These days, no one poses in a wrestling ring quite like current WWE Intercontinental Champion Bobby Lashley, a legitimate amateur wrestler and semi-legitimate MMA “tomato can” crusher. You know the drill: A scrawny wrestling manager (in Lashley’s case, his “hype man” Lio Rush) and his chiseled charge (Lashley, obviously) hit the ring. The manager carefully removes his wrestler’s robe, then oohs and aahs while the wrestler strikes a bunch of standard bodybuilding poses. The fans might boo a bit, but the overall scene is subdued. The result is five or ten minutes of filler, at times bordering on tedium — the crowd isn’t so much teased by all the flesh as it is irritated that actual wrestling isn’t happening.
If you grew up watching the WWF during the 1980s, this sort of spectacle was your mother’s milk. Big muscle men, many juiced to the gills on various performance-enhancing substances, got in the ring and cavorted for the alleged delight of the crowd. In fact, a “who’s who” of Zubaz-clad beefcakes struck a pose in the proverbial squared circle — from bench-press champion Ted Arcidi to World’s Strongest Man contender Tom Magee.
A few of these rock-hard wrestlers, like arrogant male stripper “Ravishing” Rick Rude and gravelly voiced narcissist Jesse Ventura, had the charisma to impress with more than just their physiques. But most were just forgotten bodies, a collection of hypertrophied physiques that WWE owner and amateur bodybuilder Vince McMahon found so appealing that he started a bodybuilding federation to ensure that they remained fed and (un)clothed.
Even at the time, though, such physical displays left most people a little creeped out. “These bodybuilder physiques were really only popular with a certain percentage of women,” says K Downs, a three-decade veteran of the wrestling ring who currently competes as Tygress Lourdes. “Not all of us were impressed by these bodies. A wrestling roster needs a mix of different body types and abilities, not a bunch of lookalikes.”
In fairness, today’s WWE boasts a much more diverse-looking roster than it did in, say, 1988, at the height of an era with minimal drug testing, or even in 2005, a time before the implementation of the company’s Wellness Policy when even shorter men like Eddie Guerrero (who died that year) and Chris Benoit (who would commit murder-suicide two years later) were roughly the width of small barges. In that sense, Lashley’s ripped body, with its seemingly impossible Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-shell traps, is a kind of a throwback to a throwback. He calls to mind another standout amateur wrestler, “Big Poppa Pump” Scott Steiner, who beefed up beyond belief and carried on in the manner of the great, trash-talking innovator of this strange style — “Superstar” Billy Graham, a huge, peroxide-blonde bodybuilder who trained with Arnold Schwarzenegger and held the WWF title from 1977 to 1978.
“I started taking steroids in the mid-1960s and never looked back,” Graham wrote recently on his Facebook page. “The wrestlers as a whole were not taking steroids to the extent I was. Ivan Koloff did, but did not do the dieting I did and did not take as much as I did. People like Nick Bockwinkel, who had an excellent build, never touched roids. Bruno Sammartino never did, but was amazingly strong and massive. Slowly, more wrestlers started. I had the natural charisma, the tie-dyed gimmicks and cool in-ring persona, but it was the steroid build physique that made the difference and gave me the credibility to say, ‘Look at these 22” Pythons,’ and they were real.”
Graham, who mainly threw soft, safe working punches and sold his opponents’ offense until injuries related to drug use rendered him incapable of even falling properly in the ring, was anything but real. And so, he let his muscles — as opposed to his wrestling — do the talking.
“I always got the sense that those wrestlers were trying to scare their opponents before the fight because they knew they couldn’t actually out-wrestle them,” says Canadian copywriter and pop culture critic Allan Mott. “I took [the muscles] as a sign of weakness instead of strength.”
Still, all that muscle hooked plenty of kids. I was one of them, always eager to witness a posedown or a fake bench-press competition, as was Dallas-area superfan Lance Peterson. “I started watching right when everybody was pushing the muscle guys,” Peterson says. “I’m not sure I would’ve gotten hooked on wrestling if it hadn’t been for the ‘cool’ bodybuilder look of the Von Erichs. They looked like the cool older guys you would see at the YMCA. Plus every week, they were nice to us on interviews, and they needed our support. The cool guys needed us!”
Marcus Dowling, co-promoter of Capitol Wrestling, draws a connection between that era’s inflated bodies and incessant posedowns and the kid demographic being pursued by the WWF in the 1980s. “It was perfectly cartoonish enough to fill the TV time slots they occupied and help them bring in the ad revenue they needed,” he explains. “Monday night wrestling and Saturday morning wrestling are different animals. A lot of these 1980s workers were massive rubber action figures brought to life, well suited to Saturday television.”
