In the interest of getting them over faster, Triple H makes a point of taking lots of selfies with wrestlers signed to WWE’s NXT developmental brand. One thing should jump out at the casual fan who’s returning to the rapidly-rising WWE after years away: few of those young wrestlers look like him, the ripped meatheads he used to wrestle, or the massive female bodybuilder he used to date before he won the heart of Stephanie McMahon. The Game built that talent-replenishing promotion himself, launching it from the ashes of Florida Championship Wrestling in 2012, and he has since filled its roster with a bunch of men and women who don’t exactly reflect his own bodybuilder-buff build or commitment to dietary discipline. They’re all wrestlers, but they’re not the beefcakes that fair-weather fans from the 1980s and 90s will remember.
Whether you’ve returned to wrestling after years away or followed it through its up and downs, you surely recognize something has changed. CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Samoa Joe, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn… things began to evolve in the WWE in the late-2000s, as talent spawned in the more diverse independent promotions began to muscle past aging he-men and retiring Hulks. Wrestling will always be a body game, a sport in which objectified performers are stripped nearly bare for our delight and as fodder for our conversation when the match descends into a bunch of rest holds. But the wrestling that’s coming back to Fox, the wrestling that helped WWE reach its largest mainstream audience in a generation, isn’t The Game’s game anymore. He may have helped hire and develop the players, but few are playing it the way he did.
I’m still always a bit surprised by the transformation of the sport, but perhaps that’s because I was one of those fans who watched as much for five-star bodies as five-star matches. And that’s actually what I got a few months ago when the Greatest Royal Rumble kicked off with a vintage bout between Triple H and John Cena, two men who have these ageless, fatless physiques, embodying slightly more agile and CrossFitted versions of the classic WWE bodybuilder look so beloved by Vince McMahon. They were McMahon’s guys, even if they were now stepping aside for a younger, more variegated generation. And hardbodies such as Seth Rollins, Finn Bálor, Cesaro, and AJ Styles all figured prominently on that card, each a streamlined athlete capable of doing almost anything inside the ring. But did any of these people actually represent today’s ur-wrestler, the mold from which all subsequent great performers will be cut? Does such a body even exist anymore, now that McMahon is a buff old grandpa more interested in the XFL and footballers standing for the national anthem than hiring a bunch of huge dudes who look like the Warlord?
For Brunel University drama professor Broderick Chow, who co-edited Performance and Pro Wrestling, the question of a “wrestler’s body” is a loaded one. “Defining a certain kind of wrestling body as functional is about trying to say they’re unmarked, like their masculinity is natural, atavistic, when it totally isn’t, because in wrestling any body is functional if it knows the language,” he says.
In Chow’s opinion, the kind of body-evaluating question some fans slip into might have some role in the spectacle itself—all the mat’s a stage—but every wrestling body is a performing body. The Undertaker, Rusev, Keith Lee, Luke Harper, Kassius Ohno, Big Cass… the ring takes all kinds and it contains multitudes, and, as much as we obsess about all the Scott “Big Poppa Pump” Steiner-sized dudes who inhabited the rings from the mid-1980s to the late-2000s, it has always been like this. But this tension between performing bodies and how fans think those bodies should perform has existed since wrestling emerged as a spectator sport in the late-19th century. Brock Lesnar might be the biggest and the baddest, or so we’re told over and over by Paul Heyman, but he’s the biggest and baddest because he won an NCAA wrestling title and a few UFC matches or because he makes $12 million a year and the WWE desperately wants us to believe this 40-year-old dude with pipe cleaner legs and clean losses to Alistair Overeem and Frank Mir is the baddest man on the planet?
To use a historical example from a century earlier, the “Russian Lion” George Hackenschmidt, a magnificently-built athlete and weightlifter, lost a pair of matches to Frank Gotch, a stocky but fit grappler whose cauliflower ears and medium build be would the model for several generations of recognized “world champions” who followed in his wake. Hackenschmidt was a physique star on a par with Victorian muscleman Eugen Sandow, but his big muscles wore out in the first match and his “trick knee” gave way in the second.
“Hackenschmidt was often described as being like a cat,” says Chow, “but of course there’s all kinds of about how ‘real’ his matches were so in a way his bodily development is just as superfluous to what he was doing as a champion poser like Sandow’s.”
After Gotch vanquished Hackenschmidt, the wrestling business was headlined by a bunch of gritty grapplers who resembled him, a line of descent that stretched from him all the way through world champions such as Lou Thesz and Jack Brisco, and has persisted right to the present in the bodies of performers like WWE’s Chad Gable, a former amateur wrestling star and Gotch’s near-spitting image.
