Home About

(UN)REAL: american wrestling comes to new zealand

Simon Sweetman



I think current TNA wrestling star (a rival promotion) Jeff Jarrett, said it best. In a History Channel documentary about the sport, he tells us that “those who believe don’t need an explanation. And for those who don’t believe – no explanation will do”. WWE boss Vince McMahon backed that up to a degree, calling what they do “a magic show. And we’re not going to reveal where all of the magic comes from.”
Still, to Joe-Not-Interested-In-Watching-Staged-Blows on the street, Pro-Wrestling is fake. So why go see something that’s fake? What’s frustrating about this is the smug, self-serving attitude most people have, like you (as a wrestling fan) are holding a giant balloon, and they have a pin that you can’t see. Yeah, right. We know that the outcomes are pre-determined. We know they don’t hit each other for real all the time. (They’d die!) But it’s not fake. Read the warning on the box (before any of the TV shows): “yes this is entertainment, but the hazards are real. Whatever you do, please, don’t try this at home!” And bar a few staged matches of my own on trampolines when I was 12, and in the pool most summers since, I haven’t tried it at home. Heck, I hadn’t even watched it at home for years…But all of a sudden, and not just because of the NZ tour, I’m hooked.
In talking to these professional athletes (“they’re just actors” – the detractors say; actually that’s not true, they’re both actors and athletes!) I questioned my own belief and interest in this hybrid sport/entertainment, this fantasy world that I watch on TV every weekend, this modern-day, post-millennial circus. And the outcome was simple: I love watching the spectacle – I am sucked in by the whole thing – the mix of action and comedy, the good vs evil battle, the choreography, lighting, pyro…the list goes on. And indeed it is the very same list of reasons that the superstars I spoke with gave to me regarding their involvement.
I asked Chris Benoit if wrestling is fake or not. “Jeez, how old is that question?”, he replied. And I could feel his eyes rolling down the phone line. Of course that was the intention of the question. Benoit has had some 20 plus years of involvement in professional wrestling, he is a wrestler’s wrestler, a tough nugget. He is widely regarded as one of the finest technical wrestlers working in the big leagues, he has an impressive amateur background, and trained with the legendary Stu Hart (fans of Superstars Of Wrestling which screened on New Zealand televisions in the late 1980s and early 1990s will remember Stu’s most famous son, Bret “The Hitman” Hart).
Benoit is “very proud” of his reputation as a skilled mat-technician. “I can’t just rest on that though, I have to keep at it. That keeps me going, knowing that people like and appreciate what I do. I continually have to work on it. And for me, that’s fine. That’s what I do. This thing is more than a job. It’s a way of life.”
So it can’t all be fake if that’s the guy’s attitude, right?
I met with Shane McMahon and Batista in person. They were here on a whirlwind, weekend long, promotional tour of the country. Batista (born Dave Bautista) was – when I interviewed him late last year – the current world champion. I even got to see the giant gold championship belt (far more impressive in real life than on TV). He was being primed as the face of the company, the man to take WWE in to its next few years, and a figure-head. They’d previously had Hulk Hogan of course. And The Rock. And then there was Stone Cold Staeve Austin. And now it was going to be Batista’s time. He was on all of the posters for the New Zealand tour. But alas, injury saw Batista surrender the title early in the New Year and he is now rehabbing torn triceps (having missed the show in Wellington). It was a pleasure meeting him in the flesh, though initially intimidating. Standing over 6 feet 5 inches and weighing over 300 pounds, Batista is one chiselled specimen. He was polite, softly spoken, thoughtful and wise. Joining him was Shane McMahon, the son of Vince McMahon (WWE owner and billionaire businessman). Shane is primed to take over his father’s role in this family business one day. Meanwhile he works behind the scenes – but has on occasion been involved in matches. He has had quite a sideline career as a real daredevil – being thrown off lighting towers, from the top of ring cages ­– and his love for the business, for this industry, flows through his genetic makeup. It seems there’s just no way it couldn’t.
Shane is a fast-talker. And though it is a real honour meeting a member of Wrestling Royalty, I immediately see how savvy he is, how he twists questions to suit his pre-arranged answers. I guess he’s been bought up knowing how to “fix” and create a match, and now he goes out and fixes interviews too…
I ask Shane-O-Mac (as he’s known to fans) if wrestling is real or fake. He answers me, but he takes his time. First he gives me some of the history, reeling off by rote, “there’s always been some sense of awareness behind wrestling matches. Wrestling in the early 20th century was a popular sport in carnivals and circuses. Even then, the outcomes were arranged before the matches started. But what took place in the ring was whatever happened, you know. Whatever it took to get them to the end point. We’re a bit like that – not a lot has changed”.
