Hype! Hell Raising! Hulk Hogan!

  • It is 1 p.m. on April Fool's eve, and 2,000 of the faithful have filed into < the sold-out Tupperware Convention Center in Kissimmee, Fla. On the lawn outside stands a light infantry of pickup trucks; one bumper sign reads GOD GUNS AND GUTS MADE AMERICA--LET'S KEEP ALL THREE. Inside, an army of tattoos comes to attention as the houselights fall, the speakers blare That's Entertainment, and the giant screen flashes the words LIVE FROM MADISON SQUARE GARDEN: WRESTLEMANIA. The magic moment has arrived. And so, for the moment, has the bastard sport of pro wrestling. From glittery Manhattan (where some aficionados were offering $200 for a good seat) to good-ole-boy Kissimmee, in closed-circuit auditoriums in the U.S. and 26 foreign countries, wrestling fans of all collars are savoring the triumph of hype, hell raising and Hulk Hogan. They made America; let's buy all three.

    Only pro wrestling, as perpetrated by Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation, could provide such a uniquely 1980s fusion of chic and sleaze. WrestleMania's guest referee is Muhammad Ali; the guest ring announcer is Battlin' Billy Martin; the guest timekeeper, manipulating a tiny silver bell that might have come from King Farouk's dinner table, is Liberace. Pop Thrush Cyndi Lauper is "managing" Wendi Richter ("150 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal") as she attempts to regain her W.W.F. championship belt from zaftig Leilani Kai, managed by former longtime (28 years) women's champ, the Fabulous Moolah. And in the main event, teaming with Hulk Hogan against the preening Paul ("Mr. Wonderful") Orndorff and the kilted, malefic Rowdy Roddy Piper, is the Hulk's Rocky III co-star, Mr. T.

    WrestleMania? The term is an understatement for an attraction now enjoying its biggest boom ever. Four wrestling shows, all produced by the W.W.F., are among the top ten programs on cable TV. NBC will present Saturday Night's Main Event, the pilot for a possible monthly series, in its Saturday Night Live slot May 11. Three videocassettes, including one on the Hulkster, are scheduled to hit the stores next month. There are Hulk Hogan action dolls, T shirts and sweatbands. Propelled by Hogan and Lauper, who last year brought her rock-'em sock-'em glamour to the "sport," wrestling has moved from the regional sideshows of trash sports to the national big top.

    For any connoisseur of the deadpan schlock of pop culture, pro wrestling in its latest guise is like a trip to hog heaven. And the crowd is a big part of the show: part upscale, part down-home. Tuxedoed yuppies mix gingerly with the + rip-his-eyes-out! regulars. Andy Warhol shows up to pronounce, "It's hip. It's exciting. It's America." Gloria Steinem stops by to snort, of woman- mauling Roddy Piper, "He certainly is unfit to wear a skirt." Geraldine Ferraro apostrophizes, "Roddy Piper, why don't you come out and fight like a man?" Meanwhile, each month at the Garden, 20,000 souls who wouldn't be caught dead at a Jane Fonda Workout congregate to scream obscenities and pelt the wrestlers with hot dogs and ice cubes. For the few hours they spend together in a wrestling arena, the Perrier Set and the Boilermaker Brigade have something in common: synthetic blood lust.

    Inside the squared circle, the wrestlers strut their stuff. Each has a role to play, as carefully sculpted as Chaplin's Tramp, or as their own Everest flesh. Hulk Hogan is the all-California beach boy--David Lee Roth, giant size --with imposing biceps ("my 24-inch pythons"), a genially intimidating line of patter and a well-earned legion of "Hulkamaniacs." Piper is the swinish bully in every late-night barroom, oinking epithets and sucker- punching anyone smaller than he. Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik, the W.W.F.'s current tag-team champs, are twin xenophobic nightmares: Volkoff insists on singing the Soviet national anthem before each bout, while the Iranian Sheik waves Khomeini's flag and shouts, "America--hack, pfui!" One of their premier opponents, before he defected to the rival National Wrestling Alliance, was Sergeant Slaughter, who leads his audience in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. In many matches, the ring is a cartoon United Nations, in which the U.S. always has a fighting chance.

