Ah, the Reality Era. It was almost one year ago that CM Punk sat cross-legged on the mat and delivered the most memorable, scathing promo in recent wrestling history. He launched WWE into a spiral of reality-based story lines that include, but are not limited to, the following: Triple H publicly embracing his front-office role; Trip’s real-life buddy Kevin Nash limping into various story lines; John Cena questioning his role as WWE messiah; The Miz and R-Truth becoming vigilante cheap-shot artists in search of TV time; the entire WWE locker room staging a walkout to protest unsafe working conditions; and, at various times, Triple H and WWE chairman Vince McMahon being relieved of various duties, thus ushering in the unintentionally hilarious reign of current general manager John Laurinaitis.
Since then, despite the vague feeling that we were still in a new era, reality wasn’t really an organizing principle. Punk became ingrained as the WWE champion, which made it all but impossible for him to operate as a subversive force; his beefs with Chris Jericho and, more recently, Daniel Bryan, touch on real life but mostly exist within WWE’s alternate universe. Cena, for his part, has had his dance card filled with Kane and The Rock and Brock Lesnar, a sort of evolutionary spectrum of the Reality movement — from a cartoon villain to an action movie star to an actual UFC heavyweight champ — but even so, Cena’s shtick remains couched in the old-school superheroics of a bygone era.
Not that there’s anything wrong with this. Wrestling — even in the Reality Era — will never be reality, nor should it be. Since the earliest days of pro wrestling, the sport’s otherworldliness has been its calling card. And since the first moment that it was exposed to be a “fake” sport, the industry has adapted and thrived.
There’s a general feeling that wrestling’s artifice has only recently been exposed, that the facade began to crumble roughly around 1984, when John Stossel covered the sport on 20/20 and got leveled by “Dr. D” David Schultz. In this telling of wrestling’s modern history, the jig was fully up by the time reality shows like Laguna Beach started acknowledging their production chicanery. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Fans have been in on wrestling’s ruse for a century — since the ruse began, more or less — and over the last 80 years there has been a steady procession of “exposés,” each received with the same feigned surprise and then immediate-onset amnesia. To the non-wrestling fan, the revelations are compelling because they assume the fans are dupes; to the wrestling fan, each revelation is met with a yawn.
On December 26, 1933, a Polish impresario named Jack Pfefer dragged professional wrestling, kicking and screaming, into the sunlight. Pfefer possessed a deep love for opera, a knack for mangling the English language in comedic ways, and the sublime nickname of “The Halitosis Kid.” He had been a semi-major player in the New York wrestling scene until a realignment of power left him unaffiliated and out of work. Here’s what happened: The city’s wrestling bigwig, Jack Curley, had a falling-out with top star Jim Londos, who decamped to Tom Packs’s St. Louis domain, and Pfefer sided with Londos. When Curley and Londos made amends — as part of a new multi-regional wrestling syndicate that included Packs, Boston’s Paul Bowser, Philly’s Ray Fabiani, and others — Pfefer was left out. So Pfefer did what any scorned lover would do and dragged his former cohorts’ names through the mud. He found encouragement from Dan Parker, the sports editor of the New York Daily Mirror, and set about announcing to the world that the Curley-Londos regime had been fixing matches.
Two qualifiers: (1) This was not exactly a revelation, and (2) insomuch as it was, it wasn’t a full-throated one. People had known — or suspected — that wrestling was largely fake for at least a decade. In a Collier’s piece from 1931, Grantland Rice (you may have heard of him) recounted that 15 years prior, when he wrote a snippet about wrestling for his syndicated column, several editors wrote back to say they had no interest in printing anything about such a detestable non-sport. What’s significant about reading the Daily Mirror archives is precisely that willful neglect of wrestling, even as it filled up venues in the Big Apple. Except for a few brief asides about business-side trends like new venues or managerial realignments, Parker ignored the wrestling game. When he was compelled to comment on the sport, he would address it with snide precision, sarcastically throw in a, “Now, I am the last person in the world to suspect that wrestling is not on the level,” and then give his audience every reason to suspect just that. If he was confined by anything, it seemed to be his assumption that readers weren’t as savvy to the shtick as he was.1
So Parker was probably more than happy to give Pfefer his platform. Throughout his career, Pfefer always fell on the entertainment end of the “sports entertainment”2 continuum, and had little time for the pretenses of legitimacy. (“An honest man can sell a fake diamond if he says it is a fake diamond, ain’t it?” he once said to A.J. Liebling.) But his admissions in the Daily Mirror were oddly trifling: He revealed incidences of match-fixing to get the marketable Londos to the title but didn’t bother to pull the rug out from under the whole dramaturgical enterprise.
