“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” (Henry David Thoreau)
I read a brilliant article this week by one of the best sports writers in the business. Simon Barnes writes for The Times newspaper in the UK and has won award after award. He does all the things that, now I’m writing for this site, I can only aspire to. He makes sports a lucid, real entity with psychological repercussions. He wrote a particularly excellent article this week (found here) regarding the ‘glorious pointlessness of sport’. And it got me thinking about the entertainment we all watch, the entertainment I’m writing about and you’re hopefully reading about. The story in the ring which, when told well, can be almost beautiful to watch but, does it really affect or change our lives?
Barnes was writing specifically about one of the late Margaret Thatcher’s comments regarding how pointless sport was, that she ‘didn’t get sport. She just didn’t see the point. It wouldn’t have helped to tell her that sport hasn’t got a point, and it would have helped even less to point out that pointlessness was actually the whole bloody point.’
I’m hoping that my columns build up to tell a sort of story over the coming months (until Daniel Bryan wins the WWE title and I’ll be all like, ‘ohmygod’). My first column was about the delivery of the character, my second was how the part-time characters aid or hurt the product, the third was about the beauty of the moment. I’m going to advance on these points now.
We watch ‘performers’ (sports entertainers?) who work with script-writers. We watch these men and women go out into the squared circle and tell stories. We then join together in, let’s be honest here, arguing about it. There is something more though. There is something that drags 80,676 people to the MetLife Stadium or, in a week’s time approximately 20,000 to the O2 in London. This is the same thing that pulls people to the Lords Cricket Ground for the Ashes or The Prudential Centre to see Jones v Sonnen. It is the moment of glory and the agony of failure and that, as fans, we can walk away and still talk about our heroes for years to come. On the walls in my house hang framed pictures of Joe Frazier and Henry Cooper. One of my prized possessions is a signed Frazier glove (now that was a very expensive drunken night!). Why though? Why do we follow these entertainers? How do they become heroes? What is it we can learn and aspire to?
I am going to be honest here, and if you haven’t read Barnes’ article on the link I highly recommend it, I am going to use his headings for ‘the pointlessness of sport’ for why we watch wrestling. Why we watch ‘true sports entertainers’ and, indeed, why we argue and debate it so much.
I don’t have many friends who like wrestling. Simple as that. I’ve got friends who love boxing and UFC but, like many people I’ve read in the past, wrestling is a bit of ‘grey area’. There are a couple of mates though who I can watch DVD’s with. We’ll argue because I love The Undertaker and one of them will love Mankind. We’ll argue about the story-telling, the build-up and then...we’ll watch the fights. The classic Hell in a Cell. The throw from 30 feet. Mankind’s ‘never say die’ return to the ring. Then we’ll agree. We’re both right. They are icons for a reason. And it came down to that moment between two men at the top of their game giving their all, and more. We’ll then (and this happened) remember the time Lita and Trish headlined Raw and discuss how important that moment was. And crack open another beer and watch it again. And cheer.
Something weird happened for a lot of people last Monday on Raw. The crowd took over. They became the benchmark (much like the 2011 Money in the Bank Chicago crowd). It was a group of people that decided they would be in charge. Sorry Randy. Sorry Sheamus. It wasn’t your fault WWE tried to get a cheap Twitter trend by getting people to vote for the match that wouldn’t happen, you were just in the firing line. This was a night when the crowd wanted Ziggler. They wanted to see Taker. And they wanted to make a new star. They did it together and although I was watching at home in the UK, I felt a part of it. I was laughing so much at the crowd singing the Fandango theme constantly. It made me feel part of the Wrestlemania experience and, to that crowd, I thank you.
It’s easy to take sides in WWE. Perhaps more so than in regular sports because the script dictates the good guy and the bad guy. For every fan who hates Miami Heat, there’s one that hates Chelsea FC. For every one that hates John Cena...there’s a million that love him. Granted, post CM Punk ‘pipe bomb’ those ‘shades of grey’ are a little more telling. I remember the dueling chant between Cena and Jericho at Summerslam 2005. It was great to hear an equal duel between both men and crowd. In this way, I don’t think Cena really needs to turn heel anymore. Not when there are guys like Punk and Ziggler to cheer for.
The positive stories in sport make us follow our heroes. Simon Barnes, quite rightly, references the Olympics. I remember when Eddie beat Brock. Here was a man who has lost it all to drugs and depression and yet fought back. He proved himself in the company and was awarded the top title. Then he went to Wrestlemania XX and beat Kurt Angle with an untied boot and then...he shared the ring with ‘he who shall not be named’. This is the point of sport. As those two men stood in the ring, little did we know then that both would die but only one would be remembered. And remembered for beating his demons not succumbing to them.
