Pro Wrestling Is Real (For One Night Only)

By Marc Ambinder

For live tweeting of Wrestlemania 26, click here.

Professional wrestling is fake, except when it isn't: wrestlers get hurt with disturbing regularity. And, come to think of it, sometimes, a wrestler might work a bit stiffer with someone he doesn't like, which means that contrived tension out of the ring becomes a bit more real inside of it. And it's rarely true anymore than matches are scripted all the way through: really good wrestlers tend to improvise on the spot. That's why wrestlers, in the modern age, are OK with admitting that the end of the matches are predetermined, and the drama is scripted, but physicality of wrestling is kinda real. Except that very rarely, one wrestler isn't informed about the way the match is really going to end. When this happens, it's a huge deal: fake pro wrestling becomes real, instantly, the wrestler who's out of the loop is suddenly in great jeopardy of losing life, or career, and when word gets out that a wrestler was legitimately "screwed" -- that's the insider term -- the entire world of wrestling -- a billion dollar business -- changes instantly. 

That long introduction is necessary to understand why today's Wrestlemania 26 from World Wrestling Entertainment, is so fascinating and epochal for the tens of millions of Americans who consider themselves fans of pro-wrestling. There are several must-see matches, but one of them closes the loop on a real-life, 13-years-long drama that changed wrestling forever. Brief back story: in 1997, then WWE (it was called WWF back then) World Champion Bret Hart knew the company wanted him to relinquish his belt to Shawn Michaels. The company's chairman, Vince McMahon, wanted it to happen at the big Survivor Series event -- held in Hart's native Canada. Hart's Canadian pride resisted -- no way would he lose face in front of Canadian fans. So McMahon called an audible.  Here's how it went down:  Awesome match progresses. Michaels catches Hart in his "sharpshooter." McMahon is suddenly at ringside. Hart assumes that he's going to "break" the hold and move on with the match. Suddenly he sees the referree, Earl Hebner, motioning vigorously. He hears McMahon scream out "Ring the fucking bell."  The bell rings.  Hart stiffens. Michaels releases the hold.  The announcers, kept out of the loop, don't know what's happening. Slowly, it dawns on Hart, then the live crowd, then the pay-per-view crowd  -- McMahon, the boss, forced everyone to believe that Hart submitted verbally during the painful move.  But no one heard Hart yell anything.  Shawn Michaels, the "new" champion, had a look of shock on his face (and we're still unsure whether he was part of this real conspiracy).  Hart looked at McMahon.  He spat at him. Backstage, wrestlers were outraged at their boss. A documentary camera famously caught the aftermath: McMahon enters the lockroom to try and reason with Hart; Hart punches him (for real), McMahon stumbles out. 

As if the screw-job wasn't enough, the drama between McMahon and the Hart family was weighted down by another awful, real life wrestling tragedy: in 1999, Hart's brother Owen fell to his death when a stunt went wrong before a match. It seemed that the Hart family, legends in Canada, was doomed whenever it came in contact with the WWE. 

In real life, time began to heal the wounds; Hart and McMahon are said to have reconciled privately after Hart's stroke a few years ago, when McMahon called to express his concern.  In the wrestling world, however, and even in that real world, the circle wouldn't, couldn't be complete until McMahon got a public receipt for his screwjob.  Today, we're at the cadenza of this concerto.

Hart will wrestle the 64-year-old (!) chairman of the WWE, Vince McMahon, and Vince will get his receipt. So wrestling fans know the ending already -- they know they're going to see McMahon humiliated. One assumes that Hart has a contract entitling him to McMahon's empire if he were to be screwed once again, so we're probably not going to see that. The audience expects some swerves -- it might seem for a moment that Hart gets screwed again, but at the end of the day, when the lights cut out around 11:00 pm ET tonight, there'll be a most satisfying denouement.

Wrestling is a fantasy world; cultural theorists call it a way for men to vent their submerged homosocial and/or violent and/or deep limbic frustrations (whatever); tonight, it's just one hell of a good drama.

I'll be live-tweeting the matches tonight on my personal site, if you're interested.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/03/pro-wrestling-is-real-for-one-night-only/38126/