Enough Umaga Crocodile Tears, Wrestling Fans — What Are You Going to DO About Wrestling’s Death Culture?

Jeuron Dove, writing on the website of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, says: Congress and the media outlets that have the power to push people to probe into the sport have long given up on taking wrestling seriously and could care less about the high death rate …”

In my view, Mr. Dove has things exactly backwards.

Four years after Eddie Guerrero, two and a half years after Chris Benoit, and three days after Eddie “Umaga” Fatu, it is no longer tenable for pro wrestling fans to whine sentimentally about the serial demise of TV heroes they don’t even know, while blaming the human reality fallout on everyone else.

The fact of the matter is that the mainstream media and Congress do show up, in their own way, when the story is about death by the bushel, rather than about mere kitschy bad taste by the YouTube kilobyte. Maybe, just maybe, the root problem isn’t that the general public doesn’t take wrestling seriously enough. Maybe the problem is that when the media and Congress show up, they don’t get a heck of a lot of support from the people who pay the bills.

Again, Jeuron Dove: “I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m quite conflicted at times when it comes to being a fan. I love wrestling and always will and will likely watch it religiously every week until I die …”

What I am explaining is the one and only conspiracy theory in CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death. In the Introduction, I write: “You bet there was[ a conspiracy]. It was a conspiracy between those who care too much about wrestling and those who care too little. The first group consists of the fans who enjoy the pageantry and the people who profit from them. The second group consists of those who can’t be bothered, except possibly to blow hard on cue whenever a comment, no matter how ill-informed, is deemed fashionable.”

Wrestling fans, and the media who feed them information and analysis, have their own form of self-serving denial: they place the highest value on mocking the second group, and they get plenty touchy themselves when anyone focuses on the first group. So at the end of a very long day in a society in which consumers vote with their wallets, exactly how do they get off calling the kettle black?

In the summer of 2007, the cable tabloid news shows, with all their large and easily parodied flaws, jumped into the Benoit fray with both feet. The wrestling media threw their weight behind things like ridiculing Nancy Grace’s lack of mastery of the history of the Four Horsemen, and preemptively dismissing as a “non-story” the Wikipedia hacker tale – which would later prove to provide a useful window on WWE’s lack of credibility for its version of what it knew about Benoit’s crimes and when it knew it.

Later in 2007 Congress got involved. Did any major wrestling organ do much with the opportunity, other than to gossip and speculate? Was there any concerted effort to mobilize readers and fans around applying real pressure on our elected representatives to bring about reforms of health and safety standards? Not really. There was more interest in determining whether Congressman Bobby Rush knew how to say “Benoit” with the proper French pronunciation.

In February 2008 the police records in the Benoit investigation were released. The wrestling media cherry-picked the telephonic evidence for titillation. But did they help expose what a thorough analysis would reveal: the quick willingness of the authorities to airbrush the record to WWE’s advantage? From where I sat, the wrestling media turned an equally blind eye at key junctures. The big wrestling story of the season was Ric Flair’s WrestleMania retirement match. Which, of course, didn’t even turn out to be a real retirement match: Flair, now 60 years old, just finished bumping away and carving up his forehead for Hulk Hogan in Australia, and Flair will probably be joining Hogan at TNA.

Some fans – not all of them, nor even necessarily a majority – believe that my goal is to pick a feud with Dave Meltzer, who has dozens of times as many readers on his worst day as I have on my best day. These people are mistaken. I just detest wholesale and preventable death in what is supposed to be entertainment, as well as flabby thinking and selfish posturing on what to do about it. As a long-time reader of the Wrestling Observer, I know that it produces plenty of flabby thinking and selfish posturing every week – as well as oodles of excellent reporting. The fact that Meltzer is intermittently, or even often or most of the time, capable of better highlights how much more he and his newsletter, and others like it, could be doing for the betterment of the industry.

Irv Muchnick


5 Responses to “Enough Umaga Crocodile Tears, Wrestling Fans — What Are You Going to DO About Wrestling’s Death Culture?”

  1. 1 Jon December 8, 2009 at 10:24 am

    An interesting perspective, but there’s something of the snake eating it’s own tail here. What would you propose people “do” about the deaths in wrestling? The phenomena you describe, from fan apathy/ over-sincerity to “wrestling journalism”‘s lack of focus on hard fact are all valid, but by merely decrying and offering no alternative course of action (other than publish a book about it ;)), you join the ranks of the same complicit fans and opportunistic promoters in merely continuing the same hyper-profitable business cycle that has and will continue to be a disgrace and a tragedy.

    So, honestly, what is the best course of action? To attempt to get congress, in the midst of heated political battles of it’s own, to give a sh*t about wrestling? When it’s hard enough to get people to care about SOLDIERS dying?

    From the perspective of the lowly fan, with no real recourse to political action or any ability to bring about the necessary change in wrestling’s business model, what would be the correct course of action? I’m not being facetious, and I believe until you provide clearer conclusions to your well-laid arguments, books like Chris & Nancy can be much more easily marginalized, not just by the mainstream and wrestling press, but in their very tone and demeanor, as they could be construed as nothing more than you taking your OWN place in this greek tragedy called wrestling, as the wise sage who knows, but can say not. An eternally wagging finger.

    The book was great, and the critical eye towards the wrestling business as a whole is much appreciated. But before you call out others for being complicit or “selfish posturing”, it might be wise to formulate a concrete set of goals or ideas as to how the wrestling business could be changed for the better, or you risk 1. Alienating the only group of people who could conceivably care about this issue (crocodile-tear-crying fans and fellow wrestling “journalists”), and 2. Becoming guilty of the same charges you level at other people.

