This article was originally published in Wrestling Perspective Volume X, Number 81. Copyright © 1999 Wrestling Perspective.
Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle
University Press of Mississippi, 1998
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Wrestling to Rasslin': Ancient Sport to American Spectacle
Gerald W. Morton and George M. O'Brien
Popular Press, 1985
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Professional Wrestling as Ritual Drama in American Popular Culture
Michael R. Ball
Edwin Mellen Press, 1990
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Sooner or later it had to happen that professional wrestling, long the ugly stepsister of professional athletics, would become the Cinderella of the academic set, if only because they were running out of subjects for Ph.D. theses.
Admittedly, a production of three books in 13 years isn't exactly a landslide, but it is three more than academics produced in the previous 50 years. These books also represent a departure from the way academia has viewed wrestling. Before publication, if one wanted to hear an academic pontificate about wrestling, one went to the college library and scanned through academic journals (mostly in sociology) in order to find a 10- to 15-page article examining the surprising and mystifying appeal of wrestling to the proletariat. The authors listed above look at wrestling as a cultural phenomenon, but one with a long past and traceable to previous forms of popular culture. They take their cues not from Margaret Mead, but from French Academic and Poststructuralist Roland Barthes, whose 1957 essay, The World of Wrestling, looked at the game from the immediate point-of-view of its audience. For Barthes, wrestling is but another cultural phenomenon, not subject to a moral tone, but taken for what it is, for its immediacy.
The World of Wrestling was the first attempt by an academic to examine professional wrestling as a subject. However, instead of presenting its subject in any sort of depth, Barthes instead goes for the immediate jugular, becoming a mirror, albeit a sort of funhouse mirror, and reflecting on what he sees going on in the ring and audience. The essay has been cited over and over by wrestling fans and fanzine editors, who believe there is a profundity to be found in its pages. That alone should make you wary. Although I will go into this essay at length next issue, suffice it to say for now that the essay has the sort of profundity of the carnival fortune teller type. It is the academic version of the "cold reading."
American academics, lacking the imagination of Barthes, approach the subject in a more plodding manner. For purposes of this review, we will include Mazer as one of the suspects, though she is from New Zealand. One, her study was done here in America (New York City, to be exact), and two, her pride in telling us how familiar she is with the works of Michel Foucault damns her with her own words. (For more on Foucault, see Camille Paglia). Yet, for all their analysis of wrestling, not one of these books comes close to doing its subject justice. In this case, it is not the banality of the subject matter, but rather the banality of the analysis. Wrestling is a fascinating subject for any author; there is a lot more than meets the eye. But you'd never know it from reading any of the above tomes.
The Morton and O'Brien book is the best of the lot (talk about damning with faint praise). We have seen Morton on A & E's The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling, which should have been titled The Surreal Story of Professional Wrestling. O'Brien, however, has been nowhere to be found. Perhaps he is playing the role of Teller in this academic imitation of Penn and Teller. Or perhaps he read his work and died of embarrassment. Who can tell? It is the only book of the three to focus on the history of the game, which, as presented, is good and bad. Good in the sense the authors recognize a historical continuity (which is more than wrestling promoters themselves recognize); bad in the sense that the history presented tells us nothing new and may be found by anyone with a good knowledge of a research library. There are also several errors, the most egregious of which is that Gorgeous George was a trained psychiatrist. This error was later repeated by Morton in the A&E special, making one wonder (1) why no one ever corrected him (there had to be someone who knew), and (2) why he never continued any sort of research. As George was one of the most visible wrestlers of the electronic age, there is much written on him. Where did Morton get his information? Also of dubious value is the assertion that the first tag team match took place in 1901. This one in particular has been picked up by a few of the zine editors, probably because Morton sounds so authoritative. I'm not saying it didn't happen, but where is the proof? None is offered, and perhaps none is necessary. Perhaps that is the real message here.
