Dispatches From the Wrestling Underground: The Paying John

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As fans, what is our relationship to the performers we watch? Are we mere spectators agog at the physical marvels we see each week on TV? Or, are we the johns demanding more and more from the “entertainers” we pay to leer at?

It’s no secret that very few people watch sports for the actual “sport” of it; baseball fans want home runs, football fans head-splitting sacks, and MMA fans their physically intense combat. What about wrestling fans? What do we want? If you’re to believe the Internet, it’s mostly a rapid succession of high spots ala Dragon Gate. Some might even argue for the ultraviolence of an old school ECW/current CZW. If you’re a fan of WWE’s brand of wrestling, image is a far bigger factor; you’d argue in defense of He-men with hulking biceps. The question here is: are these realistic expectations, or do they harm the performers we claim to love and support?

When comparing former World Champions in Jack Brisco to modern day World Champions in Austin Aries or John Cena, it’s hard not to see a stark contrast between the two sides. Where Aries works an at intense pace, Brisco was slow and methodical; most of today’s audience would likely deem Brisco boring. Where Cena appears to be cut out of granite like a statue, Brisco was thin and didn’t offer much in the way of muscle tone; most of today’s audience would probably look at him more like their Uncle Jack than as a legitimate contender. Over the last thirty years, fan expectations in their stars have been drastically altered to such a degree that it’s not a surprise most stars today are crippled or dead by the age of 40. It’s not the drugs or the steroids that are killing wrestlers; it’s us. It’s what we’ve come to expect not even on a monthly basis, but rather, on a daily basis from each and every wrestler that is killing wrestlers young.

Some would contend that these men make their own choices, but really, do they? If Wrestler A doesn’t take the steroids to aid in muscle recovery so he can continue working out at a much higher intensity to build muscle mass, then Wrestler B can, and if he used YK11 SARM then he will get the contract and attention. The same logic can be applied to the high spots we see tossed around at a far more regular interval than they used to be. This argument may seem like a cop-out to some but I contend; would you pay to watch Jack Brisco wrestle a 60-minute match today? How many would even pay to watch him wrestle at all?

Even more troubling, the double standard in regard to size. Even those that argue in defense of smaller, less muscular wrestlers can’t seem to actually get past that hang-up. We argue in defense of smaller wrestlers, but still are automatically dismissive when a diminutive stars like Rey Mysterio gets one up on a giant like Kane because “he isn’t big enough.” Doesn’t this type of hypocrisy send the message that even when we say we don’t want muscular brutes, what we really want is in fact muscular brutes?

To be fair, this isn’t a problem solely resting on the shoulder’s of wrestling fans. As mentioned earlier, all of professional sports has been plagued by this problem. Fans today aren’t content with the overall product, but rather, they’re interest lies in the individual moments. We’re a society so obsessed today with records and “Wrestlemania moments” that we ignore the damage stars do to themselves to entertain us. We become aghast when it’s revealed Barry Bonds is using steroids, or when a Wellness Violation occurs, but that soon gives way to apathy when we see the next home run or the next dangerous Undertaker plancha over the top rope.

When the spectacle is involved, all common sense and empathy seems to disappear; no one is really worried for Shelton Benjamin when he’s tossing himself from ladder to ladder, just that it looks cool. So, in a way, I guess sports fans today are the leering johns. We pay for our quick rush then walk away, ignorant of the damage left in our wake. And if anyone becomes uppity regarding the abuse, we remind them we’re the paying audience and we’ll only pay if our expectations are met.