1:55-2:15: “Let Me Tell You Something at the Top of My Lungs!: A rhetorical analysis of regional wrestling promos in the seventies and eighties”
J. Rocky Colavito is a Full Professor of English and Taboo Studies at Butler University.
Before wrestling was taken international by the rough beast that is WWE we had territories, and in those territories were wrestlers who managed to get over without the benefit of Ted Turner or Vince McMahon. They became a phenomenon by word of mouth, literally, by using the magic of the spoken word. Whether it was Dusty Rhodes speaking about hard times, Kevin Sullivan invoking Abbudah Dein, Michael Hayes proclaiming his “purely sexy” nature, or any number of managerial mouthpieces declaring the power and danger of their charges, the promo was a significant part of the wrestler’s character, and its rhetorical power and practice becomes apparent upon close reading.
This reading reveals a strong reliance on epideictic rhetoric and emotional appeal, both designed to enlarge the characters, the stakes, and the storylines being developed. While radically different from contemporary promos; the rough and raw nature of these artifacts tells us much about the history of wrestling in a time before national programming, the destruction of kayfabe, and the rise of the smart mark. Dusty Rhodes used the promo to set himself up as the alternative to Ric Flair, in the time-honored conflict of the underprivileged vs. the privileged. Kevin Sullivan retooled the figure of the clean-cut all-American baby face into a demonic figure who got perilously close to devil worship. Jerry Lawler used the personal insult to wage a weekly war of words with Jimmy Hart. Gary Hart extolled the Eastern mystery that surrounds The Great Kabuki. And Hacksaw Duggan, with a footstomp, a thumb’s up, and a mighty “HOOOOH” carried the US flag against evil international forces.
So, with the able assistance of tag team partners like Aristotle and Kenneth Burke, let’s hit the way back machine for some old school “smack”down, and see how this era produced not only memorable characters, but also memorable promos that facilitated growth beyond the geographic regions, and helped shape these wrestlers and their promotions into something worthy of national attention.
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