Monday, May 14, 2012

Wrestling rebirth

It was 30 years ago that professional wrestling was born. Well, wait. Strike that. Let’s say that it was reborn. It was April 5, 1982 that comedian/actor Andy Kaufman faced off in the ring with pro wrestler Jerry “the King” Lawler in Memphis, Tennessee. As part of his comedy act, the skinny Kaufman (better known as Latka Gravas from the TV series, Taxi) had been challenging women in his audience to wrestle, offering a cash prize and his hand in marriage to any woman who could beat him. Lawler took offense and the typical bluster of a wrestling feud began. After Lawler predictably put Kaufman into the hospital after the match, the feud continued with a famous appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, etc. The true importance of this whole charade (spoiler alert: the whole feud was scripted) was that a young wrestling promoter named Vince McMahon saw how much attention a celebrity brought to the often-ignored world of professional wrestling and used the idea to build his organization -- the World Wrestling Federation (the WWF then, the WWE today).
I first remember actually watching professional wrestling shortly after this time. My college roommate used to watch and got me to watch one day when his favorite wrestler, Sgt. Slaughter, made an appearance. Then there was this up-and-coming guy named The Incredible Hulk Hogan and the Iron Shiek and Nicolai Volkov and the whole gang. I was amused, but not addicted. After all, this was professional wrestling and not a real sport, right? But soon the inspiration of Kaufman’s antics hit and Cyndi Lauper (the Katy Perry of the 80s) was taking part as was red-hot actor Mr. T. The WWF was everywhere and was probably on MTV more than either Hall or Oates. Eventually by 1989, McMahon let the cat out of the bag. Faced with the prospect of paying higher taxes or admitting that the matches were staged, McMahon took the cash and affirmed the worst-kept secret on television.
Back in 1986, the radio station where I worked sponsored the WWF show and four of us were given complementary ringside seats. It was four guys (because no woman would even think about going), sitting in the second row (or “close enough to be spit on” as I phrased it at the time), screaming and laughing for two to three hours at the spectacle. I remember little about the wrestling from that night, but I do remember that we watched a match between future Minnesota Gov. Jesse “The Body” Ventura and a character known as Uncle Elmer. Ventura was the bad guy and one of the locals (who must have been shocked when he found out the matches were staged) was in grand form. He had walked down from the cheap seats, screaming and pointing his finger at the boa-wearing Ventura, cussing him up one side and down the other. Old Jesse stood there in his corner staring back at the lunatic, face in a mean scowl. Then, suddenly, I saw Ventura do something I’ve never seen any professional wrestler do before or since. He broke character. The corners of his mouth started to curl upward and The Body couldn’t keep it in any longer. He broke out laughing at the show that most everyone else in the crowd had been gawking at for the past few minutes. After about five to ten seconds, Jesse took his hands away from his face, stood up straight again, and set his face back into that scowl.
I haven’t watched any professional wrestling for a long time now. I do know that somewhere after McMahon admitted that the fix was in, the shows got raunchier than the cartoonish wrestling characters of the Rock ‘N Wrestling Connection days. But I’ve always thought of pro wrestling as an easy metaphor for life. There are good guys, bad guys, and those who alternate between good and bad. There is passion, anger, bitterness, forgiveness, revenge, ego, and greed all dressed in tights. Thanks, Andy, for bringing it to our attention.

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