Pro Wrestling and The End of History
The traditional heroes and villains of the ring have disappeared -- replaced by hulks who construct postmodern identities
Oct 4, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 03 • By PAUL A. CANTOR
When the great Parisian Hegelian Alexandre Kojeve searched for an image of the end of history, he finally hit upon the Japanese tea ceremony. Coming from Brooklyn, I am a bit less sophisticated and turn to American professional wrestling instead. For wrestling has been as much a victim of the end of the Cold War as the military-industrial complex. It is not just that the demise of the Soviet Union deprived wrestling of one set of particularly despicable villains. The end of the Cold War signaled the end of an era of nationalism that had dominated the American psyche for most of this century. Like much else in the United States, including the power and prestige of the federal government itself, wrestling had fed off this nationalism. It drew upon ethnic hostilities to fuel the frenzy of its crowds and give a larger meaning to the confrontations it staged.
The state of professional wrestling today thus provides clues as to what living at the end of history means. It suggests how a large segment of American society is trying to cope with the emotional letdown that followed upon the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy. If the vast wrestling audience (some 35 million people tune in to cable programs each week) is a barometer of American culture, then the nation is in trouble. Indeed, the very idea of the nation-state has become problematic. For wrestling has been denationalizing itself over the past decade, replacing the principle of the nation with the principle of the tribe.
The erosion of national identity in wrestling reflects broader trends in American society. If one wants to see moral relativism and even nihilism at work in American culture, one need only tune in to the broadcasts of either of the two main wrestling organizations, Vince McMahon's Worldwide Wrestling Federation and Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling. (It is no accident that one of the pillars of professional wrestling is Turner's cable TV empire, which also brings us CNN, the anti-nation-state, global news channel.) Both the WWF and the WCW offer the spectacle of an America that has lost its sense of national purpose and turned inward, becoming wrapped up in manufactured psychological crises and toying with the possibility of substituting class warfare for international conflict. And yet we should remain open to the possibility that contemporary wrestling may have some positive aspects; for one thing, the decline of the old nationalism may be linked to a new kind of creative freedom.
The history of pro wrestling as we know it begins after World War II and is roughly contemporary -- not coincidentally -- with the rise of television. Wrestling provided relatively cheap and reliable programming and soon became a staple for fledgling television stations. By the 1950s -- and well into the '60s and '70s -- wrestling was filling the airwaves with ethnic stereotypes, playing off national hostilities that had been fired up by World War II and restoked during the Korean conflict. Wrestling villains -- always the key to whatever drama the bouts have -- were often defined by their national origin, which branded them as enemies of the American way of life.
Many of the villains were at first either German or Japanese, but as memories of World War II faded, pro wrestling turned increasingly to Cold War themes. I wish I had a ruble for every wrestling villain who was advertised as the "Russian Bear," but the greatest of all who bore that nickname was Ivan Koloff. Looking for all the world like Lenin pumped up on steroids, he eventually spawned a whole dynasty of villainous wrestling Koloffs. The fact that the most successful of them was named Nikita shows that it was actually Khrushchev and not Lenin or Stalin who provided the model for the Russian wrestling villain. Time and again the Russian wrestler's pre-fight interview was a variation on "Ve vill bury you." Nikolai Volkoff used to infuriate American opponents and fans alike by waving a Soviet flag in the center of the ring and insisting on his right to sing the Soviet national anthem before his bout began.
To supplement its Russian villains, wrestling turned to the Arab Middle East, where a long tradition of ethnic stereotyping was readily available. During the years of tension between the United States and Iran, wrestling hit paydirt with a villain known as the Iron Sheik, who made no secret of his admiration for and close personal ties to the Ayatollah Khomeini. His pitched battles with the All-American GI, Sgt. Slaughter, became the stuff of wrestling legend. Not to be left behind by the march of history, during the Gulf War the Iron Sheik reinvented himself as Colonel Mustafa, and suddenly Americans had an Iraqi wrestler to hate.