This is a column about kayfabe. By this, I mean that I’m writing about magic, a very specific, working class, queer, dirty magic that has worked its way into the roots of my being since my first exposure to it. A kind of magic that feels like a curse sometimes, especially when it tries to deny that grit, which it should be proud of but so often isn’t. When wrestling fans talk about kayfabe, they’re usually talking a magic that does not exist beyond childhood (if it ever did at all): The distorted world that wrestlers and promoters create to give the illusion that the contests in the ring are real and for real things: Money, championships, respect. Cue the YouTube clip of a man in the bleachers in a high school gym, sobbing as he tells his heroes that wrestling is still real to him. Realize that he’s saying this because it isn’t, and that when people say things like this they mean it was better when they were younger, which either is or isn’t true of everything depending on how badly nostalgia rules your perception of culture.
The fact is this: We have always known that wrestling is fixed, and to pretend otherwise is, in 2015, to do an entire art form an injustice. Kayfabe, then, isn’t so much about how the world of wrestling is so much as how it is seen by those observing it. There’s no strict definition because every fan and performer has their own, a thing that works for them and nobody else. For me, kayfabe is a vibe. For me, kayfabe is less the feeling that wrestling is or can be real than it is about the struggle to tell a good story or craft a good poem despite the limitations of form, which is the limitations of the human body, which is the struggle. That is what this column is about, but I’m calling it Shoot Fight as a reference to another way of talking about wrestling in terms of its realness or fakeness. A work is something that’s planned, part of the show. A shoot is anything that isn’t, whether that be an injury, an angry wrestler saying something he shouldn’t into a live microphone, or any strike that isn’t pulled. But that kind of realness is too literal for me and is often contrived to draw attention to the product. Shoots, then, are often works. Here, a shoot is something that makes it impossible for me to turn away from a wrestling match. A fight is a struggle. This is a column about kayfabe. This is a column about magic.
In 1997, Hulk Hogan is evil. He wears black and leads a gang that uses spray paint to tag what’s theirs: title belts, the ring, the flesh of their fallen opponents. It’s a hot storyline, drawing record numbers of viewers to pro wrestling, and every broadcast they appear on ends in their so-called New World Order standing in the ring while the crowd pelts them with garbage. The genius of the “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan character was in the portrayal of a shredded demi-god, a man who had felled communism, natural disasters, and otherwise dark nights of the soul, as a sniveling coward. Once, an old woman took a swing at him. In World Championship Wrestling, the Hogan/Piper feud that launched Hulkamania for the rival WWF in the 1980s was flipped, Hogan becoming the heel to Piper’s roguish hero. Halloween Havoc was the temporary end of a feud that began on MTV with Cyndi Lauper and ended with Hulk Hogan beating up a fan.
Between those two points, over twelve years, Mr. T got involved, Roddy Piper spoke in tongues and swam in the ocean off of Alcatraz Island, and Piper managed to beat Hogan clean on several occasions, which was not something that happened often. It’s easy to think of Roddy Piper now as this macho relic of the 1980s, sunglasses-clad and murdering aliens in a bank because he’s all out of bubblegum to chew, but he possessed of a kind of magnetism that’s hard to describe, everyman… but not. In 1997 he was appearing as a born-again Christian wrestler in reruns of Walker Texas Ranger and on WCW Monday Nitro talking about his knee replacement in interviews designed to build to his matches against the Hulkster, but when he said that what WCW needed was a real man, fans responded to that loudly. When he beat Hogan, putting him down with a sleeper hold, the fans responded to that, too. Folks with a long view of wrestling history often claim it was a fatal mistake for WCW to rely so heavily on men like Piper and Hogan to sell tickets, but that’s a hindsight thing. The cage match at Halloween Havoc drew terrible reviews, but it worked. Listen to that crowd when the referee counts Hogan out. They’re eating it up.
Hogan playing the role of coward is essential context because, despite his lawsuit against Gawker over a sex tape, despite his racism and effort to mitigate that on morning television, the image of Hulk Hogan that persists in culture is that of the hero. But in 1997 fans wanted to fight him. Or they wanted someone who could fight him for them. You’d think that might be Piper, given his superhuman ability to defeat Hulk Hogan, but in reality that man was Sting, a dejected WCW icon who had taken to painting his face like Brandon Lee in The Crow and rappelling to the ring from the rafters, where he would fight eight, nine men at a time with his baseball bat. He wanted to fight Hogan, the dark image of 90s heroism against the dark image of 90s villainy, but Hogan was running scared. At Halloween Havoc 1997, the story was that Hogan would refuse to wrestle Piper in a cage unless WCW could guarantee that the mercurial man in the rafters wouldn’t be in the arena at all. Hogan got his wish, but was psychologically tested (really stretch your ability to believe this) by the presence of a bunch of people who kind of looked like Sting because they were wearing trenchcoats and Sting merchandise. One of these lookalikes enters the cage and is attacked by Randy Savage, who interferes on Hogan’s behalf, but all of this is, as we say, a work. The shoot, if that’s what it was, is this: A fan jumps the guardrail, climbs the steel cage, and tries to rescue Roddy Piper. He’s painted like Sting, the hero, because of course he is. He is beaten mercilessly by Hogan and Savage, the two biggest names in wrestling, because of course he is.
