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The Word On The Rings (6/30/15): The Evolution of the Pro Wrestling Physique (Part 1)

Part 1: A history of bodies in professional wrestling



Each sign in wrestling is therefore endowed with an absolute clarity, since one must always understand everything on the spot. As soon as the adversaries are in the ring, the public is overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles. As in the theater, each physical type expresses to excess the part which has been assigned to the contestant.

- Roland Barthes, “The World of Wrestling,” in Mythologies


One could argue that no aspect of professional wrestling is more important than the body.

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Thomas Billington was by no means a "big man:" at 5'8" tall and billed at 227 pounds, the man known as today as the legendary "Dynamite Kid" was a bit out of place in a spectacle defined by hulking giants and muscle-bound figures. Despite being massively talented, Dynamite was just that: a little too small.

To fit in to the demands of the business, Dynamite Kid turned to steroids. In his book, Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, Bret Hart writes:

"My right knee would never survive Japan. I realized that if I wanted to feed my family, I needed to heal and fast: I’d have to take steroids. This was one of the most difficult decisions I ever made. I called Tom, and within minutes he showed up at my house armed with two loaded needles, one for each butt cheek. Later on that night I lay shivering in a fever, running to the bathroom with diarrhea and vomiting. It turned out the steroids were from a veterinarian and were meant for horses. Tom got sick too."


Dynamite Kid's injuries from his hard-hitting ring style and steroid use caught up with him. Billington lost all use of his left leg, among other health complications. His story is instructive for many professional wrestlers and fans of pro wrestling, but the reasons for his steroid usage still haunt the spectacle like a specter in the shadows.

In a big business, it matters to be big: to look big, to act big, to be the larger-than-life big man in a big ring. Those come with big costs, and even bigger implications to the story of professional wrestling.

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If professional wrestling is theater, then the wrestler’s physique is perhaps the most important prop in the play. Entire stories can be told in the ring using bodies and body types alone. A slight, small wrestler is often the underdog. A burly brawler is often a villain. Heroes often take the form of Greek statues. The slight-but-toned body type often gives rise to a “martial artist” kind of character.

Nothing says "martial-artist character" more than Glacier... more on that when I feel like it. Source: wcwworldwide.com

But even those things aren’t set in stone. Today, with all sorts of characterization and storytelling outside the ring, the wrestling body has gone through so many shifts. We want to believe that some wrestlers are held back because they’re too small. We speculate that some wrestlers get released because they’re too out of shape. Some of us subscribe to the idea that wrestling promoters are so obsessed with physiques that they overlook wrestling skill.

Now those things may be true, but it begs a bit of thought: how has the pro wrestling physique evolved over the years? What’s the role of so many different body archetypes in pro wrestling? Do having six-pack abs and enormous biceps even matter in pro wrestling?

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I’m not a “wrestling historian” or anything, but I think that the modern-day spectacle of pro wrestling can trace a great part of its origins with pankration, or badly put, ancient Greek WWE. Many of these ancient bouts were public, often done as tributes to the gods and immortalized in art. A lot of the pieces that display some form of pankration often depict fit competitors.

From the looks of things that looks like a Chris Hero cravate. Source: thesecondachilles.com

Putting a good body together was so important to the ancient Greeks, that Plato deemed physical fitness a critical part of education. Education and physical activity were means for men to attain perfection: one has to be wise and physically fit, because too much emphasis on physical fitness does not make a good member of society.

When the Romans started taking over the world, the Greek ideal wasn’t exactly followed. In gladiatorial contests, so much emphasis was placed on the physical body: the battles in the Colosseum weren’t exactly episodes of “Battle of the Brains.” Big, impressive physical specimens fought for the entertainment of the crowd. There weren’t storylines or scripts or such to follow, and feuds were generally short-lived considering the short lifespans of gladiators.

