Why All the Hostility?

By Lamar Hughes
Updated: February 13, 2007

“For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no explanation will do.”

-Jeff Jarrett, 1997

NEW YORK, NEW YORK — For over 50 years, professional wrestling, the redheaded stepchild of the entertainment industry, has been a fixture in television programming and American society. Although the mere mention of it today makes some people cringe as if they had seen a cockroach with Tourette’s Syndrome, it would be nearly impossible to discount its contribution to popular culture. Long before the Chicago Bulls used The Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirus” as the theme music to their starting line-up introduction, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat entered Wrestlemania III in 1987 to the same tune in front of 93, 173 fans (a, then, North American indoor attendance record). Before Hector Camacho and “Prince” Naseem Hamed wore extravagant costumes and danced down the aisle as part of their pre-fight ritual, Ric Flair, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, and “Superstar” Billy Graham made their fashion statements, sporting bleached-blond hair, tie-dyed shirts, glittered robes and berets in arenas across the country.

From a business standpoint, pro wrestling, specifically the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), is a huge moneymaking machine. It accounts for approximately 75% of the US’s annual Pay-Per-View buys. “RAW is WAR”, shown Monday nights on TNN, is the highest-rated show on cable television. Its superstars are regularly featured on “Dateline NBC”, “Entertainment Tonight”, “MTV”, and on the Jay Leno and Conan O’ Brien Shows. The industry’s most popular figure, The Rock, not only has a role in “The Mummy Returns”, but will also star in next year’s prequel to the “Mummy” series, “The Scorpion King”. Clearly, wrestling is reaching an all-time peak in terms of popularity. So why is there such negativity associated with it? Why do journalists, like Bryant Gumbel, refer to wrestling as a “joke” or “low-brow entertainment”, when, in doing so, he runs the risk of insulting a percentage of people who watch his “Real Sports” show on HBO and the WWF on a regular basis? Are the naysayers seeing something millions of fans around the world aren’t, or are they missing the boat altogether?

Whenever I tell someone I’m a wrestling fan, the first question I get is, “You know that stuff isn’t real, right?” Now I understand that by “real”, critics are referring to the scripted matches, pulled kicks and punches, and outrageous appearances I alluded to earlier. However, if one were to take a better look at how the business is run, chances are that there wouldn’t be any debate about its validity. The WWF and World Championship Wrestling (WCW), for example, hold over 250 events a year, with no off-season. While most network shows (none of which are “real”, yet no one argues their merit) have the summer to re-hash different plots and characters, a wrestling company’s writing staff is planting seeds for at least 2 shows per week, 52 weeks per year. If Kobe Bryant or Barry Bonds misses a game or two due to an injury, they’ll still receive a paycheck. A professional wrestler gets paid based on the number of days he works. So if an event or two is missed, he or she may receive a smaller paycheck or, even worse, nothing at all.

Not convinced, yet? Keep reading.

I’ve also heard people make the argument that wrestlers aren’t athletes. What they fail to realize is that most wrestlers come from diverse athletic backgrounds. Ron Simmons is one of two people to have his Florida State football jersey retired (the other being Deion Sanders). Simmons, a winner of numerous tag-team championships throughout his career, was also the first Black heavyweight champion when he won the WCW title in 1992. Sheldon Benjamin, a member of the University of Minnesota’s national championship wrestling team, recently signed a development deal with the WWF. Mark Henry competed in the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics as a Super Heavyweight weightlifter and is also honing his skills in the WWF’s development federations. He and Benjamin could receive their “call-ups” by the end of this year.

The development leagues are the strongest counter argument to a critic’s assumption that anyone can be a wrestler. Some believe that as long as you have a great body and can take a fall or two, you’re on your way to making a fool of yourself every week on national television. That’s like saying all a person needs to be a successful NBA player is a good jump shot.

A good wrestling match tells a story. It can take you on the same emotional roller coaster that a great movie or novel does. And just like a horrible story or novel, a bad wrestling match can be unbearable to watch. As physically imposing as Mark Henry is, getting the crowd to react to him was as tough as splitting hairs with your fingernails. That’s what guys are taught before getting called up to the bigger companies: “ring psychology”. Their characters, wrestling style, and gimmicks are tools to get a response from the crowd. If fans can relate to what wrestlers stand for, the fans will be more interested in seeing them perform.

And, make no mistake about it. Wrestlers do get hurt. Their injuries are sometimes more painful and disturbing to watch than those of NFL players. Men have lost body parts, suffered concussions and broken bones, been knocked unconscious, and dripped buckets of blood, unintentionally, during matches. Yet, they continued with their program because, as they’re taught from Day One, “The show must go on.”

A couple of weeks ago, on “RAW”, a wrestler tore the bottom half of his left quadriceps muscle. The tear was so severe that his muscle split in half throughout his entire leg. Despite the obvious pain he was in, not once did the action stop. In fact, he finished the remaining 5 minutes or so without pretty much missing a beat. Only when the match was over did trainers and officials come to the ring and tend to his injury. In a world where “real” athletes are taken out of games for bleeding from a finger, few would’ve displayed the courage and professionalism shown by Triple H that night. Unfortunately, his efforts aren’t appreciated by the masses.

Scottie Pippen sat out game 7 of the conference finals one year due to a migraine. And he’s recognized as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players.

Go figure.