First Published in The Louisville Review, Volume 66 (Fall 2009).
Lights out. Two monster men and a masked luchador in the ring. Although we know what’s next, we giddily hold our breath. A flutter of ecstatic and female moans comes over the speakers and a voice we have been listening to for twenty years: I think I’m cute. I know I’m sexy. He enters with his music. Without warning I am on my feet, and the crowd surrounding me drowns out Shawn Michael’s entrance theme. Because this is a non-televised show, a house show, there are no pyrotechnics. But we know his entrance swagger the way we know the particular gestures of family members. He jogs to the beginning of the main aisle through the seats and drops to his knees as soundless words trickle through his lips. He jumps into a pose, sitting deep in a straddle lung, chest puffed out, biceps in a contortion of strength. Then he rises, clasping hands with the crowd on the way to the ring in a strut to shame Mic Jagger. This is what we paid to see.
We had been watching midcard talent all night. In other words, wrestlers who would never wear the coveted World title, who filled the show with feuds and grudge matches and squabbles over the less prestigious championships. Because this show was not televised, the only story arcs were within the wrestlers’ bodies, their movements piling against one another in a demolition ballet. The babyface heroes sustain damage until their bodies crumple under the weight of the villains. The hero, amped up by the crowd’s enthusiasm, makes a triumphant comeback despite all odds. Finally a tragic or valiant finish arrives that is as spectacular as it is brutal—the loser prone and manhandled, concussed, winded, surprised, the victor bold or crafty, but always swollen with victory. The outcomes are decided in advance by bookers and storytellers, so when a wrestler wins, he is actually “booked” to win. But this fact no more dissolves our suspension of disbelief than does the knowledge that a Shakespearian play is scripted. At least wrestling does not expose the outcome before the matches.
Shawn Michaels, who began his career in singles competition (one on one matches) in the early 90s, stole the show. Twenty-five years ago, he began as a cocky pretty boy, a type of conniving hair rocker that any testosterone-drunk teenage male, not to mention all the blue collar men who made up wrestling’s demographic in the early nineties, would want to beat the snot out of. Or at least, that’s what Michaels’s company, the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment, then known as the WWF), thought. And over twenty years, he has played both good guy and bad, but his gimmick has been more or less the same: prankster, ladies’ man, underdog scrapper, showstopper. Throughout, we never stopped loving him. Even when he was stoned on percocets and trashing hotel rooms, we loved him. Even when he betrayed wrestling’s most upright good guy, Bret Hart, by changing a booking midmatch to cost Hart the title, we wanted him. And here, 43 years old and bare-chested, in front of a thousand fans on a Sunday night, he was our hero.
When I was a kid, there was nothing so fun and fulfilling as beating the shit out of my younger brother. Sure, he was half my age and size, but that didn’t stop me from suffering him to sustain suplex after suplex. He’d have done the same to me if I’d been the smaller one, and he bore me no malice for my aggression. Occasionally, I would book him to win, enlivening our feuds. And when we would switch to projectile weapons—Nerf and the like—we were equals. Our father gave no privilege to age when teaching us how to aim household arms: bb guns, bows, shotguns.
We never boxed each other with bare fists; we never had a real gunfight. When wrestling, we never sought to hurt each other, except to give the impression we had. These matches were always contrived, were never based on “real life” animosity. That could get you hurt and punished. Most of our bouts headlined the trampoline in our backyard or our secondhand, sandy pool. Neither of us were prodigies in terms of strength or athletic precision, but with gravity taken out of the picture, we were technical gods. Aided by the buoyancy of the swimming pool, I could lift my brother over my head, flipping him so that his back was facing forward, and crash him to the water back-first, a perfect imitation of the “powerbombs” I saw on TV. When I carried my brother on my shoulder, however, he could counter with a head scissors lock into a hurricanrama, flipping me by the neck into the water while he landed and resurfaced gracefully. Although we never consciously denounced wrestling as fake, we intuited it, knowing that these moves were only possible in extreme circumstances: for us, the pool was a strength equalizer. In professional wrestling, the opponent must allow these moves and cooperate in their execution for them to work.
