“The function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.” – Roland Barthes, ‘The World of Wrestling’, 1972
A few months ago, when I first read Barthes’ essay on wrestling is his “Mythologies”, the more I read, the more one wrestler in particular stood out to me as the perfect subject for illustrating this essay, for embodying all of the qualities which Barthes says make a good wrestler, for being all the things which Barthes insists are important for a wrestler to be – the platonic ideal of a wrestler, if you will. I’ve made little secret of how much I enjoy Jimmy Havoc’s work, so while I’m sure everyone has their own favourite who would fit the description Barthes sets out, he’s the one I’ve chosen.
Barthes talks about how the salaud, the bastard – we would say a monster heel – needs to be ‘organically repugnant’, and talks about the alternative to this, the salope – the bitch. He speaks as if they physical shape of a wrestler automatically precludes their allegiances, and while he’s right that they carry ‘in their costumes and attitudes… the future contents of their parts’, there are many exceptions to this rule. See Keith Lee and Jeff Cobb, both possible examples of the monster heel body type, the salaud, who nevertheless are faces in Progress, and play to the delight of the crowd rather than the disdain. Then we have those who are leanly muscled, and attractive, and yet play the heel; examples such as James Drake or Marty Scurll.
Jimmy Havoc has the body of a bitch – and this whole article wasn’t an excuse to say that, but it is rather pleasing – with narrow waist and shoulders, a shorter build than compatriots such as Zack Sabre Jr. or Will Ospreay, and certainly, with his pink chair and painted nails, he has the femininity to play the salope. Of course, Jack Sexsmith would be a more classical example of a bitch – he’ll forgive me for that, I’m sure – though his femininity is played not for laughs or for something to despise, as a salope would play it, but as a central part of his underdog role, something which plays into seductive sexuality the way a woman would use it. Femininity in a male wrestler is no longer necessarily something which makes one ‘organically repugnant’, or even particularly stands out, which certainly speaks to something wrestling’s got right since 1972.
But to return to Jimmy Havoc, we see the body of a bitch with the marks of a bastard carved into him. He creates his own repugnance in scars, fairly won, and in his actions; vicious, bloodthirsty, and cruel. He makes a monster of a man, because it is easy for him. Barthes states that, in the art of wrestling, ‘it no longer matters if the passion is genuine or not’, and that’s something Havoc does exceedingly well. When we watch the early chapters of Progress, we see him go from crowd favourite to hated horror in seconds, an entire crowd who know that, as Barthes says, that ‘wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle’; ‘wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function’. It doesn’t matter that we know the combatants may be in the pub an hour later, sharing a table as they knock back pints, because ‘the public spontaneously attunes itself to the spectacular nature of the contest’. We suspend our disbelief out of respect for those in the ring who are telling us a story that we so desperately want to believe.
Barthes talks about wrestling as portraying ‘a purely moral concept: that of justice’, and it is in that where Havoc excels. No matter what the outcome, and whether the audience is supposed to be for or against him, they always come to the finish of the match feeling exactly what he has manipulated them into feeling. In the early chapters of Progress, his losses are answered with hurt from the crowd who want to see him win. Later, after his betrayal of Jim Smallman, the way he snatches victory by inches is designed to keep us turned against him, make us feel he got lucky. Of course, storyline plays into this, but a good storyline on its own cannot carry a poor showman.
Barthes states that it is ‘the orgy of evil which alone makes good wrestling’, and there’s a truth in that, where “both these guys” is an indicator of a good match, but nevertheless, one which we do not wish to see repeated hour after hour. Even when you place Havoc in a position where he is, truly, neither face nor heel, (see my ACW review of his match against Sexsmith for an example), he quickly takes on a role, most often doing things we associate with the heels; making ‘Evil the natural climate of wrestling’ because, as Barthes states, ‘fair wrestling could lead only to boxing or judo’.
Barthes talks about how an American conflict in wrestling is political. whereas the French is moral – and I think BritWres sides heavily with the moral convictions, and most modern wrestling does, these days; it’s terribly gauche to take a political stand, to the point that WWE get a lot of eyerolls for still playing up USA chants, especially in the current political climate in the US. While we have those such as Spike Trivet, for whom the political is a character, even then, we view that political choice as being on the wrong side of a moral standpoint, and he is played more for comedy than seriousness.
In the end, Barthes says that ‘one comes to wrestling in order to attend the continuing adventures of a single major leading character’ and I don’t think anyone can question that for early part of Progress, that character was Jimmy Havoc, whether he was to be a sympathetic character or a villain. ‘A wrestler can irritate or disgust, he never disappoints’ could have been written for a man who, at his best or at his worst is, in all things, a spectacle. In this, I believe I’ll let Barthes have the last word in explaining why I can go from gasping at the man in the ring, heart in my throat, to mocking him at the merch table five minutes later.
‘When the hero or the villain of the drama, the man who was seen a few minutes earlier possessed by moral rage, magnified into a sort of metaphysical sign, leaves the wrestling hall, impassive, anonymous, carrying a small suitcase and arm-in-arm with his wife, no one can doubt that wrestling holds the power of transmutation which is common to the Spectacle and to Religious Worship. In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.’
(With thanks and apology to Dan Rebellato, without whom I would never have read this essay, and who does not have to take credit for my inability to do academics!)