Steiner, originally one-half of a hard-hitting tag team with his brother Rick, went from a stocky vanilla babyface to an immobile Billy Graham at the height of the Monday Night Wars. This “Big Poppa Pump” iteration of Steiner ascended to the top of Ted Turner’s WCW even as other, more athletic stars were jumping ship to the revitalized WWF, and he began to fill vast amounts of airtime with posing exhibitions.
In 2003, when Steiner was booked in a main-event WWE feud against then-champion Triple H, he pulled out all the 1970s-era stops — from arm-wrestling matches to bench-press contests:
But as the feud heated up, Triple H cut one of the best promos of his career on Steiner, telling him that those sideshow activities had nothing to do with being the best at wrestling. And after jobbing to Triple H at the 2003 No Way Out pay-per-view, it could be argued that Steiner, now descending to the midcard and then to a long pre-retirement run in TNA, was no longer anywhere near the best at wrestling.
“That particular part of the Steiner versus Triple H storyline made a lot of sense to me,” says Toronto-based events promoter Ron Deschenes. “After all, posedowns signaled the start of an unexciting match, with the exception of Hulk Hogan versus Ultimate Warrior at Wrestlemania VI in Toronto, when the posedown foreshadowed a truly exciting match for once. Rick Rude was another exception, but he rarely ‘posed down,’ he just posed by himself in a kind of proto-parody of toxic masculinity.”
Meanwhile, bodybuilding women in the sport’s history, a small contingent including the hapless Nicole Bass and the overexposed Chyna, have fared even more poorly. Aside from IFBB Pro Dana Brooke hitting some “front double biceps” poses early in her career, female wrestlers have been more likely to fire up the crowds by moving like gymnasts, or in the “bra-and-panty match” days of the WWE’s “Divas” division, gyrating like strippers. “As far as women go, many have always thought hard-core bodybuilder bodies, like Nicole Bass’, are gross,” says K Downs. “And nowadays, you couldn’t do a division of all female bodybuilders unless you were in, let’s say, a very niche market.”
But that still leaves Lashley, big and powerful and no better on the mic in 2019 than when he was helping Donald Trump shave Vince McMahon’s head in 2007, standing by himself in the ring and trying to overawe both the crowd and hyper-athletic opponents like Apollo Crews. As I watch these segments, with Lio Rush going all-in on some foolishness that would embarrass even a cowardly and puny manager like Jimmy Hart, I can’t help but wonder what, if anything, is the point of this? Almost always, the fans are left silent or merely groaning — it’s not even bad or cheap heat, of the sort that Intercontinental Title-level performers Honky Tonk Man or “Double J” Jeff Jarrett would generate by wasting our time with their guitar solos and boastful blather.
“In 2019, people want charismatic athletes who don’t fit the ‘system,’” says Dowling. “Lashley, with his ‘suplex, slam, pose and square-jaw grimace’ gimmick isn’t smiling, backflipping 300-pounder Keith Lee, nor can he do the small-guy spots as a big guy the way Brian Cage can.”
“Posing is the stuff that would cause me to change the channel,” adds competitive powerlifter Mitchell Sahlfeld. “As a kid, I was in awe of the bodies of the wrestlers insofar as their muscles allowed them to do amazing acts of strength and acrobatics. Sure, I was interested in looking as ripped as Lex Luger or Scott Steiner, but I really wanted to fly like Rey Mysterio.”
But what about Lashley’s physique, which — chemically enhanced or not — still looks impressive for a man in his early 40s? He’s every bit as large as Graham and better developed, in terms of sheer musculature, than Hulk Hogan or Ventura ever were. Surely that by itself is a worthy show for the crowd, given that said crowd is probably still teeming with the out-of-shape “sweat hogs” savagely mocked by Rick Rude during his late-1980s tirades.
“Nah, I can get on Instagram and see a hundred guys better developed than him,” says my cousin Douglas Alexander, a self-professed “aesthetic kid” and connoisseur of Instagram fitness celebrities. “Lashley really isn’t impressive anymore. Vince McMahon hasn’t kept up with the best in steroid bodies. John Cena, all those dudes — they can’t hold a candle to a prime-time ‘manlet’ like Steve Cook. So Lashley is wasting all of our time, because we’re not going to get our posing from a wrestling show.”