Imagine a 400-pound man in a thong. A 79-year-old pregnant woman called Mae. And young adults cheering each with abandon.
Welcome to the world of professional wrestling: a no-holds-barred soap opera where story lines too often cross the line of decency, where sex and violence work in a money-churning harmony that pushes entertainment to the extreme.
Today's orchestrated wrestling matches portray an adult world that targets teen audiences.
Chris Williams, 16, a 10th-grader at Orchard Park High School, is a wrestling fan and honor student who distinguishes two types of fans in this new wave of wrestling.
"There are fans like me, who like the moves, the technique. And there are fans who are into the story line," Chris explained. "A lot of the popularity is the story line. People were tired of seeing good guy vs. bad guy."
One recent Sunday, Chris and his friends pooled their money to watch a pay-per-view televised showing of the World Wrestling Federation's Royal Rumble. During that telecast, 30 wrestlers performed, including Hardcore Holly and Grand Master Sexay. A swimsuit contest also filled the entertainment bill, as well as the appearance of a 79-year-old woman -- Mae -- who stripped.
"That was ridiculous," recalled Chris, who was quick to point out the "N" in the broadcast's warning box gave advance notice of the nude performance.
But what about parents? Don't they mind the adult content?
"I wasn't real thrilled about that," said Theresa Williams. "It has gotten to the point where some things are being carried too far, like the sexy women. It all depends on how old your child is. It's the discretion of the parents, whether their children can handle it or not. If Chris was exhibiting bad behavior, if he couldn't control his behavior, then he can't watch wrestling. That's where the line is drawn."
There were times when Chris and his 12-year-old brother would practice wrestling maneuvers around the house, Williams said. But when the two boys started taking garbage cans from the garage to enhance their performance, she drew the line.
"It's all in how parents tell their children it's just a game," Williams said. "And it's not like my kids' whole lives revolve around wrestling."
Children have been known to take some of the offensive actions to school with them, an occurrence that last spring resulted in the suspension of one Olean fifth-grader.
"It is becoming more evident that some professional wrestling programs shown on television are affecting student behaviors in school," wrote principal Brian O'Connell in a letter to parents at Washington West Elementary School.
"Many of these wrestlers display vulgar language, indecent sexual gestures, racial and ethnic slurs, bigotry, contempt for women and others."
The act that suspended the 11-year-old from elementary school was a sexual gesture that targeted a group of girls, according to O'Connell. "The kids know I'm serious, and if they do it, and if anyone sees them doing it, they'll have to deal with me."
Simply stated, children imitate others, noted one area psychologist. It's part of their developmental pattern.
"If you observe violence and aggression, you are more likely to mimic it," said Dr. David Myrow. "A well-attached child with a conscience, however, probably is not going to be hurt by viewing things on TV or in person. A child who doesn't feel very loved or cared for is going to be more easily persuaded to do things that are hurtful to others. What concerns me is the disrespect."
Without question, the bottom line when understanding professional wrestling and its effect on children of any age is its fictional nature. After all, the performance is undertaken for a price, with today's wrestlers annually earning from $50,000 to more than $1 million, according to World Wrestling Federation data.
In an effort to win a wider audience, the WWF has adopted an R-rated approach to sports entertainment. And it's working, according to the Wrestling Observer newsletter, which indicated the WWF sold out 21 of 22 arena shows at one point last year. Professional wrestling has also boasted increases in attendance, pay-per-view buy rates and television ratings.
Locally, too, professional wrestling is a big draw. Since November 1996, for example, the WWF and rival World Championship Wrestling shows rolled into Marine Midland Arena a total of 12 times. Seven of those events were sellouts or near sellouts, confirmed Bridgette Cassidy, public affairs specialist for the Arena.
Still, a study completed by Indiana University found 50 episodes of USA Network's "WWF Raw" contained:
1,658 instances of crotch-grabbing
128 simulated sex acts
157 middle-finger gestures
42 cases of simulated drug use
47 examples of satanic activity.
While some parents believe they are against the ropes in the fight to monitor their children, there are others who have a different take on the changing face of wrestling.
"Don't be stuck on stupid as a parent," said Debbera M. Ransom, a former professional wrestler and community activist.
"When a wrestling program comes on, it has a rating. Parents have a good idea of what is going to be seen.
"Wrestling is entertainment," Ransom added. "Going to a wrestling match is time for conversation. Take that opportunity and talk about the violence. As adults, we need to form a strategy to let children understand what is inappropriate about that behavior."
The wrestler formerly known as Sheena, the Voodoo Queen, Ransom, 46, traveled the professional circuit from 1983 to 1990, competing in more than 100 matches in the United States, Canada and Malaysia.
"Having done this as a job, I know professional wrestlers are not just a bunch of idiots running around doing weird things," Ransom said. "They are human beings who happen to choose this particular job."
Ransom, who was defeated in her bid for a Buffalo School Board seat last November, has served as foster mother to 13 children. The mother of two sons --ages 16 and 29 -- she is firmly committed to the role of parent and the need for role models.
"I've been a role model for my children, and I've always been athletic," noted Ransom, whose finishing move was jumping off the top rope to pin her opponent.
"Most of the time I was the bad guy, and that was so extremely exciting. People love to hate you."
Yesterday's wrestlers filled prescribed roles. Issues of good and bad were clearly delineated. If a wrestler was a bad guy, he was always bad, according to Welch Everman, professor of English at the University at Maine.
"Wrestling has disgraced itself, if you can believe that," said the lifelong fan. "It's not professional wrestling; it's some other sort of spectacle. I'm hardly a prude, but frankly it's inappropriate. There's more than just sexual innuendo."
And while the philosophy of wrestling may have changed, the profession has always had a stranglehold on popularity.
"There always was a compelling desire to believe," said Everman. "The audience knew wrestling was not real, but there was a suspension of disbelief. Now, it's been pushed over the top to where no one could possibly believe it."