Surrounded By Smarts: My Introduction to Pro Wrestling

I had no idea. The world of pro wrestling was closed to me and I to it; as far as I was concerned, it was a redneck pastime of rural America not worth a second thought. My infrequent intersections with wrestling had ranged from the boring to the utterly bizarre.

It was Michael Thomas who opened my eyes. Every couple of weeks I pester Michael to start his own blog, because he’s the kind of guy who’s always forwarding links to his friends and chatting about pop culture. He knows enough about comics to fit very well into that segment of the blogosphere, and he has the requisite Quirky Area of Expertise: he’s a devotee of pro wrestling, and is even writing a master’s thesis on its history and importance to American culture. Last Sunday, in the spirit of broadening my horizons, I headed over to his house for an evening of pay-per-view excitement.

Michael is a “smart.” Until I met him I didn’t realize that smarts existed, though if I had taken a moment to think I might have guessed it. To understand what a smart is you first have to get your mind around this stunning secret: pro wrestling is fake. It’s staged. The outcomes of the matches are determined in advance by the bookers, and, depending on the skill of the wrestlers, the exact details of the match are either scripted in advance or improvised through subtle communication in the ring. The relationships and rivalries between wrestlers on television comprise a storyline of soap-operatic proportions, all completely made up.

Still with me? Take deep breaths. I realize it was a bit of a shock. Now then: if you’re someone who’s a fan of pro wrestling and believes wholeheartedly that it’s real, that makes you a “mark.” If, on the other hand, you’re clued in to the artifice, and still a fan, you’re a smart. Smarts revel in technical knowledge of the hidden workings of the wrestling world, while at the same time appreciating the matches themselves with no small measure of ironic detachment. They take take pride in noticing when a wrestler uses the hidden razor blade to slice his forehead and make himself bleed, or catching it when one whispers to another to negotiate the next “spot.” They especially admire a good “worker”—a wrestler who can pull off a difficult maneuver and make it look real. All smarts live for the instant when they are transported despite themselves, when that ineluctable moment arrives in a match and they believe it to be real in their heart of hearts, when they are taken up as completely and naively as any mark. Such a moment is known as “marking out.” (There’s also such a thing as a “smark,” which is a smart who admits to being somewhat of a mark at times, perhaps because they’re a big fan of a particular wrestler.)

Sunday night, I was surrounded by Michael and his friends, most of them smarts, but I was doubly removed from the action, watching both the wrestling and the wrestling-watchers with wry detachment. (A “snark,” if you will; credit for that coinage belongs to a smart named Hal all-around cool guy Steve Conley. [Hal remains cool himself, but was not the guy who coined the term.]) There wasn’t a redneck in the bunch, though Michael is from Louisiana. Heck, one guy even had a British accent. At first I thought that at the very least it was a guy thing, but when Michael’s mild-mannered, elegant wife Megan started getting into the action, I realized that all bets were off when it came to stereotyping smarts. They could be anyone; they could be anywhere. You may know a smart and not even know it.

They were a little disappointed that night, because as it turned out, Michael’s cable box was out. This worked out just fine for me, though, since this meant that he dipped into his prodigious collection of wrestling DVDs and showed an assortment of classic matches from the past twenty years. Thus began my education in wrestling; thus was the veil torn from mine eyes. I’ll run down the six matches I saw that day and in the process try to shed a little light for the uninitiated on the world of wrestling.

Magnum TA vs. Tully Blanchard—1985

An old-school cage fight was a good start, though it was probably my least favorite of the matches. It was an “I Quit” match, which meant that the winner was the guy who got the other one to cry uncle. Spandex shorts and bad hair were the order of the day. There was little to distinguish the good guy from the bad guy here, except maybe the fact that Magnum TA was blonde. He was the “face”—short for babyface—the one the marks are supposed to like. Tully, by contrast, was the “heel,” the villain, the one the marks are supposed to hate (and love to hate). Wrestling storylines are unrelentingly formulaic and always come back to the struggle between good and evil. This is not to say that the face always wins the match, but if he doesn’t, you can be sure there’ll be an opportunity down the road for the heel to get his comeuppance. Heels are the ones who break the rules and fight dirty, though there’s some leeway if a heel has done so for the face to respond in kind.

“What’s the cage for?” I asked as it started.

“To keep them in,” somebody replied.

The fight was your standard grab-the-guy-and-roll-around-on-the-floor style of wrestling; what distinguished it from the other matches was the amount of blood, which you don’t often see anymore. Some of the blood is real, but most of it is generated with hidden razors. The ol’ slash across the forehead is relatively safe but makes for a great spectacle. Smarts call this a “blade job,” and rate blade jobs on the “Muta Scale,” named after the Great Muta, a Japanese wrestler who “could pull off a sick blade job in his day,” according to Michael. The critical thing to understand, though, is that smarts are in for appreciation of the technique and not the gory violence—those who are into the blood for its own sake are disparagingly called “vampires.”

