Pro Wrestling is something I have watched since a young child. I always credit it for teaching me right from wrong at a very basic level and showing me a number of things. I was always allowed to watch it by my family and never did they say something was too violent. I was told not to do any of these moves on my friends and that the good people didn’t always win. Now I am the parent of a 20-month-old boy called George and soon he will be of age to watch professional wrestling if he is allowed. I always had this in mind if I became a parent but despite being PG is today’s WWE as suitable as it was when I was young?
Say Your Prayers And Take Your VitaminsHulk Hogan was many a thing, If you read various autobiographies and listen to his contemporaries, he was a bully, a master of wrestling politics and averse to losing to anyone. One thing is undeniable though, as a role model to impressionable children he was a god. I remember watching Hogan before all major events and following the same pattern. A dastardly villain would hurt him, be it Zeus, Andre The Giant, King Kong Bundy or The Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase and leave him battered on the ground. A lump rose in my throat and my eyes welled up, my Grandmother would have consoled me but my parents simply said wait and see, they knew what was coming even if I didn’t. They said ‘Wait for next week.’ I waited and sure enough the pay per view came around and Hogan was triumphant, he took a beating in the match and when all looked lost he summoned an inner strength, ‘Hulked Up’, landed a big boot and the leg drop sending me into ecstasy. All was right with the world, Life, death, taxes and Hulk Hogan as champion kept me on an even keel. No matter what had happened to my other favorites on the card as long as Hogan saved the day I could go to bed happy.
His message was simple, Say your prayers and take your vitamins. Growing up in Northern Ireland during the 80’s and 90’s any ray of hope to distract from the civil unrest of the time was necessary. Wrestling and Hogan were a ray of hope when all that was on the news was murders and bombs. The bad people appeared, threatened Hogan and he always prevailed simple, binary and clean cut.
Sting And More Relatable EnemiesIn WCW Sting was another whiter than white hero. He didn’t fight the character enemies that Hogan fought, he fought much more believable and relatable foes. He fought people that were inferior to him yet won by cheating. Ric Flair was, of course, the master. Sting would dominate Flair with strength and athleticism before Flair would thumb his eye, drop to his knees and feign injury or punch with a closed fist. He fought Lex Luger, a former friend who always seemed to turn on him. Both these were valuable life lessons for the young me. People were prone to cheat, to lie steal and in general not be very nice. These people could also pretend to be your friends before betraying you. Despite both these events happening to Sting on a weekly basis, he persevered, he came out every night with a smile on his face and took the adulation of the crowd. As I moved through childhood these lessons played out in reality when some friends would turn out not to be the people they claimed. I thought back to Hogan and Sting and I persevered as well.
The Undercard And The Ultimate WarriorOf course, there were other wrestlers who caught the eye, Bret Hart with his cool sunglasses and technical style, The Rockers with the pumping music and perfect tandem style and of course The Ultimate Warrior. The Ultimate Warrior was the first anomaly to me. Here was a genuinely unbelievable character. He talked to himself in a strange language, he looked unbelievable and his style was even better. Like some juiced up force of nature he stormed to the ring barely drawing breath, his traditional opponent simply looked on as this freak shook the ropes pointed at them then destroyed them with a series of clotheslines and shoulder blocks before lifting them over his head and press slamming them. It wasn’t wrestling but it was intoxicating. Here was a performer who offered me nothing in the way of a moral compass except that he made you go wild. Every time the Warrior’s music hit it was like a double espresso. Of course, he was set on a collision course with the pillar of my young psyche Hulk Hogan. What happens when there is no evil, what happens when two things you like are up against each other? It was genuinely the most difficult choice I had faced as a young child and to this day I don’t know how I felt after that fateful night at Wrestlemania VI. It started at that year’s Royal Rumble, Hogan and The Warrior were in the ring as equals together, there was palpable shock and you could have cut the tension with a knife, my own mouth was hanging open as these two huge characters in my life squared up against each other. Circumstances meant it was only a passing encounter and Hogan ended up eliminating the Warrior by default in a scramble.
