November 12, 1998
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: For many of us who were boys in the 50's, professional wrestling first appeared in black and white on Saturday afternoons. There, on the family television, was a veritable circus of giants and midgets and muscle men straight out of comic books. Whenever someone got slammed to the ground, he popped back up. Not only is pro-wrestling still around, today, it's bigger than ever.
Professional wrestling is the biggest draw on cable television – its audience now primarily men, not boys, men between 18 and 49.Wrestling, like running, is one of the most ancient of contests. But real wrestling is either like college wrestling, too quickly settled, or too slow to attract a mass audience.Modern pro wrestling, the entertainment that grew up with television, may be our truest spectator sport. Everything that happens in the ring is tailored to the audience's needs and desires. For that reason, it's not only our most modern sporting event, it could be the most futurist entertainment now on TV.
When I was a kid, I used to go to wrestling matches on Monday nights in a smoky auditorium, where the crowds were small. In my hometown, in Sacramento, mostly poor people went to the wrestling matches – poor whites and Mexican farm workers. For people who knew the meanness of life, pro wrestling offered a medieval morality tale – villains who were very evil, indeed, sometimes lost to the virtuous wrestler, more often, the villain triumphed because he cheated and got away with it.
Today's morality is more ambiguous as pro wrestling has become middle class entertainment. Often, the favored wrestlers are the bad guys. Much of the spectacle today is bombast. The successful wrestler is the one who can rouse the crowd with a microphone. Much of the spectacle involves size. Steroids have made wrestlers very, very big. Attempting the cartoon effect, some wrestlers have seriously injured themselves landing on concrete. It is not what goes on inside the ring that captivates; it is the faces, these faces, that are the point of professional wrestling. The successful promoter figures out what has brought the crowd to the circus.
A few years ago, when some promoters tried real blood, real mayhem, no-holds-barred matches in steel cages, many Americans were horrified. Mayors banned the matches from their towns. The crowds stayed away. The mass audience, it seemed, wanted something else – not reality – a show. In the 1960s Cassius Clay, who was as great a show man as he was a boxer, announced to America how pretty he was. He reminded me at the time of Gorgeous George. It was the first time, I think, I sensed that the fake world of pro wrestling was in tune with something in America – a taste for hyperbole and theatrics.
On cable these days, besides pro wrestling, you can watch 24-hour political tag teams – two pros versus two cons – sound bite versus sound bite. Ideas have been reduced to the level of Monday night nitro. Fireworks, steroids, rock music – are we watching sports or theater or happening? It's impossible to say anymore. Impossible to know in a country where lines are blurring between thought and bombast, the real and the cartoon. The crowd roars. Look! There's Dennis Rodman, professional basketball player, sometimes cross-dresser, entering the pro-wrestling ring. There's Mike Tyson. And there's Jay Leno, whose monologues are used by politicians to gage the public mood. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to America, welcome to pro wrestling. I'm Richard Rodriguez.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Believe it or not, Richard wrote that essay before another famous wrestler, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, was elected governor of Minnesota on the Reform Party ticket.