Monday, January 19, 2009

Pro Wrestling Primer: The Wrestler

The wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat was billed as “the movie Vince McMahon doesn’t want you to see” upon its release in 1999. Ten years later, we have a new candidate for the tag line: Darren Aronovsky’s The Wrestler, which serves as the first truly accurate depiction of a down-and-out pro wrestler in the twilight of his career. Randy “The Ram” Robinson fits this role to a T. He was a big star during the 1980s, wrestling and defeating opponents like Corporal Punishment with his finishing move, a diving headbutt from the top rope dubbed The Ram Jam. The Ram is remembered most for his 1989 feud with The Ayatollah, which was the talk of wrestling media everywhere.

But twenty years later, Randy the Ram is not exactly in a position to enjoy retirement and regale his fellow ex-wrestlers with road stories at the Cauliflower Alley Club. Instead, Robinson is behind on his rent at the trailer park and locked out of his home. He works a shitty grocery store job during the week, and continues to wrestle on the weekends. A far cry from the huge arenas of the past, The Ram is relegated to the independent circuit, working with opponents who were barely old enough to talk when he was at the peak of his career. Nobody shows up to his autograph session. He still pops pain pills for those old, nagging injuries. And before you ask, yes, The Ram’s physique is chemically enhanced with human growth hormones.

Robinson gets some much-needed perspective on his life when he suffers a heart attack after a particularly brutal hardcore match. Although his rematch with The Ayatollah is coming up, The Ram is now less concerned with wrestling than he is about the fact that he’s lonely and has no one there for him. Wrestling and entertaining the crowd compensates for the loneliness, but the doctors have ordered him to stay out of the ring. But he feels like he’s been making some headway with Cassidy, a stripper at a local bar who has the same problem he does—she’s getting too old for her line of work. When he gets out of the hospital, Cassidy encourages Randy to reunite with his estranged daughter Stephanie. In a scene directly inspired by Jake Roberts in Beyond the Mat, Randy attempts to reach out to Stephanie, and is able to make a connection. Thinking that he’s filled the void, The Ram retires from wrestling and offers to take on more responsibility at work with his free time. It looks like there is a post-wrestling life to live after all.

But Cassidy turns down Randy’s advances, unfairly lumping him in with her no-dating-customers policy. He’s clearly more than a mere patron to Cassidy, but there’s a world outside of the strip club that a mother named Pam lives in. And people at the club aren’t exposed to that side of Cassidy’s life. Yet, she won’t give up a lap dance when Randy, now just a normal paying customer, produces cash. Stephanie decides to close the door on her dad again after he forgets dinner plans. The connection was broken years ago when wrestling became more important than family, and Stephanie feels too emotionally exhausted to invest any more time in her fuckup father. The rejection from the women in his life is too much for Randy to handle, and the only place he’s ever felt at home was the wrestling ring. So he walks out on the grocery store in mid-shift and defies his doctor’s orders to stop wrestling. The rematch is back on, but that’s nothing to celebrate about. Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s fate as another casualty of the wrestling business has been sealed. Hopefully Dave Meltzer would write a nice tribute to The Ram in the Wrestling Observer.

How does a onetime top-flight wrestler like Randy the Ram get to this point? It’s hinted early in the movie that backstage politics had something to do with his fall from grace, but the reasons are never exactly elaborated on. But The Ram also looks like he butted heads with the typical ‘80s wrestler lifestyle and lost that fight. Obviously drugs, booze, and injuries caught up with the man. The work schedule makes it difficult to maintain a normal family life. Had Randy Robinson been a WWF wrestler during the 1980s boom period, he would have been expected to work approximately 300 days a year without complaint. Factor in traveling from city to city, and you have little to no quality time with your loved ones. Also, pro wrestlers are somehow considered independent contractors, so the industry is exempt from having to provide things like health insurance or pensions like, say, the NFL. They don’t even get much for time off to recover from injuries. Although wrestling is athletic entertainment, there is nothing like the Screen Actors’ Guild to regulate it. Wrestlers have actually been fired for attempting to unionize the locker room. Since wrestling is a highly competitive business, there’s always another wrestler willing to be the replacement for a lesser price. The list of broken-down wrestlers with no options is longer than the list of ex-punk rockers that the band Filth once sang about. Randy the Ram is no exception, and is stuck on the treadmill because he didn’t save any of that big money for life after wrestling. Despite putting his health at risk for chump change, Randy doesn’t know how to do much else. He’s living the life and destined for the same early grave as a lot of wrestlers who have died in the past decade or so.

