Sunday, February 25, 2007

Wrestling and the Media

Everyone's sharing their views on the AWA which is great, and I'll post my thoughts and observations on that later, but I just wanted to see what others' reactions were to the Gutowski reading. What caught my eye in it specifically was the manner in which it explored the relationship between professional wrestling and the media, which has been rather inconsistent to say the least. I just wanted to take a closer look at wrestling "low-brow" status and see where it is and isn't entirely justified.

This was also highlighted by the AWA documentary where there were interviews with ESPN. I thought it was bizarre when I was watching it, just because today, I think it would be almost insulting to ESPN "analysists/experts" to feature professional wrestling on one of their shows. I remember one time ESPN was writing about professional events and which events drew the most people ever, and WrestleMania III was in the top five of their list, I believe. Almost everyone seemed to be a fan back during that time era, and even those who know nothing about wrestling have at least heard of Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, who headlined this show.

Instead of at least acknowledging the fact that this show was successful and is frequently considered the best WrestleMania to date, the ESPN "experts" tore into it and mocked it, like it was a joke. But then they turn around and feature poker as a sport in the next hour, which I suppose delves more into what some consider a sport - but I don't think it's that difficult to see that pro wrestling is just a tiny bit more of an athletic event than poker.

I know that many of the things showcased in the history of wrestling has added to the stereotype that it's a joke and doesn't involve athleticism, but then there were the matches like Dory Funk Jr and Jack Brisco to more modern bouts between say, Kurt Angle and Shawn Michaels from last year. It's a lot easier to overlook these kinds of matches and brush off wrestling as being something that will die on its own terms, but I just find it a little hypocritical that ESPN would do this and then turn around and feature poker or fishing or something to that extent.


Joshua Shea said...

I think there are a couple of different areas to comment on...

First, wrestling, until very recently, has been a poorly hidden con. Your dad knew wrestling was fake, the local sportscaster knew the wrestling was fake and so did your 5th grade teacher. Why would the old-time media, which was largely devoid of "entertainment news" and focused on real facts report on something that they knew to be less than legitimate? They don't report the results of fictional TV shows in the paper, nor do they report the results of Stars on Ice or Harlem Globetrotters games. It's because none of them are legitimate newsworthy events. And actually, if you look back at newspaper clippings pre-1970, you will find a lot more mentions of wrestling in the sports pages than you do these days.

I actually recall the first time that AWA wrestling was broadcast on TV. It was on at night, either 7 or 8 p.m., after Sportscenter, and was followed by an hour of Roller Derby. You can tell me what year that was easier than I. I recall to this day that whomever the commentator was on ESPN gave the bump into the next shows saying "I can't believe I'm saying this, but up next is wrestling and then roller derby." Even as an 8 or 9 year old, I recognized it as a slam.

Wrestling is more athletic than poker, although playing for 14-16 straight hours can be more taxing than an 8-minute wrestling match. The difference between the two is that there is not a piece of paper hanging in the back that says which poker player will beat another, so whether sport or exhibition, it at least does not have predetermined endings. And believe me, the moment that poker isn't making money for ESPN, they'll yank it off.

Angle-Michaels reminded me of a more aerobic version of the Flair-Steamboat series. It was pure art and represented professional wrestling in its purest and highest form. But it was still a predetermined outcome. They still pulled punches and looked out for one another. Regardless of what you think of poker, fishing, frisbee dogs or some of the other stuff ESPN shows, none of that stuff is predetermined and wrestling is, and therefore not a sport, albeit very athletic.

While wrestling has been hovering in some strange purgatory between sports and entertainment for decades, you can see that Vince McMahon is pushing as hard as he can towards entertainment with the release of the movies and shoving celebrities like K-Fed and Trump down our throats. These are not the random Wrestlemania celebrity like Pam Anderson or Liberace. They are used in on-going storylines...and getting coverage in entertainment media outlets.

Is it better to be a mocked sport or an accepted entertainment vehicle?

I'm not sure I know the answer.

Mike W. said...

If it's hypocritical for ESPN, then it would only be because they used to feature World Class Championship Wrestling for years. Every weekday from 3-4PM, if memory serves.

The comparison to poker, for example, points out how weak our collective definition of "sport" is. We all think of sports as having well-defined boundaries, but an overzealous devil's advocate can poke holes in any claim about what defines "sport."

Athletic? Ballet and wrestling are more athletic than golf or billiards.
Competitive? What about base jumping, hanggliding, hot-air ballooning, etc.? Perhaps you could argue that one "competes against death," but that's about as far as that can be taken.
No predetermined result? Maybe. Plenty of evidence shows that it has happened in pro baseball, basketball, horseraces, and so on. Many people speculate that UFC is "fixed" in a sense (not that the fights are, but people, such as Chuck Liddell, are fed "job guys," to steal wrestling parlance, to make him look like a dominant and legitimate champion, and in turn, make Liddell/Ortiz look like a "superfight.")

Ultimately, we'll find that there is nothing even close to a catch-all definition of "sport." This is a different question entirely from "is wrestling a sport?" I think that it's not necessarily disqualified because it's predetermined; the modern day savvy wrestling fan identifies key performers who they like, and critique each match based on the criteria of what they think a "good wrestling match" has. It's not any different than, say, figure skating, where competition is based on the judgment of performance. Few will say that figure skating isn't a sport, but many feel fine deriding wrestling for what it is.

Of course, it's not a perfect comparison - in the end, it's the spectacular that gets the attention (and ire) of pro sports journalists. They may not have a column about the quality performance of Kurt Angle and Samoa Joe, but they'll need little prodding to publicly bash wrestling for the McMahon/Trump contest at WrestleMania.

Sam Ford said...

Wrestling's treatment in the mainstream seems to almost always go into an all-out attack, such as Phil Mushnick's columns in the New York Post, or else fluff pieces that are often done a little tongue-in-cheek. Very few places offer balanced reporting on the world of pro wrestling as business or otherwise, which is why I think the niche opened for someone like Dave Meltzer, a serious journalist who covers pro wrestling as an industry and as a performance.

Rob said...

I wrote a comment before about how magnetic a character I've been Andre The Giant to be, and I've been planning my next to post to be about Hulk Hogan, so your comments about how everyone at least knew who Andre and Hulk were back then piqued my interest.

Basically, it seems to me that there was something really special about those two wrestlers that goes beyond what I've seen so far of other wrestlers, and I feel that there's simply no one out there right now who quite takes their place.

On the one hand, I think perhaps having such universally likable and impressive characters may have been a major factor in the more positive treatment of wrestling on ESPN during their peak. In spite of everything, I think those two may have added a certain kind of legitimacy to enjoying wrestling -- not to wrestling "as a sport" I mean, but to wrestling as an acceptable form of "athletic entertainment".

On the other hand, maybe there are other factors and those two are more a product of wrestling's status at the time, rather than the other way around, and so if wrestling had a higher status now, then other characters would be able to hold similar positions.

However, as someone who has never been into wrestling, my very strong initial reaction to those two wrestlers in particular suggests to me that perhaps they don't really have a modern equivelant.