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Growing up, I had a passion. Each Friday night, in the absence of a social life, 11 year old me would settle down in front of the TV with my dad to watch WWF (now WWE) Raw is War. At the time it was the height of youthful masculinity. All the hard kids in school would watch it without fail, then come in on Monday morning to clothesline-from-hell the rest of us and talk shop. In a time before social media, where dial-up internet was at the forefront of technology, our weekly dose of man on man action, followed by the sneaky free 10 minutes of Channel Babestation once the parents had gone to bed, granted boasting rights for the week, and helped to construct our LAD mentality.
It’s only when you go to these live shows, full to the brim with sweaty middle-aged men and their children, baying for blood and tits, that you feel truly part of the manly mob. The crowd would rise up as one to cheer Stone Cold, curse the establishment heels, and mock the token effeminate characters who strayed from the norm. Within this world it didn’t seem at all peculiar for 11 year old me to be holding up a sign saying WE WANT PUPPIES and wolf-whistling at Debra. It was just what happened. This was a hyper-masculine space where long before Miley Cyrus was licking sledgehammers, HHH was breaking bones with them.
And yet, looking back, it seems the gayest thing in the world! My modern day self just can’t reconcile how watching muscled-up men in underwear grappling and beating each other into a sweaty mess, could have reaffirmed the masculinity of an entire generation. With the benefit of hindsight, the frocks, the jocks, the egos and the pantomime, all set to the dulcet tones of J.R. and The King’s commentary, provide enough raw material to launch a whole number of PhDs into the contortions and hypocrisies of masculinity in 90s America. However, that’s a different article.
Whilst wrestling evidently did not turn me gay, here are 10 reasons why it may have made my destined path to wooftery a little clearer at the time:
1. Fabulous but masculine outfits
The range of styles and tastes catered for by the diversity of wrestlers and their wardrobes was second to none. Whilst undoubtedly constructed to manipulate the prejudices of the baying mob through racial profiling beyond all sense of decency, there was a man and a style to float everyone’s boat, as well as a number of hell-no fashion moments. For me, the stand-out fashion faux-pas falls squarely on the Nature Boy himself, Ric Flair.
If the phrase “Hiding in Plain Sight” hadn’t become so synonymous with the Jimmy Savile scandal, the character of Ric Flair would be the living, barely breathing incarnation of it. There is one in every generation, whether Liberace or Elton John, who is so outrageously camp as tits, yet is able to fall under the radar and break the hearts of women around the world with the revelation that he plays for the other side. The “dirtiest player in the game”, Ric Flair, somehow managed to swan around in the most fabulous robes, low blowing and grapefruit clawing his way through the roster without anyone batting an eye-lid. He is a true inspiration to all the sequin-wearing, ball-grabbing, manly men out there. Wooooooooooooooo!
2. Egos vs. Egos vs. Leather
If there was one thing that sent the crowd wild, it was an unchecked ego. Love them or hate them, badass wrestlers strutted out with enough swagger to unnerve the most steeled of modern queens. Mr Perfect, The Rock and Chris Jericho, amongst so many others, refined the art of being an arrogant muscled diva to a tee. However, the king of the ego ring goes to Shawn Michaels, who managed to forge a career out of leather, sequins, and dancing to “Sexy Boy”. As a born-again Christian, he has made no secret of fighting his past demons; he just forgets to mention that one of those demons was being an early member of the Village People:
3. Taught us how to make an entrance
Undoubtedly, wrestlers understood the importance of making an entrance, a priority that will no doubt resonate in the hearts of many readers as they approach a club on a night out. The club cloakroom viewpoint is perhaps the modern gay equivalent of sitting ringside. Whether short and snappy, dark and mysterious, all fire and brimstone, or on a lawn mower, you could tell the personality of the wrestler by the way they approached the ring and psyched out their opponent. On a day to day basis my walk to work may look like a normal no-nonsense march, but inside have no illusions, I am channelling Goldust:
4. Napoleon complex wrestlers
Having never been blessed in the height standings, coming in at 5’7, I always found myself rooting for the little guy. The ultimate little guy, Rey Mysterio, was proof enough to my 12 year old self, that to succeed in life you just need to don a gimp mask and flail through the air with dogged determination and Latino attitude, no matter how big the guy. I am yet to fully embrace this philosophy, but will not rule out a Kick-Ass styled vigilante campaign at some point in the future.
