No one could understand. My dad used to come in, glare at the TV and stalk off. My mum was bemused. My brother detested it. Once it was no longer cool, the other kids mocked me, and eventually I stopped mentioning it. I didn’t mind the secrecy – my passion acquired a pure intensity this way, stoppered up like a gin. But where did it come from? I liked reading, hated sports, was inclined to chubbiness, played the comic parts in school musicals. I liked Prince. I affected some refinement, refusing to swear and declining alcopops at house parties. So: pro wrestling? It was crass, violent, misogynistic, dumb, fake. It was deplorable. Embarrassing. Showed a bizarre lack of taste.
It was a passion, perhaps the truest of my life. Aged nine, I caught a glimpse at someone’s house, and thwack, just like that, nearly a decade of my life was decided. It was the late 1990s, towards the end of the period known as the ‘Monday Night Wars’, when the two big American companies, the WWF (World Wrestling Federation, later World Wrestling Entertainment after losing a legal battle with the panda people) and WCW (World Championship Wrestling), broadcast their flagship shows in the same slot, going mano a mano in the ratings. It was the heyday of ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, The Rock, Bill Goldberg. Wrestling was big. Both WWF and WCW were available, briefly, on terrestrial TV, and my friend John and I founded our own wrestling magazine. We hashed it together with the help of the pre-broadband Ask Jeeves internet, surreptitiously, with nerve-shredding slowness, loading pages during IT lessons so that we could copy and paste match reports into no discernible order for our non-existent readers.
One night when I was staying over, John’s dad announced that he had a surprise planned. He drove us into Middlesbrough and led us, all ignorance, to the town hall. Inside was a wrestling ring, site and symbol of our happiness, lying like a sun-washed tropical island under the lights. The only time I’ve been more surprised is when I accidentally leered at the queen through a train carriage window (LRB, 1 August 2019). Who cared if it was a low-budget British production, the sort that still tours provincial towns, advertised in newsagent doorways: to sit in the dark, to chew down a hotdog with scalding onions, to watch the action up close, hearing the rattling slam of the canvas and the hard slap of muscled flesh meeting, seeing the sweat casting up like sparks off a bonfire; to shout and laugh and jeer, to crush against the rail in hope of touching a wrestler’s hand or bicep – it was love. And the next year we saw the real thing, WCW, in Newcastle. There was Goldberg: like Steve Austin, a bald man with a goatee in clinging black Y-fronts, but bigger, balder and more leonine (despite the baldness), famous for winning 173 matches in a row and for his ‘finisher’, the ‘spear’ (a sort of high velocity frontal rugby tackle). I had a poster of him on my wall, right next to my bed. For months he’d been watching over me at night.
Soon I was as interested in the wrestling I had missed – by not being alive, or not knowing better – as I was in the wrestling that was happening every week. Perhaps more so. I spent the money I earned from my paper round buying all the videos of events from the 1980s and early 1990s in stock at my local Virgin Megastore. Wrestling passed its peak of popularity among my schoolfriends, but I kept climbing, into the mists. I subscribed to Power Slam magazine and dreamed of writing for it (alas, the path not taken). I read autobiographies by the greats, a wearying number of whom had found God. I read Mick Foley’s diabolical novel. I listened to John Cena’s worse rap album. When the Sun and the Daily Star carried wrestling columns at the weekend, I bought them, nerving it as page 3 flashed on the breakfast table. I played wrestling videogames. I rang hotlines for the latest info, in terror of the phone bill. I covered my bedroom wall with posters. Once a month, in secret, I got up at 1 a.m. on a Monday morning to watch the pay-per-view event live, going back to bed at four. I daydreamed wrestling; it had my imagination in a headlock. I went to more events, on my own – several years running, my poor dad drove me to Manchester after school, killing time while I was inside the arena and then driving us home (a five-hour round trip). I saw Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Sting, Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle, Steve Austin, Ric Flair, Eddy Guerrero, The Undertaker. I touched The Undertaker.
It never bothered me that wrestling was ‘fake’, the outcomes decided in advance. No wrestling fan is bothered by this after the age of about six. The non-fan who considers it a flaw should be taken as seriously as a theatregoer who gets upset that all the people on stage are actors. A wrestling match is interesting to watch precisely because it has been planned out by its participants (not necessarily in minute detail) with the intention of entertaining an audience. They don’t always succeed: you need a decent stretch of time; some wrestlers are better, more skilful, than others; sometimes there’s a connection and sometimes there isn’t; sometimes the plan is unintelligent or fails to come off. But a great wrestling match is a piece of artistry. Imagine a sporting event – a football game, say – that has been manipulated to be as enthralling as possible: competitive, unpredictable, dramatic, goal-filled, full of technical dazzlement and human emotion. And then imagine that the game is between two teams with a long rivalry, and it’s the Champions League final. This is roughly the effect of a wrestling match that has been hyped for months between two top performers at a big pay-per-view event in front of thirty or forty or fifty or sixty thousand people, with the world championship on the line – and which delivers, because it can, everything that fans have been hoping for.
