Another confession: I still love professional wrestling. Whereas most children’s love faded away at certain moments (the diaspora to Ted Turner’s WCW & subsequent demise, the shift from the TV-14 Attitude Era to the kid-friendly no-blood current WWE iteration), I remained loyal to Vincent K. McMahon’s pectoral carnival & Americanized, bastardized Greek theatre experiment. I get legitimately excited at the possibility of potential storylines involving my favorite “Superstars” (WWE avoids using the term “wrestler” to describe their athletes) & often find myself shelling out upwards of fifty dollars every few months for pay-per-view events.
When I explain my love of wrestling, many scoff. Rightfully so; it is a childish concept—this pretending to beat each other up, this heightened masculine melodrama. At times I feel guilty for liking such a ridiculous thing: the WWE’s track record in terms of political correctness is dicey at best—there is racial typecasting, misogyny, a healthy dose of homophobia, & the occasional poop joke thrown in there for a guaranteed laugh from the pre-teen audience. I can deal with these missteps solely because I can treat it as fiction; the WWE has over fifty characters on their roster, each with their own different backstories & nuances. At times, due to sheer number, it reads like The Iliad, only slightly more daring. What I cannot get around is the reality of it all: the fact the heroes & villains of my youth are dying at a rapid clip—of heart disease, of brain disease, of liver failure, all caused by years of self-medicating & self-“improving” in order to sustain a career at the highest level of sports-entertainment.
David Shoemaker, a writer for both Deadspin as well as Grantland, has taken it upon himself to write essayistic elegies to these fallen wrestlers in a series titled “Dead Wrestler of the Week”—the title of the series a nod to the fact that for a while, it seemed as if a new wrestler was dropping dead every week. (2002-2004, in particular, we lost Mr. Perfect, The British Bulldog, one of the Road Warriors, & the Big Bossman.) What is beautiful about these essays is that they straddle the line between the real and the sublime: the lifetimes without pyrotechnics or guard rails are often up against the arcs of the characters that these men & women portray. Take, for example, the story of Owen Hart, who died during a pay-per-view event in Kansas City in 1999 when Owen, playing the character of the Blue Blazer, fell from the rafters after his harness malfunctioned while attempting to “fly” down to the ring.
Perhaps more so than any other star of his vintage other than Mick Foley, Owen's relationship with "real life" — Owen's relationship with "Owen" — was written in such a way as to call into question the very nature of wrestling reality. His relationship with his brother was inflated into an epic conflict. His accidental injury of Austin was turned into a later storyline in which Owen supposedly made the same error in "maiming" Dan Severn. And then there was the Blue Blazer angle: They took an act that he had worked years before and turned it on its head, shoehorning in his qualms with the wrestling industry at large. (It should be said that the parody was aiming to encompass more than just the WWE — the very act that led to Owen's death was partly a reference to Sting, a star for the competing WCW, who entered the ring from the rafters in similar fashion.) That his death would initially be misinterpreted as a scripted pratfall — that it would undermine the very legitimacy of wrestling reality — is a devastating metaphor for his career as a whole.
But, of course, it wasn't fake. According to CNN, "Hart was given CPR inside the ring as the ring announcer haltingly told the audience that the incident was not scripted, as professional wrestling matches openly are." The fans watching at home got the bad news from Jim Ross, who, as the lead announcer of the show, was charged with narrating the tragic event in real time during the pay-per-view telecast: "This is not a part of the entertainment here tonight. This is as real as real can be here."
Shoemaker, in this piece & in others in the series, deftly points out the paradox of professional wrestling; the illusion is to make what is fake seem real. When reality gets too mixed up with the “entertainment,” we achieve something not unlike the uncanny valley effect: the replica comes too close to reality and we grow repulsed towards it. Or, in the case of professional wrestling, it just makes us sad; take, for example, the countless examples of wrestlers, well past their prime, attempting to make a comeback for a few quick dollars (you didn’t think Aronofsky came up with this out of thin air, did you?) & showing up bombed out of their mind & collapsing in the middle of the ring.
This is important work here: World Wrestling Entertainment is spectacular at controlling the spin—make no mistake that what you see is what you are supposed to see. However, when things leak outside of the wrestling universe, it is a bit harder to control: consider the ESPN Documentary on Scott Hall’s substance abuse, or the national media coverage of Chris Benoit’s murder-suicide. While Shoemaker’s pieces document the dark (read: real) side of professional wrestling, they also show the humanity behind it all—to me it is reassuring to know that despite Owen Hart’s brat-brother persona, he was well-loved backstage and a good guy “in real life.” It is a nice reminder that these stories about these characters continue on after the fictions end: the men behind the masks or facepaint or long-hair (grown to accentuate moves for visual effect) are the essays themselves, attempts to find meaning and heart in something beyond the confines of a squared-circle.
As for Shoemaker’s public elegies of “mystery men”, perhaps there is something to be learned; something to be saved. Recently, former WCW & WWE wrestler Diamond Dallas Page, has started “DDPYoga,” a home fitness system. Among his clients are his old friends, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, as well as Scott Hall. Both have had their share of health problems & drug abuse & are looking to get clean. Page has documented these journeys on his YouTube channel & they are often strange, beautiful, & moving—Roberts especially is taken aback by the fact that people still care about him & are rooting for him even after his tenure with World Wrestling Federation (The Snake reciting “Footprints in the Sand” after finding out thousands of dollars have been donated to help him get shoulder surgery is easily the most surreal thing I’ve seen this week).
There's a beautiful moment after finding out that over $7000 were raised overnight for his surgery where Roberts says "All those years, I guess they did mean something." Wrestling, of course, can be perceived as meaningless: it is pop pulp entertainment, plain & simple. At its best, it is the theatre of the absurd. Shoemaker acknowledges this, but at the same time finds something tangible & sublime here: that to have tragedy there must be something defined despite the falsehoods & pageantry--that someone is listening after the last table is in splinters.
Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey & currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His collection of Tuscaloosa Missed Connections, 'So You Know It's Me,' was released by Tiny Hardcore Press. His series of lyric essays on video game boss battles, 'Level End,' was released by Origami Zoo Press. He is working on a series of essays about professional wrestlers. Mark Henry is his spirit animal.