Saturday afternoon TV wrestling broadcasts always made us girl children yawn and groan.
But as an adult (and recent convert) I’m urging you to go experience wrestling, especially if you claim there’s nothing new or fun to do in Salt Lake City. It’s the best extant form of commedia dell’arte around, and if you’re a kinesthetic learner like me, you’ll appreciate the fact that this league, the UCW- ZERO is local and is smallish in scale, and you’ll also hope in some small way that it never gets any larger.
To better wrap my head around the social text that I experienced live last night, I revisited another one from my checkered past and I’m recommending Roland Barthes’ 1957 essay “The World of Wrestling” here as a primer for our full sensory and learning immersion.
Who Cares About Fakery? It’s All Theater
Barthes explains how wrestling is a theatrical act. It’s what everybody already knows, but I felt compelled to re-read him because what I’d most remembered him doing was arguing back at wrestling’s detractors (among them, probably whiny little girls like me who ‘hated’ wrestling and who no doubt complained, “I don’t understand it”). It’s quite the contrary, in fact, as Barthes argues. Wrestling is sublimely understandable, because every single element in wrestling has an “absolute clarity, since [the spectator] must always understand everything on the spot” (20). Everything at a wrestling event is based on understood signs within a system of signs. “In wrestling, nothing exists except in the absolute, there is not symbol, no allusion, everything is presented exhaustively” (25). He’s called wrestling an Intelligible Spectacle.
A perfect introduction for a newcomer ought to include something like my own neophyte experience at the local league event last night, on the front row of folding chairs barely eight feet away from the ropes. At this distance and degree of liveness, the sheer athleticism, endurance, fantasy, melodrama and showmanship finally manifested for me. Both television and cheap seats at the opera fail to show audiences just how well-choreographed, rehearsed, skillful and dedicated these true entertainers are. The sweat drips and flies. These wrestlers and their audience shills fight and get dangerously close to the spectators- plus their faces, close-up– are completely hilarious as they sometimes nearly break character, all making the the case for your necessary proximity.
Even the Jumbotron would fall short of showing you what is really happening. For a beginning wrestling spectator to “get it”, you need to initially get as close to the action as you can, so you’re in on all the jokes and tropes. Awestruck by this local league of muscle-y, spandex-clad athletes performing, punching, leaping and body-slamming for each other as well as their audience of about 100, in a converted warehouse just off of west Redwood Road, I clapped, air-punched and shouted right along with the crowd, many of them costumed for the Halloween weekend, or perhaps just organically emulating the stock characters of Duck Dynasty, the trailer parks and other boroughs of American reality, mythology and commedia.
Theater? Yes. But Definitely Athletic Theater!
Fake fights? Maybe. But required athleticism and skill? Lots. Some of the moves and series of moves in any fight are agreed on in advance, as my client Martin Casaus has told me for months now. He’s the lead roster star with the UCW- ZERO league. Other moves are improvised during the match. I could almost make out, so I thought, which series of moves were staged and which were improv moves.
Even though as my promoter/producer friend Johathan King assured me, it’s all “stunt man stuff,” the unmistakably remaining fact is that it’s always dangerous. Sitting together on the front row, we found ourselves talking about careers in wrestling and how as stock characters go, he says the “villains’” careers never seem to last as long as those of the “good guys,” which seems puzzling and in need of further investigation because Barthes argues that unlike sports, wrestling, has no winner (19). It is not the function of the wrestler to win, says Barthes,“it is to go through the motions which are expected of him” (20). Jonathan, describing himself as a major fan, detailed some harrowing injuries that particular players in this league had experienced during their careers –and this had me statistically wondering about who gets injured more– the good guys or the bad guys.
It’s Never About Fair Fighting
Barthes argues that wrestling is NOT a sport. It is a spectacle. And he’s correct, in that this variety of performative, stagey stuff with its flamboyant costumes, bragging personae and their scripted insult-spewing, never involves a real or “fair” fight, like ‘real’ Greco-Roman style or Olympic-style wrestling (the sort that adolescent girls also largely ignore during high school). Case in point, my client Martin has long described for me how these fights are staged, and the personas (and often outcomes) are clearly underscored from minute one. I’m glad I finally took the opportunity to see a live event, as he’s urged me for months to do. I found myself marveling at the transformation taking place before my eyes.
A respectable guy with a day job as a stockbroker, Martin Casaus, nearly naked and muscles rippling, enters the space, parades around the audience, title belts slung over both his shoulders, monloguing loudly about his prowess, achievements and his titles, as the crowd heckles and chants “o-ver-rate-ed! O-ver-rate-ed!” As a “villain” of wrestling, akin to an Il Capitano from the classic forms of commedia dell’arte, Casaus is just full of himself, full of bravado, strutting and basking in his own glory, even while the crowd chants at him, “You’re an asshole!” “You’re an asshole!” It’s such great theater. The sort where the audience is not required to sit quietly in the dark with hands politely folded in their laps.
The bastard or villain is the one who usually suffers, says Barthes. His body itself reveals all his “actions, his treacheries, cruelties and acts of cowardice” (23), however, in this local UCW- ZERO league, the sheer physiques of the “villains” seemed often mismatched with those of the “good guys” in terms of their muscle definition and mid-life tummies, or lack of them. They’ve plenty of pure physical variety to go around with all shapes and sizes.
