GRENOBLE, FRANCE, 1953: one of the most unlikely pairings in history is doing the school run. The driver is a decorated hero of the French Resistance, now making a name for himself in the theatre. His passenger, at just 12 years old, is already six- three, and weighs 243 lbs. He suffers from a rare condition known as gigantism, and will eventually grow to a height of nearly seven and a half feet – he is already too large to ride the school bus.
The driver’s name is Samuel Beckett, and he has just published his first play, Waiting for Godot. His passenger is Andre Rousimoff, the son of a local farm laborer. What are they talking about? The main topic was cricket, apparently (Beckett had played for his University team, and remains the only Nobel Prize winner to appear in the pages of the cricketing almanac Wisden). But maybe some of Beckett’s wisdom rubbed off on his young charge. Andre left school after the eighth grade, and worked in a series of blue-collar jobs where his prodigious size would be an advantage. He grew bored quickly and frequently found himself out of work, but, following Beckett’s mantra: “Fail again, fail better,” he edged closer towards the profession that would make him a worldwide star: professional wrestling. At 17, he moved to Paris where he learned the basics of the sport.
With his imposing physique, Andre was an immediate hit. By 1970, he had toured the world, finally reaching North America. Here, he came to the attention of Vince McMahon, the owner of what was then The World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF – later shortened to WWF). It was McMahon who tapped Andre’s full potential. Billed as an unstoppable monster, Andre the Giant went on a 15-year undefeated streak, drawing crowds across the country and transforming McMahon’s company from a minor regional concern into a major national organization.
Although he rarely wore the WWWF championship belt, Andre was one of the biggest spectator attractions going. The commercial highpoint of his career came on March 29, 1987 at Wrestlemania III. Nearly 100,000 fans came to watch him battle Hulk Hogan, which stood as the record attendance for a live indoor sporting event in America until 2010. Andre was a larger-than-life character, who found his niche in an industry which celebrated the physically outlandish.
The artificial universe of pro-wrestling needs such outsized characters to fulfill exaggerated roles. Detractors are quick to point out that wrestling is “fake,” failing to realize that this is the whole point. Modern wrestling is a soap opera in which the character progression is driven by staged fighting. To emphasize the point, WWE (Vince McMahon Jr.’s modern day successor to the WWWF) claims that its flagship show Monday Night Raw is the longest running weekly episodic show in US television history – the comparison made on the company website is to Lassie. The WWE has even branched out into reality shows in recent years, including Tough Enough and Total Divas, a pair of X Factor style competitions for aspiring wrestlers.
Like any soap opera, the story lines have to be straightforward enough to be easily understandable for casual viewers. Therefore, wrestlers fit into stock roles: the dominant villain, the noble underdog. Good battles evil, and generally wins. Wrestling provides an important social function by creating this pantomime of morality. It’s no surprise that the cultural critic Roland Barthes turned to the subject in his seminal collection Mythologies. He declares, “Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle… the function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.” Unlike most athletic contests, it is not a display of excellence, but an excellent display. Hubris abounds, and the ending provides catharsis: “a man who is down is exaggeratedly so, and completely fills the eyes of spectators with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness.” In contrast, victory is total and overwhelming, which is no doubt, part of wrestling’s timeless appeal. Its mythic storytelling has remained relevant for successive generations of viewers.
Wrestlers’ reactions are exaggerated, and this is also true of their on-screen personae. Wrestlers are dandies in the purest sense. In his memoir The Naked Civil Servant, the English wit Quentin Crisp described dandyism as “swimming with the tide – but faster;” taking perceived character flaws and making them central to one’s outward persona. This requires a very deliberate act of reinvention: “You have to polish up your raw identity until it becomes a lifestyle, something interesting by which you are proud to be identified and something with which you can barter with the outside world.”
This process is central to the development of characters in wrestling, a point that Mr. Crisp made explicit in a story he told about an acquaintance whose name was Mr. Tillet, but who was better known as The Angel. Crisp described the man as, “Shorter than I am, but twice as wide… his head was as long from the chin to the crown as the skull of a donkey. His pate was bald, but the rest of his body was covered with fur, right down to his fingernails. When his employer first saw him, she fainted.”
Others may have found these physical characteristics to be an unconquerable disadvantage. Tillet, however, decided to make a virtue of necessity. He sought out a position in which his distinctive features could begin to work in his favor and went on, in Crisp’s words, to make “more money in four short years as a wrestler than the divine Joe Louis made out of a lifetime in the boxing ring.” This, then, is the key to style, “He took that which made him so like himself, and put it in its appropriate setting.”
