Time to own up to a most unfashionable sporting interest. Here at Brits on Pole we have to admit to following all kinds of sports, not only motor racing.
From cricket to boxing, football to tennis, if it’s on the telly we’re liable to watch it. And, if there’s a major tournament on, we’re almost certain to get caught up in it.
At the moment it’s 19-year-old qualifier Judd Trump’s superb victory over old hand Joe Perry to reach the quarter finals of snooker’s Grand Prix in Sheffield – where he joins the 51-year-old Steve Davis. Who could ask for a better tale than that?
But now it’s time for the skeletons to come out of the closet. Among the sports we have followed over the years, we proudly include American professional wrestling. (See the video that accompanies this post if you’re unfamiliar with it – or visit WWE’s official YouTube channel.)
Now, as far as sport goes, this has about as little credibility as it’s possible to have. Its image is so bad that it makes NASCAR look like Test cricket at Lords.
The reason? Matches are not resolved, as in most sports, by a competition between two opponents whose skills determine the outcome. No, the bouts work on a pre-determined script which produces the result judged most favourable for the entertainment of the viewers and the politics of the promoting company.
And this leads to the fairly inescapable conclusion that the company formerly known as the World Wrestling Federation – the dominant franchise owned by the McMahon family – does not, in fact, stage sport but something else altogether. The organisation itself conceded this point when it lost a ridiculous trademark dispute with the World Wildlife Fund and changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment..
But is it sport?
However, we’d disagree with this to a point. While there is, strictly speaking, no sporting contest going on in a professional wrestling bout, there is often a superb demonstration of athletic skill.
Make no mistake – you need to be an incredible athlete to perform the necessary moves. Such an incredible athlete that it’s not always possible to reach or (more often) remain at the required standard without artificial assistance. But more of that soon.
In the sense of being a demonstration of skills, pro wrestling is only one step away from sports such as diving or the equestrian discipline of dressage, not to mention gymnastics or figure skating, where the competitors do not battle each other directly.
Rather than go head-to-head with each other, as in a race or a football match, they instead seek to produce the best possible performance to impress judges and gain marks. Or, in the case of wrestling, impress crowds and gain pay-per-view sales.
Anyone wanting more information on the performance aspect of pro wrestling is advised to read the books penned by hardcore legend Mick Foley – far more readable and cogent accounts than might be expected from someone who has spent his career being bashed on the head with metal chairs.
End of the affair
But over the last couple of years we’ve fallen out of love with wrestling somewhat. For one thing, it’s only really available via Sky, and we refuse to have that in the house. For another, the treatment of its female participants eventually became too unpleasant to ignore.
But the untimely deaths of a couple of its greatest stars, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, were what really took the shine off it for us.
Guerrero had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse which almost certainly contributed to his death from heart failure in November 2005, even though by then he had turned his life around and been ‘clean’ for some years. Eddie was a hero to his many fans, his life story a struggle against adversity, and his death a terrible blow to many people, including us.
Benoit was a somewhat different matter – he nearly singlehandedly secured the demise of professional wrestling by murdering his wife and son over the course of a weekend in June 2007 and then committing suicide. Although it was initially thought Benoit had been driven by the side-effects of steroids, work done by retired wrestler Chris Nowinski and Julian Bailes, head of neurosurgery at West Virginia University, produced results that showed he had an advanced form of dementia – severe brain damage arguably brought on by the repeated head traumas he had suffered in the ring.
After this it was a bit hard to maintain any enthusiasm for the WWE and we moved on. But here’s the thing. We’ve watched a fair old bit of professional wrestling. And it’s possible to see several themes brought to fruition that are presently only seeds in F1. And they could, unfortunately, provide some quite telling pointers to the future of the sport you turned up at this site to read about.
Firstly, the entire point of the WWE is to make money for its proprietor, Vince McMahon. The rebranding from sport to ‘sports entertainment’ has been a key part of that process and has led to spin-offs into all kinds of areas including film production. And, far from being a behind-the-scenes retiring type, McMahon is very fond of being centre stage.
It’s not hard to see a parallel with Bernie Ecclestone and his bid to make an extra few billion quid by moving Formula One into the Asian market where countries are willing to subsidise racing rather than having the temerity to expect to break even, or even possibly turn a profit.
As Ecclestone increasingly moves races around the world like chess pieces, it becomes harder and harder to see Formula One as anything other than his personal possession, just as the WWE belongs to McMahon – and just as soccer, athletics, cricket and baseball do not belong to one individual or family.
Next up are the recent controversial slew of penalties. It seems beyond doubt since Japan that the FIA-appointed stewards are doing everything within their power to create a narrative.
Whether they are seeking an outright Ferrari win or merely a world championship that goes down to the final race is debatable – but as the season draws to its conclusion the points awarded to racers are increasingly being decided in the stewards’ room, and always in the direction of tightening the title contest.
In wrestling the long-term narrative is everything. A season’s worth of bouts, feuds and storylines builds towards a final decider which is, crucially, always a pay-per-view event not covered by your existing Sky Sports subscription.