And that’s why Vince McMahon probably doesn’t want you to see this movie. It hits too close to home. After all, there’s been a lot of Randy the Rams in his employ over the years, or guys who walked a similar path. 1950s wrestling legend Gorgeous George never wrestled for McMahon, but was a huge star in his day. Yet, he died penniless, with his fellow wrestlers passing the hat to pay for the funeral. The Dynamite Kid went from making $20,000 for one match at WrestleMania II to participating in illegal garage fights for a few bucks and making little to no money wrestling for small-time English promoters. He is now confined to a wheelchair and has nothing to show for his once-illustrious career. Jake “The Snake” Roberts, the wrestler whose post-WWF exploits bears the most resemblance to Randy the Ram, is left to his own devices in the minor leagues and will more than likely never overcome his drug and alcohol problems. The long-term effects of steroids would have killed Superstar Billy Graham had he not received a liver transplant at the last minute. Eddy Guerrero wasn’t so lucky. He dropped dead in a hotel bathroom while brushing his teeth because his heart could no longer handle the excessive steroid use. It’s speculated that long-term steroid use and too many concussions drove Guerrero’s good friend Chris Benoit to kill his family and then himself. Apparently current WWE champion Jeff Hardy is just one failed drug test away from the unemployment line. It’s debatable, but The Wrestler and the interviews being given by director Darren Aronovsky and star Mickey Rourke, could potentially do a lot to raise mainstream awareness of the problems in the industry, which will cost the McMahon wrestling empire some money.

Every other review you read of The Wrestler is going to make mention of Mickey Rourke’s comeback performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, and rightfully so. But since this is the Pro Wrestling Primer, we’re less concerned with discussing his Oscar potential than we are with how the movie represents the True Sport of Kings. Rourke’s performance is a part of that representation, in which he underwent some wrestling training and even alluded to steroids or HGH in a recent interview with Men’s Journal (“When I’m a wrestler, I behave like a wrestler”). He becomes the prototype for the fallen wrestling legend much like he did as the doomed Harry Angel in Angel Heart, although it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch given his checkered Hollywood past. The wrestlers discuss their in-ring plans in the locker room, swapping advice on how to keep each match exciting. They whisper the cues to the opponent and sneak razor blades across their foreheads for bloody dramatic effect. Some rattle off a pharmaceutical sales pitch that your neighborhood drug dealer would certainly admire. Others shop for plunder at the local grocery store and test out potential weapons like cookie sheets and frying pans on each other. The wrestlers are real, as are the indie promotions Ring of Honor (ROH) and Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW). Former WCW wrestler Ernest “The Cat” Miller plays The Ayatollah, and indie wrestler Necro Butcher puts The Ram through hell in a bloody hardcore match. Look for current WWE wrestler Ron “R-Truth” Killings, as well as Hulk Hogan’s old AWA manager Luscious Johnny Valiant. Unlike 1973’s The Wrestler (which is in no way connected to this movie), no attempt is made to present wrestling as anything other than what it is. For that alone, we would highly recommend this movie as a way to further understand what we’re trying to do here at the Pro Wrestling Primer.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Pro Wrestling Primer: Introduction

I don’t remember what exactly compelled me to start watching wrestling on Saturday mornings, but my best estimate for when I began tuning in was around 1984. Like most kids in the ‘80s who watched wrestling, I started out watching the WWF on Saturday mornings between cartoons. For the sake of disclosure, I’ll admit that I was also a Hulkamaniac as a little kid. How much of a Hulkamaniac? Well, I aspired to stand six feet, eight inches tall and weigh 302 pounds, which were Hogan’s supposed stats. When the Hulkster got screwed out of the WWF title by the twin referees in 1988, you better believe I was upset! We’ll talk more about Hulk Hogan some other time, but the point is that, yeah, I bought the line for a while there. Say what you will, but what do you want from a little kid in Western Pennsylvania? Pittsburgh is the home of wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino; it’s WWF country. So cut me some slack in that regard, okay?