For many, the glamour of wrestling has been an escape from grim upbringings, a point made most strikingly in Dennis Hutchinson’s photograph of the wrestler “Exotic” Adrian Street outside the coal mine where his father worked. Street’s outlandish outfit was a direct challenge to the conservative environment of his working class area. Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller describes this image as “the most important photograph taken in Britain after the war.” The photograph describes a generation gap in stark terms. Street appears as an entertainer, a man who will shape his own destiny; his father, by contrast, harks back to a disappearing world of working-class collective action and manual labor. Street’s wrestling persona, all fur coats and glitter make-up, was modeled on the American wrestler Gorgeous George. In the first volume of his memoirs, Chronicles, Bob Dylan credits an encounter with The Gorgeous One with inspiring him to pursue a career in entertainment; Muhammad Ali and James Brown were also admirers.
Growing up in the depressed former mining town Stoke-on-Trent, this idea of using costume as a means of transcending your environment had a deep appeal for me. My own experiments with dandyism, make-up and drag were inspired by bands like The New York Dolls and Manic Street Preachers, whose bassist Nicky Wire also saw the link between appearance and upbringing. The band first emerged on the UK music scene in 1992, clad in leopard-print and eyeliner. This was an era when pop culture was dominated by resolutely unsexy baggy trousers and rave style, and Wire explained helpfully, “I don’t think we could have done this if we hadn’t grown up in a shithole where the only way to escape was to create your own reality.”
Like Street and Wire, I had no interest in copying the images of masculinity which surrounded me, so I created my own, picking and choosing from whatever took my fancy, borrowing from glam, punk, goth and new romanticism. I’ve also always been fascinated to see how other people develop their personae, and wrestling’s soap-opera qualities allow the viewer to study the development of characters over years or even decades.
Many wrestlers will try on a number of masks until they find the one that fits and enables them to connect emotionally with the crowd. The current WWE vice president, Paul Levesque, first came into the organization under the name Hunter Heart-Helmsley, aka “The Greenwich Blue-Blood,” playing a snob who would elaborately bow to the crowd before matches. His career was going nowhere until he reversed his attitude, becoming the leader of the D-Generation X faction, a group of crotch-chopping, glow stick-wielding delinquents. Later still, Levesque bulked up, shaved his long blonde hair and rebranded as Triple H, a ruthless warrior referred to by commentators as “the cerebral assassin.” His contemporary and rival Mick Foley, meanwhile, juggled three distinct personae, each with their own fighting style, attire and interview technique. Depending on the occasion, he could be the deranged, Manson-esque Mankind, the hippyish Dude Love, or the risk-taking brawler Cactus Jack.
I was in no way cut out for anything so athletic and physical as wrestling, but I was still fascinated by the way in which these giant baby oil-sheened dandies could reinvent themselves, collecting and discarding masks along the way. But I wasn’t interested in British wrestling. It had to be American wrestling. In the UK it lacked the transcendent nature, the sheer spectacle provided by WWE. When I was young, my dad would take me to watch wrestling at the local town hall. The heroes then, Big Daddy (an obese ex-soldier, real name: Shirley Crabtree), Giant Haystacks and Kendo Nagasaki, were tired, old men reliving past glories in front of bored crowds. The only reaction came from the grandmothers in the front row, who would scream obscenities over their knitting like the old women who crowded round the guillotine in revolutionary France.
The whole experience was just too ordinary: Kendo Nagasaki posed as an Oriental martial arts expert, but we all knew he was really a plumber from the Midlands. He could have been a neighbor. My uncle had sold Giant Haystacks a caravan once (what this 6’11”, 685lb man was going to do with a caravan is anyone’s guess).
American wrestlers, by contrast, seem incapable of ordinariness. Later in life when his gigantism had rendered him almost immobile, Andre the Giant was cast as Fezzik, a gigantic henchman, in The Princess Bride (1987). Much of the film was shot on location in New Mills, a small town in England’s Peak District National Park. New Mills is proud of its connection with The Princess Bride, and with Andre in particular. Up until a year ago I lived nearby, and he frequently came up in conversation. Even his post-work drinks attained mythical status. Sitting in The Mason’s Arms, a traditional pub in the town, locals fondly remembered The Giant squeezing his enormous frame through the pub’s narrow doorway after a day’s filming before embarking on one of his legendary drinking sessions. (He was reputed to down upwards of 100 pints of beer in a sitting.) His co-stars were ordered to take it in turns to accompany him on these trips. Re-watching the film, they appear unnaturally pale, the result of their fearful hangovers. One was so badly affected that he was replaced with a cardboard cut-out during one day of filming.
