Wrestling Babylon by Irvin Muchnick

Wrestling Babylon collects Irvin Muchnick’s writings for People, The Village Voice, Penthouse, and a handful of other sources into a quick primer on how pro wrestling got to where it is today. The articles are largely dated and won’t contain many surprises for up-to-date wrestling fans. On top of it, his writing lacks zing and as such it can’t be called good sports writing. He has a keen eye, though, and he pulls his observations together so quickly that they catch you by surprise. Take this, from the book’s finest entry, “Sex and the Gritty”: “Part of [Vince] McMahon’s particular genius was to cut out the middleman, end any pretense of dignity, and give the people exactly what they wanted: homophobia locked in mortal combat with homoeroticism.” Smart writing on professional wrestling is a growing field and Muchnick is working to position himself near its top. Fittingly, he’s set to publish a 2008 book on Chris and Nancy Benoit, whose deaths are one of the first, if not the first, pro-wrestling deaths to take a hold in mainstream media.

Muchnick’s overall tone of coolly detached prose is an easy fit for the selected model, Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Though I half expected mortuary photos or grisly images of Jimmy Snuka’s battered girlfriend, Muchnick holds back where Anger let loose. In a way it feeds a sense of removal that the writing never completely comes to terms with. Muchnick largely fits his language to his subject, but is one of the few writers who can take what happens in the ring and make sense of it in the real world. He loves wrestling and it’s in his blood, but it’s not all there is to him.

The first tragedy he retells is that of the Von Erich family, a story so extreme and almost implausible that not even one of Vince McMahon’s staff writers would have dared to conceive it. Of the five adult sons of Fritz Von Erich, one, David, passed away at the age of 25 under mysterious circumstances while on a wrestling tour of Japan, while three, Kerry, Mike, and Chris, all took their own lives at the ages of 33, 23, and 21, respectively. All, as well as the only living Von Erich brother, Kevin, were involved in wrestling with varying degrees of success and were the cornerstones of their father’s groundbreaking wrestling promotion, World Class Wrestling. Muchnick originally wrote the piece for Penthouse in 1988 and it’s an early example of his ability to get behind the scenes of wrestling with the intent of shedding much needed light on the sport, not debunking it.

And while Muchnick clearly cares for the human element in all of the stories he recounts, it isn’t always clear to what extent. His writing doesn’t fill out any of the Von Erich sons, though to be fair, at the time of the original writing only David and Mike had passed away, so the full extent of the tragedy had yet to play itself out. If the article was written today, you wonder what picture Muchnick may have painted of them. Still, in the article’s postscript, he sticks with a somewhat dehumanizing take on the family as whack-job evangelicals who failed to practice what they preached. Chris Von Erich is outed as the unnamed character in the original article who, during a break in the taping of a Von Erich family TV special, joined Mike in bragging loudly about the previous night’s gang bang. And when Muchnick notes that Kevin’s son, Ross, is in training to become a wrestler, all the response he can manage is a head-smacking, dismissive, “Good grief”.

The Von Erich family interests Muchnick not only because of their tragedy but because had things worked out differently, if David Von Erich had lived and if Fritz had possessed designs to truly expand his promotion beyond Texas, we may never had heard of Vince McMahon. World Class set the tone for what wrestling became, lit the light that McMahon shone to all illogical extremes and which he quickly used to extinguish wrestling as a regional phenomenon. And McMahon is the real focus here, for better or worse, with Muchnick tracking all aspects of his empire-building; how barter syndication made it possible for wrestling to enter households on an almost non-stop basis on Saturday afternoons; the avenues McMahon has explored, with each failure being larger than the one before it (the coast-to-coast promotion of Evil Kneivel’s jump over Snake River Canyon, the World Bodybuilding Foundation, the XFL), to make his mark on a business outside of wrestling; his blind-eye and implied complicity in all types of unethical and illegal behavior among himself and his stable of wrestlers, from steroid abuse to sexual harassment to buying politicians and police to serve necessary ends to murder. McMahon, as Muchnick paints him, is “our cheerful tour guide to the dark side of the American soul.” Muchnick is too specific here; McMahon is the happy exploiter of all the worst tendencies of people in general. And in his staunch refusal to accept even a thread of responsibility for the fallout from his relentless push for bigger and for more, he’s a model for businessmen everywhere.

