Monday, July 7, 2014

A Tenured Perspective: Surrealism in Wrestling Masks

Here's The Great Kabuki with bad guy manager Gary Hart
Screen Grab via
One of the things that really helped me get my head around professional wrestling was understanding is as a parody of a legitimate sporting event.  Not a parody like The Daily Show or Mad Magazine, that makes fun of its subject - but a parody that employs the tricks and tropes of its source material and uses them as a framework to hang a story on.

Pro wrestling works well when it’s able to do this.  It’s compelling when performers challenge each other for Championships, announcers discuss holds and strategies, and crowds show their support by screaming and chanting.  Just like a real sporting event.

But professional wrestling works best when it presents itself as a legit sporting event that’s being beamed directly to you from a universe where the utterly bizarre seems commonplace.  When the performers challenging each other wear neon colored masks, announcers discuss exotic submission holds and strategies used by guys dressed like Abe Lincoln, and crowds showing their support by singing old creepy hymns and chanting da-da, dada-deedada as they dance and point is when it’s the most fun.  It creates a cool juxtaposition between the real and the weird.

Starrcade 1983 is a prime example of this.  The show is best known for two classic matches -  Roddy Piper and Greg Valentine’s dog collar match and the title bout where young upstart challenger Ric Flair took on Champion Harley Race for the NWA Title in a steel cage.  Both were brutal, bloody performances, and Flair and Race in particular presented a master class on ring psychology and storytelling.  The show was also notable as it was the embryonic form of the modern pay-per-view.  The basic elements – introduction videos, graphics and backstage interviews – are all there, but they’re still… mushy. There was, however, a particularly cool moment in a backstage locker room where Tony Schiavone (who Gordon Solie repeatedly referred to as “Tony Sha-Voney”) commented on a previous match while Roddy Piper, Ric Flair and Rick Steamboat nonchalantly chilled in the background.

The weirdest part of the show was a one-on-one match between Charlie Brown (billed as hailing from “outta town…”) vs. The Great Kabuki.  Charlie Brown was actually old-time, hippie/redneck wrestler Jimmy Valiant, The Boogie-Woogie Man who, for some reason, had been run out of the promotion and was forced to return wearing a mask.  However, since Valiant sported Gandalf style, epic long white hair and beard which explosively splayed out from under his half mask, he was pretty recognizable.

Via the brilliant Fishbulb Suplex Tumblr

In contrast, Kabuki wore a stylized mask (which was actually a Noh Theatre mask – Japanese theatre nerds, represent!), facepaint from his theatrical namesake and spat green mist. So it was a wrestling match between a skinny, hyperactive masked dude with a giant beard who’s named after a cartoon character and an actor from 17th Century Japanese theatre. See for yourself.  Here's a clip of the match from

And the great part is that nobody ever mentioned the fact that it was completely, batshit crazy!  Nobody ever said “Hey, isn’t it strange that these two characters who have literally nothing to do with one another are wrestling?”  It’d be like if Othello and Velma from Scooby Doo decided to play ping-pong together.  Everyone involved – the performers, announcers, and even the audience – accepted that this is a completely rational event that demanded to be taken very, very seriously.

Part of the fun of pro wrestling is that things like this occur and create a tension between the legitimate, competitive sporting event, and Hunter S. Thompson-meets-Fellini-fever dream-surrealism.