My Love/Hate Relationship with Professional Wrestling
When I was eight years old, my favorite professional wrestler was “The Texas Tornado” Kerry Von Erich. He was the reigning World Wrestling Federation Intercontinental champion at the time, having upset Mr. Perfect at SummerSlam. I liked that he was ostensibly the second most important guy in the WWF behind World champ The Ultimate Warrior (I’ve had a lifelong affection when it comes to sports or “sports entertainment” for supporting the second or third-place finishers over the top dogs; I guess I find them more relatable) and dug his “Tornado Punch” discuss forearm smash finisher.
Thanksgiving of 1990, my father (an old school wrestling fan) treated me to my very first wrestling pay-per-view, ordering the Survivor Series. In the opening bout I got to see the Tornado team with the Warrior and the Legion of Doom against Perfect and his three teammates from Demolition in an Elimination Tag match; though Kerry got pinned by a Perfect Plex, Warrior would hang in for the win and I celebrated with my dad and little sister.
A couple years later, the Tornado vanished from the WWF and I was too young to really wonder why. It would be quite some time before I learned somehow that he committed suicide and later still that I discovered he was part of a tragic pro wrestling dynasty from Texas where the sons of promoter Fritz Von Erich were like rock stars, yet all but one ended up dying young under tragic circumstances, be it s a drug overdose, suicide, or another grisly fate.Of the men Kerry teamed with and opposed that Thanksgiving night, in the intervening two decades, three have since died prior to their 40th birthdays and dozens of other wrestlers I’ve watched since have suffered similar fates.
And thus you begin to see my love/hate relationship with professional wrestling.
As a kid who loved athletics as well as drama and of course the larger-than-life action and characters of super hero comic books, pro wrestling was one-stop shopping for me. Like I mentioned, it was my father who first got me into it, regaling me with tales of Pepper Gomez’s cast iron stomach and going to the Boston Garden with his own dad to see the matches. I became an avid viewer of the WWF, sometimes perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, such as the time body slamming a friend in third grade got me suspended from school for three days (I still used a little black and white TV to sneak in weekly showings of WWF Superstars in my closet despite my mother banning me from watching).
I fell a bit out of love with the whole enterprise around age 13 or so, but never too far. I’d still get together with friends for the occasional pay-per-view and of course we formed our own wrestling federation, holding matches in my basement and putting a hole in the wall that remains to this day. “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels supplanted Kerry Von Erich as my favorite wrestler (and I’m pleased to note that despite a late 90’s bout with drugs, HBK emerged a Born Again Christian and has since settled down happily with his wife and two children, retiring from wrestling of his own volition earlier this year following a decorate career spanning decades).
High school brought with it the “Monday Night Wars” between the WWF and rival World Championship Wrestling, ushering in a new wave of mainstream acceptance for wrestling that my friends and I rode wholeheartedly. We’d gather weekly at my house to watch WWF Raw, journey to my friend Mike’s larger living room once a month for pay-per-views, and even trek to Providence or Boston for live events. We proudly wore New World Order t-shirts to school, filmed ill-fated Physics assignments about the physics of professional wrestling and even had our own toy WWF belt we christened the Newton South Hardcore Championship and fought over in our cafeteria to the delight of our campus safety officers (most of whom also happened to be my high school wrestling coaches).
Once I got to college and beyond and the wrestling boom cooled off with WCW closing and the WWF becoming WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), I still met a lot of friends through a mutual interest in watching guys and girls in tights beat each other up. Even today, I still watch several hours of wrestling each week, as it has become a bit of an escape for me, what with my other major hobby (comic books) becoming what I do for a living.
I still love watching wrestling. I love the physical marvels, the colorful pageantry, the exaggerated pathos, and even the often cheesy but infectious entrance music. But there’s no question as I’ve gotten older, as the industry has gained transparency through various documentaries and DVDs, and as the tragedies have mounted, it’s become impossible to be a discerning fan and not also acknowledge the dark side of the business.
As I mentioned, more and more wrestlers die young each year, from those I watched as a child to those I enjoyed just a couple years ago. The constant travel and separation from loved ones that comes part and parcel with being a star in wrestling not to mention the tremendous physical strain has led many performers to turn to drugs, be it recreationally, to dull their pain or to enhance their physiques. This sad cycle has churned out the seemingly endless headlines about overdoses and heart attacks.
Sadly, when a wrestler is simply found dead in their apartment or something mundane, it’s considered a minor tragedy against the true horrors the industry, those who work in it and those who follow it have endured. In 1999, Owen Hart fell to his death as part of a stunt gone horrible wrong during a WWF pay-per-view. In 2005, after becoming an inspirational figure for overcoming drug addiction and other personal demons to become a World champion, Eddie Guerrero died of a heart attack. And of course no wrestling fan will soon forget the horrific events of 2007 that permeated into widespread mainstream news coverage in the worst way when Chris Benoit committed a murder-suicide of his wife and small son; investigations since have revealed that Benoit have may have been mentally unbalanced for years as the result of concussions sustained while wrestling.
Beyond the deaths, the wrestling business itself is also simply not the nicest one around; it’s an industry where men and women push themselves often beyond their physical limits only to be frequently exploited and discarded for the pettiest of reasons by those running the show.
But do I still enjoy watching wrestling? Yes, I do. When I see a great match or promo, the tragic deaths or poor work conditions may be in the back of my minds, but they’re almost always trumped by the joy of watching people who, despite it all, love what they do get to perform and create something incredible.
In the last couple of years via my job at Marvel, I’ve actually become friendly with a number of professional wrestlers, as our industries have a lot of crossover in terms of interest, and I’ve used my status to ingratiate myself with several grapplers who also happen to be fans of what me and my company do. I’ve gotten to go backstage at shows, hang out with the boys after hours and talk shop about a business I’ve always been fascinated with. I consider myself truly fortunate to have formed a particularly close friendship with one of my favorite wrestlers who also happens to be among the nicest guys I’ve ever met outside the ring; he’s had lunch with my wife and I, I’ve watched his kids, and of course every time his nomadic existence brings him to New York, he’s sure to drop me a text to come by and visit (if he happens to walk out of the Marvel offices with two bags full of free comics, while I suppose that’s just a fringe benefit of getting to see his buddy).
And yet in getting to know the wrestling business better than ever and perhaps even becoming a part of it on the farthest possible fringe, my attitude towards it is more split than ever. Though I didn’t think it possible, I’ve gained even more respect for the men and women who have chosen this to be their profession; I’ve become even more impressed with their talent, passion and how they look out for one another. On the flipside, I’m closer to the seedier stuff, I feel more for my friends when they lose a job, and I constantly fear that I’ll have to read of something tragic befalling one of them someday.
I’ll never love wrestling in so pure a fashion as I did 20 years ago watching Kerry Von Erich, and I know part of me will always resent and disdain the hardship it has brought to so many, but in the end, those who choose to wrestle understand the risks and sacrifices of their profession and do it anyways because they love it and because they know they have a gift; as a fan, I’m so grateful to them for this and for providing me with entertainment and at the best of times even inspiration. Those of us who have a passion for professional wrestling are able to see past the tragedy because these extraordinary people refuse to allow what they do to be defined by it.
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