There are certain basic truths about the human existence, and one is this: Unless you count cartoons, pro wrestling is the only place on Earth where you can smash a metal folding chair over a man's head, crush his windpipe with your elbow and drive a knee into his groin, only to watch him jump up as if he had just received a brisk massage.
That is exactly what's taking place on this steamy night at the Baltimore Arena. A roaring, sell-out crowd of 12,000 is watching Hulk Hogan mop the ring with Vader in the feature match of World Championship Wrestling's Super Brawl V, with the whole ugly business being beamed across the nation on pay-per-view.
I am sitting 14 rows from the ring, which is not a bad seat, except that there is an enormous man behind me screaming "Rip his head off, Hulkster!" in my ear.
The man's wife is getting equally worked up at Vader, who wears black tights and a mask and goes 450 pounds, with a face that looks like a cantaloupe left out in the sun too long.
I came here to answer one question: What do wrestling fans see in this stuff? And after three hours of watching Bunkhouse Buck club Hacksaw Jim Duggan with an American flag, the cyberpunk Nasty Boys lose to the Harlem Heat, and Sting and "Macho Man" Randy Savage beating the tar out of the Avalanche and Big Bubba, maybe it's time to ask the fun couple behind me for insight.
The man smiles as I approach and the smile stays in place until I
mention that I'm with the newspaper, at which point he looks at me the way you would at a hair in your soup.
"Ain't got time for no reporters," the man says.
The missus says that pretty well speaks for her, too, so I slink away like a guy who just got turned down at the sophomore dance.
At this point in the match, Vader has Hulk Hogan in a headlock and is trying to extract his corneas without the benefit of anesthesia, which is when it occurs to me that there is much about pro wrestling that hasn't changed:
* The closer you get to the action, the more fake this stuff looks, like bad Kabuki.
* The good guy usually wins, but not always, and it's more interesting when he doesn't. They never left the Lone Ranger whimpering and scratching for his life in the bottom of a well as the credits rolled, but maybe they should have. It works in wrestling.
* A lot of the bad guys have weight problems.
* A lot of the bad guys also look vaguely foreign -- you suit up a fat guy from a Middle Eastern country who knows his way around the ring, he'll be pulling in the big dough ("name" wrestlers make as much as $500,000 a year) in no time.
* The referee is always an incredible dunce who will be distracted the moment anything illegal occurs in the ring. A wrestler could pull a bazooka from his trunks and blow away his opponent, and the referee would no doubt be on the other side of the ring, arguing with the bazooka wielder's manager.
But this isn't telling me why people love this stuff, so it's time to take the scientific approach.
At the Arena on this Sunday night, the crowd is predominantly male and predominantly white and predominantly young, in the 9- to 25-year-old range.
So I pick out a youngish-looking white guy and ask him to speak for everyone in the joint. That's fair, isn't it? The white guy turns out to be Joe Sturgill, 22, a truck driver from Baltimore who's been watching wrestling for 14 years.
It turns out Joe Sturgill used to live five minutes from Hulk Hogan outside Clearwater, Fla. He used to see the Hulkster along the waterfront fooling with his boat, which was the size of a missile cruiser with twin Evinrude engines, to hear tell.
The two men never spoke, although if they had, it wouldn't have been much of a conversation. Joe would have been doing a lot of bowing and chanting "I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy."
"Yeah, Hulk Hogan's my man," Joe is saying now.
So you ask Joe Sturgill what it is about wrestling that fascinates him so, that causes 11,000 other like him to shoehorn into the Arena on a winter evening and scream their lungs out for three hours.
"Man, that's a tough question," Joe says.
"I'm not sure I really know."
"Well, it's exciting," he says at last. "These guys are great actors. And great athletes. Sure, it's all fake. But it takes talent to do all that stuff without getting hurt."
Thank you, Joe. Now we're getting somewhere.
Pro wrestling is not big on numbers, which is fine, since a lot of numbers will put you to sleep faster than a chloroform-soaked handkerchief.
Still, even getting something as simple as attendance figures from wrestling officials proves to be impossible. During a phone conversation with WCW spokeswoman Lynn Brent in Atlanta, the paranoia on her end of the line seems palpable when I ask how many fans attended matches last year.
"I don't have any figures," she says.
"You don't have attendance figures?"
"No, I don't."
"How about pay-per-view figures?"
"You'd have to speak to our pay-per-view director."
"Fine, can I speak to him?"
"I'm sorry. He's out of town."
"Any idea when he'll be back?"
"No, I'm sorry."
"Nice talking to you."
"It's like the Mafia," says George O'Brien, a professor of German at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, who wrote the book "From Wrestling to Rasslin': Ancient Sport to American Spectacle. "[Wrestling] doesn't give out information. They tell you it's private."
Mr. O'Brien says there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 million wrestling fans in this country, although the sport has experienced somewhat of a decline since the late '80s, due mainly to cyclical changes in entertainment patterns.
Yet the business is still huge, generating a reported $360 million in revenue each year. Wrestlemania III, in which Hulk Hogan took on Andre the Giant at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan, attracted 93,173 fans in 1987 and set the indoor attendance record for any sport or other entertainment.
