I didn’t watch professional wrestling when I was a child. I wanted to. Badly. But my stepdad wouldn’t allow it. By the time I was in high school, I’d almost forgotten that I’d even cared, so it’s not surprising that it held no appeal for me when I was an undergraduate. I had friends in college who took great joy recounting matches: imitating the wrestlers, the refs, and the announcers; mocking the audience’s gullibility; and then howling with laughter. Whenever I ran across it on TV, though, I couldn’t stand to watch more than a couple minutes. The bombastic simplicity of it bored me.
Worse, some of the villains rubbed me the wrong way. Often based on cultural or ethnic stereotypes that were popularly derided in the US, I thought wrestling villains were too cheap and easy, like a living political cartoon or, worse, an enactment of a drive time radio show routine. Want to get booed? Just wear a turban and call yourself the Ayatrollah. And while nothing in pro wrestling is meant to be taken seriously—all occurs under the sign of “wink, wink, nudge, nudge”—there was definitely an icky kind of conservative politics underpinning the “humor” of the villains. To my mind, a lot of dark emotions were being riled up to no end except for dubious entertainment.
Maybe it’s because wrestling tapped into such potent and unseemly emotions and then spun them into a whirlwind of irreverence and violence that my stepdad didn’t want my brothers and me to watch it. After all, my mother told me that he didn’t allow us to watch the old Batman television series simply because Batman and Robin wore tights–though I’d hazard to guess he was suspicious of much more than just that. He must have suffered vertigo merely imagining the moral swamp of pro wrestling.
It’s with some amusement, then, that thirty years later I now find myself regularly attending minor league pro wrestling matches at the Knights of Columbus in Bloomingon, MN. As ever, I find the wrestling fairly boring—I go mainly as an opportunity to spend time with some friends—while the villains remain both obvious and yet somehow the most interesting part of the show. However, because this is a minor wrestling league, the villains have an added dimension of being so lame, more Mystery Men than The Avengers, that it borders on the avant-garde.
In some ways my favorite, El Baño, who unfortunately no longer seems to be part of the line-up, is the most conventional. With all of the animosity directed at Mexican immigrants, especially those referred to as “illegal,” it’s inevitable that a wrestler would take on such a persona. But El Baño’s act had such specificity it bordered on satire. It was a straightforward routine that offered few variations. Obese, donning a Mexican wrestling mask, El Baño would stroll into the hall unhurriedly. If he never came in smoking a cigarette, he should have, his entrances were so casual and unathletic. After circling the ring, he would struggle onto it, where he would pant as if he’d just fought a match. Regaining his breath, he and his opponent would basically just “be” in the ring together, very little wrestling occurring, as if enacting a scene from a long-lost Samuel Beckett play. The match would end in a flurry of activity, lasting about half a minute, when it looked certain that El Baño was going to be creamed. Just before that happened, though, the fight would be stopped on some technicality with a rematch promised for the next month.
It was peoples’ frustrations with the workings of government bureaucracy writ large, especially the perceived futility of the INS: the “illegals” stay in our country because of mere technicalities, like the fact that police aren’t allowed to ask about immigration status, the arm of justice stayed for no good reason. More pointedly, the name El Baño suggests not only the grotesqueness of the wrestler’s body, but also that the wrestler represents one who was temporarily of the body politic but needs to be expelled for its continued health. I suppose El Baño no longer appears at the Knights of Columbus because his act was so unrepentantly conceptual.
Bullying also seems to be a natural target for wrestling given how much it has been in the news and how central it is to the interactions among wrestlers. I’m not sure, though, that wrestler Zero Kincaid, who also seems to have vanished from the Knights of Columbus roster, really figured out what to do with it. He would approach the ring, out of shape, wrists limp, whining about having been bullied—a corpulent Snagglepuss without the panache. The beginning part of the match consisted of him assuring practically everybody in the room, but especially the ref and his opponent, that he would not be bullied into wrestling, an oddly passive stance for a wrestler. So, before there could be a proper match, Zero would have to be bullied into fighting. Once wrestling, he was finished off in practically no time. While the payoff of his defeat clearly derives from the belief that people should stop whining and take what life dishes out to them, I think Zero missed out on a great opportunity by not making his bully-victim a bully-wannabe. If wrestling audiences hate whiners, I assure you that they really hate whiners who use their whining to bully the bullies. If the whiners are going to allow themselves to be bullied, you can almost hear Fox News commentators proposing, why don’t they have the courage to take their medicine and leave the bullies alone?
Finally, the lamest of the lame also has the lamest name: Kody Rice. It’s possible I’m missing something here. Rice is a food, and Kody embodies the obesity epidemic in America as well as America’s hatred of overweight people, but is “kody rice” something like a Rice Krispie bar? Or is there a pun in the name that I’m missing, like “Could eat rice” or “Coat your eyes”? Or is it really just a stupid name? Regardless, Rice is a fairly large gentleman—it was suggested to me that he might even be the same “wrestler” who played El Baño—whose doughy, hairy body spills out of a vague parody of a Chippendales dancer outfit, with a bowtie, a vest, and speedos with a white shirt and bowtie image on them. Clearly weighing in well over two hundred pounds, he often contradicts the announcer, declaring he’s 199 and once, if memory serves me correctly, claiming that he was 185 pounds when he weighed himself right after his bowel movement.
Like El Baño, Rice shows the right instincts by associating his unruly body with shit. It locates his act in a long lineage of grotesque humor about the body. He also rubs the audience’s face in the fact that, as a fairly recent study has shown, obese people believe they’re thinner than they actually are, implicating everyone in the room in his inability to recognize himself as obese. But that is hard to work into the actual wrestling. I mean, how would you do that? He would practically have to explain what he was doing throughout his entire match, a kind of running commentary/Strindbergian monologue, so that we understood it all derived from his misconceptions about his actual weight.
Personally, I think that since he’d already implicated the audience in his self-delusion, he might as well have goaded the self-righteous sense of outrage informing kneejerk reactions to overweight people that many in the audience are sure to hold. The assumptions that people make about the moral character of those who are overweight are alarming: they’re lazy, have no self-control, are piggish, etc., etc. Rice could have had a field day with that, exaggerating the unseemliness of his body—of all bodies, for that matter, even those into which much time and/or money has gone to avoid it—in all its glorious ingloriousness. Doing so, he might have invited the audience to see just what shit they are, while letting them know that it’s OK, it’s only human.