    There is drama. There is ideology. There is also wrestling, after a fashion. This is not legitimate, Greco-Roman- style grappling of the sort made famous every few years by the Olympics or a new John Irving novel. This is show biz; the promoters determine the outcome of most matches in advance, and the mayhem is at least partly pretend. But precisely because pro wrestling is a roughhouse-ballet form of improvisational comedy, the performers must be fine athletes. These lumbering behemoths can flash with agility--as if Godzilla had turned up in a kung fu picture and done O.K. They are not so much gladiators of camp as movie stars who do their own stunts. It can be no small feat of strength and precision to execute an atomic knee drop, a figure-4 leg lock, or the dreaded Boston crab, let alone a flying body block from the ropes to the center of the ring, without seriously injuring either party. "I don't want to hurt anybody," declares the Incredible Hulk (real name: Terry Gene Bollea), 31. "One bad fall could wreck a career--and that means six figures a year for most of us, and at least half a million for me as the champ. After all, this is a business."

    For the journeyman wrestler it can be a rough business: keeping your wits while having them knocked out of you, for real or surreal, five or six nights a week. "I admire their total commitment to quality in a profession fraught with danger," says Professor Gerald Morton of Auburn University at Montgomery, who is co-author of Wrestling to Rasslin: Ancient Sport to American Spectacle. "They have no union, no workmen's comp. The promoters, like the old dock foremen, essentially say who is going to work and who isn't." Morton sees an evolution in W.W.F. wrestling "from morality play toward farce. The wrestlers are characters in a continuing story that extends over a series of traumatic situations--matches--with elements of the ludicrous. And like any drama, it has a predetermined outcome. Wrestling can't be fixed because it was never intended to be a sport. You wouldn't say Hamlet was fixed."

    Not if Hulk Hogan was playing Hamlet. That would be like asking Jim Brown if he kisses on the first date; you may think you know the answer, yet be reluctant to pose the question. You might not even want to have a little show- biz fun with the 6-ft. 8-in., 300-lb. Hulkster. Billy Crystal got away with it on Saturday Night Live, but Richard Belzer, the pencil-armed host of cable TV's Hot Properties, was not so lucky. Four days before WrestleMania, Hogan was demonstrating a front chin-lock on Belzer, who went limp and fell unconscious to the floor. When he rose, a pool of blood had formed under his head; the comic required eight stitches. John Stossel, a reporter for the ABC newsmagazine 20/20, got a rounder basting when he told David ("Dr. D") Schultz, "You know, I think this is fake." His integrity impugned, the humongous Dr. D viciously swatted Stossel twice to the ground. Belzer is considering a lawsuit; Stossel is planning one. Both cases raise the ominous possibility that some wrestlers take the game all too seriously; they have crossed the hairline between vaudeville and violence. Such is the danger of performance art, as dadaist Comic Andy Kaufman used to prove when he would wrestle women on TV. Was that supposed to be funny, or what? Now the W.W.F. is upstaging the show-biz avant-garde with its cable talk show, Tuesday Night Titans, in which the guest wrestlers chat with McMahon, sing a song, belt each other and eat furniture and live chickens. So is wrestling a sport, or what? Mostly, it's what.

    And WrestleManiacs, old and new, cry: So what? It's fun! See the Hulkster cream an adversary, whether Rowdy Roddy or little Richard! See Cyndi molest Moolah! See, especially, Andre the Giant, all 7 ft. 4 in. and 474 lbs. of him, defend his honor against Big John Studd! If Andre body slams Studd to the canvas, he wins $15,000. If not, he retires. And justice triumphs! Andre pulverizes Big John, picks up a tote bag carrying the $15,000 and tosses bills out to the adoring throng. Now that's entertainment.