Thursday, June 26, 2014

Wrestle Mania

Who among us doesn’t have some sort of Walter Mitty thing going on? Sure, we might be sitting in our 6’ x 6’ cubicle all day, staring at a screen and pretending to listen in on conference calls. But in our unreal life - which would be our real life, darn it, if only we had the good fortune or the gumption to carpe that diem – we’re doing something else. Like writing a novel. Or  being a pundit. Or running a bookstore that somehow managed to turn a profit without having any customers, and which featured an over-sized arm chair where you could curl up with a good book and read all day. (Not that any of these would be my Mitty-esque fantasies…)

But there are some folks who go beyond the day dream and actually do something about their secret life, beyond just keeping it confined the deepest, most secret reaches of  the brain.

Over the years, I worked, among others, with a fellow who played bass in a reasonably decent oldies band. With a woman who was a ballroom dancer, and another who entered amateur figure skating contests. With a guy who tried out for the Olympic biathlon squad. And another guy who fenced (swords, not hot goods).

Good for them. (Me, I blog…)

With this as a backdrop, I was amused by a recent article in The Wall Street Journal on a bunch of guys who, when they’re not at work, release their inner pro wrestler.

As an analyst at H.J. Heinz Co., Lou Zygmuncik spends his days thinking about ketchup sales. But about once a month, he transforms himself into the trash-talking bruiser Dr. Devastation.

Mr. Zygmuncik, 38 years old, is one of two dozen wrestlers in the Keystone State Wrestling Alliance, a bottom-rung pro-wrestling troupe. It sets up its ring at the Teamster Temple, a union hall, and draws about 300 fans to its shows, often including Pittsburgh's mayor, Bill Peduto. (Source: WSJ Online.)

Peduto, by the way, claims that wrestling has a “whole other edge that’s off-the-charts hip.”

God knows I haven’t seen much of pro wrestling since the days of Haystack Calhoun, Killer Kowalski (not to be confused with Stanley Kowalski), and Bruno San Martino, but I really tend to doubt that anything off-the-charts hip occurs in the Teamster Temple. But you never know what might appeal to those fedora-wearing, soul-patch growing, hipsters and their bouclé wool, 1960’s coat wearing girlfriends.

Wrestling peaked on TV in the late 1980’s, when 13.5 million households watched Hulk Hogan take on André the Giant. (Gosh, what was I doing in 1988 that was so all-fired important that I missed that one?)

This year, the industry's marquee brand, World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., is pushing pro wrestling online, so far signing up more than half a million subscribers to a new digital network.

(If you’ll recall, WWE exec Linda McMahon is a regular losing candidate for political office in Connecticut. McMahon and her husband Vince may be geniuses when it comes to wrestling, but they’re apparently not smart enough to figure out that, if you want a seat in Congress or the Senate, and you’re in Connecticut, you can tip the election results a bit more in their direction if you run as a Democrat. You’d think they knew about things like odds, and good guys vs. bad guys.)

While on the one hand, there’s WWE, on the other there are a lot of these little Keystone-style outfits – some a notch up -  all over the country.

Every week, dozens of promotions that are run by second- and third-tier companies hold hundreds of bouts. Many wrestlers work for little money while hoping to get discovered by the WWE and eventually get six-figure incomes.

There’s a mixed reaction out there to the pro-wrestling wannabes, but:

"You can understand why people really miss that personal interaction, to boo your enemies to their face and slap your heroes on their sweaty backs," said David Shoemaker, author of a history of pro wrestling titled "The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling."

Especially when so much enemy-booing occurs online, with no personal interaction, let alone the lure of the sweaty back. (I’ll pass.)

Sure, those sweaty-backed wrestlers might be wearing face paint or a mask, disguising the fact that they’re an analyst for Heinz or the mayor of Pittsburgh. But it’s probably relatively easy to figure out who they are when you see them in the parking lot of the Teamster Temple.

And there’s no anonymity for the fans. They’re not hiding behind a screen and a keyboard, throwing invectives out there, trolling away.

If they’ve got something to say holler, they just come out and say holler it.

I don’t believe in booing Little Leaguers, pee-wee hockey players, or high school footballers.

But booing can be cathartic. Booing can be fun.

Yay, booing!

But I don’t think I’d boo those Keystone wrestlers:

The Keystone wrestlers themselves say they aren't looking for fame, just to put on a good show for their fans and get away from their day jobs.

"You could work Monday through Friday, but when you have that event you're a superstar," said Mr. Zygmuncik, who in his fights enters the arena brandishing a black Louisville Slugger baseball bat at fans.

In his signature move, "the death certificate," he puts his opponent's head between his knees and drops the guy face-first into the mat. It is great theater. "People are cheering you or booing you," he says.

Which, I suspect is a tad bit more interesting than analyzing whether the latest ketchup ad – like the one where the old lady makes the fart noise with her near-empty bottle - had an impact on sales. (Makes me nostalgic for the Carly Simon Anticipation ads of yore.)

"Stepping out of the curtain in pro wrestling might be the single greatest rush one can experience," said Keith Haught Jr. , a heavyset 23-year-old, who graduated in May with a degree in history and psychology and wrestles as the Jester. "Nothing in my life has beaten it so far."

Okay, I have to raise an eyebrow at someone 23 years old claiming that pro wrestling beats everything else he’s experienced to date. He’s only 23 and, thus, can be easily forgiven.

Still, I suspect that if, at my advanced age, I were to step “out of the curtain in pro wrestling” it might well be my greatest rush ever, too.

It’s just that I’ll never really get to test this theory. And if I did get to pick, I’d still rather choose novelist or pundit.

But you gotta admire these guys who are going for it, one fake throw at a time.

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