I liked to watch wrestling on TV whenever I could, but it didn’t become an obsession until my mom brought home a hardcover book called The Pictorial History of Wrestling. Like a stupid little kid would, I colored in all the black-and-white photos and ruined a lot of future cut-and-paste art opportunities, but that book was the shit. Talk about a pro wrestling primer—The Pictorial History of Wrestling had profiles on most of the well-known American wrestlers of the time, as well as some of the old school legends and women wrestlers. I read about the Japanese wrestlers Antonio Inoki (who had beaten Hulk Hogan, shockingly enough) and Jumbo Tsuruta, plus the legends that helped build wrestling, like Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Killer Kowalski, and of course Bruno Sammartino. It was weird reading that book at first, because the WWF were making it sound like they were the only wrestling promotion in the world. Although The Pictorial History of Wrestling gave mention to some of the current WWF superstars like Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Ricky Steamboat, and Junkyard Dog, I’d never heard of most of the other wrestlers before. Something was up here. If the WWF were the top wrestling promotion in the world, where was this Ric Flair guy? Or the Von Erichs? Bruiser Brody looked like he could knock Hulk Hogan’s head off, but he wasn’t in the WWF. If Jerry Lawler was in fact “The King” of wrestling, why wasn’t he in the WWF either? Abdullah the Butcher looked like a guy who ate his opponents alive, but he wasn’t committing any atrocities in the WWF ring. The Road Warriors looked mean and intimidating with their mohawks and face paint, yet they weren’t dominating the tag team ranks in the WWF. Even as a little boy, I wondered: What gives?

Obviously, the WWF was far from being the only wrestling promotion in the world like they’d claimed. To this die-hard wrestling fan in the making, this was nothing but good news. There were actually a whole bunch of different wrestling promotions, operating on varying scales throughout the country. The Pictorial History of Wrestling wrote about wrestlers who worked in various territories like Georgia, Florida, Memphis, Portland, and the Midwest. Slowly but surely, I began to figure out that wrestling promotions operated on a regional basis, with TV slots in their own markets.

I’d also pester my parents and their friends to get me the various wrestling magazines at the grocery store, like Pro Wrestling Illustrated, Inside Wrestling, The Wrestler, Wrestling World, Wrestling Power (by future ECW owner Paul Heyman), and Wrestling ’86 (or whatever year it happened to be). These magazines took wrestling seriously, and weren’t exactly WWF-friendly some of the time. When the NWA and the AWA got timeslots on Pittsburgh’s affiliate stations, I already knew who their wrestlers were and had some clue of what was going on. It was great getting to see three different kinds of wrestling all in the same weekend. If only we had cable TV—if your service was good, you’d be able to pick up some of the other wrestling promotions, like Mid-South and World Class. In all, you could get something like eight to ten hours of wrestling programming a week. But I was lucky in that I got to see the three big-time promotions and what they were all about. For the most part, I’ve followed wrestling ever since then.

When it comes to Vince McMahon’s battle for control of the wrestling industry, I’ve seen most of it unfold on television. I watched as he won the ratings war against Ted Turner and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and bought out the company. When Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) also went out of business, McMahon bought up their assets too, and introduced an invasion storyline where wrestlers from the rival companies made their presence known on WWF television. The program should have written itself, but the end result was a huge flop that fizzled out just when it was getting started. I won’t go into details right now, but it’s hard to believe they couldn’t come up with anything better than that. And then I sat through the embarrassment of seeing the WWF forced to change their name to World Wrestling Entertainment.

