«When Vince McMahon decided to turn wrestling into a live-action cable TV comic book in the early 80s, he not only changed the business, he changed ...»
INTRODUCTION TO THE FREE ONLINE VERSION
When Vince McMahon decided to turn wrestling into a live-action cable TV comic book
in the early 80s, he not only changed the business, he changed television. Hulkamania drove the
World Wrestling Federation to the top of the cable ratings chart. It also defined a new way for a
TV program to interact with the audience.
American pro wrestling as we know it has always been ‘staged,’ but for most of the twentieth century, the audience wasn’t in on it. Certainly, respectable people had their suspicions, but the question, “Is it real?” sparked legitimate debate.
When Vince McMahon forced wrestling to change from a decentralized live show with definite territories to a cable TV phenomenon, he quickly saw that the old model for putting on a show was no longer relevant. In a tightly controlled live audience, the old tricks of the trade -- stomping your foot when you deliver a phony punch, falling hard when your opponent delivers a flying forearm – could fool a large chunk of the audience. But on cable TV, broadcast nationwide every week, there was no way to maintain the illusion forever.
McMahon’s solution: drop the facade of realism altogether: The audience will know it’s fake, let’s not try to fool them. Instead, let’s make it more fun.
Grand entrances with elaborate costumes; ridiculous characters straight out of a comic book; stories suitable for a daytime soap opera. Hulkamania.
It was huge.
I knew in kindergarten that it was fake. I didn’t care. I loved it.
But by the time I was a teenager, I thought it was all a bit silly, and changed the channel.
I wasn’t alone. McMahon lost the bulk of his audience when my generation hit puberty. In the 1 early 80’s, Hulkamania was the right marketing at the right time – cable TV was a new medium that desperately needed a flagship program. The WWF’s competition in those early days was Japanese rubber suit monster shows and Bozo the Clown. Vince McMahon was the first media mogul to put a sustainable, entertaining, regularly updated show on cable TV, and he quickly dominated the entire medium.
By 1990, much of my generation had outgrown the antics of the Hulkamania era. For a time, Vince tried to bring in a new crowd of youngsters, but it wasn’t the same. The younger generation who should have taken my place in the WWF audience now had lots of other options on cable television, and the audience for pro wrestling in America languished.
But it didn’t disappear. In the early 90s, the fans who stayed with pro wrestling were those who liked it for more than just the comic book spectacle, and over time, both major American promotions re-tooled their show to play to the remaining audience. Spectacular gimmicks like Hogan or The Ultimate Warrior gave way to great in-ring athletes like Bret Hart and Ricky Steamboat.
Allowing the technical masters to rise above the charismatic actors was a crucial step towards wrestling’s rebirth later in the decade. It was an admission on the part of promoters like McMahon that the little kids were gone, and if wrestling was going to survive, it would have to play to the people who actually liked wrestling.
In 1995, WWF superstar Diesel cut a promo where he said he was happy he no longer had to be Vince McMahon’s corporate puppet. This sort of “worked shoot” was brand new to WWF fans, and was exhilarating to watch. For most of the twentieth century, wrestling
decade, we fans watched in full knowledge that it was all staged, and played along with the game.
One Fall begins with a wink from one wrestler to another. That wink, and its ramifications in the story, are a nod to powerful storytelling device pro wrestling unearthed in the idea of a “worked shoot” like Diesel’s.
In a worked shoot, wrestlers are winking at the fans. They’re saying, “Yes, this is all an act, and it’s our little secret.” A worked shoot is when an actor breaks character as part of the script. Pro wrestling’s decision to wink at its fans this way was a brilliant move that revitalized the industry.
This change in storytelling style happened at the same time the Internet exploded from an obscure text network for computer geeks to a part of daily life for most Americans. The leading demographic for this huge new medium was also the leading demographic in the wrestling audience: young men. Just as it had with cable television the decade prior, pro wrestling found itself riding the tide of cutting edge communications technology.
The Internet further blurred the distinctions between fiction and reality in the wrestling world. It allowed fans to speculate, to share news, to gossip. It also rewarded promotions who used wrestling angles to get people talking.
