We all know pro wrestling is built on mythology. More specifically, it’s ability to self-mythologize. Even more specifically; lies. Lies are ingrained in the very fabric of this glorified dance routine with sub-Hallmark channel acting we call a sport. Now before you furiously respond, “MOVIES AREN’T REAL AND YOU WATCH THOSE!”, let me be clear: true fans know this illusion is what makes wrestling so compelling. The grandeur, the drama, the violence, all of this would be at best embarrassing and at worst grotesque if it were real.
We long ago stopped defending ourselves against dimwitted bullies or disappointed parents who say “you know it’s fake right?” First of all, dad, it’s not fake, it’s choreographed. Secondly, that’s what makes it so cool. These top caliber athletes/entertainers masterfully deliver action and storytelling that Oscar winning actors or super bowl champions could only dream of. While these hating ass cretins can’t muster the imagination to enjoy anything beyond standard competition, we get to bask in the glory of the most uniquely spectacular art form on the planet.
Even with this knowledge, though, there is a suspension of disbelief not quite like any other entertainment outlet. You are correct to say movies aren’t real, but it’s not like studios and actors intricately conspired to make you think they were real until suddenly reversing course when the evidence was too apparent. Wrestling still begs us to accept its reality despite… everything. And we happily play along with this ruse. This doesn’t stop at the combat in the ring. It extends to its history, the legacy of its performers, and almost every aspect of this strange business.
I recently found myself questioning how much of this mythology I’ve blindly accepted. I wondered how many wild exaggerations I’ve been fed and then regurgitated to others as historical fact. Can you actually trust anything in this business? Is my entire life a lie? I began unraveling like a dog seeing its reflection for the first time. This existential panic attack was all caused by a gaggle of glow stick throwing, dick joke spewing, middle-aged men riding a tank into Brooklyn. I wasn’t around for the heyday of many successful wrestling companies, but I still feel comfortable saying the most egregious self aggrandizer is WWE.
Being the best liars in the business is a large part of why they’re the most profitable wrestling company of all time. While their legitimate achievements would provide ample reason to boast for most organizations, WWE never misses an opportunity to exaggerate, inflate, and twist the truth to their favor. Attendance numbers, sales reports, heights, weights, no falsehood is too insignificant or easily dispelled for WWE’s marketing machine.
As a WWE fan for 35 years, I’ve come to accept this reality. Even so, the flagrant abuse of hyperbole in recantations of their own history is what sent me spiraling that night at the Barclays arena. Watching DX dust off the old tank for (hopefully) one last time, I wondered how many times they had drilled the footage of their voyage atop this war machine into my retinas. It must be somewhere in the low hundreds. Or, using WWE’s metrics, nearly 83 thousand. In case you somehow missed it; On April 27th 1998, Degeneration X drove their tank from the site of RAW in Hampton VA to WCW’s Nitro taping just 45 minutes away at the Norfolk Scope.
If you’ve watched any of their programming over the past 25 years, you know that this is presented as one of the greatest moments in professional wrestling history. The Monday Night Wars were in full swing and our band of rabble rousing heroes entrenched themselves in enemy territory, courageously taking this battle from a ratings based cold war to the brink of possible destruction. DX had no clue what they were rolling into. The WCW roster could have answered the threat with shoot violence against our brave warriors. The Giant could have single-handedly flipped their vehicle with ease.
Goldberg could have speared them through every midsize sedan in the parking lot. Meng, the consensus real life toughest man in wrestling, could have ripped their eyeballs out of their heads and swallowed them whole. But DX didn’t care. They knew what needed to be done. And they left Norfolk that day with their heads held high in victory, having delivered a disastrous blow across WCW’s bow from which they would never recover.
Despite WWE’s best efforts to warp my own memories, I recall this episode clearly. My mother had gone with coworkers to make the most of our local bar’s happy hour and had fallen asleep on the couch early, still adorned in her full office attire. I waited with anxious excitement until her light snore confirmed her state, then gently pried the remote from her sleeping hand.
While some may view their mother passing out drunk on a Monday night as traumatic therapy fodder, I recall it with joyous reverence. In a rare moment of jubilation, I had sole control of the television and before me lay two hours of my greatest passion; RAW IS WAR. While I watched gleefully, reigning in my exclamations of delight as not to wake my wrestling averse mother, my favorite wrestlers; The Undertaker, Mankind, and for some reason, The Patriot, grappled mightily. Interspersed throughout the show were the aforementioned clips of DX rolling into battle. Again and again the show was interrupted by segments of Triple H, Chyna, X-Pac, Road Dogg, and Bad Ass Billy Gunn defying the odds and declaring war on WCW.
