The Theory of Chaos

Monday, January 21, 2008

What I Do For a Living

(All this wrestling talk will seem ridiculous to you, I know, but there’s a point to it, I promise –NT)

Wrestlemania VII
, one of the annual pay-per-view wrestling spectacles staged by the WWE (then WWF), took place on March 24, 1991, at the height of the first Iraq war (remember, the one that ended?) Ever-cognizant of their audience’s mood, and ever willing to “go there”, the company had incorporated the war, and the chest-thumping U.S.A. Sis-boom-bah! fever it created, into its never-ending soap opera. Company headliner Hulk Hogan, who’d competed in the main event of five of the first six Wrestlemania’s (and made an interfering cameo in the other), would have the top of the ticket, here, too, and needed an opponent that would cast the battle of good v. evil in red, white, and blue.

So events leading up to
Wrestlemania conspired to put the championship belt around the waist of Sgt. Slaughter, a military-themed former “face” (aka crowd favorite) who made a genuinely dangerous “heel turn” (becoming a bad guy) by putting on an Iraqi uniform, burning American flags on TV, and praising his good “friend” Saddam Hussein. As a national entertainment phenomenon wrestling was still very, very young, steroid trials and Internet fansites had not yet punctured the illusion of reality wrestlers called “kayfabe”, and many of the oldest and most fervent fans had come to it during its regional mud-show days. They still cared about it as if it was real. Some of them still believed it was.

The mid-to-late 80’s were both the WWE’s glory days and an amazing period of transition, as the characters got more cartoonish and the storylines more convoluted. “Kayfabe” was just about to break down for good. Looking back, I think Sgt. Slaughter knew that he was sticking his head in the lion’s mouth – people in those audiences weren’t just booing him, they wanted him
dead. But it’s in the wrestler’s blood to try anything that might get him a good pop from the crowd.

Now that made for a dandy main event, and it drew the largest audience in the history of pay-per-view to that point. But to me (and yes, as a 13-year-old, I was still an avid fan) the highlight of that show came earlier in the evening. To cap a major feud, The Ultimate Warrior and Randy “Macho Man” Savage were fighting in a Career-Ending Match. The loser would (supposedly) hang it up for good. This immediately put an aura of importance around the match, because both of these wrestlers were former world champions and top draws, and that either of them might be finished in the ring was unimaginable.

The Ultimate Warrior was the face in this feud. He looked like a hair-metal rocker and had one of the looniest raps in wrestling history. Listen to this 30-second clip; I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, but back then, the kids loved it:

Now, charitably speaking, his ring technique was not that great. Most of his matches involved him pounding his chest, shaking the ropes, and running around, occasionally running into his opponent and knocking him down. His ability to stay at a Wildman Freakout level of energy burn for long periods was pretty impressive, but his matches weren’t going to have a lot of fine detail to them.

By contrast, Randy Savage may have been the greatest all-around wrestler of all time. He had a well-refined persona, could play both face and heel, talked a great game (that man sold a lot of Slim Jims) and was one of the best ring actors working. I’m never going to win any arm-wrestling matches against grown men, but if I punched Randy Savage in the stomach, he could sell it like I’d blasted him with a shotgun. Nobody could take a beating like him, and that’s the key to pro wrestling – to sell the suffering so people invest in the victory. He and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat worked one of the most dynamic matches in history at
Wrestlemania III, but even when he was doing one of those time-killing squash matches on a weekend TV show, you could see him putting all his energy into it, trying to find a little something special to do.

Macho Man (then referring to himself as the “Macho King”), rode down to the ring at
Wrestlemania VII on a throne with his manager/escort, former women’s champion Sensational Sherri. Now, everyone who’d followed Savage’s career knew that she was not the first woman in his wrestling life – that was his former manager/escort Elizabeth, “The First Lady of Wrestling”. Elizabeth, Savage’s real-life wife during his WWF years, was unique in that she was defined for audiences not by her own actions, but by her loyalty to Savage. Even during his heel days she accompanied him to the ring, held the ring rope open for him, and cheered him on. This gave her an unusual “Stand By Your Man” credibility with fans, and when she disappeared and Savage started parading around with Sherri the angry harpie, it deepened peoples’ loathing of him. As he entered the ring that day, people were throwing things at him. Remember that.

But who did the cameras just happen to find sitting in the audience, watching with concern? That’s right – Elizabeth. Just another little twist to add to the drama as the match began.

This was a heavy one, one of the best The Ultimate Warrior was ever involved in. They wailed away on each other for a good twenty minutes, both looking genuinely exhausted by the end. Sherri interfered frequently, trying to keep her meal ticket on top, and both wrestlers had the chance to inflict their signature “finisher” move on each other, each time to no avail, because
that’s how much was at stake.

In the end, The Warrior got the pin, and the crowd roared, and Savage lay, spent, on the canvas. After the Warrior worked the crowd for applause for a couple of minutes, he left the ring, and his theme music faded out. And now Sherri climbed in the ring, spitting and screeching at the loser, tearing at his hair and kicking him for being bested. And then – oh, my droogies – Miss Elizabeth vaulted over the railing, ran up the aisle, and, leaving her usual demure manner aside for a moment, Took Out the Trash, chucking Sherri out of the ring to everyone’s applause.

So now Savage, delirious, still processing the end of his career, comes to his feet, with no idea who’s been hitting him. Elizabeth’s standing there, and (at least in storyline terms), no one knows how long it’s been since he’s seen her. Sherri’s at ringside, howling slander. Elizabeth’s just standing there, quivering, looking at the man she loves. And everyone in that arena is effing
captivated, wondering what he’s going to do.

And after milking that agonizing tension just long enough, Savage steps forward and embraces her. His theme music, Elgar’s
Pomp and Circumstance, booms out of the speakers, and I shit you not, people are CRYING. This man – a half-hour before they had hated his living guts; and now, because he lost the fight, lost his career, but found his good woman, the waterworks are going.

These two really did love each other then, and Savage, who’d been wrestling a brutal schedule for over a decade, genuinely thought this was his ring farewell. It wasn’t real, but it was
real enough for the people who wanted to believe it.

Think about that for a moment. This had transcended its architecture as a fictional sports league where steroid-ed behemoths whanged each other with chairs. Laugh if you want, but this had, in that moment, become the climax of a story about betrayal, and redemption, and love; and because it blended Savage’s performance talents with dramatic anticipation and tension, along with a third-act surprise (wait,
who’s that in the audience?!?!), it created real, that’s-what-the-Greeks-called-it catharsis.

Don’t believe me? Check the tape:

Now, wrestlers don’t really know how to retire, so by the end of the year Savage had been “re-instated” and went back to business, but the point is, the audience responded in that moment because they shook off their cynicism and

People want to believe. They starve for it, beg for it. They want to believe in a higher power, they want to believe in UFOs, they want to believe in karmic justice, in our capacity for good, in true love, in virgins in the afterlife. If you can give them that for a couple of hours – if you can stitch together a little poetry and a little music and some tricks of the light that are not real but simply
a compelling enough illusion – they will adore you. They will beg for more. And as pro wrestlers, pill salesmen, and Popes all know: they will give you money.

People don’t buy movies. They rent belief.


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