With no real fanfare, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has finished up his investigation of steroids in professional wrestling. (Yep, it’s a problem.) Marc Ambinder, a hopeless fan of the squared circle, has a good write up of some of the highlights and the policy implications.
But the steroid stuff is not really the most interesting part. In his effort to rid the nation of steroid abuse, Waxman has incidentally created a great historical treasure trove, one of the most comprehensive pictures ever produced of the fascinating, exhilarating, often-nasty and always-elusive professional wrestling business. This industry is, it must be said, America’s last great circus, a traveling band of performers with pecs and tights that is televised with huge ratings three times a week on cable, fills untelevised arenas many other nights each week, and attracts millions of dollars in annual pay-per-view revenue. It is “fake” in the way that it is not a sport, like baseball or football. But as a business, as a form of entertainment, and as an athletic drama it often puts real sports leagues to shame.
In recent years, American professional wrestling has been mostly run as a monopoly, under the umbrella of the WWE, which is controlled and operated by Vince McMahon and his family, who often perform at the events. They like to keep the backstage details quiet, by necessity. Like magic, pro-wrestling is about illusion. You never want to reveal more than the trick demands. But Waxman has now laid these details bare, in testimony to Congress, where lies are prosecutable offenses. We learn that the WWE, for instance, employs about 10 writers to develop story lines for the wrestlers. In addition to the writers, a group of “producers,” mostly former wrestlers, travel on the road to help the performers with rough choreography of each match. (Each match needs a beginning, middle and end.) The performers can make anywhere from a few thousand to many hundred thousand dollars, depending on the event. Then there is this, my favorite nugget from what I have read so far–from an interview with Stephanie McMahon, the daughter of Vince and the person in charge of talent relations and creative writing.
Q: How does talent get to become main-event talent?
A: Basically, hard work and perseverance and overwhelming the audience. . . . When someone walks out on that stage, they either connect with the people or they don’t. If you walk out on stage and nobody cares and you don’t have any presence, you are never going to be a main-event guy. But if you walk out and you make the people notice you, you can be a main-event guy. You really don’t even have to be a good wrestler. Hulk Hogan was a terrible wrestler, and he still is.
Q: For the record, I am sure he would disagree with that.
A: I am sure he would disagree with that. I forget this is all public. But, you know, he was. He was a terrible wrestler. But what an incredible psychologist and what an incredible charismatic person. There is no denying Hulk Hogan is one of the biggest stars in the history of our business and will always be perceived as such. But he was not a great wrestler, not a great technician.
Later in the interview, Stephanie McMahon says she regrets saying on the record that Hogan was a bad wrestler. But she elaborates, nonetheless.
When I said Hulk Hogan wasn’t a great wrestler, I didn’t mean he didn’t know how to do the moves, the move technically. He just had three moves. And that is all he did. That is what I meant. It wasn’t an exciting technical display of reversing holds and, you know, multiple different maneuvers. It was a very basic match. Psychologically it worked every time. The crowd got behind Hulk.
Just Stephanie’s interview alone runs 138 pages. All great stuff. The full archive of Waxman’s investigation can be found here.
UPDATE: Ambinder responds to this post, by agreeing with McMahon: Hulk stunk as a wrestler. The Atlantic’s in-house wrestling expert even posts video evidence to prove it: a vintage match between Hogan and Minnesota’s own Jesse “The Body” Ventura.
MORE: Wade Keller, the editor of Pro-Wrestling Torch, who probably learns more about wrestling before lunch before I have gathered in a lifetime, points out correctly that Waxman is not the first to put to paper the mechanics of behind-the-curtain wrestling production, a craft that has been documented in fan publications and wrestler memoirs for years. (Had a McMahon ever knocked Hogan’s wrestling skills in public before?) That said, Waxman’s historical record is still quite astounding, and great reading, and it will be a valuable historical and journalistic reference for years to come.