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Irvin Muchnick Interview - Author of 'Wrestling Babylon' And 'Chris And Nancy'
Irvin Muchnick is the author of Wrestling Babylon and Chris and Nancy. In the wake of the tragic death of wrestler Lance Cade in 2010 I decided to contact the wrestling writer and author and get his thoughts on why so many former WWE superstars seem to be dying prematurely.
Questions And Answers
RICHARD THOMAS: How did you first begin following wrestling and do you still consider yourself a wrestling fan?
IRVIN MUCHNICK: My uncle – my father’s brother – was Sam Muchnick, the promoter in St. Louis, the president of the National Wrestling Alliance for almost all of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and perhaps the most important figure on the business side of the sport in the era prior to cable TV and global marketing spearheaded by World Wrestling Entertainment. So I’ve been following the industry since I was knee-high to a turnbuckle. When I was a kid, I met many top wrestlers backstage and in social settings. On the night of the Kennedy assassination, November 22, 1963 – when I was nine years old – my dad and I attended Lou Thesz’s NWA world title defense against Fritz Von Erich. Uncle Sam thought it was too late to call off the show, and he had the local media in his pocket and no one criticized him. Two days later National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle decided not to cancel the pro football schedule and he was roundly criticized. Go figure.
As a professional writer, I found myself stumbling into the story of the growth and influence of the wrestling industry. Somewhere deep inside me, I'm still a soft-core fan. But I don’t even have cable.
RICHARD THOMAS: Who were some of your favourite wrestlers growing up and how do you think the superstars of today compare to them?
IRVIN MUCHNICK: Everyone is impressionable and we think the talent we saw in our youth were the best ever. I have my own great memories of Lou Thesz, Pat O’Connor, Gene Kiniski, Dick the Bruiser, Edouard Carpentier, Fritz Von Erich, Killer Kowalski. But if you watch what survives of their stuff on YouTube today, it confirms that pro wrestlers then, just like pro wrestlers now, had a few patterned moves and ways to build a story. Tbe truth of the matter is that athletes in all sports have become bigger, stronger, faster, and in almost every way better. The best of today’s wrestlers do a wider range of things, and more impressively, than their counterparts of earlier generations.
But I want to qualify that statement in a couple of ways.
I saw Buddy Rogers as NWA champion in 1961-62 at what turned out to be the tail end of his career. I’m sure he was even more dynamic in the late forties, when he saved my uncle’s bacon in a local promotional war. I don’t believe there could ever be another wrestler better at drawing “heel heat.” Just before Rogers died in the 1990s I spent a day talking with him, and he wasn’t especially articulate about his craft, nor did he seem exceptionally intelligent generally. But he knew how to do his thing, and he did it not without comedy or cartoon interviews, solely by how he moved and manipulated a crowd. Whatever “it” was, he had it.
Here’s my other observation about yesterday vs. today. In the 1980s Vince McMahon ended the charade of “kayfabe” – that is, pretending to the naïve that pro wrestling was legitimate. He did so to get out of state athletic commission regulations and taxes, and the effect was odd. Wrestling became a global entertainment and marketing franchise, and paradoxically, the ante was upped on hard-core realism, precisely because the magic-show aspect of the game had been exposed. Accounting for the terrible human fallout of this phenomenon – literally hundreds of unnecessary deaths in the name of maxed-out profits – is the theme of my work.
RICHARD THOMAS: What do you think it is about wrestling that appeals to so many people from seemingly every kind of different background?
IRVIN MUCHNICK: Well, does it appeal to so many different backgrounds? Haha, I’ll have to take your word for it. Speaking for myself, in wrestling at its best there’s a dreamlike, almost erotic quality. I know others like the adrenaline, the blood, the release. To the extent that wrestling cuts across different tastes, I guess the common denominator is that it’s a blank canvas for all our fantasies – an alternative universe where every social difference is resolved by physical aggression.
RICHARD THOMAS: How has the wrestling business evolved during your lifetime and do you think this has been a change for the better or worse?
IRVIN MUCHNICK: I think I’ve already answered that to some extent. Change is inevitable. There’s a lot more money today and the industry’s cultural profile is higher. I also think studies will bear out that there are fewer pro wrestlers making a living than in the old days of territories. I have no judgment on whether all of this is bad or good. Nor do I judge how the surrounding narratives and pageantry have evolved; the marketplace speaks. What I do judge is the pandemic of deaths caused by deregulation. That phenomenon is both avoidable and depraved.
RICHARD THOMAS: In your book Wrestling Babylon you write about how wresting has influenced other sports and even the media in America. What exactly do you mean by this and can you give us some examples?
