Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Professional Wrestling: The Apex of American Sport

The following is my submission for a paper in my KNES287 class at the University of Maryland-College Park. I don't mind if you choose to use it, but know that if you do without crediting me and you submit it as your own, that is plagiarism. I'm just saying. Hope you enjoy it. If not, I don't care.


Sports in America have transcended having a game of catch in the back yard. Of course there are still episodes of that quaint simplicity; in fact that is where most Americans are indoctrinated into the colossus that is sport. But main-stream sports have become a massive cluster of inter-twined icons and ideals. Sport is a spectacle. Fans see it in the larger-than-life athletes who play the game. They see it in the modern marvels of architecture where the games are played. They see it in the advertising that pays for the telecast. And there is no spectacle greater or more exemplary of this transformation in sport than professional wrestling. The objective of this research is to further examine the influence and connection of professional wrestling to the greater society.

Wrestling is fake. Everybody knows this. The outcomes of each match are predetermined and, in that sense, wrestling is not a true competition. When most think about viewed sport, they think competition. Whether it is baseball, basketball, football, soccer, tennis, golf, or swimming, there is a competition that gives the sport an inherent excitement. If competition is what qualifies a sport as a legitimate spectator sport, then professional wrestling falls far short. However, one would be hard-pressed to find better examples of what the sociological imagination of American society deems as athletes. One brief look up and down the roster of the WWE, by far the largest and most successful promotion in professional wrestling, will reveal a bevy of modern-day marvels; as if they were chiseled from stone.

Wrestlers such as Triple H and Batista made careers before their wrestling careers on body building circuit. Wrestler Mark Henry was an Olympic power-lifter before his time in the “squared-circle.” Vladimir Kozlov was once an accomplished mixed martial arts fighter from Russia. Wrestlers like The Big Show and John Bradshaw Layfield starred as college athletes in other sports. And countless wrestlers such as Shad Gaspar, R-Truth, and Ezekiel Jackson made a living as body guards and bouncers. All of these backgrounds, and certainly their current profession, rely almost exclusively on being the “male ideal” in terms of physique. What is the male ideal? For the answer, we turn to society’s sociological imagination. The ideal male, at least in the eyes of the common male, professional wrestling’s target demographic along with children, is a muscle-bound freak who is abnormally large. As Kacey M. Lusk of Western Kentucky University discusses, men believe that it is more attractive to be heavily muscular despite the fact most women find ideal attractiveness to be less so. (Lusk, 2005) In theory, this means that men idolize the builds of physical freaks of nature and true anomalies such as body builder Ronnie Coleman, former baseball player Jose Canseco, or professional wrestler John Cena. On the other hand, women would find the much more attainable and leaner physique to be most attractive. (Lusk, 2005)

However, because wrestling is geared to entertain males, with their own conceptions of the ideal body, and children, who like to view their TV heroes as super-human, the vast majority of professional wrestlers are behemoths and unrealistically muscular. This feeds and furthers the sociological imagination of the populous. This has spurred many to emulate their favorite superstars, looking for any way possible to get to that size and shape. For many, this means steroids and other mass-building drugs. While steroids have proven to be potentially quite harmful, they do appear to have fully integrated themselves as a tool in the fulfillment of the sociological imagination. Major sports such as baseball and football certainly have their own issues with performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), but rarely are the results of PED use as visible as they are in professional wrestling. In fact, while PEDs might not necessarily improve the skills required to perform in baseball or football, because professional wrestling is a determined show, those who look the part and meet that ideal physique are more successful. It should come as no surprise then that many professional wrestlers are users of PEDs. As discussed in a Sports Illustrated interview from 2007, as many as 11 WWE superstars were connected with ordering PEDs including stanozolol, HGH, and testosterone from just one source. (Sports Illustrated, 2007) This does not include other superstars who ordered PEDs from another source or the numerous independent circuit wrestlers working for smaller companies.

