Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Drawing Heat II (and III, but who's counting)


A sharp left turn from my last post, and where we left the image of the Wildman at the end of Monday's readings. On the road, the show gets worse, less mythic, more mundane. Profits drop, tempers are strained, and everyone--Dave included--behaves rather unadmirably.

Riffing from Sam's comment on my last post, and a conversation we had before class, part of this is no doubt a reflection of the author's highly conflicted status. That status is itself further complicated by Freedman's assertion that the fans understand the show way better than the performers, who still seem to think they're fooling people into thinking they're athletes or warriors. But Freedman's journey from outsider to insider is uneven.

When he's actually working, all of the noble savage, lone-man-against-the-world stuff seems to dissipate. He's gruff, businesslike, berates his performers (who, of course, richly deserve it), and...fails. Dramatically, as befits a figure of his stature. And in failure, Freedman returns to his mythic tone. When there's downtime, and it's becoming apparent exactly how badly things are going, the Wildman is again a mythic figure, this time a tragic one, and the show he's been putting on (in which the cruel and dishonest ruthlessly crush the brave and noble) becomes a metonym for his life. (Or possibly synecdoche. I've never been clear on this.) Tunney, acting on orders from McMahon, leans on the comissioner, and Dave gets shut down. The new WWF shows are flashier, happier, and Freedman subtly suggests that they're racist in addition to being relentlessly jingoistic. But mostly, they're optimistic, designed to obscure the cruelty Dave's shows had been designed to reveal.

I'm not sure I can completely buy that the insanity of the matches described in the book can be boiled down, as some of the other pieces we've read suggest, to "the bad guys consistently beat the good guys," but then, I wasn't there. Yeah, everyone likes heels, but part of the drawing power is knowing the heel might get the ass-kicking he deserves. Whether it's accurate for wrestling as a whole, it's a hell of a metaphor for Dave's career, assuming we can actually believe Freedman's account. Which does seem to be a bit of an if.

Kerry Von Erich

When I first saw the documentary of the rise and fall of the World Class Championship Wrestling, I thought the most impressive Von Erich brother was Kerry Von Erich. He seemed the biggest and he had god-like hair.
Doing some research on Kerry, I discovered that he did not actually obtain his physique naturally but by the help of steroids. At the beginning of the documentary, there were several pictures of Kerry and the rest of the Von Erich brothers and they all seemed reasonably ripped even as youngster so I naturally assumed that they're muscles were natural from working out intensely. I must say I was quite disappointed to learn this.
Thinking about it though and knowing by the end of the documentary that Kerry was addicted to several types of drugs even from the early 80's, it just would seem natural that he would of experimented with steroids at a young age.
Something else that impressed me about Kerry was the fact that he wrestled for most of his career with a prosthetic right foot. Kerry was involved in a motorcycle accident in 1986 which eventually caused him to lose his right foot. What I didn't know was that the reason he eventually lost his foot was because he prematurely attempted to walk and crushed the bones. Also, it was believed drugs were the reason for his motorcycle accident.
What was impressive about have a prosthetic foot was that he kept it secret from the media for a long time. The documentary made it seem like the fans never found out about his prosthetic foot until after he stopped wrestling, but after doing some research I discovered that it was revealed during a match with Colonel DeBeers. DeBeers grabbed Kerry's foot and attempted to drag him from his foot and in doing so he pulled off Kerry's prosthetic foot. I was curious to know how the crowd took this news, but I did not find anything on this topic.
Probably the best moment I saw of Kevin was when he beat Ric Flair at Texas to win the NWA World Heavy Weight Championship. This win was in tribute of his brother David, that had died jsut three months earlier. I remember I got goosebumps for some reason when I saw this match in the documentary. After the documentary I tried to find the entire match on, but couldn't find it.

Wrestling as the Battle of Capitalism

We'll be discussing Drawing Heat in class tomorrow, but I wanted to make a specific point about Freedman's earlier essay we read in class last week, after reading an excellent post from Omar about the meaning of "Will the Sheik Throw His Blinding Fireball?" and its use of the small town of Simcoe.

My greatest takeaway from that piece has always been Freedman's examination of why the bad guy wins. We've already seen people explain why the good guy wins. I've mentioned the theory that some have that the joy of wrestling is to see the bad guy cheat and then the good guy eventually cheat, to "fight fire with fire," as explaining the joy of the hero's prevailing, even if using the villain's tactics. But, in wrestling, the bad guy wins half of the time, or even more than half of the time, perhaps. Why do people pay big money to see Dusty Rhodes and Roddy Piper get beat up, as Tess points out, or to see Rey Misterio get squashed when returning from knee surgery to say hello to the fans, while still on crutches, again by Umaga, as we saw on Smackdown this past week.

On page 76 of his essay, Freedman writes, "There is a moral and political battle going on. Not between two individuals but between two explanations of how individuals fare in their daily affairs; one is the ideology of capitalism--that is, that all men are equal in the market place--the other, the practice of capitalism--that is, that good, honest men are at a distinct disadvantage."

His theory, then, is that fans know that the ideology of capitalism is not actually true, that the hardest workers aren't always the most rewarded, and that many of the people who get to the top do so by cheating. So, when the bad guy wins, the fans inherently understand because, if you go with the perception that many of these fans are working class, then it is the story of their own lives, and they understand the hero's plight...that the hero deserved to win, but that the world doesn't fight fair.

Cynical? You bet. But it equates wrestling with country music, where the real power is to capture that feeling of the world being against you, being down on your luck, etc. Any thoughts?

Another Gorgeous??

Jimmy Garvin was a wrestler, mainly known in the 80's, who wrestled with World Class Championship Wrestling. He was known as Gorgeous Jimmy. Sounds quite a bit like Gorgeous George if you ask me. This shows how much of an influence Gorgeous George was on the wrestlers of today's era. Gorgeous Jimmy was even a heel himself and had some of the same traits as Gorgeous George like wearing a real fancy robe.
As a heel, Gorgeous Jimmy had many feuds, one of which we saw in the viewings was with David Von Erich. This feud ended quite funny actually as we saw in the viewings. After Gorgeous Jimmy lost his feud with David Von Erich, his valet Sunshine and himself were forced to work on David's ranch and basically be his slave for the day.
He also had a feud with Chris Adams. This feud lasted for the rest of this career with World Class Championship Wrestling. He later moved on to wrestle for the American Wrestling Association and then with the World Championship Wrestling. Finally in 1993 Gorgeous Jimmy left World Championship Wrestling for the Global Wrestling Federation. Here he would re-spark his feud with Chris Adams after ten years of their first feud in World Class Championship Wrestling. This quick died away as the Global Wrestling Federation took a fall shortly after Gorgeous Jimmy joined it.

Wrestling and Pop Culture

Any truly good wrestler is able to sell his performance to the crowd. He or she is able to give an audience what it wants at particular moments in a match. As we've come to learn, however, the most memorable wrestlers have been those with the most colorful personalities, both in and out of the ring. From Gutowski's piece on the "Art of Professional Wrestling", I realized that the versatility in creating characters and personas in the world of wrestling is representative of wrestling as a social dynamic.

The form modern wrestling has taken is specially adapted to the world around it. Unlike popular sports, wrestling has the ability to continually give its audience more of what it wants to see. As Gutowski writes, professional wrestling borrows bits and pieces of popular culture and effectively incorporates them into their programs. The evolution of character performances and personalities can be seen as an evolution in audience tastes prescribed by popular culture. In the post World War II era, for example, it was was not uncommon to see many wrestlers who were self-proclaimed Nazi sympathizers or who wrestled under German surnames.

Wrestling has been able to command a large following throughout the years because it can perpetually cater to popular interests. If nothing else, this is what defines wrestling as a form of entertainment (as opposed to pure sport). Like performers in other entertainment genre (music, television, etc.) wrestlers gain favor among the crowd by keeping up with the progress of popular culture. If they are truly special, they can transcend this stricture and become a cultural icon themselves. Nevertheless, it can be argued that wrestling is a social organism all its own. Popular culture itself can borrow personalities from the ring and transmute them into characters in TV or film or even music. In any case, a clear symbiosis can be seen to exist between mass culture and professional wrestling.

Reflection on my Early Beliefs

The reading by Workman explores the perceptions of wrestling as either sport or drama. In it he gives generalizations and common beliefs of wrestling fans. He argues that most all wrestling fans perceive wrestling as a mixture of sport and theatre. This made me think of my perception of wrestling. Now, of course I know that wrestling is scripted and outcomes are known months in advance. But as a child, I had a completely different view on wrestling.

