Why We Fight

Wrestling with the popularity of our most incredible--and most American--sport

In these ways, wrestling's better, sharper than real sports. Its highlight-show-cum-morality play never forces you to endure two last-place teams listlessly playing out the season in a gloomy, half-deserted stadium. Even the interviews are exciting. The odd loudmouth (Jayson Williams, Shannon Sharpe) aside, most athletic interviews today are carefully manicured collections of clichés--"make plays," "just go out there and execute"--designed primarily to avoid inflaming the opposition. What other professional athletes would threaten, as wrestlers regularly do, to beat an opponent until he leaves town or goes home to his mama?

For that matter, it's the only sport in which theory doesn't miss the point. (Book recommendation: Sharon Mazer's Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle, from the University of Mississippi Press, is a clear-minded guide to how wrestling performances are constructed.) Cult-studies guru Henry Jenkins calls wrestling "masculine melodrama," and he's right: The only genre focused on narratives of male homosociality, it even takes easily ironized guy stuff (brotherly love, honor) seriously. That focus on men does mean that wrestling's stock-in-trade has been and always will be homophobia--gotta keep the "right" kind of male/male relationship well apart from the "wrong" kind. Still, wrestling offers a fascinating open laboratory for gender politics that other sports sweep under the rug. When was the last time Chris Berman speculated about the number of closeted players who ran for 100 yards last week?

With all those advantages, wrestling's still not a real sport. It wants so badly to please that it will do anything to grab your attention: The story lines never frustrate, never court the possible meaninglessness of real life. This is but one of the many reasons its audiences seem primarily to be adolescent males. By the same token, wrestling never rewards with unexpected sweetness, as when the formerly puny Buccaneers pushed around the powerful 49ers early last season...and then turned out to be pretty good.

What other professional athletes would threaten, as wrestlers regularly do, to beat an opponent until he leaves town or goes home to his mama?
J. Matthew Rhea
What other professional athletes would threaten, as wrestlers regularly do, to beat an opponent until he leaves town or goes home to his mama?

Wrestling has bad art's crudity and lack of integrity, its reliance on shock effect: Dennis Rodman wrestles Karl Malone! Two women tear the gowns off each other! Its antecedents lie in revenge tragedies, bear-baiting, and boys' adventure books rather than the epic, and so it's insufficiently romantic to attract highbrow admirers: While the New York Times gives over pages to yachting, only the plebeian New York Post regularly devotes part of its sports coverage to wrestling. If part of that absence is plain snobbery, more of it is due to the real recognition that wrestling is bad for you artistically. That is to say, it's gluttonous, the aesthetic equivalent of a box of Twinkies.

Clearly, then, there's fun to be had here, but of a limited kind. If it's liberating to watch a spectacle so direct in its admission that it is spectacle, the act is also ultimately deadening: There's nothing there beyond eagerness to give you what you want. And even gluttony can wear thin.

So how long is this latest upsurge going to last? If history furnishes any guide, wrestling will hang around another year or so, then slink back to its die-hards. But maybe not; maybe we have it because we need it. Because cable TV means every demographic gets what it wants all the time.

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