Our fights were rehearsals of violence, pantomimes we could enact to release aggression. There was always a narrative, both in the suite of actions and the context in which a bout progressed. Narrative played master to all our activities as children. We would slam plastic action figures into themselves while croaking pithy lines, imitating the movies we were allowed to watch if we had done a week’s worth of chores. We played video games and became engrossed in those fictional worlds, even when away from the screen. Likewise, our matches were always grudge matches, filthy with history. It would be heels and babyfaces, scoundrels and heroes. Although on home turf we were always rivals, when neighborhood kids and cousins visited, we were a highflying tag-team, taking all comers in our territory.
Today, you hear of kids paralyzing each other, piledriving themselves into permanent spinal chord injury and jumping off of roofs during their reenactments of professional wrestling. For us, it was never like that. As when playing with action figures, our moves were improvised but nevertheless relied on cooperation and communication to tell a story. In fact, there was no way for my ten year old body to execute a correct and harmless snap suplex to a writhing, unwilling six year old. I simply wasn’t that tough. We arranged cues, certain holds or code words that I fed him so that he could prepare himself. Very rarely, when in the pool or trampoline, were there injuries. If we took the brawl to the living room or our bunk beds, that was a different story. Bony kid elbows invariably knocked against the frames of furniture. Our fingers would be jammed falling the wrong way into a pile of cushions. It was easier to accidentally deliver a crippling low blow.
Physical violence was never the goal for our play. Instead it was a medium for the stories our prepubescent bodies longed to tell: stories of triumph and defeat, of honor and villainy, of trust and betrayal—stories that resonate with children, stereotypically boys, of a certain age. To partake in the narrative, we had to rely on each other to make what we were doing seem as real and probable as possible. We also had to make sure no one got hurt. I am certainly not saying that wrestling taught us trust at such an age. We fought like any other sibling pair separated by four years but sharing quarters. And I’m sure my brother resented me for knocking him around and forcing him to participate in my obsession with wrestling. I also did not grow up to be a trusting or cooperative person. I don’t work well in groups at all. But for us to not alert our parents by way of a pained cry, we had to get along in our stylized violence.
As in jazz, where musicians know how a solo will begin and end but must improvise between according to conventions and taste, professional wrestlers know the context of a match and how the match will end. But the rest—the ups and downs of a physical contest that will result in a certain fashion—is decided by the performers themselves, mostly during the actual match. Sequences the wrestlers map out in advance are called spots; they are points in the match that require precise timing, seem coincidental, and are usually moments of extreme and enthralling athleticism. When a wrestler counters a throw with a gravity defying drop kick that comes from nowhere, you can be sure it was talked about before the match. But getting to that point is nimble work. The two competitors must know the other’s body, its tendencies, and the traditional way a match is structured. These factors must come together seamlessly to preserve believability.
The phrase “choreographed violence” is somewhat misleading. The choreography of wrestling is a free-floating set of moves that can follow other moves. It is the shifting palette of the artist, the mutable vocabularies and grammars of the writer. The rules must be internalized and often broken. This is evident in watching a “by-the-books” match: the moves are entirely predictable. After watching a few matches, it becomes clear what the rules of wrestling are, what fashions reign.
A notable example of a by-the-books wrestler, and probably the most famous wrestler of all time, is Hulk Hogan. He comes out fierce in his clothes-ripping physique and his terrifying height. At some point in the match, his opponent catches or counters him and delivers a mind-blowing beating, a beating so bad you wonder why you were a Hulk fan to begin with. After this goes on for some time, Hulk finds himself in a submission move, usually a sleeper hold, where the energy of the crowd begins to course through his veins as he vibrates himself back to his feet. Hulk then points at his opponent as the crowd shouts with him: You! Then, without further ado, he counters a few punches from the now flabbergasted opponent and finishes him off with a leg drop.