5. Weekly bear on twink action
With all this vintage muscle on show, certain aspects of professional wrestling would not look out of place projected onto the bare-brick wall of a queer art house exhibition. The frequent David vs. Goliath face-offs between the invariably cute and feisty young pretender, and the older, insurmountable man mountain, is the stuff that many gay dreams are made of. The sheer diversity of flesh on offer on a weekly basis could satisfy a whole host of tastes and fetishes. Into 4-way, barbed wire, bear vs. twink fun? Tables, ladders and chairs? Steel cages? Buried alive action? WWE has you covered. For your pleasure, Bear vs. Twink, the world’s strongest man, Mark Henry, vs. Jeff Hardy:
6. Making your own wrestler
For the young, impressionable, repressed gay, wrestling video games offered a unique chance to create your ideal man. The Create a Superstar function allowed you to stylise your perfect wrestler, complete with muscle tone, hair, tattoos, outfit and finishing moves. My creations inevitably collectively ended up looking like 50 Shades of Jeff Hardy, but the ability to adjust height, weight and style offered quite a liberating option to shape your perfect man or woman. With the shield of “It’s wrestling mum, it’s totally manly”, it was entirely justifiable to have scantily clad men on your screen as you buffed up their abs.
Chyna, the 9th Wonder of the World, entered my life straddling an army jeep, clutching a rifle. My relationship with women never quite recovered.
A true legend in the ring, punching above her weight by being the first female wrestler to participate in the Royal Rumble and King of the Ring, the sheer presence of such a muscled, no-shit badass woman during my formative years cemented one resounding life lesson: never break a woman’s heart, or she will break your face.
8. The return of Mae Young
From one female legend to another, Mae Young has played an equally prominent role on my journey towards sodomy. Refusing to recognise the phrase “age gracefully”‘s right to exist, the ageing superstar returned to the WWE in 1999, after a previously succesful fighting career in the 50s-60s with the Fabulous Moolah. At the Royal Rumble in 2000, the 76 year-old Mae Young laid the finishing blow to any thought of my heterosexuality, through her participation, and derobing, in a bikini contest. Warning, you cannot unsee this. Seriously: click.
I can only aspire to have as little regard for dignity in my old age as Mae did, as she instead pursued ridiculous, awkward and hilarious story lines. Whether that was giving birth to a hand, yes a hand, or playing cougar to Sexual Chocolate, Mark Henry, Mae Young’s senior antics inspired awe and respect, as well as a distinct “I’m fine with men, thanks” revelation.
9. Straight Up Your Candy Ass
As iconic catchphrases go, The Rock’s penchant for shining things up real nice, turning that sonbitch sideways and sticking it straight up his opponent’s candy ass stands out. As Derren Brown’s cat killer experiment demonstrates, if you say something enough times…
Whether this, Mr. Ass, the Fameasser, Vince McMahon’s Kiss My Ass club, Rikishi’s ass, repeated use of asshole, or just kicking that sonbitch’s ass, it’s fair to say that wrestling masculinity became a bit fixated on ass and doing things to each other’s asses. Just saying. In this bizarre, skewed power game played out in the ring, this generation put ass firmly on centre stage. All totally above board of course. After all, what could be more manly than getting a man to kiss your ass?
10. Inappropriate t-shirts worn by kids
On my travels to Birmingham and back to see the wrestling in my youth, you could sometimes feel part of a herd of migrating middle-aged men and their kids in cars. We once negotiated the Birmingham one way system with no other means than following the car in front because someone had the People’s Eyebrow drawn on their face. In the crowd of people, one thing stood out however: the t-shirts. Throngs of young people wearing t-shirts with DX’s slogan, SUCK IT, littered queues and engulfed the arena. I was one of these lost children, happily unaware of what HHH wanted everyone to suck.
However, the cream of the crop when it came to awful t-shirts was my brother’s choice of Carlito’s Spit or Swallow shirt a few years later. With all this awkward, utterly inappropriate subconscious marketing around us, I am sure someone somewhere is lying on a couch right now, telling their therapist that it all began in the Birmingham NEC when he was 10, when a t-shirt asked if he spat or swallowed.
11. Homoerotic wrestling moves
Finally, and perhaps the most enduring influence of them all, was the physical act of professional wrestling itself. The moves used by the two men, not to mention the homoerotic Hegelian powerplay at stake through the endless quest to master and pin down your opponent, was just so damn gay.
The names given to many of these moves are worthy of a Polari phrasebook for their open-ended double entendre. They could just as easily be particularly flexible entries in the Gay Man’s Kama Sutra, as wrestling moves. To name just a few: the Piledriver, Sharpshooter, Figure Four Leglock, Camel Clutch, Rock Bottom, Jack Hammer, Powerbomb, Belly to Belly Suplex, Rear Naked Choke, Shooting Star Press, Stunner, Power Slam, Swanton Bomb, Money Shot and Bronco Buster.
The physical acts themselves, largely involving putting your opponent’s head between your legs, are no less open to interpretation. For all the muscled intensity, ego and want for puppies in wrestling, the pantomime man on man grappling still strikes me as a bizarre combat for lad culture to rally itself around. Whilst undeniably manly through the sheer commitment, muscled discipline and skill involved in the industry, the joy taken in seeing a man sit on another man’s face is hard to square up with the straight-laced, badass masculine egos that base themselves around it.