I remember as a child – between the ages of, say, eight and thirteen – asking my father and mother on occasion if we could suspend our Saturday morning chores so I could slip inside and watch WWF Superstars of Wrestling. My father, an avid sports fan, never understood the appeal, but many Saturday mornings it was all I could think about; it was anticipation I could barely stand.
The wrestlers occupied emotions I had no words for. The Undertaker was pure terror. Macho Man Randy Savage amusing and playful — the Ultimate Warrior undying inspiration.
These formative celebrities of my youth, if I can call them celebrities, not only helped me frame human characteristics and archetypes as I was moving through adolescence, they also offered me a way to bond with my real-life friends. We were too young and vain to discuss books we had read, or question the worth of movies we had watched or school lessons that had been imparted.
But wrestlers? And their signature moves?
We could talk for hours over the strengths and weaknesses of Rowdy Roddy Piper’s “Sleeperhold,” Jake the Snake’s “DDT” or the Undertaker’s “Tombstone,” to name a few. Not to mention the merits of the more generalized suplex, double suplex, body slam, or rope dive. Weekends, recess, lunchtime. These conversations always came up, and where one aligned oneself and how persuasively and eloquently one presented one’s case held great weight in our inner circles.
And the conversation wasn’t limited to wrestlers or their moves. Mean Gene (R.I.P.), for instance — his unmistakable cadence still floats in the backwoods of my brain. I can hear it, quite clearly, writing this now.
We discovered when the wrestlers gave their interviews (which must have been taped before the weekly airing, thinking back) that each wrestler spoke in a similar rhythm, with valleys and peaks of emphasis and matching hand gestures. One friend compared it to the rhyme schemes of the Beastie Boys. This blew me away.
These formative analyses were clearly the driving factor behind my unquenchable desire to plant myself in front of the tube every Saturday and waste an hour or two watching, by all other measures, something entirely moronic. If you came to school on Monday and weren’t up on the latest results, the latest knockouts and realigning of partnerships, the latest back stabbings, there was no way you could participate in the lively discussions.
I had pubescent FOMO — bad.
Nevertheless, as I grew older, as one who grows older does, I began to question the merit of the match in front of me. I had always suspected the winners and losers were determined beforehand, but I believed — emphatically wanted to believe — that there was some kind of actual competition going on as well. That even if Hulk Hogan was destined to win (I still don’t understand the appeal), just maybe, if André the Giant played it right he could sneak away with the title during WrestleMania III.
Besides, we were all rooting for him. Why shouldn’t he win?
The wrestling gods, however, were not so kind. And I think it was shortly after WrestleMania III, due to its almost unfathomable popularity (it was the highest attended indoor event in North America at the time, with attendance listed at 93,173), that I saw a news report debunking the myth that any, and I mean any, of the WWF was not staged. This devastated me.
It was all theatre. Nothing but theatre.
Very popular theatre, however. Think about that. Over 93,000 people crushed into the Silverdome to watch men in grown tights pretend — pretend — to beat each other up. Not to mention it was the highest grossing Pay-per-view event up to that point as well, with revenues exceeding $10 million.
WrestleMania III is considered the pinnacle of the WWF, in many historians’ eyes, and assuredly my interest waned after that. Nevertheless, fast forward thirty plus years and the WWF (now WWE) still exists! And still has its rabid followers. You probably know this, if you’ve bothered to read this far.
But in terms of sheer popularity, in terms of the most-watched fighting in a cage, what has more precisely replaced the WWF in the popular consciousness is not the WWE, but the bad-asses of the UFC.
The UFC has been insanely popular for a long time now and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. This is not groundbreaking news.
Unlike the theatre of my youth, however, the bad-asses of the UFC are, well, actually fighting. No make believe here. When Ronda Rousey was killing it in the Octagon, if her opponent didn’t submit, her arm would likely get broken. I remember Rousey pining for that moment in an interview, hoping she might lock up an opponent who refused to submit, so her signature arm bar would wind up actually breaking an arm.
This leads me to wonder: Why is the UFC, given that the competition is real, so much less interesting and invigorating than the WWF of my youth?
To help tackle this question, I picked up some old texts on martial arts in the hopes of getting inside the minds of the UFC bad-asses. Maybe, just maybe, if I understood more of what was actually involved in that flying knee to the chest, I might appreciate it.
The Book of Five Rings was written in 1643 by Miyamoto Musashi. Translated by Thomas Cleary and published by Shambhala Publications in 2010, with two audio cd’s and beautiful photographic inserts, the book feels more like a modern artifact than an ancient text.
Blessedly, Cleary has also translated numerous other ancient martial arts texts and released them all on Shambhala. Anyone interested in this foundational knowledge should check out some of the following: The Art of War, The Book of Leadership and Strategy, The Japanese Art of War, Mastering the Art of War.
The most fascinating link to martial arts, and just what I was hoping for in terms of spiking my interest, is the clear connection between Taoism, Buddhism, and kicking the you know what out of someone, or in Musashi’s case, slicing your opponent apart with either your long or short sword.
I am not kidding.
Throughout The Book of Five Rings, I felt I was reading a spiritual. One instance:
“For people who want to learn my military science, there are rules for learning the art:
1. Think of what is right and true.
2. Practice and cultivate the science.
3. Become acquainted with the arts.
4. Know the principles of the crafts.
5. Understand the harm and benefit in everything.
6. Learn to see everything accurately.
7. Become aware of what is not obvious.
8. Be careful even in small matters.
9. Do not do anything useless.
Imagine if you could not do anything useless, and see everything accurately. Imagine if you could feel confident doing even one thing on this list! Musashi is amazing.
The samurai repeatedly calls on the religions of his time, their emptiness and true path, to call on his readers to learn how to properly kill. Confounding.
While there are long periods of activity dedicated to sword technique that, while not uninteresting, are clearly less relevant today (unless Game of Thrones is planning an offshoot and you hope to audition!), for the most part The Book of Five Rings would entertain most anyone that picks it up. That’s hard to say about a lot of books; not to mention 375-year-old scrolls.
And, if you make it to the end, you get this wonder: “Of course, emptiness does not exist. Knowing of nonexistence while knowing of existence is emptiness.”
And this: “…taking straightforwardness as basic, taking the real mind as the Way, practicing martial arts in the broadest sense, thinking correctly, clearly, and comprehensively, taking emptiness as the Way, you see the Way as emptiness.”
And finally: “Wisdom exists, logic exists, the Way exists, mind is empty.”
Thank you, Miyamoto Musashi.
It seems the key to being a samurai, and I’m guessing the key to dominating the Octagon then, lies in one’s ability to empty the mind and know the true Way.
Of course, with Fight Night 157 scheduled for this weekend, and UFC 242 around the corner (that’s nearly 400 nights of fighting with Main Events, Preliminary Cards, and Early Prelims), I’m not unsure each of the thousands of fighters that have participated in these events can access “the true Way.”
And there in maybe the problem lies.
The WWF of my youth was full of a handful of vibrant personalities — theatrical figures, it turns out — who made you care about them. There weren’t too many of them, and they excelled at putting on a show, both verbally and physically. The interviews and out-of-ring drama were as meaningful and infectious as what went on between the ropes, on stage.
While the UCF attempts to catapult their celebrities into mainstream status, into people you really care about, the results are often McGregor-like, chock-full of criminal charges and embarrassing moments.
These athletes aren’t actors, they are fighters. It is what they are good at; it’s what they’re the best in the world at.
But perhaps there is enough fighting in the world already. Perhaps what we need is a little theatre.