PRO WRESTLING GETS AWAY WITH CALLING ITSELF A SPORT DUE TO THE magnitude of its audience. An estimated 34 million people watch it every week, mostly on TV. Many people, myself included, would prefer to see "real" wrestling, the kind you wait for every four years to catch in the Olympics. Athletes who participate in that sport, uncommonly known as Greco-Roman wrestling, are weight-matched for physical prowess and agility, scored by judges, and refereed by officials who have some knowledge of the rules of a sport steeped in thousands of years of tradition. Unfortunately, that sort of wrestling has all but vanished from the cultural landscape. Its practitioners are mostly high school and college athletes, and even if they someday reach the Olympics, most will fade quickly into oblivion.

The "wrestling" that graces our Saturday afternoons and evenings has no real athletes, no judges, no referees, and no rules. In this world one needs photographability more than athletic prowess--a brutish élan--and a taste for theater. Pro wrestling, as everyone knows, is more entertainment than sport. To "win" a match, a competitor does not depend on being stronger, faster, smarter, or more agile than his opponent.

Enthusiasts, such as myself and my roommate Queesha, see elements of gladiator sacrifice in it. The outrageous pomp of pro-wrestling suggests that the Gods--residing in the Mount Olympus of Television--are watching the sacrifice. Opponents are matched by long-standing grudges and conflicts. Partners and teams can be linked in a familial sense, as brothers or fathers and sons. Virtual wars are waged between opposing camps, and some wrestlers work out conflicts over past romantic entanglements (that they have had with females, not with each other).

Pro-wrestling has exploded. Even the uninitiated are aware that an ex-pro-wrestler, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, was recently elected governor of Minnesota. Just as it once was with Catholics and actors, it is no longer inconceivable that the highest office in the land could be held by a pro-wrestler. If Ventura doesn't go all the way, there are plenty of other wrestlers coming up today who might.

Hundreds of local, national, and international factions are competing for a piece of the over $400 million financial pie. The lion's share of the revenue is controlled by two corporations: World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). The WWF is the older of the two, and WCW was supposedly founded to offset the vulgarity of the WWF. The two factions, however, are indistinguishable from each other to the uninitiated eye; their respective stars are completely interchangeable.

At the moment, the biggest, most recognizable star in pro-wrestling is WWF's "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. Gruff yet lithe as a panther, Austin is as respectable as any of the other dubiously rich and famous personalities tromping around America's cultural wasteland. With his weekly performances before live audiences, his cable television appearances, his commercial endorsements and promotional tie-ins (figurines, posters, clothing), Austin is as big or bigger than any pop star, taking in an estimated $15 million every year. In my household--four roommates who usually resist the hunk of the week--we've succumbed to Austin worship. My roommate Queesha even taped Austin's picture to the front of our toilet seat. When you lift the lid, Steve stares straight out at crotch level.

When it flashed across my Saturday morning television screen that the WWF was coming to town--hopefully bringing along Steve Austin--Queesha and I started strategizing. Despite the criticism we were sure to get from our naysaying friends, we were willing to do whatever necessary--short of selling our bodies--to get tickets to the upcoming match. We didn't know that, in that same instant, 15,000 other people were thinking the same thing. When we got on the phone, we discovered that there were no tickets available anywhere close to the action. I decided to exploit the journalist angle to score tickets. Maybe we could even get some backstage passes! My contact at the WWF informed me that backstage passes would remain a boyish fantasy, but graciously secured us a pair of last-minute tickets. We wound up six rows from ringside, about 30 feet from the promised mayhem.

Queesha and I and a coupla million other folks regularly check this pro-wrestling stuff out voyeuristically, dipping in on cable, helping television wrestling transcend fantasy to become mythology. Going to see a pro-wrestling match live, though, is to see television transubstantiated; to see television become flesh. While Queesha and I have no intention of becoming converts--this may be our one and only trip to see this "sport" live--we were about to discover that wrestling has to be seen in the flesh to be believed.


America the Pimp

We arrived late for the match, and missed the opening pyrotechnics and the ritual singing of the national anthem. KeyArena was packed to near capacity, meaning that more than 15,000 enthusiasts had paid $25 a head to watch sweaty men in tight, skimpy drawers beat the shit out of each other. Not above prejudice, I'll admit my expectations for the crowd were low. It wouldn't have surprised me to find myself surrounded by flat-headed, snaggle-toothed, frankfurter-eating droolers named Emory. But the crowd at the arena was at once more varied and more homogenous than I expected. By far the largest contingent were men and mannish boys, but there were quite a few couples on dates as well, the men clutching their women tightly like hard-won trophies. There was also a smattering of women in groups, and most seemed self-assured, handling the manly crowd with expertise that only comes from a few Saturday night pub crawls in Pioneer Square. Homosexually speaking, we noticed a few toned-down leather daddies and a quartet of bears buying up popcorn, soda, and memorabilia. The crowd was more subdued than one at a regular season baseball game, and looked largely alcohol- and drug-free.

