SLAM! WRESTLING: Guest Columnist

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Wednesday, August 25, 1999

SLAM! Wrestling Guest Column

Wrestling's mystique - gone for good?

By DON LEBARBA -- For SLAM! Wrestling

While Steve Austin and Triple H were horsing around on MTV a couple of weeks ago I couldn't help but wonder, "Where has the mystique of wrestling gone?" And will it ever find it's way back?

On the one hand it was cool to see them chatting with fans, and being available for that sort of interaction. But on the other hand, they didn't seem so much like wrestlers anymore, but rather, like a couple of bloated sitcom stars on a publicity tour. The popularity of wrestling has cost it some of its edge, no doubt. Where they were once seen as rough and tumble athletes of unknown origin, they are now a bunch of good natured jocks with high priced endorsement gigs. The performers lay it all out on the table and we're all in on the joke. Hence, the mystique is gone.

There was a time not all that long ago when the WWF would cruise into Boston for their monthly Saturday night card. You didn't know what these guys were like in their daily lives, you didn't know anything about them at all, but you couldn't wait for them to arrive. They seemed to show up in the middle of the night like hired hitmen working under the cloak of darkness. There was very little fanfare - they just showed up as if there was a job that needed to be done. They'd do the job and be gone the next day. Fans could do nothing but wait patiently for them to return the next month. To imagine the performers of that era in a talk show context is impossible. Chief Strongbow whooping it up with a bunch of MTV Veejays is almost nightmarish!

Hear me out, I'm not pining for the old days, but I'm certainly glad I lived through them. It was a period when wrestlers seemed like real bad-asses, so strong was the cloak of mystery surrounding them.

Some arenas had an open parking lot where we might wait to see who showed up. The champion, Bob Backlund, drove the nicest car, a Lincoln Town car, if I remember correctly. The second nicest car belonged to a young upstart named Curt Hennig. We couldn't figure out how a young squirt who lost all the time rated a hot little sports car, but we also realized his dad had been a famous heel in the '70s, so maybe that had something to do with it. The other guys drove junkers or arrived in cabs. We saw Pedro Morales, a WWF legend, traveling with Jose Estrada, a curtain jerker. It didn't make sense, but when we noted the obvious - they were both speaking Spanish - it made a ton of sense. We began piecing together a sort of backstage community. Still, we were left in the dark. The wrestlers barely acknowledged you as they walked from their cars to the arena. You didn't dare bother them, either. You just stood there and watched them in awe. When they were gone you'd turn to your friends and say, "Damn! That was him!"

Jimmy Snuka If you went to the matches often enough you began to put together a kind of oral folk history of stories that were passed down from one fan to another. Like hearing from a Garden security guard that Adrian Adonis and Bob Orton Jr. had a shoving match in the locker room, or that Jimmy Snuka's girlfriend had a serious drug problem. We never knew if what we heard was true, but we hung on to every detail because it seemed to be a piece of the puzzle. We were determined to solve this riddle of professional wrestling. We didn't think we ever would, but that was part of the fun. What we hoped for, more than anything else, was to hear that something was REAL! We wanted to know if someone actually landed some of those punches in the ring, or if some real heat was going on between a few of the grapplers. We knew the game was rigged, but we were always looking for the one moment that might be legit.

You know the rest. The sport experienced an incredible growth and the mystique was shattered into bits. Internet gossip boards and the willingness of modern grapplers to break "kayfabe" combine to make us feel, albeit temporarily, like insiders. All of the inside info I had once craved is now available to me in buckets.

And to my surprise, I don't know if I like it. Sometimes I wish I was still in the dark.

Here's my question, and perhaps the point of this column. I wonder if we're really enjoying this new found "insider" perspective, or if we're just hungry for details after being shut out for so many years? For years we knew nothing, and now we mindlessly gorge ourselves on anything that passes for inside info. Now that the folks in charge openly tell us that the show is fake, we are STILL digging around trying to find something real about it. The more they break the illusion down, the harder we try to find something real in it! Do I really enjoy the show more if I've read about some legitimate heat between Shane Douglas and Ric Flair? I really don't know anymore.

It's as if we need a bit of that real flavor to help us digest all of the fake stuff. I guess that's the opposite of real life, where we need our pipe dreams and fantasies to help us deal with reality. Maybe this all says something about human nature. Your guess is as good as mine.

All I know is, for all of the gossip and websites, there are moments when I'm glad I was around before the internet boom. I'm glad I waited in those parking lots outside local arenas.The little scrap of information we might get back then carried a lot more weight than the truckloads of "news" available now. Wrestlers are now available to us in ways I'd never thought imaginable, and in some ways that's good. In fact, it's downright generous for a performer to make himself that open to his fans.

But when a guy creates a website that details his eating and sleeping habits, as generous as he may be, he will never be larger than life.

I'm glad I was around when wrestlers kept their distance.

I'm glad I had a chance to be in awe.
Don LeBarba lives in the Boston area. He contributes to many wrestling websites. He can be reached at

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