Nevertheless, traditionalists like Curley were peeved, insistent on protecting the realism of the sport above all else. And through the next 55 years or so — more or less until Vince McMahon began admitting that WWF events were staged to get around state athletic commission fees — they were able to keep up the facade to some extent. How? Well, the marks were always willing to accept the violence at face value and the people who were clued in preferred to play along to further their enjoyment. For the majority of wrestling fans, it just didn’t matter.
When McMahon’s admissions began making headlines, the media (still disinclined to cover pro wrestling at that time) acted as if this was big news: “Now It Can Be Told,” boomed a 1989 New York Times headline, “Those Pro Wrestlers Are Just Having Fun.” This despite the fact of Pfefer’s admissions in the ’30s, and despite a series of nudge-nudge wink-wink acknowledgments of wrestling’s chicanery that appeared in the Washington Post in the ’50s from a local wrestling mogul named, ahem, Vincent J. McMahon. For the uninitiated, that would be our Vince’s father. If in-ring story lines seem to be recycled through the years, it’s little wonder. Real life is just as repetitive.
Of course, it wasn’t just the media who adhered to the new ahistorical tenet that Vince Jr. outed the industry — it was Vince himself, and the majority of the wrestling world to this day.3
The half truth that wrestling was “real” between 1933 and 1989 only existed because pro wrestling history has almost entirely been written by the pro-wrestling business, which prefers to keep the illusion semi-intact. It’s a product of an oral history — over the years, the vast majority of written chronicles of wrestling history have appeared in the story-line perpetuating kayfabe of the “dirt sheet” magazines like Pro Wrestling Illustrated. And wrestling’s particularly malleable history can be seen as the product of an industry built upon unreality. Tall tales from the road became gospel, and the “victors” who emerged from the collapse of the Territorial Era — McMahon chief among them — wrote the records. (Want a digestible history of the AWA? The NWA? WCCW? How about this WWE-produced documentary?) The historical record is only as sincere as its subject, and when that subject is professional wrestling, the objective truth gets blurry.
This is not to say that wrestling history is built upon lies. What’s important in the wrestling religion — just as in their theater — is whether something is understood to be true. Curley and the wrestlers who followed him and insisted the competition was real were left adrift by the public exposure of the sport. And so, to avoid being outed and humiliated in an era when fans knew the truth behind the spectacle, wrestlers learned to embrace a smaller-scale, more unimpeachable sort of reality.
There are two principal kinds of “reality” in pro wrestling lore: I’ll call them backstage stories and real-life stories. Backstage stories, for example which wrestlers didn’t get along or who got their story lines scuttled for political reasons, matter most to fans. Real-life stories — tales of wrestlers’ lives outside the ring and large-scale business issues — matter most to the boys in the industry.
Wrestling lore is full of “real” stories of toughness and physical prowess: The guys who could submit their opponent at will like Lou Thesz and Kurt Angle; the guys who bullied their opponents in the ring, like Abdullah the Butcher and Bob Holly; and the never-ending list of guys who were legitimately dangerous outside the ring — Harley Race, “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, “Mad Dog” Vachon, Haku, Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen, and so on. You can hardly hear a conversation between two old-timers without the subject veering into such territory. It’s as if to say, “These guys would be even more impressive in the ring if they weren’t so concerned with showing the fans a good time.”
This is how wrestlers, perhaps insecure due to the fakery of their craft, rewrite reality into the proceedings. But while the facts of those outside-the-ring stories of wrestlers beating up 10 ornery drunks or eight cops may have been enhanced by years of retelling, the underlying truth of those wrestlers’ sturdiness is mostly unquestioned. In-ring legends, on the other hand, are more prone to propaganda. You hear lines like “You never wanted to piss off Harley Race in the ring” or “If Stan Hansen didn’t feel like losing, he didn’t lose.” And, of course, the most famous “real story” about a fake match of them all: That Hogan went into WrestleMania III scared that Andre wouldn’t let him win.
The body slam that Hogan put on Andre was the key — without it, the story goes, a Hogan victory wouldn’t have been compelling, and Andre had to help (read: jump) in the act. Andre was temperamental, and a suddenly disinclined Giant could have rewritten the script on the fly sheerly by deciding to keep his feet planted on the mat. But even if the story is true, it’s still sort of negligible. What the legend amounts to is little more than saying “Andre didn’t have to follow the script,” which is obviously true for every wrestler in every match. Andre could have lain on the ground and refused to move and it would have stopped the Hogan-Andre script dead in its tracks, but that story doesn’t resonate like the body-slam one.
It’s an attempt to rebuild the facade, to re-establish some uncertainty into the arena of predetermined endings. In reality, Hogan’s victory was no more in doubt than was his loss when the two men met eight years earlier in 1980 (and when the good-evil alignment was switched). But hey, it’s a great story.