Though according to Barthes, “the physique of the wrestlers therefore constitutes a basic sign, which like a seed contains the whole fight” (23). I think he must be at least implying that the fighters are costumed accordingly. If we’d been watching a western, we would have seen white and black hats. In the case of last night’s matches, by far the funniest “villain,” Suede Thompson, stood out with his costume’s actual use of sueded panne’ velvet amidst a sea of clingy, shiny spandex worn by everyone else. “Persona” seemed far more communicated through postures, posing and speechifying. Overall, it was a feast for the eyes, this hyper-masculine ballet of both real and mock violence.
I Show You My Victory and I Show You My Defeat
Defeat and Justice go hand in hand, Barthes claims. Defeat is not an “outcome”, but a “display” (21). Defeat of the bastard “is a purely moral concept: that of justice” (21). The displays of suffering at the fights last night were equally distributed. Everyone winces, contorts and oomphs when their heads are grabbed in mock neck twisting or slammed into the ropes or onto the mat. The facial acting alone and feigned helplessness are priceless.
Cheating: It’s Morally OK
The most riveting was a blended-gender fight, something I never expected. It featured Lacey Ryan, one of the coolest, toughest girls I’ve ever seen.
When she “won” in what presented itself as a fair fight against her male opponent, a “villain,” I was reminded that Barthes argues that the defeated must deserve the punishment (21) which is why the “crowd is jubilant at seeing the rules broken” (21) as long as it is just. This all had me wondering how “taboo” it might be and in what context if in a fight, a female actually lost against a male opponent. In other words, how PC is co-ed wrestling these days? I winced, watching that particular fight, in much the way I winced watching Hit Girl get the crap beat out of her in Kick Ass. In both cases, I know everything possible was being done to prevent real injury but I worried nonetheless. In wrestling, Barthes insists, the “Exhibition of Suffering” is what the fights are actually all about (22). Last night’s fights revealed everyone’s suffering, and Martin was hit pretty hard on the head with a folding chair during his final match. What we actually watch wrestling for is the “great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice,” says Barthes, and just like in theater, “wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks” (23).
That chair itself told the true story of its own injury, its metal backrest bent and nearly unrecognizable. I flinched all evening at both the real as well as the simulated violence. One thing’s for certain, to be in wrestling you have to be fit, and tough. Asking Martin about what their gentlemen’s agreement is within the league and about how hard they can hit one another, he confided once that “it’s easier to hit guys harder the better you know them. You go easier on the new guys, because you haven’t become as good of friends yet.” Villains or Good Guys, everybody’s a friend within the league, he tells me. Once again, Barthes has told us about the performance of wrestling –that defeat isn’t an “outcome.” It’s a “display” (21). Defeat of the bastard “is a purely moral concept: that of justice” (21).The defeated must deserve the punishment (21) which is why the “crowd is jubilant at seeing the rules broken” (21) as long as it is just. Will Martin seek personal revenge because his opponent “cheated” and hit him with a chair? No. But I’m told that the ensuing next round of fights will begin with this very premise.
The fights last night concluded with a costume contest, in which a young boy, clad in a China-made superhero costume complete with “muscles,” was awarded first prize. His opponents: Several adults. Talk about cheating or bending the rules.
Payment in Full: Congratulating Your Heroes
As the evening wrapped, spectators lingered and thronged around the doors, waiting for the fighters to emerge. Meanwhile, costumed kids took to the ring and practiced the “moves” they’d witnessed just prior. Watching in amazement, I saw them pull their punches, slapping themselves or stomping to make the loud “thuds” of stuntman legend. I’d asked Jonathan King if the league makes any money or if the roster members make any. He tells me that for the most part, the admissions charged and members’ dues and the school (yes, a wrestling academy- in case you’re interested and want to enroll!) make the league self-supporting. But, he also tells me, the fighters live for audience feedback at the end of a night.
He recounted some details of the recent 10-year anniversary event he’d produced for them, at a much larger venue in which they’d had an audience of about a thousand spectators. I asked if the league was truly ready to perform on this scale again or make the leap to mainstream tv broadcast or cable. I asked if the league’s reluctance to do this might be related to money, logistics, or maybe even ‘stagefright.” “Stagefright,” he answered.
Last night’s whole event reminded me of how a small group of friends and their extended comrades can enjoy a fun evening of karaoke together, yet only a small marginal few would feel truly comfortable at the crowd-level of, say, an American Idol competition. Indeed, some of the local “love” for the spectacle as well as the players might get lost in bigger venues or those far from home. As we waited for the fighters to emerge from backstage after last night’s event, Jonathan suggested I tell some of them what I admired about their particular moves or stunts, that that’s the feedback and reward they really cherished and lived for.
Not being well-versed in most or any of these moves, I gushed stupidly.
“Wow- amazing,” I stuttered as I met some of the wrestlers in person.
God, I’m such a dork.
I did ask Martin, though, “Hey, holy hell, where did you actually get hit with that chair?” “Right on top of the head,” he said, pointing at his bean. “Well at least it shouldn’t affect your tailoring,” I quipped back.
It’s actually nice to know and care about these performers in person, something a local league and small-scale community allow you to do.
Here’s Roland Barthes’ book, Mythologies, that you might find interesting. His essay, “The World of Wrestling” is here.