I think of this moment frequently. It sticks out to me more than most matches I really enjoy. I thought of it recently, sought it out, because something I saw from the fourth row of a local wrestling show shook it loose from my memory. A drunk dude jumped a guardrail. This happens all the time, maybe once every three or four weeks. A person in the audience is bored or hammered or trying to impress their friends, so they jump the rail. At a World Wrestling Entertainment show, this person is usually tackled immediately by security and taken to jail without anybody noticing. This is indie wrestling, though, and there’s no security. In the ring, there’s a wrestler—some sweaty straight-edge type with a green-tipped Mohawk, a man who had earlier done a no-look backwards leap from the top of a basketball hoop—and he’s snarling about something the drunk dude had said, spitting at him, egging him on. The fan thinks it’s all a joke—the wrestler’s anger, wrestling itself. He’s smiling as he slides into the ring, maybe thinking about a photo op, but before he can stand, the wrestler crushes his head with one black leather wrestling boot.
The fan at Halloween Havoc 1997: he’s someone whose name I don’t know, someone whose story is unknown to me. After the match, with Roddy Piper victorious but handcuffed to the steel cage, the producers cut away from the action where a camera catches him leaping the guardrail to climb the cage structure. There is nobody there to stop him. Nobody has mentioned him since. It takes another act of wrestler-on-fan violence to kick up his ghost, or the ghost of his ghost. He exists as an afterimage now, a footnote. “We are desperately out of time,” one of the announcers says as security pulls Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage off of a person for whom time is frozen, but what does it mean to live forever in a minute the world has forgotten?
I’m stretching a bit here, but wrestler-on-fan violence dates back to the origins of the sport. Matches were first held at carnivals and fair, exhibition bouts featuring a traveling “hooker,” a legitimate toughman who could torture joints and break bones with an array of simple submission holds. Laymen would pay admission to fight this grappler, hoping to last three minutes to win a cash prize. There were regular Joes who could give the hooker a run for that money, but usually even the best audience member could be grappled over to a side of the ring that was curtained off from the crowd. There, someone else would club the challenger secretly with a blackjack or a billy club, preserving the hooker’s reputation and ensuring that the house always won. As wrestling moved out of traveling tent shows and into major sports arenas, this kind of fan interaction evolved. Newspapers made a big deal about wrestling being phony. Fans were passionate about the subject of wrestling’s legitimacy, and promoters, passionate about the money those fans brought to the show, encouraged their men to play their characters outside the ring at all times. Wrestlers would start and win fights at the bars. Journalists, when they were interested in wrestling, often encountered the surliest looking man on the roster, someone who’d slap the shit out of them for presuming that wrestling was “fake.” You can look them up: Dr. D. David Schultz slapping John Stossel, Big Van Vader menacing the host of Good Morning Kuwait while on tour in that country. Hulk Hogan even made Richard Belzer pass out in a sleeper hold once. All in the interest of “protecting the business.”
But fans that stick around for a while don’t care if wrestling is fake or if the moves hurt. They can be riled up or made to cry or, at the very least, made to buy a ticket, which is all any promoter worth his salt cares about. Still, listening to some wrestlers talk, listening to some wrestling fans talk, there’s no end of nostalgia for certain time periods or territories, the 1970s in Memphis or Louisiana or Texas, the National Wrestling Alliance of the mid 1980s. A lot of wrestlers talk about the scars they picked up from their encounters with fans who were carrying chains or knives or worse, run-ins with old women who’d stick them with their hatpins and cackle with glee while high-fiving everybody around her. If you were a member of the Fabulous Freebirds and you used hair cream to blind the Junkyard Dog, preventing him from seeing the birth of his first daughter, well, the Louisiana Superdome was probably the least safe place on earth to be. But they went there, brother, and they survived the spit and the epithets and the broken bottles. They laugh about it now, evidence that they did their jobs well.
