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There are a few reasons I love this weird performance art Vince McMahon wants me to call sports entertainment and my dad doesn’t understand how I didn’t outgrow. They’re somewhat connected though, I think.
For starters, when some of your earliest memories are watching All-Star and Championship Wrestling with your great-grandmother... you’re kind of doomed. Immaculata Angelucci loved her pro graps, and if she knew it was “fake”, she never let on to any of the mostly male great-grandkids who’d sit in the living room off her kitchen in Weirton, West Virginia and take it all in amidst the offers of more food delivered in heavily-accented English.
The only time Grandma, as we called her (our grandmothers were “Nannie”), completely stopped bustling back and forth from the stove or the fridge was when Bruno Sammartino was on the screen. To the woman who came to Western Pennsylvania from Abruzzo in the 1930s, Bruno was part heartthrob and part Superman, and the only thing that mattered as much as keeping her brood well-fed was Sammartino having the WWWF World championship.
I never really understood her connection to the champ. I mean, as a Hulkamaniac in the mid-80s, I got that it was fun to root for a winner, and I understood they shared the Italy-Pittsburgh connection. But as wrestling drifted in and out of my life in the many years after her death, I never found the same connection she had to Bruno.
That happened for me in the early years of the 21st century. I’ve written a bit about this before, but my last return to being a regular, week-in, week-out wrestling fan came at the tail end of the Attitude Era.
To put it bluntly, I was a mess in the early Aughts. As I struggled with a myriad of issues, mostly caused or exacerbated by the fact I was an active alcoholic and addict who wasn’t yet capable of acknowledging that, I found independent wrestling in the form of Chikara and Ring of Honor, and while Raw wasn’t really my cup of tea, the SmackDown Six-era of WWE’s other brand was my jam.
Interestingly, while I was and remain a big fan of another Pittsburgher, Kurt Angle - and Angle would eventually struggle with the same disease I’ve learned to live with - it was Eddie Guerrero who drew me in on Thursday-then-Friday nights. Initially, it was his performance. But then I researched his behind-the-scenes story, and it resonated with me.
I’d found my Bruno.
I wish I could say “Eddie got me sober”, as if it could ever be that easy. It also would have saved me several years of pain, both my own and pain I inflicted on others. Guerrero would die before I got better, but he remains my touchstone to wrestling.
Knowing he dealt with something similar to what I dealt with, and came out the other side, made my connection to Eddie greater than anything I’d experienced with athletes in “real” sports or actors in my favorite movies and television shows. And when Latino Heat climbed the scripted mountain of WWE, I celebrated his success on multiple levels... as a character, and a man.
See, at this point, I “knew” how the business worked. So I had an understanding of what it meant for an undersized Mexican-American with a history of drug problems and bad behavior to get a chance to headline the biggest wrestling company the world had ever seen. And it wasn’t completely different from what it was going to take for a depressed alcoholic to learn to care if he lived or died and find something that would make him feel useful in the world.
Did Grandma “know” the same thing? I’m not sure. But whether or not she was “smart”, she was certainly wise. And I think she saw Sammartino’s success in WWWF, and knowing what she and her family went through as immigrants working their asses off and disregarding insults from folks who didn’t speak broken English, she celebrated his accomplishments even more as a result.
Don’t get me wrong. My love of scripted fighting exhibitions and the variety show that goes on around them isn’t all dime store psychology and movie-of-the-week melodrama. I dig goofy comedy, and emotional betrayals, and folks getting kicked in the face. And I LOVE the unique way wrestling makes it so I don’t know what I know. Though it’s spread to reality shows and numerous other aspects of our lives in 2017, playing “work or shoot” with an angle is something that originated with wrestling, and that I only really enjoy when it happens in this form of entertainment.
Mix that all up into stories executed by people I can connect with as performers, characters or both?
That’s why I’m a fan of pro wrestling.