The book goes downhill from here. Much is read into the chapter on wrestling's roots in theatrical traditions. Yet, they miss the obvious. Of course wrestling has roots in the theater. It comes from the world of the carnival. William Muldoon staged his matches in theaters, as did Hackenschmidt when he hit England. Wrestling tells a story; each sequence of moves a scene in the play. Given this, it is understandable to a point why Frank Gotch is barely mentioned. Gotch's matches came the closest to real sport, and that would break the rigid paradigm the authors are following. But the biggest omission by the authors was in leaving out Toots Mondt and his tremendous influence on the game. Mondt, you see, had been trained in vaudeville and brought many of the vaudeville tricks with him into wrestling. The idea of finishes, performers, ethnic characters, if not born in the fertile mind of Mondt, was certainly perfected by him. Mondt was the first to grasp that wrestling not only told a story, but with a little refinement, could tell that story even better and in less time. Instead of this, the authors spend valuable time reading the intricacies of Japanese Noh Drama into the ring act of the Great Kabuki. I'm sure Dusty Rhodes took all this into account when he booked their feud in Florida. The image of Gordon Solie as Greek chorus is also preposterous. There is a tendency among postmodern academics to equate the ancient with the modern, but the outcome of such equivocation is to denigrate the ancient and subsume it to the modern. Thus, the text and meaning (to use postmodern terms) of the ancients can only be understood in light of and in terms of the modern. A little understanding of Vico in this instance could go a long way.
The last two chapters are laughable and demonstrate the need for quality control at the editing desk. One chapter deals with an analysis of the current wrestling scene (mid-Eighties) and tells us about such wrestlers as Rick Flair and Don Kernodel (sic). The analysis is pure kay fabe and almost sounds like Archie Bunker trying to explain quantum physics. For instance, the authors believe Homer O'Dell to be the prototype manager, probably because he is the earliest one they have seen from their observation post in Tennessee. Try Count Pietro Rossi, boys. He developed many of the mannerisms and characteristics O'Dell and others have copied. Also, Wild Red Berry was much better known; O'Dell was almost a pale copy of Red. So much for analysis. Our last chapter is the raison d'etre of the book and expounds on the original paradigm: Wrestling is a form of ritual. Gee, how novel. Nowhere in the tome do we find an explanation of the title - just how did the ancient sport become an American spectacle? I guess it just did.
Compared to Michael Ball, Morton and O'Brien come off like Don Luce and J. Michael Kenyon. Ball was also featured on the A&E special and made an even bigger fool of himself than did Morton. Ball, especially, seems to have no sense of history and it showed on the special and it shows in his book. First things first, however. Ball's "book" is in reality simply a published Ph.D. thesis. There has been no attempt to expand it or even add photos. It was written to satisfy the requirements for a doctorate ? no less and certainly no more.
Unlike Morton and O'Brien, who save their paradigm for last, Ball's paradigm of wrestling as ritual practically permeates every page. His role models are Sociologists Mary Jo Deegan, Erving Goffman and Victor Turner. They did the groundwork in the area of sports as ritual and saved Ball many years, or possibly decades, of thought. He refers to them unquestioningly throughout his book. In fact, I don't remember Ball questioning anything; he seems to be too busy regurgitating to take the time or make the effort. Add a little phony-baloney Marxism to the mix and you have a thesis bound to satisfy the Babbits of Academia to whom it was presented. After all, Ball wants to join the club.
That said, how does his work stack up? Not at all, I'm afraid. The book is loaded with plenty of "whats," but no "whys." Ball tells us what happened, but not why it happened. That would require thought, and since none of his sources seemingly elaborated on these topics, Ball did not feel it his duty to do so, either. Why rock the boat? For instance, there is a section titled Wrestling's Bureaucratic Structure, but we never do find out how the structure is bureaucratic. Was it always that way? What is the structure of a wrestling office? Who put that idea in Ball's skull?
Another outstanding feature of this book is the amount of erroneous information. Since nothing is questioned, everything is true. Some of the information is downright hilarious, such as this sentence: "During the late 1940s, wrestling gained so much popularity that capitalistic promoters recognized the potential for profits." Why did wrestling gain in popularity? Have you ever known a promoter who wasn't capitalistic? Like . . . duh. At the end of this particular paragraph, Ball mentions that Lou Thesz was named world champion by the NWA in 1947 (Wrong!). Now, Thesz has been wrestling at the Marigold Arena in Chicago, but at the insistence of his promoter (Who was . . .?), he appeared at the competing Rainbo arena for a match. This so angered several of the promoters in the NWA (Who were . . .?) who named a new champion, Verne Gagne, although Gagne had never defeated Thesz. Like, when did this happen? Interestingly, this paragraph was not footnoted.
