Wrestling is special. It’s an art form based around violence and theatricality, a sport that involves real physical danger to its participants while also being widely derided as fake. But where did this bizarre combination of OTT characters with strong branding and acrobatic combat come from? What’s it all about? Why… does that guy have a snake?
Our story begins in France…
Yeah, righto, it could’ve begun in Ancient Greece, but come on. You want to know about the circus-style strongmen who could eat steel, wreck bones and put on a show, don’t you? And so, we commence in the year 1848, when Jean Exbroyat put together the first modern wrestling circus troupe. It was also around this era that wrestling split into two separate spheres: the stuff you see at the Olympics, and the “worked” fights that are more about the entertainment factor. If you want to sound like you know what you’re on about, say “catch as catch can” and nod intelligently.
Once upon a time in Mexico
Here’s a specific flavour of wrestling that we’re all kinda familiar with, if only because the luchador masks, capes and OTT theatrics have filtered through the culture (like, on the wall of Mad Mex, for example). Mexican wrestling is a whole different brand of insanity, but it came from… France! Back in 1863, there was some strife between the two over money owed, which led to there being a significant number of Gallic soldiers in Central America. One of the results of this “intervention” was a local interest in ring-based combat. The first Mexican wrestler was Enrique Ugartechea, who developed lucha libre, but it was silver-masked El Santo who turned it into a national obsession.
Japan boards the pro train
They already had a long tradition of sumo wrestling, obviously, but Japan is also fond of the kind of wrasslin’ that we’re on about here. In fact, they have their own name for it – puroresu, which comes from a Japanese pronunciation of “pro-wrestle”. There’s a different culture around these matches, with “storylines” that focus more on the combatants’ fighting spirit or perseverance than, say, undertaking. (It’s also where we get our idea of a “karate chop”, according to this pretty good overview.)
And, of course, America
This is what we all grew up with, right? Hulk Hogan tearing off his shirt, André the Giant sinking more beer than David Boon, Ric Flair feuding with Bret Hart. And then the resurgence, which made stars out of the People’s Eyebrow, Stone Cold Steve Austin and milk-guzzling Kurt Angle. But US-style wrestling’s way, way older than the Vince McMahon version – in fact, they were lampooning the sport in the very first issue of MAD Magazine, and even that era’s incarnation had evolved from travelling-circus events, which played up the characters, feuds, tag-team matches and spectacle.The wrestling of today is a syncretism of traditions from a wealth of eras, cultures and performers.
Hosted by Damian Abraham, 10-part documentary series The Wrestlers explores different cultures’ version of pro wrestling. Discover more on Tuesday nights at 10:40pm on SBS VICELAND, or stream the series any time at SBS On Demand. Episode 1 delves into Mexican Luchadores:
0:37 Nick and Fiona talk about Mike Leigh’s new film, Peterloo. It’s about an 1819 pro-democracy workers’ rights rally in Manchester, UK which turned into one of the bloodiest massacres in English history when government forces mowed into and over crowds.
03:16 Fiona interviews acclaimed director Mike Leigh about Peterloo, in cinemas now.
21:26 Pro-wrestling fan and colleague Shelly Peacock (Orvilleland podcast) joins Nick and Fiona to talk about new series, Dark Side of the Ring now streaming at SBS On Demand and coming to SBS VICELAND in June. The show reveals the darker, lesser known stories of 1970s and ’80s pro-wrestling.
35:47 Nick’s been watching The Hustle, a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, and Long Shot, a romantic comedy starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen. Both films are in cinemas now. Fiona’s been absorbed in the world of Eurovision, but found time to re-watch her go-to ’70s disaster film, The Poseidon Adventure.
This episode was recorded on Wednesday, 15 May 2019.