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One Final Blow to Mankind
"Wrestling is the only sport which gives such an externalized image of torture."
Roland Barthes

The Royal Rumble: the Rock vs. Mankind, December 1999. No Disqualification, No Countout, No Interference. No stopping the match for excessive blood loss. The Rock, a.k.a. "The corporate champion,"  is set to fight Mankind, the lone outsider shunned by the corporation. In mythological terms, the scenario is ancient. The cold and ruthless ruler comes down to fight the defender of humanity - if humanity wins, it will be against insurmountable odds.  In this match, no one wins until the loser says "I quit."

Mankind droopily enters the ring like an oversized linebacker walking off the field in the rain, proud but beat down by outside forces. He is the trailor-trash everyman, down to the gushy beer belly, crooked tie, half tucked shirt, and unkept curls spilling out under his sweat stained leather mask. Horror film maniacs wear such masks, but there is nothing to fear in Mankind. His mask hides not his evilness but his ordinaryness-it brings the fighter out of the man. He is the opposite of all that is clean, well groomed, technologically savvy, and packaged that we have come to expect from the corporate entertainment industry - and for that, he will be sufficiently tortured.

And the Rock is the opposite of Mankind. He is well oiled, muscular, and poses like marbleized statues of Roman heros. His voice escalates higher and higher, mad as a preacher but cool as a politician, taunting Mankind with his arrogant display of bravado and pride. "The Rock...is THE great man and is THE most electrifying man in sports entertainment today." The crowd, with their far away memory of boxing, chants "Rocky Rocky" as he prances onto the mat looking like a ballerina claiming her part in the exquisitness of the set. Mankind's voice cracks as he speaks, as if he is tired, and berated. His voice invokes both sadness and fury as he declares to the corporate champion that no matter how hard the blows, he will not be broken. "Pain," he proclaims, "is my middle name."

The wrestlers spend almost no time fighting on the mat itself-they throw each other over the ropes into the announcer's tables, hit each other on the back with folding chairs, and slam each other into the steel stairs leading up to the mat. The moves themselves are choreographed, almost painfully predictable, comical, a puppet show confined by the number of well-placed props that are on the stage. One wrestler gets distracted from the match and insults the announcer and the crowd, while the other bashes him over the head. He falls, the other falls with him, they spin, slam, elbow and then are on their feet again like Tweetie Bird vs. Sylvester, shaking off the little stars that are buzzing around their heads.  Soon, blood appears smeared across Mankind's eyebrow, a preview of the violence to come. Mankind will bleed for all who don't believe that wrestling is real.

Like us, the Romans wanted their games to be bloody. We, unlike the Romans, want to believe the blood is an illusion, a trick, a prop. We trust TV to make reality as artificial as possible so that the violence depicted is metaphoric and not actual. The WWF carefully edits the blood that wrestling generates because it is real, and the spectators need the illusion of a script. Mankind threatens this illusion because he is a TV star, and yet he is really bleeding.

Now, the blood running from Mankind's head has mixed with his sweat, turning his white collar shirt a pale pink. Although he appears barely able to hold himself up, the Rock handcuffs him and continues to bash his head with a folding chair. It is in the character of The Rock, the corporate representative, that he show no human mercy for mankind. Inside the Rock is the corporation that dumps toxic waste in our backyards, takes over our neighborhood stores, and makes corporate entertainment more pertinent than the struggles of real people. Mankind falls to the floor, and the Rock shoves the microphone in his face. "Say it. Say I Quit." "Never," says the fallen one in a moment of defiance no different from the Gladiator who, as Hollywood tells it, brought down the Roman Empire. You can have my body but you'll never claim my soul.

At this moment, the crowd is silent. The drama of almost believing Mankind will not stand up has almost reached its peak. The Rock prances around, not a speck of blood on his chiseled face, as the announcers proclaim, "The rock is the champion that the corporation can be proud of." Suddenly, as swiftly as a dismembered action figure is snapped back together, Mankind stands up and smacks down the Rock who is in the middle of puffing out his chest for the audience. "How can Mankind do it!" the announcers exclaim. "There is a human being in there that is indestructible."

There is a human being in there who has, like any plastic superman, become indestructible. Mankind is the superhero who has taken the personae of a man, is the cartoon that finally leapt out of its constrained comic strip to become flesh. He is the man who is so immune to pain that he became the cartoon. He is humanity on the verge of transformation - and we have been waiting for TV to make this happen.

Mankind follows the Rock up a ladder and into the stands, 12 feet above the concrete floor of the stadium. We're back to the script, to the part where the Rock pushes Mankind off the stand and he lands directly on the electrical circuit board that supposedly powers the entire stadium. The lights go out, the sparks fly. Mankind lies across the circut like Frankenstein awaiting the moment when he will be born. The crowd is once again silent, and the announcers wonder if he is dead. He rolls on to the ground and lays there, face down. Again the Rock slams the microphone into his face. "Say it, Say, I quit." Mankind barely utters, "You'll have to kill me." The announcer looks at the mess of a man and exclaims, "Mankind is the most deranged wrestler in the history of wrestling." This is probably true. After all, he fell 12 feet onto a concrete floor, his head split open from being rammed into the steel stairs, and he is electrocuted. While Mankind is laying face down in a pool of blood, The Rock relentlessly continues to hit him with a folding chair. Finally, Mankind gives in. "I quit. I quit. I quit." Has Humanity lost its power once and for all, burned by the circuts that keep us all enslaved to the corporate machine?

But it is never over. In a final act of defiance, the split-open monster refuses to get on the stretcher and walks out of the stadium. His forehead gushing, his hair blood-soaked, his head fallen. The illusion has returned, we are safe in our media delirium after all. The cameras zoom in on his face and he smiles, a delirious but cognizant grin. Then the lights go on, and the show continues. The artifice of wrestling is preserved, as are all those who believe it is all fake. But believing really has nothing to do with distinguishing  between what is real and what is fake. Believing is all about magic. The crowd's applause at the end of the match is not for their hero who walked out of the fight alive, but is a display of gratitude for the excellent show they have just witnessed. The magician has, for a moment, fooled them.