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Pro wrestling. It's always been out there, flying below the radar of legitimate action, existing in the odd, cheesy netherworld of "fake" sports alongside roller derby. But fake or not, this netherworld is hugely popular. Even sports fans who have never watched pro wrestling probably know the names of Gorgeous George, Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, and, of course, the current governor of Minnesota. Cable television and the advent of pay-per-view have turned pro wrestling into an enormous business. So much so that a recent CD collection of WWF wrestler's theme music debuted at number two on the Billboard albums chart. Number two.

What is it about pro wrestling that so repels some and so attracts others? The repellent elements are easy. For starters, it's fake. The "action" is choreographed and pre-planned. The wrestlers stamp the ring floor or slap their thighs with every punch, creating their own sound effects. We can easily tell the heroes from the villains, and we know that, in the end, the heroes are going to win. Indeed, the near devastation the hero goes through only foreshadows his miraculous come-back, and when the "referee" finally counts out his opponent, the crowd goes nuts.

Then what are the attractions? Clearly, the morality plays that are pro wrestling matches mean something to the "sport's" fans. They cheer the heroes and boo, cuss and spit on the villains with such vehemence that some might think they were auditioning for a spot in the ring. The fans' reactions aren't fake, so something must be working for a lot of Americans to make them want to spend their dollars on cable television, pay-per-views, and 20,000 arena seats.

We believe it comes down to something Americans do better than anyone else: violence as entertainment. The Romans may have gotten this thing started, but leave it to Americans to turn it into a multi-tiered, multi-billion dollar business. While much of the violence in pro wrestling is fake, when we see a wrestler bleed, that's real, and that violence is what makes wrestling such a popular form of entertainment. As one wrestler has another pinned in the corner, he will ask the crowd whether he should pummel him or not, in essence, act as the Roman emperor asking for a thumbs up or thumbs down. The crowd roars its "thumbs down" then counts out every pounding. A kick to the groin brings a huge roar.

Fake or not, many of us find it difficult to imagine cheering for a kick in the groin. But not all of us. We live in a violent society. Around the world, older, more "civilized" cultures deplore our violent nature and freedom with guns. (But they also knight Jerry Lewis and eat up our reruns of Starsky and Hutch, so maybe we aren't doing so badly.) Some want to blame "the media" for perpetuating our culture of violence and for lulling our kids into thinking no one really gets hurt. But popular media only respond to the forces of the marketplace and the dollars in our fists.

Thus, in the end, we must heed the words of that little cartoon possum who once so wisely remarked: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

April 2001

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