Are Wrestlers People?

Westbrook Pegler

Esquire/January, 1934

OFTEN, as I have sat at the ringside, watching great, hairy lumps of living meat spank, throttle and wring one another, it has occurred to me to wonder whether wrestlers love and are loved and whether they really suffer. Or are they, like the fishworm, incapable of emotion and insensible to pain?

Perhaps I am wrong in assuming that the fishworm has neither sentiments nor senses but I do assume as much because it spares my conscience on those rare occasions—the last one was in 1926—when I string him on the hook. I did have a twinge of misgiving some time ago when I read in a sporting goods catalog of a device for luring the fishworm from his hole in the ground. This was an electrical apparatus, something like a tuning-fork, which, being jabbed in the ground near the worm-hole, uttered a faint mooing note and brought the male, or bull, worm charging out of the soil with his neck arched and his pulses pounding in his veins.

It suggested that the fishworm might have depths after all and that we might all be mistaken in our easy belief that because he does not quack, bark or snarl, he doesn’t know he is being ill-treated. Maybe he is just reticent. There are New Englanders like that but we call them canny.

It would be very unchivalrous, I think, to impose upon the most beautiful sentiment of all in any of God’s creatures with the siren call of love to seduce him to his doom. This, moreover, is quite aside from the moral aspect of the matter. Sex is something which Nature has implanted in all of us and in its proper relation to life is a very beautiful thing. But I would call it most immoral to inflame the fishworm’s passions by artificial means even though we did not string him on a hook but merely left him there, bothered, bewildered and breathing hard.

The wrestler is a strange organism. It has certain characteristics which must test the conviction of the most confirmed Fundamentalist, suggesting that ’way, ’way back in some rocky cave all of us were wrestlers. It walks on its hind legs, it can be trained to speak and understand and Mr. Jack Curley, the promoter of wrestling shows, once had one in his herd which could cook a good dinner. However it cooked only one dinner for Mr. Curley.

He was entertaining a party of friends at his home in Great Neck, Long Island, that night and his wrestler had cooked pheasant for them. During the meal, Mr. Curley remarked to the lady sitting next him that his cook was a wrestler.

“Oh, I would like to see it,” the lady said and Mr. Curley, clapping his hands, cried, “Wrestler! Come heren sie!”

That was Mr. Curley’s way of addressing this wrestler. It was a German. When he wanted the wrestler to go down-stairs he said, “Wrestler! Down-stairsen sie” and when he wanted it to go up-stairs he said, “Wrestler! Up-stairsen sie.” The ablative, you know.

So when the lady said she would like to see the wrestler which had cooked the dinner, Mr. Curley clapped his hands and called, “Wrestler! Come heren sie!”

The kitchen door opened and the wrestler entered. It was wearing a pair of wool wrestling trunks and sneakers. Its hide and the fur on its chest were moist.

“Wrestler,” said Mr. Curley, “dinner is very good tonight.”

“Jah?” said the wrestler, puckering its face in an appreciative grin and blinking its knobby ears. “Fine. But boy it is hot in that kitchen. Look how the sweat runs off of me.”

Many a night at the ringside I have heard laymen sitting in the forward rows explain to their ladies that the punishment which wrestlers inflict on one another really does not hurt them as they are used to it and cannot feel, anyway. This is of a piece with the assumption that the fishworm cannot feel. I am not sure that it is true.

The fishworm wiggles and squirms when it is put upon the hook and the wrestler trumpets terribly and whooshes and writhes when it is being twisted in the ring. This can only mean that some vague intuition, such as turtles possess, is telling the wrestler not to go over on its back. Yet the wrestler is so amenable to training that it is comparatively easy to teach it to recognize a signal and, in violation of a strong natural instinct, to roll over on its back momentarily after thirty or forty minutes of wrestling, while the referee gives its adversary a slap on the shoulder signifying that it has won the contest.

The word contest, of course, is merely a trade term. Most of the minor politicians who constitute the various prizefight commissions and supervise wrestling do not authorize its use in connection with wrestling bouts. They insist upon calling them exhibitions and the newspaper boys who cover them call them mockeries or make-believes and refer to that thirty or forty minutes of action which precedes the fall as the squirm.

Wrestling is the one hazardous occupation in the sport department of journalism because wrestlers are vindictive in a dumb way and one never can tell when one of them will pick up another and throw it at a correspondent sitting at the ringside. Moreover, after one has seen a few squirms one has seen them all and consequently one is likely to doze off during that time when the wrestlers are putting on the squirm. One learns to gauge these cat-naps and come out of it just in time for the signal.

But the wrestler may resent this as an affront to its art and retaliate by heaving 250 pounds of moist and rather smelly weight, usually foreign matter, into the journalist’s lap. I have seen as many as six journalists mown down by one wrestler thrown in this manner and had a very exciting evening myself once when I made a mistake at the ringside.

One wrestler was sitting on top of another and, with the dumb concentration of a trick baboon untying a shoe-lace, was twisting a large, bare foot.

“Hey, wrestler!” I cried, in honest error, for they were badly tangled up, “you are twisting your own foot.”

At that the wrestler let out a loud howl of “Ow-oo,” thinking that if it was twisting its own foot it must be hurting itself, and let go. But it happened to be the other wrestler’s foot after all and when the first one let go the other one jumped up.

This enraged the wrestler which had been twisting the foot and six times that evening it threw the other one at me with intent to inflict great bodily harm. But, fortunately, though it had plenty of swift, its control was bad. So nothing happened to me, although the New York World-Telegram was hit twice and the New York Times’s typewriter was smashed.

The fact that wrestlers utter sounds of apparent anguish does not necessarily prove that they really feel pain. They are trained to that, too. In former times they wrestled without sound effects and these were introduced in recent years by Mr. Curley who hired an expert in bird-calls and animal cries to instruct the members of his herd. At first the wrestlers made some ludicrous mistakes and one sometimes heard a wrestler twittering gayly when it was supposed to bleat piteously.

As to whether they love and are loved I just have no way of knowing. Maybe so, though. Hippopotamuses do.

 

(Source: Classic.Esquire.com, at https://classic.esquire.com/article/1934/1/1/are-wrestlers-people)

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