and the subcultures of the history of wrestlers and fans. It would make a wonderful ethnographic study.

The Foreign Menace

In William C. Martin's article "Friday Night in the Coliseum" (The Atlantic, March 1972), the author uses the setting of a Friday night wrestling card in Houston to highlight face and more importantly heel archetypes. Starting with Baron Von Raschke, a Nazi-themed wrestler, Martin highlights two common "Foreign Menace" types: the Japanese and the Russian characters. Like Von Raschke and similar Nazi-themed characters, both the Japanese and Russian characters invoke threats, past or present, to an idealized American image. Both also remain largely one-dimensional (the Japanese as "sneaky" but often technically proficient; the Russians as simple brutes). Why such enemies who disdain America choose to compete in an American sport is largely unexplored by the audience (a point Martin references), but provides an easily identifiable and morally repugnant opponent for the American face.

As international events unfold, similar themed Foreign Menaces are evident, most notably the Iron Sheik after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. But largely left unresolved by Martin or the other readings is what to do with such characters once the Foreign Menace is no longer emotionally salient to the audience. I use the example  in my International Relations course of what to do with Soviet wrestlers, which were a staple for nearly every promotion in the 1980s, when the Cold War ends. The WWF with Nicolai Volkoff and WCW with Nikita Koloff simultaneously repacked both as  Lithuanian, now free from the shackles of the Soviet Union and able to be mentored by Americans well versed in democracy. Many of the others simply retired or faded into obscurity. Even the Iron Sheik was briefly repackaged as the Iraqi Col. Mustafa during the first Gulf War, ignoring that Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war from 1980-88.

Volkoff (actually Croatian)

Koloff (actually from Minnesota)

Which nationalities work as a "Foreign Menace" also requires greater attention. Foreigners from the UK may be heels, but they are rarely portrayed as a menace. Rather, they commonly play the role of what Martin calls "Titled Snobs and Pointy-Headed Intellectuals". Finland's Tony Halme briefly portrayed an evil Finn in the WWF (Ludvig Borga) in the 90s to luke-warm reception at best. Similarly, despite the proliferation of Soviets during the Cold War, portrayals of "evil" Chinese or Vietnamese were virtually non-existent while Cuban bad guys were useful foils sporadically. Portrayals of Middle Eastern characters post 9/11 were rare and comparatively tame compared to previous menaces, perhaps due to changing acceptance of stereotypes but also concern for the wrestlers themselves. Furthermore, while characterizations of "savages" from "deepest, darkest Africa" were common at least through the 1980s (e.g. Kamala, Abdullah the Butcher) and have largely disappeared since, these characters do not seem to fit the role Martin envisioned for the "Foreign Menace".

While the "Foreign Menace" archetype may be less common today, one needs to look no further than the WWE's Alexander Rusev to a modern rendition, where a minor repackaging of a Bulgarian brute to an agent of Russia's President Vladimir Putin appears to have greater resonance with American audiences.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Interview with Chris Michaels

G: What league are you with?

C: I am in independent contractor, I wrestle for many promoters.

G: How old are you?

C: 41

G: Are you a face or a heel in your matches?

C: I usually play the heel, but sometimes a babyface.

G: How long have you been wrestling?

C: Since I was 16.

G: How long have you been interested in wrestling?

C: I always loved wrestling. I remember watching it on TV when I was 3 or 4 and really loved it.

G: How did you get into the business?

C: I grew up in Tennessee, and I was dating a girl, whose father opened a wrestling school there. I began to go there, and then started there at his wrestling school.  My mom used to own the Owensboro Sports Area, and I would see Tojo Yamamoto and Lynn Roxey wrestle. I wrested with Tracy Smothers and the Wide Eyed Southern Boys. I have been on WWE TV. I wrestle in Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. I have wrestled with R & R Express, Ronnie Travis, Sheldon Benjamin, and the Young Rockers.

G: What about injuries?

C: Over the years, I have had 14 concussions and post-concussion syndrome in 2003. In 1989, I had two surgeries in seven days; I had a broken right wrist and left elbow, ankle problems, two fractured kneecaps, and some problems with bone spurs and nerves in my hand. In 2009, I had a lat dorsi tear from pile drivers, T-1, T-6 back problems, compressed nerves in my back, and a doc recommended vertebra fusion. I have not done that yet. Anybody thinks wrestling is fake is crazy.

G: Do you have any groupies?

C: Everyone thinks groupies are for, you know. Maybe this was true in the early days. They (people) do not realize that they give us rides to shows, a place to stay, or meals. This has all changed now and groupies are pretty much phased out.

G: How is your wrestling schedule now?

C: I have had no work in two to three months. These young guys are wrestling for free or working for chump change now, so I have had no work. I still workout, especially to maintain my cardio.