The extraordinary characteristics of wrestling are essential to maintaining the viewer’s interest, so when wrestlers have attempted to identify with ordinary people, the effects have generally been disastrous. During the WWE’s early Nineties low-point, muscle-bound supermen would perform burlesques of everyday professions inside the wrestling ring. Viewers could tune in to see a 300-pound plumber (TJ Hooper) do battle with a renegade hog farmer (Henry Orpheus Godwinn) – the equivalent of Marvel dressing The Avengers up as window cleaners. In the twisted logic of the time, it was an obvious step for a villainous character to recruit his dentist (Isaac B Yankem) to fight his battles for him. Fortunately, the WWE realized the error of its ways, giving birth to the Attitude Era, defined by the character of Mr. McMahon, the sadistic company boss portrayed by the real-life owner of the organization. The Attitude Era blurred the boundaries of reality and fiction in its storylines and the Mr. McMahon character exemplified this, playing on the owner’s competitive, controlling personality. Although he rarely appears on WWE TV these days, McMahon featured on the cover of Muscle and Fitness magazine this year, at the age of 69.
The razzmatazz of the modern wrestling spectacle is a far cry from the sport’s origins. Modern-day wrestling began as a carnival sideshow in France, in the 1830s, where locals would attempt to overcome a strongman, or at least last a few rounds. By the 1880s, the sport spread across Europe, and organizers worked out that they could guarantee a satisfactory outcome by pitting two professionals against one another and fixing the result. The focus would be on spectacle, rather than athletic endeavor.
The language of wrestling is a clue to its disreputable past. The insider terminology of the wrestling business is descended from carnival slang in the same way as polari, the secret code used by English homosexuals of the 1950s. A form of slang designed to help gay men communicate without being detected by the police (homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967 and punishable by life in prison), polari substituted key words: “Man” became “omi,” woman became “palone,” and “homosexual” became “omipalone.” Some polari terms, such as “chav,” “naff” and “slap” (for make-up) have since entered popular usage in Britain.
In wrestling, slang serves to protect the secrets of the trade from outsiders. The illusion of wrestling is known as “kayfabe.” There is no literal translation (possibly it derives from the public school code Pig Latin, in which “fake” would become “ake-fay”), but it refers to the practice of presenting staged events as true. Thus, two unrelated grapplers might appear as kayfabe brothers, adopting the same surname and inventing a backstory about their shared childhood, which they would discuss in interviews. This illusion was fiercely protected for decades; during the Seventies and Eighties, feuding wrestlers were banned from travelling together by the WWE in case they were spotted by fans. In 1987, fan-favorite Hacksaw Jim Duggan was arrested for possessing marijuana whilst travelling to a show. As shocking as the drugs charge was the fact that his passenger was The Iron Sheikh, his regular in-ring opponent. Vince McMahon was apparently furious at this violation of kayfabe, and Duggan has stated in interviews that he believes McMahon’s determination to punish him for the incident prevented him from achieving greater success with the company.
Fans who are taken in by kayfabe are known as “marks”– the ones who get the inside track from the industry newssheets and internet forums are called “smart marks,” or “smarks.” Any planned activity is known as a “work,” while unplanned or unscripted actions are referred to as a “shoot.” Occasionally, as in the case of CM Punk’s infamous “pipe bomb” interview, in which he verbally attacked the WWE creative team for the direction they were taking his character in, wrestlers will deliberately give the appearance of going off-script or breaking kayfabe when they have in fact been authorized to do so in advance: this blurring of fiction and reality is known as a “worked shoot.”
For ease of storytelling, most wrestlers are clearly marked out as good (“baby face,” or “blue eye” in Britain) or bad (“heel”). Baby faces are presented as aspirational figures for the audience. John Cena, the most decorated current WWE performer, talks about the importance of loyalty and respect in his interviews, and much is made of his work for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Heels, by contrast, will break the rules at every opportunity, and are driven by far baser motives. The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase, the most notorious heel of the Eighties, boasted that “everyone had a price,” and would stage vignettes in which he asked audience members to perform humiliating actions such as cleaning his boots in return for cash. Being a true heel, he would always find a way to avoid paying up. The success of a baby face is measured by the “pop” of the crowd when they appear; the heel attempts to generate “heat.” Legendary Memphis-based wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler was famous for generating “cheap heat” by taking to the microphone to insult local sports teams before his matches, provoking jeers from the crowd.
