The Heart is Raw: The Question

At some point in The Harder They Fall, Humphrey Bogart’s last movie, we hear an announcer speak to a small but passionate boxing crowd. He thanks them for coming, and mentions that there will be a wrestling show coming up which they can stay to watch. The crowd boos, presumably because they’re here to see the real stuff, not that phony wrestling garbage. The joke is that the boxing match was fixed, too.

At some point, we all get asked the question. You know the one.

When I was around 13 I used to say, yeah, its fake like hockey. That made my brothers livid. Hours-long arguments about how impossible it would be to fix hockey, and why would they, and no, see, because they’d get caught, and…. I pointed out the sportsline tickets in their hands, purchased by their dads for from at Macs. “That’s why,” I said. “Gambling.” They would shake their heads and tell me myriad reasons why that wouldn’t work. I didn’t really want to undermine their faith in sport. I just wanted them off my back. I just wanted to be allowed to enjoy my thing.

I had the same argument in college. I was an English major, but my friends largely studied philosophy, dramatic arts, and business. Inevitably, I got the question. “Of course,” I’d say. “It’s fake like theatre. Like an opera or a ballet.” My college friends took offense to the comparison. Wrestling was so far beneath what anyone would call an art. It was worse than any circus. They would defend the fine arts of mime, commedia dell’arte, and tumbling. They’d finally acquiesce in calling it a low and ugly art, maybe, something antiquated and embarrassing that should be taken behind the woodshed; a minstrel show at best. But nothing like real theatre.

Somehow or another, the subject of contemporary pro wrestling will come up. Probably you’ll bring it up, since you’re the only one who didn’t immediately trash it. “Wait, you like that stuff?” is usually the first response. That’s the appetizer query, with just enough derision to let you know it’s not too late — you can still say no. But you don’t. You admit it, and come clean. And then the real question is asked.

They ask the question as if authenticity is the barometer of acceptable culture. As if we don’t want to be lied to by our mediums, as if we don’t sometimes yearn for a world different that plays by different rules, even if those rules are byzantine. They ask the question because they need to reassure themselves that you — their friend — are not a fool. We know why they’re asking. That’s not what’s interesting about the question.

Eventually, I stopped defending wrestling from those who would kick it when I brought it up. For years, it was something I would consume and never talk about, a comfort food the world decided was bad for everyone. Wrestling has hooks; addictive storylines that never ended, captivating characters that fought for alluring macguffins, and wonderful moments only truly cherished by longtime viewers. There were reasons to stick around, but it’s always seemed like the acceptable thing to do with wrestling was to leave it in the past.

You get asked the question because something about you has changed in their eyes, and the person asking wants to make sure that it’s not too much. It’s a bit like saying you’re in a cult, but more accurately it’s like saying you’re really into a nerdy subculture. Like you have a job and a relationship and a stable of friends, but you also have a sweet Magic the Gathering collection and you might drive a pretty long while every few months to be in a tournament. And I’m sure Magic the Gathering fans constantly have a question asked of them that drives them nuts too.

Wrestling fandom is acceptable in polite society, but it exists in this sociological past tense. Nobody ever triumphantly declares how much they once believed in Santa, but sometimes in a pub you’ll overhear a boisterous story about Randy Savage or Jake Roberts or Steve Austin. It will have been remembered incorrectly or with the exaggeration that comes with nostalgia, but the conversation never turns to the present. Getting the facts right is never a priority. I was made fun of for liking wrestling as a kid, as an adolescent, and as an adult, but at all three times found that there was some other time when wrestling was acceptable. As a kid, wrestling was something only grandpa’s liked. As an adolescent, that stuff was for kids. As an adult, that stuff was for college dorms (which was the one time in my life I steered clear). It’s okay to have dabbled in wrestling fandom, but never okay to be a current fan. It’s incredibly frustrating, but clever as hell as a defense mechanism. How better to bring up something you love by framing it with the comfortable distance of nostalgia? Not that I think everyone who waxes on the past is a secret current fan, but some absolutely are, and are a little afraid to admit it.

