Without a doubt, one of the proudest moments of my life occurred on January 29, 2013, when I made my professional wrestling debut in a tag-team match in a show co-hosted by American Pro Wrestling, an upstate South Carolina based promotion, and Wofford College, the institution that made me a tenured professor the year before. I wrestled that night as Mr. Canada, a masked, French-Canadian heel; my partner was Ben Wright, whom APW had named its 2012 “Heel of the Year.” We lost our match in fantastic fashion: after I “accidentally” broke my hockey stick across my partner’s chest, he was then demolished through a ringside table, while I was shamefully de-masked – and then powerslammed, superfly splashed, and pinned.
I was 39 when Mr. Canada made his debut – not exactly in the springtime of my youth – and I often get asked how in the world I ended up in the wrestling ring and why I thought it would be a good idea to do so. After all, the career trajectory of graduate school to tenure track job to tenure to professional wrestler is not exactly the most common one in the world of academia.
I’ll begin this blog entry answering these how and why questions, and then I’ll move to the questions I pondered for months after my 2013 wrestling debut: what new lessons about pro wrestling did I learn when I moved from careful observer of professional wrestling to actual professional wrestler – when I broke the fourth wall in reverse (so to speak)? Did this experience give me new insights into a cultural form that I previously appreciated only as a fan and a scholar?
First questions first. I became a professional wrestler like anyone else becomes one: I went to professional wrestling school; I applied for and received my professional wrestling license (required in some, but not all, states); and then I wrestled in an actual match in front of a live crowd. Now, I don’t want to overstate my claim on the title of “professional wrestler.” My entire “career” consisted of exactly one match. After that match was over, I was forced into retirement…by a prior agreement I’d struck with my wife: she’d allow me to go to wrestling school if I promised to retire after my first match. So that’s exactly what I did (reluctantly). Nevertheless, that single match was all it took for my identity as a professional wrestler to be sealed for all eternity (at least in my own mind). To this day, I carry around in my wallet the official documentation, granted by the South Carolina State Athletic Commission, of my professional wrestler identity.
So that’s how I became a professional wrestler. Why I became one has everything to do with my school, Wofford College, and our January semester (called “Interim”), a compressed four-week term sandwiched between the fall and spring semesters, during which students attend a single course that meets for three hours every day. For professors, Interim is a time for pedagogic experimentation: we are encouraged to offer courses in non-traditional subject areas; to collaborate with colleagues in different departments; to be creative with our use of classroom time; to include a robust experiential component; and, hopefully, to engage the students on more than simply an intellectual level. When it’s done well, an Interim class is kind of like the liberal arts on steroids.
With those guiding criteria, I co-created with my good friend Matt Cathey, a Math professor and fellow wrestling aficionado, the 2008 Interim course, “January Smackdown: A Cultural History of Professional Wrestling.” We offered the course again in 2013, and we will likely offer it in 2018. The course is divided into two roughly equal parts: one half takes place inside the academic classroom, and involves the traditional components of reading, writing, and class discussion; the other half generally takes place outside the classroom and involves the non-traditional, experiential components of the course in which students actually become professional wrestlers, creating their own gimmicks (with websites and promos), and training at the local wrestling school, the American Pro Wrestling Chop Shop. The course culminates with an on-campus wrestling show, January Smackdown, that features the newly minted Wofford professional wrestlers and the seasoned veterans of American Pro Wrestling.
The first time we offered the course, we weren’t sure what to expect. We both loved the idea of giving classroom attention to the great and glorious world of professional wrestling, and we both saw many delightful possibilities about the alter-ego character development aspect of the course. Moreover, from experience with various class projects in other, more traditional academic courses, I knew that there would be great learning benefits to actually participating in the very cultures we were studying in the classroom. But neither my co-instructor nor I held great hopes that the students would learn much of the actual craft of professional wrestling. We thought the show on campus would be all about the pomp and spectacle, and very little about the in-ring action.