After the Warrior triumphed at Wrestlemania I just felt empty. Despite Hogan, holding the Warriors hand aloft and teaching me another lesson about good sportsmanship, I felt like a part of my childhood had been carved out. He may have been ‘The Immortal’ Hulk Hogan but he was not invincible. The Warrior, standing there, face paint melted off had defeated the legend. What did this mean, did it mean saying prayers and taking vitamins was not as good as talking to imaginary voices? Did Hulk Hogan’s loss mean that he wasn’t as good a role model as the frankly mental but entertaining Warrior? My parents were in a bit of shock as well. They offered no advice other than, ‘You can’t win every time’. In hindsight, sound advice and it was the lesson I took from this event.
The Dawning Of RealityOf course, Hogan would reclaim the title as people had trouble identifying with The Warrior. With the Iraq war in full swing Sgt. Slaughter defected to the Iraqi side, won the belt and became the enemy that only one man could conquer. Hogan came back, won the event and subsequent beatdown at Summerslam with The Warrior in tow. Both icons were side by side with Hogan as champion, all was right with the world again. Things remained like this until one fateful Survivor Series match. The Undertaker had arrived in the company and there was no doubting what side of good and evil he was on. For the first time, I felt fear for Hogan. The added attraction of Ric Flair in the company and at ringside added to my fear. Despite this, the match was for the Title and I still felt deep down that Hogan would prevail. He didn’t and my harsh introduction to reality began. Flair slid a steel chair into the ring as Undertaker delivered the Tombstone to Hogan. It was shocking, tears flowed and there was no ambiguity that night. The hero had lost, darkness and the personification of death had won. I don’t remember sleeping that night and my parents were forced to tell me about the predetermined nature of wrestling. I took this on board only half believing but they were right to do so. Like fairy tales, the pro-wrestling of the day had helped in my emotional development. Good, evil, betrayal, heroism, and villainy were all laid bare as well as moments of vital ambiguity, lessons I carry through my life.
My Son And The Current ProductBecause I viewed the storytelling of wrestling as such a valuable tool for me growing up, naturally I can’t wait to show it to my son and see if he takes to it the same way. But looking at the current product, I’m struggling to see who will teach my son the same lessons as I was taught. The easy answer many will say is John Cena and I will agree to an extent. Unfortunately, there is a number of difficulties with Cena. For one he may not be around when George is old enough to begin watching. Secondly, Cena is only part time at this stage and naturally if he isn’t there or around every week others will take his place in George’s affections. So if John Cena the only genuinely unsullied hero is not available who does this leave?
Looking down the roster on both brands, there isn’t one storyline that combines a pure babyface character with a simple good versus evil storyline. Dean Ambrose is probably the closest. Since the split of The Shield Ambrose has had to deal with a number of issues similar to Sting did in my childhood. His friend Seth Rollins betrayed him, then used less than honorable tactics to keep himself on top. Worryingly for an impressionable child, he is now trying to be Dean’s friend again. It is classic Lex Luger and Sting as Luger always switched between face and heel at a moments notice. However, unlike Sting, Ambrose is not such a relatable hero character. He dresses like a typical villain in other stories, jeans, leather jacket, unshaven and messy hair. If the child version of Dean Ambrose turned up to play with your children, you would have some reservations. He also refers to himself as the lunatic fringe. So here we have the longest running full-time babyface in the company calling himself a lunatic. Does this teach George that the good person is mentally-ill and belongs in an asylum?
Looking at other ‘good’ characters we find the same problems on the surface. The New Day are colorful and fun and George will be immediately drawn to their in ring style and friendship. But are they completely face? They were in a rap battle with The Uso’s that got quite heated. Their dancing could be viewed as offensive in the same way Ravishing Rick Rude did as a heel and it is only a matter of time before Francesca the trombone could be used as a foreign weapon again. Unfortunately, The New Day aren’t pure hero face. One who answers his foes in promos with a self-confidence in his own ability that isn’t over confidence.
