Like an unruly corpse shambling up from our cultural unconscious, wrestling is back. Again. TV first took it bigtime in the '50s, when thousands tuned in to see Gorgeous George get his hair mussed; in the mid-'80s, Hulk Hogan made the cover of Sports Illustrated, and NBC replaced the sagging Saturday Night Live with a wrestling card once a month. Then the sport subsided, a victim of its own grandiosity and a steroid scandal that nearly took down the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Still, as loyal fans throughout the country could testify, it never really went away.
Now cable has made wrestling big business again, both culturally and financially. (Time puts the industry's yearly revenue at more than $1 billion.) Seven of the 15 top-rated hour-long segments on basic cable are devoted to wrestling, with the dominant programs, WWF Raw (USA) and WCW Monday Nitro (TNT), going head-to-head every Monday night. Even The New Yorker got into the act, doing a "Talk of the Town" piece on nice Jewish boy Bill Goldberg, now the World Championship Wrestling (WCW) heavyweight titleholder. More surprising, wrestling is suddenly hip: parodied in beer and soda ads, moving loads of video-game product, and even inspiring gory battles among the famous (Noel vs. Liam Gallagher was particularly good) on MTV's weekly Celebrity Death Match, with color commentary provided by a claymation replica of WWF champ Stone Cold Steve Austin.
So what are we to make of all this? In many ways wrestling is the most American sport: violent, brainless, and overheated. It's all climax; the idea of a good joke here is a kick in the nuts. Wrestling is popular because, well, we've always liked mayhem, particularly mayhem leavened with a dash of morality. Yet it's not as if wrestling is new. So before we decide that WCW Nitro's popularity portends the end of cultural maturity, a little perspective is in order.
First, wrestling isn't a "real" sport--a category it reluctantly abandoned a few years back, when WWF impresario Vince McMahon admitted in court that his matches were fixed. By law it's "sports entertainment," a more accurate description of every wrestling program (and a lot of other so-called sports, too). But because wrestling is not real--and in fact has given up all pretense to reality--it is in many ways the perfect TV sport. The matches never run over the allotted time, never get rained out.
For wrestling promoters, this was a learning process: After its heyday in the early '50s, wrestling slumped back to the fairground and carnival. Though it stayed sporadically on the air in a variety of locations, TV telecasts openly teased viewer interest for live cards, the real money, by pitting big stars against pudgy, cowering shlubs who were annihilated seconds after climbing into the ring. Only if you laid out the 15 bucks for a ticket did you get to see Bruno Sammartino face a villain worth his weight.
The lure of live action was also that, if you were good and ate all your vegetables, you might see some "juice"--blood, to the uninitiated. I still remember the almost pornographic exhilaration of one Saturday afternoon program a good 15 years ago in which big, mean Black Jack Mulligan went to work on some drip until his head began to bleed, whereupon a big red X appeared across the screen, hastily precluding any further debasement of impressionable youth such as myself.
Now the money's in TV itself: in advertising sales, T-shirts and hats, 900 numbers, and pay-per-views--the industry's cash cow. The latest installment of the WWF's WrestleMania garnered an estimated 500,000-750,000 buys in March. Even the weekly shows feature big stars wrestling each other, and occasionally spots of blood still make an appearance.
The easy move is to scoff at the brutality of the rubes, but let's face it: Both cable shows and pay-per-views give you value for money. Unlike the Super Bowl, where the commercial breaks are usually more interesting than the game, a pay-per-view almost never disappoints. The WCW's Spring Stampede featured a particularly excellent match in which body-pierced, tattooed Raven whacked his archenemy, Diamond Dallas Page, with a bale of hay, a wagon wheel, a STOP sign, and even an actual kitchen sink, before pinning him. The capacity of the WCW announcers to describe this sequence without giggling has my sincerest admiration.
Wrestling has also kept pace with the times. For years, standard villains included Nazis, commies, Japs, and sissies--all ready to be dispatched by flag-waving "real" Americans who saved God and country on a weekly basis. But now it's modernized, with something narrowcast for everyone: black nationalists, "new age outlaws," punks sporting Marilyn Manson shirts, a porn star, even two competing "New World Order" cabals for all the nation's conspiracy theorists. The WWF has two--count 'em, two--back-from-the-dead guys to mix it up.
For my money, though, the best shtick remains WCW mainstay Hulk Hogan. In the '80s, he rode the shrieks of "all you little Hulkamaniacs out there" to superstardom as the trade's top baby-face (good guy); a few years back, his career flagging, he turned heel by betraying his friends, completing the look with black clothing, thinning hair, a rubbery-looking tan, and an astounding capacity for cowardly threats when surrounded by his allies. He's loathsome in an accurate and wholly human way--the aging jock holding it together for one more pickup game, one last push to victory, no matter who he has to elbow or trip.
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.
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.