When a sweet-faced woman yells "Kill him!" at a wrestling match, there must be a reason
Ladies, Are We Brutes?
When a sweet-faced woman yells "Kill him!" at a wrestling match, there must be a reason
SHE WAS a slender, middle-aged woman whose face was framed in soft white hair; a woman, I told myself, whose sympathy was quick and deep, whose kindliness was almost beyond control, whose anger flared only at unnecessarily inflicted pain. She was the counterpart of women seen in church societies, always working for good. Suddenly, she sprang from her chair and shouted in a tense, hard voice:
“Break his arm! Break it off at the elbow. Kill him, the dirty cur!”
All over the great auditorium, a wild chorus took up her cry; high feminine voices sharpening the thicker roaring of the men.
I was watching my first wrestling match, and impressions flooded in so fast I was bewildered. Amusing as it must sound to women fans, I had gone diffidently, influenced perhaps by a throwback to the days when a woman would have had to be pretty hard pressed to walk through a smoking car, much less enjoy the privileges of one; when she would have considered herself insulted if a man invited her to cross the threshhold of a beer garden; when, in a word, there were places where she was forbidden by convention to go. I had not pictured gentle, motherly females and aristocratic young girls at a vulgar wrestling match. But the queue streaming out from the ticket window had shown an almost even division of women and men; and certainly, except for a few boys of the hoodlum type, those most eager to get into the building belonged to the weaker sex. Oh, indeed, yes! The majority of them were on the wrong side of forty, too.
My escort explained that, although we had ringside seats, they were far enough back to ensure us against the embarrassment of having one of the wrestlers thrown into our laps. I commended this precaution as I was carried on an irresistible human wave into the auditorium nearly to the centre of the building.
The air was blue; the blue haze I had frequently read of. Several thousand people were showing a fine disregard for huge signs that forbade smoking. Nearly everyone, smokers included, chewed gum in time to a harsh din that loud speakers thrust into the farthest corners of the arena. The powerful and garish lights swayed in the thick air.
Exactly in the middle of the floor stood the platform, some seven or eight feet high and fenced in by four stout ropes. I thought that if there had been five, they would have looked like staves of music. Two stools occupied opposite corners of the ring. That was all. Tier upon tier of faces rose on every side. A good imitation of a cinema setting, I decided.
The Crowd Gets Its Cue
MY ATTENTION kept wandering to the spectators.
Who were they when at home? What kind of reaction did they get from an exhibition of this kind? What brought hundreds of women who a few years ago would have fainted at the sight of blood, to watch brute strength in the raw?
Beside me sat a Chinaman. Next came a woman, her husband and little girl of about ten. The row in front was filled with men except for the grey-haired woman already mentioned. Behind, sat three young girls who might have been stenographers. One asked the others: “Is this first lad a dirty fighter?” Her tone suggested that she rather hoped he was.
“Ladies and gentlemen !” Ladies—how odd to be publicly recognized! The first bout was announced. Contestants and referee climbed under the ropes to a little limp applause. The wrestlers took up positions in opposite corners of the
ring and flexed their muscles by pulling at the ropes. They wore dressing gowns over trunks, socks and soft shoes. I thought about a man who was arrested at the seashore not many years ago because his bathing suit, instead of having sleeves, was cut out ever so little under the arms.
As the announcer stopped speaking the opponents advanced to the middle of the ring, where the referee, dressed modestly in white duck pants and a white sweater, ran a perfunctory hand over their bodies to see if they were oiled, or whether they carried knuckle-dusters or the like on their almost naked persons. Satisfied that “No” answered both questions, the men threw off their robes and the fight was on.
The audience sat perfectly silent. Indifferent. The faces about me showed a curious blankness except that of the little girl. She looked interested. I had thought there would be a tension, a waiting for the equivalent of a good pass in football, a long lob in tennis. There was nothing. The first flicker evidenced itself when, his back to the referee, and his opponent’s head squeezed like a melon under his left arm, one of the wrestlers began to pound the other in the face. Then a low growl throbbed over the auditorium. It rose to a roar as the pounding continued, the “dirty” fighter always keeping his back to the referee. From all over the house men and women could be heard telling the referee, who kept carefully behind the contestants, what was going on. It was an amusing bit of by-play, for with a step he could have confronted the men and brought the hammering to an end.
But something else was happening. One man was establishing himself as the villain of the piece, the other as the hero. The crowd now knew its cue; knew exactly what to do.
“A marriage Iras been arranged.” With equal frankness and accuracy could it be said, “A wrestling match has been arranged.” One never comes upon that phrase. It is so obvious, however, that one is puzzled as to why the spectators
in their thousands haven’t tumbled to the truth. Or if they have, why they take enjoyment in anything so patently staged. A horse race may be fixed, but one doesn’t know which horse has been scheduled to win. One can foresee in a wrestling match, from the first bit of dirty work, which man will win.. There are few surprises.
Perhaps for the mass of onlookers, the match is like a cheap story in which virtue will always triumph and vice will earn for itself a cruel fate. In the story, however, there are many more moves and suspenseful incidents than in a bout between wrestlers. At least, for the uninitiated. Naturally, one man shows greater skill, more finish and better style than another, but to a critical novice, the chief difference between events seems to lie in the length of time before the villain finally succumbs, and his manner of taking punishment. One fellow made a perfect burlesque of his plight, backing around the platform with hands outflung, appealing to the hero, the referee and the spectators for mercy. Of course, the spectators roared for his blood. After a considerable space devoted to this absurd pantomime, the hero fell to with a will and mopped up the floor with his opponent. It was during this satisfying performance that the grey-haired little lady begged her white-haired hero to break the villain’s arm.