While this match is fun in a nostalgic way and it surely tells a story, it is about as compelling as a computer written detective novel. But Hulk can get away with it. No one can top his charisma, his zany speeches given during “promos” (the monologues of shit-talking a wrestler does to hype his match), or his ridiculous genetics. As in all genres of art, some pieces are comforting in their conservatism. Others, however, can transcend the rules in which they were written, creating something new, traversing the limits of imagination. And wrestling’s top man in this category is Shawn Michaels.
Foremost, Michaels is well-versed in wrestling convention. He has a fit, muscular body, and though he is probably under 6 feet tall and hovering just over 200 pounds (announcers tend to “bill” wrestlers about three or four inches taller than they are and at whatever weight is trendy), he never seems too small to take on the big men like Hulk (who is over 6 feet 6 and nearing 300 pounds). This is because he is gracefully aggressive, proficient in a variety of wrestling styles: amateur (mat wrestling, what you see at the Olympics), lucha libre (a variety from Mexico that features acrobat jumps and sensational throws such as the hurricanrama), brawling, as well as classic old school professional wrestling (flying elbows and piledrivers and clothesline punches). In addition, Michaels is a great actor. When he lands on his back after getting caught in a back body drop, you are never sure that he didn’t actually break himself and that wrestling wasn’t real violence all along. When blood drips down his face, you can never be certain whether he jigged himself—cut his forehead with a tiny bit of a razor taped to his wrist for that occasion—or whether busted himself open on the fist of his opponent. And when his opponent walks into Michaels’s finisher, a superkick that lands beneath the jaw, it is as if justice has finally been meted out. On the mic, he is smooth and charismatic, never hilariously incoherent like Hulk Hogan or the Ultimate Warrior, but never as righteously upstanding as his long term rival (both in real life and in the wrestling world), Bret Hart. When Michaels plays the good guy, there is no one to root for but him. And when he turns heel, Michaels becomes so despicable you want to rise out of your seat yourself and set him straight with a steel chair. The combination of these skills and their natural execution makes you wonder whether the man in the ring is not Shawn Michaels masquerading as himself.
If his virtuosic talent weren’t enough, Shawn Michaels is also one of wrestling’s great innovators. In 1993, while holding the Intercontinental Championship, Michaels tested positive for steroids (which he maintains is bullshit). As a result, he was stripped of his title. He refused to return the gold studded belt to Vince McMahon, the owner of the WWE. In effect, he forced the company to mint a new belt for the new champion, Razor Ramon. When his suspension was lifted, Michaels returned to action carrying his old championship belt. Eventually, after a six month feud, Michaels and Ramon fought in a ladder match: the two belts were hung above the ring, and whoever could reach the top of the ladder and remove the belts first was declared the undisputed champion. This match, held at Wrestlemania X (pro wrestling’s answer to the Superbowl), is now regarded as one of the best of all time. After watching its twenty minutes of cringe inducing falls from tall ladders and constant false finishes, you see why. Although both ladder matches and battles to decide an undisputed champion existed before, this match was something the crowd had never witnessed—believable and rich in the traditions of wrestling, but simultaneously different, entirely different.
Michaels was also the main perpetrator of the most notorious event in wrestling history, the Montreal Screwjob. The heavyweight champion was Bret Hart. Although Hart was never as attractive on the mic as Michaels, he was elite in terms of in-ring ability and the mastery of match psychology. In the mid 90s, with the trend toward a more adult-oriented product, the perennial babyface Hart fell out of favor with the audience. He negotiated a contract with WWE’s chief rival at the time, WCW (World Championship Wrestling, then owned by Ted Turner, now by the WWE). Traditionally, a departing wrestler will drop the championship before jumping ship, no hard feelings. There were, however, hard feelings back stage between Michaels and Hart. Michaels was arrogant and young and basically refused to lose to Hart. Hart, on the other hand, refused to lose in Canada, though he was booked to drop the title to Shawn in Montreal. After hearing his case, Vince McMahon agreed to let Hart keep the title, provided he drop it before leaving the company. McMahon and Michaels, however, had a secret agreement to go along with the original plan. So in 1996, as Shawn Michaels applied a submission maneuver, the sharpshooter (which was Hart’s signature move), to Bret Hart, the referee rang the bell. Hart had not submitted, but the referee handed Michaels the title, then promptly hauled ass out of town. Michaels denied responsibility for this until Hart was out of the company, as instructed by McMahon, who wanted all the immediate blame for himself. This event marked the entry of mainstream wrestling into “postmodern” self-awareness, as Vince McMahon blurred the lines between his storyline persona and his real-life role as owner of the WWE, an era whose legacy today’s wrestling hasn’t quite gotten over.
