Let's face it, pro wrestling has never been highbrow entertainment and probably was never meant to be. But it has been a cornerstone of television for more than 50 years.
World Wrestling Entertainment's "Raw" program is jumping from the Spike TV cable network after a five-year run and will be returning to the USA Network tonight with a three-hour show, "WWE Homecoming." "Raw" had been on the USA Network between 1993 and 2000 before jumping to Spike TV, which was then known as The Nashville Network.
WWE's "Homecoming," along with this past Saturday's debut of the upstart Total Nonstop Action Wrestling on Spike TV, usher in a new season of wrestling in the new TV year and the continuation of small screen's love affair with the bodyslamming spectacle.
The Cleavers, Lucy ... and Gorgeous George
Wrestling programs -- along with TV shows like "Amos 'n' Andy," "Leave It to Beaver," "Gunsmoke," "I Love Lucy" and others -- helped usher in the golden era of television in the 1950s.
My grandmother and great-grandmother were among the viewers who enjoyed the spectacle, which was a live-action hybrid of drama, comedy and athleticism that pitted hero wrestlers, or babyfaces, against villains known as "heels." My grandmothers often told me tales about cheering and booing stars such as Gorgeous George, Haystacks Calhoun, Bruno Sammartino and Hatpin Mary, a bespectacled old woman who liked to stick wrestlers she did not like with a hatpin.
The wrestlers and their in-ring personas were larger than life, and they engaged in stories pitting good versus evil -- a very basic, classic formula that continues in wrestling storylines today. Despite highs and lows in mainstream public interest, larger-than-life characters and basic storylines may be the reason wrestling has had such long-lasting appeal.
"It tells the very old story of good versus evil, but played out in a very different way," said Adam Nudelman, co-author along with his partner Adam Kleinberg of "Mysteries of Wrestling: Solved" and co-host of the radio show "Get In the Ring." "That's the root of it. It's like a take on Shakespeare where no matter what, you're always going to have a protagonist and antagonist in wrestling."
Nudelman, a longtime wrestling fan, remembers how he started watching. But he cannot explain why he continues to watch.
"It had to be around the time of the first 'Wrestlemania'. It was like a fad back then, with Mr. T and Hulk Hogan and all those guys," Nudelman said. "I remember my friends talking about it. I was attracted to the comedy aspect of it. It was more kid-friendly back then and appealed to kids. I'm not sure whether it's because of my radio show or something else that makes me continue to watch."
Like Nudelman, my friends introduced me to pro wrestling when I was 12, shortly before WWE's first "Wrestlemania." My teachers often asked me how I could watch "that junk" on TV. But my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother encouraged -- and at times helped me enjoy -- watching Hulk Hogan battle "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff, the late Andre the Giant and others. I just had to make sure I fit some PBS programming into my TV habits.
My grandmothers dismissed Hogan and others as phonies, saying that in their day, wrestling was "real." Had they been both still alive, I wonder how they would have reacted when WWE and eventually the rest of the wrestling industry acknowledged in the late 1990s that their sport was choreographed and scripted.
New Height of Popularity in the Nineties
Pro wrestling in the '90s had come a long way from the no-frills, televised matches emanating from dark, smoke-filled arenas and school gymnasiums that my grandmothers had watched -- and were part of my introduction to the sport.
WWE's Raw premiered on USA in 1993 and helped set a standard for slickly produced shows, complete with pyrotechnics and theme music. The National Wrestling Alliance -- the oldest wrestling promotion at the time and WWE rival -- had had a long history of shows on the Turner Broadcasting station and were bought by Ted Turner. After changing its name to World Championship Wrestling, the company went head to head on Monday nights against "Raw" with its own show "Nitro," waging what became known in the industry as the "Monday Night Wars."
"Nitro" beat "Raw" in the ratings for 83 straight weeks when pro wrestling -- led by Hogan, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, "The Rock" and Bill Goldberg, among others -- experienced the height of its popularity. The shows were among the highest rated on cable television, and stars from WCW and WWE were featured regularly in the mainstream media.
However, "Raw" eventually overtook "Nitro" in the ratings. WCW became defunct when its financial losses led to WWE Chairman Vince McMahon buying out his archrival in 2001.
Larger-Than-Life Characters Not Necessarily for Kids
When WCW and WWE competed against each other, they both became somewhat less kid-friendly. Both wrestling promotions presented their share of scantily clad women, foul language, middle fingers, blood and insider jabs at each other. WWE in particular has been attacked by the Parents Television Council and New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick for its content.
This past July, WWE drew criticism when a pre-taped episode of "Smackdown!" aired on the day of the London terror attacks and showed five masked men led by the villainous Muhammad Hassan -- an Arab-American wrestling character who rants and raves about being profiled and discriminated against in a post 9/11 world -- attacking The Undertaker. Some critics had blasted the Hassan character as being offensive and a racial stereotype before the July 7 edition of "Smackdown!" However, the episode drew so much criticism that WWE eliminated the character for good.
Though wrestling is not for everyone, it has had its poignant moments. Among them include the tribute TV shows WWE and WCW presented following the accidental ring stunt death of WWE star Owen Hart in 1999. WWE has also gone to Iraq two years in a row to entertain the U.S. troops during the holiday season and broadcast the shows on UPN.
New Heated Rivalry Ahead?
Love it or hate it, WWE -- and wrestling in general -- is an experience appreciated worldwide. It has always been a popular attraction in Asia, and Mexico has its own longstanding wrestling tradition called "Lucha Libre," with TV shows on Galavision.
"There's nothing quite like it," said McMahon. "You won't find anything that combines action, drama and -- we don't do comedy -- but I'd say humor. And we wrestle."
Since WCW's demise, WWE has not had any real competition on TV. "TNA Impact!" will not go head to head against "Raw" but WWE stars say they wish the upstart, three-year-old, up-and-coming promotion success.
"I wish them all the luck in the world," said "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. "Competition is always a good thing. It makes the guys in the dressing room step up, it makes the writers write better story lines. It may make some of the younger guys [in WWE] step up because some of them are a little green. They may think that, 'Hey, I better step up my game. This is my opportunity to shine.' But still, the bottom line is that this [the WWE] is the big leagues. Everyone wants to come here."
My only question about the latest televised wrestling match is this: Who will play the heel and who will play babyface? Either way, fans will cheer, as they have for more than half a century.