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Wrestling With My Grandfather

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This July, it will be 10 years since my grandfather died. After his wife, my grandmother, passed away in 1983, my parents, sister, and I eventually came to share a house with him, and from then on he was as much a brother to me as anything else.

I usually find myself thinking a lot about him at this time of year -- the last week of March -- as another anniversary, the annual Wrestlemania card put on by the WWE (formerly WWF) approaches. It was an important fixture on our -- mine and his -- entertainment calendar, the culmination of a year's worth of wrestling storylines played out on weekly television episodes that we more often than not watched together. At Wrestlemania, feuds that had festered for 12 months would end in dramatic battle. It was a fair bet the event would feature the best matches of the year.

My grandfather reveled in the inherent contradictions of professional wrestling -- the very real athleticism of the wrestlers against a backdrop of cheap, contrived plots and storylines cooked up by WWE owner Vince McMahon and his team of writers and "bookers" (the behind-the-scenes men, usually retired wrestlers, who choreograph matches and dictate how the winners win and losers lose).

His usual perch for watching wrestling on T.V. was the very edge of his bed. It would be an intense hour or two: When one behemoth bodyslammed his opponent, my grandfather would lurch forward, his behind visibly rising off the bed. He experienced in a very personal way every punch and suplex, every steel chair shot to the head, his hands clenched and that butt constantly hopping up and down. He became audibly frustrated when the bad guys -- "heels" in wrestling parlance -- seemed on the verge of winning, usually by way of cheating. When during tag-team matches one heel would distract the referee while his teammate pounded on the good guy illegally, my grandfather would point to the screen as if pleading for someone to correct the injustice.

In the next moment he would usually turn to me and start to chuckle, as he remembered that the whole thing was an act, a play wherein characters changed but the essential story rarely did. And then just as quickly, he'd clench his fists and rise again as the match continued.

My grandfather lived through one of the most significant developments in professional wrestling -- the battle for wrestling-federation supremacy between McMahon's WWE and World Championship Wrestling (WCW), underwritten by Ted Turner with the singular purpose of running the WWE out of business (ultimately the opposite happened, when McMahon purchased a floundering WCW in 1999).

The so-called "Monday Night Wars" pitted WWE's Raw program against WCW's Nitro show, both of which aired in primetime on Mondays, and brought about a revolution in the way wrestling was broadcast on television: Until then, T.V. programming was considered an advertising vehicle through which wrestling promoters hyped live performances and pay-per-view specials (like Wrestlemania), where they made their real money.

Matches airing on television were called "squashes," in which marquee names, like Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair, battled no-name losers (called "jobbers" -- the most famous of them was named Barry Horowitz) in quick, undramatic bouts meant to emphasize the star's superior power and ability. You would never see, say, a match for the championship belt on T.V., only interviews and video packages promoting an upcoming epic battle, available for $19.99 on pay-per-view.

But as WCW and WWE duked it out, both companies were forced to air championship and other main event-calibre matches on free T.V. in an effort to beat the other in the ratings game. This suited my grandfather well -- he enjoyed wrestling but would never consider shelling out money to watch it on pay-per-view. Not that he was penurious, but he acknowledged the rational limits of a wrestling obsession; paying for wrestling would constitute too much of a devotion to a form of entertainment that even he knew was nothing short of ridiculous.

The main event of this year's Wrestlemania (officially Wrestlemania XXVIII) pits John Cena, WWE's next generation Hulk Hogan, a prototypical good guy whose motto is "Rise Above Hate" (who can argue with that?) against The Rock, a.k.a Hollywood star Dwayne Johnson, returning to his roots in a bid to rejuvenate his movie career (this is his real-life motive; in the storyline he's come back, he says, because he simply can't stand Cena -- and there may in fact be some real-life truth to that). The WWE has been hyping this match for a year -- it was announced one day after last year's Wrestlemania, during which The Rock interfered in Cena's championship match.

The long build-up hearkens back to a much earlier time in the history of professional wrestling -- when T.V. wrestling aired on local cable channels in lean Sunday morning timeslots, not primetime on Monday nights. Back then, storylines would be built slowly over the course of months, or even years. The Cena-Rock matchup has followed this tradition, teasing wrestling fans for 12 months now as the two traded verbal barbs -- but rarely blows -- to ratchet up the suspense. The WWE is billing it as a "once in a lifetime" match, and that's probably one of the more accurate statements to come out of a company notorious for overselling its product.

The Internet age has taken some of the mystery out of wrestling. Insider information -- specifically, who will win and lose a given match -- gets leaked often, so smart wrestling fans know what the result will be before the bell even rings. But in the case of the Cena-Rock match the WWE has maintained a virtual information blackout, so Internet insiders and wrestling experts have no idea who will come out on top. There are logical arguments for why each man could win: Cena is the WWE's top money-making star and has dedicated his life to the craft of wrestling (unlike Rock who left years ago for greener pastures) and therefore "deserves" to win. Then again, Rock is the bigger star of the two (and will be wrestling in his hometown of Miami), and the WWE might get more mainstream exposure if he is victorious.

If there is a heaven -- and if pay-per-view T.V. is free up there (it must be, right?) -- my grandfather will be watching this Sunday, sitting on the edge of a cloud-bed, hands balled into fists, rising and falling as each blow leads either Cena or Rock closer to victory. And when it's all over, he'll chuckle to himself, just as he used to do when we watched together.