Unforgivable Gayness

This is just a quick note regarding the brave move on the part of Washington Wizards center Jason Collins. It is a move that more progressive sports fans, especially in North America have been crying out for; unbelievably, Collins is the first professional athlete in the USA to come out as a homosexual. That in itself is a shocking fact and alludes to the importance of the move in itself.

I should say now that the title of this post is an allusion to the excellent documentary on the life of Jack Johnson, the first African-American Boxing Heavyweight Champion of the World ‘Unforgiveable Blackness’. This post is more of an initial reaction to the news that has set the already busy back pages in America alight. I want to think on the subject more before expanding on my points and drawing any significant comparisons; but what is clear is that Collins’ move could be that seismic moment for the LGBT community that Johnson’s was for African Americans.

Where Johnson’s controversial career was played out in the newspapers, naturally enough, Collins’ is playing out on twitter, and one of the reactions to the news is scepticism about the importance of the move with a belief that he Collins is trying to make a name for himself. But staying on twitter is where you see how important it is, starting with Miami Dolphins wide receiver, Mike Wallace’s tweet “All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys SMH…” That almost immediate reaction to Collins’ disclosure just goes to show the historic atmosphere to homosexuality in a US locker-room, a place which, as was neatly pointed out on Dave Dameshek’s podcast, is a microcosm of societal attitudes – not in the sense of homophobia being rife in the NFL (which I don’t believe necessarily), but in the sense of there being something of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach whereby homosexuality is viewed as strange and even threatening. Even Collins coming out alone does a lot to demystify, but if it encourages others, it will do even more and make being gay something of a normality; and hopefully, having suspicious Americans watch homosexual players just ‘playing ball’ like everyone else will do a lot to help the issue of equality in wider society.

To further show why this is important, I direct you to some of the most ignorant, ugly opinions I have ever seen:

Between reactionary racism, strange but upsettingly not unexpected accusations of kinky sexual practices, and accusations of homosexuality by degree if you support Collins in his move, or even if he ever played for your favourite team, that is a difficult read. Luckily we can take heart that he has indeed also garnered support from what seems to be the majority, including sports writers and sports professionals of every level (who were quick to distance themselves from Wallace’s comments). While the NBA is a big deal, the NFL is biggest sporting behemoth in America, and there is already speculation that it will be sooner rather than later before an NFL player follows suit and accelerates the locker-room liberation for homosexuals in sport. Especially at a time where gay rights are seemingly at the forefront of Western discussion, with Scotland, France, and several states in America legalising same-sex marriage, there appears to be an irresistible (at least where reason prevails) march of progressivism, and Collins breaking traditionally held barriers in sports could be yet more of a catalyst for change. That is the importance of Collins’, and that is why he is a true champion to get behind.


RTV’s Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, Class of 2013

Wrestling has not been forgotten as RTV’s World of Wrestling transforms in to The Neon Idols. Formulating that Hall of Fame took a lot of time and was a labour of love, and so now that the WWE’s Class of 2013 is in the books, I would like to induct a new class in to my Hall of Fame alongside it, as was originally the plan. So without further ado, the 2013 Class of the RTV Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame.

“The Nature Boy” Ric Flair (Richard Morgan Fliehr, born 1949)
Ric Flair
Words can hardly match the icon that Flair has cast for himself over his long pro-wrestling career. The only reason he wasn’t in my initial 50 automatic inductees was that he was wrestling with TNA and didn’t consider him retired. However, now he’s back in WWE as a ‘legend’ it feels like we wont be seeing him wrestle regularly again, so here he is. Taking his nick name (and basically his gimmick) from the first ever WWE Champion, Buddy Rogers, Ric Flair has managed to surpass even that legend; as well as arguably every other legend.

His career has spanned over 40 years now, from the AWA to Japan, various NWA territories, WCW, WWE, and TNA, and so its hard to really chronicle such a career. Flair won the NWA Heavyweight title having already fought famously with the likes of Harley Race, Roddy Piper, Ricky Steamboat and even the original “Nature Boy”, but to my mind, the first really era-defining work Flair did was in his feud for the ages, alongside his Four Horsemen, against “The Common Man” Dusty Rhodes. The ‘stylin’, profilin’ champion born with a golden spoon in his mouth, against the son of a plumber fighting for his family made for a great story and great matches as a result, full of career highlights like the Horsemen breaking Rhodes’ arm and putting “hard times” on the Common Man. Moving to WCW and later the WWF, Flair became the greatest wrestler of his era, putting of some of the best matches ever against the likes of Steamboat, and ultimately, Randy Savage  for the WWF Championship, during his short initial run in the WWF – winning the title in one of the best Royal Rumbles of all time in 1992.