As we took our seats, the ring was occupied by a lone man brandishing a mannequin head by the scalp. He was screaming unintelligibly and stomping around, stopping once or twice to set the head down in front of him. He would then pretend he was about to crush it with his foot. It was a druggy sight. This wrestler, whom I believe is known as "The Head," was having some sort of disagreement with the decapitated doll. It was unclear whether the head was symbolic of someone he had difficulty with, or whether he had been jilted by this particular dummy. Had I been at home, I would have instinctively turned up the sound on the set to figure out what the hell was happening. Here, surrounded by the deafening roar of the crowd and with no commentator in sight, I was at a loss. The rest of the audience knew and understood, however, and thundered approval with every slap and stomp The Head delivered to the helpless head.

Each wrestler was introduced with great fanfare, some with ringside fireworks, scaring the total bejesus out of us but delighting the crowd. Each wrestler had a theme to his entrance, with bombastic rock guitars that sounded like Wagner juiced on meth. Everyone at the KeyArena seemed to know not just the names of all the wrestlers, but their entrance music as well. At the opening notes of each theme, the crowd cheered so loudly for their heroes that it was impossible to hear the names of the wrestlers.

The crowd also recognized this evening's villain from his theme music, booing their disapproval within three notes. The villain made his entrance from his corner of the arena brandishing a Middle Eastern flag. The atmosphere turned oddly riotous. Having never connected to the idea of the threat from the Middle East, I was shocked to see this myth trotted out under the guise of entertainment--particularly since our enemies-of-the-moment were all white folks in Yugoslavia. Yet here was tonight's villain, clad in black briefs and a sequined, tiger-striped turban. His name, I learned later, is Ali Singh, but he's known as the Tiger Sphinx. He climbed into the ring while the crowd chanted "U-S-A, U-S-A," their fists raised and their feet stomping.

The referee quieted the crowd so the Sphinx could begin his provocations.

"When I look at this (pause) sea (pause) of wasted humanity (pause), that doesn't like me (pause), I bet you're thinking, 'What is he doing here?!' (pause) You probably think I should be driving a cab! (pause) Or working at a 7-11!"

The crowd filled every choreographed pause with boos and jeers, and roared their approval at the part about him supposedly being better suited for work in a convenience store.

"The only thing that I can think (pause) is that you are jealous of me! (pause) Seething with envy! (pause) Of my beautiful brown skin!"

I hadn't been thinking about race until this moment, but at the mention of his "beautiful brown skin," the Sphinx awakened me to the racialism of the evening's proceedings. The mix of the crowd at KeyArena was as varied as at any other local sporting event; pro-wrestling has a palpable "whiteness" to it that seems both tolerant and oddly exclusionary. There are wrestlers of color, and not all are villains. Before the evening is over, we will see them lose and win in an almost even balance. But issues of race and stereotypes do play into the outcome of some matches.

The crowd was so noisy in its disapproval of the Sphinx that we almost missed the fanfare of the American opponent/hero. Hearing his theme, with the crowd cheering, I expected him to enter draped in a sequined red, white, and blue cape, à la Rocky Balboa. Instead, in strutted a man--a black man--in a kelly-green, three-piece outfit: vest, long pants, a white cane, and a green bowler. Although he called himself "The Godfather," he was dressed like a mutated wood sprite, an oversized black leprechaun fit to play "Sportin' Life" in Porgy and Bess. On his vest were stitched the words "Pimpin' Ain't Easy," and on each arm were women of the heinously siliconed variety, like one sometimes spots outside an Aurora Avenue strip joint.

"You sent this American pimp to fight me?" the Sphinx roared at the crowd, shouting my thoughts verbatim.

The pimp took a low bow, then rose suddenly, hitting the Sphinx with a forearm to the larynx. The fight was on.

Naysayers claim the action in the ring is fake, which is only partly true. The same criticism could be leveled at Baywatch or E.R. The wrestlers themselves acknowledge that the punches are open-handed, and that their moves and routines may be choreographed. Adult fans of this spectacle don't seem to care about seeing real violence any more than men and women care about seeing real heart attacks on E.R. or real tits on Baywatch. Children, on the other hand, apparently don't understand the difference. ABC's 20/20 recently reported on teens who stage and videotape their own "pro-wrestling" matches. They attempt to fake moves they've seen on the WWF and WCW, and in one video, a teen takes the rough side of a cheese grater to the forehead of an opponent. There's also a case pending against a 13-year-old who killed an infant cousin when he performed a pro-wrestling move he'd learned on TV. The recent death of WWF wrestler Owen Hart, killed in a 50-foot fall during a stunt before a match in Kansas, may provide a clue that the "fake" theatrics of the ring can have mortifying consequences even for the seasoned professional.