    Again, greatly enjoyed the book and it’s perspective. But I’ll also ask again: What do YOU see as the necessary steps towards “solving” this problem? Or is your reporting merely another revenue stream that the wrestling juggernaut has managed to conjure up?


  2. 2 wrestlingbabylon December 8, 2009 at 10:57 am

    Jon, thanks for your intelligent comments. I think there are two parts to the response.

    The first part is this: It’s about time we retired the argument that journalists and authors who report the story of death in pro wrestling are “exploiting” it. News flash — the Wrestling Observer is in business; so am I. But the only entities exploiting the death pandemic, by the true definition of the word, are WWE and other promotions. A writer doesn’t have to take a vow of chastity and poverty while he writes about a dirty industry with the goal (not the exclusive goal, but a goal) of cleaning it up, and also hopes that the story gets public traction and sells.

    This points leads to my gripe with the wrestling media. It’s not that they don’t play “gotcha” with a lot of WWE’s b.s.; it’s more that their candor seems mostly in service of juvenile games, even when the stakes are so stark.

    I will first answer your question of what I think wrestling media and fans should DO with a hypothetical that I’ve never proposed. Then I’ll suggest what has been lacking in the wrestling journalism process. Here’s the hypothetical. Do you really think that nothing at all would be gained if the newsletters, in a focused and concerted and persistent way, urged their many thousands of readers to write to legislators? If so, you and I simply disagree.

    Now about process. You don’t just report “facts” passively as they drop in your lap. When the story is important, you also do enterprise reporting, and if you don’t have the resources or skills for that, you at least use your influence to move the needle of the narrative in a constructive direction. The serial coverage of the wrestling deaths is just like the mainstream media’s — it’s “Groundhog Day.” And when someone comes along with new energy and a slightly different perspective, the Meltzers (unlike those who have written actual reviews of CHRIS & NANCY) have made no effort to tease out whatever they think is valuable from what they think is tonally flawed, or wrongly focused, or whatever. This is not, in my opinion, a tenable stance for people who ask to be taken seriously and complain when they aren’t.


  3. 3 Jon December 8, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Thank you for the reply.

    Let me clarify by saying that I’m not implying that you’re callously trying to make a buck off real tragedy, or that you’ve somehow been tainted by the stories you cover. It just seems that, with a lack of concrete agenda for the change you’re seeking, your voice risks getting lost in the white noise that is wrestling journalism. As much as I might like James Caldwell’s writing, I don’t honestly think there is any comparison between the way you cover your subject, even if you’re both wrestling journalists. I don’t come to Wrestling Babylon for match results, or to argue who does or doesn’t deserve their push.

    I appreciate your hypothetical, although it still seems unclear (but maybe I’m dense). Even if a concerted effort could be organized, what issue would be the rallying point? Health insurance for wrestlers? A more stringent drug testing system? Non-independent contractor status? Less unprotected chairshots? A less rigorous schedule? Unionization?I haven’t seen any consensus on exactly what problems can/ should be solved in pro-wrestling, much less how congressional action could bring these things about. If you believe differently, I’d love to know why.

    And seriously, wrestling journalism is one wide-open target. It’s maybe a step or two above Apter mags these days, but they’re not big steps. If you look at their origins, you can see that for as much critical reporting as “dirt sheets” do, they are still fans at heart, and their goals and motives much different from mainstream journalism, or even journalism period. Thus the ridiculous nitpicking of Nancy Grace rather than any sort of alternative to uninformed mainstream media coverage.

    For all of Dave Meltzer’s vaunted expertise, here’s a guy who can write god-knows-how-many-hundred words on the finish of a predetermined wrestling match like the “Montreal screwjob”, but can’t be bothered to comment on what amounts to one of the only in-depth dissections of the WWE’s role in the Benoit tragedy. Is that journalism or fandom? The line is thin, blogs and websites making it even thinner.

    Basically, I think you give wrestling journalists too much credit, and fans too little. Expecting real journalism from something like the PWTorch is like expecting it from WWE magazine; never gonna happen. And
    I think fans would be much better served by concrete steps to follow in order to stop their beloved performers from dropping off like flies, rather than being told they’re crybabys for being dumb enough to CARE about this ridiculous pseudo-sport.

    Thanks again for the reply, I’ll now attempt to shut my stinkin’ trap.


  4. 4 wrestlingbabylon December 8, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Quickly here, Jon:

    * You seem to be making some kind of a point about the difference between fans at large and “wrestling journalists.” And whatever that point is, you’re probably right.

    * As for what I think responsible fans should lobby for, I’ve tried to be clear that what the industry needs is regulation. Kayfabe is dead and no one really wants it back, so the new regulatory bodies may or may not be called an “athletic commissions.” But drug-testing by labs and results-interpreters hired by the promotion doesn’t work. None of this would matter except for the fact that people are dying. If wrestlers are too stupid or short-sighted to organize, that’s their problem. Public health, however, is a collective problem.


  5. 5 Jon December 8, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    Fair enough. But that implies a non-sport like wrestling could be as easily regulated as a competitive sport. Regardless of the number of deaths in the industry, it seems like attempting to police drug use among actors or musicians, who also have a tendency to pass away young due to drug related issues. I don’t see how that could work. Perhaps because wrestlers perform in arenas…I really don’t know how, say, the circus is regulated.

    The point I was making was that wrestling journalism is sorely lacking in terms of critical reporting. Sorry to be unclear.

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