This is a post about professional wrestling. Turn back now if you feel the need.
Or, keep reading and you might learn something.
I've been a pro wrestling fan since I was nine. It was 1984. I sat on the floor in front of our big TV. My mother, pregnant with my sister, slept on the couch behind me. The first match I ever saw was The Junkyard Dog Vs. Steve Lombardi on an episode of WWF Superstars. By the end of that show, I was hooked.
Until 14 days ago.
Longtime wrestling devotees share a burden unique to their fandom, particularly those of my generation. Many of of the wrestlers we grew up with, and some who appeared on our TV screens and in our action figure collections within the last few years, are dead. Wrestlers die young. That's become perilously close to an axiom among those in, out, and around the professional wrestling industry. There are the odd diseases and in-ring accidents, but most wrestlers who've died in the last decade or so have been victims of what "Rowdy" Roddy Piper (my personal hero from age nine until Theodore Roosevelt took over about a dozen years ago) described in his autobiography as The Sickness.
The Sickness is not an easy thing to describe. No wrestler simply contracts The Sickness and dies. There is no doctor a wrestler can go to and be diagnosed with The Sickness. The Sickness is not the 300-dates-per-year schedule nationally televised wrestlers must endure, nor is it the physical and emotion distance from family that schedule creates. The Sickness isn't even the cocktail of steroids, uppers, downers, alcohol, and pain killers a wrestler must ingest to maintain the level of fitness and performance commensurate with the upper echelon of success. The Sickness is none of those things.
Knowing about all of those things, seeing them claim your peers, and wanting to be a professional wrestler more than you want to keep breathing; that is The Sickness.
The Wrestler's Disease.
Older pro wrestling fans, that is to say fans significantly older than me, don't have this problem. Verne Gagne is still alive; he's 81. Killer Kowalski is still alive; he's 80. Lou Thesz died at age 86. No one seems to know how old Larry "The Ax" Hennig is, but his son, Curt, died at 44. Eddie Guerrero over there is survived by three brothers older than him. All of Kevin Von Erich's brothers are dead. As the wrestling business has changed, grown, become national, gotten faster, flashier, more unbelievable, more extreme, more attitude, it's also grown deadly to the men who risk and punish their bodies for our entertainment and die, not under the bright lights, but alone in a dark hotel room somewhere between obscurity and greatness.
I thought I could handle that. But then Chris Benoit annihilated his family and himself. It knocked the wrestling fandom right out of me. I ebayed my entire wrestling figure collection inside of 48 hours after reading the news.
I've always found it amusing that so many of my fellow geeks look down on pro wrestling and then speak of Batman or Optimus Prime as though they are real beings, and the height of complex drama. Even within the wrestling fandom, I feel there are three levels; those who think it's "real", those who know it's "fake", and those of us who know the only thing "fake" about wrestling is the premise that what we witness is athletic competition in the sporting sense. In fact, wrestling is athletic competition as much as dance or action movies are; perform well and you become a star, connect with the audience and you become a superstar.
Make me forget it's "fake" and you become my hero.
Just like comic books, just like movies, wrestling is an art. It's a pact between fellows based on trust, respect and, yes, competition. Every wrestler, just like every everything else, wants to be the best.
Batman can never die. Optimus Prime can't either. These characters will go on so long as there are comic books creators, toy companies, and fans willing to follow their exploits. But when Ric Flair dies, there will never be another Ric Flair match.
Luke Skywalker can never die. Mark Hamill can die. Mark Hamill will die. But, so long as there is video media and fans on the other side of the screen, Luke Skywalker is forever. But Luke Skywalker cannot change. Luke Skywalker cannot grow. Luke Skywalker cannot do anything but what Luke Skywalker has already done. Luke Skywalker is not Mark Hamill but wrestlers, however masked in colorful attire and steeped in character, are at heart themselves. When Mark Hamill dies, we won't lose Luke Skywalker. Owen Hart is gone.
As wrestling fans, we're not investing in characters, we're investing in people.
Much has crossed my mind since Chris Benoit did what he did. My first
thought was that not one person more was going to die for my
entertainment. But everything from the circumstances surrounding Chris
Benoit's family life to my own Libertarian politics have conspired to
muddy those initial, resolute waters.
I haven't watched WWE in two weeks. I don't remember the last time there was a gap that big. I miss it. I feel like I've let it down, in a way. I supposed that's the wrestling fan's Sickness. Although I know there will be another Eddie Guerrero, another Sherri Martel, another Owen Hart. Although I know there will another time when we all gather around the virtual table of message boards to commiserate and face ridicule for caring so much, I feel unwilling to let Chris Benoit's cowardice push me from something I've watched for over 20 years.
Today is Monday. Wrestling fans know what that means. Tonight I'll go back to it, hoping for change, but accepting that it will likely never come. No one should have to do anything illegal to make a living; that's the sum total of my feelings on government regulation of the wrestling industry and my personal plea to those who create the environment in which men develop a Sickness to succeed. I feel I've lost a bit of integrity in all this, but let that be what I get for allowing one man's weakness, in the face of another's avarice, drive me, however briefly, from something I love.
I am a wrestling fan.