Michaels had to continually one-up himself in terms of performance and narrative to maintain his role as an innovator. And he rose to the challenge mightily. From forming a renegade stable of wrestlers known as D-Generation X who sophomorically made fun of the business of wrestling and refused to take themselves seriously, to landing lionsaults and sunset flips despite his doctors’ claims that he would never wrestle again due to severe back and knee injuries, Michaels refused to sacrifice his integrity as a wrestling artist.
In a match in 2006 at Wrestlemania XXII, Michaels faced his own boss, Vince McMahon, in a no-holds-barred match. After an up and down bout with outside interference from other wrestlers, kendo sticks, McMahon’s son Shane, and steel chairs, the crowd, swollen with tension after finally seeing McMahon (the boss is always a villain) get his desserts, would have been satisfied to see Michaels’s finisher followed by a pin. Instead, Michaels stuffed Vince into a steel garbage can and laid him on a table (conveniently in the ring at the moment). He pulled out a ten foot ladder, set it up, and climbed to the top. As he looked out at the crowd on its feet, he shook his head. Thinking he had a change of heart, that he must have decided this action is way too extreme, the crowd sighed as Michaels descended the ladder and left the ring. But then, Michaels pulled another ladder from beneath the ring and set it up. This one sixteen feet tall. As he looked around before making his climb, a glint of clarity shone from his eyes, and his lips broke into a strange smile: Yes, I can’t believe I’m doing this either.
Wrestling may be the only remaining child of the performing arts that still enjoys a wide, live audience. Theatre has been all but replaced by cinema. Performances of dance are limited to big cities and children’s academies. The record for the most people gathered at an indoor event is held by Wrestlemania III in Detroit where 93,173 people watched Hulk Hogan body slam André the Giant. The most recent Wrestlemania, number 25, brought over 75 thousand people into the Reliant Stadium in Houston. Those people are certainly coming to watch something.
This is the element of spectacle, but also the blend of scripted outcomes with ad-libbed, creative violence. Though wrestling is as artificial as the sentiments expressed in a poem, relying on structures and tropes to communicate, there is something undeniably human about the struggle between two bodies in contest with one another. Perhaps it is because the mind-body duality disappears in a struggle. Perhaps it is because the basic narrative is simple. Perhaps it is because that simple framework knows no bounds in expression, that it is endlessly possible to innovate, to experiment in front of fans who will immediately tell you if what you are doing pleases them. And it is all this under the guise of rehearsed violence, a type that is impractical and surreal, but a violence that can drag an audience to its feet.
You may still be skeptical about professional wrestling. I am a reserved person and rarely flinch or well up with emotion for the things I see. But when I watched Shawn Michaels mouth, I’m sorry. I love you, as he ended the 30 year career of Ric Flair with two kicks to the face at Wrestlemania XXIV, I welled up. The live events I have attended in my life include plays, poetry readings, ballets, concerts, and recitals, but mostly, my standing ovations were after the performance and, more often than not, were forced. Even watching live sports, I am rarely affected by the hysteria of team loyalty and competition. But that night in Baton Rouge, as Shawn Michaels and his partner Rey Mysterio finally caught the upper hand over their opponents and set them up for their well choreographed sequence of finishing moves, I stood in concert with the crowd. Until that moment, never in my life was I moved to stand from my folding chair in the midst of the performance and scream until I was afraid of bleeding.