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The Masked Man on Sheamus, Chris Benoit's death and why wrestling is art

“The thing that people bring up is that wrestling’s fake, as if that’s some kind of insult, but that’s actually the most interesting thing about it.”

Dwyane 'The Rock' Johnson competes against John Cena at WrestleMania XXVIII
Dwyane 'The Rock' Johnson competes against John Cena at WrestleMania XXVIII

THERE ARE THOUSANDS of wrestling writers on the internet, but few if any have come close to emulating the success of David Shoemaker (or The Masked Man, as he is known to his fans).

His columns for Deadspin and Grantland have attracted in excess of one million views, with his ‘Dead Wrestler of the Week’ articles, in which he assesses the legacy of stars whose lives ended often in tragic and premature circumstances, proving particularly popular. His success subsequently led to a book deal with Gotham, encompassing writings inspired by his original columns. All of which is not bad going at all for someone who is not primarily a journalist — Shoemaker works a book designer when he’s not giving his thoughts on wrestlers past and present.

The book that has subsequently emerged, The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling, will come as a refreshing antidote to fans frustrated with the snide manner in which wrestling is consistently looked upon by sections of the mainstream media. The intelligent fashion in which Shoemaker writes provides an illuminating view of the oft-overlooked complexity of wrestling, and in particular, its behind-the-scenes politics.

“I started off writing several years ago about the wrestlers who I grew up watching as a kid who were dying at what seemed like a pretty unfortunate pace,” Shoemaker tells TheScore.ie. “At first I was just paying tribute to them but it then became a bigger passion to explore the distance between these superheroes on the TV screen and the mere mortals that they were in real life.

“When a celebrity dies it’s always sad, but when a wrestler died it seemed almost impossible to me, because of the way I’d interacted with them and idolised them as a kid.

“The writing led to this book. At first, it was just going to be a series of essays about wrestlers. My publisher wanted it to be a much bigger book and we sort of met in the middle, where I told the history of professional wrestling mostly through these character sketches and placing the wrestlers in the time period.”

“I had to do a lot of research, and I had to reconstruct these giant swabs of wrestling history starting around 1900, and that research was incredibly fun and incredibly revealing to me. It just all ties in to that same interest I had in exploring the distance between the real and the unreal and trying to make sense of it all.”

Moreover, one eye-catching description of the book in question reads as follows: “Through the brawling, bombast, and bloodletting, Shoemaker argues that pro wrestling can teach us about the nature of performance, audience, and, yes, art.” Some critics may be skeptical about the placement of the words ‘wrestling’ and ‘art’ in the same sentence, but Shoemaker is insistent that the two are inextricably connected.

“The most difficult thing with wrestling when you’re trying to place it in a context is that there is very little context. There’s nothing else like it that’s half sport and half performance. You don’t have to call it a sport if you don’t want to, but there are many other things that are sports that have less athletic endeavour at their core.

“But you do have to acknowledge that it’s an incredible performance. It’s scripted, it’s beloved by millions of people and it’s an art form. It doesn’t have to be high art for it to be art. It’s still a really timeless, transcendent way of working out these hero myths.

“In the book, I compare it to a lot of ancient Greek theatre, to the passion plays all over Europe in the medieval ages — that stuff is art and it’s part of wrestling’s background. That’s what it grew out of in many ways or what it was informed by. I think it’s crazy not to think of it as an art form. It doesn’t mean that every match is a Michelangelo, but it does mean that people are entertained. Shakespeare was writing his plays for the lower classes to enjoy originally, and that’s sort of what wrestling is now for us too.”

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(A police car is parked outside the house of WWE professional wrestler Chris Benoit after he was found dead – John Amis/AP/Press Association Images)

Yet while wrestling may be art, there have been times in recent years where the harsh nature of reality has impacted upon its fantastical world. In his book, Shoemaker writes insightfully on Chris Benoit — a high-profile WWE star who, in June 2007, murdered his wife and child before killing himself. This tragic event rocked all those associated with the company and its ramifications are still conspicuous to this day.

Benoit’s name and matches have been removed from DVDs, with the WWE effectively attempting to wipe him out of their history. However, since the tragedy, while fans still struggle to feel any sympathy for the late wrestler, a greater picture has emerged of the conditions that prompted him to commit murder.

In addition to excessive steroid use, doctors said that his brain at the time of death resembled that of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient. It seems Benoit had suffered from years of unprotected chair shots to the head and flying headbutts — with the latter being one of his signature moves.

Hence, Shoemaker explains how, understandably, the WWE is still more than a little uncomfortable with his legacy and the issue of how to handle it.

“Time will tell to what degree he is politely acknowledged to be more than just a murderer,” he explains. “It’s easy to take exception to the way he’s treated by the WWE — a lot of fans think it’s crazy that they don’t say his name and stuff, but I’d disagree with that. What’s hard is wrestling with the legacy of someone who so obviously betrayed us — murdering his wife and child is worse than his betrayal of the fans, but from the perspective I’m writing as a fan, it’s so hard to wrap your mind around it.

