The acclaim being heaped on Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, and particularly Mickey Rourke’s wounded animal “comeback” performance, has sparked a bit of nostalgia for the outsize, spandex-clad halcyon days of ’80s professional wrestling. The Daily News has a “Then and Now” slideshow featuring some of the breakout stars of the circuit. Remember, there was a time before Hulk Hogan starred in a reality show with his Britney manqué daughter and Jesse Ventura held elected office.
Confession! Coming of age in that decade, when wrestling seeped into the broader culture, when there were not only televised matches but a cartoon show, an album, a line of toys and cameos in Cyndi Lauper videos, I was a big fan. The costumes! The drama! The clear delineation between good and evil! (Okay, so sometimes the good guys defected. But they usually saw the error of their ways.) WrestleMania! Before the WWF became the WWE, when the stars of the wrestling firmament included Jake “The Snake” Roberts (pictured above), The Iron Sheik, Hillbilly Jim, George “The Animal” Steele, and Bret “Hitman” Hart, under the Svengali-like rule of mustachioed promoter Vince McMahon. My father even took me to a match. I was maybe eight or so? I remember it was exciting, and loud, but honestly, I probably would have rather been watching it on the teevee. In that big arena, the practiced snarls, the hyperbolic one-liners, the forced machismo, didn’t read. It was just overly-pumped hunks of meat thwapping into each other from the turnbuckle. Television captured the soap-operatic pageantry and spectacle and hackneyed story lines that being there live did not. And it was that myth-making that I’d bought into, I could have done without being squeezed next to jerky-eating, beer swilling, no-necked fans. (Clearly, I’ve changed.) I embraced wrestling and embraced it hard, but like so many childhood fancies, playing army and collecting arrowheads, wrestling got left behind.
I hadn’t thought of wrestling again until I first moved to the city and was working in a souvenir shop, selling XXL Phantom of the Opera sweatshirts to gabby Midwesterners, where one of my co-workers was a wrestling fanatic. He would rush home to watch it on television, and set his VCR to tape the matches he was going to miss, later savoring them with a six pack of Coors Light next to his recliner. Ben, we’ll call him, would get into arguments with our fellow wage slaves, jaded wanna-be actors and snippy show queens, about his adoration of the “sport.” There was speculation that Ben was in the closet, and the idea of these meaty men in outfits that would make Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters blush pounding into each other was how he dealt with his latent gay urges. Then there was poor Leslie, the girl who had a crush on him, who would spend her evenings watching wrestling just to be close to him. I don’t think he never responded to her advances.
No real point to the above anecdote, other than, say, I suppose wrestling will still have a hold over a certain segment of the populace. Though probably never again like it did during that brief few years, when being a professional wrestler was on par with being a supermodel or the like, a niche interest that for a time captured the imagination and interest of the culture at large.