But these bodies, attached to wrestlers who grounded and then pounded each other for hours on end, proved boring to fans when combined too often. So promoters like Toots Mondt and Billy Sandow incorporated some new bodies: big bodies, weird bodies, unusual bodies. Wayne Munn, a 6’ 6” college football star at the University of Nebraska, was one such body; he was given the World title on the strength of his spectacular look and then had it stolen away from him by Stanislaus Zbyszko, another of those stocky amateur wrestler types, who deviated from the script and held Munn down for the three-count.
“Past legitimate athletic successes of pro wrestlers are often built into their performing bodies,” says Claire Warden, a senior lecturer in English and drama at Loughborough University who co-edited Performance and Pro Wrestling with Broderick Chow. “In each case there is the sense that this background gives them an edge. This goes for those who have been athletes in a general sense—think of The Rock as football player or Charlotte Flair as volleyball champion—but particularly for those who have a fighting background, such as Brock Lesnar and Bobby Lashley.”
The World title, which existed in a more or less unified form until fragmenting into AWA and NWA variations in 1957, was sometimes in possession of a talented amateur wrestler and legitimate badass like Ed “Strangler” Lewis, sometimes on an attraction such as handsome Greek-born acrobat Jim Londos, powerhouse Chicago Bears running back Bronko Nagurski, or Armenian-born Ali Baba. Beneath them on the cards, other bodies drew spectators eager to see something completely different—acromegaly-afflicted Maurice “The French Angel” Tillet, 600-pound Happy Humphrey, and of course Terrible Ted the Wrestling Bear. Tillet, Humphrey, and Terrible Ted worked their own styles, with less tumbling and much more pushing and belly-bumping, but their value as draws was sometimes just as significant as the visiting world champion’s.
And bodies were always signifying something: heel or face, good or evil. Pretty bodies, like “Gorgeous” George Wagner’s marceled-hair, perfume-spraying bad guy act, could get instant heat from crowds. A well-built, well-tanned blond rule-breaker was custom-designed to elicit hate, as “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers and Freddie Blassie demonstrated to great effect. Dick the Bruiser, an ex-NFL star with a weight room physique, exuded menace, as did 1952 Mr. Pittsburgh bodybuilding champion Don Fargo. And guys working foreign heel gimmicks, like Ali Baba with his turban, bald head, and long mustache and ferociously furry “Mad Russian” Ivan Rasputin (actually an American-born Jewish man named Hyman Fishman) let their exotic looks do the talking.
For a long time, though, the National Wrestling Alliance and American Wrestling Association kept their belts mostly on amateur wrestlers who either owned the promotion (Verne Gagne, in the case of the AWA) or were deeply invested in it (Lou Thesz, until his break with promoter Sam Muchnick). Bruno Sammartino, possessed of a dense powerlifter’s physique, was a bit of a departure during his long run as WWE champion, since he had decent high school amateur wrestling credentials but achieved his greatest athletic fame for setting bench press and deadlift records.
Sammartino, Gagne, and Thesz’s various successors as NWA champion—Dory Funk Jr., Terry Funk, Jack Brisco, Harley Race—battled their share of huge monsters, with superhuman rising star Andre the Giant as the largest of all, but usually time limits or surprising comebacks saved the day. Sammartino was felled in 1971 by Ivan Koloff, a Canadian-born man named Oreal Perras who was working another hairy “Mad Russian” gimmick, but Koloff was a 21-day transitional champion who dropped the strap to Pedro Morales, another savvy, thick-bodied technician who could appeal to New York City’s multi-ethnic audience.
But champions were one thing, money-making gimmicks another. A body was a provocation and a means to profit. Andre the Giant, of course, was so big he transcended the sport; his body was otherworldly, as was his value as a traveling attraction. Others, not quite so big but certainly sizeable in their own right, like former college wrestling star-turned-monster heel Gorilla Monsoon and 600-pound overalls-clad hillbilly Haystacks Calhoun, stayed near the top of the card and gave the fans a change of pace—as did midget wrestling stars Sky Low Low, Little Beaver, and Lord Littlebrook.
The steroid technologies that emerged in the 1960s supercharged the Buddy Rogers archetype. Rogers had been reasonably lean and exceptionally mean, but bodybuilder “Superstar” Billy Graham represented an evolutionary leap forward. Graham, who lifted weights alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and had already washed out as a traveling evangelist, pro football player, and boxer, took the wrestling body to the next level: he inflated his body to cartoonish levels and, borrowing the trash-talking patois of Muhammad Ali that Ali had himself adapted from his study of effeminate superstar villain Gorgeous George, pumped up his discourse, too.
