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Once more unto the breach, dear friends. Sorry. Couldn’t resist!
Greetings to all. With Raw and Smackdown emanating from Canada recently, it seems an apt time to contemplate an observation a friend of mine made recently. To preface: He’d found his trusty VHS and popped in a copy of In Your House 16: Canadian Stampede. For the uninitiated (or forgetful) Stampede is generally considered to be one of the finest non-major supercards ever produced by the then World Wrestling Federation. It boasted a superior opening brawl (Mankind vs. Hunter Hearst Helmsley), a quite marvelous exhibition of Japanese science (The Great Sasuke vs. Taka Michinoku) and a very good big-man WWF title match (The Undertaker vs. Vader).
Despite such quality (and variety) Canadian Stampede is not actually remembered for any of the aforementioned encounters. The memory (and legacy) of this 1997 event is sustained by the extraordinary main event of the Hart Foundation squaring off against four otherwise interchangeable Americans and a red-hot ?Stone Cold? Steve Austin in what was then a quite unique ten-man tag scenario. All this unfolded before a rabid, hyper-jingoistic crowd of baying Canadians. A meticulously designed and capably implemented piece of story-telling, the main event augmented the auras of all involved enhancing several performers, specifically Austin, above and beyond and onto the road to providence. The sight of the unified Foundation (Representing essentially the whole of Canada) repelling the American interlopers before, during and after the match whilst three generations of the Hart dynasty celebrated (As Austin is led away in handcuffs) was as provocative and indelible an image as can be found in wrestling. The passionate response and patriotic fervour of the Canadians remains breathtaking. It was, for this writer, the apex moment of the Hart Family Dynasty.
Such reminiscence leads me tellingly onto my friend’s observation. Of the ten participants in the match Brain Pillman, Owen Hart, England’s own Davey Boy Smith and Road Warrior Hawk have all subsequently passed away, and the Hart Family (At one time the embodiment of Canadian pride) has fallen into embittered and alarmingly self-induced ruin. The cheers and the Maple Leafs seem very far away indeed in the wake of lawsuits, divorces and screw-jobs. Suffice it to say, the demise of the Harts is akin to a Sylvia Plath level tale of woe that demands no further coverage at this time. In truth, the deaths of three of the departed four owes most to the excesses of the industry that made them all wealthy men (Owen’s tragic accident being the noted exception.) In the case of Davey Boy Smith, his ultimately destructive association with the ?Canadian Kennedy’s? undoubtedly contributed to his emotional decline, but such is the lure of the limelight and the evil that men do. Recreational and physical drug abuse and/or an unedifying, capacious obsession with the bright lights maneuvered these men into early graves. It was the business that gave them fame and prosperity, such fertile ground for their follies as human beings, that ultimately oversaw the forfeiture of their latter-day lives for the lives already led.
Looking back at this juxtaposition of life and death, it’s important to consider the worth and altogether fleeting nature of success. For thirty glorious minutes ten men experienced a maelstrom of emotions in the process of telling a simple yet undeniably powerful story; surely the essence of Professional Wrestling. In his 1985 monologue Swimming to Cambodia, the late American playwright Spalding Gray referred to the ?perfect moment?, a moment where nothing else exists, you are simply alone for all eternity within the majesty of a single moment in time. As such I’m certain many a performer has enjoyed a personal moment bordering on the transcendental. For the men involved in the Stampede main event (Particularly the Harts) perhaps such a notion of perfection was theirs. As they and their families stood and took in the adoration of their Canadian brethren as all-conquering heroes, it may very well have qualified as perfection. Perhaps it even justified the Icarus-like descent these men would soon embark upon. Of the individuals involved and now deceased we will never have the luxury of a definitive answer.
