Miss Rent-to-Own-Auto was focused on the wrestling ring in front of her, oblivious to the cheering fans or the television camera zooming ever closer to her face. Inside the ring--bordered on all sides by ads for 1-800-OWN-A-CAR or the caricatured faces of Portland furniture magnates Tom and Gloria Peterson--two men appeared to be beating the shit out of each other.
Beautiful Bryan Alvarez fell to the white mat, defeated, while the victorious Ladies' Choice--a Sasquatch of a man with long blond hair and snakeskin/leather clothes--barged through the studio's back door, Miss Rent-to-Own-Auto in tow. By the time Portland Wrestling came back from commercial, Ladies' Choice had already returned to the ring, bragging to the announcer about his backstage tryst with Miss Rent-to-Own-Auto. This is when the announcer revealed in a frantic tone that, until a few moments ago, Miss Rent-to-Own-Auto had been Beautiful Bryan's girl.
This, I thought. Now this is television.
THE FUN STOPS HERE
On February 13, citing "threatening letters" from the State of Oregon Boxing and Wrestling Commission and the Attorney General's Office, WB32 announced it would no longer be producing episodes of their Saturday night show Portland Wrestling. The Boxing and Wrestling Commission's complaint was that the show violated state statute ORS 463.035.
The statute sets forth certain wrestling standards: no strangle holds, no jumping on opponents from the ropes of the ring, no hair pulling, eye gouging, head butting, or crotch kicking. The rules are there to ensure the fairness of the contest. What sets these rules apart from most others is that violations can be prosecuted as Class A misdemeanors, with fines of $5,000 and up to a year in jail.
The Boxing and Wrestling Commission asserted that WB32 was "holding, conducting, and otherwise arranging a wrestling contest," and therefore, the station was required to follow ORS 463.035.
"Basically, they wanted to apply a set of wrestling rules that ban everything that professional wrestlers do," said Steve Dant, the Vice President and General Manager of WB32. Dant went on to state that because Portland Wrestling is not a sporting event but rather "an episodic, scripted television show," WB32 shouldn't have to abide by the regulations.
Frank Culbertson, WB32's Business Manager (who was both executive producer and, weirdly enough, the play-by-play announcer for Portland Wrestling), put it more bluntly: "The state contends we are a competition--we're not. Here's a shocker for you: the outcomes are predetermined."
WRESTLERS AGAINST ILLITERACY
Watching an episode of Portland Wrestling, it's hard to imagine anyone taking it seriously, let alone seriously enough to instigate legal action. But not only has it been taken seriously, it's happened before. Last June, Portland Organic Wrestling's performances at the Satyricon fell under the same threats and criticism from the same state agency.
"If you're doing real wrestling, then these rules make a lot of sense," said Culbertson. "But if you're doing professional wrestling."
If episodes of Portland Wrestling counted as examples of real wrestling, WB32 might indeed be wading through some fairly deep trouble. The station's saving grace, however, might be their astonishingly lame attempts at convincing viewers that Portland Wrestling was legit.
Case in point(s): in the January 30 episode, when the wrestlers abandoned headlocks for fists, there weren't even sound effects to make the punches sound real. The wrestlers' falls to the bouncy mat looked like they were lying down rather than being slammed to the ground. The retirement match of one Moondog Moretti consisted of him jamming a supposedly lit cigar into the eye of his opponent, The Grappler, then chewing up said cigar, foaming at the mouth, and loudly expressing his slight reticence about leaving the world of professional wrestling.
The episode ended with a diatribe by ex-WWF wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper about the state of Oregon's public schools; a speech that was received with tepid cheers by the studio audience. "Why yes," they seemed to be thinking, "it's quite true Portland's schools are in bad shape--now Rowdy Roddy, will you please smash a chair on that guy's head?"
LOOKING THE OTHER WAY?
When I first called the Oregon State Boxing and Wrestling Commission about Portland Wrestling, the commission's director, Jim Cassidy, would only say he is currently working with the station to resolve the problems.
Not quite, responded WB32.
"Jim Cassidy told us if we got a promoter's license, the commission would 'look the other way' in terms of rule violations," said Culbertson. "But they wouldn't put it in writing. I can tell you now that Jim Cassidy won't admit he said he'd look the other way but that's exactly what he said."
"I didn't say I'd 'look the other way' on enforcing the rules. I don't turn away from rules. They misinterpreted what I said," Cassidy told me later. "I told them they have to have a promoter's license, that the wrestlers have to be licensed through us, and that they have to have an annual physical and show negative results of Hepatitis B surface antigens and HIV."
Cassidy added he knows Portland Wrestling is "theatre," but that the participants were "still athletes competing," so the tests and licensing are still required.
"There's no question in my mind there's blood in professional wrestling," he said. "There's an old adage that red turns to green--that's what sells tickets. [But] if they conform to those simple little rules, I said I'd look the other way on what they're just pretending to do--gouging eyes, stuff like that."
WB32 has a different view of how things might change, if they ever do. "We are pursuing other avenues at this time to see these rules are changed," Culbertson said. "We have not seen indications from the State Attorney General's Office that this could be resolved between the two parties." If Portland Wrestling were to return, it would have to be done in a way that either excuses it from the watchful eye of the Wrestling Commission or confines its content to the more conservative standards in place.
Something that became obvious a few seconds into Portland Wrestling--and probably a few words into this story as well--is this: Portland Wrestling is crap. It's the televised equivalent of a Big Mac or a pulp novel; something that can be ingested with little effort, has just enough flavor to be entertaining, and, perhaps most importantly, requires no thought whatsoever.
But by the third commercial break I realized I'd underestimated Portland Wrestling. Under scrutiny, Portland Wrestling transcends crap, revealing itself as something like meta-crap. It's crap, but carefully thought-out crap, geared toward a specific demographic, engineered with the cooperation of sponsors, and choreographed from the half-assed costumes right on up to the final product. Hell, even assuming the wrestlers were trying to make the matches look real might be too presumptuous.
Maybe I'm giving Portland Wrestling too much credit. Deconstructionist thought doesn't quite apply to guys named Moondog who pretend to push burning cigars into eye sockets right?
It does if the crap in question is being analyzed as carefully as this show is. As soon as the law got involved, Portland Wrestling ceased to be a low-budget, late-night guilty pleasure, and became a legal issue revolving not so much around what was or wasn't going on in the ring, but what some viewers might think was going on in the ring.
Maybe the strangest thing about Portland Wrestling is this: the unshakable image of Miss Rent-to-Own-Auto. Damsels in distress are, for better or worse, a concept burned into our collective consciousness; among other things, they're a pretty proven way to attract and hold male attention. When Culbertson mentioned that Portland Wrestling was a "soap opera for men," I realized how honestly he had assessed the show and its purpose--entertaining crap, with just enough thought behind it to attract a solid number of specific viewers and sponsors.
Unfortunately for WB32, that fairly ridiculous formula seems to have caught the attention of the wrong people.