Steel Chair through the Looking Glass: The Fractured Fantasy World of Professional Wrestling
Pro wrestling is a form of fantasy storytelling, though Wrestlemania is never reviewed in Locus, the pseudo history of championship belts has no place in John Clute’s encyclopaedias of fantasy or science fiction, and there are no directions to “Parts Unknown” in Alberto Manguel’s Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Perhaps these good folks think wrestling is real?
Of course, for the better part of the last century, the wrestling world itself denied their own fictions, pretending to the world at large it was as real as boxing and hoping the fans would never catch on. Where I grew up, when kids realized the punches weren’t connecting, the moves were staged, and the endings were rigged, they felt betrayed. They’d been lied to. Wrestling was as bullshit as Santa Claus.
Not for me. Oh, I grew up some when Hacksaw Jim Duggan and the Iron Sheik were busted together for drug possession while car pooling when they were supposed to be hating each other. But I still enjoyed wrestling as fiction, no different than comic books or Star Trek or a quiet afternoon of Dungeons and Dragons. A pretend world of heroes and villains telling stories through mock violence, a traveling secondary world whose own rules and regulations were as important to the suspension of disbelief for the fans as the lineages of Númenor is to tourists of Middle Earth.
Yet, there is one distinct difference between the pro wrestling world and Middle Earth, Narnia or Oz: how reality, and not just Technicolor, bleeds into it. Pro wrestlers pay the price to suspend the disbelief of the audience and create this fantasy world, in injuries more real than the one true ring. This is pro wrestling’s tragic warping of the looking glass. So let’s take a closer look at this shortening distance between fantasy and reality in the squared circle.
THE KAYFABE UNIVERSE
Reality took a back seat to fantasy in wrestling when reality became dull. Competitive wrestling matches were unpredictable, lasting from a few minutes to many hours of two men stuck in the same boring hold. The longer and more tedious the reality, the fewer asses were in seats. So scripted bouts, where drama was injected beforehand, soon dominated. Wrestling’s first major step through the looking glass can be traced to the epic defeats of European wrestling champion George “The Russian Lion” Hackenschmidt by the all-American favourite Frank Gotch in 1911 in Chicago. Controversy abounds about Gotch’s victories. Had he used illegal moves (including covering his body in oil)? Had Hackenschmidt thrown the bout for easy money after being attacked by one of Gotch’s thugs before the match? Did they choreograph the falls that did occur for more drama?
The controversial endings, whatever the truth, were headline news and made these two hour contests more dramatic. Soon after, promoters decreased reality and increased planned drama to keep the fans in their seats. Matches were no longer “shoots”, a legitimate contest where the better guy won, but “works,” where the end was scripted and the matches choreographed. This increased fantasy spread throughout US wrestling territories bullet quick during the twentieth century, but first major salvo is credited to “The Gold Dust Trio,” wrestling champion Ed “Strangler” Lewis, his manager Billy Sandow, and fellow wrestler and dramatic visionary Joseph “Toots” Mondt. According to wrestling legend Lou Thesz, Lewis’s most famous protégé, the “Strangler” was damn near unbeatable, and this was not selling tickets. Instead, the trio devised a system of moves and stories so that Lewis could have more exciting matches and not get injured for real. Mondt was the creative mind behind the standard tropes of modern wrestling: body slams, suplexes, arm drags, all component parts of what he called “Slam Bang Western Wrestling”, moves that were visually dramatic but that could be planned ahead of time to reduce injury and increase audience excitement. Slam Bang was, if you will, the first Player’s Rulebook of pro wrestling.
But as the drama increased, so did the risk of being found out. Secrecy was critical. This con/fantasy world of wrestling-as-real was known as “kayfabe”, Carney pig-Latin for “Fakery.” The secret truth about kayfabe was held like a blood oath in the industry. Wrestlers never divulged the secret without risking their jobs. Wrestlers feuding with each other could not be seen car pooling, drinking, or hanging out with each other. In 1984, wrestler David “Dr. D” Schultz assaulted 20/20 news reporter John Stossel who claimed wrestling was fake. Schultz has always claimed he was on order from Vince McMahon, head of the World Wrestling Federation, to do it, to maintain the kayfabe universe from being exposed.