After being part of the exodus to WCW during the Monday Night Wars, Flair would return to the now WWE 2001 after being a victim of NWO over-exposure. Initially more of an on-screen personality than a wrestler, there as some life in the nature boy yet, literally evolving as a character with Triple H’s Evolution, and helping build future top talents like Randy Orton and Batista before finally bowing out gracefully following a loss to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XXIV.

It would be hypocritical for me not to mention the controversial parts of Flair’s career, especially given that my first post on this blog was scathing to the Flair that sullied his retirement by wrestling again for money and even using his Hall of Fame ring in a TNA angle. The same Flair that had multiple marriages, had to disappointingly wrestle beyond his prime to pay for his “Nature Boy” lifestyle, is exactly as arrogant as his talent allows, and is, frankly, a bit of an asshole. Like many legends though, his issues are balanced by greatness, originality, and achievement. Through his controversies came moments like selling out the Rŭngnado May First Stadium in North Korea with Antonio Inoki, working on heated relations with the nation, being one of the few to ever hold both the NWA and WWE Championship, and being the only ever two time WWE Hall of Famer (so far.) Truly, Flair encapsulates every side of pro wrestling, the exquisite and the ugly, and for that, he is one of the greatest of all time, if not the greatest.

The Rock (Dwayne Douglas Johnson, born 1972)
The Rock
When I first started watching wrestling as a young man, The Rock was my joint favourite wrestler alongside Chris Jericho, and though my love for Rocky has dissipated to a dread for his appearances as I’ve matured, the reasons for my initial love for him hasn’t changed. He was, and is, still an incredibly charismatic man, a prototypical athlete, and while not among the very best technical wrestlers, he knew how to put on the show perfectly. He was among the brightest stars of the fames ‘Attitude Era’, and though his act has grown stale (to my mind) for a 2013 audience, his star has only grown, becoming one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

Though I sympathise with the talking point of him ‘abandoning’ the business, I also believe that though he doesn’t show it all the time, he does have the business in his blood as a third-generational star. His return to the WWE to face John Cena in a series of blockbuster matches broke box office numbers and helped bring more positive eyes to the company. His career was relatively short, but he is truly perhaps the only wrestling star with a claim to being bigger than Hulk Hogan, and considering memorable matches and feuds with Triple H, Mankind, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and now John Cena, he is a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

Paul Bearer (William Alvin “Bill” Moody, 1954 – 2013)

Paul BearerAny mention of Paul Bearer must be prefaced, I think, by mention of his reputation as one of the nicest men in the business, and a sincere lover of wrestling. He was certainly dedicated to it, working in the business throughout his adult life, firstly as Percy Pringle III – a classic heel, loud, wealthy, flash, and bleached blonde who worked with and elevated several legendary talents such as Rick Rude, Lex Luger, “Stunning” Steve Austin, and eventually “Mean” Mark Calloway in federations like Florida Championship Wrestling and World Class Championship Wrestling.

He would work later again with Calloway, with a much darker character, with significantly more success as part of what people commonly consider the greatest wrestling gimmick of all time – The Undertaker. No one commands more respect than ‘The Phenom’ after his 20+ year career, but without the creepy, captivating mouthpiece of Bearer by his side, it’s hard to tell whether ‘Taker’s gimmick would be quite so convincing. Thanks to him, The Undertaker’s lack of natural charisma was covered up and replaced with carefully protected mythical mystique, the prop for which being his iconic urn. In his darker guise, Bearer was able to help guide The Undertaker, and later, Kane and Mankind to some of the greatest and most memorable moments in wrestling history. To that point, every wrestling fan of Bearer’s era is familiar with the image of Bearer holding the glowing urn aloft to give his charges power, and with the unmistakable sound of his accompanying “Ohhhhhh Yeeeeaaahhh!”.