The high point of the match was when Tully had Magnum in a submission hold and stole the ref’s microphone. He stuffed it into Magnum’s mouth and shouted “Say it! Say it!” Later on Magnum was doing the same thing to Tully, and somewhere in there one of them was banging the other one on the head with it. When it was all over one of the smarts commented that that match hadn’t help up over the years as well as he thought it would. This led to a brief conversation comparing a number of matches from the Eighties, in which the participants displayed as much erudition and mastery of trivial knowledge as baseball fans comparing World Series pitchers or Phisheads debating which was the best Gamehenge.

Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart—1994

Family is important in wrestling, with storylines often involving brother warriors, black sheep, in-laws and the like. Owen Hart here played the jealous younger brother, always outshone by his elder, and willing to do anything to gain the upper hand—hence, the heel. This was also a cage match, with the added wrinkle that you won if you managed to climb over the top of the cage or escaped through the door, which a referee with a truly outrageous mullet would open when the struggle moved in his direction. During the opening wide shot, Hal smiled. “I always liked this cage,” he said.

Watching wrestling involves a certain amount of suspension of disbelief—above and beyond the obvious suspension of disblelief, I mean. I had a hard time at first going along with the fact that, after being bludgeoned repeatedly, one of the brothers would be forced back into the cage before escaping because of a particularly nasty grip on his hair. But wrestling logic is different from that of the real world, and some conventions you just have to go along with, or you’ll be lost before you’ve really begun.

The Hart brothers wore more spandex and more pink than their 1985 forebears. The match didn’t get really interesting until Bret actually won it, but instead of relenting, Owen called on Jim Neidherdt, Bret’s former tag team partner, who leapt from the stands, turned on Bret (gasp!), and tossed him back in the ring. Bret was aided by his brother-in-law, the British Bulldog (another convenient spectator), and for a while there was some two-on-two post-match chaos in which Owen actually locked the cage while shouting “You’re not my brother! You’re not my family!” The scene ended with the camera following Owen and Jim leaving the arena as if victorious to the frantic boos of the crowd.

When Worlds Collide—November 6, 1994

I wanted a group fight, and Michael obliged me. This three-on-three tag-team struggle featured five Mexican wrestlers and one American; it was a joint venture of WCW and AAA, a Mexican wrestling federation. Up until this point I think it’s safe to say I hadn’t marked out, or even come close. But this was a very different style of wrestling. Instead of big lugs lurching around the ring, many of these guys were lighter, faster, and acrobatic. Jumps, flips, and tumbles prevailed. One of the Mexicans, Psychosis, wore a gaudy orange costume featuring a bison mask. How cool is that?

“Psychosis sells really well,” one of the smarts commented. “Selling” is very important to smarts: it is the ability to act well, especially when it comes to providing continuity through the match. In other words, if someone pulls an Atomic Drop on you early in the match, totally screwing up your lower back, then twenty minutes later you ought to be moving in a way that shows that your lower back still hurts. That seems pretty basic, but the performative element of wrestling is something that only the best can pull off well; there are debased wrestlers (like Hulk Hogan) who hardly bother with it at all. (Smarts tend to think very highly of the Japanese pro wrestling circuit, which features more actual physical contact and places a higher emphasis on in-ring performance.)

The commentators hadn’t really grabbed my interest until one of them blurted enthusiastically: “Everything is so unpredictable!” I had a good laugh at that, and also when another one said (of Psychosis) “He thinks not on his feet, but in the air!” Those commentators have a peculiar and fascinating role in all of this. On the one hand, they are providing real and accurate commentary on the match—the moves, the rules, the ongoing development—in a way that has all the trappings of sportscasters everywhere. But they are also in on the story and know the outcome, so of course they are performing every bit as much as the wrestlers. What’s trippy is that they’re not performing instead of commentating—the one is layered on top of the other.

I can now add “wrestling commentator” to the list of wacky occupations I might like to try someday, right alongside “infomercial host,” and for many of the same reasons.

Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio Jr.—October 26, 1997

Mysterio was in the last match as well—he’s a wrestler who made his name in Mexico and then made the transition to the American circuit. He’s 5’3” and agile as heck; it’s like having Spider-Man in the ring. He is a “luchadore,” one who fights in the acrobatic “Lucha Libres” style, sometimes wearing a mask. For this match Mysterio wore a purple bodysuit that made him look like The Phantom. Rending or stealing a luchadore’s mask is a grave insult, so it goes without saying that at some point Eddie tore a gaping hole in Mysterio’s mask, after which point things started really heating up.

