(Photo from “The Wrestler” official site)
A group of us went to see “The Wrestler” on Friday. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it, but I needed to. I doubt any other subject could cut closer to the bone for me.
I’ve loved professional wrestling, and hated it, my entire life.
When I was little a lot of the bad guys wore masks. When a bad guy with a mask came on the TV, I would run and hide in the other room. Then I would peek around the corner to see what happened. That’s pretty much the way I’ve dealt with wrestling ever since. Not wanting to look, not being able to help it.
My daddy was a believer — wrestlers, in the carny language they use, would call him a mark. He thought wrestling was real. He was a smart man, brilliant with tools, self-educated, but everybody has a hole in their swing and that was his. He took my sister to a match one time, and they sat in the front row, and one of the wrestlers got tossed out of the ring right into their laps. My daddy saw the blood streaming down the wrestler’s face. After that no one could tell him it wasn’t real.
He was right about the blood. Wrestlers call it blading and an early scene in “The Wrestler” shows how it happens. The Mickey Rourke character — Randy “The Ram” Robinson — hides a piece of razor blade in the tape on his wrist. During the match, after his opponent rams him into an exposed metal turnbuckle, Robinson falls facedown on the mat. While his opponent distracts the fans, Robinson slips out the razor and slices open his own forehead.
I’m sitting here writing this, trying to figure out how to justify loving something where guys cut open their own foreheads with razor blades. I’m not sure I can.
As soon as I figured out wrestling was a show, I’d pick fights about it with my daddy. Can’t you see how that guy pulled his punch? If they were really fighting, would they bounce off the ropes like that? He would scowl at me and turn back toward the TV. We would watch in silence. It was years before I could sit down with him and enjoy it my way and let him enjoy it his way. That was one of the ways I knew I was finally a grown man.
The best wrestlers are storytellers. It’s usually a simple story — most wrestling storylines can be summed up as I hate what you are or I want what you have. (You can sum up most of Shakespeare that way too.) Other writers learned from the classics, or from pulp fiction, or movies or comic books; I learned from Dusty Rhodes and Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair. There’s no wrong way.
Here’s a little bit of Dusty, thanks to the great wrestling site Death Valley Driver:
Dusty was my favorite. But my dad and I knew that Ric Flair was the best. He created such a great character — the rich playboy who dressed in custom suits, the dirty fighter who always had backup but was legit tough on his own. Even when he did the most heelish things, some people cheered him anyway. Maybe out of admiration for someone so good at what he did, even if what he was good at was being bad.
Flair grew up in Minnesota, but he made his home as a wrestler in Charlotte. It was a base for a lot of wrestlers in the ’70s and early ’80s because one of the main wrestling TV shows taped there; even after the show left, a lot of the wrestlers stayed. I moved to Charlotte in 1989. Not long after I got there, I was stopped at a red light late one Friday night when a black Mercedes pulled up in the lane next to me. Ric Flair sat behind the wheel, just as cool as I always imagined.
Years later, I wrote about him. He had come out with a memoir about his years in the wrestling business. It read like a nonstop party — he must have passed out on half the kitchen floors in Charlotte. That’s how I led off my column. The morning the column came out, I was at my desk when the phone rang. Ric Flair was on the line. He wanted me to know that he thought the column was just fine… but his wife was upset. She didn’t like all the stories about the partying.
I can understand that, I said, not believing I was actually talking to Ric Flair. But Ric, I got all those stories from your book.
I know, he said. But, well, I didn’t actually show her the book before it came out.
Not to give anything away, but there’s a point in “The Wrestler” where Randy “The Ram” has a chance to straighten things out with someone he loves… and he blows it. It made me think of Ric Flair, publishing a book without showing it to his wife first.
The truth is that wrestling attracts people on the fringe — people who got kicked off the football team or spent some time in jail or never learned how to hold down a regular job. “The Wrestler” is matter-of-fact about how wrestlers get jacked up on steroids to build muscle and gulp down painkillers when those muscles break down. It’s not any different than the stories I’ve heard from people who worked in and around the business. Like a lot of things, the more you know about it, the harder it is to love.
Over the years, especially after my dad died, I didn’t watch wrestling as much but I followed certain wrestlers. One of them was a Canadian named Chris Benoit — a small but powerful guy who was great at making the wrestling ballet look like a real fight. He was so good that you could forget his absurd body — his neck twice the size it should be, his muscles way too big for his frame. He was taking in bad things and two years ago they came out. He killed his wife, their child, then himself. That just about put me off wrestling for good. Now I check in on a couple of websites but I hardly ever watch the shows. It’s too painful, knowing what’s real.
“The Wrestler” is a sad, great movie because it feels real. I know wrestling about as well as I know anything and the movie got everything right. Especially the broken-down old wrestler who can’t get through the day without hurting but can’t stay out of the ring. He’d rather die than give it up.
That’s the end of the story for “The Wrestler,” and for wrestling, and even for wrestling fans. We know the whole gruesome thing is not worth loving. But at some point, back before we knew better, we cut ourselves open, and it got in our blood.