Since I started watching wrestling at such a young age, with my first memories being around the age of 4, I thought wrestling to be completely real. I thought that the characters were a reflection of who the wrestlers were in real life. When a wrestler got injured, I completely believed that they had gotten hurt in real life. One example I remember was when the Ultimate Warrior got into a feud with Papa Shango. After one of the Ultimate Warrior's matches, a curse that Papa Shango put on the Ultimate Warrior caused him to vomit violently. Being such a young an impressionable child, it was pretty scary to see the greatest wrestler of all time in one of his lowest moments. Another memory I have is watching the Undertaker place his defeated opponent in a body bag after his matches. Again, I would believe that the Undertaker had killed his opponent or if the opponent was somehow still alive, he would soon suffocate in the body bag.

I don't really remember when I began to characterize wrestling as being "fake". I guess it was a combination of age and common sense. I do remember, however, watching a special on tv that showed some of the tricks and secrets behind wrestling. I thought it was a big deal because I had never seen anyone directly address wrestling in such a manner. This didn't really have an effect on my wrestling beliefs. Knowing that the outcomes were predetermined and the actual wrestling moves were not devastating, I still watched with the same intensity and forget that I knew wrestling was fake.

Looking back on my early beliefs, I see how ridiculous they really were. Luckily, I wasn't traumatized in any way from watching wrestling at such a young age. My early and current beliefs made me realize how special wrestling is. It' amazing how people can just get lost in it and forget all of their common sense. Whether wrestling is characterized as sport or drama, it will always be characterized as unique.

The Evolving Roles of Women

From seeing Lipstick and Dynamite and other early-era matches, we know that the ladies had significant places within the wrestling cards of the 50's and 60's. They were not little fly weights or damsels in distress, they were tough strong women, wrestling as their own independent characters (or even just as themselves), going toe to toe with each other and sometimes the men. They were not relegated to corners or the ring apron, but standing upright, with arms raised in the middle of the ring.

But somewhere between that era and the Eighties, these women disappeared. In all the footage from the AWA and WCCW, there was never a match even featuring an independent female competitor. The only glimpse of female talent were as valets, who interfered occasionally in matches to help out their guy, the actual wrestler. What happened?

We may explore this phenomenon later in the course, but i'm addressing it and speculating now. From the late 60's through the 70's, several cultural upheavals occured, including the feminist revolution. One may think that this would encourage women's wrestling, inspiring new wrestlers to show that they can take on the men, demonstrate the equality of the sexes. However, it seems to have gone to other way. Perhaps the mindset was leaning away from proving that the sexes were equal on 'man's turf', but rather avoiding those arenas and trying to establish the power of women on their own turf, away from the 'male' characteristics of aggressive, violent entertainment.

With society gradually becoming less male-dominated, the strong roles that women held in pro wrestling seemed to wane. In the 50's and such, the women's matches served as both vicarious release for fans and literal release for the wrestlers themselves, a chance to rebel against the gender roles that they were forced to fit during the rest of everyday life. With those gender roles changing, and the heavy hand of 'The Man' being lifted, this vicarious rebellion was no longer as special as before, which may have led to the decline of important, independent female characters in the territories.

Coming into the 80's and beyond, a sort of status quo has been reached, and gradually more important female wrestlers begin to come forth, albeit slowly. Most are still valets and gain fame by holding the arm of a larger more successful male wrestler. This strange gap between ages of vital women's wrestling may be most attributable to societal changes, but of course, I am speculating. Still, strange how the great, strong women of the 50's gave way to minor valets and damsels in distress so quickly.

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.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tragedy and Failure

The story of the Von Erich family and their wrestling business was really one of the saddest things I have ever seen. Already the story started off with the family losing a child, Jackie and starting off in the business. The beginning seemed very similar to the story of the AWA and their roots. Fritz Von Erich was a wrestler, a legend in the business just like Verne Gagne and like Gagne, he tried to push his sons to superstardom. His push did work and it was almost like the situation with the AWA where the WCCW lost talent. The talent was lost to tragedy however unlike the AWA which lost talent to the WWF. What was there that Fritz Von Erich could have done to prevent the downfall of the WCCW? Obviously the answer was to expand. He had the opportunity. But it also seemed obvious that their business was doomed to fail. When the documentary went over the beginning of the syndication and increasing the production value of the show Fritz obviously failed to see the opportunity in going national and global so I really thought at that moment, that it was obvious his lack of vision would cost the company. Now it is hard for me to judge whether or not the WCCW would have continued to succeed had they expanded into other territories because the death of the Von Erich boys really seemed like it would have been a major setback and other people seemed like they were on their way to self destruction. Tino Hernandez was a prime example. An organization like the WWF had the upper hand because the owner and promoter was young and not as entrenched in the old ways of the business.

The last episode of WWE Raw had some pretty good moments but I think the build up to Wrestlemania is taking a while. The main focus of the RAW show is the impending match at Wrestlemania between Shawn Michaels and John Cena. The interesting thing to note here is that there is no distinguishable heel or face. Michaels appears to have the crowd in his favor and there is always a hint at him attacking John Cena from behind. The only thing is that it may seem that the crowd would be behind him if he does but it is frustrating for a fan since it this has been the situation for I think four weeks now and it does not move the story and drama forward.

On another note, it was also announced last night that Jerry “the King” Lawler will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. They even showed footage of his win at SuperClash 3, against Kerry Von Erich. It is pretty interesting to see that some of these guys we are reading about and watching are getting recognized. It made me wonder if the Von Erichs would get recognition some day.

Filling In The Gaps

For this post, I want to do something a little bit different than I've done in my posts so far. Rather than write a mini-essay with my thoughts and what I've synthesized lately, I'm going to write a bit and ask some questions about the big picture that I've been curious about and keep coming up in the material.

First of all, we looked at both the WCCW and AWA seperately. If I had only covered the WCCW material from class, I could easily come away thinking that they were the biggest and baddest wrestling association before the WWE came around. Similarly, I could come away thinking that the AWA was the biggest and baddest wrestling association before the WWE. So I'm trying to figure out how these two co-existed and if and how they really interacted with each other at all. The AWA thought they were important enough to drop out of the NWA, so when they did, did this have an effect on the WCCW? Did the Von Erichs play any role in the success of the AWA? Did their respective successes just peak at different times? Did people watch both the AWA and the WCCW? Or just one or the other? Did audiences switch between them, or just go directly to the WWE?

How do all of these pre-WWE wrestling organizations fit together?

The other thing that consistently comes up is "Japan".

I don't recall us covering any material on Japanese wrestling, and yet there seems to be some kind of major connection between Japan and the American professional wrestling industry. Listening to the insiders in the American industry speak, they talk about it like it is second nature and something everyone knows about, yet I've never heard of a Japanese professional wrestling indsutry at all. Further, it seems like the Japanese were well aware of the American industry, so was there a seperate Japanese industry, and if so, did anyone ever try to bring it over to America? And how did these connections form so early on throughout so much of the industry? How significant are they?

So, I guess those are the two big things I've been wondering a lot about lately, and don't feel like I have any really good answers to from the material thus far.

Drawing Heat I

I read the first leg of Drawing Heat directly from the computer screen, which freaked out my eyes and necessitated several breaks. So I was already a bit out of sorts when I got to the later chapters. The surreality of Dave's experiences with the bears met with the surreality of looking at life through malfunctioning eyes, and I had a very weird reading experience indeed.

Far from the slick, mafia-esque promoters that open the book, the Wildman, introduced in fairly prosaic terms as a travelling showman and competition to the bigger promoters, gradually grows to an almost mythic status. His particular perception of mind/body duality is not something we expect from someone who is ultimately, we initially assume, a businessman. It's not something I can easily place in any philosophical tradition.

But it's the bears that freak me out the most, and made me wonder aloud, how much of this is bullshit? This guy knows the bears, how to work with them, what they're feeling, issues with their health. Or so it seems: when one of them goes bad, the ensuing tragedy is treated as nothing short of mythic.

Put simply, he never comes off as dumb. A lot of the people we've read about have, to my mind--good at what they were doing, but lacking some foresight and common sense about life in general. Reading Freedman's description of the Wildman, you get the sneaking suspicion that he's smarter than all of us. Or perhaps wiser, for those who like to make such distinctions (D&D players, I'm looking at you.) He's an epic figure, the romantics' noble savage in Canada, and, well, how real can he be? The writer certainly seems to buy into the world he's presented with during his research. I'm eager to see how he deals with it in the rest of the book. And, since Veronica Mars is on in two hours, I should probably get on that.

AWA Losing Sight

While watching the AWA documentary last Thursday, it really amazed me how influential this defunct wrestling promotion was in the wrestling business is today. There were lots of wrestlers there that really became the wrestlers that people came to love and even wrestlers that I know and cheer on today. Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and even Shawn Michaels got their start there and it would have been interesting to see what kind of superstars the AWA could come up with if they had been around longer and not lost their premiere status. I don’t think it was the fact that Hulk Hogan left that started the AWA’s downfall but it did contribute. Though had they been as big or as tempting as the WWF and actually made greater efforts to guarantee that their wrestlers would stay, they might have provided earlier competition during the national expansion of wrestling.