During some of this time, I had to keep up with wrestling via the Internet. Because I knew that internet wrestling fans geeked out on being “smart” to the business to where they used insider lingo like “selling” and “work rate” in their discussions, I simply followed the TV results on the WWF’s website. But once their posts became less detailed, I somehow came across one of those smart fan sites that not only covered the match details, but also had the “insider” info as to what supposedly went on behind the scenes. From these sites, I figured out why the WWF/WCW/ECW onscreen war didn’t result in the awesome matches and storylines one would have hoped for. I became more well versed in the history of the WWF’s national expansion during the 1980s, as well as the WWF/WCW Monday night ratings war. Mind you, I didn’t exactly want to become a “smart mark,” but there were questions that I needed answers to. A lot of those questions were answered, and a lot of blanks were filled.

I started collecting videos and downloading matches, which eventually led to mailordering bootleg videos and DVDs of familiar American wrestlers working in Japan and Puerto Rico. The autobiographies of Cowboy Bill Watts, Terry Funk, Bret Hart, Dynamite Kid, and Mick Foley litter my bookshelf, as do the histories of the NWA, Stampede Wrestling, and ECW. Some people think I have a big wrestling collection, but the truth is that I’ve barely scratched the surface. For example, I don’t have the book about the old St. Louis territory or any of their reissue DVDs, of which there are plenty. The owners of the Mid-South and UWF video libraries have finally begun reissuing that footage, and I’ve barely taken advantage of that fact. I have yet to see the classic Mitsuharu Misawa/Toshiyaki Kawada series of matches from All Japan. Worse yet, I barely follow the independent promotions at all, although I did make it a point to attend Ring of Honor’s first San Francisco show at the Cow Palace. But my work schedule interferes with my ability to see Fog City Wrestling (FCW) shows at San Francisco’s DNA Lounge, and the public transit cost is just too expensive to trek down to the suburbs of Newark for Big Time Wrestling (BTW). But suffice to say, I still consider myself a die-hard wrestling fan with a decent amount of knowledge.

So then, what to expect from the Pro Wrestling Primer? I’ll be recapping the different wrestlers and promotions I’ve already mentioned here (and most certainly more than just those), and of course in further detail. Expect DVD and book reviews. If you’re a fan of more personal observations in a review-type format, look no further than this series of posts. There are plenty of observations and memories to share. I am also well aware of the fact that pro wrestling is “fake” and that “they know how to fall,” so I’m not going to insult your intelligence and expect you to believe that this is a legitimate sport or anything. That said, when I do write about wrestling matches, I write about them with the same sense of disbelief that you employ whenever you watch a great movie. I don’t geek out on whether or not any one particular wrestler is a good “worker,” at least not from the stereotypical Internet wrestling fan’s standpoint. Plus, I’m of the opinion that a lot of these people are shortsighted in their use of the term and what it is supposed to mean. Although I do use some insider wrestling terms, I don’t get hung up on showing off my dorkdom by using every single one that I can think of. That shit is stupid, and I’ve found that it’s kinda insulting to actual wrestlers in a way. Doug from Brody’s Militia put it best when he compared the people that act like this at wrestling shows to record collectors geeking out over colored vinyl variations. Actually, one of the next Pro Wrestling Primers is going to be a glossary of some of these terms, really just to get them out of the way before I start actually using any of them. But trust me, I’m not nearly as obsessive about this sort of shit as some people I’ve seen online. Lastly, I’m not out to insult or make fun of wrestling, unlike a lot of people who write about it that I won’t name. Naturally, there is in fact a lot about wrestling that’s totally worth insulting and/or making fun of, and that will certainly happen. But don’t expect an attitude that is condescending towards the True Sport of Kings.

I think that’s enough about wrestling for now. The next Pro Wrestling Primer will actually be a review of The Wrestler, which I managed to see on opening day at the Metreon in San Francisco. Your input and suggestions for future articles would be most appreciated, by the way.