Is pro wrestling real or fake? Yes
Government restrictions to fight COVID-19 abruptly shut down nearly every live performance event in the country early last year, including concerts, plays, dance performances — and such guilty pleasure as monster truck races and, my personal favorite, professional wrestling.
I can hear the howls of protest now. "How can possibly like professional wrestling? It's so crude and fake!"
Then why is it so enduringly popular, even spawning spinoffs like "Young Rock," the new semi-autographical comedy series on NBC about Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, the former professional wrestler who is now arguably the most popular actor in the world?
After following the admitted entertainment sport for more than 50 years, let me explain. Based on both personal and professional experience, I think professional wrestling is both more sophisticated and less fake than it appears. And no one has to believe it's all real to enjoy the spectacle.
My first exposure was watching late night rebroadcasts of the early Portland Wrestling shows on KPTV during occasional family trips from my home in Medford to the Rose City. At the time, the regional operation owned by the late Don Owen was among the best in the country, showcasing wrestlers who later became household names, such as "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and Jesse "The Body" Ventura. Most matches included the tropes that are still used today, like pitting a stereotypical good guy against an obvious bad guy, opening matches with wrestlers circling each other and exhorting the crowd for way too long, easily distracted referees who never catch the bad guys cheating, and finishes marred by controversy.
Late one summer, while I was still in high school, I decided to hitchhike up to Eugene to stay with some friends and go to a concert. I was quickly picked up on I-5 by two guys I immediately recognized from the back seat of their car. "You're Tony Borne and Dutch Savage," I said, naming two of Portland Wrestling's biggest stars.
Both had done a show in Southern Oregon the night before and were driving to Portland for the next one. Pleased that I recognized them, they spent the next few hours regaling me with tales of the unglamorous lives of underpaid regional wrestlers in those days, including doubling up in cheap motels to save money, dealing with injuries that occasionally required a trip to the emergency room before leaving town, and having to adjust to a different opponent at the next match if such an injury was too severe. It was obvious that Borne and Savage were good friends, an early clue that professional wrestling was not entirely real since they routinely insulted each other in the televised shows I'd seen.
I can't even remember what the concert was.
Fast forward to the late 1980s and professional wrestling had evolved into a multi-billion dollars industry thanks to media-savvy promoter Vince McMahon and his nationally touring and televised World Wrestling Federation. Regional operations like Portland Wrestling were struggling to survive against the highly produced WWF shows that routinely filled large sports arenas. But most of its matches still included the tropes I first saw on those early KPTV shows.
While working at Willamette Week in 1988, I agreed to help the late Portland writer Katherine Dunn research a story on professional wrestler Billy Jack Haynes. At the time, Katherine was a columnist and boxing reporter for the alternative newsweekly who had written the novel "Geek Love," which would be released to great acclaim the next year.
Billy Jack had started with Portland Wrestling, shot to stardom with the WWF, then fell from grace and was working to relaunch himself as both a wrestler and promoter with his own gym in Oregon City. He had recruited a number of WWF wrestlers to appear at his shows, including Cocoa Samoa, a Samoan who moved his family into a local motel to take part. Katherine was suspicious of Billy Jack, and I offered to drive her around for the story since she never got a license.
As part of the reporting, we met with some of the local and imported wrestlers, attended a couple of the diminished Portland Wrestling shows at a renovated bowling alley called the House of Action in North Portland, and went to a sold-out WWF show at the Memorial Coliseum. The crowds at the shows were raucous during the matches but well behaved between them. Many of them were fathers and sons out for an evening of fun.
During these excursions, Katherine gave me her unique take on professional wrestling. She viewed it as genuine theater — even Greek Theater — with the wrestlers playing archetypical roles their audiences recognized. She thought the bad guys were more interesting than the good guys, because there are so many more ways to be bad, including being vain, arrogant, scornful of the audience, betraying their friends, and, of course, cheating (without being caught). The pre-match posturing was really about acknowledging the live crowd around the entire ring, making eye contact with those on all four sides and giving them a chance to personally respond to the wrestlers before the action starts. Inept referees reflect the real world, where no one in a position of authority can really protect you. Same with the ever-disputed endings, because few people ever win or lose for good in this world.
The wrestlers we met understood how seriously most fans take them. Before the WWF show, we interviewed a retired local wrestler who had gotten hired at the last minute to replace a bad guy who'd been seriously injured in the previous show. I can't remember his name now, but he had played a well-known bad guy in local matches years before, and he wondered whether anyone would even remember him. When he was introduced and walked toward the ring, boos and jeers rained down from the crowd. We asked him how he felt about the crowd reaction afterward. "They remembered me," he said proudly.
As Katherine suspected, Billy Jack's business failed badly, leaving Cocoa, his family, and the other imported wrestler stranded in town. Portland Wrestling went out of business in 1992. Several promoters have tried to replace it over the years without as much success.
All live shows are on hold now, and even World Wrestling Entertainment, the successor of the WWF, is only doing remote shows until the pandemic is over.
Is professional wrestling fake or real? It's fake enough that wrestlers rehearse moves before matches. It's real enough that they get hurt, sometimes seriously. Are the matches fixed? I know enough not to go there.
Jim Redden covers City Hall and general news for the Portland Tribune. He is the author of the book "Snitch Culture: How Citizens are Turned into the Eyes and Ears of the State."
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