It seems ironic to me that the AWA fell to the wayside because of Verne Gagne’s stubbornness to keep up with the trends of wrestling during the 1980’s. The AWA seemed to have really innovated in the way people connect with the wrestlers and was able to produce wrestlers that really were going to be the standard form of wrestlers meaning charismatic characters versus the old style of purely technical wrestlers. It seems that the AWA is the classic example that we have been reading about: a territorial promotion that rose to popularity but refused to take the next step to reach the big time. Verne Gagne refused to push the favorite wrestlers of the people and instead put what he considered real athletes at the top. Instead of putting someone like Hulk Hogan at the top, he wanted to push his son and Curt Hennig. Perhaps Gagne was still in that old mentality from the 1960’s that a real wrestler was one who was tough in and out of the ring and did not appeal to the lowest common denominator. He reminds me of Lou Thesz.

I do think that the WWE Hall of Fame induction was well deserved for Vern Gagne and though we might think that politics are not a part of it, there have been situations where Vince McMahon follows this. The induction of Bret Hart shows this.

Past and present - AWA, WCCW, WWE

Verne Gagne and the Von Erichs were names I had heard before, but couldn't put faces to or matches to and knew nothing more than the Von Erichs were littered with tragedies. I knew that they were influential, but I truly had no idea just how much of their influence is still seen today until I watched the documentaries both last week and this week. However, the one thing that struck me the most about the AWA and WCCW is just how successful they were in their primes, where with smarter decisions, either could have outlasted Vince in a wrestling "war" for the supreme product on TV. Vince did not single-handedly conquer like he always makes it seem to younger fans (like me) who know no better - he was just lucky that the people running his "competition" didn't know how to change with the times, because they definitely had the crowds and the talent.

What surprises me the most is that the AWA and WCCW back in the 80s seemed to be much more successful in their time than the WWE is present-day. When they spoke of ratings, they were talking around 10-15 range. Last time I checked, WWE Raw has a good night when it breaks over a 4.0. One of the articles that we read (the name escapes me at this time) nailed it right on the head with a quote that went something like... "if you're the only shoemaker in town, you should be selling a lot of shoes."

The WWE, I'm sure, also did rather well in that time period. The 80s are glorified as the first big "boom" era in WWE history, where Hulk Hogan reigned supreme. Whenever I thought of the 80s, the WWE immediately had me think of Hogan, Macho Man, Andre, Ricky Steamboat, The Rockers, etc etc. Names like the Von Erichs, or Verne and Greg Gagne, they're there but vague and in the background for younger fans who grew up when wrestling was being defined by middle fingers and chugging beer. And yet, even with the different organizations and competitive atmosphere, wrestling not only survived - it flourished.

So my question is what changed? Vince won the war in the end since he's the only one left standing, but the fans who followed the local shows week in and week out are gone for the most part. Is it just harder these days with more competition from other network shows (like I know SmackDown tended to struggle when it ran head-to-head with Friends), or is there something lacking in today's WWE that was abundant in the time that the AWA and WCCW were at the top of their game?

This Baneful Vocation...

As a note: I'm likely going to be posting primarily on the documentaries in lab as that's my primary source of info.

Well, tonight's documentary was especially depressing; I almost had an "It's still real to me, dammit!" moment there. Some of the deaths were flat out tragic mistakes, but some of the deaths felt like they should be chalked up to "the business." I recall that during the high points of World Class, the Von Erich boys were wrestling two to three times a day. I wish I could say the stories of drug abuse among wrestlers were surprising, but from wrestlers hooked on painkillers to recreational drugs the stories have been practically endless. The sketchy characters in Puerto Rico that led to Bruiser Brody's death were something new to me, though. Add to this the likelihood of severe injury, unsteady wages, and it is - as we're mostly familiar with - a minefield.

I couldn't help but wondering if this is somehow related to the rapid expansion / global reach of World Class. David Von Erich's stomach illness may have been an unavoidable tragic accident, but I can't help but wonder if things would have turned out differently if he was working once or twice a week, had a company doctor, and didn't spend a good portion of his week traveling to and from shows. Trying to complete three shows in a day - or touring the country as WWE currently does - really does drive some of the talent to work through the pain or turn to drug addictions. Bringing this back to present day, I can't help but thinking of Kurt Angle's admission of taking 85 pills a day while touring with the ECW. Or of Eddie Guerrero's weakening heart that he shook off until it ended him.

Not to take away anything from personal responsibility, but is there something inherently dangerous with talent working on a certain venue scale? Does there come a point when too much work or pressure on the talent leads to their mental and physical breakdown? When desire to spread out your talent leads to them winding up in shady stadiums with violent dealers? When an institutional instinct to not appear weak (a la Chris Nowinski's book) leads to more broken bodies than it does better spots and buy rates? When enough shows a week leads to an almost certain injuries and exhaustion? Or is it really just up to the individuals a brand acquires? There are a number of wrestlers that were/are able to successfully cope with the stresses, and a number of small-brand wrestlers who were just bound for trouble (New Jack, anyone?).

After writing this out, I'm leaning a bit more towards the latter. It also leads me to a somewhat rudimentary economic analysis of how the business is run, which I'll try to get to later in the week.

Monday, February 26, 2007

"Stealing" Talent

The documentary detailing the rise and fall of the AWA was enlightening, as I had heard the name many times before, as the starting place for many a classic wrestler, such as Hogan and Andre the Giant, but nothing more. The parallels with the WWE were striking, as Verne Gagne basically built the AWA up to its heights near single-handedly, similar to Vince McMahon, and well as bringing his family into the business in order to keep control, again like Vince and his son Shane and daughter Stephanie. From there, the stories deviate.

Verne Gagne was known for his stubbornness, his heavy hand and personal touch in every aspect of the business, from personally training wrestlers to actually wearing the belt for long lengths of time. Through his grooming and business management, the AWA spawned a roster of world class wrestlers, from Hogan and Andre to Shawn Michaels and the Road Warriors, and other great personalities such as Bobby the Brain and Gene Oakerland. The AWA was highly successful under the rule of Verne Gagne for 30+ years.

Then came Vince Jr. When he took control of the WWWF from his father, he set out to create something completely new and fresh, with the best talent, high production values, and widespread television and pay-per-view broadcasting. Vince began to reach out to established and rising stars, including those in the AWA, one of the first being Hogan. Whether it was just an obscene offer in itself or whether Hogan was just looking for an out, whatever the reason, Hogan made the jump, and for some reason did not finish out his pre-booked dates for AWA. With the loss of arguably its greatest star, the AWA began hemoraging talent to the WWWF, which began growing, despite all arguments to the contrary by old verterans that this 'new-fangled wrestling' would never survive. Verne became even more stubborn, and drew his interests in even closer, mandating iron-clad contracts from his talent, which they didn't always sign. Vince's enterprise was gaining across the country, as the AWA began losing, and eventually faltered.

Did Vince kill the AWA? Were his tactics unsavory, or unfair? I think not, he was building a company, and wanted the best, and apparently he could afford it. If Verne Gagne had been less stubborn and had reached out to others, the AWA could have been able to evolve with the times in response to the up-and-coming WWWF, and may have lasted much longer. Yes, Vince was an opportunist, but only by seizing opportunities are fortunes and fates made. Without Verne Gagne and the AWA, the WWE as we know it, as a multi-billion dollar international enterprise, would probably not exist, but if Vince Jr. had not come along, I'm not sure if the AWA would be still be around either.

Hulk Hogan

Prior to last Thursday's viewing in class, I had not thought a great deal about Hulk Hogan, or thought a great deal of him for that matter. However, similar to what I experienced when really learning about Andre The Giant for the first time, I found something very interesting and captivating in Hogan as I started to learn more about him.

First of all, like Andre, there's simply something very pure and magnetic about his personality and what he brings into the ring. He isn't that spectactular of a wrestler, yet I feel like he's very much in tune with what wrestling is about. It seems like he just loves the drama and show of wrestling, the crowd, and giving them the best show he possibly can, and I think his love of the "game" (if we should call it that) shines through when he's performing.

Looking at his history too, I think one can see how this all comes together. He never thought he was very good, yet seems to have wanted a wrestling career quite badly. Even after quitting, he quickly came back.

Also, when trying to look at Hogan's character, there just isn't a whole lot there. Unlike other wrestlers, he doesn't seem to have some big backstory or major gimmick to him. His character is nothing other than his presence and letting himself have fun in the ring.

I think this is very similar to what made Andre The Great so interesting to me.

Second, very much unlike Andre, Hogan's business sense and the extremely cold way in which he dropped the AWA over t-shirt sales and money was quite marked compared to the other wrestlers.

