I love the idea of pro wrestling and I consider it a sport. I don’t watch pro wrestling anymore, but you have to have immense respect for athletes who travel more than 200 days a year, stay in bodybuilder contest shape, and for the most part are as mobile as gymnasts. It’s the extreme version of the Ginger Rogers- Fred Astaire principle; they do everything MMA fighters do… without actually hurting each other.
On top of that, pro wrestling has its origins in the carnival. The wrestler is a nomadic con man, a trickster by nature, who travelled from town to town, plying his trade until the business suddenly changed. Shows in tents, became shows in bingo halls, which became arenas. But its still the same hustle. The people who say that wrestling is fake are the saddest suckers of all.
Of course it’s fake. Most entertainment is. The personas crafted by musicians and actors and artists are nearly indistinguishable from wrestlers at this point. Very little separates Slash from Donald Trump from Kim Kardashian from Gorgeous George.
Wrestling is theater for the plebian, and if you have the historical context, there is precious little to separate it from the same stuff that delighted the Greeks. It’s designed to be enjoyed at face value. It’s the people that think they know what’s going on, that tend to be utterly manipulated, but it’s all part of the con. And it is a con. Everything to do with wrestling has to be taken with a grain of salt, after all tall tales are part of the game.
Which is to say that presentation is everything. The great wrestlers were able to put enough of their actual personality into their characters to make them believable. They had the ability to attract people and when you think about it, it’s all based on their ability to pantomime. And the introduction of the character is huge. It sets the tone for how the character is going to work.
When someone is introduced in wrestling, the worst thing that can happen is nothing. It’s about momentum. When someone comes through that curtain, it’s supposed to send a jolt through the crowd, whether its good or bad. The worst thing that can happen is to kill the momentum.
The Hindenburg of wrestling character introductions is The Shockmaster.
A great deal of ideas in wrestling are bad. Its busy and its live, and a lot can go wrong. The booker is responsible for who wins and loses, and what storylines come and go, and it’s a lot of work. The best you can do is have a handful of great moments to your resume, but there were a lot of mistakes along the way.
Dusty Rhodes was a legendary wrestler who was now booking for the WCW. They were coming into Clash of the Champions, an important Pay Per View Show. This was Rhodes chance to introduce Fred Ottman, a towering wrestler with a solid background. Ottman had been badly misused previously in WCW as Tugboat, a Popeye type sailor character. Ottman was to be misused again as the Shockmaster.
The Shockmaster was an ill-defined character (and a fantastic argument against autocratic authority) with a long black vest, tight denim jeans, and a Star Wars Shock Trooper helmet uniformly covered in silver glitter.
This was a lousy idea.
Once the outfit was put on, the 400lb Ottman couldn’t see out of the helmet. He was inaudible as well, so veteran wrestler Ole Anderson was perched in the next room, with a microphone. Ole was not a great vocal talent, but he was going to provide the voice of the Shockmaster.
The plan was that The Shockmaster would burst through the wall in the middle of a promo where two squads of wrestlers would promote their match at Clash of Champions. Ric Flair was to host the segment, putting pressure on everyone because there is a legitimate argument you can make that Flair is the greatest of all time. (My top five in no order: Bruno Sammartino, Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Lou Thesz and Killer Kowalski/Gorgeous George)
The lineups were great. The villains, or “heels” were the Harlem Heat, a great team with an A-list future talent and multiple heavyweight champion Booker T, Sid Eudy, an impossibly muscular 6”8 enforcer that wasn’t great on the mike, but really connected with the crowd, and Van Vader, generally agreed upon to be the best big man in the history of the sport. (At 450 lbs Vader bench pressed over 600lbs raw, but was agile enough to dropkick wrestlers from a standing position, and do back flips off the top rope.)
The other team? Dusty Rhodes, one of the most charismatic and entertaining wrestlers in the business (and when he wasn’t pressed for preposterous storylines, a fine booker), The British Bulldog, who wasn’t a great talker but had a near unmatchable combination of power, build, ability, agility and experience, and Sting, one of the industries top stars.
The time came. They ran the segment and then –
I don’t know what’s more potent. Ric Flair’s anguished ‘Oh God,’ as he realizes that the whole segment, (and by association, the whole match) just went down the drain, Davey Boys ‘he fell on his arse’ comment, or Booker T using the worst word he could have possibly used on live television. Maybe its Ole Anderson laughing into the microphone, and then being unable to get The Shockmaster’s voice right, making him sound like a Jim Henson muppet. Maybes its Sid continuing the whole thing the way it was drawn up. But its potent, and one of the most embarrassing moments in sports.