Having a fan jump the rail in 2015, or in 1997, or, really, in any era, seems proof of a masterwork, ring artistry that is unparalleled and mostly impossible, given that we’re all in on the act. There are idiots who look at professional wrestlers—muscle-bound, scarred, missing teeth—from their seat way up in the upper bowl of an NBA arena and think Man, I could take that guy, but those people are almost never the ones who jump the rail. Sometimes the people jumping the rail are just seeking attention. Sometimes they are brave and deluded. Sometimes, they actually make it into the ring before security can touch them. They have a special destiny, these people who are drawn to the choreographed illusion before them, and what happens next is beyond their control.
The thing of is, Halloween Havoc 1997 is actually a really good wrestling show; boredom isn’t an excuse. One of the matches, a mask vs. title match between Rey Mysterio, Jr. and Eddie Guerrero, is one of the most influential matches of the past twenty years. Randy Savage and Diamond Dallas Page put on a good show in a “Sudden Death Match” where nobody died. The main event, if nothing else, contains the spectacular visual of Savage leaping from the top of the cage into the ring to interfere on Hogan’s behalf. WCW cards were structured like this so that fans felt like they got something for their money, even if the big payoff—the vanquishing of Hogan—was never going to happen. Most times, watching a fan get in the ring, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in seeing security tackle him before he touches a performer, in knowing that he’ll be spending a night in jail for rupturing the liminal space between the ring and the stands. But it’d been a year since Hogan went sour and started calling himself “Hollywood” because he’d been the star of such films as Mr. Nanny and Santa with Muscles. They’d teased and teased and teased that somebody—anybody—from World Championship Wrestling would be able to cut the head from the snake that was the New World Order, and, finally, Roddy Piper had managed to do it. He won clean, despite Randy Savage and despite the chaos and turmoil that surrounded the cage, and for his trouble he found himself handcuffed and whipped and otherwise punished. Somebody had to do something, and somebody did.
The key narrative element of the match being the presence of a gaggle of fake Stings, it’s understandable how security lets a fan wearing Sting face paint jump the barricade. It’s easy to understand why “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, from his place at the announcer’s table, loses sight of what is happening. “YES! YES! YES!” he cheers, watching that fan scale the cage. What the fan hopes to accomplish here is clear. After his moment of triumph, Hogan and Savage handcuff Piper and are beating him mercilessly. Sting, the only man capable of saving him, is true to his word and is not in the building. Nobody else is coming to help. The camera follows that fan’s every move because even the people in charge can’t tell what’s real and what’s fake here. Everything is real and nothing is fake. Everything is fake and nothing is real.
I’ve thought about this scene was planned or not a lot since I was nine-years-old, but I’ve never wanted to ruin the illusion, if that’s what it is, that this fan was acting purely out of passion. World Championship Wrestling played ringside security a little looser than World Wrestling Entertainment ever did, constantly testing the boundary between the ring and the fans. Beyond the Stings in the audience tonight, there’s a stable of alt-rock rejects-cum-wrestlers who sit at ringside during matches. Diamond Dallas Page celebrates his victories by going out into the crowd. Clip after clip of interviews during this time feature perfectly aimed beverages flying from the stands into the faces of those who would abuse our heroes. Here, there’s a camera in position to catch the fan jumping. The live editing almost makes the whole thing seem like a set-up. Hogan puts on a Sting mask and laughs, preparing to whip Piper. We cut to ringside, where a cameraman is out of position for everything except the fan in his face paint. If he’s a plant, why is he dressed differently from the other plants? If he’s a fan, why is the camera on him?
It doesn’t matter, I suppose. I love this kid, this fan who hasn’t aged a day since 1997, this boy who is wedged forever in this moment that is his and not his, who tried to do something on behalf of all of us, who tried to help we who were helpless. I love that there is no hesitation in his motion. He begins climbing the cage. He slips. He continues to climb. He reaches the floor and is tackled by the planned fake Sting, pinned against the cage for his own safety. Hogan and Savage take notice of the situation and begin to beat up the fan. Watch any punch Hulk Hogan throws in his career. Watch the one he levels this child with. There’s no cartoon exaggeration here, just a 24-inch python striking some nobody armed with greasepaint and his courage. Security gets involved, but Savage won’t let go. Hogan kicks the fan in the ribs while the announcers remark upon the situation, trying to keep some balance between the storyline that’s happening with Hogan, Savage, and Piper and this scene with the fan, something that will never go commented upon again.
Real? Fake? I don’t care. I feel for this kid the same way Neko Case feels for the child at the bus stop in “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” His situation is so unbelievable, so fucked up, that I just want to say that it happened. If you’re out there and you’re telling the story of how you got your ass kicked by Hulk Hogan and the Macho Man, I believe you because it happened. And if you’re wondering, nearly twenty years later, how differently things may have played out had Roddy Piper not been handcuffed to the cage, know that he would have punched you, too. You can’t play the hero for your heroes.