Rediscovering wrestling

Last year I posted about a cool site that details the deaths of famous pro wrestlers.  Since then, I've gotten back into professional wrestling.  Well, at least a little bit.

To be honest, I'm probably more interested in the meta-commentary than in the shows themselves.  Although I do pull up the occasional match (or even an old special event) on YouTube, I don't follow any of the regular broadcasts or story lines.  It's not necessarily that I'm not interested, it's just that I don't have the time.  Wrestling is a highly visual medium, so it's not the sort of thing you can easily put on in the background while you work (at least not if you want to absorb any of it at all).  I'd rather read a synopsis or watch a summary montage.  

What I have been watching is a lot of behind-the-scenes documentaries and interviews.  It turns out the real stories behind pro wrestling are at least as interesting as the ones on TV, if not more so.  It's a tough business that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, full of creative people whose job is to get attention.  How could there not be lots of interesting drama?  And, as it turns out, lots of compelling tragedy.

Most recently, I've been watching Vice TV's documentary series The Dark Side of the Ring.  It's very well done.  It covers a range of characters and scandals in the wrestling industry, ranging from the "industry drama" of things like the Montreal screwjob to genuine, out and out tragedies, like the story of Chris Benoit.  They include interview with a variety of wrestling insiders (though there are several frequent contributors, like Jim Cornette) and do a pretty good job of expressing the uncertainty and ambiguity of many of these events.

That's actually what I find compelling about many of these stories - the ambiguity.  Many of the interviewees are, naturally, pro wrestlers, which means they're performers.  That means they can speak engagingly, with passion and conviction, about these events.  But for many of these stories, you see that from people on both sides, which makes it clear that these passionate, straight-forward accounts really aren't the whole story.  While the on-screen world of wrestling is very black-and-white, with designated good guys and bad guys, the off-screen world is much more gray.  For all the larger-than-life personas that they put on, these are actually just regular people who are trying to navigate difficult and sometimes unclear situations.  The messiness of these situations is part of what makes them so impactful. 

I've also been watching a number of the "full shoot" interviews from The Hannibal TV.  These are interviews conducted by Devon Nicholson, a.k.a. Hannibal, with a variety of wrestling personalities about their careers.  They discuss not only their in-ring and on-screen rivalries, but also the kind of things that happened back-stage and what it was like being on the road as a wrestler.  They all have lots of good stories, but it's sometimes hard to tell exactly how factual they are.  Joe Rogan has also had some good episodes featuring interviews with pro wrestlers.  In particular, I enjoyed his interviews with Jake "The Snake" Roberts, Diamond Dallas Page, and Mark "The Undertaker" Calloway.

If you're interested in a feature-length documentary, both Andre the Giant and The Ressurection of Jake The Snake Roberts were quite good.  Both men are interesting case studies on the life of a successful professional wrestler.  These documentaries detail the struggles these men went through and how wrestling contributed to them.  The latter also describes Jake's eventual recovery with the help of Diamond Dallas Page.

For me, this real-life stuff does a lot to enhance the wrestling performances that I do watch.  Between the COVID lock-downs and the crazy political situations of the past year, I find wrestling to be a welcoming break.  The on-screen performances, while hardly Shakespeare, can be entertaining and offer a familiar and somewhat comforting "good vs. bad" narrative.  And if nothing else, they certainly are impressive athletic displays.  (Yes, the results are predetermined, so it might not be a "sport", but that doesn't mean the participants aren't athletes.)  Meanwhile, the peeks back-stage are a good reminder than nothing is clear-cut and that while people can be complicated and sometimes contradictory, they all still have value and people who care about them.  That's something that's worth remembering and holding onto amidst the toxic stew that is our current media and online discourse.

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