His death took an emotional toll on fans and workers alike that when he passed, a tribute was demanded and happily given in the touching form of both Undertaker and Kane giving their familiar salute of respect to each other in the ring – a powerful angle which also helped birth one final angle between the Undertaker and upstart CM Punk. Even in death, Bearer was a part of the story – just as the old school wrestling fanatic would have wanted it.

“The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase
(Theodore Marvin “Ted” DiBiase, Sr, born 1954)
Ted DiBiase
For years I never fully appreciated the Million Dollar Man; considered him something of an ‘also ran’ who never really made it. For some reason though, I saw him in a new, more impressive light rewatching the 1992 Royal Rumble. Watching him stroll out smugly to his music, I really connected with the character like the people of the time would have – or close to it.

Though wealth and smugness were and are stalwart heel tendencies, The Million Dollar Man was a truly original gimmick, reflective of a moneyed era. To an audience still predominantly working class, this smug ‘Millionaire’ showed total disregard for them or the contests they came to see, using his privilege to undermine the wrestling contests by hiring a Virgil to help him cheat, buying a Million Dollar Championship, and later, the WWF Championship. He was a true original, a top star, and larger than life – in an era with big, larger than life stars.

DiBiase’s career spans further and wider than the Million Dollar Man, but with that, he became etched in the consciousness of pro wrestling.

“Ravishing” Rick Rude (Richard Erwin Rood, 1958 – 1999)
Rick Rude
Compared to the others on this list, Rude’s career in wrestling was relatively short, partly because he came to wrestling, and sadly due to his early demise – however, he achieved much in his short career.

Starting in the territories, and known for his incredible physique, Rude was managed by Percy Pringle III and feuded with The Road Warriors, Kevin Von Erich and even Jerry Lawler in Memphis, but it was in the WCW and WWF where Rude really cemented his legacy. As part of Bobby Heenan’s Family in the WWF he feuded famously with Jake Roberts, approaching his wife, berating her, and taunting Roberts by printing his wife’s face on his tights.  Moving to WCW he joined Paul Heyman’s Dangerous Alliance and feuded with Ricky Steamboat, Ron Simmons and Ric Flair. In his time in the two companies he won both the Intercontinental Championship and the United States Championship.

After a botched suicide dive, he was forced to prematurely retire in 1994. That didn’t keep him from the business though, becoming embroiled in the Attitude Era, famously appearing on both RAW and Nitro on the same night (thanks to RAW being taped), being a founding member of D Generation X and later joining the NWO. It was said that he was training to get back in to ring shape, but unfortunately, in 1999, he joined an overlong list of wrestlers dying young due to their lifestyle. Who knows if he could have made that return, but even without it, he made his legacy clear.

Betty Jo Niccoli (born 1946)
Betty Niccoli
An often overlooked female wrestler, perhaps overshadowed by Mae Young and The Fabulous Moolah, Betty Jo Niccoli was a truly war hardened, experienced wrestler.

She wrestled around the world, winning titles in several different places, becoming the AWA Women’s Championship, the NWA Women’s Championship as well as their Texas Women’s Championship. Like many battle-hardened male wrestlers, Niccoli travelled to Japan to wrestle for All Japan Pro Wrestling, even winning their Women’s Tag Team Championship.

Throughout her successes, Niccoli truly tried to progress the cause of Women’s wrestling, and became influential in lifting New York’s ban on women’s wrestling in the state before retiring in 1976.

Goal-Line Technology: The Right in Being Wronged

The original goal-line scandal in the final of the 1966 World Cup Final, credit to dailymail.co.uk

The original goal-line scandal – Hans Tilkowski watches Geoff Hurst’s shot after it clatters off the crossbar to the ground in the final of the 1966 World Cup Final, credit to dailymail.co.uk

In any sport, the idea is for the superior individual or team to use their superior talent and tactics to overcome challengers to win games, and ultimately, championships. That competition, and the conclusion where ‘the best team wins’ is surely the essence of sport in its purest sense, and so, equally surely, if anything gets in the way of that zenith, it should be unwelcome, right?