How long before viewers have to pay to see the last F1 race of the season – or before broadcasters have to cough up more to Bernie in order to be allowed to carry it?
For that to be a viable business plan for F1, it would require the last race to be a title decider. Often, that happens anyway – but this year’s stewarding excesses look like a particularly clumsy attempt to enforce it where fair competition is failing to produce the goods.
And when sport acquires a narrative above and beyond the competition of teams or individuals on merit, does it not cross the line into sports entertainment?
There is another way to look at this. Outside Europe and north America, we understand that motor racing is utterly equated with Ferrari and wins for that team are much more closely tied into the commercial success of the sport than they might be in existing markets.
In which case the current regulatory goal would appear to be to secure the result that best promotes the growth of the sport in new markets. Another mark in the sports entertainment column, that.
Nor is it hard to construct a political parallel. Just as the FIA is currently commonly understood to stand for Ferrari International Assistance, the WWE management certainly has its favourites.
Not least the multiple world champion wrestler Paul Levesque, better known as Triple H, who for a long while could not lose a match or put a foot wrong. He’s certainly talented, a great student of the profession, and a genius at extracting a reaction from a crowd. But the fact that he married the boss’s daughter Stephanie McMahon, chief scriptwriter during much of his ascendancy, may not be entirely irrelevant either.
And certainly Max Mosley’s hatred of Ron Dennis is the stuff that wrestling feuds are made of.
Thankfully we’re not going to be treated to the spectacle of the two of them climbing into the ring to sort it out, something that Vince McMahon – probably the most suspiciously-muscled CEO of any major American company – frequently does in his own domain.
Mind you, those bum-clenchingly uncomfortable pictures of Dennis and Mosley shaking hands during the Spygate aftermath is probably as close as we’ll ever get – and admittedly it did look like Ron might be about to put Max into an armlock before pulling a clothesline on him.
Of course, the comparison between pro wrestling and F1 racing isn’t a perfect parallel.
Thankfully, safety is a top concern in F1 these days, with racing drivers no longer expected to take insane risks in order to provide fans with thrills. Compare this with the appalling mortality rate among wrestlers, many of whom also prolong their careers past the point where they are viable, and one can only be grateful that motor racing has moved on from the grim days when the biographies of world champions so frequently included the date of their fatal crash.
This is one fan-pleasing move we fervently hope the FIA won’t swerve towards, although the user stats for this site give us pause for thought. Nothing brings the readers in like a story about a heavy crash, and they are generally searching for footage, the more graphic the better. Something that doesn’t necessarily reflect well on any of us, and which certainly doesn’t bode well in light of the WWE trajectory.
And we’re pretty sure that those drivers commonly described as ‘born racers’ would baulk strongly at throwing a result. However, there is hardly a shortage of drivers chasing places on the grid – and, with the kind of salaries and endorsements they can command, it’s possible to imagine that in motor racing, as in horse racing, there might be a few individuals out there willing to make sure they performed well – but not too well.
If you recoil from the idea that drivers would conspire to fix the outcome of a race – Rubens Barrichello giving way to Michael Schumacher? David Coulthard doing Mika Hakkinen the same favour? And what about teams that assist their engine suppliers, both on the racetrack and in the meeting room?
Even allowing for the difference in the competitors – drivers and teams on one hand, wrestlers on the other – we fear that at the moment the similarities between the management and strategic directions of the two franchises (and we picked that word very carefully) are compelling. And worrying.
An orderly retreat
So, what can we do about this? Unfortunately, as far as F1 is concerned, the answer is probably absolutely nothing.
It’s been our contention for a while that the only thing of value possessed by European and North American fans is a pair of eyeballs across which sponsors’ messages can flash. It’s arguable whether we’re even needed to turn up for races, as long as we have the telly switched on.
And Bernie Ecclestone’s repeated, contemptuous dismissals of the sport’s history, most recently in a particularly cranky BBC radio interview, strikes us simply as an attempt to sideline something which threatens to interfere with his latest business plan.
That’s why petitions to reinstate the Canadian Grand Prix or revisit Lewis Hamilton’s penalties are, in our view, pointless because frankly, my dear, no-one in the FIA or F1 management gives a damn. There are far, far bigger interests at work than anything the fans can muster.
For this reason the best course of action may simply be to accept that F1 under its current regime is not always going to provide what it has in the past provided.
What we all want to see is the best drivers in the world competing against each other in the best cars. But it’s already arguable whether that happens since the winners of the Indy 500, the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans never share the same track in anger.
And, with the current regulatory climate, it appears that simple goal is farther away than ever. The best drivers and the best cars have turned up, but the idea they will be allowed to hold a proper race is looking very shaky.
It may simply be that, for UK fans, the real spirit of racing is now to be found elsewhere – in lesser formulas where money and politics are not so dominant. And, as we have said in the past, the answer might be to look there.
For us, for the second year in a row, a Formula One season has been ruined by off-track issues and simply can’t end soon enough. And we’re not hopeful of any improvement next year.
At least in wrestling they usually script a happy ending.