Wrestling Against Perceptions

I remember this one time during class in high school, first-period physics. I will never forget this scenario. A cute blond girl with blue eyes was talking to me and during our conversation she saw my black wristband and was curious as to what it was for.

She playfully grabbed my wrist, tilted her head as well as my arm, and read what was engraved — the WWE scratch logo with “World Wrestling Entertainment” etched onto the band. She nodded her head, smiled, puckered her lips, and gave me my arm back. Nothing was said, and nothing more needed to be.

Are you a wrestling fan? Better yet, were you a wrestling fan? What were some things you remember from it? What do you miss about it? What were some of the things you wish pro wrestling could have today?

To those who aren’t pro wrestling fans, what is the first thing you think of when I say, “pro wrestling”? What comes to your mind? Steroids? Fake? Trash? Low-class? Porn? What are the stereotypes and connotations you associate professional wrestling with?

If you are any of the aforementioned categories, do you have something in your mind? Great. Now watch the video.

Now read this article.

The New York Post: “What McMahon’s campaign won’t tell you” by Phil Mushnick

Now continue reading.

A little while back I was having a conversation with my sister’s boyfriend, who is reaching the ripe age of 30. About fifteen years ago when he was a teenager, he was enjoying professional wrestling like I am, the only difference was that, like every other child, teen, and sometimes adult that watched in the late 90’s, believed at least a portion of what they saw was real, or at least wanted to see “cool shit” happen. Even more so, wrestling did not matter in pro wrestling.

We were discussing the current state of professional wrestling, and he was a little more than turned off. He did not like John Cena, nor did he like Randy Orton, CM Punk, The Miz, Kofi Kingston, Dolph Ziggler, Daniel Bryan, or any other guy that I mentioned. To him, they “were no Stone Cold.” He also lamented the shift from TV-14 to TV-PG.

In many respects, he was right. Not many people on the WWE roster today have that level of charisma that The Rock or Stone Cold had, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I brought up the fact that, in the 80’s and 90’s, characters and showmanship mattered, and this was the era he grew up in. As time shifts, so do the demands of the audience, and now actual wrestling ability, technical wrestling, counts, a trend started by (in my humble opinion), Bret “The Hitman” Hart and Shawn Michaels.

Ring Of Honor, Chikara, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, as well as the popularity of Mexican lucha-libre and Japanese puroresu, and especially the threat of mixed martial arts were all points I brought up to him, but he merely shook his head and said, “Yeah, but they’re still not as great as the WWF was. Wrestling is good,” he said in a somewhat apathetic tone, “but the meat and potatoes is what they do outside of the ring. It’s entertainment, not sports. If I want something real, I’ll watch boxing.”

In the late 90’s, in order to compete for ratings against his primary competitor, Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (WCW), Vince McMahon took his World Wrestling Federation, (WWF) and began to shift his promotion towards an “edgy”, adult-oriented, more provocative product that modeled itself after the cult-like following promotion from Philaelphia, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), which was run by Paul Heyman.

The shift proved successful, and eventually the WWF became the number one wrestling promotion in the entire world, elevating their wrestlers to superstars, and molding the characters “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Triple H, The Undertaker, Mick Foley, and The Rock into household names.

The time period this shift occurred, 1996-2001, was named the “Attitude Era” by fans and even by the promotion itself. It reflected what it was, a period where good guys were no longer “good” guys, and bad guys weren’t exactly “bad”, everyone was a shade of grey. It reflected the time period as well — the apathy of teenagers in the 1990’s, the anxiety of the incoming new millennium, and the experimentation with the newest frontier, the internet.

Much like any other culture and time period, the people turn towards their entertainment for escape, and professional wrestling capitalized on this end. The MTV generation saw tough men beating each other up in an arena packed full of beer-swelling adults with women wear two-piece nothings do the exact same thing. It was attractive, appealing, and most of all, profitable.

Now, the landscape has changed. Actual wrestling over outlandish characters matter. Fans have turned off from the WWE to smaller promotions such as Ring of Honor or Dragon Gate USA for their wrestling, for they offer wrestling over a live-action cartoon. Their niche has what drew many of the WWE’s “hardcore” fanbase away.

Although everyone had their fun in the 90’s, now in the 00’s it seems everyone has woken up from it like a bad hangover. Hardcore fans now refuse to acknowledge publicly that they’re fans, sometimes embarrassed when people find out. It’s almost as embarrassing as admitting a fan’s love for Power Rangers.

*cough*

Vince McMahon, in an effort to spin a positive view of Linda McMahon’s campaign as well as an overall mission to “clean up” wrestling’s negative image, has attempted to bring a family-oriented product to pro wrestling. He’s made his golden boy, John Cena, transform from a brash and arrogant hip-hop-inspired bad boy to a clean and upright superhero for the kids to look up to. The former drew comparisons to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin who was the #1 superstar in the 90’s  “Attitude Era”, but the latter, the current John Cena, closely resembles Hulk Hogan, who took to the wrestling stage in the 80’s and told millions of kids to eat their vitamins and say their prayers every night.

Regardless of this shift towards the clean and family friendly world of TV-PG, wrestling is still ridiculed by critics as low-class entertainment. The New York Post actually called pro wrestling as “entry-level porn” for children. This was definitely a sharp remark of criticism that deserves some attention as well as someone, especially as a fan, to step back and analyze the overall situation.

Why do people view wrestling as low-class entertainment? Can that perspective ever change? What do people think when they find out what is fake and what is actually real? Most of all, where will the issues of the questionable employment practices lead to in the future? Can things change? Would they ever change? What would it take for change to occur?

“To those who believe in the beauty of professional wrestling nothing needs to be said. For those who don’t appreciate wrestling, nothing could be said to change their minds.”

-Vince McMahon

Huh. Not much then, I guess.

None of these questions can ever be definitely answered, perhaps. No one could ever truly change one’s perspective in a short amount of time, if ever at all. Only time will tell when pro wrestling can be more widely accepted for what it is, or for what it was. As for the questionable employment practices that have been in place for years and are just now starting to become more widely aware, that is another topic for another day. I just hope that day is not too far away.

I just hope it’s not too late.

UPDATE 10/18/2010 — Well not so much an “update”, but my cousin sent me this video on Facebook. It’s Jim Cornette shooting on a 1997 broadcast. Before today I’ve never heard of Phil Mushnick, now I’m glad I at least do. I feel like I should be aware of who the opponents of the industry are rather than the famous fans that buy tickets and get seen in the crowd. However, I firmly believe everyone is entitled to their own opinions at the end of the day. That includes Cornette as well as Mushnick. Check it out.

The fact that I could swap in Brian Pillman’s name for Eddie Guerrero or and still get a similar message is nothing short of frightening.

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