This is where, most recently, Bradford City fans would start to cough awkwardly, as their team were the protagonists in arguably the most feel-good story of British football this year, defying critics, better teams, and the odds to make the fabled trip to Wembley for the League Cup final. Not at all to diminish the Bantams’ achievement (indeed, to laud it more), with the best will in the world, Bradford City were certainly not the superior talent over most of the teams they defeated to get there which included no fewer than three Premier League teams. If sport was as narrowly deterministic as that first, ‘pure’ definition, then Bradford City would have no place in that game and the final would be just another Manchester derby for just another trophy. Bradford City, and fans of the countless teams with historic upsets under their belt, are surely very happy that their is more to sport than the best team winning. Immediately, this seems to have very little relation to the goal-line issue, but the relation starts to become clear when you realise why we treasure these moments so much, the reason why sport is a treasured arena rather than a bland annual talent contest – the story.

While a sportsman or team performing to their fullest and ‘reaching the mountaintop’ is a great, inspiring story, it is just one of almost countless stories; and though Bradford City’s success owes nothing to the lack of goal line technology, their story shows that there are interesting alternatives to stories of ‘pure’ sporting greatness. Bradford City’s was one of giant killing; underdogs bloodying their betters and giving unfulfilled fans something to finally cheer for but the stories seem countless – local rivals facing off for bragging rights in a match which would otherwise create few waves on the footballing world, former players returning to the grounds of their abandoned former team, a country in need of a confidence boost being provided with it by a big win. None of these stories require the best team to win, or amazing skill, and neither do they represent the full spectrum of stories. This is where Andy Kaufman, and his personal approach to entertainment comes in.

For every triumph like the one described, there is a victim or an antagonist – it must be so. What it is important to remember though, is that the horrible, sinking feeling, or anger in some cases, felt after being on the wrong end of a great sporting story, is no less valuable an experience. Andy Kaufman is a hero of mine in his originality, bravery, and commitment to his art, whatever you would describe his art to be. Notorious for never ever … ever breaking character (to the point where very few people actually have an idea of the real Andy Kaufman was like, and where many believe him to have faked his own death), you wont find an interview where Andy himself theorised on what he did. Thankfully, for those not well-enough versed in Kaufman to see it as self-evident, his best friend and sometimes writing partner, Bob Zmuda explains Andy’s approach to entertainment succinctly in in his book Andy Kaufman Revealed:

“It’s not that Andy disliked his audiences; on the contrary, he loved them, but he sought to redefine the relationship between a performer and the crowd before whom he or she stood. Andy’s goal was to foster an environment where neither the audience nor the performer had any expectations from one another. That sounds impractical, if not ridiculous – entertainers entertain – but on many occasions I saw Andy take the stage to face a happily expectant group only to leave then irritated, confused, angry, even infuriated. But never, ever bored. Even after he broomed the Improv with the full Gatsby routine, people returned to see what Kaufman was going to do next.”

Once again, you may ask what on Earth tis has to do with goal-line technology, but once again, the answer is closer than you think. While Andy Kaufman had his fair share of crowd-pleasing, funny routines which made his audience smile and laugh hysterically, he also believed that ‘entertainers’ only catered to a small part of the audiences needs by desperately trying to please them and be liked; he understood that confusion, despair and anger were incredibly valuable emotions to be encouraged as the very experience of emoting on such a high plain was something life-affirming and something much more memorable than sitting there half-chuckling at uninspired ‘routines’. It is said that Kaufman even enjoyed being angry – and it is certainly true that moments of fury can be a tonic for the senses, and even the catalyst for greatness (see CM Punk’s infamous ‘Pipebomb’ promo or Howard Beale’s ‘Mad as Hell’ monologue in the masterful movie ‘Network’). This is what we feel when we are on the wrong end of an officiating decision in football, or sport generally – fury, indignation, and an even more insatiable need for justice, be it later in that game, or in future games.

But one thing is for sure, those moments, captured in some of the most memorable snapshots in sporting history, are never forgotten. They are the source of righteous “what if” rants that give extra purpose to wronged supporters for years to come, as well as coy or even smug delight at ‘getting one over’ your rivals. Now imagine a world where these controversies are eliminated, where the fifth goal in the 66 final is just another goal, rather than still an unresolved topic of debate; or where England fans couldn’t still cling on to the notion that if Lampard’s goal against Germany in 2010 would have counted, it could have completely changed the game and it was just an impressive goal, forgotten about after the tournament. I think it would be pig-headed not to admit that something would be lost from the game in such circumstances.