This is worth mentioning now, in the ongoing reconfiguration of WWE after last year’s Reality Era — and even more so as WWE attempts to re-create the Hogan-Andre mythos with a feud between John Cena and The Big Show. The similarities aren’t incidental: The longtime heroic giant, oftentimes seen as a buffoon (see: Andre on Hulk Hogan’s Rock ’n’ Wrestling cartoon/The Big Show in his series of WrestleMania embarrassments), turned on his “friend” (Hogan/Cena), aligned himself with the most detestable mouthpiece in the company (Bobby Heenan/John Laurinaitis), started wearing ill-fitting suits, and proceeded to express his newfound malevolence.
Having already put Cena through a feud with a “legit” tough guy in real-life UFC champion Brock Lesnar, WWE next set out to find Cena a new opponent wherein the physical peril would be comparably believable to that of the Lesnar feud. And while nobody would accuse Cena-Show of recapturing the grandeur Hogan-Andre, there is a certain comfort to it. On the heels of Cena’s demoralizing reality-based feud with CM Punk and his disturbingly realistic brawl with Lesnar, WWE had found familiar footing on a different sort of reality.
Another subset of pro wrestling “real-life stories” concerns the business side of history and how it is colored by the victors. Or, rather, victor — these are mostly the heroic struggles of Vince McMahon: He builds the first national wrestling organization, he bets the bank on WrestleMania I, he exposes wrestling as theater, he runs WCW out of business. Of course, over the years, McMahon has journeyed into reality-based and reality-blurring storytelling — his philandering, his family histrionics, his rivalries with other promoters, the post–Montreal Screwjob stuff, his car blowing up, the stage collapsing on him. But then, these “serious” story lines nearly always devolve into screwball comedies: Vince gets amnesia, Vince has illegitimate son, Vince drops character to address Chris Benoit’s murder-suicide. Oh, wait. Not that one.
Similarly, Cena’s most severe anger is offset by his tendency to revert to a schoolyard insult comic, and his direst in-ring moments tend to be balanced out with vaudevillian high jinks. See, for instance, how the threat presented by Show last week led to a segment where Cena bathed announcer Michael Cole in barbecue sauce. This is the tenuous balance of wrestling mythos in a nutshell — the unbelievable and the inane in awkward coexistence. Or, as Sports Illustrated put it in 1955, “It’s a great show that fascinates its fans, rough enough to seem authentic and funny enough to amuse. It’s comedy and drama, with the laughs following hysteria.”
Monday’s Raw featured Vince returning from exile — he had been removed from his duties, story-line-wise, although this “fact” was ignored — to critique Laurinaitis’s job performance. He was set to fire the GM when Show intervened and threatened McMahon. Cena also made his way out, and in the inevitable melee, Show clocked McMahon, and the broadcast ended with McMahon prone on the mat, knocked cold. (There was a subtle Andre reference here, too; Show’s punch missed Vince by several inches, just as Andre famously whiffed on slapping Heenan when they split up.
According to WWE, Vince is “being evaluated by medical personnel and treated for concussion-like symptoms due to a head injury sustained at the hands of Big Show.” That’s fine for a story line except that WWE is supposed to be taking concussions very seriously in real life, and Alberto Del Rio, one of their top stars, just got bumped from the upcoming pay-per-view card because of one. I’m not sure if that makes it more poignant or more wrong-headed, but after all Vince has been through onscreen, this can’t come as much of a surprise.
On Sunday, at the No Way Out PPV, Cena will face Show in a steel cage, probably with McMahon and Laurinaitis at ringside. It’ll probably be a cross between Cena’s last two PPV bouts — the brutality of his Lesnar match meets the comedy of his “brawl” with Laurinaitis. The co-main event will feature CM Punk and Daniel Bryan — two indie darlings who have defied the odds and become legitimate WWE superstars — going against each other in a three-way match with Kane inserted as the wild card. Actually, it may be more accurate to say that the “wild card” is AJ, Bryan’s onscreen ex, who has recently transferred her affections to Punk and who has also flirted — ostentatiously and somewhat mysteriously — with Kane. Both main events will feature the aforementioned tightrope, with spectacular on one side and silly on the other. Cena-Show will deliver comedy-cum-brutality and Punk-Bryan-Kane will blend technical wrestling greatness with old-fashioned melodrama. It’s a difficult balance, and there are hundreds of ways for it to go wrong, but it’s the necessary balance.
Most fans want fantasy. Hardcore fans want reality. But wrestling without fantasy is nothing. Reality will forever be the in-joke of the hardcore fan base, the Easter egg inserted to validate our attention. But we hardcore viewers were all simple fans once upon a time, and we can still be won over by fantasy.
Wrestling didn’t just suddenly embrace reality; it’s been balancing real and unreal since 1933. What’s at stake in Cena’s matches isn’t strictly his physical well-being, nor will another Punk promo rip asunder the fabric of the wrestling enterprise. What’s at stake is our enjoyment of those things. That’s the only thing that’s real — everything else is just part of the legend.