Wrestlers and promoters developed their own slang language to keep kayfabe hidden. While not as graceful as Tolkien’s elvish, it maintained the illusion of reality for the audience. “Doing a job” meant losing a match, done by a “jobber.” A “baby face” is a good guy and “heels” are bad guys. “Juicing” is a self inflicted bleeding wound to forehead, a “bump” is hitting the mat as if the move was real, and “showing light” is a poorly executed move that looks fake. “Selling” a match is making the crowd believe the moves are real. And the fans, in true Carney fashion, are “marks.”
The illusion of reality was complimented in wrestling magazines. As a kid, I devoured Pro Wrestling Illustrated, The Wrestler, and dozens of “kayfabe” magazines that treated the make believe characters, storylines, and matches as gospel truth, entrenching the fantasy in another medium and making wrestling “realer” than comic books. After all, Batman is a superhero. Ric Flair is a real guy. Sort of.
Every match was essentially a Joseph Campbell quest story for victory that ended with triumph, tragedy, or comedy. The championship was held by whoever was most popular: high school mythology writ large. But with the exception of wrestling biographies (many of which are between hagiography or stuck in the kayfabe universe), most literature on pro wrestling is not concerned with wrestling as storytelling. Academic and popular works, like Roland Barthes Mythologies, focus on the spectacle of the ring, but the conduct of wrestlers is meaningless. Thomas Hackett’s Slaphappy: Pride, Prejudice, and Professional Wrestling oscillates between a disdainful and sympathetic appraisal of wrestlers and fans but rarely focuses on what happens in the ring and is much more interested in the social values expressed by wrestling. And, as Hulk Hogan has often said, the job of a wrestler is not great wrestling, but putting asses in seats. He’d know. His matches were cures for insomnia, but fans worshipped him.
Of course spectacle is critical to the maintenance of the illusion, from the hyperbolic, testosterone injected storylines, to B-grade special effects and Z-grade gimmicks, to the Playboy-worthy eye candy that strut the aisles. But the heart of wrestling’s fantasy is in the ring, telling a story through mock violence. Though the matches are fiction, there are real lives involved. As wrestlers continue to push their bodies farther and farther to tell these tales, reality is swinging the pendulum back against the fantasy side of the looking glass.
STORYTELLING IN THE RING
Retired wrestling champion Bret Hart believes that the art of wrestling is selling the illusion of high impact violence and having both wrestlers go home at the end of the night feeling no worse than if he’d had a hard day at football practice. Hart’s twenty years in the industry is a testament to this approach, and he proudly claims he never seriously injured his colleagues, though he has been part of controversies where reality bled into wrestling’s fantasy.
Hart’s departure from the WWF in 1996, known as “The Montreal Screw Job” by fans, was a strange and complicated case of reality and fantasy colliding with egos and careers (for the full story see the documentary Hitman: Wrestling With Shadows). Hart, leaving the WWF for a rival company, was set to drop his heavyweight belt to a rival he hated in real life, Shawn Michaels. Hart refused to do so. On the one hand, Hart worked hard to create this character. He felt it would ruin his character’s popularity to lose in Canada to Michaels, and thus reduce his profitability. Also, he contractually had reasonable creative control of his character development for the last thirty days of his tenure, something very rare in the WWF. On the other hand, McMahon, the grand poobah of the World Wrestling Federation, is the main voice of the story in all wrestling events, and Hart’s refusal was likely seen by him as an actor playing Hamlet refusing to die in the final act. But, since it is pro wrestling, and Bret Hart is a person as well as a character, the lines are blurry and the match became wrestling history.
McMahon promised Hart he’d end the match in a disqualification. He lied. During the match, when Hart was to reverse Michael’s use of Hart’s finishing move, the ref instead called for the bell. It appeared, though with zero realism, that Hart submitted to Michaels. Hart spat on and later decked McMahon for real. Ten years have passed and the fans in Montreal still regard this betrayal with such vehemence that they chant “You Screwed Bret” when McMahon appears at WWE events.
Hart earned this loyalty from years of selling the illusion of wrestling’s reality so well. He is one of a handful of North American wrestlers to have had matches receive five star ranking by the industry’s premier critical voice, journalist David Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer newsletter. Meltzer’s ratings, pro wrestling’s “Nebula” award, focuses on ring storytelling, and Hart’s approach has earned him two five star matches.
But this art only works if both men cooperate. Indeed, one of wrestling’s inversions of reality is that to sell the idea of competition, cooperation is critical. If your opponent won’t sell your moves, the crowd won’t bite and the illusion wavers, leading to chants of “Bullshit” or “You Fucked Up” by modern crowds who know wrestling is rigged but do not appreciate the illusion being ruined. So, even now, knowing how to sell moves is critical to a wrestler’s survival. The more real a move looks, the better the sell.