In a way, I find it hard to reconcile these two sides of Hogan, yet I think they ultimately work together. Both feel like a product of narcissism to me. Hogan loves himself and his image and is willing to be very cold and business-like to protect it and keep ownership over it, and that's all part of what he enjoys about being in the ring ("on stage") so much.

He sold himself just by being a person who loves to sell himself and letting that out, while having the brains to keep things under his own control, and I think that's a perfect fit for the world of professional wrestling.

War is Raw'ng

A diary of a first-timer trying to apply theory to practice.

So one day, I was watching Raw. Despite the reminder that Dusty Rhodes would be accepting his hall-of-fame nomination during that show, I'd forgotten to look up relevant channel/time info. Would have missed it entirely except someone had left the TV on an unusual station during dinner, and a housemate had sparked conversation around the table by deciding to uncharacteristically watch wrestling. We each knew a little bit, making the experience an entertaining string of 'what the hell?'s and 'oh... I guess they don't like each other so much's.

The first couple matches, the tag team with women, and the big guy versus little guy were really short. By the time I started to get a feel for who was on which team, and was looking forwards to interesting overturns of power, the matches were over. The big guy trounced, without any suspense for his downfall, which was unsatisfying. Perhaps this was one in a string of matches supporting his brute superiority, and a later storyline will serve to reverse this. More what I was thinking at the time was that these were 'freak show' matches – the curiosity of the women in the ring and the massively big guy forming the basis of the interest rather than the history of character and story pervading everything else that was happening in the show.

Apart from the above points of confusion, Raw was reassuringly similar in format to any other cast based drama. Characters or groups of characters have their own 'scenes' in which they demonstrate their own personalities within the context of a wrestling storyline (the four 'non-headliners' who were to go against the four 'headliners') or a more character centered storyline (the conflict between the younger wrestler and the old guy who insulted his spirit). None of these gripped us in particular, but I can see how watching the show over time would lead me to have vested interest in at least a few of the characters or plots, which is what we see in shows like ER. This jives with other's experiences, when they enter into the wrestling fan community through affinity with a specific wrestler or team. The other thing we noted while watching, and that differs substantially from the way one watches ER, is the extended introduction of wrestlers entering the ring provides little in the way of story, but allows a perfect break for talking.

The one place where I was actively engaged with the show was non-coincidentially when Roddy Piper and Dusty Rhodes were on. Since at that point I knew a bit about them from class, and had seen them before, I had a sense of ownership regarding their stories. Which is why I was actually upset when they were quickly interrupted and beaten up, not to return. Sam later explained that this event builds up Umanga as a big bad and perfect stand in for Vince during WrestleMania. But it also (literally) stomps on wrestling history. No one even jumped into the ring to help them, which really confused me. All I can think is that during the actual induction for the hall of fame, they will be back and unscathed. And yet... During the show, even though the fans boo'd, the entire event was treated as no big deal. Leaving me going 'what the hell? ... I guess....'

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.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Thoughts on the AWA Documentary

The AWA documentary we watched in class really opened my eyes to a lot of things. I didn't know too much about the history of wrestling before the WWF. I always assumed that wrestling began with the WWF and I never bothered to either confirm or refute this assumption.

It was interesting to see the different organizations that owned different territories and how they coexisted with one another. They each had their own champions along with their championship belts. Because they all stayed within their limits, they were able to gain success. Nowadays, whenever there is some kind of competition the answer is usually to the buy them out, as Vince Jr. is known to do.

Verne Gagne was a name I had never heard of either. If it weren't for Verne and the AWA, wrestling as we know it would be completely different. In addition to being, arguably, one of the greatest wrestlers, Verne knew how to make other wrestlers great. I now know that he is responsible for a lot of the legends of the WWF/WWE. When Hulk Hogan was struggling to find his place, like many others, Verne gave him the tools to become the legend that he is today. All of the familiar names from the WWF that I started out watching were products of Verne's AWA.

I also thought it was unfair that the wrestlers would use the AWA as a springboard to get into the WWF. A lot of them had no intention of staying with the AWA long-term. I don't know if they really appreciated the fact that Verne made a lot of the wrestlers who they are. Even though Verne was losing a lot of his talent, he was always optimistic and never thought of throwing in the towel. In order to survive he had to become stubborn and keep the belt within his tight circle. It's really amazing to see how long he was able to last when he not only had to compete with the WWF, but compete against all the talent that he developed.

I realize that there is so much more to wrestling than I had originally imagined. I now have an appreciation for Verne Gagne and the AWA. The contributions that Verne made to wrestling definitely influenced its development to what it is today.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Gagne and the WWE Hall of Fame Induction

I thought the induction of Verne Gagne into the WWE Hall of Fame was the most bizarre and maybe saddest part of the second part of the documentary we saw in class about he demise of the AWA. I suppose it's most appropriate to honor Gagne in a national format, and the current organization of professional wrestling means that the context for celebrating Gagne has to involve the WWE, but it felt like watching a celebration of Jeter in Fenway park.
Of course, Gagne handled the induction with charisma. He made a few stabs at Vince and was clearly working with the irony at hand. The wrestlers in the audience seemed appropriately respectful, giving a standing ovation (I always think it's weird to see wrestlers at events like that, all dressed up and mostly behaving). But the whole thing just seemed overwhelmingly sad to me, and I felt like MacMahon was wearing two hats-- that of the patriarch of the wrestling industry who wished to celebrate a true legend because it was the right thing to do, and the pompous jackass who wanted to dance around his beaten, aged former industry competitor one last time.

AWA Documentary Perspective

As we covered briefly in class, the WWE-produced documentary on the AWA brings with it some interpretive issues, further complicating the already complex machinations of "authorship" in wrestling itself. I actually found the documentary fairly straightforward toward the beginning--leaning on the side of idol worship when describing Gagne, perhaps, but otherwise kind of what I expected.

Things got a little confusing when it got to the beginning of the end, most notably with Hulk Hogan. That Verne and the other commentators, including his son and Hulk himself, had radically different interpretations of Hogan's early career and abilities as a wrestler/performer is to be expected, since the industry and fans seem to be have a highly conflicted opinion of him. More problematic was Hulk's departure, and the beginning of the exodus to WWF.

McMahon, of course, came off as a bit of a prick. But that's to be expected, given his character in the WWE narrative, isn't it? I was far more alarmed at the fact that his explanations were pretty convincing, in that destroying a popular wrestling club is hardly the worst offense that can be levelled against the kind of bare-knuckle capitalism that's been the hallmark of pro wrestling since its carnie days. He seemed strangely out of character, really, although I wonder if it's just because I'm not as familiar with the character as most of you.

I was a bit confused by how the wrestlers managed to leave without fulfulling their contractual obligations without getting sued into oblivion--from what I hear, most of the entertainment industry puts its hungrier workers into pretty iron-clad contracts with enormous penalties for such things. Was there a loophole that once the TV promos had been shot, the contract was technically fulfilled? It doesn't seem like even McMahon could throw enough money to staunch a flood of lawsuits.

At any rate, the end was the strangest for me, as various commentators eulogized the AWA, organized by the filmmakers into a central narrative that Gagne was progressive for his era but not progressive enough for the rise of cable. Underlying this assertion is a claim that the WWE's actions were both just and inevitable, which makes me wonder if McMahon expects the WWE to be on top forever, or if someday he'll sell his tape library so someone can make documentaries about how HE deserved to lose it all.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Back to the camera

A quick note about the AWA inteviews that we watched today in class... I was amazed at how informal and poorly staged the tv interviews were. The wrestlers often had their backs to the camera , and walked out of frame, or stood directly in front of the announcer so that the poor guy had to reach around the jostling, extoling wrestler with the long skinny mic. The wrestlers also seemed to be in somewhat uncomfortable territory with the speaking on camera, often looking uncertain about how or whether to continue a rant or just start throwing things or beating on the interviewer.
All of this could certainly be accounted for by the shift in wrestling into tv formats and into more dramatic layouts and plotlines. The wrestlers were given a new criteria for success in pro wrestling: the ability to perform their characters verbally on camera. We saw the instance of Bockwinkel and Stevens taking on Bobby "The Brain" Heenan as a manager, since his speaking ability and verbal charisma far outshone the wrestlers'.
But the crazy interviews, with all their impromptu camera work and screwy positionings, add to an anarchic tone the is created because the wrestlers can't control their physical energy, their anger, their need for vengeance. When the interviewer ends up trembling in the corner, it adds to the credibility of the wrestler's character. The interview becomes an extension of the match, instead of a seperated response to it.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Magic, Religion, Wrestling...

