Kinder, Gentler Body-Slams

Professional wrestling tries to become more family-friendly.

Wrestler Maria Kanellis

The Los Angeles Times last week reported that World Wrestling Entertainment has undergone a makeover. The well-oiled circus is repositioning itself in response to the rise of mixed-martial-arts programming and its authentic ferocity. WWE’s violence is now “very Wile E. Coyote-ish,” said one star, Triple H, master of the double-underhook facebuster. The lady warriors now dress in a style that’s “a little more sophisticated,” said Maria Kanellis, who wears something over her underthing when executing her almighty running neckbreakers. The new WWE offers a more family-friendly spectacle of suffering, defeat, and justice.

Thus, last night, I tuned into the WWE’s Monday Night Raw (USA, 9 p.m. ET) hoping to see elbow-smashing women attired in Zac Posen and men wielding Acme anvils, among other treats. Embracing mainstream celebrity culture, Raw now extends its hospitality to special guest hosts. Bob Barker, Floyd Mayweather, and, of course, Al Sharpton will be dropping in soon. Yesterday, broadcasting live from Detroit, the show handed the reins over to one of its own, the veteran Dusty Rhodes, the three-time world champion nicknamed “American Dream.” It looked to be a doozy.

At the outset, commentator Jerry Lawler promised this would be “one of the most fun nights in recent memory,” and I allowed him to stoke my expectations further. How naive! How had I forgotten that the idiom of the WWE relies on the most superlativest vocabulary in the history of sport?

The angle of the main event was that Dusty, abusing his power as guest host, would allow his son, Cody, a chance at taking the championship belt from Randy Orton, further stacking the deck by inviting noted Randy Orton-hater John Cena to serve as a guest referee. * Randy Orton ascribed Dusty’s actions to jealousy—jealousy that Cody admires Randy Orton more than he does his own father. Randy Orton roared that it was pathetic and shameless of Dusty to try winning back Cody’s love by giving him an unwarranted shot at Orton. A long-running narrative of perfidy grew deeper and more complex. Cody might become “the youngest champion in history” on “the longest-running weekly episodic show in history.”

“Obviously the fix is in,” said Randy Orton, who simmered quite attractively—vulpine eyes, superb skull, tattooed arms rocking with his breath. This is the place to include a paragraph and a half of cultural-studies boilerplate on how the spectacular homoerotics of the ring speak to the self-identities of young heterosexual males, but I’ll leave it at saying that Randy Orton can pile-drive me anytime.

After a commercial break—one revealing that Lynyrd Skynyrd is still intact and releasing new material—there came a six-diva battle royal. This sweetened the psychosexual plot, despite contestant Kelly Kelly having forsworn the stripteasing that was once her stock in trade. While Kelly—or, more formally, Ms. Kelly—registers as the WWE’s idea of an all-American babe, each of her opponents hailed from a minority community. Alicia Fox is black; Gail Kim, Asian; Rosa Mendes, the streetwise Latina with sunflowers on her rubber pants. Jillian, hailing from Kentucky and positioned as a Britney Spears wannabe, seems to grapple on behalf of Southern blondes. Beth Phoenix, a muscle-mag wonder woman representing the long-disenfranchised Glamazon community, was the last diva standing.

Onward. Thwarting the The Miz, who had promised to execute “the biggest turn-around in WWE history,” Jamaican-ish Kofi Kingston leapt and sprang to victory over his three antagonists in the Fatal Four Way, dreadlocks flying. A match between “the world’s largest athlete” and “the world’s strongest man” was considerably less impressive as a display of the acrobatic. Mostly, the guys gave each other intense back rubs. A little person defeated a man in a cow outfit. “What a moooove,” Lawler said.

This installment of “the most exciting show in entertainment” wrapped up with the guest referee falling victim to epic knavery. Bringing a Byzantine series of betrayals to a new apex, Randy Orton and Cody Rhodes collude to pummel him, and then further counter-betrayals unfolded. In conclusion, Orton and Cody exchanged wary stares from across the ring, gleaming chests heaving as various bodies lay submissive at their feet. Such was the conclusion of “one of the most devious and elaborate plots ever devised.” No contest.

Correction, Sept. 8, 2009: This article originally misspelled the name of wrestler John Cena. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)