But that’s not quite correct. A lot has changed. Pro-wrestling was big in the 1920s, but it struggled during the depression. And then wrestling was dealt a savage hay-maker of its own: a disgruntled employee leaked all of the results for the following day’s matches to that evening’s newspaper. It was deemed a joke, and the sport lost its way. The rebuilding really took place in the 1950s with the invention of television – wrestling just didn’t lend itself to radio the way some sports and general storytelling did. But television was the perfect medium. Among the innovators: Shane’s grandfather, Vincent McMahon Snr.
“Television changed wrestling,” Shane confirms. “No doubt about it.” And once the performances were being caught on tape ­– some bright spark realised that it really was a show – the manipulations increased. Plotlines developed. Feuds were created. And Vince Senior’s son, Vincent Kennedy McMahon, got involved in the sport. He bought The World Wide Wrestling Federation (or WWWF) off his father in 1982. He shortened the brand to WWF (World Wrestling Federation) and – along with one of the sport’s most important figures, Hulk Hogan – dragged wrestling out of its cult status and made it a giant star in the spectacle of the 1980s. Wrestlemania was the first pay-per-view contest that McMahon organised and he put it all on the line. The rest, as they say, is history. Shane McMahon is here in New Zealand to talk to me about a tour promoting Wrestlemania 22. Twenty-two! That means that once a year, since 1985 the “Superbowl of wrestling,” as Shane puts it, has found its way in to the hearts and minds of fans around the globe.
But who goes to watch these things?
“Everyone,” says Randy Orton, a third-generation wrestling superstar. “What we do is unlike any other sporting event; it’s like we’re constantly hitting home runs”. I spoke with Orton on the phone last year; he was the first of my wrestling interviews. Randy is the son of ‘Cowboy’ Bob Orton, a man who performed in the original Wrestlemania and a Hall-Of-Famer famous for feuds and alliances with big names like Hogan and ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper. Bob’s father was a pro-wrestling star too. “Along with The Rock”, Randy tells me, “I’m the only other third-generation superstar”. I ask him if there’ll be a fourth-generation star. He chuckles. “Well, er, I am engaged…but, actually my fiancée hates wrestling”. We share a laugh, as I’m able to tell him that my fiancée hates wrestling too. “Really? That’s hilarious dude.” Randy very quickly becomes my buddy. But hang on. Isn’t he a bad guy?
actually my fiancée hates wrestling”. We share a laugh, as I’m able to tell him that my fiancée hates wrestling too. “Really? That’s hilarious dude.” Randy very quickly becomes my buddy. But hang on. Isn’t he a bad guy?
That’s another of the big changes that I talked through with Shane and Batista. Wrestling used to be a giant morality play: the battle of good vs. evil. Everyone has their parts to play. Good guys are known as faces (short for Babyface) and the bad guys are the heels. It used to be that faces and heels were encouraged to stay in character. Heels would travel separately and have their own locker room away from the faces. A heel wants to be booed and jeered at. Batista reckons, of the current roster, “Triple H [b. Paul Levesque – and incidentally, Vince’s son-in-law, having married Shane’s sister, Stephanie] is by far the best heel. That guy loves playing the heel. For him, hearing the boos of the crowd, he feeds off that like a good guy would cheers and clapping.” Shane and Batista both issue small chuckles thinking about Triple H. “He’s the nicest guy in the world,” Batista enthuses, “and he eats, breathes and lives this sport.”
So you see, it’s changed now, they can admit to playing characters, and they will happily give interviews as themselves. They’ll make comments on their character, rather than answer questions as if cutting a promo reel for the main event. At no time, when I asked a question to Orton, McMahon, Batista or Benoit did I hear back “you know what I’m gonna do Simon, I’m gonna twist your pencil-neck geek face in half and crush your bones.” That would be just silly. Wrestling is too important as a business now. And the fans are a lot smarter these days. WWE employ a huge team of writers and backstage crew to carry out storylines that constantly toy with reality – though some are intentionally far-fetched. It’s all for the sake of entertainment. So, for example, I asked Randy Orton if he was looking forward to facing The Undertaker one more time in a match. And Randy replied, “well I killed The Undertaker. I put him in a box and set fire to him. The Undertaker is gone”. And, in a way, that was true! I watched the match. He did do all of those things…well, the part about the box and the fire anyway. Of course he didn’t kill him. And Orton actually chuckled as he said, “I can’t face him again, I burned him alive.” You know, the way you raise a half-chuckle after something funny at work happened. It was the same thing.