The general consensus is that wrestling used to be great, but cannot be great now. It is bad now, and that’s because it’s faker than ever. It is predictably fake. It is overwrought with fakeness, and every maneuver is a paper lie, every façade a fraud. Where this falls apart is the “used to be,” because that’s not a time but a personal reference point that means nothing to even the person saying the words. Some people smush together the nWo with the prominence of the intercontinental title, even though those two periods were ten years apart. They’ll talk vaguely about the Ultimate Warrior but be unable to say when any of his insanity occurred. Almost equally, another group will have no memory of that time at all, and point to the very late 90s, when wrestling more or less resembled Woodstock 99. And as time goes on, newer “used to be’s” arise. The recent past creeps along.

Lapsed fans will often point to whenever they were either 8 or 17, which seem to be the most porous ages for letting wrestling in. I’ve already heard stories on tumblr about how Sheamus got people through high school, and how CM Punk gives hope to the isolated and lonely in a way no band or celebrity could. These are fans who left wrestling last year, or last month, who already talk about it as if it was stained in sepia. In time, these characters will be the ones people remember from “back when wrestling was good,” but rarely at the time.

This is because wrestling is frustrating as all hell at the time.

It’s frustrating as hell because in the moment, wrestling feels real. You know it’s fake. You know it’s scripted. But you can’t help yourself. Whether it’s a particularly well-choreographed sequence of reversals, or a cathartic and emptying array of punishing maneuvers that go too far, you take this ride. In that moment, you forget about the fact that it is choreographed and performed and executed for the purpose of garnering these emotional reactions. You forget the system around the moment, and you believe for just a few seconds that something extraordinary is really possible. And so when we get asked the question, there is a little part of us that wants to defend that moment, but also keep it to ourselves, lest it be wrecked by people who don’t deserve to share that space, don’t appreciate the feelings we’ve poured into them, and unintentionally wound us in a place where we become vulnerable.

I once held a viewing party for Wrestlemania III. I purposefully invited people who had no interest in wrestling. I would not have been able to pull this off with a new show, but this one aired in 1987, and features Andre the Giant, who is still the only pro wrestler that everyone — fan or otherwise — likes. It also features what many consider the greatest match of all time, between Ricky Steamboat and Randy Savage. This is the Stargate match (I’m sure Stargate enthusiasts have a question too). It takes everyone from just about any age and every level of interest and makes them believe. I watched half a dozen people rife with the childhood wonder people talk about, when they drop the cynicism and doubt of adulthood, and just let the lies wash over them. While watching that match, the questions died down. The jokes got quieter. I could tell that moment widen and cover us. Afterword, I could tell there was a little embarrassment, that it was in fact so easy to get lost in it and become — for better or worse — wrestling fans.

And this is why we couch it in the past, so that when people as the question, which they absolutely always will, you don’t sweat it. You say “Yeah, but Ricky Steamboat was pretty cool.” It’s a defense mechanism for a certain kind of pop cultural shame, that weird sense that you chose wrong but couldn’t help it, and if you were more in control you’d never turn wrestling on. It’s true guilt pleasure, the type that legitimately feels bad at times. That’s why it’s not so easy to just let your freak flag fly on this one. That’s why the question is complicated. And that’s why I have no idea how to really answer it, so I say something different every time. It usually comes down to context and how well I know the person asking.

What I’m enjoying is that every now and then, the question doesn’t come up when wrestling does. It always surprises me, because I’m used to the one-two punch of “You like this?” and “You realize…” But more and more, I’m just getting a nod, or some kind of admittance to getting back into it, or a great memory with no shame whatsoever. It’s not even ironic, I don’t think. I think people genuinely love this stuff, and it seems lately it’s easier to actually admit it.

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