Dispatches from the Wrestling Underground: A Lifetime Under the Influence

A recent discussion has been reopened thanks to Bret Hart’s return to WWE’s one-ringed circus: will he or won’t he wrestle? The common assumption is that he won’t, with the reason being given that he doesn’t want to ruin his legacy. Many refer back to the fact that Ric Flair held on for far too long, damaging his own legacy and lessening his stature as one of the greatest wrestlers ever by wrestling past his prime. The same has also been said of Hulk Hogan. The question here isn’t why wrestlers choose to wrestle past their prime, it’s why does anyone care? Why are the fans so obsessed with subjective achievements, and why are the wrestlers themselves so hellbent on accumulating as many as possible?

Wrestlers and their fans have always had a tenuous grasp on reality, each allowing the other to disappear into fantasies of grandeur that far exceed the true worth of what’s at hand; for instance, fake titles that are arbitrarily decided by promoters are given legitimate worth by the fans. A sort of faux-journalism has even sprung up to decide which of these fake titles can be considered real “World” titles. The wrestlers then build and define themselves by how many times, or how long, they held these titles; they build their legacies around what can be viewed by some as merely a prop. It begs the question: if your legacy is defined by the limited imagination of others, what happens when people lose the capability to buy into that myth, no matter how elaborately constructed it may be?

WWE has toyed with this idea in the past ten years, erasing aspects of the wrestling industry that either don’t jive with their flavor of the month direction for the company or simply out of malice. The legacies of men like the Ultimate Warrior and Randy Savage have been manipulated or completely ignored with the intention of minimizing their impact and by extension tarnishing the legacies they helped to build for themselves. Many older fans have been outraged by this whitewashing of history, while newer fans’ perspectives have been shaped by this newly constructed view.

One explanation for the outrage is obvious: no one likes to have their own history tampered with, and many associate the legacies of the performers they grew up with and/or followed for years as their own. To see Randy Savage, one of the industry’s biggest stars, completely written out of WWE’s own history is hard for many to buy into if only because erasing his contributions is to erase large portions of one of wrestling’s most successful eras (and greatest matches). But the question still stands: who cares?

These are men who build their legacies in an industry which builds its own legacy on myths and slight of hand. Wrestling has been a fixed quasi-sport for around 100 years now. Any semblance of legitimacy has long since evaporated, replaced by half-truths and in many cases outright lies. Stories of the past are shaded by the bias of the storytellers passing them down, regardless of who the storytellers are and their relationship with preserving wrestling’s legacy; some fabricate to harm its image, while others omit to preserve it. In the end, what we’re left with is still a quasi-sport of fixed fights with a history so full of distortions and half-truths that we can never truly know the reality of what happened.

Because of this, an even greater question is raised: does this quixotic pursuit of one’s legacy actually harm both the wrestlers and the fans? For the fans it creates heightened expectations that few can ever meet. The mythologizing of the past has led to a malaise in the audience with the current product, no matter how good it is; to many it can never live up to those past highs created by men who sought to overcome their own insignificance by carving out a place in history for themselves (no matter how imaginary that place might be). So now fans view many of today’s wrestlers as simply day-laborers, or men in it simply for the paycheck. In a way, though, isn’t that the best way to view wrestling? As simply a job.

Most of the men who have grown up buying into the “myth” of wrestling and the pursuit of their own legacy are the ones that end up tragic figures. Many would argue that Ric Flair was the greatest North American wrestler of the ’80s and most of the ’90s, but eventually those same fans turned on him in the ’00s, claiming he descended into self-parody by hanging on for too long. Mick Foley, a life-long fan of wrestling, destroyed his body to gain acceptance from the same fans to the point that he himself has admitted he has trouble walking and playing with his children. And more than any other example, Chris Benoit was the true wrestling dream-turned-nightmare. From a young age, his life was wrestling. He idolized the mythic figures, he trained to become one of them, and then he threw himself headlong into an insane pursuit of a legacy that would ultimately be erased because of the things he did to get to the top: unprotected chair shots to the head, an intense physical style of wrestling that led to multiple injuries, and ultimately an addiction to a variety of drugs because of those injuries. What followed then was a culmination of a life spent ignoring his own well-being to become a name on a page for a very small minority of people to argue over.

Compare that to men like Bill Goldberg who are scorned for not caring about their legacies: Goldberg got out with only a few injuries and leads a relatively comfortable life, he has enough money to support himself, and doesn’t need to rely on wrestling like men like Flair or Hogan do. In an ironic sort of twist, Bill Goldberg is one of wrestling’s few true success stories. He escaped unscathed, no injuries crippling him, and no emotional baggage to carry. Is it because he wasn’t a lifelong fan and simply viewed it a job, or was he just lucky?

Regardless, the question stands: what is the real value of a legacy in the wrestling industry?

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