A third category, made up of wrestlers who are popular with the audience despite their heel-ish behavior, are known as “tweeners” – a contraction of the word “in-betweener,” rather than a reference to their popularity with the preteen demographic. The most famous tweener of all was Stone Cold Steve Austin, whose headstrong attitude and frequent use of illegal objects like steel chairs in his fights would typically mark him out as a heel, but who won over crowds with his determination to battle the WWE’s owners. As with polari, the language of wrestling helps to identify as much as it conceals: knowledge of the key terms, gleaned from hints on chatrooms, helped me gain access to a subculture which can be a mystery to the uninitiated.
In a typical storyline scenario, a heel will confront a baby face, full of bitterness and spite at the baby face’s success (this motive could be as simple as professional jealousy, or as baroque as the death of the heel’s parents in an arson attack at a funeral home). Verbal jousting will go on for weeks, interspersed with brief skirmishes, leading up to a decisive confrontation. The baby face will be in peril, before rallying to triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.
Behind the scenes, the morality is far less cozy. The WWE’s portrayal of minority groups has often been shameful. In 1995, McMahon introduced a homosexual character, Goldust, who would attempt to fondle his opponents during matches; the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) initially welcomed the move, but were shocked by the negative portrayal of the character, forcing WWE to tone the presentation down. Black wrestlers have been portrayed as witless cannibals (The Ugandan Giant, Kamala) and voodoo priests (Papa Shango), and there has never been a black WWE Champion. When Triple H used a televised interview to tell his black opponent Booker T that “people like you don’t get to be champion,” grim reality intruded uncomfortably into wrestling’s kayfabe world. Wrestling fans called Triple H out on the racist connotations of his language, an accusation which he brushed off unconvincingly. Booker T lost the match, and was never given the opportunity to get one over on Triple H.
The treatment of performers has also been disturbing. Although drug testing is now mandatory for athletes, the industry’s cavalier attitude towards steroids and painkillers in the Eighties and Nineties led to a shockingly high mortality rate. A third of performers at Wrestlemania VI in 1990 have passed away, the oldest of whom was 63. By contrast, of 44 starting players at that year’s Super Bowl, only one is deceased.
In keeping with the dandified presentation of individual performers, wrestling adopts a burlesque approach to national identity. A recent high-profile match between American and Bulgarian performers was introduced as if the Cold War was still in full swing, with a video montage featuring Ronald Reagan, and the foreign athlete riding to the ring on a Soviet Tank. This was merely comic, but previous story lines exploiting real life conflicts have crossed the boundaries of good taste, beginning with the kayfabe Iraqi sympathizer Sergeant Slaughter in 1991, and reaching a nadir when WWE TV briefly featured a character named Muhammad Hussan, portrayed as an Islamic terrorist (the character was played by Italian-American Mark Copani). Following a televised match, Hussan called out five men dressed in black masks and camouflage gear to attack his opponent. Although it had been filmed a couple of days previously, the match was aired on July 7, 2005, the same day as the London bombings. A furious backlash ensued, and the WWE was forced to withdraw the character.
Wrestling hardly seems like a natural fit with most of my other interests, and it’s not one I discuss often in public. I did encounter a group of similarly pale and weedy wrestling fans in one of Manchester’s dingier indie clubs, The Star and Garter, and nights there often descended into groups of us attempting backdrops and suplexes (a basic wrestling throw) on a patch of land next to the venue. This sort of behavior tends to be frowned upon in literary circles, and the subject rarely crops up: although, at a recent salon I hosted for authors and publishers in London, I was able to tell the story about Beckett and Andre the Giant, a rare instance of the two worlds intersecting.
While the likes of Slaughter and Hassan were characters dreamt up by WWE’s creative team, with wrestlers hired specifically to portray them, the more successful performers adopt personas based on exaggerations of their own characters: Phil Brooks, the longest-running WWE title holder this side of the millennium, wrestled as CM Punk. The character drew on his love of punk music (he sports a Rocket From The Crypt logo amongst his many tattoos), and straight-edge lifestyle, and his outspoken interview style drew on his own fiery temperament. Stone Cold Steve Austin performed as a belligerent, beer-drinking anti-authoritarian redneck, a character that closely resembled his own personality and upbringing in Austin, Texas.