It was Graham who, working in the northeastern-based WWE in the 1970s, would end Bruno Sammartino’s reign as WWE champ once and for all and prematurely inaugurate a new era in the sport’s history. Graham became the ultimate guy the fans loved to hate, and the men he inspired—Hulk Hogan, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, and most importantly Vince McMahon—would join forces to make the loudmouth bodybuilder, whether serving as heel or face, an inescapable fixture of the WWE landscape in the 1980s.
Graham, who enjoyed some epic and bloody bouts with blubbery but nimble “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, was a point of divarication in the sport’s history. He’d quickly give way to amateur wrestling star Bob Backlund as WWE champ, but Backlund’s six-year run as titleholder was mere prelude to McMahon’s nationwide expansion on the broad, juiced-up back of Hulkamania. Backlund, another man with a Frank Gotch face and body, had his share of good matches—his 35-minute bout with Bret Hart at the 1994 Survivor Series holds up—but during his periodic comebacks he worked as a specialist, a real wrestler from the mists of the sport’s pre-postmodern history brought back to give new amateurs like Kurt Angle a bit of a shine.
Billy Graham’s body was the WWE’s future, even if Graham’s actual body was betraying him and his career was slumping downward as early as 1978, when he dropped the strap to Backlund. Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura, two sides of the braggadocious muscleman coin, would arrive from popular but still criminally underutilized runs in Verne Gagne’s amateur-heavy American Wrestling Association to launch the WWE’s post-1984, post-Backlund national expansion.
The other territories, the AWA and Jim Crockett Promotions and Mid-South Wrestling and all the rest, held fast to prior ideals. Their top stars were an odd mix of amateur grapplers (Jack and Jerry Brisco, Bob Roop), beer-bellied redneck working-class heroes (Dick Murdoch, Killer Karl Kox), slightly out of shape and older-than-they-seemed southern rock star types (Ricky Morton, Robert Gibson, Michael Hayes), ethnic menaces (the Great Kabuki, Kamala), African-American supermen (Junkyard Dog, “Mr. USA” Tony Atlas), and old dudes who wore masks (Mr. Wrestling II, the Assassin).
As the WWE surged to national prominence in the mid-1980s, the NWA territories stayed in contention behind a red-hot feud that pitted Ric Flair and three Horsemen with dadbods (Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard, Ole Anderson) against Dusty Rhodes. Ex-World Class Championship wrestler “Cowboy” Johnny Mantell, with whom I worked on a WCCW photo exhibit in 2015, was fond of remarking that he was “just a 220-pound jock” whose body was built by playing sports in high school and college, then training extensively on pro wrestling mats; long-time Jim Crockett Promotions undercard wrestler and Lou Thesz trainee Mark Fleming spends much of his illuminating autobiography talking about the very same thing.
Beneath all of them, and coming up in the wings or working on the margins, were the undersized darlings of Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter set. Short, agile performers such as Tom “Dynamite Kid” Billington and Tiger Mask I (Satoru Sayama) captured Meltzer’s attention; their “workrate” stood in stark contrast to the clumsy maneuverings of a Hogan/John Studd encounter or the leisurely pace of a Nick Bockwinkel bout.
These guys could win their five stars from Meltzer and his loyal cadre of readers, but those stars came at a high cost in pain and suffering. For Billington and the smaller men who followed in his footsteps, most notably his devotee Chris Benoit, reaching the big time of the WWE meant more than just wrestling big-league bouts: it meant getting big in the gym, often with the assistance of steroids. If you were 5’ 10” and under, it wasn’t enough to approximate the swollen, hypertrophied body of Hulk Hogan or the Ultimate Warrior; your future earnings depended on becoming as wide as a bus while taking more hard bumps in a single five-star match than those slow-moving main eventers took over the course of a career.
Vince McMahon’s obsession with cartoonish theatrics and massive muscles kept men like Billington on the undercard, Dave Meltzer’s critiques notwithstanding. The 1980s weren’t a time when anyone could afford to go soft. For example, Ken Patera, a 1972 Olympian and putative “World’s Strongest Man” who once remarked that the outcome of a weightlifting exhibition would turn on “whoever’s steroids were better,” said he found himself put off by McMahon’s behavior and decided to retire in late-1988 after McMahon squeezed his thigh in the locker room and told him he had better start “hitting the roids” again. And Harley Race, a long-time NWA world champion, wrote in his autobiography that, although already in his late-40s, he briefly took steroids under the tutelage of Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith after signing with the WWE because “McMahon was giving pushes to guys like Hogan and Warrior—guys who looked bigger than life not only in person, but also on television.”
