On Night 2 of a crowd-free WrestleMania, while John Cena grappled with Bray Wyatt as well as the ghosts of his wrestling career past in a “Firefly Fun House” match, fans watching at home glimpsed the sport’s immediate future: postmodern spectacle, heavy on the meta-commentary and production values. Barely a punch was traded between Wyatt and Cena, yet the bout was as psychologically compelling as any in recent memory. And on the previous night, the Undertaker had smashed AJ Styles, Luke Gallows, Karl Anderson, and a legion of robed acolytes in a graveyard battle that paid tribute to both cinematic beat-’em-up sequences and previous falls-count-anywhere showdowns.
In an age of social distancing and extended quarantines and shelter-at-home orders, this might be a path forward for the creative side of the business. Two wrestlers, a small camera crew, and some canny editing—an entertainment emphasis that could give some older and more physically limited wrestlers, like the 55-year-old Undertaker, a second chance to shine. Wrestling began taking baby steps in this cinematic direction in the early 1980s, but as WWE, AEW, and other promotions and indie wrestlers struggle to produce profitable content in a crowd-free era, that past is looking a lot like precedent.
Back in 1982, Kevin Sullivan—a native Bostonian and longtime territorial wrestler whose physique alternated between bodybuilder-shredded and powerlifter-puffy—took Championship Wrestling from Florida by storm, capitalizing on the early-1980s nationwide “satanic panic” by portraying a devil-worshipping “Prince of Darkness” bad guy and building an “Army of Darkness” that included re-branded, monstrous versions of the likes of amateur wrestling great Bob Roop (working for Sullivan as “Maya Singh”) and hardcore legend “Maniac” Mark Lewin (as “the Purple Haze”). The weirdness factor was enhanced further by charismatic mouthpieces like scarred veteran “King” Curtis Iaukea and longtime manager “Sir” Oliver Humperdink, and glam-meets-goth valet “the Fallen Angel”—Kevin’s future ex-wife Nancy, in the news again because her tragic relationship with Chris Benoit is the subject of a recent VICE documentary.
“The Army of Darkness,” with all of its members hamming it up for Eddie Graham’s video cameras, offered a cheat code of sorts for generating heat based on audience fears of hidden satanic messages in popular music and other forms of lowbrow entertainment. Sullivan, his Boston accent as thick as ever, would grab the mic and ramble into mystical territory. In one memorable promo, he “was taken … to the closet of anxiety where I took the cosmic cookie and went to the Amazon River of my mind, where I met OG, the keeper of the key … [and] he told me now the final stages are set for the war with the family because now they know that I’m going to do something horrible.”
It was divine nonsense, but Sullivan’s three-ring circus set the stage for sequences in which another charismatic-but-limited wrestler like the oft-injured “Superstar” Billy Graham could shoot a series of still pictures of how he purged himself of sin in the desert in order to fight Sullivan. “Then Billy went away for a few weeks. He went to Arizona, and took these pictures in the desert,” Sullivan says in Graham’s autobiography. “Not video, but still pictures—we used the still pictures on TV with voice-over. It had never been done in the wrestling business before. His arms are stretched out, like he’s crucifying himself in the desert, to purge himself of his sins, and of Kevin Sullivan. … Subliminal messages were very much a part of this presentation. Billy’s wearing white now. He’s fighting for the sins of the world. He’s walking in the light. When you have blood on those white tights, it’s symbolic, like the devil is re-crucifying Christ.”
Ambitious for its time, certainly—and a gimmick that Sullivan would use repeatedly after going to WCW in the late 1980s, building similar but watered-down stables like “the Three Faces of Fear” (Sullivan, Ed “Brutus Beefcake” Leslie, and John “Avalanche” Tenta) and “the Dungeon of Doom” (a host of former Hulk Hogan opponents) to generate a variety of heel matchups for main event babyfaces such as Hogan.
Whether sometime-booker Kevin Sullivan was calling the story line shots or not, the WCW wasn’t averse to sketches that attempted to thread the needle between the sublime and the ridiculous. For example, take the “White Castle of Fear” trailer for 1993’s SuperBrawl III pay-per-view, a campy effort that has Sting, Harley Race, and Vader mouthing clichéd lines inside Vader’s secret fortress, where he is attended to by a legion of women clad in early-’90s finery as well as a dwarf (named “Cheatum,” in the story line) with an eye patch. “[The cost] was in the six figures. Sharon hired a lot of people from outside of WCW to help produce it … and it was thought it may help bridge the realistic difference between the production values typical of WCW,” Eric Bischoff recalled in an interview. That video seemed ridiculous at the time, right down to the C-grade acting, but the resulting strap match between Vader and Sting, who always worked well in the ring together, was no joke. Elements of this video, the cheesy sci-fi and horror effects, when incorporated by the likes of the Hardy boys in their 2016 “Final Deletion” match (more on that later), that discerning fans can now enjoy as part of the experience, as part of the entertainment side of wrestling. “Looking back on it now today, one thing I can say is that people remember [the match,” Vader wrote in his autobiography. “They still come up to me and mention it, so yes, now I think it was a good idea, though it took a lot of flak back in the day.”
WCW had its share of other outré offerings, including a “King of the Road” match at 1995’s Uncensored pay-per-view. Dustin Rhodes, always hanging around the top of the WCW midcard, was matched with the “Blacktop Bully”—Barry Darsow, better known for portraying Demolition Smash and Krusher Khrushchev—inside a caged-off trailer on the back of an 18-wheeler truck. (The truck supposedly belonged to the “Bully.”) The resulting match is uneven but certainly bloody, with two men falling around in lumps of straw in the back of a slow-moving truck surrounded by escort vehicles. “The cage was strong, but there were some curves,” Dustin Rhodes wrote of the match in his autobiography, in which the object was to touch a post at the end of the cage with a bell on it. At the urging of producer Mike Graham, and in order to make something out of nothing, both Rhodes and Darsow “got color,” a decision that led to Rhodes and Darsow being fired from the WCW because Eric Bischoff hadn’t actually signed off on that.