The use of PEDs and mass-building drugs is so prevalent in professional wrestling because of the simple reason that if the wrestler is bigger, then his popularity is bigger. Perhaps the two finest examples of this are former wrestlers Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit. Both broke into professional wrestling as smaller competitors, relying on their in-ring abilities to impress a crowd. However, after many years as nothing more than “mid-carders” (mildly popular wrestlers, but never the top draw and therefore never making top dollar), both began using anabolic steroids. In March 2004, both Guerrero and Benoit won the WWE and World Heavyweight Championships, respectively, at Wrestlemania XX; an indicator that these two were at the top of the heap in terms of popularity. Just over a year later, Guerrero was found dead in his hotel room due to complications because of an enlarged heart, caused by his past anabolic steroid use; Guerrero, at age 38, weighed 230 lbs of pure muscle while standing only 5’8”. (SI, 2007) Less than two years after that, Benoit was found dead in his home in Georgia after he had killed his wife and son and then hung himself. His actions were in part attributed to his mental instability derived from years of steroid use plus numerous concussions suffered on the job that caused his brain to swell; Benoit was a muscular 220 lbs at just 5’10”. (SI, 2007) These two incidents, plus other early deaths of former professional wrestlers due to complications associated with steroid use have brought the wrestling industry under scrutiny. However, a lot of this worry has passed as the sociological imagination of society calls for their heroes to be mountains of men. In fact, one only need look at the current (as of 4/27/09) champions in the WWE to see the sociological imagination at work. WWE Champion Randy Orton, World Heavyweight Champion Edge, and Intercontinental Champion Rey Mysterio we all mentioned as users of PEDs. (wwe.com, 2009 and SI, 2007) In addition, United States Champion Montel Vontavious Porter is a former gang member who had served time in prison, a prime example of the macho and hardcore image the sociological imagination aspires to, before becoming a professional wrestler. (wwe.com, 2009)

But wrestling appeals to the masses not only because of its macho participants. Wrestling, dubbed as “sports entertainment” by WWE CEO Vince McMahon, is a true American spectacle. Every week, the WWE puts on at least three televised programs, RAW on Monday nights, ECW on Tuesday nights, and Smackdown on Friday nights, all of which are highly rated (RAW routinely wins its time slot amongst cable viewers and occasionally beats out network television programs). In addition, numerous “house shows” are performed as untelevised, lower-key opportunities for generally smaller venues to get a glimpse at their favorite wrestlers. One need only take a look at the standard setup of one of these televised shows to begin to understand the spectacle that is professional wrestling. Depending on whatever city the wrestlers will be performing in that evening, the event will be held in generally the largest indoor arena in the city and the event is usually sold out. (Lipscomb, 2005, page 125) The ring is situated in the center of the arena and seating is on three sides. (Lipscomb, 125) On the fourth side, usually to the left for the television viewer, a large stage with a giant video screen as well as hidden speakers and pyrotechnics. (Lipscomb, 125-126) These all become very apparent during the entrances of each wrestler as they enter the arena to do battle. Highlight videos of past accomplishments are accompanied by blasting, aggressive music and often venue-shaking pyrotechnics as each wrestler makes his way down to the ring. As Lipscomb puts it, there are both elements of “a rock concert and a boxing match” in play at every show. (Lipscomb, 126)

The big-fight feel is augmented by the actions of the wrestlers before any actual wrestling takes place. The announcing team will repeatedly hype up-coming matches by relaying stories of the competitors’ past histories as and individuals and versus each other. (Lipscomb, 135) Their general overall tone is one of excitement and anticipation, in an effort to get the crowd and especially the viewing audience at home into a frenzied state for the following match. (Lipscomb, 136) In addition to the hype created by the announcers, backstage cut-scenes that feature the wrestlers in their locker rooms or walking the hallways of the arena, much as a prize fighter would, generates even more eagerness for the impending matches. (Lipscomb, 129)
In addition, every wrestler gets his opportunity to channel his inner-Ali with a lot of pre-match microphone work. Wrestlers often take these opportunities to berate their opponent or opponents and boost their own popularity, highlighting some aspect of their wrestling persona, such as the quick wit of the Rock, the work ethic of John Cena, or the ruthlessness of Triple H. (Lipscomb, 131) These promos build up not only the popularity of the wrestlers but also generate interest in the fabricated feud between wrestlers which helps generate more interest in the product as the entertainment aspect of sports entertainment. (Lipscomb, 131-132) While in-ring prowess makes for a respected wrestler, it is often these promos where a performer’s popularity, and therefore, money, is made. Wrestlers with better microphone skills and catchphrases are the ones who are the most popular, win the most championships and matches, and make the most money. (Lipscomb, 135) Some of the most successful professional wrestlers of all time can be summed up by their catch phrases: Hulk Hogan’s “Whatcha gonna do, brother?”; Ric Flair’s “Woo!”; Stone Cold Steve Austin’s “What?”; Shawn Michaels and Triple H as Degeneration X’s “Suck it!”; and the Rock’s “If ya smell what the Rock is cooking!”.
On a wrestler-by-wrestler basis, promos serve to build popularity, but as far as the company is concerned, they build the tension of a storyline or feud that culminate in a monthly pay-per-view event. (Lipscomb, 131-132) Often given names that conjure up images of aggression and pain, further filling the sociological imagination of the alpha male, such as “Armageddon” or “Unforgiven”, these pay-per-views generate millions of dollars in revenue and serve as the time to highlight the wrestling abilities of the performers often in gimmick matches that amp up the brutality and violence of an already brutal and violent profession. This is also the place where most championships change hands, marking a change in who is at the top of the popularity scale. (Lipscomb, 132) By far the biggest and most important of these pay-per-views is Wrestlemania.

