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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.

9 Comments

  1. Jacob Nanfito
    May 23, 2014 @ 5:52 am

    Awesome stuff! A great, compact history of a complex time for pro wrestling. The WWF's ascension revolutionized the business on every level. I think McMahon gets painted as a ruthless conqueror — destroying and pillaging the sacrosanct territorial system (which had been institutionalized by the NWA cartel of promoters in the 1940s) … and although Vince Jr. was definitely ambitious, I think he just saw an opportunity and went for it.

    He saw that cable TV was a way to quickly go national and circumvent the regional territories, while the old school promoters clung to the notion that TV was only a means of selling tickets to small, regional shows. Any sort of "branding" never occurred to them. Also, it wasn't that Vince "stole" his competitors talent so much as they flocked to the WWE to get that national exposure. In short, the territorial promoters hadn't gotten complacent — business was conducted in one specific way — and McMahon saw a new, modern way. He gambled on it big time, got himself labeled a traitor and a heretic within the extremely tight-knit fraternity of wrestling (there are many stories of top NWA members looking to have Vince killed. It sounds ridiculous, but the comparison of the old NWA to the mafia is very apt), but launched wrestling into the mainstream pop culture and, subsequently, pulled the plug on the life support of the territory system.

    The wrestling super-show had been a long time staple of regional promotions, but codifying it into a media event, with mainstream celebrities and athletes involved, available to been viewed nationally, was a revelation. WrestleMania changed the game, for sure. Starrcade had actually started the year before WM — but it was very small potatoes compared to what the WWF pulled off. Oh, and Hogan teamed up with Mr. T in the main event in a tag match against Piper and "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff.

    The 80s was the age of merchandising, and McMahon was the first to launch wresting into action figures, Saturday morning cartoons, video games, and everything you can think of (including ice cream treats). I think is a big reason why WWF firmly took hold of young imaginations, and why 80s WWF nostalgia still has such a pull on pop culture. Also, although Hulk Hogan was, without a doubt, the man behind the brand, I think Capt. Lou Albano was also majorly influential during this time. His appearance in Cyndi Lauper's video for "Girls Just Want to Have Fun": brought wrestling into the domain of MTV — and the two became linked as the "Rock and Wrestling Connection." Lauper appeared on WWF TV and a huge wrestling card aired on MTV created way more exposure for the WWF — eventually landing them on NBC. Albano's portrayal of Mario on the Super Mario Bros. cartoon show was the first significant rupture in kayfabe and began its modernization.

    Ok, I'd better stop now 🙂

    Reply

  2. Josh Marsfelder
    May 23, 2014 @ 8:45 am

    Well, I'm glad I didn't totally screw it up!

    And thanks for the clarifications and extrapolations-You added a lot more context than I was able to do. In hindsight, maybe I should have asked you to do a guest post on this stuff!

    Reply

  3. Jacob Nanfito
    May 23, 2014 @ 10:24 am

    There's a lot of gray area in the "official" narrative of what happened during this time. Those are the areas that I think are some of the most interesting. The things about wrestling history is that it's told by those who were there — men and women who make a life of exaggerating and lying. Work from workers. Although these events actually happened, they've been subsumed into lore — often indistinguishable from storylines, and retold with the agenda of ego, revisionism, entertainment, and self-promotion (some of the cornerstones of wrestling!)

    There's a great writer by the name of David Shoemaker aka The Masked Man, who writes about wrestling for Grantland and Deadspin, as well as just published a book called "The Squared Circle," who writes a lot about the semiotic un-reality of wrestling and how it interacts with the reality of the rest of the world. His writings about Andre the Giant, in particular, are really insightful — he was an actual man who's actual life is indistinguishable from myth. He's a modern mythological figure … and in my opinion, the WrestleMania 3 match between Hogan and Andre is the WWE's modern creation myth.

    Anyhow — my point is, as the sole survivor of the 90s wrestling war, and the last company that matters in the wrestling business, the WWE (and so Vince) are now firmly in control of wrestling's official history. They publish the books, they put out the dvds, they hire the talking heads. They own the complete tape libraries of ever promotion that mattered …. and through the WWE Network (another Vince revolution in the wrestling/tv business) they tell the story 24/7. So diving the context and digging out multiple … ummm…truths? .. no, perspectives, I guess, is important to those interested in wrestling's history.

    I'm still not sure what this all has to do with Star Trek yet, but I appreciate getting a chance to go on and on about this stuff, and to see wrestling addressed by someone with an eye towards cultural anthropology and comparative mythology.

    Reply

  4. Josh Marsfelder
    May 23, 2014 @ 10:47 am

    Don't worry. I don't expect anyone to figure out what this has to do with Star Trek yet. I just hope I don't start hemorrhaging readers over the next week. But all will become clear shortly, have patience 🙂

    Though I will say, your account of the lore and misinformation that surrounds the history of professional wrestling could just as easily describe the history of Star Trek: All Officially Sanctioned Master Narratives (those of both CBS and the Trekkers) and regular people elevated to the status of mythological heroes and villains (Gene Roddenberry, Rick Berman).

    Reply

  5. Jacob Nanfito
    May 23, 2014 @ 10:55 am

    Yeah, you're right! I hadn't made that connection. 🙂

    Reply

  6. Adam Riggio
    May 24, 2014 @ 4:30 pm

    A potentially enlightening piece about one aspect of the semiotic legacy of this era of professional wrestling. My cousin, Patrick Boyle, is a professional musician and professor of music theory and performance at University of Victoria. During his graduate studies, he developed an improvisatory style of musical performance. He and one or two companion musicians would practice and assemble a semi-improvised soundtrack to a silent film. He first exhibited this with Buster Keaton's The General, and followed it up with a Halloween exhibition of Murnau's Nosteratu.

    The third film he did this for was the central fight of Wrestlemania 3. They played the sound for a series of clips showing the absurdly theatrical segments depicting the break and growing rivalry of Andre and Hulk. Then the sound died down, and the improvised music played over the match itself. They made it into the tragic story of a deep gay love doomed by ambition and selfishness.

    What was the point of this performance in a room at the Memorial University music school in St. John's NL in 2007? I have absolutely no idea. But it is a curious way that the conceptual and popular legacy of the WWF continued to percolate today. And perhaps it expresses undercurrents that were always strangely implicit to the imagery of Wrestlemania from the start.

    It was undoubtedly beautiful.

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  7. bbqplatypus318
    May 25, 2014 @ 10:47 pm

    That sounds truly glorious.

    Reply

  8. Jacob Nanfito
    May 26, 2014 @ 9:13 am

    That does sound awesome! And wonderfully appropriate, as the wrestling match itself is a collaborative improvisation, in many ways strikingly similar to how musicians would improve a piece of music together.

    They picked a great match/angle to score, as well … the whole buildup between Hulk and Andre towards WM 3 is one of the most perfectly executed wrestling storylines of all time.

    Reply

  9. Daru
    June 19, 2014 @ 7:20 pm

    I am not really into wrestling, but as a kid in the Saturday late afternoon run-up to watching Doctor Who I would watch British wrestling on ITV (The BBC's rival channel). It was a raucous and sometime blatantly silly affair but as a kid I loved it (a bit like Wrath of Khan then?). In the 70's and 80's British wrestling was populated by figures such as Big Daddy who was the alter ego of Shirley Crabtree and Giant Haystacks.

    Just like with Wrath of Khan my interest waned as I grew up – but thanks for the insight into other aspects I have never watched (and probably won't), its been illuminating!

    Reply

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