In his essay on wrestling, the French philosopher Roland Barthes described professional wrestling as a “spectacle of excess.” Before dirt-sheets on pro wrestling websites and TV specials exposing the staged nature of sports entertainment, Barthes could arguably be called the forefather of “sports entertainment;” that the very first WrestleMania was that hall in Paris where he observed – and perhaps over-intellectualized – catch-as-catch-can wrestling.
I’m a mark for wrestling myself; having watched it on TV since I was a kid, I’ve seen – and I continue to see – the spectacle grow. Back in high school we used to imitate the pro-wrestling matches we saw on television, and I’ll be the first to tell you that improperly-executed sharpshooters and hammerlocks do, in fact, hurt. Yet over the years, I grew a bit tired of the worn-out “soap opera for men” that is American mainstream pro wrestling – World Wrestling Entertainment, for example – and moved on to shows that fill my appetite for catch-as-catch-can, violence…
… And the occasional steel cage deathmatch where light tubes, steel chairs, and gimmicked tables are completely legal.
Of course it’s all “fake,” if one references the scripted nature of professional wrestling, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. A body slam on thumbtacks no longer appeals to me as much as brutal suplexes on barbed-wire covered boards, or matches where the ring ropes are replaced with exploding barbed wire. The old Japanese “garbage wrestling” promotions – most notably FMW – were notorious for going beyond the gladiatorial ballet of pro wrestling, where holds and moves were executed with such precision and skill. Instead, it was straightforward. Beat up your opponent, but do it in the most gruesome, most ridiculous way possible.
A slam through an array of light tubes. Suicide dives to the outside of the ring, meeting the unforgiving embrace of plywood and barbed wire loops. The opponents battle on top of a ridiculously high ladder, and the ladder tips over with their weight; both fall into stacks of tables. A bag is opened to reveal shards of broken glass, thumbtacks, and bits of broken metal for the finisher: a back-to-back double underhook piledriver, right on the debris.
For what? For Barthes, wrestling is a symbolism of excess; mythology in a stage that is the squared circle. Yet it isn’t in hardcore: the wrestlers become objects, part of the tableau before the spectators, testing the limits of the human body in situations that can never happen to you. It is an exaggeration of everything: a submission hold may entertain enough when done on the mat, but could only be made better by steel chains wrapped around an opponent’s neck. A big move like a facebuster can only be more damaging – and far more entertaining, when done on an opened steel chair. It is wrestling’s myth made more extreme and more exaggerated and, yet, more within the grasp of the spectator. Since the wrestler bleeds and doubles over in pain, the spectator gets into the rhythm. The hold becomes immaterial, so a 2×4 has to be set on fire before being broken in half on an opponent’s back. Something as elegant as a shooting star press becomes irrelevant, so it has to be done on top of a 20-foot ladder.
Sure, it’s all “fake,” as rehearsed as every episode of Glee, save for almost-hebephrenic announcers being calm during an exchange of holds, and screaming “LARIATOOOOO” when the revered finisher is performed. It’s not held in a colosseum of tanned, muscular gladiators, but often in run-down buildings with slackened ring ropes among ordinary-looking wrestlers with enough skill to do complicated hooks and stretches, but would break out the bamboo kendo sticks when needed. Blood, too, and lots of it; either wrestlers intentionally blading themselves with concealed razors, or being wounded the hard way. As a whole, the match matters little: it’s the extremity of one or two stunts and spots that would make it memorable.
There are very little Barthesian symbolisms in hardcore wrestling: no gestures between good and evil, save for the highlighting of suffering. The few rules that govern hardcore wrestling are akin to the anarchy that it represents: living by blood, sweat, and tears. Human life is a journey of pain, magnified by 15-minute matches without pause, except for the finish, where the winner is always bloodied but unbowed. The moral concept of justice isn’t skill or precision, but a sense of willingness: to give pain, and to take it. In the end, everyone goes home, with the spectacle of pain just a memory.
Barthes concludes his essay with this statement:
In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.
In ultraviolent hardcore wrestling, nothing could be more true.