Few wrestler sold matches like Tom Billington, AKA The Dynamite Kid. For Billington, a wrestler’s job is to make their opponents look good, regardless of who wins. He prided himself for wrestling “strong” or “hard”, using more force and speed than other wrestlers, closing the distance between reality and fantasy to sell moves, something smaller wrestlers often did to get noticed when the headliners were essentially shaved gorillas doing military presses with their opponents. Billington has earned Meltzer’s five star ratings himself and is celebrated as one of the best and most innovative wrestlers of the eighties. But the illusion had a real butcher’s bill. He took steroids and other drugs to look good and execute hard moves that crippled his body. He suffered neck and back injuries, a stroke, and an enlarged heart because of hard bumps and drug abuse. Painkillers kept him working hard despite his injuries, exacerbating them. His matches were some of the most exciting the world of wrestling has ever seen, but unlike Hart, Billington art required that he hurt himself. And, unlike a “shoot”, the injuries were self inflicted. Now confined to a wheelchair, Billington is unrepentant. His autobiography ends without a note of regret. He’d do it all again, the same way, even if it sends him back to being a cripple, echoing Achilles in the Iliad: “Let me, this instant, rush into the fields, And reap what glory life’s short harvest yields.”
THE DEATH OF CHRIS BENOIT
The recent tragedy of Chris Benoit and his family may be a case for infusing more fantasy back into the ring. A great ring storyteller who modeled himself on Billington’s wrestling style, Benoit achieved championship status in the WWE—the WWF was compelled to change its name by the World Wildlife Fund—with almost no gimmick or spectacle other than his ability in the ring. He was known for being tough, taking hard bumps, and being able to sell his matches with high impacts moves. Over the weekend of 23 June 2007, Benoit murdered his wife and son before hanging himself. This horrific act was met by utter shock and surprise by those who knew him.
While the media initially focused on possible steroid connection to the murders and suicide, a recent autopsy and analysis of Benoit’s brain revealed sever head trauma associated with concussions he’d sustained throughout his career the ring. According to the doctor in charge of the autopsy, Benoit’s 40 year old brain resembled that of an 85 year old man with Alzheimer, and that dementia resulting from this condition is the most likely explanation for Benoit’s horrific acts. No one can know for certain why he committed these crimes, but a life time of concussions from flying headbutts and constant steel chair shots to the head cannot be ignored as part of the explanation.
THE HIGH COST OF FANTASY STORYTELLING
These days, pro wrestling seems to be blurring the line between fantasy and reality with more gusto. The purely “kayfabe” world is gone. Vince McMahon, who once fired feuding wrestlers if they were seen together, has stopped pretending the matches are real and instead refers to his never-ending carnival as “sports entertainment”, a fancy way of saying fantasy. And the storylines today often use the real events of wrestlers’ personal lives as part of the story, a technique of blending fantasy and reality called a “worked-shoot”: alcoholism, cheating relationships, childhood trauma and problems with the law are fused from reality into the fantasy.
No one believes that the matches aren’t rigged, so to keep fans in their seats, greater dollops of reality are encroaching into the fantasy, blurring with the kayfabe world. So part of the drama now is not knowing what to believe. Is any event you see real or just kayfabe? Can you tell the difference? It’s as if McMahon has been reading Philip K. Dick.
While there are still some wrestlers who practice Hart’s “Art” of telling a story in the ring without hurting themselves or their opponents, there are others who follow Billington’s star, willing to sacrifice their flesh, pushing the illusion harder into reality, warping, if not smashing, the looking glass, making pro wrestling the most deadly form of fantasy storytelling.
Works of Interests
Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972)
Tom Billington and Alison Coleman , Pure Dynamite: The Price You Pay for Wrestling Stardom (Etobicoke: Winding Star Press, 2001)
Bret Hart, Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling (Toronto: Random House, 2007).
Thomas Hackett, Slapphappy: Pride, Prejudice and Professional Wrestling (New York: Harper Collins, 2006)
Steven Johnson, Heath McCoy, Irv Muchnick, etc. Benoit: Wrestling with the Horror That Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport. (Toronto: ECW Press, 2007)
Heath McCoy, Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling (Toronto: ECW Press, 2007)