Any child of the 90’s who claims he’s never seen an episode of Monday Night RAW is either A. lying to you or B. was one of those weird kids who refused to wear an NFL Starter jacket because “soccer was way better.”
Well, fuck that guy. I, like 99% of my fifth-grade class, was addicted to professional wrestling, and I have only my father to thank. I remember a story he told at the dinner table where he and his buddies went on an all-night bender and went and saw the wrestling show that had stopped in the Twin Cities that weekend. Hulk Hogan was headlining the main event card. My Dad didn’t really talk about the Hulkster, though. He never mentioned the spectacle of the sport, the pageantry of the entrance music or the signature moves. No, he just remembered getting blitzed on cases of Hamm’s and hollering obscenities at “those sweaty closet homos.”
But Dad, how could you possibly enjoy yourself if you were that drunk?
He never mentioned it again. He’d never admit it, but my father had a very strange relationship with pro wrestling. It happened nearly every Thursday, when he’d sprawl out on the couch, flipping through channels and pausing on UPN to chuckle as The Rock bodyslammed Ken Shamrock through the windshield of a Sedan. He would only shake his head at the stupidity of it before switching back to whichever This Old House rerun was on PBS. That bodyslam was all it took for me, though. I was hooked.
To clarify, I was hooked on the World Wrestling Federation, which by 1999 had clearly surpassed the rival World Championship Wrestling as the superior product. I followed the stuff religiously, staying on top of all the best feuds, coolest finishing moves and those skanky-but-ever-so-sweet glimpses of siliconed cleavage. This all sounds pretty pathetic now, but for the lone jabroni with a shitty dial-up connection and no cable television, it was damn impressive. Of course, no cable meant no RAW, so Thursday Night Smackdown! was my Monday night.
Despite being raised on nothing but Capri Suns and Stone Cold Stunners, my prepubescent self was enraptured by Ready to Rumble. And it was weird. After all, WCW was cable-only programming. Four-way dance matches? A United States Championship? What the fuck is a luchador? By all rights, I shouldn’t have even seen the film when I did. My parents would never sit through a matinee, and I sure as Hell didn’t have big enough grapefruits to steal my mom’s Windstar and drive myself. No, it took a Wisconsin Dells vacation, some hotel on demand, and once again my father, too tired to give a shit about tomorrow’s checkout bill.
I may not have been a WCW fan, but I still knew wrestlers when I saw them, and Ready to Rumble was filled with them. Watching it now, this has a strange effect because the actors are the ones who feel out of place — especially Oliver Platt, who plays the hero of two devoted fans, Gordie (David Arquette) and Sean (Scott Caan).
Jimmy King doesn’t really gel with the rest of the film, and while much of that is probably an unintended consequence, his character isn’t all that far from the reality of the business. King’s bacchanalian, majestic shtick is just that: the mask of a pathetic life that falls just short of Ric Flairean levels of sadness
. King’s skipped out on his wife, dodged alimony payments, and turned his nose up at just about everyone who’s helped make him a star along the way. When King’s manager, Titus Sinclair (Joe Pantoliano), double-crosses him, the event plays out like an eerie echo of real-life events.
This particular event, known as “The Montreal Screwjob,” occurred when then-WWF champion Bret Hart, having amicably reached a deal to leave the company and go to WCW, refused to do so by losing the title in his native Canada. Vince McMahon stomped down to the ring mid-match and rang the bell, signaling to the referee that Hart had submitted to Shawn Michael’s submission hold. Well he hadn’t. This wasn’t scripted. It really happened, and it gave fans a glimpse into the industry’s darker aspects. The event remains so infamous that you can type “Montreal” into a YouTube search bar and “Screwjob” appears before Canadiens highlights.
It’s obvious Ready to Rumble has a ton of fun playing in wrestling’s beer-soaked, blood-caked sandbox. Maybe too much fun. Arquette and Caan are morons, and the premise of two open-mouthed wrestling fanatics getting swallowed up in the industry drama is rife for parody. But rather than exploit the comedic potential that WCW has lobbed over the plate, the film just reincorporates itself back into the industry. The sobering moment when the pair learn their hero is a washed up piece of trash isn’t revelatory; it goes in one ear and out the other.
“Ya’ll know it’s just a show, right?” “Best show in the world.” It’s like wrestling’s this big joke that everyone is in on except Arquette and Caan. “Drunk Jimmy King in a dress” isn’t a wake up call so much as their calling. This is destiny, man. Things become problematic when the film makes no effort to distinguish between the “real” story and the movie’s scripted wrestling storyline, if only because there is no difference. They’re the same. King’s comeback trail is quickly pounced on by Sinclair and then re-worked into the next pay-per-view’s main event. You just fired the man on live television! How can he come back a month later?! What kind of self-respecting entertainment industry woul- oh. Right. At its climax, a heavyweight title match between King and Diamond Dallas Page atop not one but three steel cages becomes all-out battle royale that dissolves into loads of unintentional meta-ness. I can’t imagine trying to explain this to somebody:
Sinclair’s backstage goons have come out to stop King’s return!
Isn’t this real, though?
The audience thinks it’s just part of the storyline.
But it isn’t. It’s supposed to be actually happening.
The film’s script is about a fake story?
Technically, the film’s story is a fake story.
But in the movie it’s not a script. It’s actually happening.
Do the fans know that, though?
Who cares? They’re actually fighting!
So this is real wrestling?
So wrestling is fake…
I’d bother parsing some sort of in-depth analysis here, but who really gives a shit when Bill fucking Goldberg is the watered down deus ex machina in your movie?
And Kid Rock. Did I mention Kid Rock’s on the soundtrack? Well, he is. Twice. UNGH! The WCW went all in for this film, lending not just its talent, advertising and merchandising licenses, but its credibility, too. Having Arquette win the World Heavyweight Title on an episode of Thunder was the idea of then-head booker Vince Russo, and an obvious advertising stunt. Not surprisingly, Ready to Rumble tanked and was panned by critics.
The stunt with Arquette never paid off, but the WCW stuck to its guns. Hey, we’re a wrestling business and that’s all we know. Sure, we’ll help make a wrestling movie. And if you don’t like what we’ve got to offer, piss off. It never tried to be anything except itself, something the WWF WWE can never claim. We’re entertainment now. John Cena isn’t a wrestler. He’s a sports entertainer. He’s a role model.
He’s not an actor, though. The Marine may have a better rating on iMDb, but nobody in Ready to Rumble pretends that Diamond Dallas Page is the next Dwayne Johnson. Watching Vince McMahon water down his company with wholesome family-friendly values has been an oftentimes hilarious if not awkward experience altogether. Ready to Rumble is a crude high school term paper on what pro wrestling needs to be — the smash-mouth, no apologies, in-your-face kind of wrestling — even if this version of the sport couldn’t sustain a viable long term market. In 2001, pro wrestling began losing its mainstream audience, and the WCW eventually folded and was sold to Vince McMahon for a fraction of what it was once worth.
I’ll admit that while I don’t follow the WWE anymore — even I lost interest in the product around high school — I still get curious from time to time. It’s usually around early March, long after the Lombardi Trophy has been handed out and baseball is still weeks away. I’ll switch to the USA Network on commercial breaks and catch a John Cena promo before chuckling, shaking my head in disbelief and changing the channel. I can’t watch the stuff sober anymore.