The WWE brand, saddled as it was with a roster of lumbering musclemen, reached its nadir during the early-1990s, at which point McMahon found himself enmeshed in the federal trial of George Zahorian, a state-appointed ringside physician for wrestling matches occurring in Pennsylvania. Zahorian was convicted of distributing the steroids and other performance enhancers that had, owing to the legislative legerdemain of Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, recently been listed as controlled substances. His trial spiraled out of control, with Zahorian’s legal team leaking the names of various WWF competitors who were told to “use [steroids] or they don’t participate.” Among these names were Hulk Hogan and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, two of the federation’s brawniest performers.
McMahon, who was also heavily invested in a professional bodybuilding federation that he’d founded to compete with Joe Weider’s International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB), weathered the storm by imposing mandatory steroid testing for his performers (though not for himself, of course—as he told a House investigative committee years later, he wasn’t the talent) and beginning to promote somewhat smaller, leaner grapplers such as Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. But although this period in the federation’s history, which ran from roughly 1993 to 1996, produced many classic matches, it saw the WWE lose ground to the increasingly edgy World Championship Wrestling outfit owned by billionaire Ted Turner and eventually operated by general manager Eric Bischoff. Bischoff’s chief innovations consisted of using smaller wrestlers such as Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero to entertain on the undercard while treating fans to an endless array of surprise debuts by muscled-up WWE veterans ranging from Randy Savage to a brief, bizarre cameo by the Ultimate Warrior.
It was at this juncture that McMahon made another very body-conscious choice: instead of merely steroid-enhanced bodies, he’d give them phantasmagoric bodies. Drawing on lessons learned from the modest success of Extreme Championship Wrestling, McMahon began building his federation around the premise, championed in years past by proto-hardcore Southern promoters, that “matches had to go red before they went green.” To this end, McMahon spotlighted his athletic giants Kane and the Undertaker, a slew of oft-injured and somewhat soft-bodied risk-takers who worked under loose t-shirts (Mick Foley, the Hardy Boys, the Dudley Boys), some extraordinary racial and ethnic caricatures (a “Godfather” who arrived at the ring accompanied by his “Hos” and sumo-sized champion weightlifter Mark Henry performing as concupiscent caricature “Sexual Chocolate”), and a seemingly endless array of female “Diva” performers, nearly all of whom then conformed—if the various sexual harassment allegations are to be believed—to McMahon’s exacting standards of beauty.
This era of increasing body anarchy was the beginning of a long period of correction in the wrestling business, a correction that began down in the indie federations and worked its way up to the WWE. The look historically was one of function trumping form—“Wildfire” Tommy Rich was simultaneously heartthrob, skinny-fat, and NWA World Champion—and almost any body that could allow the performer to work a good wrestling match that thrilled the crowd was acceptable.
Yet throughout the 2000s, McMahon still had his top dogs to throw at us, an array of alpha bodies that included Batista, Bobby Lashley, Brock Lesnar, and John Cena. But doing good business required that he bend to popular opinion from time to time, whether that meant putting a world title on minuscule Rey Mysterio, punching-above-his-weight Chris Benoit, or the shorter but nevertheless near-total package Chris Jericho. All of those wrestlers built their bodies by working different styles elsewhere around the world, traveling through fairs in Germany, the lucha federations of Mexico, and the annual tournament circuit in Japan.
But the guard began changing for good with the WWE debuts of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan. Both Punk and Bryan had battled their way up from the bottom, developing rabid followings before appearing in the WWE in the late-2000s and early-2010s, respectively. Punk and Bryan were distinctive breaks in the chain; they looked fit enough to do their jobs, but less stocky than even heavyweight headliners such as Jack Brisco and Nick Bockwinkel from the territorial era. And they each took ownership of this identity, experimenting with vegetarianism and never even attempting to pack on the mass that Tom Billington and Chris Benoit thought was essential to getting over with WWE crowds. If they could get over, it stood to reason that the wrestlers being groomed to replace them could look however they wanted, so long as they drew pops and sold merchandise.
Which didn’t mean anyone coming up through the indieground was going easy on their bodies. Austin Aries, another indie legend from that era and a staunch vegan, explained that a performer has to make certain concessions to unalterable aspects of their physique. “I couldn’t get to where I am by just giving big boots to the face or doing choke slams, wrestling an easy sort of big man’s style,” he told me. “I’m not a big guy. I had to study and optimize every aspect of how I perform. I wrestled very all or nothing matches, and I demanded a great deal of myself.”