IRVIN MUCHNICK: I mean not only that wrestling is big, but that what we might call wrestling values become deeply engrained in our public life. My country is in its late-empire phase, and this is more than a metaphor – it’s something you can feel in your bones on a daily basis. The examples aren’t just of Jesse Ventura getting elected governor of Minnesota or Linda McMahon possibly getting elected to the Senate from Connecticut. It’s in the infiltration of extracurricular nonsense and “attitude” into legit sports, which I now find harder to enjoy as a consequence. It’s in our debased political dialogue – the shouting nature of radio talk about the most important issues of our time is just as insipid as sports talk. On June 24, 2007, I was invited onto “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News to discuss the Chris Benoit tragedy, and Bill O’Reilly, out of nowhere, started yelling at me for no reason. Go have watch it on YouTube. That wasn't a dialogue, it was a scripted beat down.
RICHARD THOMAS: Wrestling has certainly seen too many tragedies the last decade or so, not all of them drug or steroid related, from Owen Hart’s death in 1999 to the more recent Chris Benoit tragedy. Why do you think so many wrestlers are dying before they reach 45 and how much do you think wrestling promoters such as Vince McMahon are to blame?
IRVIN MUCHNICK: Again, this is a basic theme of everything I've been writing on this subject for more than a quarter of a century. It starts with deregulation, the total absence of health and safety standards. In 1982 there was a horrible mishap during the making of The Twilight Zone: The Movie, as star Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese-American child actors were shredded to death by the rotating blades of a helicopter during a late-night shoot. Immediately, Hollywood made changes in film making procedures and the state of California reformed its child-labor laws. No one asked whether director Jon Landis was making a fictional movie or a documentary; people were killed during the production of a movie, and everyone understood that was wrong. But wrestling is “just wrestling” and wrestlers are “just wrestlers,” and somehow otherwise intelligent people are rendered stupid. The Linda McMahon campaign is highlighting how segments of the public don’t understand that there’s a difference between soap opera plots and an enterprise in which the soap opera players are real people who are dying in actuarially impossible numbers.
RICHARD THOMAS: Your latest book is Chris and Nancy, which investigates the Chris Benoit tragedy. The media were quick to blame steroids for the double murder suicide, would you agree that that’s a massive over simplification and what in your view might have been the root causes for Benoit’s actions?
IRVIN MUCHNICK: There is no single-bullet theory for what happened. Who knows? But I think the totality of the evidence, and of the authorities’ lazy pursuit of the evidence, shows that the Benoit tragedy is mixed up in what I call wrestling’s “cocktail of death”: steroids, painkillers and other prescription drug abuse, brain trauma from serial untreated concussions,. Nancy and Chris Benoit were around the ninth and tenth of around 21 wrestling personalities who died before their 50th birthdays in the year 2007 alone – the peak year of deaths catalyzed by the ten-year period, 1996 to 2006, when WWE eliminated its drug-testing for talent, which even in the best of circumstances is something of a PR sham. You would think one of the most sensational crime stories of the year would open everyone’s eyes. But a Congressional committee punted its investigation without even holding public hearings. Now, while Linda McMahon spends $50 million of wrestling profits trying to buy a Senate seat, two more of her “former” wrestlers have dropped dead. The autopsy of Umaga last December showed an enlarged heart, so where was the vaunted cardio screening of WWE’s so-called wellness program? Lance Cade took a chair shot to the head on international TV in October 2008, nearly a year after Vince McMahon falsely told CNN that the company was eliminating chair shots to the head. Then, when he died recently at 29 from “heart failure,” Linda said her industry was unfortunately riddled with addicts, apparently including Lance, whom she said “I might have met once.” Outrageous.
RICHARD THOMAS: The WWE have basically deleted Chris Benoit from their archives and the tragedy doesn't seem to have had the lasting impact on fans perhaps that it should have had. How much to blame do you think wrestling fans are for not putting enough pressure on the people running the wrestling business to clean the sport up?
IRVIN MUCHNICK: I'm not popular with many wrestling fans, and journalists who pander to them, when I point out their share of responsibility in the ugly dynamic of wrestling’s death mill. The response is that it’s not their fault that no one takes wrestling seriously. But that’s baloney on steroids. Fans want others to take wrestling seriously ... until someone actually does. Then they circle the wagons, just like fans of the St. Louis Cardinals (including myself), who were in denial about the role of performance-enhancing drugs in Mark McGwire’s home run record. But here’s the thing, Richard. There’s a difference between fake records in a real sport, and real death in a fake sport. The former is cheating. The latter is a public-health issue.
RICHARD THOMAS: Finally, what do you think needs to be done to prevent any more wrestling tragedies?
IRVIN MUCHNICK: Regulation, including drug-testing, by an independent authority, not by a bunch of doctors and labs hired by Vince McMahon for political cover.
RICHARD THOMAS: Thanks Irvin, please feel free to plug any websites or blogs you might have and where people can buy copies of your excellent books.
IRVIN MUCHNICK: Thanks for having me, Richard. My main blog is www.wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com. You can get information about my books, including how to order them, at www.benoitbook.com and www.wrestling.muchnick.net. I'm @irvmuch at Twitter. My YouTube channel is www.youtube.com/WrestlingBabylon. And from the links at www.muchnick.net, you can find out about my proudest achievement, the freelance writers’ case at the U.S. Supreme Court, Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick.