Dear Pro Wrestling,
I owe you a huge apology. For much of my life, I have disliked you. I used to scoff and scold people who admitted to enjoying you. “You know it’s fake?” I’d say with a spiteful roll of my eye, docking them IQ points for having owned up to indulging in such trash. That is until Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling by Max Landis entered my life.
It was another rainy spring afternoon in Vancouver. My husband and I sat on the couch. I pretended to write on my laptop when I had once again fallen down the rabbit hole that is social media. Matt sat watching something energetic. I had tuned it out for the last ten minutes, but as the intensity reached a rich lather, I could no longer ignore the passion spouting from the T.V.
“What in the world are you watching?” An edge in my voice.
“It’s a video on pro wrestling,” he answered, his eyes and attention never breaking contact with the flickering screen.
“Ugh, that stuff is so fake.” My irritable edge became full-blown vexation. Have you ever had that happen? Go from mildly put off to hateful in two seconds flat? Of course You have, you’re pro wrestling. You’re all about shifting emotions.
“So are the detective shows you love,” Matt spat back, a gleam in his eye. A smirk hanging from the corner of his mouth.
“Yeah, but that’s different,” I replied, thinking my tastes superior to anything resembling the charade that is pro wrestling. He raised an eyebrow, stopping my snootiness in its tracks. He’d hit a nerve. Almost everything I followed on T.V. is fake. Why wouldn’t it be? T.V. is entertainment. It’s not an accurate representation of life. Television is inflated, dramatized, and spiffed up to appear larger than life. It has to be. If it were just like life, it would be too boring and depressing.
“All right, point made.” I closed my laptop. “Do you mind starting it over?”
“Yeah, it sounds interesting.” I settled in to watch. What I learned blew my mind.
The Turning Point
Landis’ parody of the rise of Triple H (a.k.a. Hunter Hearst-Helmsley) to World Wrestling champion is fantastic. The gender-swapped reenactment gives the viewer an amazing and playful ride through the trials and tribulations of Triple H’s on-screen career.
Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling ladled intrigued into my mind. Not only did I sit through a short film about pro wrestling, something I would have never done, I ended up watching it twice. . . in a row. Yes, it’s that good.
What can I say? I found you interesting to the point of mild obsession.
However, Landis’ Cliff Notes version only tells the public story of one of the greats in pro wrestling. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to know about the actual pro wrestlers, about the people behind the personas.
Enter Radiolab’s The Montreal Screwjob podcast where Bret “The Hitman” Hart went up again Shawn Michaels for the championship title. But, things didn’t go according to plan. Note: a screwjob is a finish to a match where the promoter and one wrestler scheme to have the other wrestler lose without the other wrestler’s foreknowledge. As you can imagine, this is a really shitty thing to do.
Where Landis’ bio on Triple-H piqued my interest with what happens in front of the camera, The Montreal Screwjob was a gut punch as to what goes on behind the scenes. This is where shit gets real. I always complained about how fake wrestling is, but a lot of real-life bleeds over into the ring. This blurring of the lines between reality and fiction makes for some tough working condition, but great television.
Here’s the skinny for those unfamiliar with the Montreal Screw Job. Bret Hart, a longtime babyface in WWE and right-hand man of Vince McMahon, the WWE principal owner, jumped networks and go to WCW for better pay.
As stated in Hart’s contract, he had reasonable creative license over the outcome of his final match. Over the weeks, McMahon and Hart found some middle ground; Hart’s final match against Michaels would end in a schmozz (a cluster fuck of wrestlers rushing the ring making a clear winner impossible to call). This outcome would allow Hart, the championship belt holder and Canadian National Treasure, to save face while on his native soil. Hart would return the belt the following day before moving over to WCW, or so he thought.
Here’s where it gets shifty. McMahon couldn’t risk having his belt appear on WCW, so he came up with his own ending to the Montreal match. After agreeing to Hart’s demands, McMahon secretly told Shawn Michaels, that Hart would lose, making Michaels the victor. Michaels, agreed to keep Hart in the dark, laying the blame for the screwjob with McMahon.
During the match, things started out as planned. Michaels puts Hart in a hold like discussed, and then someone, perhaps McMahon, says, “Ring the bell”, officially ending the match. Since Michaels had Hart pinned when the bell rang, Michaels became the champion.
It’s rare for pro wrestlers to break kayfabe (the third wall of wrestling) while in the ring, but this was one of them. The expression of shock and betrayal on Hart’s face is unmistakable. He’s not acting. Hart spat in McMahon’s face (a man he considered a second father), destroy WWE property by smashing the announcer’s table and audio equipment, and then later he punches McMahon in the face, knocking him unconscious.
Many pro wrestling fans and critics believe what happened in Montreal was scripted, and nothing more than a publicity stunt. Yet, Michaels and Triple H come clean about the Montreal Screwjob in the documentary WWE: The Shawn Michaels Story: Heartbreak & Triumph. But even their admission of knowing the actual outcome of the match could be considered keeping kayfabe.
Pro Wrestling Gets Real
Stories like this are not unique. Take the love triangle that took place between Matt Hardy, Edge (Adam Copeland), and Lita (Amy Dumas).
After a bad fall that left Matt with a torn ACL requiring surgery and leaving him home to recuperate for months, Dumas struck up a romantic relationship with Copeland.
The affair went on for several months before Hardy found out, leaving him heartbroken. Understandably so. Later in an interview, Hardy broke kayfabe and spoke out about the breakup which led to WWE firing him. Eventually, they took him back, and wrote the breakup into the show, pitting Edge and Hardy against each other in the ring.
I have a hard time wrapping my head around how awkward and hard that was for everyone involved. Imagine being placed in a situation where you need to pretend to beat the ever-loving shit out of someone night after night when all you want to do is beat the ever-loving shit out of them for real. Talk about a hard working environment. Yet, they pulled it off. Absolute professionals to the bone. Shirts off to you sirs. Shirts off.
So, Pro Wrestling, I’m sorry for being such a prick to you. I was wrong and I’m not too big to admit it. You are fascinating. Your wrestlers are tremendous athletes who risk their lives to bring their fans amazing shows. I would even call you theater, after all, there’s over the top dramatics, costumes, characters, and an audience. I may never froth at the mouth or scream as the top of my lungs for you, but you have my undying respect.