19 October 2008

Ring of Hell

The world of professional wrestling is one of the most disturbing subcultures in the country. A fan culture has emerged around it, just as others have around other once-disposable forms of pop culture. Wrestling may be unique, however, in developing a fan culture that enabled self-destructive impulses among the performers. That fan culture is only a tangential presence in Matthew Randazzo V's Ring of Hell: The Story of Chris Benoit & the Fall of the Pro Wrestling Industry, but the book, a biography of the wrestler who killed his family and himself last year, shows that the same mentality driving the fan culture has been driving wrestlers themselves into early graves.

Unlike most wrestling books, a genre of publishing dominated by wrestlers and fans, Ring of Hell has no sympathy for the wrestling business. It characterizes the typical wrestling audience, at least in the old days, as consisting of "hormonal teenage girls and mentally challenged children." Most importantly, Randazzo has no respect for the superior "workers" of hardcore performers who've won the loyalty of the lifelong fans -- the "smarts" who know that wrestling is fake, but focus on the performance skills of certain workers. As far as the author is concerned, people who risk their health doing pro wrestling are fools or madmen. While noting that, in some ways, Chris Benoit was a better person than many wrestlers, less obsessed with locker-room politics and more committed to maintaining a work ethic, Randazzo concludes early on that Benoit's youthful desire to emulate the Dynamite Kid, an undersized, high-flying wrestler who was a major scumbag in real life, showed that something was wrong with him.

Benoit, himself undersized, could not hope to win fans with a mighty physique, nor had he the charisma or wit to get himself over, as wrestlers say, with his gift of gab. To follow in Dynamite Kid's footsteps, he had to be a high-flyer, willing to do reckless stunts that couldn't help but damage his body. Worse, one of his favorite stunts, launching himself from the top rope to headbutt a prone opponent on the mat, couldn't help but damage his brain. But his strategy worked: he became a star, first with the "smart" fans who began trading videos of his matches from Japan and Mexico, then with more mainstream American fans. He eventually was made WWE Heavyweight Champion, but was already in physical decline by that point. He built himself up with steroids and sustained himself with painkillers, undeterred by seeing several close friends and colleagues destroy themselves the exact same way. Arguably, he could only have become a star in the modern era of wrestling.

Ever since wrestling became fake, the key to success was determining what kind of person fans wanted to see win or lose. Often it was a simple matter of identifying heroes and villains. In some cases, ethnic loyalties and prejudices determined who got ahead. The idea was to create an illusion of combat and an illusion of justice. Villains cheated and eventually got their comeuppance. That satisfied most "marks," -- the carny term wrestlers use for the fans they're trying to fool -- but a minority developed a sort of connoisseurs' appreciation for the wrestlers who best sustained the illusion of combat; those who were the most athletic or best at "selling" their opponents' moves to make them look powerful. Athleticism, selling and a gift of gab made the superior worker; "Nature Boy" Ric Flair, who could be seen on WWE until very recently, was the exemplar of this kind. In the 1980s, workers like Flair were eclipsed by Hulk Hogan, whom Vince McMahon made a cultural phenomenon. Hogan and McMahon envisioned wrestlers as cartoon characters with giant merchandising potential. Accordingly they aimed their product toward a younger audience, alienating older fans who saw their favorite entertainment being dumbed down. Wrestling had become so unreal that they couldn't have stood it anymore unless they could latch on to something in it that could be shown to be indisputably real. Their desire for reality in wrestling, to justify their persistent fandom, created an opening for self-destructive workers like Chris Benoit. In fact, it was a mandate for self-destruction that Benoit and too many others faithfully obeyed. In some cases, it may have been a way of maintaining one's self-respect in a "fake" sport. In others, possibly like Benoit's, something more pathological may lay at the core.

Wrestlers were a self-destructive breed before, but that just reflected the sleaziness of the carny lifestyle. There's a difference between trashy characters drinking or even drugging themselves to early deaths and the modern wrestlers who killed themselves twice over, pumping themselves full of steroids and painkillers in order to perform ritualistic self-abuse for audiences of thousands of people. The nearest comparison might be with the most extreme punk rockers of the 1970s and 1980s, who had a similar impulse to mortify and destroy themselves, and in some cases took others with them. I doubt, however, whether any punk had as many people egging them on to tempt death at every performance as Benoit and other hardcore wrestlers did.

The rise of hardcore or extreme wrestling coincided with the birth of "mixed martial arts" as a new spectator sport. Both phenomena were driven by a desire for an intensity of spectacle that existing combat sports or "sports entertainment" couldn't or wouldn't provide. What, exactly, are people looking for? MMA provides the reality, but doesn't necessarily satisfy the craving that exists for decisive physical combat; many fans want punches, kicks, elbows, rather than grappling. Hardcore wrestling lacks one kind of reality, since matches are still scripted, but at least promises the more important kind. I don't know whether "bloodlust" is a fair label for this craving, since you don't necessarily bleed from a diving headbutt, but there is a hunger for physical ordeals that also finds "fake" expression in the "torture-porn" genre of horror films like Hostel and the Saw series. The funny thing is that I can at least try to explain what happened in wrestling as a sort of perverse dialectic, but I'm not sure where the rest of the culture gets it from.

In any event, if anyone's looking for a single expose of the wrestling business, Ring of Hell may be the one. Randazzo goes into brutal detail on the sadistic training regimen, the vicious hazing of a hierarchical locker-room culture, the hilariously mean-spirited "ribbing" that passes for practical jokes, the alpha-male competition for precedence and the promoters' favor, and the sheer (and sometimes literal) gangsterism of the business. At the same time, if it didn't have such a horrific climax, the story of Benoit's relationship with Nancy Sullivan, which began as a fake affair dictated by Sullivan's own husband, only to escalate into reality as the drug-addled paranoid husband began to believe his own storyline, could be the stuff of a hilarious movie. My one reservation about the book is that not everything Randazzo writes is necessarily believable. While stressing how often and how automatically wrestlers lie about things, he depends very much on interviews with wrestlers, some of whom may have exaggerated their tales of locker-room madness for reasons known only to themselves. With that caveat in mind, I still recommend Ring of Hell as a riveting revelation of the festering underbelly of global popular culture.

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