Wednesday, May 20, 2009

FLASHBACK: Pro Wrestling - Soap Opera Gone Mad 1998


By Don Mayhew
The Fresno Bee
January 15, 1998

Thick hoop earrings reflect the glint of danger as the tough guy struts across the stage. His blond hair is finely twisted into a half-dozen braids, which swing whip-like as his defiance fills the air.

He's entirely clad in black leather, down to a pair of gloves handy for the nonstop pointing of his left index finger. His voice - imagine yelling with a handful of gravel in the back of your throat, and you get some idea of its timbre - aggressively speaks of honor. Suddenly, a look of stunned surprise crosses his face as another voice interrupts. It's his arch enemy, blood caked on his right cheek but unbowed despite a recent beating.

The enemy, his blue plaid shirt strategically torn so as to show off his bulging biceps and hulking shoulders, threatens carnage: "I'm a survivor, and I said before, I'm going to make your life hell!"

Taunting ensues. The word "gutless" slices the air like a switchblade. Yelling and egos run amok.

No, you're not watching a daytime soap opera. It's just another night with Shawn Michaels (the leather guy), Owen Hart (he of the cheeky blood) and the World Wrestling Federation playing nearly nightly these days at an arena or college campus near you.

Monday night at Selland Arena, it's Fresno's turn. The WWF's weekly program RAW IS WAR, beamed live to the East Coast and shown on a delayed basis here at 9 p.m. on cable network USA, will stop by for a visit.

By all accounts, wrestling's never been hotter. The Selland Arena show is sold out (though a few tickets might become available Monday), as were several other stops on the WWF's current tour. RAW is USA's top-rated show.

The WWF's chief competition, TNT's WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING, consistently is cable TV's No. 1 show. It pulled down a 4.6 rating last week. THUNDER, the new Thursday night TBS wrestling show that features WCW players, was No. 2 with a 4.2 rating.

"The competition has been the catalyst for both shows taking off," said Mike Mooneyham, who writes for The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. He has written about pro wrestling for more than 30 years, since he was a teen, and is one of the few pro wrestling columnists in the nation.

Wrestlers are paid better than ever. At the top of the heap, Hulk Hogan pulls down between $4 million and $5 million in annual salary and endorsements, by Mooneyham's estimate.

That's not all that has changed. As WCW challenged and surpassed the WWF's popularity, the latter evolved from family entertainment ("the Disney of wrestling," Mooneyham said) to a head-bangers' ball, complete with explosive special effects and leering sexual banter.

"To be honest, I'm surprised some of it makes it onto the USA network," Mooneyham said. "It's pretty much cutting-edge."

You can see the effects of MTV and the attention-span-snapping 100-channel universe on wrestling as well. In the old days, matches might last half an hour or more. Now a 15-minute match is almost unheard of, and there's as much jawing and hype, if not more, than there is wrestling.

Mooneyham pines a little for the past.

"I'm sort of a purist. I like on-the-mat wrestling," he said. "Today's fans have just been re-educated. If you saw some really great mat wrestling for a 10-minute stretch, people at ringside would start shouting, "Boring!' "

But he admits today's aerial maneuvers and showmanship make wrestling exciting, as do the live broadcasts. They give fans a sense of participation and belonging.

"The storylines stay fresh, and you have to follow it closely to stay with what's going on," Mooneyham said.

He calls today's theatrical sport "a soap opera gone mad." With this cast of WWF characters, it's easy to see the parallels:

* Father figure: Vince McMahon, owner of the World Wrestling Federation. "Although some of the guys probably don't consider him a father figure," Mooneyham said. "Bret Hart punched him out after he left the show for the WCW. That was for real, backstage."

* Family feud: Cane, supposedly burned in a fire as a child and thus always ensconced in a mask, blames his brother, the Undertaker, for the accident. "Just a year ago, Cane was another wrestler named Diesel," Mooneyham said. "Which is the real reason he always wears the mask." The feud might be waning. Cane this week came to the Undertaker's rescue, and the brothers reached something of an unspoken understanding.

* Bad guys: Another area where wrestling has taken a sharp turn. Good guys and bad guys used to be clearly identifiable, and the good guys always won. Now the most celebrated wrestlers - "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Michaels, Cane, Hunter Hearst Helmsley - all are bad guys.

* Dirty double crosser: Mark Henry turned on his partner, Ken Shamrock, during a tag-team match Monday night and joined the Nation of Domination, one of the WWF's gangs.

* Hunks: Michaels is known as "the Heartbreak Kid." "He's the reason Bret Hart left," Mooneyham said, "getting in fights in the locker room and stuff. It was a nasty situation." Nevertheless, Michaels has a dark charm - the kind of guy you'd never take home to meet Mother.

* Vixens: Sunny is a former manager turned valet turned ring announcer. Sable accompanies Marc Mero and often steals his thunder by dressing suggestively. Which leads us to . . .

* On the rocks: Mero and Sable, married in real life, appear headed for an on-stage split. Dressed scantily, "She's getting all the pops [cheering] from the crowd," Mooneyham said. Mero this week brought out another wrestler, Gold Dust, in Sable drag, infuriating the real Sable.

* Medical crisis: According to Mooneyham, Austin has a potentially career-ending injury to his neck that's serious enough to have kept him on the sidelines, doing his shtick by jumping upon the announcers' table or interrupting matches that don't involve him.

* Love triangle: When Gold Dust (Dustin Runnels) lost a match to Brian Pillman last year, he also lost his wife, Marlena (Kerri Runnels). The arrangement was for 30 days. Marlena was ensconced in a hotel room, from which remote video feeds provided updates. The day before Marlena was to announce that she would stay with Pillman for good, Pillman died of a heart attack. For real. In a real hotel room. Gold Dust dumped her anyway.

* Death under mysterious circumstances: See above.

* Forbidden love: Gold Dust's attire ranges from drag to diapers. "He's gender-challenged," Mooneyham quipped. "Nobody knows what he is." After helping Mero to victory this week by slamming a coconut to the back of his foe's head, Gold Dust and Mero strode offstage arm-in-arm. The homoerotic subtext was enormous. Is wrestling ready for a gay love affair?

* Kidnapping: When Owen Hart attacked Helmsley in a limo Monday night, Helmsley's D-Generation X buddies, including Michaels, dove into the car and drove off, spending some time exacting revenge and setting the stage for Hart's verbal confrontation with Michaels inside the arena.

* Split personality: Mick Foley wrestles variously as Dude Love, Mankind and Cactus Jack. The most amusing moment during this week's RAW occurred when Foley, as Mankind, wrestled Gold Dust, who came out dressed as Dude Love. Talk about the man in the mirror.

* Actors leave as one character, resurface as another: A variation on the split personality. Mero used to wrestle as Johnny Be Bad. Dustin Runnels was the Natural. The Undertaker used to be Mean Mark Callous. And Flash Funk in a previous life was Too Cold Scorpio.

Infobox - Pro wrestling comes to Fresno

The World Wrestling Federation's weekly televised event will be taped at 5:30 p.m. Monday at Selland Arena. Although the event is sold out, tickets might become available Monday. For details, call 498-4000 or 226-2277. The show will be broadcast on cable network USA from 9-11 p.m. Monday.

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