I don’t know if I had never happened to watch this sort of high-flying wrestling before, or if being around aficianados was affecting my perspective, but I was definitely surprised by how much I was enjoying myself. Still not marking out, mind, but having a good enough time.

Wrestlemania TLC Match—April 9, 2001

“What does TLC stand for?” I asked.

“Tables, ladders, and chairs,” Megan replied with smile I can only describe as “hungry.”

Oh yes. This was the match with props. A prize belt was suspended 20 feet above the middle of the ring, and the object was for the winning team to get it down. There were three teams, each specializing in fighting with a different type of furniture. It was also another one of those family dramas, where the Dudleys (the table specialists) squared off against the Hardy Boyz (ladders) and the chair guys, whoever they were. Extra family members joined in from the stands, including the diminutive Spike Dudley (Michael: “The runt of the Dudley litter”) and Lita Hardy, a female wrestler who tore off her shirt once in the ring, revealing her ample (and amply-supported) bosom.

Female Smart Whose Name I Forget: You know, Lita busted an implant in the ring one time.
Megan: Wait—do you mean in the storyline, or in real life?
Female: (frowns in thought) I think it was for real.
Me: I don’t know what’s real any more . . .
Hal: . . . And that’s wrestling.

At one point, Jeff Hardy managed to grab the belt, only to have his ladder fall out from under him. As he was swinging in midair, The Edge leapt from another nearby ladder and grabbed him around the waist, pulling them both down—a twenty foot fall, mind you—and crashing to the ground.

“Holy crap!” I cried. There it was. I had marked out. Well, maybe not exactly. It wasn’t so much that I believed it as that I realized that even if both of those guys knew exactly what was going to happen, it was still bloody impressive. The same thing held true a few moments later when a couple guys went flying out of the ring and crashed through two tables that were stacked on top of each other. You can’t pull off a spot like that without extreme bodily injury unless you’re an athlete—a bizarre, twisted, sideshow-spectacle sort of athlete, but an athlete nonetheless.

Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H—August 25, 2002

There was a history to this match. That’s true for most of them, and if you’re not clued in to the story you have little hope of gaining a full appreciation for what’s going on. Back in the day, Michaels and Triple H were both heels and part of the same faction: Degeneration X. These guys were evil not just because of their dirty tricks in the ring, but because they’d hold up signs reading “Who Wrote This Crap?” And that’s breaking kayfabe.

“Kayfabe” is a sort of wrestling code of secrecy—“breaking kayfabe” is pulling back the curtain and exposing the artifice behind a wrestling match. It’s an old carnie term; in that context, keeping kayfabe meant not revealing the tricks of your fellow three-card monte dealers, cureall peddlers, magicians, and other scam artists. It’s entirely appropriate for wrestling to have taken up the term, since the practice has its roots in the carnivals.

Anyway, once you understand kayfabe you can see why a “Who Wrote This Crap?” sign is a rather heinous breach of it, designed to infuriate and/or confuse the marks and infuriate and/or delight the smarts. These guys were bad. But as is wont to happen in wrestling storylines, Shawn Michaels came to see the light and became a face—his change of heart was conveniently coupled with a religious conversion.

So in this match, he strode into the ring wearing a t-shirt that read “Phillipians 4:13.” (I’ll save you the trouble: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”)

Now a seasoned observer of wrestling, I was able to appreciate how good a wrestler Shawn Michaels was—especially in how he sold his back injury so well at every step in the match. I could also appreciate how devastatingly cool it was that the combatants happened to find under the ring the following: a trash can lid, a trash can, a chair, a sledgehammer (Triple H’s weapon of choice), a ladder, a table, and a fire extinguisher. One or the other of them managed to get swatted by each of these in turn. At the end, Triple H had Michaels in a Pedigree—a sort of Piledriver from hell—but Michaels managed to reverse it at the last second for a fluke pin and a pretty thrilling finish.

Now, at last, I understand wrestling—or rather, I am beginning to understand how much I do not yet understand. I’m no smart, but I can no longer really call myself a snark, either. As long as the drinks are cold and the fried chicken is hot, I’d be happy to kick back at Michael’s again for another bit of the old ultraviolence. Michael has done his best to inundate me with resources to read and links to websites—it goes without saying that smart culture grew and thrived with the coming of the Internet. I’m stopping short of delving into all of that, though. I’ll let him take up the task of bringing wrestling to the rest of the world when he starts his own darn blog. Look for it soon.