Of course, wrestling, like football, has its own peculiar ingredients. For one, there is almost always a ‘babyface’ (‘face’ for short) and a ‘heel’: a good guy, whom the fans are encouraged to support, and a bad guy, whom they’re encouraged to hate (each of these has a predictable morality). There are classic tropes. A stare-off after the bell rings, the fans frenzied with anticipation, or else an immediate blur of action. A sustained period where the face is ground down by the heel, seemingly doomed, before at last staging a comeback. The point of mutual exhaustion, the two men using each other as supports to drag themselves up, each head nodding on the other man’s chest, before one rears back to land a punch. The exchange of finishers – neither of which ends the match. The at-the-very-last-second-you-can’t-bloody-believe-it escape from a pin. The moment when the referee gets knocked down (groan!) and rule-breaking becomes possible. Throughout, there is the vast, intimate noise of the crowd: murmurous, contemptuous, sometimes bored, but at other times exquisitely responsive, reminiscent of spectators at Wimbledon during an extended rally – a swift-moving thing, a kind of audible shadow attending every action.
What really distinguishes wrestling, though, is its commitment to spectacle, in the fullest sense of that word, and ultimately, to the spectacle of violence. Part of this is simply its approximation of reality: these bodies are genuinely being picked up and thrown around, after all, and a kick in the chin looks and sounds awfully like a kick in the chin. But it can be more dramatic. Someone being hit over the head with a folding chair, for example, or, less commonly, dropped onto a mass of shiny thumbtacks, fifty of them sticking in the skin. If you were a wrestling fan in 1998 you knew about the moment, even if you hadn’t seen it, when The Undertaker threw Mankind off the top of a sixteen-foot cage, sending him smashing through a plywood table below. I’ve just watched it again on YouTube, and it’s still frightening. (‘They’ve killed him!’ shouts the commentator, Jim Ross, who hadn’t been given advance notice. He means the management.) What always thrilled me most, though, was the blood. Wrestlers are fantastic bleeders. A match attained an immediate grandeur if one of the combatants was pouring with blood, his face covered with it, thick, dripping, coming off on the body of his opponent, smearing the ring. It was hideous. It was Homeric.
You could usually tell when a wrestler was about to start bleeding. The trick was to roll away from your opponent, your hands under your head – the camera would helpfully pan away at this point – and then slip out the razor you had concealed in the tape on your wrists, and slice into your forehead. The blood was real. Often there seemed to be alarming amounts of it; stitches might be needed afterwards. Knowing how it was done was a big part of the appeal, and not only in this respect. I was interested in why certain wrestlers were picked by ‘backstage’ for what was called a ‘push’ (and conversely, why others were never given the opportunity) and in the way they were packaged; in who was a face and who was a heel, and the moments when someone was switched from one identity to the other; in the development of new feuds or ‘storylines’, and the way they were carefully developed in advance of a showdown, or through a succession of matches over many months; in the way the matches themselves worked to embody the emotions they had been invested with. My commitment to watching wrestling of the past was an extension of this, like X-raying a painting to see how they made them back in the day.
Am I kidding myself? I was a closeted teenager. Sometimes wrestling was only a stumble and a thin stretch of lycra away from porn. Did I just want to get speared by Goldberg? Aged twelve or thirteen I told my parents, in a very confused fashion, that I thought – was petrified – I might be gay. My dad came to talk to me about it in my room. Semi-naked greased-up male bodies roiled over the walls. Avoiding eye contact, I stared fixedly – I can see it now – at a poster of Booker T, his crotch swelling in satiny white pants. ‘I do understand,’ my dad said, looking round, ‘how you might be confused.’ In fact, I don’t think I did fancy Booker T, or any of them. Nor have I subsequently demonstrated a penchant for muscle boys. I do find it easy enough to accept that for someone who felt out of place – sexually, but also for being overweight, and having acne, and whatever else – wrestling, with its exaggerations, its grand and simple gestures, its crude and balletic violence, took me out of myself. Fine; though the macho posturing may also have beefed up my internalised homophobia. But really, I think the appeal of wrestling, its significance, was that it so completely engaged me with questions of artifice, with the techniques and demands of storytelling, with the projection and testing of character. The WWF was my MFA.
It’s fifteen years since I last watched a wrestling match. I went to university, and my obsession fell away with what seemed astonishing ease. I don’t doubt that my parents, my brother and my friends, were right about a lot of it. Wrestling was, and presumably still is, dumb and crass. It has historically played on racial stereotypes and flattered other prejudices. (The WWE, run by the McMahon family, good Republicans all, even featured Donald Trump as a face.) It was certainly – though there may have been some improvement in this regard – sexist: women took part in bikini and wet T-shirt contests, and were stripped down to their lingerie in ‘bra and panty’ matches. Steroid abuse and other forms of addiction have been a huge problem, contributing to a disproportionate number of early deaths. There have been cases of domestic violence. Chris Benoit, whom I cheered on in the early hours when he won the world championship at Wrestlemania XX in 2004, murdered his wife and son in 2007, before hanging himself. Wrestlers, like rugby players, regularly suffer significant injuries that do lasting, sometimes invisible, damage. Benoit’s brain was found to resemble that of an ‘85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient’ (he was forty) – probably the result of repeated concussions. It’s hard to forget that. And hard to admit, in spite of everything, that a little part of me is still a wrestling fan.