Here Barnes makes an interesting point, ‘All the great performers in sport would play for threepence a day. Sport offers the pure essence of human aspiration’. Watch the CM Punk documentary, or the Edge one, or the Jericho one. These are men who just wanted to wrestle. They wanted to be the best. Adam Copeland went to Wrestlemania VI to watch Hogan and believe that one day he’d be there. At the top. Punk and Jericho trawled the national, and international, leagues for years waiting, and honing to perfection. Certainly with the latter two (‘I’m the best in the world(at what I do today)’) the money is probably nice, but it’s the five start matches that matter more. Stealing Wrestlemania from the main events. They aspire to be the best.
Here I’ll will show my bias to certain wrestlers, some of which you’ll be sick of hearing about. I admire The Undertaker. Do I wish that, as the older I get the better I get? Sure. Will it happen? God knows. Do I admire watching him do it? Definitely. I admire Daniel Bryan for being the small indie wrestler, banned by the big company (thanks a lot, Justin Roberts) before becoming one of the most ‘over’ wrestlers...through sheer bloody hard work and taking what’s given to him and making it fly. I admire that. I want to be a good man. I want to be good at what I do. I want to get better. As Nietzsche said, ‘There is an innocence in admiration’. Yes. I’m an innocent. I’m naive. Hell, Rocky’s speech in ‘Rocky Balboa’ wanting to be to ‘keep moving forward no matter how hard life keeps hitting you.’ I want this for myself and for those I love.
Here, wrestling might need to try harder. The top promotion needs to be truly multicultural with regards the champions. TNA works hard at its women’s division but WWE’s is in a sorry state of affairs. Yes, you can’t just award a top championship to a wrestler because of their colour. You can’t just randomly put on 60 minute women’s matches. There needs to be build. There needs to be hunger. There also, however, has to be the want from the companies to do it. I know we’ve had The Rock, and Ron Simmons in the Hall of Fame, but these should be the exceptions. Again, Barnes says it better than I ever could, ‘sport is about dividing the talented; but in making these divisions, sport united those of us who choose to get involved.’
When WWE does this well, it is priceless. Whether it’s Dr Shelby and Team Hell No or Kurt Angle’s milk truck. It puts as much of a smile on my face as the crazy crowd from last week singing Fandango’s theme. This also nearly created the best chart battle in UK history. On Tuesday night, Fandango was at Number 11 whereas ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ was riding high (Top Ten) due to protest buying at Margaret Thatcher’s death. Now, a fight between Thatcher and Fandango was something I never thought I’d see. Again, when the humour works, it makes me forget about the crap going on (alright, we know WWE humour often falls flat, but hey ho).
A lot of wrestling for me is ‘hangover TV’. I switch it on in the morning, get a coffee and switch my brain off. I love the big matches (Taker v Punk) but I don’t have the adrenaline to watch one of those every week. Quite often, I want to tune in and turn off. If every match was a Super Bowl, we wouldn’t care. If every bout was a Tyson versus Holyfield, we wouldn’t get excited. Sometimes we need the mediocre, or the average, to appreciate the incredible. Indeed, it has been said before but some people watch soap operas, some watch history documentaries, I watch wrestling.
Success and failure are commonplace in sport and the margin of error between the two is slim. The margin between a good match and a classic is similar. Wanting to see your favourite wrestler win the title? Incredible...but you know they’ll lose it at some point and you’ll be heart-broken. I waited years for JBL to turn face, somehow, so I could cheer him. Yes, I knew the ‘wrestling character’ would never work as a face (perhaps that’s why Alberto is finding it difficult) but I am so pleased he is commentating. And even more pleased when his name was chanted last week during that infamous match and he smiled. Finally, I could cheer one of my favourites. It’s being accepted together as fans that makes our part in this contract all the better too. We are part of the history of wrestling and I’m happy with that.
Wrestling is pointless...and that’s the point. It makes me want to do all of the above.
“Sport, while seeming to be the exact opposite, is a lesson in equanimity. Behind the superficial thrills of triumph and disaster lie more enduring matters such as loyalty, friendship, laughter, consistency, acceptance, love.” (Simon Barnes).
Please follow me on twitter @HughFirth (it’s still a bit lonely out there) or email me on email@example.com All constructive criticism is appreciated. My weekly shout-out goes out to, well, Simon Barnes. It’d be churlish not to.
Ta ta for now and hopefully see you next week.