What started me down the path of professional wrestling fandom was not Hulkamania, Cyndi Lauper videos, the Attitude Era, or anything else you might expect it to be for someone my age. No, for me the gateway was Shirley Crabtree. Now, to hear that name, you might suspect I’m talking about an old girlfriend or something, but much like Johnny Cash’s Boy Named Sue, this Shirley was no lady. Standing 6 foot 6 and weighing in at 375 pounds, Crabtree was better-known as Big Daddy, a sort of English version of Dusty Rhodes, with bleached-blond hair, working class background, fatty physique, and patriotic ring gear. And before I knew he was a real person, he was a comic-book character, appearing in the British kids’ comic Buster. I was living in Ireland at the time.
Image: Fleetway via Comicvine
I should note that unlike comics over here that tend to be one story about one hero, UK comics featured multiple stories and characters under a unifying brand. And for kids, these stories were often akin to our Sunday-paper funnies, in length and style/genre, but compiled in a larger weekly comic. Big Daddy was a hero who helped kids in trouble, always in his wrestling entrance gear complete with Union-Jack cape and tiny hat, and always saving the day with the catchphrase “E-A-S-Y!” When I found out he was a real person, my very young mind was blown. When I was told what he did was fake, I was dismayed. It was my father, who wasn’t necessarily a fan, who assured me that just because it’s fixed doesn’t mean we know who will win, and besides, it means they aren’t really hurting and injuring each other. In some ways, it was easier to like it then when we thought all of it was fake, rather than now, as we see the damage done to bodies over time, and the rash of early deaths that has plagued the business.
I first saw Hulk Hogan when he was a guest star on The A-Team, a show that in and of itself was not unlike the then-WWF, with its larger-than-life, cartoonish heroes and gunfire that rarely actually hurt anybody. It led me to wonder who would win in a fight between Hogan and Mr. T, and on this topic my father was less helpful: “It depends who was faked to win.” Way to puncture the air out of that one. Around 1987, Ireland finally got two European cable channels, expanding our lineup to a whopping 8 in total (two Irish channels, four English, and now two mostly English-language European). One of them, Sky Channel (now part of the Murdoch/Fox empire) aired World Wrestling Federation, beginning big with WrestleMania III. And all I knew about that was Hulk Hogan was going to fight a giant who had never been beaten. I’d never seen Andre before, but there was an overall impression that this would be Hulk’s biggest challenge. It ran until midnight and I wasn’t allowed to stay up that late as a 13 year-old, but the next morning, the kid that did came in screaming, “Hogan won! He did a bodyslam!” Some classmates still sniffed that it was fake, but I was way passed caring about that complaint.
Once I saw WWF, with its physiques that resembled comic book characters or He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, I couldn’t go back to British wrestling. UK matches had rounds like a boxing match, and a solo commentator who seemed half asleep; WWF went till one guy dropped, and had Jesse “The Body” Ventura as a bad-guy commentator taunting the regular announcers. I wasn’t a sports fan, so the further the characters got from real life, the better: Kamala, The One Man Gang, Demolition, Koko B. Ware, and all the guys with crazy gimmicks were what hooked me. Like superheroes, they had cool skin-tight outfits and special “powers,” manifested in unique finishing moves. Hell, some of them even did seem to have super powers–Hulk Hogan’s “hulking up” was like He-Man recharging with the power of Grayskull, while Undertaker derived invincibility from his magic urn. Sure, it wasn’t real, but neither are comic books. When I visited the U.S. and was introduced to the NWA, it took me longer to warm to it because their characters were less ludicrous, though the Road Warriors held instant appeal (and were snapped up by the WWF not too many years later).
With time, I started to look at the subtext of some of the characters, and ask myself why I cheered for Hulk Hogan. He was, after all, something of an embodiment of conservative Christian values that were not mine, and his style was mostly barely legal punches; meanwhile, a supposed bad guy like Honky Tonk Man kept thanking his fans and saying they were a beautiful audience. Jesse Ventura, a heel commentator, started to make sense to me when he critiqued the bland jingoism of some of the heroes. Before long, I was rooting for the bad guys, who had the cooler, scarier gimmicks anyway, and were often free to be more entertaining. When we were asked to send Hogan “get well” cards, I sent him one telling him to go to hell and not get better; I was rewarded by a form letter thanking me for being a good Hulkamaniac, and that he was coming back to reward my faith in him.
I think I was but the first of many; in time, the business changed to reflect that the fans did indeed want more bad guys, right around the same time the comics industry noticed that characters like the Punisher and Deadpool were gaining more popularity that Superman and Spider-Man. Even Hulk Hogan turned bad, which was unthinkable. The business was growing up with me–those of us who’d become fans during the mid-’80s explosion of WWF were now being catered to in our young-adult years with characters swearing, flipping the bird, drinking beer, and engaging in sex-scandal storylines. Alongside the cartoonish Undertaker and Goldust, we had fake porn stars and pimps. WWF, now WWE, regularly had its female personalities do Playboy pictorials. Again, comics mirrored this with the “Bad Girl” trend–it was fitting that Chaos Comics, who published Lady Death and Purgatori, also put out Mankind and Undertaker comics at the time.
Still, even during this Attitude Era, and the burgeoning movie career of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who’d been “Rocky Maivia” to us fans mere years earlier), wrestling fandom wasn’t cool outside of our own group. Not even nerd-cool. After touring with Marilyn Manson, Courtney Love made a crack about how she was sick of playing for guys in WWE T-shirts, and that tended to sum up the general sense I got that such shirts were effectively date-repellent (we didn’t know yet that The Rock was slowly expanding the female fan base). When reality shows like Tough Enough and documentaries like Beyond the Mat finally showed how physically tough the wrestling lifestyle actually was, I think we turned a bit of a corner perception-wise. Anyone who thought it was somehow all an illusion now had concrete proof that “fixed” and “fake” were not remotely the same thing.
Over the past decade, an increase in all sorts of people getting online via mobile devices has expanded nerddom generally in many directions. Where previously it seemed like it was mostly male computer-philes who were finding each other and connecting their fandoms, now everyone was. It’s made the community a lot more diverse, as more people who were once afraid to express their nerdy obsessions found many, many other people in cyberspace who shared them. And both wrestling and wrestling fans have benefited from that…A LOT.
Nearly four years ago, I took the reins of a popular nerd website and added a wrestling column, and you’d have thought I brought on the apocalypse. Variations on “This site used to be cool but now it’s all about wrestling and fast food!” dogged me there for three years; meanwhile, CM Punk was doing videos on grammar for Nerdist, Seth Green and the Muppets were appearing on Monday Night Raw, and Max Landis filmed an eloquent defense of why wrestling storylines resonate (see above). Today’s WWE fanbase is mostly, apparently, males in their 40s, and a large subsection of Mattel’s toy line is aimed at them. And Sheamus got to be a Ninja Turtles villain, proudly, where Kevin Nash’s role as Super Shredder in The Secret of the Ooze had not been so touted. Dave Bautista is now Drax the Destroyer, and The Rock will be Black Adam. Within nerd circles, wrestling no longer needs to be defended.
And that works for me. Because 20-plus years of it got exhausting.
Featured Image: Cyndi Lauper
Speaking of CM Punk teaching you grammar…