We all know where this went. The NWO, Bash at the Beach, The Montreal Screwjob.
Without even knowing it, wrestling promoters were creating a new kind of modern theater, one where semi-improvised stories onstage leaned heavily on the audience reaction for the next plot
I loved it. The dramatist in me still adores those groundbreaking days in the late 90s, when the lines between what was real and what was fake were so blurred, so fresh, we had no choice but to rush online after the show and speculate about what the hell just happened on TV.
One Fall is an attempt to capture the excitement of those days and immortalize it as only a book can do. It’s a fantasy, where the worked shoots have become so sophisticated that not even the wrestlers fully understand what’s real and what’s fake, and the smart fans on the Internet don’t just affect the storyline, they are an integral part of it.
It’s now five years since One Fall was first released. I am immensely grateful to everyone who gave the novel such a warm reception. In those five years, One Fall has gone from a story that takes place in the current world of wrestling to a story from wrestling’s last golden age. It’s now a part of history. As such, I think it should become public record (so to speak, this free eBook is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial 3.0 license).
Thank you for reading, and I am proud to present the completely free eBook version of One Fall. Enjoy!
There is an instant of clarity right before the pain. Joey had felt it before. The world slows down and is more brightly lit. Muddled noise becomes distinct, separate sounds. Skin is a circuit board, alive with current at every switch.
Joey took advantage of that clarity to let his colleague know that everything was okay.
Just before falling to the ring floor, as if knocked unconscious by the violent chair shot to his skull, Joey winked.
Normally a wink wasn’t necessary. In most cases a wink would be frowned upon, lest the audience saw it and the illusion was broken. Normally a chair shot hurt, and sounded good, and left you with a headache the next day, but didn’t require any reassurance that the match could continue.
But this chair shot wasn’t normal. This chair shot snapped all the way to the upper deck.
The sound was so vivid that it might have been Joey’s spine snapping like a wishbone.
Maybe the wink wasn’t a good idea. Someone might have seen it. Joey hoped he hadn’t ruined what was potentially a great moment in wrestling history – the nastiest chair shot ever.
Then the clarity was gone, washed out with the pain, and any second thoughts about the wink would have to wait. The pain pressed against his entire head at once, as if his brain had grown too big for his skull and would squeeze its way out of his ears. Joey lay motionless on the ring mat, knowing that this spot would be most effective if he appeared totally unconscious. But it took all his will not to grab his head with both hands and scream in agony.
Joey Mayhem was a new face in the Global Wrestling Association, and tonight’s match was his first appearance on their flagship television program, GWA Burn.
Joey’s opponent tonight, Rob “Jumbo” Sanders, was a familiar face on Burn, having wrestled for the promotion for the past eight years. As a television character, Jumbo was among the nastiest of villains, and always drew some decent venom from the crowd. A muscular black man with a 70's-style afro, Jumbo was half way between six and seven feet tall (but always introduced as a “Seven-Footer”) and dwarfed Joey by comparison.
That size disparity made the chair shot all the more sinful. Jumbo was already a foot taller than Joey, and had been systematically beating him into mush for ten minutes. Why did he need to pound Joey in the head with a steel chair?
18,000 people had crammed into Ford Center in Oklahoma City on this night to watch the live taping of GWA Burn. They had come from Tulsa, Denton, Shawnee, and Wichita. Some of them had kids. Some of them were kids. Some of them had paid upwards of sixty dollars for their seats. Many of them would call in sick to work tomorrow. After the chair shot, all of them began chanting, “JUM-BO SUCKS! JUM-BO SUCKS!” Still sprawled on the powder blue rubber of the ring mat, Joey heard the referee yell at the timekeeper to ring the bell, ending the match. In professional wrestling, punching, biting, eyepoking, hair-pulling, body-slamming, and choking were all allowed, but hitting someone over the head with a steel chair was not. Hence, this match was officially over, with Joey Mayhem pronounced the winner via disqualification.
feeling alert, Joey opened his eyes and let Jumbo lead him to his feet.
