Heroes and Villains: Looks are/aren’t everything

HOUSEKEEPING

First off, this column is not late. I’m on Tuesdays now. Second, the response for STABBING ISSUES was overwhelmingly positive (with the exception of Scotsman–thanks for the plug, btw), though the majority wanted to see it continue as a secondary feature. So that’s what we’ll see this week, and most weeks (I might skip it on occasion if the main feature is running long).

Speaking of the main feature, this week I’ll be departing a tad from the usual format of the column as I examine the issue of body types in wrestling.

DOES SIZE MATTER?

Before I try to answer that question, let’s get a few things out of the way first. I won’t be discussing steroids in this column. If you want to read on this subject, Dave Meltzer is probably the best starting point (and I unfortunately don’t have a specific back issue of the Observer to point you towards). That doesn’t mean that steroid use is completely irrelevant to this discussion–clearly there are many wrestlers in the WWE and TNA who rely on synthetic methods of physique enhancement. I just don’t think that I can do justice to the issue in this column. Maybe in the future I’ll go there, but probably not. Given the nature of this column (i.e., my overwhelming need to fill in missing information with educated guesses), any discussion of steroids might put Widro and myself in a legally precarious situation.

Second, I’m also going to hold off on discussing women. There’s clearly a very distinct and established body type which the WWE expects its “divas” to maintain. Whether or not the diva’s training regimen is more brutal than their male counterparts is open to debate. In a recent interview, Sable claimed that expectations for the women are higher. Maybe, maybe not–I’m not in a position to say. I do feel qualified to say this, however: there is a smaller margin of error for women. Men can get by with slight love handles or big thighs, but any slight physical imperfection on the part of a “diva” is likely to provoke chants of “fat-ass” (and the IWC as a collective is certainly guilty of upholding this double-standard). Some of the women probably are genetically predisposed toward the figures they now have (e.g. Stacy Kiebler); for others it’s probably a constant struggle to maintain their figure. This is almost certainly true for the men as well–but again, there seems to be greater room for diversity among the guys than the gals.

Finally, there are essentially two issues at work here for the men: size and definition. Both take either significant work or genetic luck to achieve, but they are basically two different things. Size, as you would expect, refers to the actual physical dimensions of the wrestler’s body. Definition is more a measure of how clear the different muscles are–and generally speaking, the less fat, the better the definition. Brock Lesnar had great size (probably still does, but to a lesser extent), as did Hulk Hogan. In contrast, Randy Orton is not huge, but has a sort of “chiseled” look. Some guys, like Batista, have both–he’s huge, and his muscles are extremely well-defined. And we still haven’t addressed the issue of height. A wrestler can be tall, but lacking in muscular size and definition (such as the Undertaker).

OKAY”¦SO DOES SIZE (OR DEFINITION OR HEIGHT) MATTER?

There was a time, within my lifetime actually, when a wrestler’s appearance was held to different standards. However, promoters (and fans) have always expected one of two things from wrestlers: they should look either scary or athletic. That actually hasn’t changed too much. What has changed is our perceptions of who looks “athletic” and who looks “scary.” And, I might add, the nature of wrestling has changed as well.

(Brief note #1: We may add another notable “look” here–a physical appearance intended to disgust the audience. The two major types here are the evil foreigner and the effeminate dandy. I am not, however, inclined to label these as major types of cultivated looks. The “evil foreigner” type rarely had much more than his entrance garb to establish his character’s look. Historically, the “evil foreigner” relied on music, mannerisms, and (especially) promos instead of appearance. The same is more or less true of the effeminate dandy. The only real exceptions were bleached hair and, especially after the advent of colored television, colorful (read: pink) ring attire.)

