The French have a saying: "The more things change, the more they are the same thing."
Barnum had a saying: "The most thankless thing in the world is wising up a sucker."
I was reminded recently that both aphorisms seem to have come together lately in the stories in print and on TV of the astonishing renaissance of professional wrestling. Vaudeville might die, fashions might change, man might go to the moon--but the ranks of the gullible in our society never thin, the capacity for self-deception never seems to diminish.
Not too many years ago, it was considered a sacred function of fighting, fearless journalism to expose the sport of wrestling as a fake. No more meaningless exercise was ever conceived by the mind of man.
Expose Watergate all you want. Kick out a President. Hold up corruption to the light. Indict board chairmen, depose dictators. But don't tell me Sergeant Slaughter isn't hammering that Russki Commie prevert into insensibility in the ring and restoring honor and glory to the good old U.S. of A., avenging Afghanistan, Vietnam, the battle of the Bulge, the Alamo and/or Custer's Last Stand in the ring. We may lose wars but not tag-team matches.
Wrestling may be theater of the absurd, but it is theater. It is the ultimate morality play. It reinforces our image of ourselves as the basic good guys of the world, the ultimate ones in the white hats.
A lot of American sporting events seemed to be phased out in recent years, only to make smashing comebacks. Not too many years ago, baseball seemed to have its throat rattling, only to start breaking attendance records. Horse racing, which had been reduced to dish-night promotions to survive, suddenly was unable to beat the crush of attendance off with a club.
Now pro wrestling comes crawling out of the woodwork and is selling out from the mink-studded rows of Madison Square Garden to the canebrakes of northwest Louisiana.
There was a time when pro wrestling was as legitimate as Wall Street. And almost as dull. Presumably, Frank Gotch's and George Hackenschmidt's celebrated matches were as on the level as the Dempsey-Firpo fight, if no way near as exciting. Gotch once had Hackenschmidt in a neck hold for nearly two hours of motionless performance in a match in New Jersey.
No one knows when wrestling descended into hippodrome. Probably when the champions took to barnstorming the country in tent shows, challenging all comers in their spiels. That brought the con men, the guys with their own decks, into the action and the bogus offer of instant cash to "anyone who can stay two minutes or three rounds with the Strangler" became a part of the American lexicon. The audiences, of course, were peppered with shills who were on the payroll of the star attraction.
It was the Dartmouth football player, Gus Sonnenberg, who brought real show biz into the game when he introduced the "flying tackle" into the action. It was a tactic that had been outlawed in football when an Army player broke his neck doing it in a game against Yale, but it sold at the box office.
There were rival wrestling troupes in those days. The sharpster, Jack Curley, headed one. Paul Bowser headed the other. The only times an honest wrestling match had a chance to ensue was when contract players from one warring faction were incautious enough to schedule one another.
The Golden Greek, Jim Londos, consolidated the sport in the impoverished '30s, succeeding a man named Robert H. Friedrich, who had caught the public fancy with the felicitousness of his ring nickname, Strangler Lewis.
The women loved Londos because he used to smear his body in olive oil before competing, a practice that was to become commonplace in Mr. America contests later on. Gorgeous George, whose real name was Raymond Wagner, took things to another dimension by appearing in the ring in the guise of a closet queen, with peroxided marcelled hair, a mirror and eyeshadow, and so many sequinned robes he looked like Mae West in drag.
Villains were as necessary to the plots as they were to Horatio Alger novels, and wrestling became less a sport than a drama in three acts. It consisted of the good guy losing four ways in Acts I and II, until the bad guy went too far--by spitting on an American flag, decking a little old lady at ringside, or splattering a hidden bottle of catsup over the head of his heroic opponent.
The scenarios were right out of John Wayne westerns and just as popular. The customers took them seriously but villainy didn't come into its own until Fred Kenneth Blassie, a white-eyed, white-haired giant with a perpetual sneer turned it into big business. Freddie Blassie became the Merchant of Venom, an unrelieved scoundrel, a cad, a man who had the glorious public image of Benito Mussolini or the black widow spider.
It was not all hokum. He got stabbed about 20 times leaving the ring. He got hit with garbage, spat at. His car was burned in the parking lot with blowtorches. He had to keep not only his home address secret, but his hometown. I was with him one night when a fan threw acid all over his leg. He had to go to the hospital for treatment of third-degree burns.
The difference with FreddieBlassie was that he won. Justice didn't triumph. Justice got thrown into the second-row seats. Freddie called his opponents "pencil-necked geeks" and his fans worse. He became a millionaire, as big a television star as Hoss Cartwright and just as fictitious.
So I'm not surprised wrestling has made a great comeback. It has never gone away. To paraphrase the words of an old Denver editor, wrestling is like sex. You can rail against it, legislate against it, condemn it, threaten it with punishment and campaign against it. But you'll never make it unpopular with the masses.