Contrary to WWE’s insistence that this was one of the greatest moments in the history of wrestling, sports, maybe even all of television, I sat in complete apathy. Even at 11 years old, I found DX’s once fun and shocking schtick growing ever more juvenile. The first and second segment I thought “huh, that’s interesting” but by the fourth and fifth my tolerance had worn thin. Why are we watching X-Pac violently bouncing his hands off his crotch with a branch on his head when we could be watching The Patriot dominating some doomed local talent? This was a moderately amusing sketch that’s returns diminished with each revisit.
My inexplicable love of Del Wilkes aside, I like to think I had a good eye for quality programming, even at a young age, and this was not it. Believe me, as someone who has seen the Robert DeNiro/Zach Efron vehicle “Dirty Grandpa” no less than 5 times, I enjoy lowbrow humor. This, though, was devoid of both humor and importance. The personification of pointlessness. Forgettable at its finest. A tank riding, camo clad pile of shit. If I haven’t quite made it clear, I did not enjoy this segment. You may be wondering why I’m being so harsh with this particular piece of programming. Why I’m rabidly critical of a harmless 25-year-old series of skits on a throwaway episode of RAW. After all, the annals of WWE history are brimming with much worse.
You’ve got your Gobbledy Gookers, your Katie Vicks, your Al Wilson’s. The difference here is that these are fittingly remembered as jokes. WWE shockingly has the humility to look back on these and admit how foolish they were. The DX tank segment, though, is presented as one of the greatest moments in our dear sport. The pinnacle of wrestling’s prime. This was the night, spurred by this moment, that WWE began to turn the tide on this war and finally vanquish WCW in the ratings after 83 weeks of defeat. Any WWE diehard under 30 has been spoon fed this narrative since they developed basic cognition.
They’ve had it drilled it into their brain so much that most probably view this as fact. DX’s tank attack wasn’t just a frivolous yet wildly entertaining piece of television. It was a moment when these men stared down real danger and set in motion WWE’s domination into the next millennium.The fact is, though, that none of this is true. I dare someone to rewatch these segments and unironically extoll their hilarity or intrigue. Perhaps some short fused psychopathic wrestlers could’ve taken offense and returned fire, but a good portion of the WCW performers were friends with DX and most felt no loyalty to, or were disgruntled by, their employers.
This wasn’t ECW, whose wrestlers might realistically defend their company’s honor with violent passion. Most of the WCW locker room felt a similar sense of loyalty as a stoned teenager making minimum wage at a Sunoco. It’s true that WWE beat WCW in the ratings that night, but that fact is much less impressive when you consider Nitro was preempted on TNT until 12:30 am by the NBA finals. Hell, even the tank I’ve referenced at least 7 times wasn’t a tank at all. It was a small Jeep. You can’t blame anyone for succumbing to WWE’s promotional prowess.
I vividly remember watching it live, yet my own memories include DX atop a battle worn Panzer instead of a spray painted Grand Cherokee. We have all been victims of propaganda no matter how impervious we consider ourselves. Which makes me wonder: how much of a mark to WWE’s propaganda machine have I been? I, too, have been spoon fed alleged larger than life wrestling moments since my untutored eyes could comprehend these oil streaked monsters on my television. Which of these moments were truly industry defining tanks and which were just over glorified jeeps? When thinking of other so-called historic clips that have been shot into my retinas countless times throughout my life long WWE obsession, there’s one that stands above the rest.
The moment that, so we’ve been told, ushered in the most successful era in wrestling history and laid the groundwork for sports entertainment as we know it today. I’m referring, of course, to Hulk Hogan slamming Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III. I’ve seen this footage replayed more times than I’ve seen several members of my own family. On March 29th, 1987, the white hot babyface with 24 inch pythons hoisted the dastardly giant, who was not only undefeated but had never even been lifted off of the mat, over his head and sent him crashing to the ring below while the 93,173 fans in attendance at the Pontiac Silverdome roared in ecstasy.
Before you wonder how I dare question the legitimacy of this event’s impact, consider that the sentence I just wrote contained no less than 5 lies. The official story WWE and Hogan have endlessly recounted contains the type of bold exaggeration usually reserved for the day after prom. Hogan’s greasy, orange, Hebrew National like arms were certainly large, but 24 inches they were not. No matter how many times Mr. Bollea tells us he used those hot dogs to lift Andre above his head, pantomiming the feat as though he valiantly gorilla pressed 500 pounds, we can all clearly see it was a simple body slam. Andre had not only been previously defeated, but he had been body slammed several times as well.
Finally, 93,173 fans did not look on from the crowd. The attendance size was more like 75,800. While the truth of this moment is impressive enough, they needlessly inflated every detail for maximum deification. Beyond the easily refuted aspects of this match are the more abstract accolades WWE has reiterated for over 35 years. This wasn’t just a normal match. It wasn’t even just a normal WrestleMania main event. It was so much more.