I was at dinner last night at Baraka, a Tunisian place, and one of my friends was performing magic tricks for us with a deck of cards. Really amazing stuff- like MIT's better version of David Blaine. I apparently performed well as an audience to this- I was totally in awe, and giggled hooted whenever the trick played out. Anyway, the waitress, who was muslim, started telling us about how she doesn't subscribe to ideas of magic, because the only magic comes from god and we must only believe in his powers, not in the trickery and illusions of power that man can perform. My friend the magician noted that god's magic can be performed through the physical actions of man, which the waitress agreed with, but she still wasn't on board with magic-- she thought it was really dangerous to have man believe in, or play along with, this idea of illusion of other-wordly power.

At the crux of the debate was the point that the waitress saw magic as evidence without truth, and religion as truth without evidence (my reductive words, not hers). So as a humble, good person, one should always privilege truth rather than evidence.

Having been talking about the wrestling seminar before all this went down, and having just read the Stone and Oldenberg 's account of wrestling transforming from 'work to play to professional sport to drama', I realized the same debate is at the center of professional wrestling. Stone and Oldenberg give a careful account of the context and causes for the shift away from 'truth' in wrestling and into illusion, and this circumstance is described in a tone that reinforces the glorification of the days of wrestling as an honest sport, with challenges that were legitimate enough to place bets on.

But I'm left wondering whether it's actually appropriate at all to favor sport over drama. I think the amazing thing about wrestling is its liminal, overlapping position in truth and evidence-- the physical act is real, and so is the drama. The audience, even if they know what's coming, or know that it's predetermined as dramatic performance, can still have the feeling I had when I saw the magic tricks, and the fact that it's a trick doesn't make that feeling of awe and shock and admiration any less authentic or worthwhile.

Over the couscous, we asked the magician if he believed in magic. He said he 'believed in believing in magic'. This seems like the tack taken by many wrestling fans-- if you don't believe in believing, there's no point in going along for the ride.

Lipstick, Dynamite, Babes and Brawls

While many of the famous names of the golden age of wrestling helped set the stage for those after them, they may not exactly be pioneers in a strict sense. I mean, pro wrestling as we see it now evolved from the shooter matches, where there were real contests going on, and those evolved from the athletic amateur or Greco-Roman style wrestling that is still around. Similarly, these greats, Gorgeous George, Lou Thez, etc, took big steps forward and helped wrestling evolve, but not without help from the past, not without something to step off from. Unlike these greats, the first real ladies of professional wrestling, as seen in Lipstick and Dynamite, were true pioneers, jumping in to what had been previously a nearly exclusive man's world, the squared circle.

These ladies jumped into the ring and strode a new path, with no one to guide them, no role models to follow, not even a guarantee that wrestling would be even worth their time, energy and effort, not to mention the unique hardships along the way. With little or no training, a select few women dared to thwart the common conception of what a woman was, if only inside the ring. They were strong, they were aggressive and inflicted pain on their opponents, and when they won they were proud of it! In the ring, you would not push these women around, and I'd like to see you try and make them 'act like a lady' (unless you were the ref, maybe). However, outside of the ring, it was back to the everyday life for women in the 50's, where they were expected to be dressed properly, hair done, stockings and skirts, please and thank you, demure and subordinate. Even for these women, who could probably take on the average man and were travelling all over the country on their own, they were expected to be 'ladies' everywhere outside the ring.

Despite the double standard and often harsh treatment experienced on the road, these women thrived, wowing crowds and exploring the country. They overcame tremendous obstacles, both societal and personal, to pursue and succeed in this life, and while some eventually left and moved on to other careers, others continued in the business to this day, such as Mae Young and the Fabulous Moolah, who were able to pass on their hard-won knowledge and experience to the next generation of women wrestlers. These women were true pioneers, and professional wrestling as we know it would be a completely different experience if not for their contributions.

Watching Too Much

I have been watching wrestling for a while and I was watching Raw this past Monday. Now I have gotten to the point where I expect certain things to happen and can narrate and tell other people what will happen before it does. I wonder sometimes though if this makes wrestling harder to enjoy as time goes on since the drama seems to be very predictable sometimes. I suppose what keeps me watching is the action and the different characters.
I was watching Raw with other people from my dorm and last match was between John Cena and Randy Orton. The match had been going on for a while when the match reached a certain point where my mind just started recalling all the previous similar situations and I started to tell people around me what was going to happen. Of course they were wondering why I liked to watch this in the first place. Now as soon as John Cena (the face) was in a position to apply to his finishing move, I knew that the match was going to be over. Since Randy Orton has a parter, Edge, you know that heels will interfere in the match and so I told everyone in the room that Edge would get into the ring and hit Cena with a spear, Edge's finishing move which can be summarized as a tackle into the gut. The two started stomping on Cena and I told everyone that you would see the crowd react and Cena's parter would head down the ramp and help him out and clear out the ring. Next I told the people in the room that Cena and Michaels would have a stare down since they are both faces and they have a match coming up at Wrestlemania. It happened like that and I kind of felt bad because at that time it really lowered the enjoyment for me. I wondered whether or not I had been watching too much wrestling and should stop thinking so much.
There are so many visible patterns in wrestling and it really does seem like any other drama in that it does certain things that are known to elicit great reactions from the crowd. A wrestler running down the ramp is a classic one. So is the betrayal but that one is harder to predict. It just makes me wonder how can wrestling fans continue to enjoy wrestling if the outcomes for the drama and actions seem to have a patter to them. If A happens then B will happen. It seems to follow that kind of system. I suppose, like a drama, though things may unfold similarly, the outcomes are never the same. A beating that a wrestler may take always seems to mean that the night will end that way for him but sometimes he will miraculously prevail. It is those moments that a person still tunes in for.
Reading pieces from the wrestling observer's website makes it a little harder to enjoy wrestling. There are reviews of the latest shows but they also reveal secret insider info about results that have yet to be shown on television. Seeing the results without watching the drama unfold defeats the purpose of being a wrestling fan or at least the mainstream wrestling fan. So I wonder how people who have the inside scoop on wrestling still find a way to enjoy it. They know what will happen and all that might be left to enjoy is the action. I believe you have to be a fan to write about wrestling in the way they do but how do they maintain their interest?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Nature of The Sport

One thing that I haven't been able to get out of my mind as we have been watching wrestling matches in class is how amazing it is that wrestlers are getting by with as few injuries as they do. In watching these matches, it seems like the simple acts of stomping someone's head a few times, or having a 230 pound person come down with full force on another person, should be enough to permanently injure -- or even kill -- people. Yet these wrestlers seem to go through a great deal of trouble making sure not to hurt each other.

It almost doesn't make sense to me. It doesn't seem possible for these matches to be real. The level of injury and danger would simply be so high that there's no way humans could go through this and live as long as they do. Wouldn't it make more sense to choose a sport that could be real and stage a drama with that, instead of staging a drama with something that's so obviously fake? Or is the fact that the scenarios are so near-impossible part of the drama and experience?

Having been thinking about this, I found Stone & Oldenberg exposition on why "the nature of the sport" was a major factor in wrestling transitioning from a "sport" to a "drama" quite interesting.

They seem to be suggesting that the dangerous nature of the wrestling sport is one of the reasons that it turned into a fictional drama in the first place. It simply makes economic sense to go through less wrestlers and cause less injury.

However, why then, doesn't it simply stop there? Why does the level of fiction continue to increase? Stone & Oldenberg's theory seems to account for wrestling becoming fake, but only as fake as it needs to be. What I don't think they account for is the continued escelation of fiction past the point where it is simply helping to preserve the wrestlers' careers, and to the point where it becomes more and more clear to the audience that the matches aren't real.

One thought I have is that perhaps it isn't "the nature of the sport" that lends itself to becoming drama, but perhaps it is "the nature of the drama" that lends itself to creating a sport like wrestling. That is to say, I'm starting to think that it makes a lot more sense to not analyze wrestling as a sport which slowly became more of a drama, but as something which really started as a kind of drama at its core from which the "sport" of wrestling grew.

It seems a great deal more consistent to look at how the goal of articulating the simple human drama of two people fighting for an audience evolved into wrestling over time, rather than trying to understand wrestling as some kind of sport that became something else.

Where was the sport of wrestling born if not just two people with a grudge trying to pin the other one down? That sounds like drama first, and sport second, to me.

