December 2005

Nathaniel G. Moore

nonfiction

Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling by Nicholas Sammond

Long has it been argued and bemoaned by the world that pro wrestling is dumb, simple and “so fake.” Steel Chair to the Head serves as a panacea to this allegation. The book serves fourteen arguments that swell over the simple fluff and shallow violence and pry deeper into the wet sticky blood of the antagonists, the heart of the industry narrative, and its continuous thud and ritualistic timing for wrestling’s own cultural reflection.

Political upheaval, racism, homophobia, domestic and marital violence, sexism, ethical betrayal, mental retardation, physical handicaps, and the treatment of the elderly -- pro wrestling has no limitation of its subjective regurgitation. By combing the earth for abject subject matter, the morality meter that professional wrestling gauges, examines and exploits on a weekly has been carefully cross-examined and hung out to dry in this over-the-top analysis of the sweet science.

Steel Chair to the Head provides an unparalleled look at the cultural interaction wrestling has with history and the world. Pro wrestling has been on television longer than any other single entity. The contributors combine fanaticism with intelligence arguments. The “sport” is examined from a fan’s point of view to the psychology behind its continuing popularity. As a performance genre, pro wrestling has enjoyed a steady economy and a steady line of controversy, farming, like other sports, a series of real life scandals and tragedies. On its own it has had steroid scandal, tragic deaths and countless reports of children hurting one another by emulating their heroes on television. Though, for the most part, the “sport” has been able to create more than destroy. Its use of contemporary issues such as xenophobia (which seems to be the most consistent theme for the WWE over the years) is an appropriate testament to the theory that we are a society that never seems to learn from its mistakes.

Steel Chair to the Head uses a variety of contributors to celebrate a the hypocritical stigma that pro wrestling has garnered over the years. Perhaps no other industry is so heavily stereotyped than pro wrestling yet is as influential and accurate in its reflection of the appetite of its audience. Take the 1980’s tag-team The Bushwhackers’ perverse homosociality exorcised by public performances of homophobia, or the dismal and out-right racist way in which the Latino wrestlers (arguably more talented) are pushed down on the card to make room for the larger white stars -- the book is as shocking and confrontational as it is inventive.

The Latino section -- by Phillip Serrato -- is particularly strong, because it combines a history of the people as well as their nefarious dealings with mainstream wrestling culture, perhaps ultimately another example of just how “real” wrestling can be. It seems that racism at the workplace doesn’t stop in the arena of sports entertainment. “Over the past twenty years, promoters have proven themselves predisposed to contain and debase their Latino performers,” writes Serrato. It’s a not too subtle examination of the real-life racism that occurs during the backstage “white” majority politics, while the little Latino wrestlers are reduced to sideshow status. Serrato makes a bold statement on the claim that what occurs in pro wrestling, is a close examination as to what transpires in our daily lives.

With careful examinations of wrestling as it happens in the ring, as experienced from the consumer’s perspective, as portrayed on television, and how it lives in the netherworld of fan pages and other online worlds, Steel Chair to the Head is a wrestling fan’s best friend, and the anti-fan’s worst enemy.

The savvy contributors reveal wrestling as an expression of the hypocritical nature that has shaped our culture. While many will always reduce wrestling to two guys in tights beating each other up, imagine the topical density of the 1991 WWF (now WWE) angle in which the “Real American” Hulk Hogan fighting a the former patriot Sgt. Slaughter managed by a Sadam Hussain look-a-like?

The essayists include scholars in anthropology, psychology, film studies, communication studies, and sociology, one of whom used to wrestle professionally. Another interesting focus is the sexuality of pro wrestling. Did you know for example, there is a plethora of women who write slash about their favorite big boys?

Steel Chair to the Head gives a sort of stigmatic closure to pro wrestling by elevating its criticism and delivery an intelligent sensitivity, similar to those used in books written about business or media culture. This fact-heavy anthology shows the brains behind the phenomenon that has disrupted our ever unbalanced culture. A definite tool for a fan of media, wrestling fan or not.

Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling Edited by Nicholas Sammond
Duke University Press
ISBN 0822334380
384 pages