Mr. O'Brien theorizes that much of the sport's appeal is rooted in the ages-old cry of the dyed-in-the-wool wrestling fan: "I don't care if it is fake, kill the bastard!"
"It's a morality play," he says. "Ultimately, good triumphs over evil, although not necessarily in a given show. It's like the [old] TTC westerns. The guy with the white hat would ultimately win, but evil is pervasive. The bad guys might take over the town for a long time."
Great athletes, morality plays, good vs. evil . . . back at the Arena, all this is running through my mind when I run into Donna Pasker at the souvenir stand.
Donna Pasker is from Chesapeake Beach, which is past Upper " Marlboro if you're looking for directions. She's here with her two kids, Dean, 10, and Katie, 5, and a friend of theirs, Michael, 8.
The four of them appear to have wiped out the souvenirs. Each child was given $10, which went to Vader masks, Hogan do-rags, etc. Donna even broke down and bought a pair of purple WCW sunglasses.
I ask if she's a big wrestling fan and she says yes, and when I ask why, she gives me that Joe Sturgill pause, which means the brain is scanning.
"She thinks Hulk Hogan is sexy!" Dean says.
At this, Donna's face reddens and I think maybe she's going to put on those purple shades right here, she looks so embarrassed.
"Well, I pay attention to the wrestling, too," she says, not altogether convincingly. "It's entertainment for all of us."
Hard bodies in tight trunks -- there's another theory to add to the mix. It probably wouldn't do to tell Donna that last July, wrestling promoter Vince McMahon Jr. was hauled into court and charged by the federal government with conspiracy to distribute anabolic steroids to some of his wrestlers.
Anabolic steroids are a synthetic form of the male hormone, which can make people like wrestlers extremely muscular. The problem is, doctors say steroids can also make wrestlers extremely dead from such things as bone deterioration, liver failure, cancer, etc.
But I'm guessing Donna doesn't want to hear all that right now.
Sport as theater
There's an old joke that goes something like this: What has three teeth and an IQ of 50? The first 10 rows of a wrestling crowd.
The funny thing about that joke -- if you think it's funny at all -- is that it was apparently first uttered by Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, an announcer for WCW and a former wrestling manager himself.
At about the same time that this joke was circulating, there was an interview in a wrestling magazine with "Nature Boy" Ric Flair. A reporter asked Mr. Flair what he liked to do in his spare time. Mr. Flair said he enjoyed hanging outside hospitals and letting the air out of ambulance tires.
The reporter didn't find this astonishing at all, I guess, because he simply went on to the next question ("How long do you work out in the gym every day?") So you might say the sport had an image problem. It was the sport of dopes and mopes, and then there was all that blood.
Twenty years ago, wrestlers were getting whacked across the face with 2-by-4s and biting so many blood capsules that the ring looked like the site of a terrorist bombing.
No more, though. They got rid of the blood. Now what you see is pure theater, wonderfully talented athletes in a tightly choreographed ballet. The sport, which traditionally appealed to the down-and-out in bad times, has gone upscale in some ways. Wrestling markets itself as a mixture of fantasy and Vegas-style entertainment that squares with middle-class sensibilities.
Now you have people in the Arena stands like Ed and Sharon Hughes from East Rockaway, N.Y. They are here with their son Keith, 10, courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Make-A-Wish helps sick children realize their dreams of meeting their heroes. Keith, a small, bright-eyed boy who recently spent two weeks in the hospital being treated for lymphoma, met his hero, Hulk Hogan, backstage a few minutes earlier.
By all accounts, the meeting went well, although Keith threatened to float up to the ceiling, he was so excited. The Hulkster told Keith he was honored to meet him and gave Keith and his brother and sister Hulk T-shirts and posters and other paraphernalia. Keith invited the wrestler to his house for a dinner of chicken and beer.
"Keith was in awe," Sharon Hughes is saying now. "Talk about a dream come true. This is really it for him."
In a morality play, the characters personify moral qualities or abstractions, such as good or evil, youth or death, etc.
In wrestling, everyone always knows his role.
A moral victory
Up in the ring now, as the festivities build to a crescendo, the morality play is taking on a more brutal edge.
In the span of 30 seconds, Vader has punched Hogan five times in the face, choked him, gouged his eyes and smashed him with an elbow to the nose. Hogan lies crumpled in pain on the canvas.
Of course, this is not enough punishment -- the Hulkster still has a pulse rate. So Vader also leaps from the ring ropes and delivers a vicious body slam with all 450 pounds, which must leave poor Hulk feeling like a Buick just dropped on him.
A lesser man would be in the emergency room by now, hooked up to IV tubes and plasma bottles. But Hulk wills himself to his feet and -- what's this?! -- begins raining blows on Vader, sledgehammer rights and lefts.
Suddenly, there's a third man in the ring. It's "Nature Boy" Ric Flair coming to Vader's aid! Now here comes Sting and "Macho Man" Randy Savage over the ropes to help Hogan! It's a dock brawl, utter chaos, a symphony of punches and drop- kicks and sleeper holds.
The bell rings. Vader has been disqualified because of Ric Flair's actions. Hulk Hogan has retained his championship title.
Good has triumphed over evil.
The crowd goes home happy.
Life doesn't always work out this well, but when it does, it fills everyone with a warm glow.
That ugly pig Vader, he got what he deserved.