The qualities for a great wrestling match are the same for a novel or a movie: strong characters, clear arcs, and the right amount of suspense, concluding by answering all the questions posed at the opening. If boxing can get away with being called "the sweet science," even though it's a barbaric sport whose insistence on implementing gloves is not to save the faces of the bludgeoned but the hands of the pugilists, then wrestling can easily be called "the brutal dance."
It's a sport that I was suckered into as a child, not just for the big, outlandish characters and the stark battles between pure good and total evil, but because of the stories these versatile actor athletes were game to tell with their bodies, their emotions, their resilience, their brilliance over the course of a match.
Much in the same way that a good ballet can tell a succinct, moving story, wrestlers characters' arc over the duration in the match in concert with one or more partners. This is made all the more difficult by the coordination of bodies against the surety of real danger to create something far too barbaric to be considered "beautiful" (this probably goes for the women wrestlers as well). Ballet remains highbrow, wrestling is low, even though they are basically the same: substitute piledrivers for pirouettes, power bombs for battements. They even match unitards!
One match exemplified these aspects at WrestleMania XXVIII, the annual premier event thrown by the WWE, featuring three stalwarts of my youth. There was the undead Undertaker, a ghoulish giant of a man who had a 19-0 unbeaten streak at previous WrestleMania events over his illustrious career going into the match. He was taking on Triple H, a wrestler who worked some backstage magic to marry CEO Vince McMahon's daughter, Stephanie, and shore up a career outside the ring that doesn't have to stray too far away from it. Finally, there was Shawn Michaels, the “Heartbreak Kid,” a former Playgirl cover model who has since found a wife — and Christ.
The match was billed the “End of an Era", which is fitting. 'Taker hadn't wrestled in the entire calendar year since the last 'Mania, as his body has been too beaten down over a nearly thirty year career to attempt that kind of bullshit again on a regular basis. He's nearly seven feet tall; that's a lot of person to go crashing onto the mat all the time. Michaels had already had to retire once for years on end or else his bad back could leave him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. And Triple H is just young enough to look at his compatriots and head for the hills while he can still actually run.
To encompass this match within the “Hell in a Cell,” though, was a master stroke. No venue in wrestling best embodies the subject of mortality than this malicious device. Unlike a traditional cage match where the combatants are trapped inside of the ring, the aforementioned cell is placed over the ring and some of its outside area, like when you have to pull a danish from the glass-covered platter in your local diner. It's built equally to keep the wrestlers contained and to allow them to escape and climb up to the top. Very functional, that.
While all the players have their own history with each other – much of which happened within that very cell – the most famous was the second iteration, a series of sadistic exchanges disguised as a match between Undertaker and Mick Foley's Mankind. They started on the top of the cage, a fitting place for a match that would only go downhill from there. In this case, it was in the literal form of Foley, a legendary tough guy who pushed his body to its logical limit: getting thrown off the cage from about 18' up, ripping through the poor Spanish announce table like it was a wet paper towel, crashing directly onto the concrete below, separating his shoulder to the surprise of no one.
He did the sensible thing: refused medical attention and climbed back to the top of the cage, where he was felled by a chokeslam that caused the roof to fail, sending the man crashing down onto the mat below. Foley was nearly “broken in half,” a victim of a car accident that involved no vehicles. Consider the chair falling just after and knocking a front tooth through his lip into his nasal cavity as the cherry on top. It was a horrifying display, reflected in the mixed, confused response of the audience, this is supposed to happen...isn't it?
The dichotomy with wrestlers is that they are human beings playing superhuman characters. The four veteran wrestling fans I watched the event with, the ones who grew up with the product, peaked with it when it was cool in our early teens, and fleetingly check back in on a somewhat regular basis as if we're checking in on an ex on Facebook, sat around and discussed the ins and outs of every match, every situation, every possibility of how things might turn. It was in many ways the extension of our watching of Wrestlemania VIII: keep the pizza, substitute in Coors Light for Surge.
What we never discuss, at this age or younger, is the inherent problem: wrestling is predicated on the idea of another person beating the other into submission (via pin fall or actual submission). While this final outcome is faked, a lot of the bumps along the way are anything but. When Annie, our host Jon's girlfriend and wrestling novice, asked, "Have you ever seen people get their necks broken?" Jon soberly answered, "We've seen people die." It's a dangerous occupation masquerading as a fantasy, a world of real consequences to silly situations.
This issue, one that was probably too obvious to ignore, weaved its way into the centerpiece of this old fogies match. It started out with a beating, the kind of gratuitous assault that would get you arrested in most states. Luckily, WrestleMania XXVIII was in Florida. As Triple H stood his ground, blistering Undertaker with chair shots and escalating things with his trusty sledgehammer (that must be a bitch to get through airport security), Trips was pleading with long time friend Michaels to call the match all ready. Save this poor man some quality time with his grandchildren. Michaels asks if he wants to quit (directly into the on-board microphone on the ringside camera) and 'Taker scoffs. The 75,000+ at the venue in Miami cheer in kind, matched by the five geeks in a posh Williamsburg highrise whose voices reach the same pitch they did when they were all thirteen.
Then reality creeps in...for real. The Undertaker gets driven, back first, onto a set of steel steps. There is nothing fake about the pull of gravity, aided by the force of a large, musclebound specimen throwing him downward. It's a point etched all over The Big Man's back, a sick distortion of red and purple that at first resembled Puerto Rico and quickly grew to Pennsylvania. Lord knows if it'll expand beyond the Dakotas by tomorrow; it's a contusion with a clear eye for manifest destiny. Michaels, the referee, ran over to look 'Taker up and down with his newly-minted lazy eye, a byproduct of a life lived on the mats with an eminently hittable head. And I questioned my mortality.
The match was a certifiable classic, and more than likely stole the show with two other main events to come. But that didn't matter. For one last time, before the sun set on their bodies (and their careers along with it), those three men once again threw on the cloaks of invincibility and sacrificed for us, the adoring crowd. For one last time, they engaged in an art form based on the Classics: the Roman gladiatorial battles laid out on the stage of a Greek drama, all run on Aristotle's Poetics.
So they walked off, their bodies curling like parentheses after decades of misuse. And we give them the greatest of all theatrical compliments, a standing ovation, subconsciously hoping that this moment can be remembered years down the line when it's difficult for these men to do anything more than shuffle their feet forward. We hope that our adoration can be doled out as some kind of salve. It's the last part of the act that we still buy into; ourselves, and the wrestlers, too.