Prompt 106: Professional Wrestling
106. The World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) became huge in the 1980s on the back of stars like Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage. What would your day-to-day life be like if you were a popular 80s wrestler? Would the fame be worth all the bumps and bruises on the mat?
One of the most captivating films I'd seen about professional wrestling (and working one's way to it, through the "amateur" leagues) is the curiously-titled, "The Wrestler." We see Mickey Rourke play a once-great wrestler who has smoked, drank, and fucked it all away in the decades previous. He now lives in a van, still cranking it out in minor league federations, with venues such as local community centers and high school gymnasiums.
There are scenes where he's in a grueling pain match with another haggard, middle-aged has-been: they assault each other with stapleguns, furniture and tools wrapped in barbed wire, window panes that shatter as they're slammed on each others' heads... All with a roaring crowd cheering them on and marveling at the physical punishment endured by the wrestlers.
The most useful thing in the film is the revelations of the aftermath: the wrestling personas are gone, and now it's just a guy waiting for someone to wrench the staples out of his skull and face with a pair of pliers. Then it's Rourke going back to his van to drink some scotch, down some painkillers, and tumble his way to sleep, his van still in the parking lot. At one point, it seems he's about to make it back into the limelight, then suddenly he's swept into a coke binge with a woman obsessed with firefighters (this segment is truly bizarre and needs to be seen to be believed), creeping out of her house the next morning as she's in the shower.
The film is well worth watching, and although you know he's doomed (like Stacey Keach in "Fat City," another stellar down-on-your-luck, has-been athlete film), you still root for him until the bitter end and watch him go down swinging.
A handful of documentaries tell the same tale, whether it's "Beyond the Mat" or the Mick Foley biopics. Professional Wrestling isn't pretty. The heel-versus-face drama may be manufactured and a complete fiction (for the record, Rowdy Roddy Piper was one of the best heels of the 80's and 90's, and in "real life" had a heart of gold), but there's no denying that to provide that kind of entertainment the practitioners need to be in excellent physical condition - and not just with musculature. Mentally and socially, it takes its toll as well. Whether it's Jake the Snake Roberts divulging his jadedness with debauchery and decadence, or it's in the horror in the eyes of Mick Foley's wife as he endures supreme punishment as Mankind in a title bout with the destined winner, or as Rourke's daughter when he explains to her, "I'm just a worn-out piece of meat"... Nearly no one reaching the heights of professional wrestling can be considered "okay."
It's with all this in mind that I seriously consider what life as a professional wrestler would be like. The pressure to perform, to cultivate one both physically and charismatically, avoid the excesses that lead to dead ends and/or a heart attack at the age of 45. It all seems like a horrible, extreme lifestyle to me. I doubt I could handle it. I can imagine clawing my way to the top after perhaps 10 years of duking it out with other amateurs in backyard "ladder and garbage can matches." The kinds of characters I'd need to develop (I would probably do well as a heel). Eluding injury as best I could. The fake tanning. Sculpting my body hair. Okay, now I'm just being ridiculous.
The truth is that I know much more about the reality of professional wrestling now as an adult than what I could ever imagine as a 10-year-old boy watching "WWF Wrestling Superstars" cartoons, Koko B. Ware, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, the holiest of holies team of Gorilla Monsoon, Mean Gene Okerlund, and the untouchable Bruno Samartino. About Andre the Giant drinking himself to sleep with a 36-pack of beer to escape the aching of his bones.
My parents would purchase the pay-per-view matches when I was a kid, and I would watch all these men go at each others' throats, just like they were living video game characters and we were playing "Pro Wrestling" on the NES. Like I would throw round my dozens of M.U.S.C.L.E. figures... Then Vince McMahon throws you out with the trash as soon as your spark is gone.
I couldn't hack it. No way.