Although he never achieved the crossover success of a Hulk Hogan or a Rock, my icon was always Shawn Michaels. A small man by wrestling standards, at 6’1” and 250 lbs, he played the role of The Heartbreak Kid, a vain pretty boy who strutted to the ring wearing chaps and earrings. The homoerotic element of his presentation was exploited by storylines that pitched him against the biggest, ugliest and most brutal monsters the WWE could find. He was damsel-in-distress and prince valiant in one. He’d be battered and bruised by seemingly unstoppable opponents, but emerge on top through a combination of skill, guts and determination. It was pure wish fulfillment for anyone who had been the powerless victim of catcalling from shouting jocks in the street. Michaels was an incredibly gifted performer, who won the prestigious Pro Wrestling Illustrated Match of the Year award a record eleven times, but, as a teenager, I was more attracted to the idea of a beautiful and flamboyant man thriving in such a physical and brutal environment. Like Adrian Street in Dennis Hutchinson’s photograph, Michaels reacted to his surroundings not by bulking up to fit in, but by making himself impossible to ignore thanks to his flamboyance.
Like bodybuilding, wrestling is of the few areas of popular culture where men are objectified, en masse, by other men. Wrestling fans will happily discuss whether wrestlers have the right physique to make it big in the industry. Looking good in swimming trunks is essential to success. Internet message boards will argue over who has the best body (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson takes the prize here), and whose costume was the most embarrassing. Michaels was never “shredded” enough to feature in the ‘best physiques’ conversations, but during his first run as WWF champion in 1996 he posed nude for Playgirl magazine, which at the time had a largely male readership, confirming himself as an object of male fantasy. Opponents would regularly pull down his tights during matches, heightening the titillation factor by giving the audience a brief glimpse of what lay beneath. Although apparently a very difficult, manipulative character behind the scenes during the early stages of his career, Michaels was made to look emotionally vulnerable in interviews, weeping on camera more than once. This fits into a wider presentational pattern: exhibiting vulnerability heightens the appeal of top baby faces, although they are generally required to triumph in the end.
The tension between reality and spectacle can be troubling for the performers too. Behind the scenes documentaries, such as Beyond the Mat (1999), show the problems that wrestlers can face in their personal lives. Most notoriously, the film featured interviews with the legendary Jake “The Snake” Roberts. In his Eighties heyday, The Snake had feuded with the biggest stars in the business, and was especially noted for his grasp of in-match psychology, and his ability to give great interviews. Now, the best years of his career behind him, Roberts was a tragic figure, estranged from his family, and apparently using crack cocaine. His exaggerated in-ring persona allowed him to transcend the everyday troubles he faced. Stripped away, he was unable to cope. Roberts, fortunately, seems to have recovered his health, but the shocking number of wrestlers of his generation who have died young testifies to the difficulty of facing the world without the protective mask of kayfabe.
In Levels of Life, his essay on bereavement, the British author Julian Barnes explains that following the death of his wife, the only entertainments he could stand to watch were meaningless televised soccer matches and opera. The former served to dull the senses; the latter was so false and melodramatic that it overwhelmed his emotions. Less highbrow it may be, but professional wrestling does the same for me. When I am feeling uncertain about my own place in the world, the theatrics of pro wrestling are a reassuring corrective, a universe of light and dark with few shades of grey in between.
Wrestling has always had a calming quality for me. As an awkward schoolboy, I watched the cartoonish antics of Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior on VHS, seeing the good guys fight off the bullies sent to challenge them. At college, away from home for the first time, full of self-doubt, drink and drugs, I tuned in to the Attitude era, to watch the anti-authoritarian antics of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. In my twenties, my daughter was born, and the next day I was robbed at gunpoint, on the way home from the hospital. In my numb, shocked state, I sat on the sofa, cradling my child and watching endless wrestling DVDs. So it was natural that, when my father died suddenly this year, I turned to WWE again for comfort.
Already reeling with the shock of bereavement, exacerbated by a long-standing bout of depression, I found that interpreting the complex signals of “real life” was beyond me. Yet I still craved narrative. In the kayfabe world of wrestling, I could connect with my emotions in a safe space where motives were transparent, and resolution could be achieved. While other art forms left me numb, the sheer spectacle of WWE was able to penetrate the medicated fog I was living in, and provide brief moments of catharsis. I also watched my first opera, a touring production of Faust, which was good, but could have done with more body slams.