Thursday, November 21, 2013

Animosity

















Today's wrestling is all about muscle, acrobatics, and promos, but it was images like these (from this 1972 match for Championship Wrestling from Florida, in Tampa) that first stoked my interest in professional wrestling. Gordon Solie, one of this blog's inspirations, sits at ringside, drolly and sometimes poetically describing a sporting contest with the solemnity of Walter Cronkite reporting the day's casualties in Loc Ninh.

About the same time I started watching pro wrestling on TV, I started looking for new friends, friends who were athletic, brawny, and liked to play rough. We play-acted our teenage rage in wrestling matches, one part grappling, one part theatrics. The artifice was as important to us as the real competition, perhaps because all we knew about the actual sport of wrestling came from just two or three weeks' worth of "wrestling" in high-school PE classes. For us the essential thing was intensity, physical exertion, and the joys of acting out a trumped-up animosity. For a small group of sanctified and sexually pent-up evangelicals, this was a release.

Supposedly we're looking at a tag-team match between the Brisco brothers, Jerry and Jack, and their opponents Paul Jones and Dory Funk Sr. But the real fight is between Jack and Paul, who wants the top contender status that Brisco currently occupies. At the startup, when little brother Jerry steps into the ring, Jones shoos him away. "Paul Jones obviously wants Jack Brisco," Solie drily comments, without enthusiasm and unaware of the innuendo I would read into a statement like that. Gamely, Jack tags himself in, and the two wrestlers start a slugfest, interrupted only by an exchange of body slams. At one point, Jack tags Jerry back in, but Paul wants nobody but Jack, and Jack climbs in again, and the two continue trading forearm smashes to the face. Later, Jack and Paul viciously slug it out on the ring apron, totally upstaging Jerry and Dory inside the ring. They want each other sooo bad they can taste it!

None of these guys is chiseled and waxed. Far from it, in fact. Only one of them is under thirty. My guess is that the average age of the combatants is 35. Nobody hurls himself off the top rope, and nobody picks up a staple gun. There's lots of sweat, but no blood. At that point in the history of wrestling most people in the crowd knew that wrestling was "fake," but it hadn't yet become the kiddie clown show it became in the 1980s. What mesmerizes this crowd (mesmerized me) is the ritualistic performance of unchecked animosity between men.

Solie reminds us up front, "The animosity that exists between the Funk family and the Brisco clan is obvious at this point. And here you have a match pitting a team from Texas, Dory Funk Sr. and Paul Jones, up against Jack and Jerry Brisco. Of course the Briscos, from Oklahoma." Then he mentions that Jones is gunning for Jack. Here in under 60 words is all the background drama I need. In the days of regional wrestling, "Oklahoma" and "Texas" were enough to explain a ring riot, even in faraway Florida. The rest of the dramatic conflict is pantomimed in large, unmistakable gestures, no need for Paul Jones to hog the mic for ten minutes, railing at the crowd and the Briscos.

Bloodlust between two fighting men is still lust in my dictionary (very nearly misspelled just now as "dicktionary," which should tell you something). Writing to my friend Jim about the long (and, for me, odious) prologues that delay most big-show wrestling matches, I said, "I distinctly recall that, when fights broke out in junior and senior high school, I never had the least bit of interest in the backstory." All that interested me was the fury of the combatants, good looking or not, though, of course, my excitement doubled when one or both of them were hot. In pro wrestling, what matters most to me is whether antagonists can sell the idea of fury, even though I know full well they're probably best buds in real life.

The word "animosity" pulls together animal, animated, and animus (body, motion, and emotion), the essences of what ring wrestling means to me.



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