The crowd that filed into the Five Seasons Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, could have been going to a basketball game, but the T-shirts and posters gave them away. Professional wrestling was in town. Inside, thunder poured out of the sound system and rolled through the 7,000-seat arena. A thirtyish couple carrying jumbo popcorns led three boys to front-row balcony seats. The oldest displayed a large crucifix on his chest; the middle one had a cardboard sign reading: "Austin 3:16 Rocks," referring to a fan favorite, Stone Cold Steve Austin, who has lorded it over those who quote John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world ..."). Pro wrestling is on a roll, gaining publicity and respectability that wrestlers like Gorilla Monsoon or even Hulk Hogan two decades ago could only dream of. Nor is pro wrestling the morality play that it used to be. Fans identified with the good guy, who won despite the low blows, eye-gouges, and the dreaded "foreign object" over the head (normally a folding chair) from the bad guy, whom they hated. But not any more: "It's always been about good vs. evil," says Ted DiBiase, formerly the World Wrestling Federation's "Million Dollar Man" (he was a bad guy who thought money could buy anything). After a spiritual turnaround eight years ago, Mr. DiBiase left the established wrestling leagues. He now speaks in churches around the country as the head of his Heart of David Ministries. "My problem with the wrestling business of today is that there is no line between good and evil," he says. "It's all gray." The prime matchup in Cedar Rapids is a case in point. One wrestler, Jeff Jarrett, was roundly booed as he entered the ring. He responded with an expletive, then announced that there would be no fight because his opponent, Dustin Rhodes, was not allowed in the building. More boos. Mr. Jarrett instructed the ref to count to ten and declare him the winner. At eight, Mr. Rhodes stepped out of the crowd, sneaked up on Mr. Jarrett, and nailed him from behind. The crowd loved it. Mr. Jarrett regained control and put a sort of headlock on Mr. Rhodes. "It's the sleeper!" shrieked a teen boy in the balcony. Soon Mr. Rhodes appeared dead. The ref slapped his hand on the mat once, twice-just before the final count Mr. Rhodes lifted a weak but defiant hand high in the air and displayed the middle finger. The crowd cheered again. Soon Mr. Rhodes, the fan favorite, regained control, hung Mr. Jarrett in the ropes, and spread his legs open. Mr. Rhodes stood in ring center gesturing at the crowd, and everybody in the building knew where his running kick would land. The ref paced around the ring with a worried look, watching Mr. Rhodes and shaking his head. Mr. Rhodes ignored the ref and executed the kick as the crowd howled its approval. Which of these is the good guy? There may not be any good guys left. Bret "The Hit Man" Hart, one of the most popular wrestlers ever and seven-time "World Heavyweight Title" holder, dumped his "baby-face" role in 1998 and became a "heel." In a Power Slam magazine interview, Mr. Hart explained that "wrestling fans, in the United States anyway, don't seem to believe in heroes any more. Whoever breaks the rules best, wins." But did he have to spit in his opponent's face after a recent match? asked the interviewer. The fans simply "were not going to accept me as a good guy," replied the Hit Man. "It was a lot easier to be the scoundrel that everyone was craving." In a postmodern world, the absence of clear-cut heroes and villains seems to make the world of wrestling, with its comic-book caricatures and soap-opera story lines, more appealing to fans. They faithfully attend the fights, watch the pay-per-view events, see the movies, and buy the sweat suits, shoes, food, posters, dolls, CDs, books, magazines, and video games in droves. Purists were upset when the Harry Potter series of children's books topped the New York Times bestseller fiction list for months; they must have been frothing in early February when the No. 1 and 3 titles on the New York Times bestseller nonfiction lists were "memoirs" from two World Wrestling Federation (WWF) characters, The Rock and Mankind. The WWF and its competition, World Championship Wrestling, are in a no-holds-barred competition for wrestling's real prize, a reported $1 billion in annual revenues through dominance of the pay-per-view market and control of cable television. An estimated 10 million viewers catch the league's flagship shows on Monday nights, the WCW's "Monday Nitro" and the WWF's "Raw Is War," which has been the top-rated cable program for the last year. WWF recently announced a 230 percent increase for television advertising gross sales for the calendar fourth quarter of 1999 over 1998. WWF's event attendance for 1999, 2.3 million, doubled its 1998 total; it is projecting total revenues of $340 million this year. WCW pay-per-view events reach an average of 300,000 homes, and among its 250 licensed products is a cologne, "NITRO FOR MEN." Coca Cola pulled its sponsorship of "Raw is War" last fall, complaining of vulgarity and explicit sexuality. "It crossed the line in terms of content, particularly in terms of language and story lines," said a Coke spokesman. WWF is indifferent to such concerns, at least publicly, and reported a few days later that it had already resold the advertising time, about $4 million worth, "at higher rates."
-Michael Mallie is a WORLD Journalism Institute Fellow