Hulkamania Runs Too Wild

By Nicholas G. Hahn III

Hulkamania is running wild. Too wild, it turns out.

A six-year-old video surfaced earlier this month depicting Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea philandering with a friend's ex-wife. At the time, Bollea was still married to his wife of nearly 25 years, Linda, and even admitted on the tape that he "should be home." He got his rocks off anyway.

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Now, we're all adults -- much of Bollea's fan base from his illustrious professional wrestling career -- and we have seen our heroes fall before. But it still sucks to watch it happen. Original Sin strikes again.

It just so happens that professional wrestling knows a thing or two about that.

In wanting to do some theological grappling over this, I came across a Dan Mathewson piece in Religion Dispatches. Mathewson says political campaigns are beginning to resemble "fake" World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) programming where voters watch "scripted political feuds that rehearse the same boilerplate themes." Mathewson encourages U.S. Senate candidate and former WWE CEO Linda McMahon's political opponents to drudge up more than a "deeply troubling history of premature deaths" or "gross displays of sex, violence, and the degradation of women."

The WWE's religious content will supposedly "send one's opponent down for the count."

Mathewson accuses WWE storylines of "consistent displays of Islamophobia" and at the same time "a dismissive attitude toward American Christianity and its prominent institutions and symbols." Here, Mathewson suggests, McMahon is "far more vulnerable."

For an admitted "aficionado of professional wrestling," Mathewson should know better.

The real life stories of professional wrestlers cannot be scripted by writers, promoters, or Linda McMahon. They, like all of us, from time to time are challenged with crises. Some are unable to meet those challenges, but most return to the "never give up!" attitude the ring had taught them.

2008's The Wrestler has a lot to say about all this.

We meet Randy "The Ram" Robinson, portrayed by Mickey Rourke, at rock bottom. A former hugely successful star of the 1980's has now faded into wrestling small, independent venues -- often high school gymnasiums -- for a fraction of the money he grossed at his peak. Robinson is addicted to steroids and various other physical enhancing drugs, but works during the week stocking a local supermarket and wrestles on the weekends.

He frequents a strip club where he fancies and pursues one dancer, Cassidy. One evening Robinson tells her he is excited to "get back on top" with a rematch against one of his most notorious opponents, twenty years in the making.

After one physically brutal match Robinson suffers a heart attack and is told his body can no longer take the great toll of professional wrestling. Crushed, Robinson seeks the advice of Cassidy and she tells him that he should be with his family.

The notion of family to Robinson is a complex and intertwined concept. He has a daughter, Stephanie, but recognizes he has been more faithful to professional wrestling than he has been to her. Yet, he wrestles (so to say) with the suggestion of re-establishing contact with his estranged daughter.

Professional wrestling has always been gripped by nostalgia, a certain longing for past glories that seem to be escaping it now.

Robinson carries a picture of his daughter he rarely ever speaks to and almost never sees. Despite this, Robinson still has the memories of when he was a father to her and does his best to recover those memories in Stephanie. He all but succeeds in doing so, but drunkenly forgets dinner plans with Stephanie. She tells Robinson that "there is no more fixing this. It is broke -- permanently."

But this doesn't make any sense to Robinson. Nothing is ever permanently broken. Professional wrestlers, especially ones who have stepped out of the limelight for a minute, are always looking for an opportunity to step back into the main event -- vigorously trying to make things work again.

And, it seems, professional wrestling knows better.

Nostalgic storylines and matches have consistently been fan-favorites and have proved to be some of the highest grossing pay-per-views. Americans like to remember the "good ol' days," while reliving fond memories of their childhood.

The fans are the backbone of professional wrestling and the wrestlers themselves. Their performance entirely depends on their ability to predict and respond to crowd reactions. This kind of connection between the professional wrestler and the fan is a largely familial one.

At the close of the film, Robinson tells a worrying Cassidy that he is only hurt by the real world and points to the crowd: "You hear them? I belong out there." Later in the ring, Robinson tells the fans that they are his family.

Throughout the storied careers of men who have entertained crowds -- nearly three decades, in Bollea's case -- professional wrestling has given men meaning with a unique brand of intensity. The philosophy of good versus evil and "never give up!" is, if I may suggest, a rather good philosophy to give men.

Bollea did the round of mea culpa interviews and told NBC's Today show that despite it being a "low point," "there are no excuses. If anybody's accountable for my actions it's me." Sin, confess, and move on.

Professional wrestling has broken men, but it has also made them.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the Editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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