[Originally posted on my Goodreads author blog: January 1, 2018]
If you read Clara Mandrake’s Monster, you’ll notice a bit of grappling in the fight-scenes. I like to include throws and holds within my fiction. In part, that’s because I wrote my doctoral thesis on the history of grappling — and there’s no sense in letting that education go to waste. But it’s mostly because of all the years I’ve spent watching pro-wrestling.
My grandfather wrestled during the 1940s. Back then, professional wrestling allowed an illiterate immigrant to earn a little extra money, to supplement what he made shovelling coal or peddling things door-to-door. He died when I was six, and we didn’t really speak a common language (I sometimes understand very basic Punjabi, but can’t speak it), so I never got to talk to him about his experiences in the ring. But from what other people have told me, in those days there were both works (staged matches) and shoots (legitimate sporting contests). Supposedly, he refused to take part in works, because he considered them a form of deception, and hence un-Islamic.
As a cynical sort of person, I realise the idea that he only did shoots may just be kayfabe, part of the mythology which surrounds pro-wrestling. But either way, it does tie into the question of what pro-wrestling offers an audience. At one time, this included the illusion of a genuine competitive sport. Clearly that no longer applies. So, what does pro-wrestling offer if we accept the fiction and judge it as means of storytelling?
Pro-wrestling has its colourful characters, of course. As a kid watching during the ’80s and early ’90s, those were the ones who drew me in — the Ultimate Warrior, Demolition, the Legion of Doom, Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, Earthquake, the Undertaker, the Million Dollar Man, and a host of others. Sure, they were cartoonish. But that was part of the charm. The Ultimate Warrior made it feel as though a barbarian had just stepped out of a comic or a Saturday morning cartoon and started clotheslining people.
Wrestling also has plotlines. Some of those plots are as absurd and cartoonish as its participants. For example, battles over who got to control the Undertaker’s urn and hence hold power over an unstoppable undead grappler. But others are so well done they blur the lines between fiction and reality, and invoke genuine human emotion. That’s where the success of pro-wrestling lies, its advantage over most forms of storytelling.
Film actors seldom do their own stunts — and that’s fair enough. Trained stuntmen exist for a reason, and it makes sense for them to take the risks. When an actor such as Jackie Chan’s known for doing them himself, he’s rightly praised for how unusual and impressive that is. Well, in pro-wrestling it’s standard. Every single wrestler is both actor and stuntman. They take the risks, they endure the physical pain, and they do so with a live audience surrounding them. No stopping for a second take, or for anything other than a grievous injury (even then, many will still finish the match before seeking medical attention). If something goes wrong, they have to adapt and press on.
When barbed-wire shreds their flesh, when steel chairs batter their bones, when they take a spill off the top rope, when they’re powerbombed into a wall, there’s a level of real physical drama which a movie can’t compete with. This in turn strengthens the emotional bond the audience feels for the wrestlers. When they cheer for someone, it isn’t only because they enjoy a character, and see their victory as the culmination of a decent storyline. It’s because they’ve watched that wrestler bleed for years to earn that spot, literally and figuratively. They’ve experienced genuine highs and lows alongside those woven by the fiction. Torn muscles, broken necks.
By its very nature, pro-wrestling’s almost always semi-autobiographical, whatever gimmick a wrestler might wrap around themselves to create their in-ring persona. Thus you have true Rocky stories, even though the matches have predetermined outcomes.
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