Saturday, March 26, 2016

Kayfabe is dead. Or, I was a manic pixie teenage wrestling fan.

You are about to witness some quality geeking out.

You young people, with your internet, don't know what geeking out is. You think you do, but you don't. Oh yeah, I hear you, geek is the new sexy; you're so geek you're almost socially awkward. Yeah yeah yeah. You don't know shit about being a geek. It's too easy now to find your heterotopias; you don't have to wait and yearn and save and hope.

Allow me to, at some length, explain. Who can say why anyone catches a wrestling show one day, and is subsequently hooked? Maybe one of the personalities reminds you of an ego-ideal. Maybe the idea of 'wrestling' resonates with you because it dramatises your own inner conflicts. Maybe it's those tumescent bodies in tights. Or maybe you just want to watch some arrogant, nasty motherfucker get the fuck knocked out of them, even if it is all for show.

Whatever the case, it clearly isn't violence in the abstract that is appealing, but rather the violent resolution of some sort of contrived drama. British boxing briefly understood this when Chris Eubank was drawing heat* with his incomparably stylish heel* turn. The show was not, "here are two adults who are going to seriously hurt one another," but "here is a likeable person who has been badly treated by some despicable rogue, and he or she is going to kick the ever-loving shit out of them."

Now, those of us who liked this stuff and were old enough to be a little embarrassed by it, wanted it to be at least credible if not 'real'. We hated the constant recycling of cheap and obvious gimmicks - pituitary cases in gaudy costumes, pretending to be crooks, foreigners, tax men, Jews, or whatever else would get the crowd booing if they were heels*, or patriots, macho men, blue collar tough guys, or whatever would appear sympathetic if they were babyfaces*. We hated the lumbering, awful performers who moved slowly, never connected a convincing blow, and sounded like fucking idiots whenever they opened their mouths. We disdained the circus freaks such as Giant Gonzales and Doink the Clown whose gimmicks were far more important than anything they did in the ring - although, bizarrely in that light, everyone reserved a serious respect for The Undertaker, whose gimmick was that he was impervious to pain, and essentially immortal. Something about that absurd idea, and its embodiment by Mark Calloway, was mesmerising. All the rest of it was embarrassing shit, we scoffed, while still watching it all, every second of it.

So, what was the solution? Stop watching, and go back to viewing Jean-Claude Van Damme videos over and over? No. It was to go deeper into the rabbit-hole. One Saturday morning, in a Ballymena newsagents, I picked up an unofficial wrestling publication, and began flicking through its badly printed pages. Superstars of Wrestling. The centre-fold story was about 'Sabu', a wrestler I had never heard of, from a promotion I had never heard of, 'Extreme Championship Wrestling' (ECW). And there, in glorious colour, were pictures of unbelievably outlandish yet realistic violence. In every picture, Sabu was drenched in his own blood. It turned out that in all of his matches, where he displayed a gymnastic prowess rare in the WWF/WWE, he was either being cut open on a barbed wire mesh that surrounded the ring, or injuring himself by somersaulting onto a hapless victim spreadeagled on a table, or wielding or being battered with a baseball bat, or some such.

Christ, I thought: this is Channel Four on a Friday night. This is the password-protected Sky channels. This is gore porn. No more clown costumes. No more flag-waving bullshit. I've just been admitted to the adults section. I collected a copy of every wrestling publication I could find on the shelf and spent all my money on the lot. I blew my wad.

It took some time to find a way of actually getting footage of some of these promotions in the darkest corners of Northern Ireland. But I gradually acquired a working knowledge of a subculture, a cultural space with many divisions and subdivisions. Aside from the Philadelphia-based ECW, there were a couple of old-fashioned southern promotions such as USWA and Smoky Mountain Wrestling (SMW), where the emphasis was on traditional 'rassling' and less on gimmicks and plot-lines.

And beyond the US, there were astonishing promotions in Mexico and Japan. In Mexico, Asistencia Asesoría y Administración (AAA) leaned toward a highly athletic, gymnastic form of wrestling. In Japan,  Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling (FMW) delivered ECW-style gore, while New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW), All Japan Pro-Wrestling (AJPW), and All Japan Women's Pro-Wrestling (AJWPW) were given to martial arts-inflected acrobatics. The cultural differences were huge.

In any American promotion, the selling of punches, the suplexes and arm drags, and even the blood and injuries, were at most fifty percent of what was going on. Apart from the violence, staged more or less plausibly, what made a match work was how effectively the performers, the match commentators, the 'managers', and the referees, all worked the audience. In the ring, the babyface would play up some supposed admirable characteristic like patriotism, inhuman strength, or vulnerability; the heel would strut, or cheat, or display cowardice. If there had to be a storyline for a match and the wrestlers were too boring to sell it, a colourful, verbally gifted manager like Jim Cornette might cheerfully give himself an aneurysm trying to sell it for them. If a blow wasn't sold very well, a commentator would explain it away.

