Rock in the hardest place

Politics enters the ring for a nation in the grip of WWF

The biggest hit on Broadway at the moment is studiously choreographed, skil- fully scripted and has all the compelling ingredients of soap opera: drama, intrigue, comedy, tragedy and revenge. Plus a sizeable dollop of ham acting. In the old Paramount Theatre, New York, on the corner of 42nd Street at Times Square, where Frank Sinatra famously did it his way, giant screens portray images of huge men piledriving and pulverising each other while the audience bite into burgers, swill the cold beer and care not a jot that it is all a fixed freak show.

The biggest hit on Broadway at the moment is studiously choreographed, skil- fully scripted and has all the compelling ingredients of soap opera: drama, intrigue, comedy, tragedy and revenge. Plus a sizeable dollop of ham acting. In the old Paramount Theatre, New York, on the corner of 42nd Street at Times Square, where Frank Sinatra famously did it his way, giant screens portray images of huge men piledriving and pulverising each other while the audience bite into burgers, swill the cold beer and care not a jot that it is all a fixed freak show.

The world's first wrestling theme emporium occupies the prime site five blocks down from Madison Square Garden, where the pinfall wizards have taken over from boxing as the main attraction. Last month a sell-out crowd of 19,530 paid a record $500,000 for an event called Smackdown, a baby-oiled jamboree of muscle and mayhem of the sort that can be seen nightly on television across America, where its pay-per-view ratings are presenting a serious challenge to the NFL, as well as the real fight game. "The trouble with boxing," says Vince McMahon, owner and orchestrator of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), "is that it lacks credibility."

Some gall. But then McMahon is used to putting his tongue firmly in his cheek. The WWF are now valued at about $1.5bn. Last year it made $170m from TV shows, now screened in 120 countries, and live events, plus $81.5m from the sale of T-shirts, videos and souvenirs. This year they project a rise in profits to $340m - partly due to a flotation on the New York stock market - together with one of the most lucrative websites on the internet and the highly profitable showpiece restaurant at the bottom end of Broadway where, you might say, wrestling has finally found its rightful home as a piece of illegitimate theatre.

Unless you have been there to witness it, it is hard to imagine the grip wrestling now has on America where the biggest name in sports entertainment - which is what the WWF call their product - is The Rock, aka Dwayne Johnson, a 28-year-old ex-footballer who has become the Tiger Woods of the mat, half Samoan, half Afro-American and unassailable world champion.

Everyone knows about The Rock. It was his ring antics that Maurice Greene and the US sprint relay team aped when they strutted their stuff in Sydney after winning the Olympic gold medal. Now and again The Rock will drop in at the WWF's New York eatery to mingle with the fans and watch with them the reruns of some of his more spectacular encounters with Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker, Triple H (one Hunter Hearst Helmsley), Cactus Jack and The Big Show, so called because he is 7ft 2in and 35st. The Rock, who bills himself as the coolest thing since the other side of a pillow and earns around $5m a year, says: "We are trying to take people on an emotional roller coaster. We are essentially a two-hour movie, minus the credits."

Like the other 110 grapplers who perform under the WWF banner, The Rock makes no pretence of being anything other than a superheavyweight ham, engagingly hoodwinking the gullible - and perhaps the guileless - in the world ofmuscle-bound make-believe, where the routines are rehearsed and played out to a script. The WWF regularly get higher ratings than the top American soaps and that is, according to McMahon, because they have better actors. The Rock is preparing for his Hollywood debut at the moment. The Mummy's Return is one of the movies mentioned.

Meanwhile The Rock and his entourage have moved into the political ring. He appeared on the podium at the Republican convention and with the WWF female world champion, Chyna, addressed a fringe meeting at the Democrat convention. What the wrestlers want to see, they say, is a debate about the issues affecting American youth between Al Gore and George W Bush with the Governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura, himself a former WWF wrestler, as moderator.

Both political parties are aware of the influence that The Rock and Co have on the 14,000,000 eligible voters who watch them every week, particularly those who will be going to the polls for the first time. But there is also an underlying reason why the WWF have allied themselves to the youth vote.

Several US politicians are pressing for reforms that would restrict the violence in wrestling, which they say is having an adverse influence on children to the extent where there have been injuries - and deaths - among youngsters imitating the holds used by the WWF stars. Perhaps more significantly there are also moves to bring wrestling in from the world of show-business and under the aegis of state sports commissions, where drugs testing would be enforced. The wrestlers, some of whom are reputed to have more steroids pumped into them than a regiment of Bulgarian weightlifters, are ready to campaign vigorously against any politician who supports it.

"Leave our wrestling alone", is the message on the WWF website to both the politicians and the parent groups who complain that Smackdown is the most vulgar and violent programme on TV, embracing contests such as The Stinkface, where the winner is the first to sit on his opponent's face. A companion pay-per-view show features a "Thong-ass on face match" between women. There is also a good deal of blood on the mat these days, and some of it is real. Wrestlers conceal miniature razor blades in their palms and "nick" their own or their opponent's scalps and ear lobes. The Rock, they say, is a particularly good bleeder.

The WWF deny accusations of excessive violence. "We prefer to call it aggression," says Jim Byrne, senior vice-president of marketing. "We never depict the use of guns. We have no murders, robbery or rape. What we have done is contemporised the product."

And so wrestling mania escalates, endlessly fascinating yet remorselessly tasteless. "It bothers me when someone uses the word fake," says The Rock. "What we do is theatricality at its absolute best." You'd better believe it. Millions do.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links