That bodyslam sent waves through the wrestling world that reverberated off everything that came before and after. A starter pistol that sent Hulkamania running wild through all of popular culture, cementing WrestleMania as the greatest spectacle in all of professional wrestling. It was the cannon that propelled wrestling from the dank underbelly of entertainment to the global television powerhouse it would become. It changed everything. Seeing as I was 1-year-old when WrestleMania III took place, it’s difficult for me to accurately assess the validity of these claims.
I’ve gone back and watched the entire show several times to gauge its true stature. The other classic encounter of the evening, “Macho Man” Randy Savage vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat for the Intercontinental title, is as celebrated for its work rate as the main event was for its spectacle. While a young fan numbed by years of 450 splashes and super kick parties may struggle to find what made this so special, the match was truly a showcase of technical skill at its finest.
Beyond those bouts, the rest of the show ranges from pretty fun to dreadfully plodding. Unless, of course, a “Full Nelson Challenge’’ between Hercules and Billy Jack Haynes really gets your juices flowing. When it finally comes time for the main event, there is a genuine electricity in the air. Since Andre was nearly immobile after a lifetime of carrying his massive frame through a world unfit to accommodate him, the match consists mostly of bearhugs and general taunting. By modern standards and stripped of context, this match would be met with a chorus of “this is boring” from the audience members who could actually muster the interest to vocalize.
But it was 1987 with the stakes firmly established, so when it finally came time for the most famous body slam in recorded history, the Silverdome explodes. And I, even after countless viewings, explode with it. The palpable excitement is impossible to ignore. It’s also impossible to ignore the rapid proliferation of popularity and mainstream success for the WWE in the period after WrestleMania III. As much as Hogan’s penchant for outlandish exaggeration is only rivaled by WWE itself, it’s hard to argue that he was a keystone of that success. The question then becomes; was his burgeoning popularity spurred in some measure by simply being in the right place at the right time? Definitely.
Could Vince have plopped one of his other rippled beefcakes into that role just as easily? Maybe. But it’s difficult to deny that what Hulkster lacks in technical wrestling ability and general virtue, he greatly compensates with innate star power. One match I do have vivid memories of, Hulk vs. The Rock at WrestleMania X8, could give even the most exercise averse, atheistic, vitamin deficient nonbeliever a sudden case of Hulkamania. Having mild disdain for both men in this contest (Hogan for… everything and The Rock for his puerile bullying and frequent victories over my hero The Undertaker) I didn’t have high hopes as it began. But minutes later, with the Toronto crowd screaming both men’s names in rabid elation, I found myself screaming with them.
As I jumped out of my seat and ran wild around the living room like few wrestling matches have made me before or since, I put my haterade aside and became engulfed by the overflowing star power. So was this match the pinnacle of wrestling that WWE paints it as? Probably not. But even if you strip away the voluminous praise WWE and Hogan heap upon themselves for this event, it feels unjust to argue that it rivals the over-glorification of the DX army raid. As my existential dread dissipates and I realize my lifelong views of Hogan vs. Andre probably aren’t the sole product of brainwashing, I feel this deeper insight still reveals the greater truth at play.
Whether a moment in WWE canon is actually vital or it’s mostly disposable does not matter. The meticulously crafted lore will still contain abundant layers of fabrication. When it comes to wrestling and the players within, uncovering the truth proves nearly impossible. Wading though this sea of deception leaves you questioning your own memories. After all this reflection, I’m still left wondering; were my feelings towards the jeep incident completely justified or rooted firmly in personal bias? Were other fans tuning in thoroughly gripped and overwhelmed by the significance of this moment?
Conversely, could there have been fans watching the bodyslam heard ‘round the world with the same apathy I felt watching DX cruise into Norfolk? Which other WWE proclaimed historic moments have been falsely immortalized? And have any not gotten the acclaim they deserve? Does any of this matter and, in a post internet and Donald Trump world, does the truth even matter? Not to politicize a rasslin’ article, but it’s no surprise that Donald Trump is something of a disciple of Vince McMahon.
No matter how you feel about him, even his most loyal followers must admit that Trump twisted whatever truth would aid him in reaching his ultimate goals. And Trump took the game plan for his rise to the presidency right from the playbook of wrestling’s apex promoter. If you tell someone a lie long enough, not only do they start to believe it, but so do you. So the real question becomes, whether it be wrestling or the future of the free world, how important is the truth, anyway?
Bio: Casey James Salengo is a comedian, writer, and actor residing in Brooklyn by way of Vermont. His stand up has been featured on Comedy Central Presents, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and This Week at the Cellar. He wrote and starred in the Comedy Central web series “Casey Tries His Best” and the soon to be released “The Good Times Bar.” He once made it to the final interview to write for WWE but wasn’t hired because, he conspiratorially assumes, he had too much knowledge of the product and a general lack of job interview experience. He devotes far too much of his life thinking about professional wrestling.
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