Such a rueful whimsy leads inevitably to the industry’s long-standing acquaintance with life’s darker vices. Many have succumbed to the pressure of the performance, often times claimed by the business to which they have proffered their lives in pursuit of what Indiana Jones called ?fortune and glory?. As much as I love the athleticism and the inherently artistic qualities of pro-wrestling, the coda that governs the expression began in a carnival tent when Britain still had her empire and, in terms of values, is fundamentally unchanged. Instead of a tent you have a 20,000 capacity sports arena. There’s no Government regulation of any tangible kind, ergo no worker’s union or mandatory holiday. In all honesty, the business at large has not achieved one significant 20th century advancement in employee’s rights, save for paying for medical care (For the horse has to run in the Derby before you can shoot it.) It’s taken the WWE 25 years to fully and consistently implement an effective, independent drug testing policy, and a further three before it actually became legitimately effective. In the grand scheme of things, it qualifies as limited reaction for the sake of perpetual avoidance, nothing more.
The closer you get to the upper-echelons i.e. the money, the more the business stands throttled by avarice-obsessed bullies and Machiavellian wannabes playing at self-regulation. A classic example in WWE is the ?Wrestler’s Court?, an almost amusing courtroom scenario where a powerful upper-carder presides over a disciplinary action. A lower-carder invariably ends us chastised, ostracized or even buried via an action of summary justice. This concept is best equated to the ?Drumhead Court? or ?Kangaroo Court”, an antiquated form of judicial process used by soldiers in the field, generally deemed to be antithetical to the ideals of justice and otherwise illegal. Would you want your professional life (Or your life for that matter) in the hands of someone such as John Layfield in a scenario such as this?
Looking back at Canadian Stampede I’m reminded how quickly the minds of the puppets and the needs of the puppet masters equals forgetfulness. Putting aside the notion of escapism, we are all guilty of occasionally allowing personal satisfaction to cloud our objectivity. Certainly in WWE, we have the sanctimonious prattle of a golden few (The top-line millionaires, with the noted exception of Randy Orton), followed closely by the mendacious musings of the ascendant legions (Ken Kennedy take a bow). The line is: “Pay your dues”, sacrifice your life and put the business first because if you don’t it will perish. Delusional. Dangerous. Bollocks. Until someone or a group of people steps up and asks for the rights that should be theirs the rat race will continue in earnest, the few will remain rich and wrestling will continue to devour one life for every ten it makes.
There are positive signs on the horizon. The on-going legal action of several ex-WWE employees (Specifically Raven, Kanyon and Mike Sanders) concerning the way WWE classifies its workers as “independent contractors” (In the process avoiding employees statutory rights, pensions, medical care etc, and requiring them to be responsible for their own tax returns) whilst treating them like employees and insisting on total financial and artistic control is an interesting, legally valid avenue that may, one day, achieve fruition. Alas the WWE possesses the means to tie this up in circular litigation and years of discovery, so consider it not much more than a taste of what must be done to challenge the status quo in the business. Given Vince McMahon’s leaning towards his usual concoction of tub-thumping, semantics and frippery in his testimony to Congress (Read the transcripts. No finer example of saying so much to say so little exists, I promise you that) and his misguided, abrasively arrogant dismissal of Darren Aranofsky’s The Wrestler as irrelevant and symptomatic of bygone years (Until the Wrestlemania buy rate entered his mind) indicates Vince has lost none of his zeal for resisting the winds of change. The onus is on the authorities to hound and, hopefully, legislate against this propensity or else it’ll be the early nineties all over again, and all the progress and hope will be washed away as the persons of law turn a blind eye and dismiss the glitzy fakery of pro-wrestling once again as not worth the time. I fear it will take ten Chris Benoit’s and a hundred Eddie Guerrero’s before wrestling is really made to grow up…
Reflecting finally upon Stampede, I find it a moving experience. In so many ways it is wrestling in a nutshell. The execution, athleticism, glory and passion of extraordinary characters realized in an engaging presentation of physical combat and clashing philosophies. Undeniably a simple yet beautiful story. For all this, we can lose ourselves and get so caught up in it all as to forget about the men (and their families) underneath and the price so many have paid for a business with ten times the mortality rate of any other equivalent sporting endeavour. As wrestling fans and as human beings it’s important to continue to pose questions and seek the reasons why because for the many at large, it’s only wrestling. It’s entertainment. It’s not real…
Daniel R. Browne.