As a young boy and teenager, I loved Friday night. It meant WWF (later, and now WWE) Raw on Sky Sports. Popcorn and Coke. Two and a bit hours, sometimes three, of bigger-than-life characters, crazy fights and crazier storylines. Heels, faces, turns. It was an entire world unto itself and I loved every second of it for years. I had wrestling actions figures, even had the SmackDown! ring as a toy. I bought the wrestling magazines. The videos. Got my parents to pay for the pay-per-view events, set the VCR to record in the middle of the night to have it watch later in the week.
My favourite wrestling characters were The Undertaker (although I was terrified of him as a child, I loved his transformation into the American Badass), The Ultimate Warrior, Bret Hart, Jake The Snake Roberts, and Mick Foley in his many and varied guises. I remember viscerally hating Chris Jericho, Triple H and a host of others. I watched so much wrestling as a kid, I remember figuring out that the guy who used to go by The 1-2-3 Kid became X-Pac. It was a first clue to the gap between the wrestlers and the characters they assumed.
Professional wrestling taught me a lot about what it means to play a role, a character, about the extremes of personality. It also taught me that commentary tables were very shoddily made. It taught me a little bit about breaking the fourth wall before I ever even knew there was such an idea. One of the watershed moments for any wrestling fan of my generation I think must have been the death of Bret Hart’s brother Owen, during a botched stunt during a live pay-per-view event in 1999. I remember the buzz in the playground at primary school that week. I can remember conversations about whether it too was real or fake. It was of course, all too real. Wrestling, for all that it was fake, we learned, still needed real people and real bodies to perform and their performances were physical, athletic, and demanding.
What brought home the reality of wrestling to me most though was the documentary Beyond the Mat, released in 1999. Following Terry Funk, Mick Foley and Jake The Snake Roberts in particular, the film, though far from perfect was at the time eye-opening for an 11-year old. It showed what a deeply unglamorous business wrestling could be for the majority of practitioners. It also showed that while fame, and fleeting fortune, could be part of the professional wrestling game, for many it was a worklife with no seeming end in sight.
I was reminded of all these things over the weekend when, amidst Olympics fatigue, I finally sat down to watch the 2008 film that revived Mickey Rourke’s acting career: The Wrestler. Although the character took a deal of inspiration from Mick Foley, his story parallels moreso that of Terry Funk in Beyond the Mat since Rourke’s character The Ram is in his early 50s and despite a beat-up body, apparently unable to retire – neither wanting to give up the fading reflected glory of his own past nor being financially able.
A deeply sad film in many ways, it is also a moving account of the way in which sporting glory can fade quickly. Perhaps the most depressing scene is that in the American Legion hall where there is a near empty meet and greet with fellow ex-professional wrestlers, many carrying injuries which might seem more appropriate to war veterans.
The Will Smith-starring Concussion, released last year, tells the story of Dr Bennet Omalu and his fight against America’s National Football League in their attempts to suppress his research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) brain degeneration suffered by professional football players. The film opens with the death in 2002 of Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster, whose life after playing was plagued by physical and mental health problems lived out of his pick-up truck. In many ways, it is a real-life example of what The Wrestler explores.
Criticizing this aspect of our professional sporting culture is not so new, in the movies or via other media. In the past, however, it was the lives of boxers which tended to be examined most closely. Films like recent efforts from Cinderella Man or The Fighter and classics like Raging Bull ask us many questions about the impact of sport and violence on people’s lives and the lives of those around them. Songs like Bob Dylan’s Who Killed Davey Moore? or Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer do much the same. Books like War, Baby: The Glamour of Violence which tells the story of the Nigel Benn and Gerald McClelland fight which left McClelland all but brain dead, and Allyson Pollock’s Tackling Rugby which presents strong arguments for understanding rugby injuries endured at school as a public health issue, all add to the growing body of work that shows that after the career ends, and after the money dries up, and the fame and glory fade, sport can leave behind in its wake discarded and damaged bodies and minds.
One of the interesting developments I remember when watching professional wrestling was the emergence of mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters first like Ken Shamrock – who came to professional wrestling after a successful career with UFC – and later Brock Lesnar who would swing back and forth between the two worlds. Although there is still huge money in professional boxing, MMA is increasingly popular, with UFC the biggest promotion with Forbes reporting a profit of close to $158 million. World Wrestling Entertainment (as the WWF is now known), had a profit last year of $24.14 million. While the WWE now apparently helps any former employees fighting substance addiction, the UFC is increasingly under fire for where it leaves its fighters in retirement, with the Chris Leben story in 2014 being a perfect example of this. While a certain amount of the themes are dealt with in the 2011 film Warrior starring Tom Hardy, this film is a far cry from The Wrestler but it seems that in the coming years it will be UFC fighters who are the focus of filmmakers who want to understand the lure of the limelight and the violence of sport.