Tommy's fourth ankle grab

My favorite bit of reading so far has been in Ole Anderson's Inside Out excerpts-- I thought the description of the building drama between Tommy Rich and Abdullah was remarkable. I loved the extension of the drama from one match to the next/ the insistence on the rematch, and the character and relationship development. Wrestling is such an amazing and unique performance venue, in that the drama is physical, dynamic, and develops over time, week to week, city to city. When I was working in dance and choreography, it also involved intricate and coordinated movement and extreme physicality, but there was never a rematch... the relationships set up in the choreography could never hope to extend to the before and after in the way they can in wrestling. Every movement in the ring has meaning that is built over time and compounded by it's implied continuation.
I was especially gripped by Ole's description of Tommy, badly beaten for the third time by Abdullah, grasping at the winner's leg: "Tommy grabbed him again. Abdullah kicked him one more and tried to leave. Tommy grabbed the leg a fourth time, and Abdullah went nuts! We didn't overdue it. Abby didn't kick him for an hour. He just gave him a few boots" (177). This description is beautiful; it describes a brilliant performative coordination of dramatic effect... What strikes me is the specificity of the choreographer-- in effect the promoter/ booker who decides the finishes inhabits the role of choreographer/ movement designer. I never realized before how much agency the promoter has, not just as a money-maker and entertainment coordinator, but also as creative director and designer of the action.

babyfaced promoter

In reading the account of Muchnick by Matysik, I definitely got wrapped up in some utopian, warm-and-fuzzy feelings about Muchnick-- here is a hero, a promoter who followed the tenants of integrety, audience-respect, concern for athletic truth. Sam engages in a masterful design process in which he weaves seamlessly the various interests and economies. He has incredible insight and the ability to build drama in a subtle, more delicate way than relying on 'hot shots'. Sam is unequivocally presented as a model for wrestling promotion.

Matysik builds the character of Sam much like wrestling characters are built-- in simple, heroic terms. There are very few pauses in the promotion of Muchnick's style and interactions, and a definite undertone of criticism of today's practice. By the time I reached the end of the "Sam & Me" readings, I guess I'd lost my suspension of disbelief in this utopian picture. If we hear so much about Sam's careful restraint in avoiding essentialism and singularity in wrestling promotion, Muchnick's treatment in the article falls exactly into these simple traps. He's simply too good to believe... we see him win too many matches in a row.

That said, even with the accumulated skepticism, I still feel pretty warm-and-fuzzy about the framework described, and I really enjoyed the anecdotes.

Stone, Oldenberg, and Thesis Procrastination

First, a question: when was the Stone & Oldernberg piece written? The notes on the first page are kind of hard to read. '69? '71?

This seems to be one of the more condescending pieces we've read. Not so much to the intended audience, which appears to be intellectuals, but to wrestling fans in general. In particular, the issue of "working-class authoritarianism" seems deeply problematic. Granted, it's not the authors' term, but they don't exactly critique it, either.

Distilled, working-class authoritarianism is the idea that poor and uneducated people can only think in simply binaries, and apply this to entertainment, politics, and personal relationships. It's not an unpopular idea, even if it is a rather impolite one in an ostensibly egalitarian society. I'd derail the post to argue with its substance. I do, however, have to quibble with the unstated assumption that an inability to conceptualize more complex conflicts is the only reason for entertainment based on simple binaries to be appealing. Certainly, none of the wrestling fans in this class are going to raise their hands and agree that they like wrestling because they're too dumb to comprehend nuanced relationships.

So, it's kind of a dumb explanation, but to what extent is it just a stereotype of provincial wrestling fans, and to what extent is it bad sociology? The methodology seems a bit sketchy to me on the "characteristics of the audience" section. Defining a wrestling fan as someone who thinks of wrestling when someone says "sport" seems like it would cut out a good chunk of fans in general, and probably most of our class. I remember Sam mentioning that TV ad rates for wrestling were once extremely low due to a similar demographic mistake. Do the stereotypes drive the bad methodology, or does the bad methodology drive the stereotype?

In conclusion, social science is evil and will destroy the world.

On Barthes

First off, I had a number of silly names for this post, and have decided to go with something plain. You're all welcome.

Barthes finally gets at something I feel that the readings have been hinting at since the beginning: as an archetypal, symbolic struggle, pro wrestling owes more to religion than sport or theater. Wrestlers "remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible."

The idea of gods as semiotic devices who "open Nature" and reveal deeper truths seems to me to be an essentially Greek idea--not in the sense of what the classical Greeks actually believed, which is a different issue altogether, but in the way Christian/Western thought worked Olympus into its own worldview (e.g. John Milton, and to a lesser extent Greek gods in pop culture, from Xena to DC's universe). However, human bodies, at the end of the day, are terrible symbols. Reality itself tends to be rather too contradictory to serve as a good metaphor for anything. if you're going to enact a symbolic battle that unveils an intelligible justice, you'd be better off with Batman and The Joker, pencilled, inked, and colored on a piece of paper, than two non-fictional human beings with actual bodies.

What wrestling offers that is unique, in my opinion, is a spectacle that tackles this contradiction head-on, and creates a world that is simultaneously real and fictional. Batman and The Joker fight it out on a comic page, Neo and Smith fight it out on a movie screen, Ryu and Akuma fight it out on a videogame screen. But when a face and a heel go at it, they're embodied. They're made of meat, like us, like actors but not like the characters they play. There's no wire-work, and there's only one take. Wrestling takes a symbolic (word) exercise and incarnates it, which is, well, pretty much the definition of the supernatural in Western culture.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Wrestling's for Everybody

The documentary Lipstick & Dynamite really opened up my eyes to the role of women in wrestling throughout history. What surprised me most was the large culture of female wrestlers that was forged around mid-century. Some of the readings we've read thus far have suggested that female wrestlers were simply sideshow attractions whose matches did not occur very often. During the postwar era, I wouldn't have guessed that female wrestling had such a sizable following. The female program was an organized affair in its own right with its share of villains and heroes, scandals and triumphs. At a time when society was dominated by the patriarchical majority female wrestlers such as the Fabulous Moolah and Great Mae Young dared to become pioneers in what was considered an already controversial entertainment sport.
What was equally as important as the rise of female wrestling personalities was the role of the female wrestling fan.

From the piece by Dell, we begin to understand how professional wrestling was truly a social and cultural phenomenon by focusing on wrestling's female fan base. Women during this era were expected to be very conservative and almost subservient members of a largely patriarchal society. It was a surprise to many, then, to see women go "berserk" over wrestling matches both at arenas and at home. Wrestling provided a common ground for women across the country to, for moments at a time, free themselves from social strictures and voice their opinions, complaints, and desires within the context of the wrestling community. As an inherently participatory form of entertainment, wrestling allowed women to share a common and equal space with men where they could easily express themselves verbally and physically. This, if nothing else, serves as a testament to wrestling's ability to garner a large and diverse following.

Wrestling would not fall into what Dell defined as a higher art form (though I'm sure Lou Thesz would disagree) that appreciated form over function. But for this very reason, wrestling has been able to reach so many social and cultural groups.


As Dell puts it in 'Wrestling with the Mainstream Press', you learn more about the spectators than the wrestlers at a wrestling match. In this case, you also learn about the sexual politics of the 50's, when the social norms would have women quiet, chaste, and certainly not violent, but at ringside or watching at home, female wrestling fans of all ages and and classes broke away from their everyday roles. Ladies scream at the villains, threaten them with bodily harm from their own hands, and even swooned over their favorite heroes, things they would _never_ do in a normal setting, at home or in public. Why?

For most of everyday life, these women were expected to suppress all anger and aggression, to be pure and chaste (at least until marriage), and submit to the dominant men in their lives. At the wrestling arena though, they can transpose all that pent-up emotion on to the characters in the match, to hurl insults and threats at the unfair ref and the dastardly villain (perhaps the representatives of male oppression they are faced with continuously), and even to call after their favorite hard bodies, and perhaps aggressively pursuing the wrestlers outside the ring! The environments of the wrestling arena and matches are outlets for all these suppressed emotions that the female fans carry with them day to day, all the rebellious, violent, independent or sexual urges every human has that are not acceptable for a 'normal' woman to have in that day and age (and honestly, there are lingering gender stereotypes like those even today). It is this emotional censorship that gives rise to the Hat Pin Mary's, the most energetic female fans that would physically attack wrestlers or refs when they got close enough, with pins and bottles, shoes and bags.

The other amazing aspect of this female-fan behavior is that, while it was surprising to the husbands and other men in attendance, it didn't hurt the reputations of these women all that much. Being loud and violent and even lewd at wrestling matches was basically exempted behavior, when in everyday society such behavior would be severely frowned upon and possibly stigmatizing. While wrestling in itself is not exactly considered the highest form of cultural sophistication, it did not hurt one's reputation to be a fan, even for women (unlike nowadays). Amazingly, wrestling became a source of liberation for women, as both fans and later as wrestlers themselves. Who'da thunk?

Buddy The Heel

Buddy Rodgers knew how to use the heel angle to his advantage. He popularized many of the moves and mannerisms used by later wrestlers, specifically Mr. Perfect and Ric Flair. He knew that he was a star. This made him one of the most hated in the business since he possessed a lot of leverage in negotiations. Rodgers really paved the way for future wrestling as a form of entertainment.

