This article talks about understanding pro wrestling from a musician’s perspective. I have been a wrestling fan since the age of 9, and at an earlier age; I was blessed with a gift of playing the piano by ear. A certain feature attraction that I enjoyed about wrestling were the different musical themes that played while the wrestlers walked to the ring. I thought I was the man for being able to hear these wrestling tunes and then play them on the piano to myself, I remember ringing up a friend from school just to play Macho Man Randy Savage’s theme, “Pomp and Circumstance’. I was 11 when during a school assembly, my neighbour made me get up in front of the school to play an impromptu piece on the piano, the first song that came to mind was the Macho Man’s song followed by the Fabulous Rougeau Brothers’ “All American Boys” theme. My confidence in performing in public came partly from playing these themes. Music and wrestling went hand in hand so much that when I moved away to study music, I took with me my collection of wrestling tapes; in between my studies, I would watch a tape or five as a way to de-stress. The qualification I worked towards was the first of its kind for a university in New Zealand, the focus of the curriculum was contemporary rock and the outline included lectures that discussed how Eminem’s lyrics and American accent were cleverly crafted to music. In addition to lectures; students were put into bands and taught to work together. This was a valuable tool for the reasons that we were at the start of networking with other musicians, each of our skills developed from playing with other band members and listening skills were honed from hearing the other members playing their instruments. This exercise ensured that we complemented each other and the overall sound. Being in a band was similar as being in a family unit or a very small community where each member had a certain skill set that was necessary for the community to function and as an out of town student, the band also served as a support system.
A few years ago, I came across this Facebook status that was posted by a pro wrestling veteran:
“Watching some Hulk Hogan matches before bed. Selling makes matches. Hogan was good at selling. I hate when I see guys on the Indies think they’re “too big” to sell. André the Giant sold for people … stop being marks”.
This post was a response to the internet wrestling fans’ criticism about Hulk Hogan’s wrestling skills being limited – according to their definition of limited skills; Hogan would only use a selection of simple (yet memorable) moves and his matches had the same order of format. This wrestler defended Hogan’s skills by eluding to examples of when Hogan would take a thrashing from his opponents, Hogan reciprocated the beatings by showing such believability as if he was on the verge of defeat. People within the wrestling profession refer to it as ‘selling’, and a ‘mark’ is a term used to describe a fan that overly regards a wrestler, wrestling company or wrestling style to be superior. This simple sells formula which Hulk Hogan mastered for many years was instrumental in the WWE’s success with attracting and maintaining new fans. Hogan’s detractors would explain his ‘lack of skill’ by comparing him to Kurt Angle or Daniel Bryan, wrestlers that were built to display a scientific style that comes with an unlimited move set. This certain style is what the internet fans believe to be the superior craft. Those judgments made against Hogan are unjustified as he was not equipped to perform that technique. Hogan also wrestled two different styles between the United States mainstream and the highly respected leagues in Japan; where in Japan, Hogan had the freedom to demonstrate more of his abilities that was suitable to his 6 foot, 8 inches, 300-pound build; that part of the argument is rarely acknowledged by those fans. Their ideology is that the most purist scientific wrestlers should be at the top of the card.
I played in several bands during and following my studies, the experience of being in a band helped me to identify with the wrestler’s Facebook status and subscribe to this ‘simple sells’ logic. I recognised the similarities in the way pro wrestlers and musicians worked their craft; this revelation is not too surprising as the two professions share the objective of performing to their audience. As a ‘band’, Hulk Hogan was the frontman of 1980s WWE, the wrestlers of that era were the band members, and the opponents served as part the songs. Like a great front person, Hulk Hogan’s role was to gain the trust of the fans so that they see themselves in their hero and invest emotion into Hogan’s matches and safety. In reality, Hulk Hogan’s gift of connecting with people was a vehicle for the WWE to generate revenue by encouraging the consumer to attend the matches, watch their television shows and buy merchandise. The WWE roster of that time was stacked with talent that wrestled a variety of different styles; the internet fans viewed wrestlers such as Ted Dibiase and Curt Hennig as the ‘uncrowned world champions’; technical greats that should have been in Hogan’s place – just because they ‘did more in the ring’. As great as some of these wrestlers were (and it applies to the current WWE), there is a definite place in the band for these ‘uncrowned world champions’; in most cases that place is not situated at the front. You will find these incredible workhorses supporting the frontman from the side where their instruments are of greater use.
The Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase was a notable foe of Hogans. The Million Dollar Man was aggressive in his pursuit to attack Hogan’s values of integrity and justice with greed and selfishness, their conflicts brought about many matches/songs that are remembered with great fondness. Mr. Perfect Curt Hennig embodied an unattainable quality on the surface and was unreasonable in his disputes against Hulk Hogan’s message of inclusiveness. A lot of great songs speak about the main character facing conflicts and vulnerability, and the listener can relate to those stories through their own experience. The front person singing the part of the main character connects with the listener; this method applies to pro wrestling when the fans see themselves vicariously through their hero. Mainstream wrestling relies on stories of conflict and the empathetic hero that the fans pay to see to resolve those challenges. The Million Dollar Man and Mr. Perfect are examples of where Ted Dibiase and Curt Hennig were of most value to the WWE.
I look at WrestleMania 3 as an illustration of Hulk Hogan’s drawing power, how Hogan’s appeal helped to enhance the WWE’s visibility and the careers of those who were involved in the company. WrestleMania 3 (29 March 1987) is regarded as the event that established the WWE as the top definitive wrestling promotion in the United States. The event brought in the largest wrestling crowd in the US (93,173), and this record was sustained for almost 30 years. The advertising leading up to WrestleMania 3 was hyped around the Hulk Hogan/Andre the Giant main event. Hogan and Andre generated much attention that when it came time for the event, the matches on the undercard, in particular; the Ricky Steamboat/Randy Savage classic had gained massive exposure. Steamboat vs. Savage was of a higher quality to Hogan vs Andre, however, the level of publicity that was achieved by Hogan and Andre helped give Steamboat/Savage the attention to be remembered and appreciated by a new generation of fans.
Since its beginnings, the WWE has stayed close to the ‘simple sells’ practice; requiring the wrestlers to slow their pace during their matches. This method was vital for their top stars such as Bruno Sammartino, Hogan, Steve Austin, the Rock and John Cena. The reason for this is that the wrestlers could tell better stories that would be received by diverse audiences; it also conserves their bodies to keep up with the travel and demand of wrestling several nights a week. This, of course, applies to a sensible front person that looks after their vocals and lifestyle.
Although Hulk Hogan was nicknamed the ‘Real American’, he was able to appeal to an international audience; other American based characters like Sgt Slaughter and “the American Dream” Dusty Rhodes had certain barriers to their characters which limited their appeal to southern Americans. A fruitful band and wrestling roster can depend upon the maturity of a great frontman and the members whose skills are used for a specific purpose; for the WWE, their purpose has been to reach a broader audience by having the right person in the front.