Orton and Benoit are among the many that play themselves on screen. That is to say they don’t hide behind a stage-name. But the Randy Orton that I speak to on the phone likes to talk about listening to heavy metal to pump him up, and how he was so proud to be working in the ring with his father (WWE had re-signed ‘Cowboy’ Bob on his own deal after he had been accompanying Randy to the ring as a valet/manager) considering that times had been tough a few years back for the Ortons and the ole Cowboy had “had to take work selling cars second hand, struggling to get by.” The Randy Orton I talk to on the phone is warm and sincere. Friendly and passionate about his job. The Randy OrtonTM that appears on the television and at live WWE events is ruthless, heartless; a real heel.
Benoit, who plays a face, has managed to survive without too much of a gimmick. His thing is that he is Chris Benoit, a great wrestler. But he is still “playing a version of himself” when he’s out there, rather than just being himself. “There are parts that are crafted, staged – whatever you wanna call it,” he admits.
So the heel/face thing is a lot harder to spot these days. And they change. Orton has had a go at being a face, he is now heel. Batista started out heel and, before he opted out for surgery, was riding on a massive face run – as the world champ. Benoit has been heel in the past. McMahon plays a heel the majority of the time and his whole family gets involved. And to confirm how bizarre this all can be, Shane McMahon uttered this most brilliant sentence, “I really hate seeing my mom get beaten up”. Who doesn’t!? To contextualise this statement, I asked McMahon if it was hard seeing his sister get called a slut, or hearing his dad get booed, or watching his mum involved in the action. Again, the whole family are playing versions of themselves – to help, as Vince has said, provide “the magic show”. Shane says he doesn’t mind seeing his father get booed or hit: “Dad knows what he’s doing, and he can take the knocks. But when Steph is out there, and she’s getting called a slut or whatever, you know, I know that’s part of the story and that’s all – but sometimes it smarts. And I just hate seeing my mom getting hurt. When someone piledrives my mom, I just…” Shane doesn’t need to finish that sentence, as he, Batista and I are all laughing. There just can’t be that many people in the world that can legitimately say that one of their daily concerns is hoping their mum does not get piledriven. (Incidentally for any non-wrestling fans still reading, a piledriver is where one grappler places the other’s head between their knees, lifts their torso up in the air, and falls back in to a sitting position– – giving the illusion that the combatant has just been driven in to the mat, head-first. In reality it would break a neck. In actual fact, on occasion, even ‘staged’, it has.)
So for the WWE to get to this point, where wrestlers can happily be themselves on the phone, or in person during interviews, a lot of changes had to take place. I discuss, with Shane and Batista, one of the crucial ones: Wrestlemania 6. Hulk Hogan fought against The Ultimate Warrior for both the intercontinental and the world championships – the stakes were high, both titles on the line. But more than that, both were good guys. Two faces.
“Yeah, that was certainly one of the turning points,” Shane confirms. “We knew that that was something very special.” Wrestling, from there, became less about the battle of good vs. evil and, in fact, went back to the 1940s, where matches were applauded for the story that was told throughout, rather than merely the conclusion. Now good guys fight good guys, bad guys fight each other; heels turn face quickly – only to revert back. Faces turn heel. The audience, in theory, keeps guessing. Though, as Batista brings up, “fans can’t be insulted. Their intelligence can’t be insulted. They’re too smart – especially these days, with the internet…”
All of this talk is true. But have you noticed something? All of this talk has far more to do with entertainment and performance than sport (apart from Orton’s analogy to “hitting home runs”). Cricketers, footballers, tennis players would never talk about insulting fans’ intelligence. For them, the match is against their opponent, and if there’s an audience watching, then sure, that’s fine, ­ but the game would continue regardless. Pro-wrestling relies on the fans, it needs the audience; in a way the show is not just for the audience, it is actually because of the audience.
