I've been slowly working my way through several books this week and had sworn I would do a straight review of at least one of them, but a multitude of side projects is slowing me down. Still I feel the need to write down some comments on the new book Ring Of Hell, an expose on the twisted world of professional wrestling by Matthew Randazzo V.
Straight out of the gate I should note two things. First I am a huge pro wrestling fan and have been for my entire life. In the minds of some people this disqualifies me from being taken seriously on any matter of importance, but then a lot of those same people think Al Gore is the godfather of environmentalism, and regard Thomas Friedman as a a serious intellectual force.
Secondly Matthew Randazzo has been a friend of mine for years. I first starting discussing the finer points of obscure wrestling bouts with Matthew nearly a decade ago and Matthew's unique, polemical, writing style was tailor made for a book of this ilk.
"What ilk is that?" you ask? Well, it's not a book for fanboys of the pro wrestling industry. In fact the book is a scathing critique of the entire business, using family annihilator and pro wrestling legend Chris Benoit as a prototypical model of the ultra-obsessed "mark" who loved this deranged "sport" more than he loved himself, his family or anything else. It has been compared by some reviewers to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, but I think it is more like H.L. Mencken doing Helter Skelter with pro wrestling being the topic of choice. Lest one think this comparison is a major stretch, the book is categorized as true crime by Barnes and Noble. While Benoit's murderous rampage is only covered in the last few pages of the book, the other 330-plus pages are devoted to exposing the much larger criminal enterprise that is the wrestling business itself.
One of the central themes of this blog has been an interest in decentralism, localism and regionalism and a commitment to the "bigger is badder" ethos of left conservatism. While Randazzo's book clealy argues that the seedy culture of the business predates the corporate takeover of pro wrestling, he reserves most of his more severe denunciations for the big wrestling empires: New Japan Pro Wrestling, the now defunct World Championship Wrestling and arguably the worst of them all, Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment. Reading about dojo murders and their cover-ups, yakuza control of the Japanese market, backstage politicking and ineptitude of the highest order and wild drug binges and sexual crimes all in one book, there is certainly a lot of blame to spread around, but the modern industry is clearly the focus.
It is worth noting that the term "industry" was virtually never used in reference to pro wrestling before the McMahon takeover of the old territorial system in the mid-80's. As someone who has often been accused of neo-luddism, I tend to shudder when I see that term applied to anything, as the word denotes a sort of inhumane, bottom-line approach, that pushes real human needs, wants and desires to the back of the bus. While Randazzo is right to note the ritualistic hazing, torture and generally terrible conditions wrestlers like Benoit were subjected to in the territorial days, one of the more interesting passages in the book comes at the tail end of the fifth chapter when he makes a solid argument that the death of the territories effectively destroyed any hope for a pro wrestling landscape filled with well-adjusted, down-to-earth, family men.
For example Randazzo notes:
"Unlike the NWA territories which kept a wrestler within driving distance of his family at most times, these international brands sent their wrestlers from one end of the continent to the other...This in effect put an end to the camaraderie that had existed in the territories. No longer were wrestlers members of a freewheeling carny brotherhood, a traveling biker gang; now they were interchangeable cogs within a heavily bureaucratic corporate behemoth, cowering in their cubicles in fear of the next downsizing."
In other words, pro wrestling may have always been filled with self-mutilating eccentrics, who's behavior would have been considered bizarre at best, but at least in the territorial days there was some normality, some structure. Not so after the corporate monolith reared its typically grotesque head. Wrestlers were downsized out of the industry or run into early graves all out of "respect for the business".
This "respect the business" mantra is really puzzling to outsiders looking in. After all, one never hears stories of Best Buy shoppers chanting the companies name if they score a good deal on a DVD, or people applauding a coal miners dedication to his craft when his workplace implodes on him. Pro wrestling is literally the only business I know of where both fans and wrestlers are expected to show total dedication to the "product" (another disgustingly inhumane word in this context) to the point of actively celebrating behavior that would be considered barbaric, immoral or insane in any other line of work.
To take one example, Randazzo's book is the first study of pro wrestling to really focus on the ins and outs of training for the business. While many of the details Randazzo divulges about the horrifying conditions of the infamous "Hart Family Dungeon" in Western Canada are known to long time wrestling fans, they would shock the average citizen of a civilized Republic. The even more disturbing stories that come out of the New Japan Pro Wrestling dojo have managed to shock even some of the most
"boys will be boys" hardcore wrestling fans. Still, I want to briefly focus on a relatively minor charge dug up by Randazzo that would be considered scandalous in any other context.
While discussing the ins and outs of the dojo training in Japan, Randazzo makes note that world renowned wrestling superstar Jushin Liger would often walk up to helpless trainees and punch them full tilt in the face for no reason. In a chapter where ritual sexual humiliation and outright murders are discussed this does not seem so bad, but lets think about this for a moment. The defense of Liger's behavior has been something along the lines of "hey, wrestlers have to be toughened up and getting hit is part of their job". While it is true that bumps in wrestling do hurt and often times wrestlers do absorb full contact strikes to the head, would this line of defense be considered seriously in any other business? I work in a restaurant, where burns are far more commonplace than are unprotected legitimate punches to the face in the choreographed "sport" of pro wrestling. Still if I had been purposely burned at random for months in order to "prepare me" for the inevitable dangers of the job I would have sued the pants off of the place. In wresting if you complain, let alone sue or fight back, you are tossed out of the brotherhood forever. Just ask Jim Wilson. If you allow yourself to be punched in the ears until you are concussed and bleeding you become a superstar. Just ask Chris Benoit.
Many laymen are totally unaware of the economic realities of the wrestling business. Even most fans have literally no idea that wrestlers do not receive pensions or health insurance from their employers. They do not have a union or any other collective bargaining agency and the paranoid nature of most of the performers almost assures they never will. For the most part they pay their own travel expenses and are required to get themselves from place to place while keeping up with their hectic road schedules. When these details become known the most common response is "regulate it", but would that help?
Regulations would likely have the same effect on the independent wrestling companies that they had on small artisans and farmers during the Progressive Era. In other words it would make them extinct. This would strengthen McMahon and the corporate class even more and would leave those concerned few who take the lives of pro wrestlers and their families seriously back at square one. In light of these facts Randazzo's implied call for abolition hardly seems crazy.
The modern wrestling industry has no true parallel historically, but I like to compare it to Hassan I Sabbah and The Assassins. Vince McMahon is the "Old Man On The Mountain" himself guaranteeing glory, immortality and honor, but dispensing only copious amounts of drugs and loose women. His empire promotes placelessness, if not outright homelessness, in service of an undefined "greater good". The Assassins were promised heaven. What the hell is McMahon really promising other than a place for long time marks to fulfill their fantasies by showing their creepy level of commitment to a business that leaves their bodies broken and homes shattered?
Hassan I Sabbah is said to have uttered "Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted" moments before his death. It is hard to imagine a more chilling and accurate epitaph for Chris Benoit and the wrestling industry at-large, but if one is to be found Randazzo's book will be the Rosetta Stone.