Monday, March 23, 2009

Bodyslammed: A Personal Reflection

By Byron Lee

It all began when I was a kid.

I would set the VCR before church. Anticipation mounted, when the service ended. When I returned home, I would race downstairs to watch the installment of "Wrestling At The Chase" that was waiting for me.

To this day, pro-wrestling brings out the kid in me. Seeing performers execute incredible moves and deliver rousing speeches still entertains me like nothing else can.

It's rare that I talk about my fandom with anyone outside of the fanbase, due to the criticism that predictably comes. "You know it's fake, don't you?" people always ask. Yes, I do know that the matches are not contests, that they are predetermined and choreographed. It is for this reason that wrestling continues to amaze me. Despite the fact that I know it's an act, a storyline, when done well, can still pull me in. (As a St. Louisian, I am especially proud, as our fair city was once home of the National Wrestling Alliance, which was, until the early 80's , one of the premier promotions in the business.)

RESPECT, AT LAST: The critically-acclaimed Mickey Rourke vehicle "The Wrestler" finally had the mainstream talking about pro-wrestling in a positive light.

As a supporter of the industry, my pride swelled as the film "The Wrestler" started to generate a buzz. Thanks to a story that, like "Rocky" before it, used the ultramasculine lockeroom world as a backdrop for an emotional story of redemption, the mainstream was starting to talk about pro-wrestling in a positive light. This occurrence was especially welcome after the feeding frenzy during the aftermath of the death of Eddie Guerrero and the murder-suicide committed by Chris Benoit.

DOUBLE DOWNER: The deaths of Chris Benoit (left) and Eddie Guerrero made for dark days for wrestling fans.

The bubble was burst, a few weeks ago, when it was reported that former WWE star Andrew "Test" Martin, 33, was discovered dead in his apartment, with no evidence of foul play (At press time, the cause of death had not been determined. Given the (sadly vast) history of pro-wrestling deaths, it has been speculated that abuse of performance enhancers, painkillers, sleep agents, or muscle relaxers (or any combination of any of the above) played a role.)

ANOTHER LIFE LOST: The name of former WWE star Andrew "Test" Martin was recently added to the long list of wrestlers whose lives ended too early.

This event is depressing not just because of the loss if life but because of the societal reaction. This tragedy is another excuse for the mainstream media to look at the industry (especially wrestling fans) with its nose in the air. Furthermore, World Wrestling Entertainment has predictably started to cover its hindquarters. Jim Ross, a revered announcer for the company, posted an acknowledgment of Martin's death on his blog that, for all of its heartwarming packaging, seemed to have the following as its underlying point: "He had not worked for us for two years, he had personal problems, and he was going through rehab on our dime. It's not our fault! It's not our fault! It's not our fault!"

More disheartening than the reaction is the seeming inevitability of more deaths like it. Many WWE performers work and travel several days a week, year round. Shortening the weekly workload (and, thus, decreasing the toll taken on the body) would lessen the likelihood of chemical dependency by eliminating the fear many ailing top-tier wrestlers have of losing their spot in the pecking order. Furthermore, the de-emphasis of the "chiseled monster" look that WWE chairman Vince McMahon seems to favor would be a major step in the right direction. (It's an unspoken fact that McMahon doesn't like to promote performers would could look like someone's next door neighbor.)

The reality, however, is that WWE, like any other business, is looking to maximize profit. This fact makes the aforementioned remedies unattainable.

Don't get me wrong. Every Monday, I will be watching Monday Night Raw, and every time WWE comes to St. Louis, I will be in attendance, having a ball.

Wrestling brings out the kid in me, which makes it all the more painful, every time I have to grow up.

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