Another legend from the world of professional wrestling passed away yesterday. Known as the American Dream, Dusty Rhodes was an old-timer, running the wrestling circuit back when the promotions were split into regional territories. He finally joined the WWE corporate juggernaut later in his career, but fans may not remember his best work, back when he played it straight as the "son of a plumber," blue-collar everyman. His authenticity made him a favorite with the crowd. He was always fairly overweight, and didn't really look like an athlete, but would win the people over with his in-ring charisma and skills on the mic. In fact, he cut what I consider to be the best wrestling promo of all time.
Before we get to my top five favorite promos, let's talk about pro wrestling for a minute. If you've never been a fan of the squared circle, you might not get it. But there is something about the spectacle of good guy vs. bad guy, face vs. heel, that draws out real human emotions through bold action and dramatic twists and turns. Sure, it's not real, but for those who can appreciate its nuances, professional wrestling can produce theatrics on par with many other dramatic art forms.
I recently revisited pro wrestling again through a free trial to the WWE Network. Since it has a vault of old matches, I used the opportunity to show my kids some of the classic wrestlers I loved from my youth. My oldest daughter wasn't interested, but she sat on the couch and read a book while we watched. Then the storyline played out during the match and it pulled her in. The bad guy bullies the good guy, the manager distracts the referee, the heel taunts the booing crowd. These are well-worn tricks, but they hook you on a visceral level. Before you know it, you're invested. Sure enough, when the hero reversed the tide and got the 1-2-3 pin, she stood up in the living room and cheered...audibly.
In a nutshell, pulling that physical reaction from the spectator is what pro wrestling is all about. The crowd participates in a match, and the performers are measured by how much "pop" and "heat" they can generate night after night. A great wrestler can fill the arena seats, and it doesn't really matter whether that is with people who want to see them win or lose.
One of the main ways to build this kind of momentum for a match is through a video promo, where the wrestler gives an interview and can connect directly with the audience. Working that mic is a gift, and the ones who can bring it, like Dusty Rhodes, become the true stars in this business. I am convinced that one day, perhaps in the distant future, scholars in the humanities are going to stumble upon this underrated art form and give it the critical attention it deserves.
Following are my picks for top five promos of all time. They are biased toward the older wrestlers, as I'm not as familiar with the current stuff. Also, I chose spots that mostly stand on their own without needing to know the storyline or historical significance.2
#1: Hard Times by Dusty Rhodes
There were a lot of people out of work during the recession of mid '80's, and technology was emerging in many "blue-collar" sectors such as manufacturing and the auto industry, making many fearful of losing their jobs. This promo is great on its own, and outstanding in its social context. Anecdotes abound about kids saying that this sparked the only time they've seen their dads cry.
#2: The Muck of Avarice by Jake "The Snake" Roberts
Pro wrestling often mines class tension for conflict, and here Roberts deftly plays that card, making his match against "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase seem that much more important. I love how Roberts barely raises his voice.
#3: Cream Rises To The Top by "The Macho Man" Randy Savage
The Macho Man offers a stream-of-consciousness rant that incorporates props to transform a common expression into a piece of surreal performance art. Watch his inner conflict rage between confidence and paranoia. Nothing means nothing.
#4: Golden Spoon by Ric Flair
The "Nature Boy" is generally considered one of the best in the ring and on the mic. As a 16-time world heavyweight champion, he earned his success in many memorable matches. His genius was how he pushed ego and arrogance so hard, that he actually fueled feelings of jealousy and envy. People hated Ric Flair because deep down they wanted to be like Ric Flair. In this spot, he exposes that darker shade of human nature by pointing that out, saying, "You like to hear that someone is doing pretty good, but you don't like to hear that they're doing better than you." Ouch.
#5: You Suck by Kurt Angle
Kurt could really wrestle, as he was actually an olympic gold medalist for the sport. He also was able to handle the mic and played a great heel. The people hated this guy. It's an old trick he does here, done well enough to amp up an entire arena, but near the end it turns into something more. He ends up poking at middle-class hypocrisy and even his own real-life divorce, leaving everyone a little uncomfortable.
Honorable Mention: 1,004 Holds by Chris Jericho
This one could be ranked higher, but it is more of a long sketch and needs some setup to understand what is going on. For full appreciation, I encourage you to catch up on the backstory. The basic premise has Chris Jericho coming out week-after-week to insult and belittle a wrestler named Dean Malenko, known as the "man of 1,000 holds." In this spot, Jericho claims to know 1,004 holds. He pulls out a long print out and reads each one aloud to the audience.1 He keeps going through the entire commercial break before finally being run out of the ring. This one is deeply embedded in wrestling culture, and is the reason why you might encounter someone in public randomly yelling "Armbar!"
* Some might see echoes of the comic Andy Kaufman (who himself dabbled in pro wrestling at one point). Kaufman had a bit where he would read long-winded passages from The Great Gatsby to a confused and perturbed audience. ↩
* Apologies to Stone Cold and CM Punk, but Austin 3:16 and Pipe Bomb seem more about monumental shifts in the wrestling universe, and less about what I want to explore here. Though I understand these are both held in high regard among fans of the genre and worth a note. ↩
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