Hadith traditions and early biographical literature on Muhammad include an episode in which he takes on the strongest wrestler of his tribe, a man named Rukana. The wrestler promises that he will become Muslim if Muhammad can throw him. They wrestle, and Muhammad throws Rukana two or three times, after which he stuns Rukana with the additional miracle of summoning a tree to move towards him.
The “defeat me and I’ll convert to your religion” stipulation reminds me of WWE, because there are times in WWE when good must triumph simply because it is good. When WWE successfully constructs a hero, that hero will overcome whatever adversities are thrown at him, because the wrestling match serves as a measure of the goodness and justice in the universe. The truth of the wrestling hero must be demonstrated in victory. In the hero’s hands, the WWE championship signifies a restoration of cosmic harmony, balance in the Force. By WWE logic, the messenger of Allah would also have to be the ultimate good guy rassler.
This is a problem for me, because if it means that if Muhammad were a wrestler in today’s WWE, he would be John Cena.
This past weekend, I watched John Cena successfully defend his WWE championship against the 400-pound Mark Henry, a powerlifter who holds legitimate records and is billed by WWE as the “world’s strongest man.” Henry played the heel, having established himself as a sadistic monster whose finishing move, the “world’s strongest slam,” inducted victims into what he called the “hall of pain.” Henry had challenged Cena after deceiving him and the fans with what appeared to have been a heartfelt retirement speech. Cena expressed his admiration for Henry, and Henry responded by world’s-strongest-slamming Cena into the mat.
While Mark Henry represented his own selfish ambitions and brute force, John Cena brought a different set of values to their match: his core principles of “hustle, loyalty, and respect.” Their match told the story of Cena’s values defeating those of Henry. Despite Henry’s underhanded tactics and merciless pounding of Cena, Cena refused to surrender. He fought honorably against all odds, and though Henry was too massive for Cena to slam, Cena managed to make Henry tap out. The good guy won, and through his efforts, good itself triumphed over evil.
John Cena is the contemporary version of what Hulk Hogan had been in the 80s. He's the white-bread superhero who stands for all of the wonderful values that parents wish to instill in their children. He spouts positive tripartite mantras (for Hogan it was “training, prayers, and vitamins”) and presents himself as some kind of metaphorical stand-in for the US military. Like Hulk Hogan before him, John Cena never gives up, he never backs down, and he’s so good that the truth of his goodness must be demonstrated every time he steps into the ring. He’s so good that his goodness occasionally pokes holes in the fictional world that he inhabits. When Cena appears in WWE’s anti-bullying PSAs, he can speak as his character, but it’s hard to forget that Cena rules in an ongoing narrative that demands physical violence as the only way that problems can ever get solved, ever, ever.
Watching John Cena prove the truth of his message by defeating a man whom WWE made every effort to present as unbeatable, I could not help but recall the story of Muhammad versus Rukana. For a Muslim wrestling fan to make this comparison is horrifying, because Muslims regard Muhammad as the greatest human being to have ever walked the Earth, and serious wrestling fans regard John Cena as corny shit. When I contemplate the greatness of Muhammad, I don’t want to picture him wearing Cena’s jorts.
In his famous discussion of wrestling as myth, literary theorist Roland Barthes examines the ways in which wrestlers’ bodies serve as signifiers of their essential characters. In other words, the wrestler who is supposed to be the dishonest and cowardly heel will express this meaning in his physical appearance and every step that he takes and every pose and grimace. Likewise, the hero must be immediately recognizable as the hero. The wrestler who is supposed to be John Cena will look like John Cena. In the 80s, Hulk Hogan consistently referred to his 24-inch biceps as representing the essential truth of his being. The ultimate core of Hulk Hogan’s self was expressed in his arms. This aspect of the wrestler as a physical embodiment of his ideology also relates to the descriptions of Muhammad in hadith traditions. Muhammad’s companions often describe his physical superiority, whether in the beauty of his appearance of his having the sexual power of 30 men. Like a wrestler who steps into the arena and must establish his persona at the very moment that he is seen by the fans, Muhammad’s body instantly delivers the proof of his Muhammad-ness.