“You up for this?” Jumbo whispered.
“Yeah,” Joey whispered back.
Jumbo pushed Joey’s head down like he was dunking him in a bucket, then wrapped his arms around Joey’s waist. Knowing that “The Jumbo Bomb” was coming, the crowd booed.
Like a bulldozer carrying a mound of dirt, Jumbo lifted Joey high over his head, then dropped him. The seven-foot fall was impressive, exclamated with a mechanically enhanced thump when Joey’s back collided with the ring. Jumbo took a second to tug on his sagging silver tights, then pulled Joey up by his hair to repeat the entire routine.
Two Jumbo Bombs later, the crowd was thoroughly incensed.
“You Suck you slow pile of shit!” shouted a young woman from the front row. Jumbo showed her his middle finger. Another second to pull up his tights, then Jumbo bounced himself off the ropes and completed a body splash, dropping all four hundred pounds of himself on top of Joey’s lifeless body.
The ring bell sounded five times, following a strange wrestling tradition of ringing the bell repeatedly when wrestlers were fighting outside the confines of a sanctioned match. A troop of referees appeared from backstage and ran down the entrance ramp to the ring, supposedly to bring order. Jumbo, now in a state of manic rage, picked up the referees one at a time and power slammed them in an assembly line of carnage.
The ring bell continued to sound. The crowd continued to boo. Joey felt like he might
extended pummeling of Joey, including a vicious chair shot. 2. Surprise the crowd with the finish.
As Joey lay on his back, surrounded by fallen referees, listening to the jeers of the fans as Jumbo’s heavy rap music began to play, he was certain that Goal Number One had been accomplished. Now it was time for the surprise.
Jumbo’s music was the cue from backstage to move the segment forward. Following that cue, Jumbo left the ring, stepping over the top rope then descending two metal stairs attached to the ringpost. As Jumbo slowly walked up the ramp toward the exit, taunting the fans along the way, Joey jumped to his feet and worked his eyes into a wild gaze. The crowd thundered in approval.
Feeling a rush from the crowd’s energy, Joey sprinted to the edge of the ring (hurdling two fallen referees on the way), and leaped over the top rope. The crowd was now making so much noise that only a fool wouldn’t turn around to see what was going on, but Jumbo continued walking up the entrance ramp, as if he didn’t hear the fans and didn’t notice that his theme music had stopped playing.
Joey ran up the ramp, careful to ensure that he looked into the nearest TV camera so the home audience could see his crazy eyes. Jumbo turned around just in time to get punched in the face. He fell back from the force of Joey’s fist. This powerful monster, seemingly invincible just minutes before, was now fodder for Joey’s rapid kicks and punches, which were delivered in sets of five or six, each set separated with a look at the crowd to show off the wild eyes and
him there. But Joey Mayhem had an edge of psychosis. Joey stomped and punched Jumbo for an unheard of sixty seconds uninterrupted, before another troop of referees appeared from the back. The referees tried in vain to stop Joey, but he continued his violence until his theme music (upbeat hard rock) came on, allowing the scene to end gracefully. Joey stepped over his victim and strode to the back, all the while looking into the camera. When he reached the top of the ramp he turned for one more look into the audience. Then he disappeared behind the black curtain as the crowd chanted “JO-EY! JO-EY!” The television viewers saw Jumbo, all seven feet of him, curled up on the floor, as the last shot of the night. The announcers encouraged them to tune in next week, and the screen faded to black, ending the show.
On the other side of the curtain, Joey descended six steps into a tight corridor that led to an open atrium. He had hoped the other wrestlers would be waiting there to congratulate him on the success of his first TV appearance.
The only person to greet him was Rashann Sanders, Jumbo’s wife.
“Hey,” she whispered. She gave him a nervous smile, then looked over his shoulder, as if he were in the way of something.
“Well that went over pretty well, didn’t it?” said Joey.
“Yeah,” she said. Once again she flashed the nervous smile and looked past him, this time stepping to one side and craning her neck as if Joey was blocking her view of a movie.
Joey took the hint and stepped out of her way. She found what she was looking for when