The writing throughout the book fails to make clear exactly what Muchnick loves about wrestling when he isn’t watching it with a sociological eye. For him, “controlled violence, not can-you-top-this brutality is what triggers something deep.” Controlled violence can be taken two ways here; it’s controlled in the sense that there are rules governing the beatings being handed out in the ring to assure it stays within limits but it’s also controlled in the sense that, while wrestlers take bumps and bruises of varying degrees, slash themselves with razor blades and generally subject their bodies to above average abuse on a regular basis, the violence they endure for our entertainment is, for the lack of a better word, fake. Punches are pulled, moves are choreographed, and particularly dangerous tumbles are rehearsed. We can watch Ric Flair’s opponent writhe in pain as he’s locked in a figure-four from a safe remove because, really, no one’s getting hurt. Yes, there’s contact and yes, wrestlers take pain but in the end, what we’re cheering isn’t really violence. It’s a movie where no one really gets killed.

All of which has gotten considerably more complicated over the past 20 or so years, and which continues to get increasingly complicated as wrestling’s body count grows on a weekly basis. Muchnick cites the two clear reasons why the death rate among professional wrestlers has exploded, but the first essentially feeds the second. “The end of ‘kayfabe,’ he writes, “a coy suspension of disbelief in the bygone era, gave way to a can-you-top-this? mentality in the staging of matches.” Wrestlers in, essentially, the pre-WWF days, took it relatively easy as a means to preserve their careers and livelihoods. Such mind is no longer paid to these outdated concerns. From this springs reason two; drugs of every stripe. “Unless you believe that wrestlers somehow are not actual human beings,” Muchnick writes, “decency demands that we not interpret with laissez faire dismissiveness the role that institutionalized substance abuse plays in whatever more benign-sounding, generic causes medical examiners might be trained or cajoled into writing on death certificates.” Enough said.

“As the marketing war in wrestling wore on, and as Vince McMahon tossed one adversary after another over the top rope like so many jabroneys, each more formidable than the last … a larger narrative took shape. The story wasn’t one of heroes and villains. The story, rather, was that wrestling obviously did have the same DNA structure as other American sports. And this became apparent not because wrestling started to look more legit. It became apparent because legit sports started to look more and more like wrestling.” Looking for McMahon’s entrails in popular culture Muchnick finds them, though his view is probably too narrow. Extremes have developed in all kinds of media and wrestling, instead of being the driver, may be just another log floating downstream.

So while the NBA may have referees on the take, none to my knowledge have taken a bump so a team can cheat their way to victory while the official lies unconscious. And while Michael Vick may have an apparent taste for violence against animals, the NFL has yet to exploit his upcoming trial as an angle to hype the new season. Baseball, with its stated disdain for performance-enhancing drugs coupled with its unquenchable thirst for home-run ball, may be in the most advanced stage of McMahon-ization. So while legitimate sports may be seeing aspects of the pro wrestling MO creeping into their folds, they largely are resisting it . Why? Because people watch pro wrestling for different reasons from why they watch other professional sports. There may be some overlap but ultimately there are probably more differences than similarities.

Which may explain why there has been such muted reaction to the rash of deaths among professional wrestlers. Muchnick collects the names of 88 wrestlers who have died before the age of 50 from health-issues. He leaves out those who have died in auto-accidents, have been murdered, or who have succumbed to other generally accepted hazards of the profession. But again, wrestling is largely watched from a considerable distance and to the casual fan the names on the list may be meaningless. Even at the height of it’s popularity, even as Hulk Hogan became the first person to bodyslam Andre the Giant, the majority of people watching bought into it with the knowledge that, “it’s not real.” Muchnick agrees, but he knows too much to agree completely; people, after all, are dying. And what he leaves unsaid, in the end, is the role of the fans. By watching the events, by cheering them on, by purchasing the books and DVDs, what part are we playing in sending these people to early graves? If McMahon is the greedy salesman and we, the fans, his all-too-willing marks, at what point do we become his willing accomplices? The book doesn’t venture an answer. And while Muchink’s collected writings get deep, it’s not really deep enough. For as hard as he hopes to hit, for whatever impact the book manages it ends up lacking real sting.

RATING 6 / 10