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Sport or sideshow?

The dog days of summer are a time for cultural slumming. The brain slows down in the heat, and its ability to digest complex, high-fiber cultural artifacts is badly impaired. This is the time of the year when serious readers dump their Garcia Marquez in the sand and pick up John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon or Danielle Steel. When the misery index tops 100 degrees, even the highest-browed art house cineastes may find themselves lured into the mall multiplexes by such guilty pleasures as "So I Married an Ax Murderer" or "My Boyfriend's Back" (from the dead, as it turns out).

So who can blame a mere part-time television critic for ditching PBS in all its formats and avoiding the broadcast premier of "Mississippi Burning"? Even that tacky "Route 66" remake summer miniseries on NBC was too substantial for me. It's just too darned hot for the bard stuff. At my house this summer we've been chilling with big helpings of "Roseanne" reruns and genetic ice cream.

So it seemed like the perfect time to check in on the wacky world of televised professional wrestling. You don't get any lower on the entertainment food chain than that. Yet, important truths can be discovered by looking at the world from the bottom of the barrel.

For the uninitiated, I should begin by explaining that, despite the name, professional wrestling is not really a sport. This is not the fine art of wrestling, handed down from the classical Greeks, as we see it practiced at the Olympics or at the classier high schools and colleges. That stuff is for amateurs.

Professional wrestling is instead descended directly from the All-American milieu of the slightly disreputable traveling carnival. It's not a sport, it's a sideshow. But despite -- or perhaps because of -- its seedy, lowbrow reputation, professional wrestling is wildly popular among adolescent boys of every description and among the adult male portion of the multiracial American proletariat.

Even in a heavily white-collar metropolitan area like Washington, wrestling still fills the USAir Arena (where the NBA Washington Bullets play), as it does comparable coliseums throughout the land. The backbone of wrestling's popularity is now, as it always has been, the Saturday afternoon broadcast, timed to maximize the potential audience of school kids and working stiffs.

In professional wrestling, though there is a referee, there are no rules. Well, no rules except the one that says if you're down for the count of three you're out. The event takes place in a traditional boxing ring, with ropes, though the ring can scarcely contain the action. Professional wrestlers punch, butt heads and kick each other with anarchic abandon. They sneak up behind each other and throw each other out of the ring. They jump from the top of the ropes, fly through the air and land with a sickening thud on their opponent's head.

And then there's the full-body slam, in which, sumo style, the wrestler lifts his opponent into the air and slams him to the canvas. It's a maneuver that would make a chiropractor cringe. But despite all of this mayhem, no one gets seriously injured. That's because it is all a show. A ritual, you might say.

It's not exactly faked. They really do throw each other into the air and all that, and the punches and kicks aren't always completely pulled. But it is loosely choreographed. The wrestler-performers aren't out for blood. They're cooperating, like dance partners.

The art form, however lowly, constructs a satisfying (to its fans, anyhow) dramatic narrative event complete with tension, release and moral catharsis. The performers, while athletes of a sort, are also fictional characters. They come with exotic stage names (the Smoking Gunns, the Hawaiian Crush or Lex Luger, the All-American boy) and often with flamboyant costumes and makeup to match, from clown suits to the black-masked get-up of a medieval executioner. And, while they can shift back and forth between categories with the passage of time, they all, at any given moment, can be neatly classified as good guys or bad guys.

This, not gymnastic contortions, is the most important ingredient in professional wrestling. It is a dependable, if cartoonish, melodrama in which good is forever on the ropes, so to speak, but always eventually triumphs over evil. Which is to say that the matches are staged, up to and including the determination of the outcome. Which is why they aren't sport.

The wrestling promoters, the wrestlers themselves and loyal fans, of course, deny this. But the denials are made with a wink and a nod. The fans just want to be entertained.

All of which makes wrestling and television a perfect match. When I started watching it as a kid, it was mainly a local affair. But now it has become centralized and market-savvy. It is dominated by the World Wrestling Federation, which came to glory with mediagenic stars as Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant.

By the Reagan decade, WWF wrestlers were merchandised as children's "action figure" toys. These days, the WWF is hustling with an Asian sumo champ they call Yokozuma. At this writing Yokozuma, who comes complete with an inscrutable, America-hating Japanese handler, is the reigning champion, though he will probably soon be temporarily dethroned by All-American Lex Luger. You don't have to be a semiotician to read the signs in this piece of casting.

Wrestling always gives the people what they want. Back in the 1980s, the ring was awash with Russian or Eastern European villains. Arab terrorist characters also were popular for a long time, though the Arab-American lobby seems to have done its work recently.

But now the emotional centerpiece of this proletarian universe is the battle of the Stars and Stripes vs. the Rising Sun. The rhetoric is full of references to the famous Japanese criticisms of American workers as lazy and ignorant. The air at ringside resounds with the oddly defensive cry, "There is nothing wrong with America!" And on the Fourth of July this year, on the deck of the Navy's "USS Intrepid" (really!) the WWF staged an exhibition in which a variety of American athletes -- including lots of real ones from the NFL and the NBA -- lined up to try to move the immovable quarter-ton Asian. They all failed.

The sumo will fall eventually, and WWF will move on. And it is just for fun, after all. But still there was something sad in seeing the salt of this American earth, the working men (mostly men, anyhow) whose song Woody Guthrie

and Merle Haggard have sung, reduced to jeering a hapless dark-skinned circus freak for the sake of national pride. The analogy to the Roman "bread and circuses" had never been more appropriate, except in America today the bread part is far from guaranteed.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Catholic Reporter
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Title Annotation:pro wrestling; Television
Author:Collum, Danny Duncan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 27, 1993
Previous Article:No Other Life.
Next Article:Finding creative solutions for dioceses most in need.

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