Let’s start with the issue of “scariness.” To me, a scary-looking wrestler is a guy who I would keep my eye on if he came into a bar. He’s a guy I’d go out of my way to avoid on the street. This is not a rational decision. It’s not a matter of looking at somebody and trying to gauge how likely he is to be able to twist me into a pretzel. It’s recognizing in someone the capacity for violence or worse yet, the intention of trying to rearrange the position of my limbs on my body. Physical capability is not an entirely separate issue, of course. I see plenty of 13 year old skaters with malice in their eyes, but I don’t think of retainer-wearing emaciated kids as much of a threat (and it’s all probably bluster anyway). A scary-looking dude is scary because he combines the look of wanting to hurt you with looking like he actually could hurt you. It’s the difference between El Giante and Andre the Giant. El Giante often looked like a lost little boy, confused by what was going on around him. Andre, however, glowered at his opponents. Yes, he was jolly, but only to a point.

Up until the late 70s/early 80s, there were only so many ways in which a professional wrestler could look “scary.” One was obviously size–someone who outweighs you by 150 pounds, or is a foot taller than you, is someone to approach with caution. Those not “blessed” with this kind of height or weight had to rely on other aspects of their body or clothing to convey malice. For American wrestlers, however, trunks, tights, or singlets were the only choices. Yeah, you could put a skull on your chest, but that’s about it. Most folks instead tried to capitalize on their existing facial features–trying to perfect the homicidal stare or feral grimace. Some, like Bruiser Brody or Superfly Snuka, also cultivated hairstyles and beards intended to convey the message that they were agents of mayhem.

The boundaries of acceptable gimmicks for pro wrestling had expanded in the 1980s. Florida had that devil worshiper Kevin Sullivan. In AWA, the Road Warriors tapped in to the post-apocalyptic style of a certain Mel Gibson movie. In California, two bodybuilders did about the same thing, except they drew inspiration from Blade Runner. All of these wrestlers had a look intended to shock or intimidate the audience. Although they probably would have inspired laughter instead of fear in the 50s or 60s, they were actually quite effective in the 1970s and 80s. This is partly due to the influence of Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan, who made professional wrestling even more outlandish.

It also, however, reflects the general shift in our society at that time, exemplified by the shift from Joe Friday to Dirty Harry to Robocop. The punk movement, with its relentless anti-fashion aesthetic, and the New Wave movement (which co-opted the less dangerous aspects of punk) made more outrageous forms of attire more prevalent. The heavy metal subculture would soon follow the lead of the punks. While punk itself was often supportive of gender equality, there was also an aggressive, hyper-masculine element to it as well. Pro wrestling tapped into this, and the Road Warriors were the result.

And, I would argue, it was their example that set the pace for the likes of Raven and New Jack. Neither one of those guys is an intimidating physical specimen–they’re both a little short for pro wrestling, actually. But they were able to tap into cultural fears about subcultures which the average wrestling fan knew, but did not understand. Raven’s kilt and New Jack’s do rag were intimidating to middle of the road white guys. By adding these simple pieces of attire, two relatively shrimpy guys became fearsome bad-asses.

ARE WE EVER GOING TO GET AROUND TO TALKING ABOUT SIZE?

Meanwhile, there was also an ongoing shift in what constituted an “athletic” physique. Prior to the 1970s, Americans actually had a pretty elastic idea of what an athlete should look like. The general public seemed to expect big shoulders, chests, and arms rather than enormous pectorals and ripped abs, from their athletes. So a guy like Lou Thesz was clearly acceptable as a good athletic specimen, even though he didn’t look like an illustration from an anatomy textbook.

In the 1970s, however, bodybuilding peaked in popularity with the release of Pumping Iron and the parallel emergence of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a (literal) posterboy for the movement. It didn’t take long for pro wrestlers to jump on this bandwagon, with Superstar Billy Graham being the most prominent example. Graham brought in a greater attention to definition in musculature. Previously, big arms more or less connoted big arm strength, but Schwarzenegger and Graham’s ultra-defined arm muscles peeled back a layer of fat, revealing little more than skin and muscle. This created the illusion that they were somehow stronger than guys who weren’t such gym rats. Graham’s biceps were not only better defined than his contemporaries; they dwarfed those of men like Verne Gagne or Dory Funk Jr.