Rhodes’s firing would lead him to WWE—and a new character, the androgynous and menacing Golddust—who would play a starring role in one of that company’s biggest filmed wrestling productions, a “Hollywood backlot brawl” at 1996’s WrestleMania XII. Opposing him would be “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, who during his late-1980s hiatus participated in arguably the best cinematic wrestling sequence of all time: the so-called “long fight” from John Carpenter’s movie They Live, in which Piper (playing the character “Nada”) attempts to batter “Frank” (played by Keith David) into submission in order to force him to “put on the sunglasses” that will enable him to see the aliens who controlled the world’s consumer culture. “The long fight was fashioned after the fight in The Quiet Man,” Keith David recalled in a 2017 interview, “and it had a beginning, a middle, and an end.” The “backlot brawl” wasn’t quite in the same league, although both Golddust and Piper laid into each other, in a bout by turns brutal and marked by moments of the sort of low comedy that impresario Vince McMahon loved (a “white bronco” chase sequence, Golddust stripped down to lingerie).
McMahon, of course, had long wanted to “get the F out” of the WWE in order to produce entertainment that went well beyond mere simulated combat, running a film production wing of the company that churns out WWE superstar–helmed content while larding the weekly programming with filmed clips and skits. I, like other longtime observers, had grown up on McMahon’s filmed interludes, which was what worried me about both the “Boneyard” and “Firefly Fun House” matches. Would the curb-stomping John Cena gave Bray Wyatt end up resembling nothing so much as the time Triple H invaded Randy Orton’s home and beat him senseless? Would the “Boneyard” feature beats like the time Triple H took liberties in a coffin with a mannequin intended to represent a woman (“Katie Vick”) supposedly killed by story line nemesis Kane? Or perhaps AJ Styles would pull a gun on the Undertaker, the way “Loose Cannon” Brian Pillman did when Steve Austin attacked him at home?
Thankfully, none of that happened in those two signature WrestleMania matches, which managed to avoid the inanity and outright offensive stupidity into which they could have descended. It isn’t hard to explain why the “long fight” in They Live is good entertainment and Brian Pillman pulling a gun on Steve Austin wasn’t, despite the presence of trained wrestlers in both sequences. The difference there was artistry: They Live director John Carpenter had presented the actors with a script with five blank pages in it, a stage direction to the effect of “they fight,” and provided the tools to make the fight choreography over-the-top but never obnoxious. And while the Undertaker’s graveyard fight wasn’t high art in quite the same way, it was surprisingly compelling, not only because of Taker’s “American badass” stage presence but because of something rarely thought of as the deadman’s selling point, his ability to deliver action-hero punch lines in a deep deadpan. Styles’s glove rising through the grave dirt at the conclusion of the struggle recalls nothing so much as those haunting still shots of “Superstar” Billy Graham, tied to the ground in the desert, struggling to rid himself of all evil.
And the “Firefly Fun House” match took matters of artistry to the next level. This could’ve been a classic Vince McMahon blow-off comedy match, with old Mae Young giving birth to a hand and Ol’ Jim Ross being given a rectal exam by McMahon himself. The Hardys’ DIY “Final Deletion” match had set a high bar for mind-bending ham acting, shaky camera work, and wild stunts—earning both Jeff and Matt new leases on life, with a visibly slowed Matt, now much better on the mic and much reduced in the ring, receiving big, character-driven second-wind runs in the WWE and now AEW. That darkly-lit spectacle, which includes footage of Jeff falling out of a tree on the Hardy family compound, proved that a subset of the wrestling audience would accept a certain degree of campy theatrics in their wrestling, provided it was true to the spectacle of wrestling itself, rather than a cheap parody of the same—or an attempt to move beyond wrestling, into actual action filmmaking. The Hardys were real wrestlers, and they presented a compelling alternative path forward for the business—and Cena’s epic descent into his subconscious to battle Wyatt further advanced that genre of match.
I hadn’t expected something that plumbed the depths of Cena’s career, from blue-chip prospect to raunchy “Doctor of Thuganomics”—things explored in recently released WWE Network documentaries about the era that he eventually came to dominate. Nor had I ever thought that Cena, who still dresses in the same jean shorts and baggy shirt that characterized his long run as the company’s latter-day Bruno Sammartino, would advance as an actor enough to sell such a performance.
But when John Cena is clapped back into his debut trunks, when the call for “ruthless aggression” by Vince McMahon that Cena answered is thrown in his face by a mocking Fiend, it’s clear a corner has been turned in the history of the business. Freed from the presence of fans who might react one way or another, Cena and Wyatt could have a match that explored the psyche of one of the company’s most enduring faces. It wasn’t perfect, indeed was even a little ham-handed at points, but it was unlike anything heretofore conceived.
Can wrestling, stripped for now of its cheering throngs that have generally served as a primary character in the drama, rely solely on gimmick matches such as these to fill the gap? No, probably not. Matt Hardy “deleting” everyone in the WWE, including Bray Wyatt, didn’t get over quite as it had before (and may again in the AEW). But something else is needed besides interviews and clips packages. Edge and Randy Orton put together a decent falls-count-anywhere match that offered another, more conventional alternative to standard in-ring fare: taking it backstage and building the stunts, spots, and emoting around that. At any rate, as the COVID-19 pandemic peaks and then subsides, it seems abundantly clear that the WWE is capable of embracing creativity without wallowing in the crudity and low comedy that characterized many of the filmed segments of the Attitude Era.