Buddy was similar to Gorgeous George in the way that they got the crowd against them. Rodgers, however, was much more arrogant and could back up his actions in the ring, being the best worker of the 50's. Gorgeous George, on the other hand, was about 90% show and 10% wrestler. Rodgers was also known for being a bully in the ring which added to his mastery of the heel role.

In the match we watched during class, we were able to see him in action. He was very cocky and knew how to get under the audience's skin. When he won the match he exclaimed to the audience, "To a nicer guy it couldn't happen." His presence around the ring and in interviews helped to gain the interest of the TV audience as well. A lot of wrestlers' success depended how well they could perform on television. Buddy was able to use this to his advantage as he became one of the top box office draws of his time.

The Good Old Days

As I expressed in my first blog, one of the main reasons I have been turned off by modern wrestling is its failure, in my eyes, to be a legitimate sport. I've never fully understood what it takes to become a champion in the ring, and I suppose I've taken the few matches I have seen at face value in believing appearance is everything in the world of wrestling. Because our focus so far has been on the earlier eras of pro wrestling, I can't be sure of the principles that guide modern wrestling. Nevertheless, my discontent with wrestling as a sport was somewhat assuaged after reading Matysik's account of his run with promoter Sam Muchnick.
Matysik immediately makes it clear that Muchnick was one of a kind. Unlike the other promoters of his day, Muchnick seemed to have been more methodical in his booking of wrestlers, making sure to consider both their skills as competent athletes and as entertainers with drawing power. It appears that Muchnick, above all else, truly appreciated his audience. He didn't believe in cheating or fooling the audience into buying into shows that promised more than they could deliver. As Matysik relates, it was, after all, the audience that kept food on his table. Muchnick was successful mainly because he could cater to his audience's interests day in and day out, garnering their long-term loyalty.
In reading Matysik, I was able to appreciate Muchnick unique style of promoting pro wrestling. Through his well-planned repertoire of wrestling promotions and bookings, Muchnick was able to bring to the world of wrestling the sense of true competition between opponents that we find in popular American sports. It's true that the outcomes were planned and the winner and loser of a match chosen before fight night. But Muchnick could set a premise for every fight. There was always a reason for a Muchnick match, the least of which was not the pursuit of a championship title. What I especially like about the Muchnick that Matysik presents us is that he kept not individual champions at the helm of his wrestling program but the championship itself. In doing so, Muchnick breathed that competitive spirit of sport into professional wrestling.
Matysik makes me think I wasn't completely wrong about wrestling today. Titles today change hands as quickly as some wrestlers change their gimmicks. A wrestler's personality and charisma can shoot them almost to the top. It is sort of comforting to read that Muchnick demanded much more from his wrestlers. I can't be sure that Muchnick left no legacy for wrestling promotion today, but I will admit that I probably enjoy the more shoot-like spectacles of Muchnick's era.

Gorgeous George is really Genius George

To me Gorgeous George one of the greatest wrestlers. He posed great wrestling skills, but so much more. He knew what it took to take the most important thing of the buisness; money! Gorgeous George wrestled in the era of the television and because of this he discovered the way to become a great wrestler was to sell himself to his viewers.
Gorgeuos George grew his hair out, dyed his hair blonde and put it in locks, he wore beautiful robes, he sprayed girly perfume onto the ring before every fight, he had rose pedals sprinkled onto the ring, and even had a collection of "Georgie pins." All of this was part of his character that he played for his audience. He was once of the first people to really recognize wrestling for what it really was; entertainment. His strongest tactic was making the audience hate him. This may sound bad, but it was what really sold out the houses for his matches, at least in my opinion. People would come in for his matches just for the chance to see Gorgeous George get his ass handed to him.
When sales seemed to be getting low, he probably responded by thinking of new ideas to entertain his audience. Gorgeous George had a series of hair versus hair matches where he put his own beautiful golden locks on the line. I feel like this type of match was ahead of his time. Something like if the dog collar match were performed in the 70's as I previously thought. Gorgeous George made these matches more than just a regular match, he put more than titles on the line. We see these types of matches today, where the title doesn't matter as much as what each wrestler has to lose. These matches entized the audiences and they would sell out the house. Once Gorgeous George lost his hair in a loss, he put up his wife's hair on the line.
Gorgeous George was all buisness and he was great at it. He was hated by all, but in reality he was loved and he opened the gates to the future of wrestling and what it would ultimately become.

Impressions of Andre the Giant

Up until this class, I viewed Andre the Giant as a sluggish wrestler who was more of a side show. He seemed out of place in the few matches I saw him wrestle in, specifically against Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. I remember that my view of Andre as an intimidator diminished once I saw him get bodyslammed by both Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. I would often compare him to The Big Show, a present day supersized wrestler, and wonder what all the fuss surrounding Andre was about, especially since The Big Show is taller, weighs as much, and is much more athletic than the Giant.

After reading about and watching an early match of Andre the Giant, I have a new appreciation for him. He was really one of the largest athletes of his time and ours. Even though he did start out appearing in sideshow matches, he soon became a serious contender and gained the respect and love of the wrestling community. With all the myth-like stories surrounding Andre the Giant, it was hard not to be in awe of such a spectacle. I didn't realize that his wrestling career lasted almost 30 years. By the time I saw matches of Andre, he was already was past his prime and was in very bad health. In the match we watched in class, he appeared very athletic for his size and I was told he was even known for doing an occasional dropkick.

Looking back on my first impression of Andre the Giant, I feel as if I didn't give him the credit he deserves. It's a shame that so few of his early matches are not available and that the impression I possessed as well as many others was due to his later matches. Even though there have been many large athletes since Andre, including the Big Show who I mentioned earlier, when someone refers to the Giant, there will be no mistake who they are talking about.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Psychology of Booking

Most of the readings for this past Thursday centered on two pieces from a wrestler we'll be reading from several times this semester, Ole Anderson, and two pieces from longtime St. Louis wrestling employee Larry Matysik. Both of them were involved with booking in their respective territory, Matysik for Sam Muchnick in St. Louis, and Ole Anderson as the major booker for Atlanta at several points, as well as the Carolinas. Both were major areas for the NWA World Title, and Jim Barnett in Georgia was a major NWA player, with Muchnick being one of the major NWA power brokers.

The particulars of some of the stories they are telling may be lost on you not knowing some of the particular characters they are referring to, but I think it reveals a lot about the mentality of this wrestling period, not only with how the regional territories and the idea of the NWA worked but also about the logic behind booking these territories.

Matysik's piece reveals the political maneuverings behind deciding who the champion should be, and I hope it fleshes out a little bit more about Dory Funk Jr. and Terry Funk and their significance in NWA history, as well as the precarious politics behind deciding who is champion, when they would lose the title, who they would lose it to, etc. Imagine all the politics involved when all these guys come together trying to vote on who would be the next world champion, since each of them have "a dog in the race." Sam Muchnick and the St. Louis territory is pivotal at the center of all this.

Of course, some of Larry's writing is indicative to his fierce allegiance to Sam and his dissatisfaction at the way the business changed, but I think he makes some strong points about what made St. Louis work, particularly about the way matches were booked. I especially want to emphasize his point about protecting the title and making it a serious athletic contest, minimizing the run-ins and cheap finishes, etc. This was the point I was emphasizing about the seriousness with which Brisco/Funk was treated when we watched it last Thursday.

Muchnick emphasizes respecting fans and telling stories that make sense and that emphasize the sport behind the wrestling, and I particularly enjoyed this quote, from page 60: "The trick was getting the casual fans, whether they were lawyers, doctors, truck drivers, or teachers, to buy tickets. These folks might come out three or four times a year, but they were a big part of every sellout. To keep everyone of all interest levels inovlved, the 'Why' behind each match had to make sense" (60).

Hopefully, you enjoyed some of the little anecdotes about Andre the Giant, the Funks, Pat O'Connor, Jack Brisco, Lou Thesz, Killer Kowalski, Fabulous Moolah--all characters we've seen in the class in these first couple of weeks. And the way Mushnick brought in people from McMahon's territory, from outside the NWA, was interesting as well. We'll be reading and talking more about Sammartino in the coming weeks, but he's one of the most legendary wrestlers in history as the longtime king of the WWE for the most part of the 1960s and 1970s.

As far as Ole, he emphasizes the importance television has in selling arenas, the difficulty of booking territories and trying to plan finishes for multiple arenas running the same night, and the way to build a feud to introduce new characters. I enjoy Ole's honesty, including the jabs he takes at himself. As Ole says at some points in the book, he knows he's hard to get along with, an SOB even, and he lets that come through in his writing, providing what some consider a delusional book and what others consider a great example from the time period as to the psychology of booking television and wrestling in the territories.

Ole was never a national star because he stayed in Georgia and the Carolinas his whole career and spent much of his time in tag teams, but he was both booker and a top wrestler in these territories, which means that he has a unique perspective on the territory era. Further, because he was in power at the time of the rise of Vince Jr. in the 1980s, we'll be following more of Ole's short chapters from Inside Out later on in the class, and he'll be a character in Sex, Lies, and Headlocks as well.

