The Modest Proposal

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Pro Wrestling Illustrated in the 1990s By Gabriel Ricard

Admittedly, I don't read Pro Wrestling Illustrated every month anymore. Most of the places in my area that sell magazines don't carry it, or any of the other wrestling titles published by Kappa Publishing Group. Once in a great while, I do come across the latest issue. It's a habit going back twenty years that compels me to pick it up, open to any particular page, and love how it really hasn't changed all that much over the past several years. It still features the PWI 500, which rates the 500 best wrestlers in the world in a 12-month period. They still hand out awards at the end of the year. They still have columns penned by fictional writers. The only significant difference to the magazine is that they are now willing to break kayfabe (a term meant to describe when some aspect of the wrestling industry acts as though everything is very, very real) in their stories and columns. Everyone else has been doing that for years now, including companies like WWE and TNA, so it makes sense that PWI would inevitably join that mindset. However, some of their articles still play to the idea that the feuds are real, and the matches are such that no one actually knows who's going to win or lose.

I can read the magazine now, and get a nice kick out of that. The whole reason why I liked Pro Wrestling Illustrated over any other wrestling magazine (and there were a decent number of them to choose from throughout the 90s) as kid was because they went to such great lengths to take it all so seriously. They referred to it as a sport, and wrote long articles in the same tone you would find in any other magazine, about any other athletic endeavor. When Sting and 'Hollywood' Hulk Hogan were preparing to meet at Starrcade '97, a match that had been over a year in the making, PWI devoted most of an entire issue to the showdown. They went so far as to create a tale-of-the-tape centerfold, include fake essays by allies of both men, and discuss at length their individual strengths and weaknesses. The internet was already full of people discussing the match as self-appointed industry experts. I read that stuff as well, but I still made it a point to get PWI every month.

It was silly how seriously they took everything, but that was something that appealed to me immensely. Part of the fun of being a wrestling fan was embracing the stupid, self-induced delusion that everything about the business was absolutely real. It was a way to watch wrestling that didn't worry about the fact that some guys threw punches that didn't even touch the other guy. I knew, but didn't care that rolling up an opponent from behind (and then grabbing a handful of their trunks for 'leverage') was the most impractical way imaginable of pinning someone for three seconds. I liked the absurdity of pretending it wasn't a scripted event. Until I became a teenager, it didn't make sense to me to watch wrestling in any other way. From the articles that examined feuds or the legacy of a particular World Champion, to the interviews that tried desperately hard to sound like something the subject would actually say as their character, Pro Wrestling Illustrated was a great enabler for a kid who prided himself on having a phenomenal, self-aware suspension of disbelief.

I figured out or, at least accepted the fact that pro wrestling was scripted when I was seven years old. Some of the hits I saw from guys like Vader and Bret 'The Hitman' Hart still looked pretty realistic, and I refused to believe the blood came from packets (did anyone ever try to tell you that it was just ketchup? Because that argument did piss me off), but I understood that the winners and losers were laid out in advance. It was fun to watch Monday Night Raw or Monday Nitro with a straight face. The fixed components to pro wrestling didn't bother me. If they bothered the people who really did write for Pro Wrestling Illustrated, it didn't come across in the writing.

Because my mom took the time to teach me, I learned to read early on in life. It wasn't long after that, before I started looking for books and magazines (and comic books) to establish new interests, or nurture existing ones. Although I can still gleefully murder an entire day in a bookstore, I don't read physical copies of magazines the way I used to, and for purely nostalgic reasons, that makes me a little sad. When I was a kid, I couldn't afford subscriptions to my favorite magazines or comic books. What I could afford was to wait patiently for the next issue to come out, and run to the best store for magazines and comics in whatever small town I was living in at that time. I would then try to read all the new issues that had come out. Then the clerk would finally get my attention with weary sarcasm, forcing me to frantically figure out what I could and couldn't afford. Eventually, reluctantly, I would make my way to the counter to pay for my life-and-death decisions.

No matter what, and for a good chunk of my childhood, I always made sure I had enough money to get Pro Wrestling Illustrated on the day the new issue came out.

Although I don't read it very often anymore, I'm kind of glad it's still around. Most of the other wrestling magazines I read as a kid aren't. As far as the wrestling industry is concerned, Pro Wrestling Illustrated is an institution that goes back to 1979. Part of that legacy comes from the fact that I wasn't the only one who liked how hard the magazine strove to make such a ridiculous form of entertainment seem plausible.

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