There is a line in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters where Frederick, a crusty, hermetically shut-in intellectual played by Max Von Sydow (clearly standing in for his crusty, hermetically shut-in creator) cites professional wrestling in a litany of all of the horrible things he sees when he turns on his television. 57 channels and nothing’s on, as Bruce Springsteen might say, except that Frederick probably doesn’t listen to the Boss. (Also that song wouldn’t be written for another six years. I’m not an idiot, I’m just trying to make a point.)
"Can you imagine," he asks his live-in-mentee-slash-fuckbuddy Lee (Barbara Hershey), "the level of a mind that watches wrestling?"
Hannah and Her Sisters goes out of its way to savage forms of cultural expression other than Cole Porter: "they look like they’re going to stab their mothers," observes Allen’s onscreen surrogate about a punk group at CBGB’s. Frederick’s criticism of wrestling is a rhetorical throwaway, lent extra gravitas coming from a guy who was smart enough to play chess with Death (a scenario parodied in Woody’s 2005 play Death Knocks, which substitutes gin rummy for chess and Kew Gardens for Medieval Sweden). In truth, it’s not that Frederick (or Woody Allen) can’t imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling; they just don’t want to.
This aversion is a missed opportunity for guys whose fondest wish would be to lord their intellect over everybody else. Being demonstrably smart about supposedly stupid things is a fundamental tenet of contemporary academia, which is forever trying to strip-mine the superculture for rich ore of meaning. When I was in grad school at the University of Toronto, I had a film studies professor who, in addition to publishing work on race and representation in American cinema, edited a collection of essays called Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling. I went and bought it as quickly as I could. It’s a pretty good book whose contributors take pains—and precious little pleasure—to be as thoughtful and erudite as possible on their subject, writing not as fans but detached chroniclers thinking through the implications of an entertainment form that obliges its patrons to check their brains at the door. ("Arguments that swell over the simple fluff and shallow violence and pry deeper into the wet, sticky blood of the antagonists," promises one notable blurb,"...an unparalleled look at the cultural interaction wrestling has with history and the world.") Not only can this well-tenured roll call of writers and deep thinkers imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling, they can sympathize and even identify with it.
There is a long tradition of writing about sports from a cultural or sociological perspective, but because sports are unpredictable—because they’re competitive and uncertain in terms of their actual outcome—they tend to be more interestingly handicapped or reported on than analyzed in terms of their "deeper" meaning or themes. ESPN’s recent MJ hagiography The Last Dance is an example of trying to imbue sports journalism with mythic significance. I liked seeing Gary Payton talk shit but on the whole, it did not get there.
Steel Chair to the Head features a piece by wrestling superfan Roland Barthes, whose 1957 essay "The World of Wrestling" is ground zero for an intellectual approach to the subject, unfurling its argument with speed and clarity. It argues that professional wrestling—as opposed to amateur wrestling, with its direct links to ancient, Olympian tradition—is a craft integrating athletics and theatre. In the late 1950s, as pro wrestling migrated onto television, it was easier—and more urgent—to consider its popularity and presentation as narrative spectacle. Barthes’ essay is filled with talk of heroes and villains, victory, defeat, each as a form of specialized ritual; of expectations set up and fulfilled, or else cruelly dashed so as to whet the spectator’s appetite for a more satisfying finish in the next match, or on the next card. "Wrestling," Barthes writes, "presents man’s suffering with all of the amplifications of tragic masks." This rather epic conception sounds pretty good to my adult self even as it describes what I know I was responding to more naturally—and maybe more honestly—as a seven-year-old dragging my Dad to Maple Leaf Gardens to watch Demolition defend their tag team titles against The Colossal Connection: a desire to to see the good guys win.
There are a lot of ways to "win" in professional wrestling. (I am excluding from the following inventory any kind of "moral victory," which could be the subject of a completely different essay should Steel Chair to the Head 2 ever become a thing.) The most common and decisive "finish" in a wrestling match is a pinfall, whereby one wrestler pins the other’s shoulders to the mat for a count of three (or incapacitates him/her so that getting up before the third count is not a possibility). There are also submissions, where one wrestler applies a hold that compels the other to tap out (in an "I Quit" match, this humiliation is made mandatory). Less definitively, a match can end in a count-out (a wrestler is stranded outside the ring for 10 seconds), or a disqualification (a wrestler breaks the rules). These two outcomes can also be doubled to affect both participants at the same time and are generally considered to be disappointing.
