Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Hometown Heroes

In his piece about the ideology of professional wrestling, Jim Freedman relates that before the advent of television, the travelling show was the mainstay of wrestling promotion and publication. A wrestler's fame was garnered town by town as he travelled through the many territories in North America. Freedman presents the small town of Simcoe, Ontario as the wrestling world in miniature--a place where wrestling exists in its "original form".

The modern era of professional wrestling has ushered in at time dominated by the television. But it was not always so. Audiences could not be so easily reached as they are today, and as we've discussed, radio could not provide the much needed visual aspect of wrestling matches. As a result, wrestlers toured the different territories tried, more than anything, to establish their wrestling personas. In Freedman's Simcoe, the ideal wrestling hot spot, the heels and babyfaces that passed through were well known. Fans eagerly anticipated the arrival of their favorites and hoped to see them vanquish the villains. What really called my attention to Freedman's passage was the importance of the small town to wrestling as a whole. I would expect big time wrestlers to visit big time cities where they could really capitalize on large crowds and great publicity. It just wouldn't seem worth it to stop by outlying suburbs or no-name towns. As I continued to read, however, I realized why these towns mattered so much to professional wrestling. Quite simply, the small town represented the kind of milieu from which wrestling had emerged.

The classical pitting of good versus evil in the ring evoked an ethic with which many town folk could identify. It was the well-mannered, hardworking layman against the white-collared, egocentric capitalist (capitalist in the sense that Freedman describes). It was through the characters that wrestlers portrayed in the ring that viewers could reaffirm their basic ideas of good and evil, right and wrong. A simple victory by a local hero could instill shred of hope in social underdogs. A win by a conniving villain could just easily, though perhaps not as overtly, bring a sense of disillusion and pessimism to the same people. Professional wrestling's ability to play off these hopes and fears that people had made it seem almost imperative that travelling shows stop at small towns and pay their respects to the truly devoted fan.

In watching the documentary about the heroes of the WCCW, I could really see the shift that modern wrestling has taken in the publication of wrestling personalities. One of the main reasons the Dallas territory was able to make itself so renowned was because of the way it was able to present its telecast. The audio and visual technology the WCCW presented made it more exciting to the TV viewer and, more importantly, the transmission of their programs via satellite made it a worldwide phenomenon. I'm curious to know if major wrestling shows today still traverse some of the old routes that the travelling shows would run.


X P said...

The wrestlers gain their fame and money from the fans. For this reason, going to the locations where the most devoted fan are located would make sense to increase popularity. Even if these locations took you to small towns like Simcoe, Ontario.
THe people of these towns would attend the shows and be emotionaly attached to the matches. Even though they know the matches are stagged, being in the atmosphere of a wrestling match, they forget about all this and see a real brawl between good and evil. Watching wrestling on television though can not create these same emotions. This is probably why traveling wrestling shows meant so much. Now, with wrestling mainly on television, it has lost much popularity or so I think. WIth the downfall of traveling shows.

Sam Ford said...

Omar, you've made some excellent points here. Sorry for the highlights on the original copy making some of the text hard to read, but I think Freedman makes some excellent points here that are explored in greater depth in Drawing Heat. I'm amazed by the way in which he captures the intensity of the small town wrestling show, the ways and potential reasons behind these people bonding with the performance and with the competitors in the ring. This tale of struggle and the ways in which these fans instinctively understand is perhaps key...

Simcoe is just one of the towns Freedman visited with this troupe of wrestlers that you will see in Drawing Heat, but he uses this story to explore some awfully powerful questions, underneath the music and camera work and fireworks and all of that, as to why people engage with professional wrestling in the first place.

And looking at wrestling in its "original form," I think, can still give us an understanding as to why people care about wrestling at the local armory as well as Madison Square Garden.

I've participated in these little shows that take place at a local wellness center and been to plenty of shows at the armory. Fans there engage with the wrestlers, wrestlers with the fans, in a way that most "big-time" performances can't capture. We'll get into that more later, but I think it is an intriguing place to look, at these little small-town shows, many of which still feature characters that don't have extensive biographies and backstories, etc., and mainly have the "has-beens" and "never-was" of the wrestling world.

Finally, I've never had a stabbing after one of these shows, which Freedman ends with, but I have always found this the most intriguing point of all. Anyone know what to make of Freedman ending this essay by bringing that up?

Anonymous said...

This essay brings up a point that I plan to explore in a future essay explaining the aesthetic of the NWA Champion. Ric Flair represents a bridge, if you will, a touchstone to a different aesthetic of champion that relates to the local phenomenon of wrestling although he would maintain stardom in the national (and global) model.

The aesthetic of the NWA champion was simply this: a wrestler who could present himself as imposing despite the fact he was getting "waxed" in every town. The cliche, old as it is, was that the NWA champion should "wrestle a broomstick and make it look good." In that sense, every truly great NWA champion was a) a heel and b) someone who left the citizens of every town he visited in proud of the challenger. The great skill of Ric Flair (or Harley Race, etc.) wasn't that he made himself look impressive. It was that he made you believe beating him would be a big deal while at the same time giving you a 60 minute match where you were fully convinced that your "hometown" boy could defeat him easily. He never did, but you always remained convinced, whether you were cheering David Von Erich in Texas, Jerry Lawler in Memphis or Butch Reed in Kansas City.

The NWA went to more remote places before the territory system died, so it didn't surprise me to see that Harley Race once wrestled our local icon in the Maritimes, Leo Burke. Leo Burke would have been nothing but a jobber on American TV, but in the Halifax Forum, he was a giant of a man who was ready to take the title off of Harley Race in 61 minutes, dag gum it, if only the match wasn't set for a 60 minute time limit!

The historical gist of my essay will be that this aesthetic essentially died when the WWF went national. It's seldom that an art movement makes the aesthetic prior to it obsolete, but rather merely bumps it down in popularity (e.g. bands still play "hair rock," it's just not as popular as before 1991). However, I do not know if the aesthetic of the 60 minute road show that was the NWA champion will ever return. It was a roadshow that legitimized every place's home star, whether it was a big city or a small town.

Sam Ford said...

Bryce, you make some great points here. We have been talking a little about the way the NWA World Champion toured, and you are right. There may be situations where WWE will have people get a match in their hometown, but instead of a nationally known world champion showing up a few times a year to face your most popular local stars, you now have a national troupe traveling the country, which changes the nature of the game completely.

It's why Ole Anderson's writing that we'll be reading more of soon about how the territory system was better than Vince's system becuase he could sell out the same arena every week, even if it was a smaller operation. The problem is that comparing the two systems, in some ways, is just incompatible because they have two different aesthetics and two different goals.