In a Japanese promotion, by contrast, the promos and commentary were strikingly subdued, but the costumes were extravagant, and the manoeuvres more so. The characters and thematics were drawn more from myth and anime - one major Japanese wrestler is literally named Beast-God Lion-Tiger (Jushin Liger) - than from current social stereotypes. And few heels were so bad that they couldn't behave in a sportsmanlike way. They didn't scream at each other like Jerry Springer cast-offs; they just staged imaginative, graceful, competitive violence, using their bodies to create the drama.

There was no way, at any rate, to get any of this stuff through the high street. If you wanted anything other than WWF/WWE's cartoon soap opera, or WCW's pale imitation of same, you had to scour the classified section of the magazines for contacts. And save money. It was like fucking contraband.

And once you did get hold of some samizdat footage, to really understand what you were seeing, and why it worked, you also needed commentary that broke kayfabe*. And you couldn't get that without subscribing to black and white, xeroxed newsletters like Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which generally had good inside information and knew what the outcomes of important matches would be, or Rob Butcher's Suckerpunch, which was mostly sarcastic fan commentary from the south of England.

Being on the tape-trading and newsletter circuit meant being inducted into the smallest yet snottiest subdivision of the subculture. It meant becoming 'hardcore'. And everyone who wasn't 'hardcore' - who was a fan without knowing or caring that the business was fixed, or who only watched a big American promotion, or who didn't know the names of Rey Misterio, Manami Toyota, and Sabu alongside the more familiar Bret Harts and Hulk Hogans, or who knew nothing of the shoot tapes of Jim Cornette, or had never seen an Eighties classic from the NWA, or had no idea that Joey Styles and Bob Caudle were among the best ring commentators in the business - was a 'mark'.

Being 'hardcore' was being in the know, arguing intensely over the finer points of something everyone knew was staged, and yet being magnetically drawn to anything that seemed remotely real. Being 'hardcore' was being part of a miniscule world of people who were fans of something that they disdained; obsessed with a world they emphatically didn't believe in. Being 'hardcore' was somehow being both snobbish about the business and vehemently defensive of it. If you were 'hardcore', one almost believed, the promoters and wrestlers should roll out the red carpet and induct you into the hall of fame already. The 'marks' were so undeserving, so uncultured, yet everything was done for them. We, who mysteriously cared so much about the scene, were constantly frustrated.

Over time, however, the category of 'hardcore' has utterly lost any meaning it had. This happened in part as the WWF/WWE slowly adapted to the rise of the regional promotions like ECW by adopting their ideas and 'adult' content, and imported Japanese wrestlers. It also happened as forms of shoot material were increasingly built into the WWF/WWE spectacle. Jim Cornette's incredibly fluent, witty shoot commentary was given programme space in a promotion that had never before even tried to fake sincerity. Vince McMahon, previously a babyface commentator who tended to obscure his own role as the company boss, used real life situations to turn heel and sell himself as a bad guy who oppressed the wrestlers.

Wrestling took a decidedly postmodern turn, wherein the always nebulous distinction between 'real' and 'fake' collapsed. You also now have in-depth coverage of Hulk Hogan's ten-inch dick, as distinct from Terry Bollea's presumably much smaller appendage - an actual news story which really makes fun of the reality principle. You have Donald Trump standing for president, running a campaign straight out of the WWF/WWE - a heel implausibly turned babyface* - who could actually win.

But another reason the category of 'hardcore' has lost its meaning is you young people, with your internet. You young people, with your internet, can get all of this stuff, which I would have murdered for as a teenager, with astonishing ease. You have an inordinate wealth of international material, regional material, shoot material - a surfeit of it across all media. You have tens of thousands of hours of footage from across the world, available for free online. You have podcasts by leading personalities, most of whom also have Twitter accounts. You have Bobby Heenan, Ric Flair, Mick Foley, Jim Ross, the late Roddy Piper, Steve Austin, and Cornette, all doing shoot interviews and podcasts like it was nothing.

Kayfabe is dead, shoot is dead, and hardcore is dead: and the internet killed it. And I don't know how you become part of an 'exclusive' subculture in this day and age, when you can just download subcultures on Bittorrent for nothing. And it's not that I resent you young people, with your internet - god, no - but I do rue and lament you. I do wish you had things a bit harder. I do wish you couldn't just watch vintage Ric Flair or Paul Heyman, just by fucking clicking - the fact that you probably have no desire to click makes it even worse. Fuck you, young people. Fuck you all. You know nothing about geekdom. You are all marks.

Portrait of the author as a manic pixie teenage wrestling fan.

*Glossary of terms for the uninitiated: 'Shoot' is a wrestling term for any speech or act in wrestling that is sincere and spontaneous. 'Kayfabe' is a wrestling term for the convention according to which the real nature of the wrestling business as fixed is not acknowledged in public. 'Heel' is a wrestling bad guy. 'Babyface' is a wrestling good guy. 'Heat' is the intense negative reaction from the crowd that a heel hopefully draws.