Within the staged, scripted reality of professional wrestling—a reality commonly referred to in the business as "kayfabe" for reasons that have rarely been well elucidated in terms of etymology—these rules are inviolable and administered by officially appointed referees. Barthes famously writes that wrestling, like theatre, is based on a sign system, and that every wrestler does his part to signify within it; their physiques, their gestures, and their characterizations must be precise, they must (literally) embody "absolute clarity, since the spectator must always understand everything on the spot." And this is no less true—and arguably even more crucial—in the case of referees, since they must embody that same clarity in the service of seeming like they understand nothing. A lot of the time, the confusion of the pro wrestling referee is what lends absolute clarity to the drama unfolding around him.
Within the context of kayfabe, pro wrestling referees are worse at their job than any other group of employees imaginable. Their incompetence is so predictable, in fact, that professional wrestling in all its iterations, from the mainstream spectacle presented weekly on television by the WWE to the independent bingo-hall circuit dramatized in Darren Aronofsky’s tragicomic film The Wrestler (2008), is unthinkable without it. Professional wrestling referees make a habit of missing things that their jobs should require them to catch. All the time. At the beginning of some matches, the referee will theatrically search the grapplers’ tights for foreign objects or other verboten items. This only happens when one of the wrestlers is hiding something, and only ever ends with the revelation that the referee’s search failed to discover the item in question—call it Chekhov’s roll of quarters.
When the referee’s back is turned—which happens a lot, in a lot of different ways, some more credible than others—or when he is unconscious (which also happens a lot, in a lot of different ways, some more credible than others)—the object will be used to gain a decisive advantage for the cheating party. And then the referee will turn around just in time to obliviously render a tainted three-count. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of variations on this basic, dramatic irony drenched scenario, and each of these has its own counter-variations (the cheating is discovered; the signs of cheating are wrongly attributed to the wrong wrestler and he is disqualified), but it remains the primal scene of modern professional wrestling. Something happens that is outside of the rules of the match, and everybody in the arena—ninety thousand people in the Pontiac silverdome or 250 people in a public-school gymnasium—knows it. Except, of course, for the referee, whose job it is to know, and who apparently has learned nothing from his past failures.
In reality, the job of a professional wrestling referee requires a high degree of physical skill. Many wrestling referees are initially trained in wrestling schools, and if their bodies are comparatively less well-developed, look closely at their physiques: they’re stocky or wiry, carrying themselves with the subtle grace of athletes. Or else they’re so comically shrimpy that they’ve clearly been cast under the sign of typage (a word that I guarantee you Woody Allen knows) and then trained to take the "bumps" that so often leave them fallen in the line of duty. Like wrestlers, referees are performing precisely choreographed routines while also indicating things with their hands, their eyes, their mouths—the same instruments as any actor; even if they’re watching the moves instead of performing them, they’re just as deftly playing to the camera and the rafters, both at the same time.
If, pace Barthes, wrestling is a drama, then referees are, ideally, supposed to be supporting players: nobody ever bought a ticket to see a ref. But the ostensible power they hold over the actual stars and the outcomes of the stars’ matches makes them something else. Sometimes, the referee appears as a deus ex machina; he runs to the ring to either replace a felled comrade or to reverse an incorrect decision: in the 1980s, the latter was known as a "Dusty Finish," after the corpulent southern champion-slash-promoter Dusty Rhodes, who loved to tease crowds with definitive endings and then unwrite them by having a second referee upend the verdict. Sometimes, referees suffer the fate of messengers in Greek drama and get beaten up for delivering the bad news to a wrestler that he’s lost or been disqualified, which is either a cue to cheer (if the wrestler is a good guy unjustly screwed over) or boo (if he’s a bad guy throwing a tantrum).
Occasionally, referees become leading players in the drama, too. In an angle (angle means storyline) that upset me deeply as a seven-year-old in 1988, senior WWF official Dave Hebner inexplicably counted Hulk Hogan’s shoulders down for three in a nationally televised championship match against Andre the Giant when it was clear—to me, to the announcers, the crowd, everyone—that Hogan had "kicked out" of the count at one. Was it a mistake? It turned out that it was the kickoff to a great soap-opera story in which Hebner—a familiar face to fans, though never gifted with a backstory or character development—had been locked in a closet by the heel known as The Million Dollar Man, Ted Dibiase, and replaced for the match with his twin brother, Earl Hebner, who had been paid off to count the decision for Andre, who in turn sold the ill-gotten championship belt to Dibiase, thus negating the need for the latter to ever beat Hogan fair and square (because of course he couldn’t).