The difficulty for me in considering Muhammad as a wrestler is that I have a mixed reaction to wrestling’s superheroes. I started my life as a wrestling fan fully in the clutches of Hulkamania. It was Hogan’s 1987 defeat of Andre the Giant, perhaps the most genuinely superhero-ish moment in WWE’s history, that caused me, a nine-year-old, to fall in deep and lasting love with WWE. By 1989, however, I was thoroughly over Hulk Hogan, having learned that it was more fun to cheer for the villains. When Hogan fought Randy “Macho Man” Savage at WrestleMania V, I was six months short of my 12th birthday, but wise enough to the business to know that the superhero had to win. I cheered for Savage anyway, in part because it demonstrated that I was no longer one of the little kids who loved a human cartoon. Going against the grain and cheering for Savage seemed like it was the more sophisticated and mature way to enjoy wrestling.
A whole generation of 80s kids learned in the Hogan-era that cheering unconditionally for one-dimensional good guys was kind of lame. It is partly for their presence that John Cena gets at least half an arena’s worth of boos every Monday night. Cena has dominated WWE for most of the past decade, winning against insurmountable odds so many times that the act grew stale a long time ago. As they had with Hogan, fans have grown tired of Cena’s superhero persona. For years, people have been all but begging him to turn bad—as Hogan had in 1996, revitalizing his career—just to become interesting again. For the older fans and self-identified “smarks” (shorthand for “smart marks”), it’s preferable to support someone like CM Punk, who reigned as the top villain through the second half of 2012 and the first third of 2013. CM Punk ran amok as an arrogant, jealous, bitter, paranoid, delusional heel who hungered for constant adulation and demanded that he be recognized as “best in the world.” His heel behavior included stealing the Undertaker’s sacred urn, mocking the recently deceased Paul Bearer, and ostensibly pouring Bearer’s own ashes onto the Undertaker and himself. CM Punk was an awful human being, but still an immeasurably cooler wrestler than John Cena. Cheering him meant that we saw through the Cena hype machine. CM Punk has recently been recast as a good guy, which flattens much of what made his character so compelling.
Many wrestling fans and folks in the business mourn this loss of faith in the heroes. It’s part of the death of “kayfabe,” the traditional veiling of wrestling’s inner workings from its fans. Now that wrestling has become as transparent as any other form of entertainment, with the good guys and bad guys alike admitting that they only play fictional characters, the fans are free to get ironic and cynical, cheering for the villains and dumping on the cornball heroes. But what if I have a post-kayfabe religion?
I don’t know that Muhammad ever wrestled Rukana, or that this great wrestler Rukana ever existed, or even that Muhammad’s birth name was really “Muhammad.” I’m not necessarily buying into the canonical representation of Muhammad as the most physically perfect human specimen of all time, but I still find myself nourished by the character. This Ramadan, as I reflect on the stories of Muhammad, I bear witness to my own lack. I love a Muhammad who shows me what I am not. Muhammad tells me to train, say my prayers, take my vitamins, and remain faithful to the creed of hustle, loyalty, and respect. He says that we should always take the high road and never quit.
The truth is that even if I find John Cena’s superhero myth to be played out beyond repair, I cannot be John Cena. I cannot touch that level of goodness. It doesn’t even matter if John Cena himself cannot be John Cena, or Hulk Hogan cannot be Hulk Hogan, or Muhammad cannot be Muhammad. On the other hand, I could probably become CM Punk, if this only means being a supreme dick to people. Cheering for the hero means that I want a better version of myself. The holy month of Ramadan requires that for a time, I drop the smark irony and restore kayfabe. I see Muhammad flying to the ring on his winged Buraq, the WWE championship around his waist, and I mark hard for Muhammad because for my own growth as a human being, I should treat Muhammad-ness as possible. The champ is here.