(Brief note #2: Before anyone emails me about this, I am aware that professional bodybuilding judges consider more than just size and definition. I’m only dimly aware of what these other categories are, but there seems to be some rough parallel with dog show judging, in that there is some sort of Platonic ideal against which all other specimens are judged. Though some pro wrestlers–notably HHH–seem to be a mark for this kind of attention to detail, most fans, wrestlers, and promoters seem chiefly concerned with size and definition. So I’ve limited myself to these categories.)

With the advent of Graham and his followers (Hulk Hogan being the most influential of them) in wrestling, and Schwarzenegger in the outside world, the older physical ideal of “fitness” was permanently replaced. It’s not that Bruno Sammartino or Mr. Wrestling II suddenly looked like out of shape slobs. They still looked healthy, but in sort of an old fashioned way. Compared to Graham or Schwarzenegger, they no longer looked like top-flight athletes. They were like Model T’s, while the bodybuilders were Corvettes. Thus, a bodybuilder’s physique became a crucial asset for most aspiring pro wrestlers.

(Final brief note: As always, Crocket Promotions proves an exception to this rule. Not until Lex Luger and Nikita Koloff did muscleheads become a feature of the Carolina wrestling scene. For some preliminary remarks concerning possible reasons for this, see last week’s column.)

TAKE SOME ACTING LESSONS AFTER YOU GET DONE AT THE GYM

So, from 1980 or so onward, there has been a stream of both “scary” and “athletic” type wrestlers. Today, one’s look seems equally important as one’s psychology or athleticism as far as chances of making it in the WWE (or, to a lesser extent, in other major promotions around the world). But is this the factor?

Obviously, a buff or big guy who can’t work and who isn’t named Sid won’t last long in the WWE. So a minimum degree of competency in the ring is necessary. Given that, will a good look guarantee success in the WWE? Again, the obvious answer is “no.” There have been numerous jacked up goons to stumble their way through the big leagues of pro wrestling without success. Take the Warlord for example. While watching the 1992 Royal Rumble the other day, a friend of mine immediately commented on how big he was. He was huuuuge. Go out and find some pictures or video of him and you’ll see what I mean. If there’s ever been a guy whose look was good enough to ensure him a spot at the top of the roster, it’s this guy.

Reality was very different. We’ll never see a Warlord DVD, but we will quite possibly (many, many years down the line, mind you) see an Ultimate Warrior DVD. The reason why seems obvious to me. The Warrior, despite his many flaws, was a charismatic guy. Yeah, it all seems ridiculous to us today, and it seemed ridiculous to lots of folks back then. But it the whole rope-shaking, gods-appealing, paint-wearing gimmick would have been even more ludicrous had someone like the Warlord been asked to pull it off. Maybe it’s just cause he’s nuts, but Jim Hellwig actually looked like he believed in all the goobledygook associated with his gimmick.

Turning our attention to the “scary” column, there have been numerous failures here as well. Giant Silva, Kurrgan, El Giante, Ron Reis–all failures, never close to being viewed as legitimate threats to anything other than low lying door jambs. Typhoon and Roadblock are similar failures on the overweight side. What sets the Undertaker, the Big Show, Yokozuna, and John Tenta (to some extent) apart? Again, it’s charisma. The successful guys with a “scary” look are able to sell the menace, to sell the audience on their capacity (and earnest desire) for mayhem.

So I’m not exactly going out on a limb here. Most of you had already figured out, on some level, that a cut and/or big guy needs to be able to carry himself properly to get over. As Dave Meltzer and other internet pundits like to point out, it’s sometimes difficult to tell just how big or tall wrestlers are on television. In pro wrestling, size can be bluffed. It must be bluffed. Quick: how many of your friends think Kane is actually 7 feet tall? This misperception has as much to do with the way he carries himself in the ring as it does with the lifts he supposedly wears in his shoes.

