That statement may set your adult mind wandering these days but when you are 10, it only means one thing. The Undertaker, The Phenom, Taker, The American Badass. Call him what you will but as a child he was the ultimate anti-hero. His mere presence on TV was captivating. He reminded me of my schoolmate Duncan’s older brother. He was phenomenally tall, abrupt and scowling. He was 13 and didn’t want anything to do with us kids. He had cigarettes to smoke and 2nd base to get to. But Duncan’s brother was real. The Undertaker was hyper-real.
I’m writing about wrestling. I never thought I would but after a few decades of not seeing it, it’s suddenly back in my life for the present. Here in the Middle East, WWE is so popular they have created the site WWE Arabia. WWE was here a few months ago for two nights. Tickets were ridiculously expensive so I skipped it. But I wanted to go. It’s on 3 night a week here. The kids love it. The adults quote the characters too. For the meantime, outside of Al-Jazeera and films, its my TV entertainment.
The present face (good guy) of the company is John Cena, a workmen-like, kids favourite who gets cheered and jeered in equal measure. His time to turn heel (bad) is surely coming. The Rock, HHH, Brock Lesnar, Chris Jericho and a few other old-schoolers are still in it. The owner Vince McMahon still appears to hand out justice but his wife Linda is no longer on the show, maybe licking her wounds after her failed Senate run in 2012. Their children Shane and Stephanie are deeply involved behind the scenes. It’s a family-run entertainment business inherited from Vince’s father. Of course it used to be called WWF but not surprisingly they lost that lawsuit!
Sitting in Cardiff a few years ago while Luke was at work, I flicked the channels and caught the opening of a show on a music channel. The camera panned up to huge mansion next to the water. The sun was shining. It was California or Florida. After a brief collection of clips inside the house, the camera returned to the front door where a red and yellow roadster pulled up. I immediately had a feeling. From the car, Hulk Hogan saluted, stood up and welcomed me into this house. This was Cribs.
The house itself was a surreal experience. His blonde wife had made an exact copy of the French mansion she’d viewed in France. The gilded furniture and gold trim, baroque tables and lavish wallpaper all over-powered the eye. It looked terrible. Worse was when you saw the Hulkster slumped on one of the sofa. He was much more at home showing us his double-door fridge, the surround shower or his gamesroom. What was also noticeable was his limp. Years of wrestling take their toll on a man. The Hulkster was struggling.
Top line wrestlers make +$2million a year plus a cut of the merchandising. As the show never stops, the top guys also get a travel bus to themselves. The rest of the guys travel together. There are three shows a week so you can be sure of an appearance at least once a week. Other time is spent working out, tanning and going over scripts and plot devices. Being live theatre a lot can go wrong. The shows are tightly-run. I can’t imagine a West End impressario getting this right.
Despite their training, this toll is extreme. The film The Wrestler is an accurate portrayal of the seedier and sadder side of the wrestling game. The documentary On the Mat is an even starker expose. But wrestlers have to perform two or three times a week despite the pain. Steroids were and remain a thorny issue despite the WWE Wellness Program. Wrestlers like Eddie Guerreo, Test and Mr Perfect died of heart failure way before their time. The brain damage to Chris Benoit was considered a significant factor in his murder of his wife and child before he killed himself.
The Undertaker was returning for Wrestlemania, the showpiece event of the wrestling calendar to defend his 21-0 record at the event. He had to return. He had been at the last 21 events undefeated and needed to keep the streak going. The debate was on what kind of shape he would be in. He hadn’t been seen for a year. His knees and hips were shot. But a few months in the pyshiotherapist, the gym and the tanning salon and he was back to stand up to CM Punk. Punk had stolen the urn of Paul Bearer, Taker’s old manager days after the moving WWE tribute to Bearer who had actually died. In real life. Yes, with the permission of Bearer’s family, they used his actual death as a storyline. Taker got revenge though too late to save the ashes being poured over him. While he put on a good show, the age showed on him as he pulled himself off the canvas at times.
The Rock is the most well-known face of the modern era. Despite his burgeoning film career, I can still only see him as a wrestler. Wrestling is essentially storytelling. They may not be the best actors out there but do confront issues of the era, right now running a character line on immigration and what it takes to be a real American. It might be done simplistically but that hasn’t stopped politicians jumping on the bandwagon. There is also a ballroom dancer wrestler as WWE jumps on the reality TV bandwagon. They already have The Miz, a former star on the reality TV show Real World. A wanker chef must be next.
Despite all the over-the-top histrionics, these are real athletes. The bums and jars they take cannot be faked. These guys are trained yet creative performers. For a few hours a week, kids get real physical superheroes putting it on the line, upholding good and vanquishing evil. Real-life Hulks and Ironmen rolled into one. The Avengers, my ass.