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THE FANS who live at the Boston Garden know all the players as if they were their personal friends. They know the Bruins and the Celtics, and they know Haystack Calhoun and Killer Kowalski. Most of them know that a lot of what they saw these wrestlers do two weeks ago was all a big fake, but they come out in a snowstorm to see them do it anyway.
The Garden regulars know that wrestling isn't much of a sport when done professionally. They're aware of the careful staging and formality of the matches. They can see that the falls and the holds aren't executed with any grace or acrobatic skill at all.
But most of these regulars don't care what wrestling is. They just love it. They think it's funny. It entertains them.
Wrestling can be comic--if you don't take the opponents or the crowd seriously. But if you are not immediately amused and examine what's going on inside and outside the ring, the whole thing can become grotestquely depressing.
My reaciton last Tuesday night was to take the wrestlers at Boston Garden seriously. Watching a midget scamper around the ring and pretend to be frightened of another midget impressed me as being just about the most demeaning thing a man could do. Seeing someone sacrifice his human dignity and his manliness for a laugh isn't my idea of comedy.
THE THOUGHT of playing a villain like the Sheik--who wrestled Bruno Sammartino in the title bout--and being hated by little boys I had never seen before would be a traumatic experience I couldn't handle. And to have angry epithets and foul garbage thrown at me as I entered the ring would make however much money I got too little.
To watch Haystack Calhoun--whom I had interviewed before the match and found to be 620 pounds of the gentlest man I have ever met--sitting on some other huge man just wasn't funny. It was embarrassing.
But to be embarrassed isn't to be depressed. That comes from taking the audience seriously. However phony the wrestlers may be, the crowd is for real.
There is a Good Guy and a Bad Guy in each match. The crowd identifies with the Good Guy and triumphs with him over the Bad Guy. They watch the Good Guy help the Bad Guy make an ass out of himself. And the bigger ass the Bad Guy makes of himself, the more they approve. The louder they laugh.
If the match is slow and too-obviously staged, or if the pin comes too soon and the action isn't humiliating enough, the crowd registers its disapproval. They boo. The Garden fans become very annoyed if they don't get their money's worth of entertaniment.
While this wasn't especially upsetting, seeing the crowd behave as if they were watching a Roman spectacle was frightening. After the Good Guy had pinned the Bad Guy (everyone knows in advance which is which), he would look to the crowd for its verdict. As the crowd roared its merciless answer, the wrestler-turned-gladiator let his opponent have it in the chest.
The meek little man sitting next to me, who had been too shy to answer a question I had asked him earlier, now shouted, "Gouge his eyes out!" This wasn't funny. It was scary.
YOU MIGHT think that the psychological release this impotent little man got through venting his latent anger on a mythological figure like the Sheik was harmless, if not therapeutic. But the scapegoat phenomenon proved to excite rather than to purge the audience.
The crowd was unable to release its frustration in the role of spectator. Those leaving the Garden seemed to need to act out their aggression. The competition they had just witnessed in the arena served as a model rather than a release for their own competitiveness.
Little kids ran through the building, picking fights with each other and trying to emulate their wrestling heroes. Knocking into people, they scuffled and shoved, but they didn't know how to throw their punches. I couldn't stop to see if any got hurt--I was caught in the middle of a crowd of several thousand people who were all heading for the same MBTA car bound for Park Street.
Riding back to the Square, I thought how disappointed I was by the evening. In remembered how much I used to enjoy wrestling when I watched it on T.V. as a kid. How funny I thought it was when a lady wrestler grabbed a cup of coffee from a spectator and scalded her opponent with it. I didn't find that so funny now.
I was excited to have a chance to see Killer Kowalski and Haystack Calhoun, Gorilla Moonson and Baron von Sciclund in person. I thought it would be great. But now, being pushed and elbowed and jostled. I realized just how depressing it had been. Why didn't I think wrestling was fun anymore? Why couldn't I laugh too?
IT WAS SAD to let go of something that had once made me laugh. Here was one more thing that was no longer a positive experience for me. Just as seeing the Indians get slaughtered by the Cavalry is no longer something I clap for.
It is sad to start taking seriously those things which you used to take for granted. It's like losing part of your childhood by negating it. You can feel proud of yourself that you're mature enough or sensitive enough so you don't find it amusing to see someone humiliate himself for a laugh. Maybe you can feel proud that you get indignant when others clap gleefully for two midget wrestlers who are making fools of themselves for money. But somehow it's kind of a drag not to be able to laugh.
I didn't like the Boston Garden last Tuesday night. I thought I would. But I didn't like the smell of the old wooden floor that is rotting from years of Coke, popcorn, cigar butts, and spittle.
I didn't like the way the people at the Garden acted. I didn't like their inhumanity, the way they loved it when the Sheik threw a folding chair at his opponent. I didn't like the way they shoved each other and me through the turnstiles of the MBTA station.
There was nothing funny about any of it. In fact, it was one of the biggest downs I've had in a long time.
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