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Books: The postmodern sport

Books | A professional wrestler takes off his mask

Issue: "Digital Revolution," Nov. 27, 1999

A cultural milestone was reached last week when pro wrestler Mick Foley's Have a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks debuted at No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list. Well, not so much a milestone-more a cultural pothole. Either way, it's significant, because Have a Nice Day kicks off pro wrestling's bid to become the official sport of postmodern America. Wrestling fits present-day America like a glove--or like the mask that Mick Foley's alter ego, the brutal Mankind, wears. After all, pro wrestling and postmodernism share a philosophy: Reality can be constructed, and what's true for me might not be true for you. Wrestling has always constructed its own reality. From the days of Frank Gotch (who wrestled during the first decade of the 20th century) through Gorgeous George (the 1950s and '60s) to Stone Cold Steve Austin and Bill Goldberg today, wrestling has presented itself as a noble sport, filled with good guys and bad guys and grudge matches and real heroism. Of course, it presents a very fluid reality; tonight's good guy (the "babyface" or just the "face") might be tomorrow night's bad guy ("heel"). And in the first match of the evening, Mick Foley might enter the ring as Mankind, then return for a later match as Cactus Jack or Dude Love. Still, that fictional reality used to have some immutable rules--the good guys were virtuous, loyal, and honest-- and they never, ever, walloped an unsuspecting opponent upside the head with a folding chair. And not even the baddest of the bad guys admitted it was all (or nearly all) show. That's why Mr. Foley's surprisingly well-written book is significant. It once and for all "exposes the business," to use a wrestling term. "I know you didn't pay $25 to have your intelligence insulted," Mr. Foley tells his readers. "I will not try to portray professional wrestling as a 'real, competitive sport.' I will readily admit to occasionally stomping my foot on the mat, and always putting a greater emphasis on entertainment value than on winning." In other words, professional wrestling no longer bothers with pretense. The hypocrisy is gone; vice has ceased paying tribute to virtue. That's not to say that wrestling is entirely fake-there are plenty of real injuries, and even a few real deaths in the ring that prove otherwise. Instead, wrestling is carefully choreographed and painstakingly contrived. It's a carnival sideshow, except it runs on cable. Today the two most popular cable programs in the nation are the WCW's Monday Nitro and the WWF's Raw is War. Have a Nice Day is like a backstage pass to the carnival's freak show. It's like seeing the bearded lady take off her beard, or seeing the Siamese twins go their separate ways for the night. It's confirmation that wrestling is really little more than a soap opera wedded to a car wreck. Throughout the book, Mick Foley makes much of his severed ear--he lost it during a match in Munich in 1994, when he was caught in the ropes. Munich physicians were unable to reattach it. The incident becomes, in Mr. Foley's mind, a validation that wrestling is "real." "Welcome to my world," Mr. Foley writes. "The world of professional wrestling, where fact is often stranger than fiction, and the line between the two keeps getting tougher and tougher to distinguish." This is where pro wrestling becomes troubling. Today heels and faces turn not just overnight, but mid-match. And they'll use any gimmick to increase ratings--from outlandish costumes to blasphemy. The biggest selling T-shirt in wrestling history is the one that reads "Austin 3:16"--from when Steve Austin mocked a fellow wrestler's Christian beliefs. And there's the violence, of course. Wrestlers are proud to show "juice" (blood), and promoters keep coming up with more and more shocking spectacles. Mr. Foley recounts a particularly brutal match held in Japan. The ring ropes were replaced with barbed wire; there were boards in the ring with nails driven through, pointing up; there were thousands of thumbtacks scattered throughout the ring; and there were plastic explosives rigged to go off when a wrestler landed on them. "Injuries," Mr. Foley writes about his thoughts as he climbed into the ring, "are about to pile up." Pile up they did--but in style. Isn't that what postmodern America is all about?

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