Usually held in late March or early April of every year, Wrestlemania is now in its 25th consecutive year as the absolute pinnacle of professional wrestling. Generally priced higher than other pay-per-views throughout the year, Wrestlemania is the Super Bowl of professional wrestling, with not only the best of the best performing but also the popular culture tie-ins that often overshadow the sport itself. From the very beginning, Vince McMahon, the creator of Wrestlemania, envisioned a cross-culture entertainment spectacular and certainly has delivered to a level rarely seen. The very first Wrestlemania included celebrity appearances by Yankees’ manager Billy Martin, Liberace, Mr. T, and Muhammed Ali. (wwe.com, 2009) Since then, a wide range of pop culture icons have appeared in association with the event, including champion boxers Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather; models and actors and actresses such as Pamela Anderson, Jenny McCarthy, and Mickey Rourke; business mogul Donald Trump; and musicians Ray Charles, Robert Goulet, Willie Nelson, Motorhead, Ice-T, and Kid Rock, to name a few. (wwe.com, 2009) This list does not include countless celebrities who appeared solely in attendance. This universality has led to Wrestlemania routinely being one of the most watched events on television year after year in spite of its price tag. In addition, Wrestlemania generates hundreds of millions of dollars in economic stimulus for whatever city it is being held in that year. It is estimated that Wrestlemania 23, held in Detroit in early 2007, generated nearly $1 billion with its ticket and merchandise sales plus sales and events held in association with the event such as hotels, fan-fests, etc. (wwe.com, 2009)

Of course, the universality of sports entertainment is not limited to wrestling-based events. The greatest example of this crossover appeal is, without a doubt, Dwayne Johnson. Johnson, long known to wrestling fans as the Rock, is the epitome of a multi-talented persona. Johnson, the son and grandson of professional wrestlers, was once a member of the Miami Hurricanes football team, where he won a National Championship in 1991. He then went on to have one of the most decorated (popular) and successful wrestling careers of all time and was consistently one of the greatest merchandise sellers in the industry despite often playing the “heel” or bad guy. (wwe.com, 2009) While Johnson had become wildly successful as a wrestler, he soon moved on to a much more lucrative and less dangerous profession as a movie actor. Since 2001, Johnson’s films have made $791.9 million at the box office and he has become one of the most recognizable persons on the planet. (rottentomatoes.com, 2009) Known for his model looks, his impressive physique, and quick wit, Johnson has dominated the entertainment scene as a whole both as a wrestler and an actor. Of course, Johnson is not alone in his crossover success, especially in the realm of acting. Wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, and John Cena have starred in numerous films as something other than a wrestler. While critically these films have been a mixed bag, all have generally done well at the box office.

When posed with the question as to what is the ultimate American experience in sport, professional wrestling, with its appeal to the sociological imagination of the ideal male physique, its spectacle of production, its economic impact, and its cultural appeal and influence, must be considered. Professional wrestling, while not necessarily a sport in the truest, competition-based sense of the word, blends athleticism and entertainment to levels that can be matched really by only the four major sports (football, baseball, basketball, and hockey) in America. Wrestling has that working-class appeal in its base physicality but also has a cross-over value thanks to its incredible revenue generation that makes it attractive to members of all classes. (Kreit, 1998) From the research conducted here, one can tell that professional wrestling has a unique grasp of sportainment and what it means to American society.

2 comments:

Poopy said...

the disclaimer made me lol

Big Boutros said...

ok i know i've read more of ben's papers than anyone else but i will never get used to the fact that you actually put stuff like "mixed bag" and "behemoth" in academic papers. it's just too awesome.