Other errors abound. Ball has women as part of the audience in the Forties. They came in the Thirties in response to box office idols like Jim Londos. Ball states that Bruno Sammartino was a champion of the Fifties and Sixties. Bruno did not begin wrestling until 1959. Joe Stecher is credited with inventing tag-team wrestling. (If Ball had read Morton and O'Brien, he would've known that tag wrestling began in 1901!) Attribution? Come to think it, maybe he and we are better off, because when he does use attribution, he quotes people such as Freddie Blassie, who states that during one week in Japan, "27 people dropped dead while seeing me." (Not a direct quote, but quoted from a reference.) Does Ball know when he is being swerved? Of course not. Do we know when he is being swerved? Of course. But we have to shell out close to $80 to find that out? Please. I could cite other examples, but if I were to do that, I'd have enough for a book of my own.
That brings us to Mazer, who is truly the runt of this litter of midgets. Her book is subtitled Sport or Spectacle? Well, wrestling isn't exactly a sport anymore and the only spectacle is the one Mazer makes of herself in the book's pages. From reading her book, I was able to pick up that she was an English professor in New Zealand who was hooked on the televised WWF matches. So, as she had a sabbatical coming, she decided to use it on a trip to America, where she could cover wrestling in the flesh and meet her favorites. Unfortunately, she never got near the WWF, as they could probably see she promised to be a major pest, so she settled for Johnny Rodz and his wrestling school. This premise sounds promising: A writer covering the goings-on at a wrestling school, talking with the wizened teacher and meeting the pupils, discovering their dreams and aspirations. Nothing of the sort. What Mazer has written is a New Yorker magazine piece gone wild. She doesn't seem to get the fact that it is the wrestlers, and not the author, that is the star of the book. For all the information contained, it could have been titled How I Spent My Summer Vacation.
Johnny Rodz has quite a story to tell. A talented preliminary wrestler with the occasional promotion to mid-card, he also served as a policeman for the WWWF. He had a measure of fame in the Los Angeles promotions of Mike and Gene LaBelle as Java Ruuk, the Arab villain. I used to watch his matches on Channel 41. Unfortunately for Johnny, so did a lot of others. It came back to haunt him when he returned to the WWF and was working a card at Seton Hall University. When he came out to wrestle Chief Jay Strongbow, Rodz found himself greeted by about 100 students dressed in burnooses and bowing in a parody of Islamic prayer. Signs abounded, one stating "There Ain't No Fluke About Java Ruuk." During the match, the antics, combined with a steady "Java Ruuk, Java Ruuk" chant, caused Jay Strongbow to break down completely and slip out of character, laughing until there were tears in his eyes.
Why do I mention this story? Because in just one paragraph I have told you more about Rodz than Mazer does in about 200 pages. This sort of thing happens all through the book, we get action, but no characters. At one point we meet a young woman wrestler known as Sky Magic. We learn a little about her background, but we don't even learn her real name. Mazer is something else. Her work is in direct contrast to a similar book written by an academic named Dave Freedman. His book, Drawing Heat, is concerned with the independent promotion of Dave "Wildman" McKigney. By the time I finished with the book I felt as if knew everyone concerned personally. As an outsider, Freedman drew me into the world of the wrestlers and shared his world. I never once got that feeling from Mazer. She is so concerned with the text she forgets the story.
Freedman is the exception that proves the rule. As a final example I give you the case of Roland Barthes and his essay, which clocks in at 10 pages. Recently I ran across a commentary by Angela Carter on the Barthes essay that clocks in at 15 pages. She must have had a lot to say.
The Phantom Of The Ring is a regular contributor to Wrestling Perspective. To read more of his great writings, subscribe to Wrestling Perspective today!
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