As most anyone can tell you, there’s a difference between being famous and notorious. One detail separates the two. If you’re simply famous, a lot of people know you. If you’re notorious, a lot of people know you for unfavourable reasons. So it was that two men — one having slipped slightly from fame to notoriety thanks to a certain leaked tape; the other always more notorious than famous, but with an alleged leaked tape to help anyway — sat down at a table in downtown Toronto on Friday to arm wrestle.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford won. Or, at least, he “won” the contest, which was set up to promote Fan Expo. After struggling for a moment or two, Ford wrestled Hulk’s arm to the table. He was almost standing at one point, such was his effort to pin Hulk’s arm. As the cameras flashed, Hulk held on just long enough to guarantee everyone at least one usable shot. Hulk, unlike Ford, is more accustomed to building audience suspense. And while Ford seems destined to never, ever take part in a well-choreographed performance, Hulk is known for little else. It was staged, obviously. No surprise, surely, for Hulk fans. And perhaps no surprise, either, for those who doubt Ford’s every move – another mildly unbelievable, bizarro moment to add to a lengthening list.
But so much of the tilt made sense. It made sense because both men have had their disputes with embarrassing (allegedly, in Ford’s case) videos leaked to Gawker, and it made sense because both men seem to have an eye for the unapologetic spectacle. It made sense because politics, like wrestling, is so often perceived to be a theatrical performance with the real decisions made in advance, backstage, by performers other than the ones people see every day.
It made sense because both men, in each of those respective realms, seem almost super-human. Hulk’s career was built on his body and strength appearing to be more than real — a kind of hyper-man set to do battle against other hyper-men in the alternate universe of professional wrestling. What else but a super man could take down a 475-pound French giant with a body slam? So it goes with Rob Ford, a man who remains, against most reasonable expectations or odds, consistently appealing to a steady 30-odd per cent of the voting population of the Greater Toronto Area. Or perhaps as much as 50 per cent of them, depending on what poll you want to use. Ford’s body slams are different, of course – they’re the kind that sound like this: “People in Scarborough deserve a subway… I’m a true believer in this, and I’ll fight non-stop for it, and the people of Scarborough want, deserve, and will get subways.”
And the arm wrestle made sense because it was for the Fan Expo, the “Comic Con of Canada,” as the event’s website notes, in a characteristically comparative Canadian way. In part, the Expo celebrates superheroes, those classic archetypes onto whom we are so often welcomed to project our lives and cultural fears – the ones who for that reason must always be fundamentally flawed and damaged, but who rise above and win despite it. Hulk Hogan, dogged in his later years by scandal and family issues, is this. And so is Rob Ford.
Friday night in downtown Toronto, fans from far afield wandered the streets dressed in elaborate costumes. Walking around, you might have seen a robot wandering King Street or a handful of comic book characters pour from the front doors of a four-star hotel – the same one, you might remember, where the New Democrats held their post-2011 election party, reminding you of another flawed man who appeared briefly to also be superhuman, who in a different reality might have been where Ford is now.
For many in this city, the idea that Rob Ford might be a superhero is probably jarring, but then for those same people, there is likely little about Ford that isn’t. The downtown population generally looks down its nose at his perceived destruction of the city they love and their particular perception of it – the almost-Toronto, as it might appear in fiction. For them, Ford is the marauding force, the man from afar descended upon them from a cave somewhere, a rogue element in the system fighting to enforce a new idea. He is the man who might be a criminal with a double life; the man who is, at least, notorious. The superhero for someone else. The dark knight.
Colin Horgan is a writer with CTV News Channel’s Kevin Newman Live, set to launch in October. He is a frequent contributor to Maclean’s, the Guardian and iPolitics.ca.