Wrestling and nostalgia
Nostalgia is a powerful thing in any entertainment business, but in wrestling it takes on a deeper meaning. As an industry, professional wrestling tends to look back at previous decades with the rosiest of lenses, and since WWE owns pretty much every major American wrestling tape library, the promotion even has the freedom to rewrite history to be even rosier than folks might remember. This is an extraordinary tool, and WWE rarely forgets that they have a dozen old Aces up their sleeve. But as powerful as nostalgia can be, I have to wonder about how WWE made use of its Legends and Hall of Famers this week on a special retro-themed SmackDown.
Aside from the obvious (big muscley dudes in tight clothes hitting one another as part of a serialized story), wrestling has a lot in common with comic books. One big point of comparison for me has always been the fact that there’s nothing anyone likes more than something they remember from their childhood making a comeback. This is true in any form of entertainment to a degree, but given the fanatic nature of both comics and wrestling fanbases, it’s an instinct that is amped up to an extreme level in these two (totally awesome) mediums.
But unlike comics, where Spider-Man can be just as young and agile as he was when he was created back in 1962, wrestlers have the unfortunate luck to grow old, get fat and die – just like the rest of us. This lends a certain sadness to the appearance of any wrestling Legend, because you can’t help but compare the performer to his younger self, and the sadness is compounded by the fact that in many cases, wrestlers’ aging has been sped along by travel, poor life choices, drugs and alcohol, or just getting the bejeezus kicked out of him for decades on end – all of which are direct results of their line of work, and their desire to entertain folks like you and me.
So, when WWE trots out Sgt. Slaughter, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “Hacksaw” Jim Dugan or even Mae Young, I laugh and smile like everyone else, but there’s always a lingering core of despair about the proceedings. In a very real way, you’re watching old men try and recapture their glory days, which are oftentimes decades behind them. The feeling even extends to younger performers, because as good as the Undertaker still is, the man is showing his age, and at a certain point, most sane people will start feeling bad about the middle-aged guy putting himself through hell to give you a good show. And the situation is even worse with guys like Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair, who insist on wrestling even though they’ve already given wrestling fandom more than enough.
While wrestling nostalgia is a powerful tool, and can be leveraged for some great results (see: the Undertaker/Triple H Hell in a Cell match from WrestleMania XXVIII), it’s one that has to be used sparingly and in ways that minimize the inherent moroseness that comes from watching guys who used to be renowned for their bodies, appearance and physical abilities. Otherwise, you end up with shows like this week’s SmackDown, which despite some pretty entertaining stuff, left me thinking about pretty much one single thing: Just how old everyone is.