Monday, November 12, 2012

The art and athleticism of professional wrestling

Editor's note: This is an updated version of a piece I wrote on one of my other blogs,

Last year, actor Hugh Jackman hosted an episode of WWE's weekly show "Raw." It was never more apparent how much wrestling has in common with theater.

Here's a Tony Award-winning performer who was completely at home at an event shrugged off by so many people as a sector of pop culture than plays to the lowest common denominator. There's not many things more annoying than someone dismissing pro wrestling as "fake" or "stupid" — it's an insult to the men and women who sacrifice their body for the craft, and also to the people who enjoy it.

If it's not your thing, then fine. But the showmanship has to be respected — athletically and creatively.

I've always seen a link between theater and pro wrestling, but Jackman's appearance on "Raw" forced me to take a closer look at the connection, which is undeniable. Consider this: The structure is exactly a theater-in-the-round, there's intricate story-lines, lighting, makeup, music, and — most importantly — Cirque du Soleil-type physical performances.

There's also the hypnotic quality that's also felt in the theater. I'll never forget my first experience at a live wrestling event — the performers were larger than life. My first memory was at Packard Music Hall in Warren, OH. Excitement buzzed though me as I sat at ringside next to the isle, but Mr. Fuji crushed my enthusiasm when he looked at my bugged-out eyes and shouted something nasty to me. I wanted to shrink in my seat, but my instincts told me to return the insult, which I did.

It was awesome — and I was hooked. Thankfully my parents sacrificed a lot of time and money as I dragged them to events all over Northeast OH. — including Survivor Series in 1987 on Thanksgiving day, which is something I will never forget.

Fast forward 24 years to a couple weeks ago. My best friend Mike and I went to a WWE event in Youngstown, OH. It was my first event in way over a decade, but when those lights went down and the spotlight turned on the ring, I was in that place again — just ask then WWE champ Alberto Del Rio.

Here's a guy who once fought Mirko Cro Cop in a mixed martial arts event. Granted he got his head kicked from his body in minutes, but this man stood in the squared-circle with one of the baddest men on the planet.

But than night in Youngstown, he focused his anger on me and my CM Punk "Best in the World" T-shirt — and I was ready for him. I found myself jawing back and forth with a man who would tear my arm off my shoulder and beat me with it, but I was in the moment.

The two of us ripped off what would've been a memorable promo. I think he enjoyed it so much, he had to be pulled away by his lackey Ricardo Rodriguez.

That was me getting in touch with something in my psyche, but it took me these many years to truly appreciate this form of entertainment in a socio-political manner. People will say it's not competitive, but nothing can be further from the truth: These people are competing for the audience reaction — positive or negative.

I just read Chris Jericho's first book, and he said that legendary manager Jimmy "The Mouth of the South" Hart told him — and I'm paraphrasing — that any wrestler can be pushed, but no one can force a person to sit in his house and make a sign about you.

That's the free market — that's competition. And like in business, bureaucrats can ruin the natural flow of things. Take for instance CM Punk's summer surge to prominence. A couple months ago, he cut a promo so awesome, it was talked about on ESPN radio. He had crossed over, and powered a feud with WWE's square-jawed hero John Cena, which fueled a handful of classic matches.

Enter Paul Levesque, a.k.a HHH, a.k.a The Game, a.k.a The Cerebral Assassin. The former full-time wrestler, now WWE chief operating officer, who is married to modern WWE patriarch Vince McMahon's daughter Stephanie, just couldn't stand someone else getting over so strongly. It seemed to bother him so badly, that he injected himself into the story, which has consequently slowed down a bit.

The lesson: Bureaucrats destroy, but they don't create. I still think Punk's charisma will carry any story, but that's to be seen.

What isn't to be seen is that pro wrestling is only a little more than 100 years old, and it's not going anywhere. It's a spectacular combination of theater and athleticism that will hook generation after generation — no matter how many big-headed HHHs butt their fat heads into the proceedings.

Heels and Hero's all-time top five favorite wrestlers:
1. Chris Jericho
2. CM Punk
3. Edge
4. Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat
5. Bret "The Hitman" Hart

Heels and Hero's top five current wrestlers:
1. CM Punk
2. Dolph Ziggler
3. Cody Rhodes
4. Randy Orton
5. Daniel Bryan

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