overthinking the idiot box

April 18th, 2005

Everything you ever wanted to know about sports on TV.

At The Buzzer
Real (Lame) Pro Wrestling
Amateur wrestling gets its shot at the big time

by Alan Bloom

Aside from the Summer Olympics, it is very rare, at least in the United States, that either free-style or Greco-Roman wrestling will get a mention on the sports page. Too long have the common associations with the word "wrestling" been "Hulk Hogan," "turnbuckle," "manager interference," "chair attacks," and so on. Olympic gold-medalist Rulon Gardner firmly believes this. The man who accomplished the unthinkable in defeating the menacing and unbeaten (to that point) Alexander Karelin of Russia to win Sydney gold is now the figurehead for a new sports league: RPW -- Real Pro Wrestling. Gardner has done quite a bit of press, promoting RPW as the definitive wrestling competition where "real wrestlers compete for prize money and a true championship." The goal of the fledgling league is to distance wrestling from the laughable theatrics of WWE, while giving the sport a legitimate platform in which to flourish. The entire concept, as Gardner has said many times, is predicated on raw competition. No frills, no masks, no getting hit on the head with a chair, just straight, pure wrestling. Is this what America wants, though? Are they looking for their "wrestling" to be more about athletic skill or theater and showmanship? Watching the premiere installment of RPW, I found that the changing of the wrestling guard is a long way away.

The perhaps eventual downfall for Real Professional Wrestling is the partnership the league has with PAX TV. Such programming would seem a natural fit for Spike TV, already home to such shows at The Ultimate Fighter. Granted, the network that is not even fit to hold UPN's jock is only carrying Sunday broadcasts while Fox Sports will air Wednesday editions, but let's focus on PAX, since that's where the installment I was privileged to witness aired. The video of this "live" event is of a poor, scratchy quality and the audio isdisgustingly low. The venue is not unlike a hybrid of Ultimate Fighting Championship and American Gladiators. There is no cage, but while the bleak lighting and circular-elevated mat provide a setting for the same sort of theatre the Greeks might have enjoyed in their day, I'm still half-expecting Nitro and Turbo to make their way down the runway for a round on the Eliminator.

The stage is now set, poorly, and it is time for the league to blossom. The broadcast begins with an intense, speed-metal assault on the senses of an intro. Welcome to Real Professional Wrestling.

Our play-by-play, blow-by-blow announcer is unknown Tim Johnson. He's flanked by 1988 bronze medalist Nate Carr, and the aforementioned legend, Rulon Gardner, who will both provide analysis of the matches. I'd like to believe that the trio explain that $250,000 in prize money is on the line and that today the 121lb weight class is featured, but alas, poor audio. RPW has amassed amateur wrestlers from across the nation and divided them into eight teams, with each member of the team competing in a specific weight class. The squads cover traditional markets like New York, Chicago, and California, as well as collegiate wrestling hotbeds like Iowa and Oklahoma. Much like any other league that is strongly pushing the message that this is a no-glitz wrestling affair; the teams are outfitted with extreme names like the Outrage, the Claw, and the Stalkers. No frills yet. Let's meet the competitors.

Upon seeing their frenetic, thirty-seven-cuts-per-second video compilations, I can tell you this: they all seem like mild-mannered guys, with great athletic skill, who are incredibly comfortable not wearing any clothes while flexing lewdly for the camera. Honestly, I felt a little dirty after we met the soon-to-be-household names, Sammie Henson, Erik Akin, Mike Mena, and company. To the wrestling mat, we go. Finally, our hunger for blood and combat will be satiated withƒ highlights from the first round? Accompanied with music stings during each takedown? You're saying this isn't produced? What happened to my unadulterated, real athletic competition? I imagine the announced team is dramatically walking us through the highlights, but I can't get the volume past "any louder and you'll freaking die." Four first round highlights later, we're on to the semi-finals which are, thankfully, shown in full.

It is everything you've seen in the Olympics only without names comparable to Cael Sanderson, Dan Gable, or even WWE superstar and 1996 gold medalist Kurt Angle. RPW is trying with great gusto to push the personalities of their new stars upon us (kind of like that other wrestling league), but clearly it is the sport itself that will have to carry the league's early installments. There is, despite no sound, a graphics department at PAX. Each time a wrestler scores a point or completes a takedown, the name of the maneuver and its point value pops up on screen. I'm all for trying to rope in a new audience and this works well. New audiences will also loveƒ managerial disputes? There is one in the semi-final between the Texas Shooters' Erik Akin and Teague Moore (Teague?) of the Oklahoma Slam. It's like Scary Sherri helping Macho Man cheat to victory. The ejection of Sydney gold medalist and Texas coach, Brandon Slay, sadly, took up most of the time allotted to the match. I wish I could hear Rulon's analysis.

It is clear that getting out of the gate is going to be incredibly difficult for this league, especially after it was found out days later that PAX did not even air RPW in all of its markets. Ouch! I guess those viewers missed only half of the show, however, given that the audio was just Rulon and Nate Carr pantomiming off-screen.

Soap opera for the guy who hates soap opera.
There's a reason that World Wrestling Entertainment (the WWE, formerly the WWF) is as popular as it is. The idea is not to provide legitimate sport (although most of those competitors are top class athletes), but rather to weave grandiose tales of heroes and villains, not unlike comic books or Saturday morning cartoons. WWE is driven by stars who can rattle off on the microphone like they were born with one in their hand. Icons like The Rock and Hulk Hogan, as well as daredevil and face-painted warriors are what drive "wrestling" in the USA. It's soap opera for the guy who hates soap operas! Is this country demanding a departure from that?

RPW is pitted between a rock and a hard place, finding it regrettably necessary to chop out their real and raw competition in order to promote their dry athletes. But in hurrying up the delivery and presentation of their bouts, they don't so much distance themselves from organizations like the WWE as diffuse their own product into a relatively bland highlight show. It is likely that the sport will continue to be mired in obscurity.

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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 2.