Even the best bump-taking big men, like the high-flying Keith Lee or the shockingly agile Beer City Bruiser, will take fewer bumps than the shorter, smaller men—the Nevilles and Brian Kendricks—who seem to always be coping with nagging injuries. “In the WWE, it’s a grinding schedule,” Aries says. “I had an issue with my neck, I was losing strength in my arm and my physique was suffering. Consider someone like [former WWE champion] Chris Jericho, who also has a pretty high-impact style but has stayed fresh for a long time, wrestling into his mid-40s, and think about how much time he takes off.”
“Little wrestlers, as a way of getting over with the crowd, often will bump more,” explains Danny Cage, the owner of the Monster Factory wrestling school in New Jersey where legendary big men like Bam Bam Bigelow learned the ropes. “So you have these incredibly fit but smaller athletes whose careers are much shorter than, say, Hulk Hogan’s, because they do a lot of challenging spots and use up all the punches on their bump card way faster.”
Women’s wrestling has seen a changing of the guard, particularly in the WWE. Female wrestlers such as Aja Kong and Bull Nakano enjoyed great success in Japan, where rosters were much more diverse and a far greater variety of body types were represented. But the recent rise of Nia Jax on the WWE main roster, where she has worked an interesting if somewhat ham-handed body positivity angle with arrogant Alexa Bliss, suggests the WWE has seen the value of creating their own female monster wrestler, particularly if that monster is extremely attractive herself (meanwhile, the diminutive Bliss was recently injured while wrestling Jax at Backlash, further underscoring the concerns about smaller wrestlers expressed by Austin Aries and Danny Cage).
“Women’s wrestling has a long, illustrious—though often decidedly problematic— history,” says drama professor Claire Warden. “But, until recently in the WWE, women’s matches have often been a cue for the audience to take a loo break. However, for all of the company’s troublesome past gender politics, the WWE has made significant attempts to correct the imbalance in recent years.”
Triple H, as NXT producer, gets it in a way few others do. He might be photographing the stars of tomorrow alongside his pumped-up greatness of today, but his commitment to extracting value from anyone who can work a match has meant that the NXT roster bears a much greater resemblance to the general population pool of people who might be tuning in to Smackdown on Fox. For every seeming “natural” like Charlotte Flair—every bit as to the manner born as second-generation stars Cody Rhodes and Randy Orton—there’s now someone waiting in the wings like Piper Niven (Kimberly Benson), who’s no relation whatsoever to the late Dusty Rhodes but certainly evinces shades of “the American Dream’s” voluptuous glam persona. And then there’s the influx of legitimate MMA performers, real fighters intended to evoke a certain degree of real menace: Ronda Rousey, Shayna Baszler, Sonya Deville.
“When Brock Lesnar punched John Cena in the mouth causing real damage on RAW, the move was, unusually, understood as a sign of legitimacy then rather than a botch,” says Claire Warden. “Now women’s wrestling has followed suit, not only through the recent arrival of Ronda Rousey but also the introduction of characters such as Deville and Baszler. Although it is often accurate to suggest that pro wrestling resembles theater rather than sport, this straightforward demarcation is just too easy. There is evident slippage, with the legitimate fighter often booked as a dangerous antagonist.”
The WWE roster that has slowly been remade by Triple H is full of slippage, about as far removed as one can imagine from the all-musclemen vogue of the 1980s and 1990s that spawned its architect. Sure, Vince still looks like a bodybuilder, albeit an old Schwarzenegger-style one, and his son Shane has begun to resemble an NFL linebacker. But you needn’t focus on them. You can watch Jeff Hardy in singles competition and see a glimpse of some 1970s regional champion—Paul Jones or “Boogie Woogie Man” Jimmy Valiant, albeit with tons of tattoos and 1990s alternative-rocker hair. Or Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, a Québécois tag team pairing that could have made the rounds in Mid-South Wrestling or Jim Crockett Promotions and sits near the top of the card today. Or veteran indie star and NXT gatekeeper Kassius Ohno in his tight basketball jersey and thunder thighs; here’s a great-performing body that can’t seem to catch a break. Perhaps the same can be said of Dana Brooke, who did well in NPC and IFBB bodybuilding events but whose body is now hidden behind a suit in the manager role for Titus Worldwide, or Rachael Ellering, a former rising star in powerlifting much like her father Paul once was, who’s still awaiting a well-deserved push.
There they are, all those bodies—but “which one looks like a wrestler?” asks your workrate-loving, Wrestling Observer Newsletter-reading friend, though of course you ignore him because all you and your friends really want to talk about is which ones are your favorites, and why. Wrestling is back with a vengeance and it looks nothing like it used to, which means it’s exactly the way it always was.