FROM VAN GOGH TO

BIG VAN VADER

A Case For Professional Wrestling

As Art Form

BILL WOOD | APRIL 3, 2022

WCW poster art by Bill Wood.

People occasionally ask how I became inspired to create so many pro wrestling posters. Music, cinema, and even other sports seem to go hand-in-hand with art, but wrestling?!? Seems folks don't see a whole lot of connection between between the testosterone-fueled, ham-fisted world of piledrivers and bodyslams and the world of popular art, but for me it’s exactly the opposite. Until the end of the 20th century, professional wrestling was actually one of the truly original American art forms, a uniquely athletic performance with lo-fi origins that eventually took the world by storm. In the modern era, wrestling artistry often takes a backseat to corporate polish and the almighty dollar, but it still manages to inspire every now and then. Here I’ll articulate where the spoken word usually fails me.

 

First, a history lesson. Pro wrestling as we know it originated as a carnival attraction and boxing-style spectator event. From the beginning, the results were almost always fixed. Controlling the outcome of these events allowed promoters and bookers to effectively manage their biggest assets, but there was another side effect of predetermining match outcomes. As the wrestlers didn’t have to focus on training to win bouts, they realized that developing an in-ring persona made them much more interesting to their audiences… and much more profitable to their own checkbooks. Soon the ring was filled grapplers portraying cowboys, Indians, even Nazis.

 

With his flowing gown, tightly-curled coiffure and scented perfume bottle (he rarely approved of his opponent's odor), the flamboyant Gorgeous George could be considered the first pro wrestler-as-artist. Embracing the new medium of television, George realized that it wasn’t his wrestling skill that would make him a household name, but his overly theatrical performances and flair for the dastardly and dramatic. Preening about the ring to a torrent of catcalls, taunting the crowd and employing any low-ball method he could find to gain the upper hand on his opponent, George played the heel role to perfection, and audiences across the country ate it up.

 

With Gorgeous George, we see a crucial step toward professional wrestling becoming a form of creative expression. More actor than athlete, the ring was his stage, every contest of skill a grand performance. He developed a character that he knew would connect with fans (albeit in all the wrong ways), then portrayed that character to his fullest, drawing a massive audience to their TV sets in the process. As modern enthusiasts like to say, George know how to get heat. Muhammad Ali picked up on what George was delivering, finding inspiration in George's bombastic on-screen personality to develop his own unforgettable persona.

 

As wrestling evolved from sport into spectacle, wrestlers found themselves shifting away from the traditional “boots-and-tights” approach in favor of developing colorful personas that would earn them higher spots on the card, as well as bigger box office receipts. Quite often these characters were extensions of their own boisterous personalities. After all, it takes quite the character to want to become a pro wrestler in the first place! As a result, developing the technical skill required to "compete" in the ring often took a backseat to finding a role—be it hero or villain—that audiences could connect with. Successful wrestlers knew how to deliver rousing promotional speeches—or "promos"—to talk 'em into the building. Additionally, grapplers began to develop their own flashy moves and holds to captivate an audience. Antonino Rocca was one such wrestler, inventing acrobatic maneuvers and high-flying aerial attacks that thrilled crowds. Here we see a deliberate shift away from athlete and toward performance artist.

 

Following the mainstream success of ‘80s WWF and the evolution of the wrestler from pro athlete to larger-than-life superhero, promotions around the world began developing their own creative spins on the pro wrestling formula. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in Japan, where the biggest promotions (New Japan, All Japan) still employed the old boots-and-tights philosophy. Puroresu was taken quite seriously by the Japanese, the match results were still published in newspapers next to the baseball box scores. But underground wrestling promotions began popping up everywhere in the ’90s, and much like the alt-rock revolution that preceded it, they were letting their freak flag fly. Regional promotions such as Michinoku Pro,  Osaka Pro and Toryumon were filled with smaller wrestlers who lacked the stature of giant-sized headliners such as Inoki and Baba, but had every bit as much passion. Combining the technical grace of lucha libre, the effervescent aesthetic of anime and manga, and the cinematic influences of slapstick and kaiju flicks, these promotions delivered energetic and utterly compelling performances.

 

In Philadelphia, a local promoter named Paul Heyman drew inspiration from Nirvana's anti-establishment musical mantra to brand his own form of extreme wrestling. ECW's amazing roster of wrestlers took an artisanal approach to the violent sport they loved, crafting their performances while building a devoted underground following. Many went on to greater successes while others traded paychecks for passion, a telltale sign of the tortured artist.

 

To summarize; Here we have a performer, traveling from town to town, delivering an entertainment spectacle that is equal parts experience and improvisation. This performer develops an interesting and colorful character then portrays that character to the fullest. He knows how to tug at the audience’s heart strings, how to make himself loved or hated, how to build up for the finale and exactly when to deliver it.

 

So is pro wrestling an art form? Sure it is… or at least it was.

 

Today, wrestling's most popular shows are micromanaged to the point that the participants have little say in the creative process. They often have minimal artistic freedom, instead they’re handed a set of lines written by a TV scriptwriter and told to get out there and sell it, making sure to finish up before the next Toyota spot hits. Matches are preplanned down to the minutest detail to ensure that everything stays on schedule, as such there is very little room for improvisation or expression. Rasslin' has found Wall Street, it is now a prepackaged and sanitized commodity where sleeper holds carry less weight than shareholders meetings. It may have become a more socially acceptable and marketable product for corporate sponsors and investors, but it is not exactly an artist's cup of tea.

 

There's still plenty of soul in professional wrestling, you just have to dig a little deeper these days. Here in Los Angeles, the time-honored tradition of lucha libre lives in antiquated dance halls, movie theaters, even dive bars. Countless indie promotions exist across the US, giving a home to aspiring young wrestlers who ply their trade not for fame, glory, or even a paycheck, but for the love of the sport that prompts them to emulate their heroes.

 

And there’s always inspiration to be found in the old stuff. Head over to YouTube and watch an arrogant Gorgeous George make his ring entrance in glorious black-and-white. Witness a rural Memphis audience go absolutely bonkers as a delirious Andy Kaufman (who, it might be added, definitely understood the performance side of pro wrestling) taunts them into a frenzy. Feel the pure emotion as livid fans litter the ring with trash as longtime superhero Hulk Hogan turns to the dark side and aligns himself with bad guys The Outsiders to form the New World Order. Watch any Ebessan vs. Kamen Osaka Pro match from 20 years ago and tell me that none of this is art. Go ahead, I dare ya!!! - BW

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©2022 Bill Wood.

Hey I'm Bill | www.heyimbill.com
ECW pro wrestling poster art by Bill Wood.
WCW poster art by Bill Wood.