16 March 2006

My WWF Youth...

So last night I watched The Self Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior, which was essentially an entertaining bunch of archival Ultimate Warrior clips from the Good Ol' Days of wrestling presented in a breathtakingly Vince McMahon-favored light. Unbelievably enjoyable viewing, if not fairly underwhleming as a straight documentary. Not that I side with Warrior (now his legal name)- he's a paranoid, crazed lunatic now (check out his website). But I don't think anyone would find Vince McMahon to be anything short of a remarkably repugnant human being, so it's hard to watch and allow yourself to follow a hardline sympathy for him in an sort of dispute.

(Easily the best part of the documentary along those lines was where they told the story of Warrior holding the company hostage just before Summer Slam one year, threatening not to appear unless they paid him "x" more dollars. McMahon relented, and fired him after the show- totally understandable. But then McMahon says- and this is a quote- "Of course, I made good on my word to pay him... whatever it was he eventually asked for- even though, you know, legally, I didn't have to. But I did because... that's just me." I laughed out loud.)

Just in watching the clips, though, I was brought back to being 8, 9, 10 years old- Warrior's prime, mind you- and LOVING the WWF. Hogan, Sgt. Slaughter, The Rockers (Michaels/ Jannetty), Junk Yard Dog (who was Erin's favorite, apparently), Jake the Snake, Ravishing Rick Rude, Earthquake, Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase, Nature Boy Rick Flair, Honky Tonk Man, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, The Bushwhackers, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake, Superfly Jimmy Snuka, Andre the Giant. I had a friend then named Paul Delco- and like everything I got into, I got into it big time. I specifically remember having a paperback book at the time with profiles of the wrestlers (not unlike what we have here, an invaluable wrestler resource)- weight, height, signature moves, their fake backgrounds. I remember I hated Mr. Perfect Curt Henning (now dead of cocaine overdose) and Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, and I loved... LOVED Hulk Hogan. And so, coincidentally, did my then- 70 year old grandmother. She actually had a poster of him. You can't explain this stuff. She even bought me a Hulk Hogan workout set, because I think she thought it was important, like Hulk said, to work out. I also thought she may have suspected there was some Hulk merchandise I wouldn't want that she could snatch up. There were dumbbells, a jumprope, one of those handsqueeze deals, and a tape. I had all the shit laying around in chests for years- it was like the cockroach of toys. Survived many garage sales.

That was the beauty of pro wrestling in the late 80's- it was almost like vaudeville- a bunch of professional show-biz guys, who'd been handed the business down from their parents, didn't know anything else, and had established their own little culture. Another analogy would be a traveling carnival (like in Carnivale)- they handled their characters, their show, their performance. Inspired to read a bit about it after the movie, I learned a bunch of new words- "kayfabe" (the name for the portrayal of wrestling and the business as real and legit), "shoot" (when a wrestler breaks kayfabe and does something off- book), "book"/ "booker" (the plan set out for a match/ feud- there's often a wrestler that organizes these things), "jobber" (the fat hairy guy they'd trot out to lose matches to the stars- the spanish of which, "jabroni", is where the Rock got that word), "face" (good guy), "heel" (bad guy). Fascinating stuff. They'd even have those interviews- there were some where Mean Gene would simply interview, and those were less psychotic than the ones where the wrestler would stand solo and bloviate about how great he was and how easily he'd dispatch of his enemy, and how weak the enemy was. The Ultimate Warrior was the king/ worst at this- he'd go on forever, no one would know what he was talking about, and his head nearly popped clear off his body every single time.

In fact, the movie referenced his most famous one, at Wrestlemania VI, before fighting Hogan, where he desribes how he's going to take control of Hogan's plane and crash it- I will rip down... the cockpit door- Hulk Hogan. And there, I will find the pilot and the co-pilot... who have already made the sacrifice, Hulk Hogan. You will feel the power then, Hulk Hogan.... Then he snorts like he's clearing his sinuses (no... exactly as if he were clearing his sinuses) and maws like a cat. Makes me uncomfortable to even re-type it, honestly. I mean, he was all alone in that room, and other than his ramblings, it was like, scary quiet...

I remember too, Wrestlemania VI (which I watched repeats of, because my parents apparently hated me so much they wouldn't put $15 bucks down so I could see the single greatest athletic contest in the history of creation), "The Ultimate Challenge," Hulk Hogan v. Ultimate Warrior for the TITLE. It was like Game 7 of the 1991 World Series- epic, long, with a stunning end. It was such a barnburner, Warrior's facepaint actually came off, which was a watershed in and of itself. Of course, Hogan was gallant in defeat, admirably handing the belt to Warrior and hugging him, passing the proverbial torch.