Indignation over Lampard's non-goal, credit www.gizmodo.com.au

Indignation over Lampard’s non-goal, credit http://www.gizmodo.com.au

One of Kaufman’s most iconic characters was Tony Clifton, apparently based on a real person though this has never been verified, a broken down, has-been club singer with a penchant for offending the entire audience, there for a pleasant evening’s entertainment. In a particularly trollish part of his routine, the MC for the evening would ask that all patrons extinguish their cigarettes and cigars or else Tony would not perform due to his “delicate vocal chords”. After everyone had grudgingly done this (sometimes with expensive cigars), Clifton would burst out on stage with a cigarette in his mouth to begin a set of terrible singing and non-stop insults. While this is intentional bating, and the officials in these games make honest mistake, they are the objects for the same ire – the linesman at Wembley is Tony Clifton, the Uruguayan referee in 2010 is Tony Clifton just as Luis Suarez is Tony Clifton. They are infuriating, but they make the game far more interesting than it would be without them.

(The essence of Tony Clifton, sullying sleepy daytime television with his disgraceful behaviour)

And as ever, the story is king. For every wrong done to a team or sportsman comes an impetus for sweet justice, and it was perhaps the sweetest karma that 44 years after Geoff Hurst was awarded a goal that probably shouldn’t have been awarded against Germany, Frank Lampard’s goal against the Germans was not awarded. And surely the next times England face Germany, they would relish a similar decision in their favour as payback.

This, however, will not be possible, thanks to the onset of goal-line technology.

The science will outweigh the story, and the spectators. The lifeblood of football is the people. One of the reasons it is so beloved and followed is it’s simplicity, and how it can be played and enjoyed by basically anyone with a ball and some friends. You don’t need a special ball or goalposts to get the ‘full experience’ and it is indeed an earthy, human experience, prone to flashes of human brilliance, exemplified in the Messianic figure of Maradonna, flashes of human controversy, exemplified in the Messianic figure of Eric Cantona, and flashes of human fallibility in the not-so-Messianic figures of match officials. And though I’m not pretending that goal-line controversies are the be-all-and-end-all of this element of football, it is a much unwanted blot on its copybook. The idea of a piece of technology playing arbitrator in this human experience, and robbing us fans of such succulent stories so Sky Sports and ESPN can simultaneously add to the glitz of their presentation (they will no doubt have on-screen alerts whenever a goal is scored) while detracting from the talking points and punditry makes me feel very uneasy.

And while I realise the irony of championing controversy for the emotional effect it can have by trashing a controversy due to my emotional response, this isn’t the same – its the relentless marching of progress for progress’s sake. Once it is implemented, it will no longer be a source of debate, it will just be a source of resigned sadness for a sport which is being cleansed of its grubby parts which make it so interesting, and slowly becoming less and less a spectacle of and for people.

It’s The End of the World … As You Know it

The World of Wrestling blog, that is, and to quote Chris Jericho …

I was looking at this blog recently and was equally melancholic at how my work on it had slowed and eventually stopped, but also surprised at how (relatively) recent the last post was.

With the blog back at the forefront of my mind, I’ve had some ideas recently for articles about pop culture and sports, which also happen to be my two favourite things to think and write about. This is with thanks in large part to the rebirth of Luke Healey’s The Oyster’s Earrings (http://theoystersearrings.wordpress.com/), a blog which I have contributed to on numerous occasions, writing about those subject areas, wrestling included.

The problem with the upkeep of the World of Wrestling was the sheer regularity of events and cyclical nature of storylines, which necessitated regular updates; and while I love little more than writing about wrestling, the demanding nature of the undertaking made it feel less like a labour of love, and more like a chore.

However, inspired by new ideas and with a beloved vehicle lying dormant, the unlikely thought of ‘getting the band back together’ started forming. And this is where we are – ‘The Neon Idols’, so named with Paul Simon’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ in mind; a blog where I can write about interests in the world of pop culture and sport, including professional wrestling, whenever I have an idea as well as the time and inclination to do so.

So, after this state of the blog address, there will soon follow an inaugural Neon Idols post on the polarising and much debated topic of the introduction of goal-line technology to football competitions; and, using the unlikely idol of Andy Kaufman as inspiration, why I think it will steal just a bit of the universal sport’s soul.