Oh, how we were wrong! What we didn’t anticipate was that Chief Jay Eagle, American Pro Wrestling’s promoter and head trainer of the wrestling school, was also very excited about our course. He developed an intensive crash-course in the basics of wrestling for the students. To my complete surprise and utter delight, he and his team of trainers transformed our students from complete wrestling neophytes into moderately competent professional wrestlers. The show on campus was an absolute hit. People talked about it at Wofford for years.
My co-instructor and I also underestimated the pedagogical value of learning about pro wrestling as insider participants. It dawned on me, midway through course, that the students were engaged in a kind of autoethnography of professional wrestling – or, at least, their experience had authethnographic potential, were we to set up the proper pedagogic structures.
It also didn’t cross my mind back in ’08 that I, too, could participate fully in the experiential component of the course. It was only after the wrestling school trainers asked me why I wasn’t in the ring with the students that I realized that I could, and perhaps should, join them next time around. So when we offered the course again in 2013, I decided that I absolutely had to train with my students and develop my own wrestling gimmick.
Part of the of this compulsion, I know, came from my own childhood love for pro wrestling, and the fond memories I continue to have for the fantastic goofiness of 1980s era wrestling – characters like George “The Animal” Steele, the Missing Link, the Moondogs, and The Iron Shiek. How could I turn down the opportunity to add Mr. Canada’s name to that wonderful list?
Moreover, ever since the ’08 version of the course, I “discovered,” in a much fuller way, the fantastic world of southern independent wrestling, including the even more glorious genre of Christian professional wrestling – that is, pro wrestling used as an evangelistic tool, something very much in line with my own academic expertise. Suddenly, I had a new topic to research, give conference papers about, and publish on.
I also did wonder if there were new insights about pro wrestling that I might gain by crossing over from careful observer to insider participant. Sharon Mazer, after all, had already written engagingly and insightfully about her experiences sitting ringside observing the would-be wrestlers of Gleason’s Gym, in her wonderful wrestling ethnography, Professional Wrestling: Sport & Spectacle. I wanted to see if different ethnographic insights would emerge if I participated inside the ring, as a fully participating, participant-observer.
My co-instructor and I, therefore, structured the academic component of the 2013 version of our course around Mazer’s book, and the guiding question of whether or not Mazer’s experience as a careful observer of wrestlers in training matched our own experiences at wrestling school as we actually became professional wrestlers ourselves.
What I and my students discovered was, first of all, that Mazer is an incredibly able guide, who helped us make sense of many parts of our experience. Mazer’s at her best, I think, in describing the insider-outsider structure of wrestling’s culture, especially as the structure pertains to gender. In fact, Mazer’s book can be read, in part, as her discovery of how much her own gender marked her as an absolute outsider, unable to fully access the masculine world of pro wrestling – a world created by men for men, with its playful homosocial and homoerotic aspects that get displaced onto displays of aggression and violence. It is a world that teaches men about masculinity and femininity, heteronormativity, and gendered patterns of cultural dynamics. At this level, Mazer was a wonderful guide to the class, providing concepts and language to make sense of our experiences in the ring.
But I did find myself asking different kinds of questions about wrestling than Mazer did, or at least similar questions but asked in different ways. One, in particular, was the question of why wrestling exists. And I don’t mean the historical question of where the roots of modern professional wrestling might be found, nor about the pleasure that wrestling fans feel as they watch matches (Mazer does a nice job unpacking this latter one). My question was much more basic than that: why do people wrestle at all? What makes them decide they want to dress up in costumes, engage in highly theatrical and hyper-macho play-fighting, in front of vocal spectators who have no compunction about shouting out their evaluation of your performance in real time? Why do pro wrestlers do what they do?
The answer is not money and fame, though that’s the answer Mazer received when she asked a similar question of the neophyte wrestlers at Gleason’s Gym. Any veteran of the independent circuit, however, will tell you that there’s almost no money in indie wresting; and fame, if that’s what it should be called, lasts only as long as your actual match in the ring. On the other hand, when Mazer asks the wrestling veterans at Gleason’s Gym why they keep wrestling, the answer is different: the veterans discuss the sheer sense pleasure it affords – a sense of delight in wrestling I also heard expressed by the wrestlers at APW.
