Wrestling: the mania is back

Millions of us are tuning in to watch imported American wrestling extravaganzas. Scott Lucas argues

You want to understand US foreign policy? Forget the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Don't bother with the subscription to Foreign Affairs. And don't ever trust a word from Madeleine Albright. You want to be an expert in American foreign policy? Watch professional wrestling.

Here's how I knew there would be a Gulf war. In January 1991, my father, to persuade me of the merits of returning to the homeland, took me to the Von Braun Civic Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for a three-hour wrestling extravaganza. Tatanka the Native American, Earthquake, even the Ultimate Warrior, were mere preludes to Sergeant Slaughter, the traitorous marine who had defected to the management of General Adnan and Colonel Mustafa, and his challenge to the World Heavyweight Champion Hulk Hogan. Ten thousand of us booed as Sergeant Slaughter was led to the ring by Colonel Mustafa, waving an Iraqi flag. (We knew it was an Iraqi flag because someone had helpfully replaced the crescent and stars in the centre with the face of Saddam Hussein.) Ten thousand cheered as the Hulkster charged into the ring with the Stars and Stripes. And ten thousand were delirious when Slaughter, despite his marine boots modified with scimitar-like spikes, the illegal use of a folding chair and the repeated interventions of Adnan and Mustafa, was vanquished with Hulk's elbow smash. A week later, US warplanes launched the first strikes of Desert Storm.

I'm heartened by the current British interest in this paradigm of US culture: millions watching several hours per week on cable and satellite, courtesy of Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner; sold-out arenas in London and Birmingham for the live shows; and the "auto-biographies" of Mick Foley (Mankind) and Rocky Maivia (the Rock) sitting comfortably in the Top 10 of non-fiction hardbacks. But I'm not sure that these British followers appreciate the political significance of their devotion.

It is politically significant because modern wrestling and the US of the cold war grew up together. In the 1950s, wrestling was one of the two "sports" (the other being boxing) that helped television make its impact in the living rooms and bars of the US. The advantage was technical rather than aesthetic: TV cameras could provide close-up shots of competitors in individual, indoor sports in a way that they could not do with baseball or American football. To succeed, however, wrestling needed more. Like the US government fighting the commies, wrestling had to have good guys and bad guys. It relied on the image of Midwestern tough guys such as Dick the Bruiser and Lou Thesz, and hard-working, assimilated Americans such as Bruno Sammartino, vanquishing the swaggering foe.

That enemy didn't come straight from the communist copybook. The Second World War was replayed with the barbarity of Fritz von Erich and his "iron claw" and the deviousness of Mr Fuji. As an eight-year-old boy, watching Nick Gulas's pro wrestling on Channel 19 every Saturday afternoon, I learned about the Germans through the guttural shouts and heavy cane, which somehow rendered illegal assistance every match, of the evil manager Saul Weingeroff. I hissed at Tojo Yamamoto when, with his wooden shoes, he assaulted the local hero Len Rossi. It would be many years before I realised that Yamamoto's name was taken from two of Japan's wartime military leaders.

And now "Russians" had joined the fray. They were always burly men, built to pound nimbler but smaller opponents into submission; they were always bald but with Stalinesque moustaches and/or Leninesque goatees; and they were never to be trusted. Khrusher Khrushchev, not Nikita Khrushchev, shaped my scepticism of detente with Moscow. The dreaded Nikolai Volkov and Ivan Koloff represented the issues more dramatically than any reference to MiG-21 jet fighters or SS-20 missiles.

I guess all this could be wrapped up as childhood memories and a bit of fun had things not got serious in the 1980s. Cable television, notably Ted Turner's superstation WTBS from Atlanta, returned wrestling to the national spotlight after it had waned in the previous decade. With more people in more arenas across the US watching wrestling rather than professional football or baseball, the foundation was laid for multimillion extravaganzas such as the Royal Rumble, WrestleMania and Summer Slam.

With millions of spectators following the same storyline, Sergeant Slaughter and his handlers became an important step in wrestling's contribution to taking the cold war beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall. Watching General Adnan, adorned in a red-and-white checked tea towel, rant in pseudo-Arabic, I recalled that he had wrestled in the 1970s as the Iron Sheik. The Sheik, who would blind his opponents with a mysterious flame, was of vague Arab origin until he was remade several years later as an Iranian in the service of Ayatollah Khomeini.

This history may not have been relevant for the 10,000 people in the Von Braun Civic Center that January evening. Nor may they have noticed that, when the television announcer referred to "2 August 1990 [the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait] as a date that will live in infamy", he was borrowing the allusion from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. What mattered was that the enemy was no longer 50 years or several thousand miles away, but right here, right now. The issue was not a complicated national interest, such as oil or regional stability, but who would beat up whom. Not only for that night, but for several months to come, the drama of US good versus Iraqi evil would be played out to full houses. Forget the surrender of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard in late February - our finest hour came in August when Hulk and the Ultimate Warrior defeated Slaughter, Adnan and Mustafa in a handicap tag-team match.