But here’s a more daring position: the “scary” look is more valuable than the “athletic” look. In a world where we can expect nearly every wrestler to aspire for a bodybuilder’s physique, size still matters. Who has a brighter future: Orlando Jordan or Jon Heidenreich? Yes, you have to pick one. I’m guessing most of you picked Heidenreich, even though Jordan has the much more “athletic” physique. Take a look at Heidenreich this Thursday. He’s not particularly cut. If he were six inches shorter, there’s no way he’d even hold a spot in the developmental system. But, for better or worse, a guy that big will always command attention in the wrestling business. Meanwhile, even though he looks more athletic, Jordan will struggle to remain relevant to (or employed by) Vince McMahon. The “athletic” look is little more than a minimum standard for employment in the WWE. It’s certainly not a ticket to stardom, or even a way to set oneself apart from other wrestlers.

Even us “smart” IWC fans are partly responsible for the continual preference for big and scary guys. Despite protestations on message boards and columns, we respect guys who are tall or wide more than guys who are merely fit and trim. Consider the comments about Edge when he returned: how many of you said he was just too skinny to ever main event? How many people are complaining that Randy Orton looks too “metrosexual” or something–I guess he’s not burly enough for some of you. I guess we could see if Hacksaw Jim Duggan is busy….

STABBING ISSUES

No IWC controversy really grabbed me this week. I considered writing a defense of the Kane-Lita wedding, but that’s kind of old news by now (the segment on Raw last night was great, though). So I though I’d talk a little about Smackdown this week. I can watch the show again now that I’m out of Columbia, SC (and, being on Central time, it’s still fairly early when it’s over). The thing that stuck out about last week’s episode was the interaction between Orlando Jordan and JBL. It was funny. Those two (credit mostly going to Bradshaw) have good chemistry together. They’re a very funny comedy act.

But here’s the thing: I almost typed “midcard comedy act” just then (no really, this isn’t just a stupid rhetorical device, I actually typed “m” and “i” before I caught myself). These two are funny in the way that Edge and Christian were funny in 2000, or DX were in 1998 (in theory–I don’t much care for poop and dick jokes, so I was never a fan). And Conventional Net Wisdom holds that comedy acts are only effective in the undercard; in the main event, they just demean the integrity of the belt or hemorrhage credibility or something.

Like all pieces of Conventional Net Wisdom, I think this chestnut needs to be cracked open and examined before we take it at face value. Why can’t a main event be driven primarily by comedy? Or, to answer the more immediate question, why can’t I take JBL seriously as a main eventer? Here’s some thoughts:

1. Wrestling is rarely funny. But then again, I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to comedy. So the stuff that you folks seem to be howling over often makes me groan, or change the channel. Then again, I’ve never found Howard Stern funny, so maybe I just have an unusual (or, in JR speak, “unorthodox”) approach that I bring to watching wrestling. I’ll assume that (HHH-Kane feuds aside) most viewers laugh when they’re supposed to laugh, and I’m the oddball here.

2. Funny wrestlers seem less serious, and thus nobody buys them as main event players. I’m tempted to dismiss this outright, as the Rock’s whole schtick was based on insult comedy, and he was one of the top draws of all time. But then again, maybe the difference between the Rock and JBL is that JBL’s humor usually comes at his expense, while the Rock usually goofed on his opponents. Plus, the Rock could exude intensity when necessary, a quality which JBL clearly has never mastered.

3. There is an implicit promise of greater violence (JR: “intensity”) in main event matches, and comedy seems to undermine this. Related to (2) above, but a bit different. The idea here is that when us fans plunk down $35 US for a PPV, we have certain expectations from our main events. We don’t want a comedy match. BUT”¦what about Ric Flair? All his matches had comedic aspects to him, and he’s one of the all time top draws. Maybe Flair had the right mixture of comedy and violence in his matches. Or maybe Flair is just Flair, and it’s just unfair to compare him to Bradshaw or any other comedy-based gimmick (or to expect their matches to draw as well). I’d buy either one.

4. The problem is not with comedy matches per se, but JBL. He doesn’t come off as a legit main eventer because he still lacks credibility. He’d be huge in the midcard, however. Frankly, my money’s on this explanation.

NEXT WEEK

I have no idea. My brain’s a bit fried from travel, TA training, and the process of having my girlfriend move in. Any suggestions?

Loading...