Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Most Popular Soap Opera in the World: Professional Wrestling

Since the beginning of sport, Americans have thoroughly enjoyed seeing people going at it. From eye gouging, to bare knuckle boxing, to today’s professional boxing, to mixed martial arts, America loves fighting. We love to see the blood fly, to see people get hurt. It is why people cheer fervently for fights at a hockey game and why people desperately want to see a knockout in a boxing match. Americans are also in love with their soap operas. Soap operas give us times to get away from our lives and fall into the twists and turns that dramas like Days of Our Lives and As the World Turns give us. The plots are so irrational and the acting so over the top, that as a viewer you just cannot get enough of it. Soap operas such as these have been such an extreme success that they have been running continuously on the air for over twenty years. When you combine the bloody battles and the ridiculously soap opera storylines you get sports entertainment… you get professional wrestling.

Professional wrestling has been around for centuries, but not exactly in the form that we know of now. The Greeks and the Romans were the first to wrestle professionally back around 3000 B.C (Beekman 2006). At the time, professional wrestling was a completely real sport. Through the 19th century, fights were so brutal that they sometimes resulted in severe injuries, including fighters being paralyzed and even killed (Beekman 2006). At the turn of the 19th century, William Muldoon was seen as the epitome of a professional wrestler. He was the world champion; he dominated in his fights, and had the personality to go with the status. Muldoon was such a good professional wrestler that he was compared to John L. Sullivan in boxing (Beekman 2006). Muldoon also fit the bill of Muscular Christianity, which is becoming a physically fit Christian and thus a good role model for others to look up to (Schultz 2008). Incorporating religion with sports was quite common during this time period. For Mundoon (the father of professional wrestling), the sport in general was about change drastically.

In the 1920s, after World War 1, fans were not happy with the big muscular wrestlers battling one another each night. They demanded agility and speed, which at the time boxing provided them. Thinking about their profits, professional wrestling switched from being a legitimate fighting sport, to being sports entertainment (Lindman 2000). The switch from genuine fighting to staged fighting caused professional wrestling to lose its mainstream coverage. This included the loss of exposure in the sports section of newspapers. However, fans started to rally behind this new form of wrestling, especially with the new medium of television. (Lindman 2000) This allowed fans to cheer on their favorites and jeer at their antiheroes each week.

Since then, fans have been enamored with professional wrestling. In the 1940s, Gorgeous George (George Wagner) captivated fans with his elegant robes, elaborate entrances and long bleached blonde hair (Slagle 2000). Gorgeous George was one of the characters who led professional wrestling to where it is today. Wagner influenced wrestlers like “Superstar” Billy Graham, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and Jesse “The Body” Ventura, to not only be good in the ring, but to have over-the-top personalities out of the ring. The wrestler’s charisma contributed to his success and to the business overall. Fans wanted the ridiculousness of characters, not the oversized goons they saw back in the day. These characters are what led to today’s version of professional wrestling, including the immortal wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Thanks to professional wrestling, celebrities like Hogan, Austin, and Johnson are all extremely popular in mainstream society. All three men have used wrestling to expand their horizons, with Hogan going from the most famous wrestler in history in the 1980s to one of the paparazzo’s golden boys in the 2000s. Austin is currently dipping his toes into the movie business, while Johnson has become extremely successful in the motion picture industry. Professional wrestling led these three men to stardom, as the popularity that they gained there led them to being able to thrive in other areas. Fanatics of wrestling became attached to these men, not just for their ability to wrestle, but because they could relate to them. Hogan was the super hero, the man that could overcome all of the odds. Austin was the rebel, the man that everyone has inside of them who just wants to stand up to their boss and stick up the middle finger. Johnson, known as “The Rock” during his World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) days, was the overly charismatic, sarcastic figure that the crowd just ate up. Fanatics loved to see these and all of their other favorites “fight to the death” over a ridiculously soap opera-ish story line.

Today, WWE has gone back to the days of finding the big muscular fighters, thinking that is what draws the crowds. Vince McMahon, the Chairman of WWE, believes going after legitimately tough amateur wrestlers like Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar, and Bobby Lashley are what the fans crave, rather than the smaller, faster charismatic wrestlers (Glader 2003). However, McMahon is not looking back at the long residuals that wrestling has given him to follow (Schultz 2008). It is not the ridiculous bodies that people come to see, but the ridiculous characters and story lines. Wrestling is about athletes beating each other senseless, for reasons that are so unfathomable that they cannot possibly real. That’s good because the reasons are not real; they are all a show...A show in which the fans will always continue to love.

Works Cited

Beekman, S. (2006). Ringside: A history of professional wrestling in America. Minneapolis, MN: Greenhouse Publishing Group

Glader, P. (2003, September 12). “WWE pins its hopes on ‘real’ wrestlers” Wall Street Journal, pp B1

Lindman, M. (2000). “Wrestling’s hold on the western world before the great war”. The Historian.

Slagle, S. (2000). “Professional wrestling hall of fame”. Retrieved April 5, 2008, from http://www.wrestlingmuseum.com/pages/bios/halloffame/georgebio.html

Schultz, J. (2008a). Module 2: Sport in the New World (2008b). Module 3: Sport and the emergence of Modern America.

Recommended Readings

History of professional wrestling volumes 1-7. Crowbar Press.

Official Site of World Wrestling Entertainment. (2008). Retrieved April 5, 2008, from www.wwe.com

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