News National Garry Linnell: Wrestling with our past doesn’t make it go away

Garry Linnell: Wrestling with our past doesn’t make it go away

Garry Linnell was a pretty big fan of World Championship Wrestling as a young boy.
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He had a face laced with scar tissue.

For decades it had been kicked, lacerated, punched and stomped on.

He had brooding eyes, a barrel chest speckled with dark hair, and a massive pair of menacing fists that could pummel any challenger into submission.

He was a brawler, a sometimes vicious beast with a passion for justice and a thirst for combat.

But by God, this hero of mine was also a romantic.

Perhaps it was the way he spoke Italian.

I couldn’t understand a word but his sentences in their sing-song cadences hinted at long-anticipated reunions and tantalising physical encounters.

Sei brutto,” he would often say. “Sabato prossimo ti spacco la testa com’ un melone.”

Translation: “You’re ugly. Next Saturday night I’m gonna bust your head open like a ripe cantaloupe.”

It didn’t really matter who Mario Milano – the Italian Stallion and my childhood idol – was threatening, or in what language.

It might have been Waldo Von Erich, an evil German who wore the insignia of a Nazi storm trooper and who relished beating up the Jewish Mark Lewin.

It might have been Abdullah the Butcher, a sadistic Arabian giant with scars so deep his shaven head looked like a rutted dirt track after heavy rain.

Or it could have been Tiger Jeet Singh from the Punjab, or Japan’s Mr Fuji, or any other racial stereotype the promoters of Channel 9’s World Championship Wrestling hired for their immensely popular Sunday lunchtime program in the 1960s and ’70s.

For a 10-year-old kid who earnestly believed these scripted contests were real, all that mattered was the weekly showdown between good and evil.

So I went on YouTube this week to take a look at those grainy, black-and-white clips of Milano and his cohorts before The Great Purge of 2020 gets to them and erases them from our past.

Now that a series of statues have been toppled around the globe, the history-correcting frenzy has moved on to popular culture.

Nothing, it seems, is safe.

Gone With the Wind has been pulled by HBO for its “outdated cultural depictions” and every day brings fresh calls for other movies and television shows to be targeted for inappropriate and insensitive content.

Squeamish executives at the leading streaming services and television networks around the world – never the most courageous and confident mob at the best of times – are now on a witch hunt for any material in their archives that might cause offence.

What next for our incredibly enlightened era? Weekly book burnings?

So how did Mario Milano and the rest of those superhuman wrestlers from my childhood stand up when viewed through the lens 40 years later?

Well, nostalgia, as they say, just ain’t what it used to be.

What had seemed to the child in me as endless displays of Herculean strength and bravado were nothing more than amateurish routines bordering on the slapstick.

Here were over-sized men, some with tell-tale middle-aged paunches, stuffed into absurdly large trunks hitched so high you could barely see the tops of their hairy backs.

Those contests between good and evil, with their cliched storylines resonating of the Cold War and representing western suspicions of Arabic and Eastern cultures, had all the subtlety and panache of a Donald Trump tweet.

Of course, you say, you wouldn’t get away with stuff like that these days.

Really? You’ve obviously never played one of those monstrously successful video games now playing in millions of darkened teenage bedrooms around the world.

But while those blurry black-and-white wrestling clips failed to ignite or even recapture the wonder and excitement I felt as a boy, they served their purpose.

They reminded me that the past is exactly that – a baffling, confusing and often contradictory place that is hard to reconcile with the person you have become.

Sure, an old faded clip of professional wrestlers might seem trivial compared to a statue of a man who made his fortune as a slave trader or a movie that romanticised the lives of slaves in the deep American South just after the Civil War.

But really, is there a difference?

Like fossilised skulls with axe wounds and tapestries depicting heretics burning at the stake, they are a remnant of that confusing past, reminders of another time when judgments, expectations and beliefs were completely different.

History is littered with these signposts.

Some of them are certainly not pretty. Many of them, in fact, are downright ugly and abhorrent.

But removing them from view won’t make them go away.

They remain a part of us, the scar tissue that will never go away.

Garry Linnell was director of news and current affairs for the Nine network in the mid-2000s. He has also been editorial director for Fairfax and is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Bulletin magazine