But this just begs the question: pleasure in what exactly? Mazer mentions, very briefly, the pleasure of spending time with other wrestlers, exchanging stories, and discussing old matches.
But I think there’s more to it – something my particular participant-observer position helped me see. I’m increasingly convinced that the pleasure that Mazer gestures toward, which I’ll try to unpack in the paragraphs below, is that sense of meaning and purpose that comes from belonging to a tight-knit community committed to a common humanistic and artistic enterprise.
At its most basic level, belonging to such a community offers the wrestlers an escape from the struggles and stresses of everyday life. This was certainly the case for many wrestlers at APW, whose everyday realities consist of things like unemployment or underemployed at low-paying, hourly jobs; acrimonious divorces and complicated custody arrangements; and past or current run-ins with the law. Life is not easy for many of the APW wrestlers, and escaping the complications and unhappiness of everyday life – even if only a for few hours on a Saturday night — is a welcome relief.
More important, though, is to escape to a community for whom your identity in the “real” world is utterly irrelevant – to belong not because of your educational attainments or the money you earn or any of the other measures by which society ranks its members, but to belong because you’ve endured the rituals of initiation (training), and you’ve committed yourself wholeheartedly to the communal project (the wrestling show).
This communal project, moreover, is a very peculiar kind of artistic production – a kind of performance art that involves a high degree of athleticism and danger, and that incites audience passions through mimetic displays of masochistic cruelty. Peculiar as this artistic production is, it is similar to other kinds of performance art in that the performers hone their craft through a system of apprenticeship, learning the moves and sequences by repeating them over and over under the watchful eyes of the more experienced.
The performers, moreover, slowly master the conventions of storytelling in the wrestling ring – the craft of constructing a proper drama of good and evil. This craft, too, involves developing an ear for dramatic timing: of when to start the heel heat, where to insert the false comebacks, the double down and the hot tag, and the catharsis of the finishing move and pin. And, of course, all of this is performed in character.
To be a wrestler, in the world of professional wrestling, is to enter a community devoted to the pursuit of a kind of violent performative beauty, and, moreover, as in live theatre, to feel the thrill of public acknowledgment of the mastery of one’s craft. In other words, to be a professional wrestler on the indie circuit is to rise above the banality of one’s everyday existence, and be publicly acknowledged as a skillful performer, as someone who makes a difference.
All that I’m describing here speaks, I think, to very real human needs that professional wrestling fulfills for those who engage in it – something my own academic discipline of religious studies equips me to understand. This sense of purpose and meaning that wrestling provides reminds me very much of Peter Berger’s description of religion-as-nomos – as that bedrock social reality that organizes an individual’s perception of the self and the world, and keeps the chaos of “real” life at bay. Moreover, the wrestling ring and, by extension, the venue that houses the ring, function as the kind of sacred space that Mircea Eliade describes – that specially demarcated place that, once we’re inside, connects us to a reality far more powerful and compelling than the everyday world on the outside. Inside the sacred space, the quotidian identities society assigns – high school dropout, divorced parent, white trash – are rendered irrelevant, while the true identities as fearless performers, accomplished athletes, and important community members are solidified.
These are some of the insights I gained from my experience of becoming a pro wrestler; I’m therefore very glad I didn’t ignore the compulsion I initially felt to train with the students – that sense that I had to do it. As I close, however, I want to mention one more explanation for where this inner compulsion came from, namely, the need I felt to go through the whole process with my students.
After the ’08 version of the course was long over, students would often reminisce with me about their experiences in the course and the ways in which they were forced outside of comfort zones, forced to try on and play with alternative identities, and pushed to the edges of what they thought they were capable of; I knew that the 2013 version of January Smackdown would be a similarly transformative experience for the students in the best, most liberal-artsy sense of the phrase. As an educator committed to the liberal arts, I just could not miss this opportunity to go through the experience with my students, to be with them, along for the ride, of their own personal growth.