For Ole, money tends to be one of the most major issues of success and of logic, and I particularly enjoyed this point about Bill Watts and his success in Mid-South with high ticket prices: "I never ran a town where 30,000 peopel came for anything, but Bill did, and he charged as much as $100 a ticket--and he was successful. He ran the New Orleans Superdome and packed the building. Bill would do that a few times a year, just like Eddie (Graham) and Dusty (Rhodes) did (in Florida, one of the NWA's top territories and where Gordon Solie was the voice, as well as the work Solie would do in Georgia and the Carolinas), but I was looking at going to those towns ona weekly basis. I just didn't feel there was any chance we could support a high-end ticket on a regular basis. I thought we could do it once in awhile, but I looked at it over hte long run and asked myself, 'Do I want to draw $1 million over a year, or do I want to draw $250,000 for one show?' That was the basis for my position. We were able to go back and continue to draw money consistently."

Look forward to some discussion of your takeaways from Matysik's and Anderson's memoirs about the territory days as well.

Past sheds light on today

Reading the biographies of wrestlers from the past was really interesting because I am a big wrestling fan but don’t really know much about the great wrestlers of the past like Terry Funk or Dusty Rhodes. I think I have seen Terry Funk wrestle once before but what I knew about him only extended to what people call the hardcore legend. I did not realize he had been wrestling for such a long time or that he had be a World Champion. It really sounds like he should be called a legend. When I would see him on TV, only as an old legend that seemed to get beat down. He didn’t even move that well. I actually thought he should retire because he was really showing how fake wrestling is by the mere fact that he could not move and he could somehow still “compete.” His tights were also confusing. Watching his match on Thursday let me see how good he was and he was really good at the tough guy person on the microphone. It is kind of sad to think of what I saw of him. He was just getting beat down.

The paper by Beverly takes some time to focus on Gorgeous George and the comparison to Ric Flair just makes me understand Ric Flair’s character even more. I did not get to see him in his prime, which means when he was younger. It does not make me a fan though it does make think that his character is not that original. Or at least his lack of originality seems to be more apparent. I do have more of an appreciation for those pioneer wrestlers that started to revolutionize the gimmick beyond the tough guy and the foreigner. The evolution of television is also documented and the change in tastes of the people is something I did not think about before. TV shows where good resolutions for the characters were guaranteed so it is interesting to think that people might not have wanted to deal with the uncertain outcomes. I am sure some fans must have known it was fake but did not want to deal with the drama. If you look at today’s television programs, you have a lot of dramas on now and sometimes you know the hero or good guys will win but the possibility of failure is there and it just makes sense that the crazy out comes of wrestling would appeal to people today.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Re: Friday Night in the Coliseum

This'll be a quick one, as it's more of a "huh, I hadn't thought of that" than any particularly new idea, but the depiction of racial politics in Martin's article caught my eye.

We've seen the pageantry concerning the German/Nazi and Russian/Soviet wrestlers, the "sneaky" Japanese who "all know karate," etc. What surprises me is the treatment of the black and "Red Indian" characters: the article describes the latter as capable of enduring "great pain and injustice without flinching or retaliating in kind," which seems to me a rather modern stereotype, more Dances With Wolves than John Wayne. In addition, Martin notes that promoters rarely divided good and evil along racial lines, e.g. Buster Lloyd, who "happened to be black," as we like to say now, but derived his villainous persona from the fact that he was a New Yorker, and ended up being beaten by a black Texan. This itself carries a powerful symbol about race and national identity: if you're from Texas, black or white, you're an American. (New York, the jury's still out in large parts of the country.)

The interview with Dusty Rhodes we saw last night, and Sam's commentary, demonstrate that the economics of racial integration were starting to exert a pull on the industry by this period, so this shouldn't be all that surprising. (For blacks, there any data on American Indian audiences? Were there any such audiences from which to gather data?) I don't recall reading anything about it from the earlier eras, though. Were there popular black heels and babyfaces before this era, and were the races as politicized, for lack of a better term? If I've forgotten and someone could refresh me, what did segregation-era wrestling look like?

The Chain Match

I'd just like to post my thoughts about the chain match we watched between Greg Valentine and Roddy Piper. When I think of older matches from the 70s, this is not the kind of match that comes to mind. A more appropriate match that I would think of would be something like Dusty Rhodes against Harley Race - which, interestingly, seemed like a slow methodical match from the viewpoint of someone who's a fan of a very fast-paced modern product. However, this chain match at Starrcade was interesting because of how violent it was. I would've never expected to watch a match from this time period where the bloody violence was escalated to this point. Yes, it wasn't a hell in a cell match, but you could start to see the beginnings of the level of violent matches that still are used from time to time today.

The difference is that these two put on a terrific match that made sense. It was methodical with the violent moves that were used, but I would much rather watch matches like this one than watch a high-paced ladder match with four tag teams just flying around without any real reason other than to draw a "holy sh!t" chant from the fans. This match between Piper and Valentine is a solid blueprint for drawing fans in emotionally with a story that makes sense. I loved how the commentators kept talking about Piper's ear injury before and during the match, and then emphasizing that it was making it hard for him to keep his equilibrium throughout the match because of it. I think the way the commentators were selling the match would have made it easy for someone who didn't know who the characters were to really get into the match and care about who won. I don't think the same can be said about the ladder match we saw on the first day, where telling a story seemed to take a backseat to wowing the crowd with amazing (and very dangerous) moves.

Friday, February 16, 2007

More on Revenge of Hatpin Mary

I keep coming back to the Dell article. Possibly because, while female wrestlers are mainstream enough for non-fans to be aware of their existence, while female fans, prior to the Vince McMahon era, were rather off my radar.

As noted in the article (and, again, the movie), the postwar period was extremely conflicted in terms of gender roles, since the war necessitated pulling women out of the domestic sphere, and after V-J Day, it seems a rather concerted effort was begun to get them back INTO the household. (On a related thought, it seems the black community faced a similar experience. It's interesting to think of how much social progress ended up being contingent on Pearl Harbor dragging us into a war most Americans had sought to avoid.)

Dell suggests that one of the ways in which women played with this tension was by engaging with wrestling at a participatory level. All right, makes sense so far. Thing is, it seems ALL media have been moving toward increased participation for quite a while, and the behavior associated with women in the article seem commonplace enough among wrestling fans in general now.

We've noted several times in class how unusual it is to see well-dressed and well-behaved audienced at wrestling matches. Could the fans Dell writes about be trendsetters for the fans in general? It's not entirely without precedent--modern fan fiction seems to be almost entirely a female practice in its early, pre-internet days. Is it possible that Hatpin Mary represents not only a change in gender roles and wrestling fan culture, but the beginning of what, in CMS, we are legally obligated to refer to as convergence culture?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Hanging up the boots

While watching the "Lipstick and Dynamite" documentary on the history of women in professional wrestling, there was one thing that struck me the most. Up until I watched that, the only things I had seen of Mae Young and Moolah were of them being old ladies driven through tables by the Dudley Boyz on Raw, or being caught making out with Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon backstage at Wrestlemania 20, or of them just being in disturbing segments (Mae Young with Mark Henry = disturbing). Then there were the cracks of The King about their age (my favorite was his remark that when David killed Goliath, Mae Young called the police), and that pretty much summed up the gist of everything I knew about Mae Young and Moolah.

What struck me was how little I knew about these two women and their contributions to wrestling, and how my view was tremendously skewed just by watching what the WWE has me watch every week. The fault is partly WWE's, but I think it lies more on Mae Young and Moolah than anyone else. I understand and find it admirable that they love the wrestling business so much that they want to remain a part of it for as long as they can, but at what expense are they doing this? For young fans who know nothing about their history, the only history they have to hang onto are the ridiculous segments that these two ladies agree on these days. Yes, sparingly is good, since they're not used all the time, but why bother at all? Mae Young and Moolah are old and have zero business being in a ring at their age, especially to just get mocked.

It's not just them either - it's something that we see so much of these days. Just tonight on Raw, Roddy Piper and Dusty Rhodes made appearances and were beaten down at the hands of Umaga. Roddy Piper himself recently had a match or two teaming up with Ric Flair, and Hulk Hogan makes an occasional wrestling appearance for "one last match." And Hulk was never that great as a wrestler (I agree on Lou Thesz's assessment of him), so to see him even trying to keep up with someone younger and quicker, it's just personally something I'd rather live without. The situation is even worse with Hogan because he always comes back and wins! Yes, we're not supposed to care about wins and losses, but do you guys think it's better that these old-timers keep popping up on occasion and getting into the ring, or should they just step away permanently, for the sake of preserving the memories of them as greats?