“And you see that with the people he knew well. His good friends in wrestling — Chavo Guerrero, Chris Jericho, they can’t wrap their minds around it either. It makes sense why the WWE have been reluctant to acknowledge his existence at all, it’s just too complex, especially this soon — it’s been years, but to be making that kind of decision as to how he’s going to be treated… I think there will be increasing complexity — a separation of him as an in-ring performer and a monster at the end of his life in reality.

“There’s no shortage of guys in the wrestling world who were less than angels outside of the ring — and we can still talk about their in-ring accomplishments and their in-ring skill. But I think in so many ways, Chris Benoit was the tragedy that the wrestling industry was careering towards for such a long time. It’s disgusting the way he ended his life, but there’s implicit guilt in the way you cheered him on for so long as he took the head shots with the chairs and jumped off the top rope head first — that damage he did to himself is partially what brought about the tragic ending. It’s a difficult subject, but I guess if you treat it honestly, it won’t ever be too exploitative.”


YouTube credit: Strombo

Yet encouragingly, Shoemaker believes the WWE have taken significant steps to protect its athletes and address issues such as concussion since the Benoit tragedy.

“The wellness policy has seemed to help a lot, as has the concussion policy. The fact that they’re holding top-level guys out of matches to deal with concussion issues is really great. And they’ve donated a lot of money for research and CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] and that sort of thing.

“They’re taking really good steps and they’re very aware at this point that without a major competitor like WCW was back in the day, first of all, it’s on them to be the benevolent organisation, but they’ve also realised that their greatest asset is the well being of their wrestlers. To take care of that is not just an important thing for their legacy and humanitarianism, but also just for the bottom line.”

The considerable damage suffered to athletes such as Benoit, who put their bodies on the line on a weekly basis, makes it easy to understand why most wrestlers take exception to their feats being derided as ‘fake’ — a criticism that epitomises the lack of respect reserved for professional wrestling in general. Yet, if anything, Shoemaker believes that this characteristic can construed as a strength rather than a weakness.

“The thing that people bring up is that wrestling’s fake, as if that’s some kind of insult, but that’s actually the most interesting thing about it.

“There’s a story at the beginning of the book about Grantland Rice, who’s a legendary sportswriter who had a weekly column that was syndicated all over America at the beginning of the 2oth century. He put a little tidbit about a wrestling match he went to at the beginning of one of his columns — not trying to say it was real or fake — it was just a passing note he put in.

“Then he heard from his editors that he couldn’t have wrestling on the front of the sports pages because people would get mad. And that’s part of the problem — there’s not a natural place for it. I’m lucky that I write for Grantland.com, because it’s a sports and pop culture website, so there’s not really that question.

“But what inspired me to think that you could write well about wrestling was finding guys who were writing on their own personal blogs or websites and doing it well, and understanding that there’s a smart way to look at wrestling. And talking about people who might have said negative things about it in the past — they probably still would.”

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(WWE owner Vince McMahon, pictured in 2007 — AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Of course, it was only in the 1980s when figures such as current WWE owner Vince McMahon began publicly admitting that wrestling was fake, yet as Shoemaker explains, it was not exactly a well-kept secret even then.

“I found numerous citations from the 1920s and 30s where writers and fans were basically openly discussing whether wrestling was real or fake,” he says.

“The foundation that wrestling is built upon is the agreement between the fans and the wrestlers that we’re all going to proceed as if it’s real, just for the sake of enjoying it. That doesn’t mean they don’t understand that what they’re saying is a put-on in many ways.

“But when Vince McMahon publicly started using the phrase ‘sports entertainment,’ it made a huge change — not so much from a fan’s point of view, because they were on to it before — but just from a storytelling point of view. These simple morality plays that were so prevalent before stopped making sense to the same degree that they did.”

And speaking of McMahon, at 68, most people his age are planning their retirement. Isn’t it time he starts acting accordingly?

“He’s never going to retire, but there may be a point where he’s more content to take a backseat, if he’s comfortable with Triple H or Stephanie or whoever driving the ship a little bit more. But I have no doubt that he’ll be sitting behind the curtain at every pay-per-view and every RAW until he’s physically unable to sit there anymore. That’s just the nature of wrestling promoters — a lot of them work until the very end.

“It’s also undeniable that Vince is one of these singular, impressario geniuses. He’s driven by competition to such an extent that to top himself is a competition. [He wants] to beat the reaper and keep going, and I have every bit of faith that he will keep going as long as he can.”

However, for all McMahon’s persistence, professional wrestling’s popularity has declined to a degree in recent times. Many fans have complained of the lack of new megastars in the mold of The Rock or Hulk Hogan. Why does Shoemaker think they have been unable to replicate the success of these characters?

“Part of it is being hamstrung by the internet and by reality. You can’t have these incredibly outsized characters, unless they really reflect what people know to be true from their real lives and from backstage and things like that, which takes the volume down on these guys.

