Oh, man, after you read this, you aren't going to be my friend anymore.
First, I think I need to explain a little bit about professional wrestling.
Back in the early 1990s, my cousins got me into watching WWF pro-wrestling. We had toys, we watched tapes, we talked, and, yes, threw each other around the room. As with most kids our age, pro-wrestling was one of the things. It was WWF and Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles and it was all a sparkling, shimmering spectacle to young eyes.
Now, those other things I listed still have a modicum of respect among fans as they get older. At some point, there's this weird retrospective part of the brain that starts to mythologize what we liked in our childhood. Transformers and GI Joe are prime examples - we liked them as children and then we liked them as adults. Nostalgia makes things that were uncool, cool again.
But that never happened with professional wrestling. Granted, some people got back into it again, particularly in the big boom of the late 90's/early 2000's "Attitude Era" thanks to foul-mouthed, adult anti-heroes like The Rock. But people outgrew even that and never looked back. No one thinks wrestling is nostalgic or so uncool that it's cool. It's just become this weird, niche market that people don't want to like, or ever like.
I was a fan as a small child, outgrew it for a few years, and then became an avid viewer in late middle school/early high school. I grew tired of the product sometime in late high school and haven't watched it routinely since. Now, I know what you're thinking: "Why? Professional wrestling is full of homoeroticism parading as a sport and totally fake!"
And to that, I would have to explain some more.
See, once you reach that age of twelve and realize that pro-wrestling is choreographed and the endings are all pre-determined, it takes on a whole new light. Because now you're watching theater. Low-brow, slow-paced, meat headed theater, mind you, but theatrical nonetheless. But maybe that's what was so good about it.
The business of the WWF (Now WWE after the world wildlife fund power bombed them into copyright court) has always been, in my eyes, an insane but respectable one. You have to be a very specific type of person to want to work in that industry. It takes you on the road for most of the year, living on airplanes and rental cars for over 200 days a year. When you get to the show? You just get hurt every night, sore, beaten. The moves may be choreographed, and performers may work together to make them safer, but it's still a tremendous amount of athleticism and a high tolerance for pain. There is no off season. You travel North America, sometimes the world, to get hit for crowds of thousands.
And that's for the successful, household name performers. Because this industry is insane, there are smaller companies, independent groups, that put on local shows. If you've ever seen last year's award-winning movie, The Wrestler (which is a story any wrestling fan with intelligence and an internet connection has always known but only Darren Aronofsky had the will and talent to make it possible) you know what I'm talking about. It just blows my mind to think that there are these young guys, working in tiny, makeshift rings set up in bingo halls or school gyms, throwing each other for crowds of twenty, making seventy bucks before they drive their equipment to some other gig.
It's like the worst of struggling comedians, struggling artists, or struggling actors. Not only do these guys have to live gig to gig, not only do they have to feel like a bus hit them every morning, but they're looked down upon by society as a whole, on par with circus freak shows, but minus the curiosity. Now imagine how to make it in that lifestyle and industry when you're old, with bone problems and no insurance. Yet there's people who want to do it, who dedicate their life to it. It's such a crazy concept and a wonder how it survives, let alone thrives.
So I don't hate pro-wrestling. I couldn't watch it anymore because it had gotten boring, and I had gotten in too deep with following the news on the internet, learning about backstage politics and writer's room decisions that ruined the fun and magic. I tuck it away in the corner of my mind as an old hobby, like drawing, like Pokemon, like roller blading.
Except I watched it last Monday because a guy named Bret Hart was appearing for the first time in 12 years. I know that sounds absurd, but let me tell you: When I was a kid, Bret Hart was the shit. His character, his ability to tell a story in the ring, his overall look - it was all finely calibrated to make him a marketable god in the eyes of small children everywhere. You might have a passing familiarity with him, but here's the primer:
He was contemporaries with Hulk Hogan, but me & my cousins, we knew that Hulk Hogan was bullshit. The guy has always looked like a 50 year old, and was too much of a cartoon even then. Now Bret Hart - this guy wore a leather jacket, black and pink tights (The contrast! The audacity!), had cool constantly-wet 1980's long hair, and his finishing move was a submission called "The Sharpshooter." Hogan dropped his leg on people to win. The Undertaker dropped people on their head to win. Shawn Michaels kicked guys in the face. Bret Hart twisted legs into a pretzel and then made bitches give up. Imagine how bad ass and amazing that concept would be to a 10 year old.
Hogan's nickname was "Hulk." That is a big, giant, green Marvel superhero, and not even one of the cool ones like Spider-Man. His nickname was "The Hitman." That is a guy that kills other guys. If Hulk Hogan, the world's most popular wrestler, was Elvis Presley, then Bret Hart was Bob Dylan. If Hogan was Johnny Carson, Bret Hart was Conan O'Brien. For kids that were real fans, there was just no contest.
Hart was truly one of a kind, a terrific performer for his industry, and a childhood hero of mine. So when I heard from internet buzz that he was going to be appearing on WWE Raw for the first time in 12 years, a little bit of that nostalgia kicked in. I knew I had to see, at least, what the guy looked like after years of wear and tear and a career-ending injury.
The way he left the WWE was a storied event, too. In 1996, he had to be let go from his contract because they just plain couldn't afford it after having their asses beat by the competition, WCW. But he was champion at the time, but Hart didn't want to lose it in Canada, his home country, so he worked out a deal with the writers and bookers to lose it somewhere else. Except instead, everyone involved with that match conspired against him and rang the bell to make him lose, much to his surprise. This was not a storyline. This was the only and most famous instance in wrestling history of something real happening. An employee was unceremoniously fired in front of live television because he didn't want to lose that match. He spit in the owners face and punched him in the jaw.
Needless to say, there was bad blood, which made Monday's show all the more compelling to watch. I knew the interviews were scripted, I knew the words they exchanged were predetermined. But that little 10 year old inside of me couldn't believe what he was seeing. Bret was clearly old now, with a leather-like face and his 80's locks beginning to gray. He had put on some weight. But it was still one of my earliest heroes, on the same show, for the first time. They talked about the past, about putting it behind them, about the lingering anger.
I knew it wasn't real. I knew it was derived from an outline or a script. But reality is overrated. Sometimes, there's a beauty in being able to script things in just the way you want to. There's a beauty in the control of story telling, without leaving things up to chance or ability, but just plain old narrative.
I probably won't watch wrestling again, but that night was an interesting reliving of my childhood, in a totally non-ironic way. Pro-wrestling is a difficult and ridiculous industry. It is frequently bad. But there's nothing else like it on the planet.