Continuing the analogy between a short story and a wrestling match, in both the hero is up against terrible odds, in both he must face them squarely and with unbroken courage, in both he is outclassed until, say, the middle of the piece. Then, gathering himself together, profiting by his experience, he makes the Great Decision—always the right one—and ploughs in, emerging from his cruel punishment victorious. I couldn’t help feeling as I watched the by-play that wrestling was secondary to the rather crude acting that
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Ladies, Are We Brutes ?
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went on. For example, the hero of a bout offered his hand to the villain and got smacked in the face for his pains. With gorgeous abandon, the crowd flung itself into the spirit of the piece and howled for the bad man’s liver. Once, the villain dragged an almost unprotesting hçro across the platform and poked his head between the ropes, which he took time to twist rather like a cat’s cradle, while the referee kept carefully out of the way and the spectators could enjoy the thrill of unrestrained emotions—some of pity for the hero, most of hate for the other. Unrestrained emotions. Perhaps that explains the throngs of women at a wrestling match.
In a bout of three “falls,” the clean fighter suffers consistently through the first and nearly all of the second. It’s exactly like working up to the climax of a story. The crowd suffers with him, offers advice, exhausts itself by hurling oaths and harsh epithets at the dirty fellow. Then, suddenly, the favorite squares his jaw, lowers his head and stops fooling.
It’s all over for the other. He hasn’t a ghost of a show. The spectators love his punishment, shriek with delight when the hero appears to be hammering a nail into the floor with his head. Men, women and youngsters suggest the most unpleasant alterations to his body.
“Give him the works, kid,” screamed one of the girls behind me. “Give him the scissors good ! Beat his head to jelly ! Remember how he made you suffer!”
And the little grey-haired lady, in company with many others like her, watched the brutal handling with an indulgent smile, as though two puppies were at play. The rougher the attack, the more she seemed to like it—so long as the villain was getting his.
“Squeeze him,” she would call. “Don’t let him go, boy! Tear his ear off!”
Why Ladies Love Wrestling
THE RECENT popularity of wrestling, especially among women, takes some explaining. Who can state authoritatively why it appeals to them? Do they want to see pain expressed in its most primitive manifestation? If so, then their perceptions are nothing like so keen as they are supposed to be for, as I have tried to show, the antics they see in the ring are the most palpable imitation of genuine anguish.
Wrestling uses mob psychology to the greatest benefit of the box office. Dick Daviscourt, the first “mat villain” the business ever knew, told an interviewer:
“I became a villain by accident. I roughed up Jimmy Londos (until recently the world’s champion) something terrible one night. There was a riot. Ringside fans tried to club me. Women screamed and clawed at me. I decided then and there that I would always be as dirty and rough and mean as possible. My next match in that town drew twice as many spectators as before. I decided to let the other fellows do the clean wrestling.”
If women want to see the dirty fighter killed nowadays, they have a slim chance of being satisfied. Seldom does one hear of a wrestler getting hurt. They can’t afford to get hurt, appearing, as many of them do. three times a week.
Is it too far-fetched to suggest that the appeal of wrestling for women has something of spiritual significance; that the certain triumph of Good over Evil draws them to the ring? Or is the explanation much less obscure—simply a yearning to see he-men. stripped of all conventionalism, exposing emotions associated with the cave dweller’s age? Men have become so soft, so lacking in virility and the power to endure, it may be that women find satisfaction in a revelation of certain brute qualities that once made them men’s slaves.
Personally, I lean to the theory of a universal love of melodrama and the unconscious or subconscious security of the spectator as to the eventual outcome of the piece. The hero is always heroic and cannot fail to win. The villain is always villainous and must be punished. Incidentally, like the bad man of the old-time barnstorming companies, the “mat villain” has no friends. Not a single voice is lifted on his behalf. In every other contest I can think of, each man has a following; the spectators take sides. But once a villain in wrestling, always a villain; no matter how cleverly he works or what holds he achieves, there is nothing but hostility shown toward him. He never has a friend.
It is no idle phrase I use in saying that fighting blood is roused by seeing two men clutch and claw. The least trifle provokes private batlles all over the house. One man tells another to sit down; result, two passengers in an ambulance. Someone shouts that the referee has been “fixed”; result, twenty pairs of flying fists and smart work on the part of the police. In the match I saw, there came a moment when a sudden surge of at least fifty people from round about me flowed, screaming, to the platform.
The mob wanted the dirty wrestler drawn and quartered, for, according to them, he had used a knuckle-duster on the baby-faced boy he was fighting. Men climbed into the ring and knocked the referee about. Minions of the law had to be called.
No brass knuckles were found. Indeed, in the several bouts I sat through, there was not one visible scratch on any wrestler, not a suspicion of blood from any nose unless it was that of a spectator. The wrestlers must not injure each other; or, if that is too broad a statement, they try to observe the rules under which matches are “arranged.” Naturally, I don’t claim that all the holds are soothing; but I do insist that most of the agony shown is pure play acting and that no permanent harm comes to a man whose opponent seems to follow the urging of— well, of the little grey-haired woman. Her voice was the last I heard clearly as I left the auditorium. She was screaming:
“Gouge his eyes out, sonny! Now you’ve got him down, don’t let him up!”
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