Wrestling's ability to make the enemy incarnate was still more striking two years later with the appearance of Yokozuna, the sumo wrestler. Yokozuna (the name was taken from the Japanese title for "grand champion") combined the force of his 35-stone bulk with the back-stabbing finesse of his manager, creatively named Mr Fuji. The "Japanese" rituals of national flags, kimonos, pre-match salt-throwing and genuflections were inevitably followed by a denouement in which Mr Fuji would trick the good guy who had the upper hand, and Yokozuna would then bounce all of his 500 sumo pounds on his stricken foe's chest. Oh, how we whooped it up when the Hulkster, at Caesar's Palace, vanquished the great Japanese hope; oh, how we sobbed two months later during "King of the Ring" when Yokozuna got his revenge.

This scenario makes a lot more sense when you realise that, from 1992, many in the US were preparing for economic war with Japan. Bestsellers such as Pat Choate's Agents of Influence proclaimed that the Japanese would wreak revenge for the Second World War by winning a non-military conflict. Even Paul Kennedy's historical opus, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, was invoked as a demonstration of the Pacific peril. When the Japanese bought New York's Rockefeller Center, the long-time symbol of financial, industrial and communications (the National Broadcasting Company is housed there) supremacy, we all feared the jig was up.

And when that threat also passed - eight years later, the worry is not that the Japanese economy is too strong, but that it is too weak - wrestling searched for other enemies. There were, for example, the dreaded Canadians. Our friends to the north had provided villains such as the Fabulous Rougeau Brothers and the Mountie, the master of the electric prod, but it was when the World Heavyweight Champion Bret "The Hitman" Hart turned bad in 1997 that war was imminent. For weeks, Hart, a native of Calgary, waged a running feud with the World Wrestling Federation supremo Vince Macmahon, in which US and Canadian fans traded insults on the lines of "America/Canada Sucks" and stomped on each others' flags. The future of North America seemed to be at stake.

Well, maybe this is going a bit far. Not even the World Wrestling Federation could help manufacture a US assault on its neighbour. It's not that Canada is a Nato ally and a member of the North American Free Trade Agreement - more that it's not a very exciting enemy.

Indeed, it seems that the new world order has finally sapped wrestling's ability to find a foreigner to hate. Most of the US government's current battles don't translate into action-packed grappling. However serious Washington's economic disputes with the European Union, can you see Cashmere McSporran or the Flying Roqueforts as the next embodiments of all evil? Of course, there's the Balkans, but it appears that even real-life Serb bogeymen (surely Ratko Mladic was a name that could have been adopted) don't interest the audience.

Instead, wrestling, like the US, has turned inward. One spectre has been that of deviant men and butch women. Dustin Rhodes, a 1980s good guy and the son of a famous wrestler, revived his career as Goldust. Six-foot-five of body paint and lame outfits, Goldust unsettled the Hispanic hard man Razor Ramon with professions of his love. Gender was further bent by China, a tall, muscular woman with a severe expression and a mean right fist that pummelled tough dudes and scantily clad babes alike.

Wrestling's appeal to racial hatred was particularly ominous. White spectators could vent their spleen against "extreme" African-Americans, notably the Nation of Domination. All the signs of the Nation - rap music, bow ties, the use of the Muslim name "Farrokh" for the leader and, eerily, Malcolm X's phrase "By Any Means Necessary" - stood for the threat of the real-life Nation of Islam and, more generally, "separatist" African-Americans.

Tension was heightened by pitting the Nation of Domination against a "good" African-American, Ahmed Johnson, who looked to succeed within the system of the World Wrestling Federation. In a vivid rewriting of African-American history, Farrokh's followers "lynched" Johnson, putting a noose around his neck.

Today, the racial dimension is muted. The gang motif is dominant, whether it be the new world order or the new blood trying to undermine the established hierarchy. Those gangs have regalia, jargon and even walks associated with African-American and Hispanic groups, but the leading villains are white. Some wrestling fans complain that the excitement is no more than that of a corporate struggle for power.

So, if you happen in your channel-surfing to catch the latest Sky or TNT broadcast from the ring (I know nobody over 18 in this country who admits to watching the "sport" deliberately), should you take more than a novelty interest? Well, yes. Wrestling may not be waging a specific campaign at the moment, but it still has the power to make latent hatreds manifest. Now, this won't mean racial war on the streets - it's not in anyone's interest to bash Farrokh or Goldust for real. But it will only take a US crusade with a marketable enemy for wrestling to bring valuable support.

So, if we're going to have a scrap with Cuba, let's do it right. Let's have Juan Miguel Gonzalez, the commie-puppet father of Elian, dressed in a singlet and squaring off with the singing diva and good Cuban-American Gloria Estefan.

As Hulk Hogan's theme song chorused over and over again in 1991: "We're all real Americans, fight for the rights of every man. We're all real Americans, fight for what's right, fight for the might."

Scott Lucas is the head of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham. His book Freedom's War: the US crusade against the Soviet Union, 1945-56 is published by Manchester University Press