Finn Bálor is another who comes close. He hasn’t been around long enough on the main roster due to injury but his persona is a pure face at this stage. So can I let George watch him, watch his exciting style and clean cut persona. Well, I could, until the Demon King part of his character comes back and terrifies George beyond belief. Anything called a demon is at complete odds with the face personality in the same way that the lunatic fringe is not an acceptable face nickname. The most I ever saw Hogan do was hit Earthquake with a chair because he was choking his friend Brutus The Barber Beefcake, in turn, Beefcake only ever cut someone’s hair if provoked. Now we have Ambrose bringing out a chainsaw in a match against Brock Lesnar. Attempted murder is not a face action.
Roman ReignsSpeaking of attempted murder, Roman Reigns is the person the WWE would have to replace Cena. He is on all the marketing and merchandise and he has main-evented most of the major PPV’s in the last few years. His persona as ‘The Guy’ or ‘The Big Dog’ is fine and he doesn’t lie in his promos, he comes out and normally does exactly what he says he is going to do. He says he is going to win the belt and beat the other competitor and he normally does. He doesn’t swear, he doesn’t portray himself as immoral and is genuinely a good role model for younger fans, or he was until recently. At the recent Great Balls Of Fire show, Roman lost the match then portrayed the most basic reaction of a heel. He attached the opponent after the match. So after showing he’s a sore loser he went one stage further. He locked his opponent in an ambulance and drove him into another vehicle. In basic terms, this is attempted vehicular homicide. Just when I thought there would be a role model for George to follow through his formative years, the WWE won’t commit fully to the character.
What About Brock Lesnar?
I once wrote a piece on how Brock Lesnar is the perfect superstar for the PG era. I still believe this to be true and in fact, he ticks a lot of boxes for a face hero character. He is intense like The Warrior and he is true to himself. There is no character in Brock Lesnar, what you see on screen is more than likely who he is. He is a fighter who is only concerned with winning his match. He doesn’t need to use foreign objects and he simply goes to the ring to win. There is no ambiguity with Brock, no seedy storylines, and no moral issues. He is the beast, and if you get in his way he will beat you. Despite this, the fact he needs Paul Heyman to speak for him takes away from his hero persona. Brock can look quite smug when Heyman is extolling his virtues and this is something Hogan never had to rely on.
The Real BabyfacesIf we are looking through the roster the only viable candidates to teach George moral lessons are Becky Lynch and Bayley. Both are the only true hero faces on the roster. So far neither of them have had to resort to heel tactics despite the temptation. Bayley is the poster child of being a face but the problem with her being such a perfect face is the reaction she receives from the crowd. Hogan was universally adored, the Warrior like I said was the adrenaline boost to end them all, Sting has been revered no matter where he has performed. Bayley, on the other hand, has been subject to the modern day arena scenario. If you go to a house show Bayley’s entrance music has everyone on their feet and the reaction is as it should be, people are happy to see her and the younger fans in the crowd identify with her. The same is true to a lesser extent with Lynch. Straight fire is all you get from her, no cheating no heel turns just fire and heart. Unfortunately, the crowd reaction to them on TV and the commentary reactions just kill all their momentum. They won’t be the main event and the crowd is lukewarm at best. It’s not the crowd’s fault, the arena can’t be full of under ten-year-olds and the storylines for both characters have been lackluster. Despite this, I am again left without a main event hero that will have a storyline George can learn life lessons from.
Am I Right To Even Try?
People who read this will be wondering if it is sensible to even let a young child watch pro wrestling. In fact, I am beginning to question this long held desire myself. Wrestling taught me so many valuable lessons when I was young. Human nature, dealing with disappointment and difficult decisions, how to be a good loser and so much more that reinforced a good upbringing. I desperately wanted George to have the benefit of this reinforcement of good values. Now I look at the product as a whole and I see nothing that can be used in the same way. Perhaps the only answer is to let George watch old matches on demand. Let him learn from the same people who taught me. Let him see a good old-fashioned battle between good and evil with no shades of gray in-between, let him see a career story of someone like Bret Hart to see how hard work can get you right to the very top. For this, I can be thankful for the WWE Network because I don’t think anyone will get the same lessons from today’s stars.
All photos courtesy of WWE