"How much did they pay for the plastic surgery?!" Hogan blubbered backstage in the aftermath to interviewer "Mean" Gene Okerlund, trying to wrap his mind around such a vile conspiracy. For fans sick of the Hulkster’s repetitive hero act, seeing him humiliated on national television was a form of subversive pleasure; ditto for those who enjoyed DiBiase’s venal-playboy act, which was widely understood by insiders as a combination tribute-parody to the WWF’s real-life owner/television figurehead Vince McMahon, a million-dollar man who reshaped the business by throwing money at problems and opportunities alike. From concept to execution to presentation, the Hebner Affair was a great angle, close to the apex of "Golden Era" WWF booking, not least of all because it addressed something that all wrestling fans felt unconsciously: that decisions were at the whim of referees whose motives could easily be clouded and whose authority could be corrupted. The angle was also notable, historically speaking, because of how it finally put a referee front-and-center and made us admire his skill as a performer. Rushing in from the back after breaking free of his dressing-room prison, gesturing wildly at the good guys and the bad guys alike in a pantomime of indignance, Dave Hebner, all five-foot-nothing of him, cut as dynamic and dramatic a figure as the Hulkster and the Giant. Meanwhile, his identical twin Earl, skulking in cowardice in the company of the villains, appeared as a physically indistinguishable and yet somehow utterly alien vision of corruption and collusion and moral rot. Two brothers; two referees; two sides of the same coin; I guess pain and pleasure, if you wanted to get academic about it.
Ten years later, Earl Hebner—the "bad" Hebner, for the record—participated in what was to that point (and maybe still is) the most audacious reshuffling of the kayfabe-real life dynamic in wrestling history. In his capacity as a WWF employee, Hebner presided over the infamous 1997 match in Montreal where Canadian World Champion Bret "The Hitman" Hart was placed in his own signature sharpshooter hold by his hated rival Shawn Michaels, and then, in a moment so amazing it had a whole feature documentary made about it, called for the timekeeper to ring the bell. Hebner claimed that Hart had "submitted" although that was not the finish that "The Hitman" had been expecting, or had consented to—consent being the commodity that makes wrestling work.
Hebner’s actions were ordered by McMahon as a way of writing Bret out of the company’s storyline and humiliating him before he departed for a rival promotion, and ensuring that he didn’t take the company’s championship belt with him (a forbidden act with some precedent in a bitterly competitive era where live television ratings were the greatest measuring stick for success). "The Montreal Screwjob'' was a genuinely ignoble, corrupt, and unfair ending that went against Barthes’ dictum of absolute clarity because for the people in attendance, as well as those watching on television, as well as at least one of the stars in the ring, there was no absolute, or even partial clarity. By exercising actual, powerful authority in a situation that everyone watching and participating were expecting to be cozily predetermined, Hebner lived up to the "evil referee" role in a way that was authentically, instead of ritualistically, shocking.
The Montreal Screwjob was a turning point for North American pro wrestling. It introduced the very real possibility of very real life intruding on the safely bracketed fantasy reality of kayfabe, opening the product up to scandalous and exhilarating new dramatic possibilities. In the decades since, wrestling has gradually and at times ingeniously embraced these contradictions in a way that has arguably improved the product. The popularity of censor-baiting, anti-authority loudmouths like Steve Austin and C.M. Punk—characters who deliberately called attention to their status as players within a drama and raged at the wizards behind the curtain, including McMahon—emanates directly from this fissure, as did 2020’s multiple, Covid-inspired forays into "cinematic wrestling": conflicts unapologetically shot and edited like action or horror movies, cutting out the middlemen of a live audience and athletic plausibility once and for all. (The best of these was a surreal, self-reflexive "Firefly Funhouse" match pitting the masked psychological terrorist The Fiend against WWE poster boy—and would-be Hollywood movie star—John Cena, probably the closest thing to avant-garde storytelling in wrestling history.)
Even if wrestling’s dramaturgy is no longer as clear cut as it was at the time of Barthes’ essay—or even the Montreal Screwjob, which has since itself passed into the rarified air of myth, the same basic dynamic persists: the vicarious enjoyment of watching oversized, fantasy projections of ourselves work out their differences in ways unavailable to us in our daily lives. In this sense, I find professional wrestling referees incredibly suggestive in terms of how they fit into Barthes’ proposed sign system. If wrestling’s heroes and villains —and more recently, its antiheroes, subversives, rabble-rousers, and sociopaths—suggest a wide gallery of human types, the referees, in their obliviousness and rank corruptibility, signify the unlikeliness that any of these combatants are ever going to get a fair shake, skill and determination notwithstanding. What’s far more likely, in fact, is that every wrestler, whether face, heel, or somewhere in between, will get screwed over at some point or another because the people charged with upholding the rules are deaf, dumb, and as blind as the statue of justice holding her scales (sound familiar?). Incompetence is inevitable, and in its way, fair enough—the great leveller in a cosmic screwjob.