(Apparently, Warrior was a horrible technical wrestler, and as a result, his entire gimmick was his entrance and outfit- they'd keep his matches to sub- 5 minutes as a result, so as not to expose him- but he fucked up often.)

The way they presented it in those days was so over the top, it was sort of like a comic book come to life. Allowing some of these guys- who weren't "writers" but "really athletic entertainers"- to plan out storylines lead to some inevitably hilarious and geniunely bizarre elements. Like, for instance, the way the wrestlers would hang out in Brutus Beefcake's barber shop and gab with Mean Gene Okerlund. Or how they somehow found it acceptable for the legendary heel Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase to cart around a glorified slave (Virgil)- something I didn't exactly pick up on when I was ten.

In fact, there were some strongly racist elements to the WWF then. Every black character was some fat, black-magic practicing backwoods African savage. Every ethic wrestler had some variation on the "savage" trope, often wearing bones through the nose, skull necklaces, yelping like a wild animal. Again- things I didn't really notice as a kid. Kind of glaring now.

It's hard to remember for me who my absolute favorite was. I remember loving Hogan- obviously. Hogan was the Elvis of wrestling. But it was never in my nature to like the guy everyone else liked. I know for a while I got a huge kick out of Earthquake and his signature move, where he'd stomp on the mat until his opponent... couldn't take it anymore. I loved Junk Yard Dog, The Rockers, and eventually liked The Undertaker, who came in just as I was getting sick of pro wrestling. Miss Elizabeth was breathtakingly hot to me then (since dead). Macho Man Randy Savage was cool, but I found his interviews annoying. Ultimate Warrior kind of freaked me out, even then. Tag teams were a big thing for me too- The Hart Foundation, the aforementioned Rockers (I liked them cos they were buddies, doing good things, and had high energy), and of course, the legendary Legion of Doom, who had those unbelievable football pads with spikes on them. Money, Inc. was a great bad guy tag team, with Ted Dibiase and Irwin R Scheister. The Nasty Boys- with the Mouth from the South Jimmy Hart as their manager.

I have to pause and say how fucking stunned I am with how minutely I'm remembering all this stuff after not thinking about it for- ever.

Ultimately though, I think I was a Hogan guy to the end. I remember during the first Gulf War, Hogan capitalizing by becoming uber-Patriot, recording the spine-chilling "I Am a True American", wearing flag bandanas. Inspiring stuff. The BEST part of that was the foil they created for him in the legendary Sgt. Slaughter who, inexplicably, became an Iraqi Sympathizer with the Iron Sheik and Adnand. He was so hated he actually wore bulletproof vests into the ring. True story. I remember the music video for "I Am a True American" really, really clearly too- and my loser 10 year old self lapping it up with a spoon. Hulk was the ultimate freedom fighter to me.

I watched the cartoon, I ate the cereal, I had the Hogan tighty-whiteys, I had the figures. For about two years- which translates into like, 15 in adult time- I was all about the WWF. One of the watershed moments of my youth, in fact, was when Jake the Snake Roberts (who kinda looks like Sam Elliott)- who, because of his mysterious nature and his predilection for snakes, I was legitimately afraid of- had one of his cobras bite Randy Savage in the arm. The way they filmed it- as a "worked shoot" (where it seemed like they came off their kayfabe, but in fact it was still kayfabe)- freaked the shit out of me. I remember they blurred the screen and cut to commercial like it was a legit mistake. Then Randy pulled through. Whew.

Of course, wrestling changed pretty quick. Eventually it morphed from being entertainment aimed at kids to entertainment aimed at adults who knew they were watching a plotted storyline. It got a lot darker, more sexual, and less goofy and fun (to me at least). I had bored of it pretty considerably by then, but it blew back up when I was in high school, and I remember a lot of people I knew getting into it- like a teenager gets into comic books. Wasn't interested. In fact, I remember going on vacation one year, when Mike was young- this was in the heyday of the "getting dark" era of the WWF (they call it the "Attitude Era" apparently)- and we were all forced to watch the same TV. So, the whole family, with nothing to do in fucking Cape Cod, let Mike put on Monday Night Raw. The first wrestler that comes out is this dude named "The Godfather", a pimp escorting all his hos out as an entourage. We all started laughing and wondering- "Mike, what the fuck are you watching?" He was clueless- "what? What's wrong, I don't get it." Pretty funny.

Then Hulk Hogan went heel and my childhood died. The end.

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