If Roman Reigns ever decided to ditch the Kevlar, here's an idea. Source: to-ancient-rome.org

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Fast-forward to modern-day pro wrestling, and bodies mean more than just tributes to the gods or for the joy of madding weekend crowds. In his classic essay on wrestling, Roland Barthes points out that “each physical type expresses to excess the part which has been assigned to the contestant.” He refers to an obese, pallid wrestler as a characterization of a classic ignoble “bastard,” and therefore his movements in the ring characterize a villain. Barthes was watching those matches from “the most squalid Parisian halls,” no different from the circus tents that pro wrestling once called “home,” where big burly men wrestled bears and tigers and whatnot.

Barthes probably watched something very similar to this. Source: tate.org.uk

Even then, things started to change a bit: in the pioneer days of pro wrestling, George Hackenschmidt possessed one of the most defined bodies in professional wrestling. Frank Gotch was arguably more skilled that Hackenschmidt, but didn’t possess the defined body and stature. People who know of wrestling history know what happened: Gotch beat Hackenschmidt twice (not without controversy), and in a way cemented the foundations of American professional wrestling, as we know it today.

Take that, Simon Dean. Source: physicalculturist.ca

Still, Hackenschmidt set the template for so many professional wrestlers to follow. A big, well-defined physique drew paying fans to matches, because a well-muscled body best conveys traits like strength and power. As wrestling moved from spinning toeholds to spinning stories and feuds, bodies played more and more important roles.

“Superstar” Billy Graham may not have been the world’s greatest technical wrestler, but he more than made up for it by having the kind of body emulated by wrestlers and bodybuilders to this day. Hulk Hogan practically defined an era of wrestling, with his “24-inch pythons” at the center of the narrative. Scott Steiner, while a decorated and accomplished wrestler in his own right, skyrocketed to fame with the “Big Poppa Pump” character: caring for nothing more than his peaks and his freaks.

Big Poppa Pump is your hook-up!

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The past histories of wrestling bodies have one thing in common: the body is a storytelling tool that exaggerates certain aspects of masculinity. If a wrestler can slam a giant, he must have rippling muscles that convince the viewer of his power. If a wrestler is meant to be a repulsive figure, his body must also be repulsive.

Bastion Booger, anyone?
In an athletic show where the body is used to tell a story, the body itself should be a story. Part of the hero-image of John Cena is told by his hero body, just as part of the villainy of Bray Wyatt is told by a body that looks and acts like a villain should. But over the years, those ideas have been challenged, and continue to be challenged. Triple H, for example, is a story all his own when you think about how his body has evolved. A character like Chris Masters would have been praised in the 1970s, but he was a top heel in his early run in the WWE.

When you look at current pro wrestling rosters today, wrestling bodies are much more diverse than they were in previous eras. Lots of factors come into play: there’s the 1991 steroid scandal, which put big hulking bodies under the unforgiving scrutiny of the media. Changing social views on body image are also challenging conventions, making “more normal” body types being unlikely heroes (and even merchandise movers). Today’s must-see talents—Samoa Joe, Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, Hideo Itami, among others—do not have the bodies that have defined the spectacle since antiquity. Still, the "perfect wrestling body" has become an integral part of modern pro wrestling's narrative: more than a prop for the play, the body narrative is now something that makes the difference between in-ring glory, and a glass ceiling for many performers.

But why is this so? Are the ideals of the Adonis-like ideal physique being shattered as we speak? What impact do all of these changes in body image have in the narrative of pro wrestling?

The road ever goes on in Part Two.


In Part 2, we explore body archetypes in professional wrestling and their degrees of success: from championship-caliber patpatins to the recent trends in matabuff. And we answer the question: who has the best body in professional wrestling today?


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Marck Rimorin (@marocharim) is an advertising professional, writer, bookworm, and overthinker. While a lifelong WWE fan, he also watches puroresu, lucha libre, and old clips of European wrestling. When not caught up in reading, making brand communications, or eating waybread under the shade of mallorn trees, Marck writes the overthink piece for Smark Henry: The Word on the Rings.

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