Back in KeyArena, there was no way in God's America that Ali Singh, the Tiger Sphinx, was going to win this fight. He was hit with folding chairs, choke-slammed, and given a drubbing that included everything short of being shot, stoned, and tarred and feathered. Maybe fake, maybe symbolic, but an ass-whipping all the same. America the Pimp bitch-slaps the Middle Eastern Sphinx.

There were more matches to come, and the ones that won the most enthusiastic responses were those most laden with symbolism. There was a match between three women, staged like a barroom catfight. The women of the WWF rarely "fight" each other, but when they do, it's always to augment the male spectacle. Tonight, two white women and one black woman entered the ring as individuals, but paired up in every possible combination, their allegiances constantly shifting--and always to address the darkest prejudices of the crowd. The loudest cheering seemed to happen when the two white opponents united against the smaller black opponent. The least amount of applause happened when the black opponent was beaten. With the exception of this single catfight, none of the other bitches, ho's, he-shes, and bimbos presented to us would fight tonight. That way, no one could win.


Wrestlemaniacs

When you watch wrestling on television the crowd comes off as a colorful blur, like an impressionist painting, the emphasis being on the action in the ring. Here in the arena, Queesha and I are surrounded by the real tension manufactured by the flesh and blood of the individuals around us--15,000 real people screaming for the blood and guts of a man who is standing 25 yards away--and the result is an uncomfortable paranoia that I hadn't bargained for.

Keeping an eye out for outbreaks of real violence, I noticed three types of guards on hand to keep any audience-generated mayhem under control. There were the yellow-shirted security guards hired by the arena, the police officers in full dress (real guns, real bullets, and real protective armor), and the "bodyguards" that hung around the ring, most likely employed by the federation itself. When an actual scuffle breaks out between a wrestler tossed from the ring and an audience member, the audience member is the quick loser, subdued and ejected from the spectacle.

A palpable fog of homoeroticism saturated the entire evening, a Top Gun-straight kind of roughhousing and goosing camaraderie, but more open and occasionally overt. Straight homoeroticism confuses and kinda frightens me. One never knows when a jarhead is likely to explode in violence because he decides he was admired or touched in the wrong way. But both the heroes and villains in the ring were waving more than enough less-than-innocent crotches in each other's faces, straddling their writhing, helpless opponents with as much glee as when they tossed each other out of the ring and onto the quite real concrete floor of KeyArena.

The evening was drawing to a close and there had been no sighting of Steve Austin, save for the hundred or so images of him on the T-shirts of his disappointed fans. Hardcore devotees would have to be assuaged by the appearance of a wrestler known as "The Roc," another WWF star. But when the evening threatened to end with a fizzle, a duo known as the New Age Outlaws assumed the position and saved the day. This shit-talkin', tight-assed, swaggering duo consists of Road Dogg Jesse James and Badd Ass Billy Gunn.

Road Dogg strutted and grabbed himself with two fists, proudly proclaiming to no one in particular how much he liked "to do it doggie style," while goading a ridiculously large-chested female companion to "show her tits." His partner, Badd Ass Billy, smirked and moved counter-clockwise around the Dogg. Like most of the wrestlers this evening, Badd Ass was clean shaven beyond the tits; his armpits and legs were golden oil-slicked clean. Billy had the phrase "Mr. Ass" embroidered onto his trunks. They seemed drunk on themselves, behaving as if they were too fine to actually fight with anyone. The crowd didn't mind.

There was a man in front of us with three boys, none older than 12. They had to stand on their seats to catch all the action. Like the man who accompanied them, they were wearing T-shirts torn at the sides to exhibit their "muscles," their rib cages expanding and tightening as they shouted at the ring. They looked wan and unformed, almost embryonic. "Show your tits! Show your tits!" the boys chanted in unison with the crowd, 15,000 strong.

The overly chesty woman seemed pleased by the chanting, teasing the throng into believing she might actually bare her breasts. She leaned and tugged suggestively at the top of a jacket that could barely contain them. "Mr. Ass" finally intervened, saying, "Since we're obviously not going to see her tits" (the crowd groaning in disappointment), "I guess I'll have to show you all the next best thing: My ASS!"

The arena exploded in cheers, and Queesha was slack-jawed with shock, as Badd Ass Bill Gunn dropped his trunks and spread 'em.

The crowd was beside itself. The resulting pandemonium overshadowed the rest of the match, which Badd Ass and Road Dogg won effortlessly against their opponents. Badd Ass pulled his trunks down one more time, exposing himself with a 360-degree turn, before leaving the ring to the thunderous approval of attending wrestlemaniacs. As he exited the arena, he stopped to shake hands with a boy who couldn't have been more than six years old. Hoisting the boy onto his shoulders, Badd Ass told the audience that the boy's mother wouldn't let the boy pull his pants down. Queesha and I stared in disbelief as Bad Ass Billy feigned disappointment and made his final exit with the smiling boychild, the evening's final spoil.

Fake or real?

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