McMahon agrees with me on that point, but he challenges back about the sport, saying that, “on a level, once any sport goes professional, there’s an element of performance about it.” This is very true, but again, it’s Shane knowing how to pose his answer, stating it as a probe; challenging my question as much as answering it.
Chris Benoit gives me the best analogy, when I ask him why New Zealanders should check out the live event in March. He tells me that WWE live is “like a big circus.” He goes on, “we have everything that a circus does: we have giants, high-flyers, tigers, elephants, clowns, jugglers…” We share some laughter. But in fact he is spot-on. And an interesting circle is completed. Professional-Wrestling was born out of the carnivals and circuses; now it is the entire circus – it even travels – like the old fashioned carnivals. And this also goes back to Vince McMahon’s idea of a “magic show”, but extends it out for what it really is – a performance, a piece of pantomime that is so finely crafted you can’t help but be swept up by the actual spectacle, and the very scale of it. The lights, pyro, action, comedy, drama…it’s all there.
So think what you like if you’re not a fan, just don’t call it fake. McMahon, Batista, Orton and Benoit all assured me that what they do is very real. They all have the injuries to prove that you can get hurt, but just to show you that these articulate, intelligent men are actually fully aware, they can, on occasion, laugh at themselves. Orton tells me that “what we do requires tremendous mental agility. We need to be thinking the whole time. If I leap from the top rope, fifteen feet in the air and drop a knee on someone’s temple, making it look like I’ve really hurt them, I have to be so careful. If I lose my concentration I could seriously hurt, or even kill my opponent. We’re not out there to do that, we want to put on a show, and make it look real. But we’re not trying to kill anyone”.
I relay this cautionary tale to Randy’s cohorts, Batista and McMahon, when I meet them in person. They both burst in to laughter. “That’s rich,” mutters Batista, smiling. Shane’s mouth makes a giant o-shape; he can’t believe it. “Well, that’s true of course,” he laughs. “But Randy’s the worst. My god, he’s really injured some people, we’re constantly telling him off. Jesus!”
WWE Live At Westpac Stadium,
March 4 2005
It was the first time the WWE had made it to New Zealand. It took three years of behind-the-scenes planning and negotiations to make it happen, but to many, wrestling is just something that’s not real. It’s all made up. It’s a joke.
Wrestling fans are everywhere. Little kids love. Big kids love it. And fans flocked to the Westpac Stadium to see the cream of WWE’s Smackdown! roster strut their stuff inside the squared circle. Some claimed they were “just taking their little brother along” (I smell a new Tui Billboard ad!) Others booked limousines and the whole family travelled in style. It was freezing cold, but by the end of the night the fans all agreed – we saw some heat in the ring. Real heat. Real action. Real drama. Real comedy. Real fun. Real excitement. From a sport that’s fake?
Yup, WWE bought their A-Game and 20,000+ fans got to see it live – in the flesh. For $500 you could sit right up the front. Those with more dollars than sense won the right to carry their metal chair home with them (the kind the wrestlers hit each other over the head with). For $45 you could sit way up the back and hear the crashes and smashes as you watched human-ants bouncing between the ring-ropes, needing the giant video screens to tell the real story.
The cruiserweights – wee 200-pounders that literally fly around the ring – kicked the evening off in fine style. Gregory Helms defended the Cruiserweight title against Kid Kash and Jamie Noble in a triple-threat match. The tag team MNM defended their belts against Paul London and Brian Kendrick.
JBL was injured so he came out and taunted the NZ crowd, expertly playing the heel. He called us a bunch of sheep-loving wannabe Aussies”. The crowd went nuts, boos flooded the arena. He backed it up, “mind you after being here today and seeing your women, I can see why you choose to love sheep!” He was great. He mocked the national sport; “you call it a scrum, whereas I call it…gay!?” Wrestling audiences like to cheer the hero, but love to boo the bad-guy. JBL strangulated a version of God Bless America before he was chased out of the ring by The Boogeyman – a character that spits live worms from his painted, be-horned head. No, seriously!
Randy Orton got whipped by the Mexican whippet, Rey Mysterio. Chris Benoit defended his U.S. Title against Booker T. And Kurt Angle (a former Olympic gold medallist in amateur wrestling) defended his world title against Mark Henry and The Undertaker. All up, it 3 hours of fun and games. The good guys, mostly, won. The crowd loved it all.
Incidentally, my chair looks good as a footstool in the lounge.