“The other thing is that to have a really transcendent star like The Rock or Steve Austin or whoever, there’s got to be a confluence of a lot of different factors. One is the wrestlers themselves — you can’t teach the sort of charisma that Austin or The Rock had, they’re just singular sorts of stars. But also, those guys became famous in really odd moments of history where they had the competition with WCW that was pushing both of them over and above.

“And in America, it has to do with technology, where Hulk Hogan got over so big because all of a sudden, there was cable TV looking for content, and the WWF and Hogan were there. Just like in the 50s, we had Gorgeous George and people like that who became huge because that was the first TV we had. I think that it’s a cyclical process where wrestling ebbs and flows, but there’s no one reason why there aren’t guys like Austin now. I just think you have to hope it’ll come back again.”

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(Sheamus attends the WWE SummerSlam — Tammie Arroyo / AFF-USA.COM/AFF/EMPICS Entertainment)

One current wrestler that Shoemaker believes has the potential to gain legendary status is Ireland’s own Sheamus. However, he must first navigate a number of possible stumbling blocks.

“Apparently, he’s ready to return from injury pretty soon. I think we’ll learn a lot based on the way he’s positioned right away. It’s undeniable that he’s one of WWE’s biggest stars. From my perspective, I’m 35 years old, I’ve been watching wrestling my whole life, there are a lot of people like me who want to like him but have been a little bit put off by the degree to which he’s marketed towards kids. You see a lot of that in John Cena, but it seems with Sheamus, they’re shoehorning him into the kids market and making him be friendly and funny, when that’s not as intrinsic a part of his personality or his character as it is for Cena.

“He has an incredible look that will take him a long way for as long as he wants to wrestle and he’s got all the ingredients to be a legend in wrestling. One of the biggest things in wrestling is health and longevity and also the way your character evolves as the years go on — a lot of it is still left to be discovered.”

In addition to having to embrace and develop new stars such as Sheamus, another considerable challenge the WWE have had to adapt to in recent years is the internet, with constant speculation about what may or may not be going on backstage and endless supposed spoilers for various events being made available online.

“When I was at Wrestlemania in Miami a couple of years ago, I was standing next to a six-year-old kid — one of the youngest kids you’d bring to a wrestling match, and he was talking about backstage rumours on the internet about why somebody was going to show up or not.

“It’s fun when the wrestlers [reference the rumours] — it gives you a little thrill as a wrestling fan — but whether they mention it or not is beside the point — so many wrestling fans are plugged in now.

“But you could say that about fans of any TV show, who are reading spoilers online, casting rumours and all that kind of stuff.

“The interaction between the crowd and the wrestlers is vital. And now the crowd know so much about what is allegedly going on backstage — that’s how we interact, not just seeing what we’re doing but trying to see what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s a really multi-layered and incredibly intriguing enterprise.”


YouTube credit: phille rouan

And Shoemaker, arguably more than anyone else, has capitalised on this burgeoning online market for wrestling analysis, providing an eloquent and insightful voice amid the cacophony of noise.

But what is it exactly that has distinguished him from the crowd and enabled his work to attract over one million page views, amid competition from countless other bloggers with similar predilections?

“I’ve been lucky enough to write for non-traditional wrestling outlets. But what I think it shows is that there is this incredible mainstream audience for professional wrestling. A lot of the people who read what I wrote for Deadspin and what I write for Grantland now are people who don’t currently watch wrestling — they watched it at some point but have drifted away. They’re still fans enough to engage with a well-written piece about it.”

He continues: “I take it seriously and I don’t try to talk down to my audience. I try to bring them up though I don’t know if wrestling itself could ever duplicate that approach.

“It’s pretty obvious from what success that I have had that there’s a big audience of wrestling fans that don’t see anything for them in the current product. But the upshot is that there is a way to address wrestling intelligently. I’m not the only guy doing that by a long shot, but hopefully the success I’ve had is evidence for them.”

And finally, does he have a favourite wrestler?

“My all-time favourite is Macho Man Randy Savage… He was so compelling as both a face and a heel. I’ll also put in Curt Henning, Mr Perfect. Because both of those were the guys I remember liking and not understanding why. I was so young that I always rooted for the babyface, even when they were heels.

“I went back to do research on Macho Man when I was writing about him — you can go on YouTube now (see clips above) and look at all the promos he did, they were so great. Even before the WWF days, you realise that in the ring and on the microphone, he was working on a higher level than just about everybody else. It was so compelling — you just couldn’t take your eyes off him. That’s what being a wrestling star is all about — it’s about being a superstar, not just an athlete. And it’s about having that weird innate charisma.

“The way he took advantage of interviews with Mean Gene Okerlund and played to the camera in the ring — Hogan was doing that too. But you asked me before when is wrestling art — when the Macho Man was on the screen, that was art.”

The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling is published by Gotham Books. More details here.

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