Thirty-four years ago, a couple of professional wrestlers got arrested on their way to an event.
The pair were pulled over in a rental car. A state trooper had seen the driver drinking a beer. Once their window was down, he smelled weed. During a search, he found cocaine.
It wouldn’t have been that big a deal except for who the pair were – Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Hossein (The Iron Sheik) Vaziri.
On TV, these two guys hated each other’s guts. Duggan used to get into the ring waving a two-by-four and an American flag. The Sheik’s signature move was called the camel clutch. Just so you get a sense of what we’re dealing with here.
Even as a kid you realized the whole thing was fake. But it’s one thing to know the two weren’t actually trying to kill each other. It was another to be told they were actually pals who went on trips together, just the two of them, the open road and a few party favours.
It wasn’t shocking, but it was dispiriting. Is there nothing pure in this world?
In general, the amount of the uncontrived hatred in sports has diminished to nothing. Opposing players are out there before games having long chats and hugging anyone with two arms and love in their heart. Stars from rival teams vacation together. They start businesses together. When one of them is looking for a new job, another will invite him to come join their team. It’ll be fun! We’ll have some laughs, make millions of dollars and maybe win something. But what’s really important is the laughs and the dollars.
Fans continue to delude themselves that their players bleed blue and white, or red and blue, or hot-pink and orange or whatever the colour blocking happens to be. But once the free-agency era took hold, the pros realized there’s only one colour worth bleeding: green.
Now an elite subset of the upper class, players have reassessed their loyalties. It’s not to corporations, or cities, or the civilians who buy jerseys with their names on them. It’s to each other.
Once that happened, true rivalry went out the window. It happens by accident every once in a while, but rivalries are no longer sustainable as far as the players are concerned. The fans may hate each other because it’s fun and they are strangers, but the players are friends. They all shop at the same Ferrari dealership.
But every once in a while a genuine personality clash between two A-list pros slips through the golden netting. Michael Jordan vs. Isaiah Thomas. Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova. Sean Avery vs. Everyone Else. When it happens, it is a beautiful thing to see.
This week, one of those apparent rarities surfaced between two golfers of the moment – Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau.
It’s been said for a long while that the two don’t like each other much. Which figures, because they are versions of each other. Both are spiffed-up, 21st-century-compatible versions of Hacksaw Jim Duggan – buff, bluff and so American it makes your eyes water.
Koepka dragged the rivalry from second to sixth gear in a bootleg excerpt from a TV interview at last weekend’s PGA Championship. The clip was – cynical air quotes here – ‘leaked’.
It starts with Koepka yammering into the camera about his round. DeChambeau walks behind him, perhaps speaking, though if so, the mic doesn’t pick it up. Koepka stops mid-thought. Then he rolls his eyes so hard it’s amazing he doesn’t fall over.
That would’ve been a lot, but Koepka keeps going. He swears several times. He mutters to himself. He sighs repeatedly. The interviewer is in fits of giggles, though whether of embarrassment or amusement it is hard to tell.
Once the video was released, everyone everywhere thought the same thing – Fight! Fight! Fight!
It’s amazing how thirsty people are for this draft – a genuine emotion from a sportsman or woman that is neither jubilation nor run through the fog of PR jargon. Something real.
Not real like ‘caught by cameras in the locker room’ real. But actually, recognizably, spontaneously human. Something petty and small. People still do that in public, don’t they? Occasionally have emotions they don’t run by their agents first? If so, you wouldn’t know it from watching sports in the modern era.
Within hours, DeChambeau hit back – a video showing him swinging 100-pound dumbbells captioned “Can’t stop won’t stop.”
Koepka retorted with a comment directed at Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who’s paired with DeChambeau in a coming pro-am: “Sorry bro.”
Dechambeau fired back: “It’s nice to be living rent-free in your head!”
Then you realized it – this is the wrestlers in the rental car all over again (minus the other stuff).
This is a put on. It must be. It’s just being spread a little too thick. Plus, nobody with sponsors devotes this much spare time to a public beef, unless they are playing a marketing long con.
At some point, the pair of them will show up on The Kelly Clarkson Show in boxing gloves and, just before they are about to swing, drop their fists and embrace as the audience coos.
Fine, whatever. It’s contrived. Isn’t everyone on the internet? And I guess you could call it fun, if you’re the kind of person who thinks Jackass was the soul of wit.
But it would be a lot more fun if someone could break their bonds of class allegiance and embrace the darkness.
The sports world is filled to bursting with virtuous bores these days. What I wouldn’t give for one genuine heel or, even better, two who can’t stand each other.
Problem is, if you could find two such people, they’d have their own show on Amazon Prime in the time it takes to take three swipes at each other via Instagram stories.
That’s what’s really changed since Duggan vs. Iron Sheik and today. They didn’t eliminate loathing from sports. They figured out how to intercept it, package it, commodify it and sell it back to you at a discount.