I need to start, dear reader, by making a confession: I am an unashamed wrestling fan. And my aim is that by the end of this article, you will be too. Business is about to pick up.
Of all the great working-class arts – the music hall, cabaret, football, boxing – professional wrestling is perhaps the most maligned. Vince McMahon’s larger-than-life superstars – Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, etc. – opened up the business to accusations of camp and pantomime. Then the rise of UFC and MMA gave rise to an audience who wanted to see legitimate grappling fights instead of well-choreographed routines that had traveled too far from the sport it purported to portray.
Factor in also that, since the early 2000s, the WWE has had very little in the way of mainstream competition. This has meant that wrestling has been associated in the public mind with the most flamboyant, least sports-like of all promotions. It’s therefore easy to see why wrestling had taken a downward slide in popularity from its mid-nineties heyday, where 10 million people approximately, would regularly tune in to the USA Network, Sky Sports, or TNT. They wanted to see the latest in cool, rebellious behavior from the nWo or Stone Cold Steve Austin. Maybe it was just the cynical nineties but the anti-Hero with attitude was in and the childish colorful superheroes of yesteryear were definitely out.
There has always been an unwarranted snobbery against pro wrestling, even at its most popular. Thankfully, with the rise of Japanese giants NJPW making inroads of popularity in the USA and UK, the likes of PROGRESS, RevPro, and NXT UK revitalizing the corpse of British wrestling, and new major company AEW, led by sports entrepreneur Tony Khan, being the first company in years to land a major cable TV deal, in this case with TNT (and ITV4 in the UK), wrestling appears to be on the cusp of another boom period.
Wrestling is exciting again, and if you’re not watching you’re missing out. I believe wrestling is a lot more varied in its appeal than is generally thought of and multi-faceted enough to meet the entertainment needs of those who don’t even realize wrestling could do so.
So, for those inexperienced or just merely suspicious, let me tell you why I believe wrestling deserves your time.
Okay, let’s address the elephant in the room: Wrestling results are predetermined. It’s no big secret anymore, and the era of kayfabe is largely dead—kayfabe being the industry’s way of protecting its legitimacy as a sport. The so-called fakeness of wrestling is a large reason for many fans to migrate to MMA, they wanted to see a real fight.
But does this really make wrestling worthless? Consider that the WWE has been calling their brand of grappling ‘Sports Entertainment’ since the 1980s. Generally, they use the term to differentiate themselves from other wrestling companies and push themselves as a mainstream entertainment company. They do this specifically through their use of larger-than-life characters and soap-operatic storytelling. But I ask, “Why shouldn’t the term apply to the actual wrestling itself?”
When I go to the cinema to watch an action film, I don’t watch under the impression that what I’m seeing is documentary real-life footage. I expect to suspend my sense of disbelief and be entertained. The same applies to wrestling.
Part of this is wrestling’s own fault, and partly a change in tastes. As wrestling moved away from two men in trunks wrestling in a realistic way, the characters became larger than life and ever more flamboyant. The move set became ever more elaborate. It became harder to claim wrestling as a real sport. People were turned off by the inauthenticity.
This is why ‘Sports Entertainment’ is a much better fit. I will argue later why I think the sports element still fits, but I do believe that if you change how you perceive wrestling, entertainment rather than a strict sport, the rules you apply to it change. There will be more possibility of seeing it for what it is and suspending your sense of disbelief.
A quick note on MMA, wrestlers will plot out their matches beforehand to ensure things run smoothly and the maximum chance of entertainment for their audience. True, not every match is great but the aim is there. I have been more disappointed over time by over-hyped, anti-climatic legitimate fights than I have wrestling matches.
As wrestling has progressed, as access to action worldwide became easier with the internet, there became more of an infusion of global styles into one truly exciting melting pot. There is high-flying Lucha Libre from Mexico; chess-like ‘Strong Style’ technical wrestling from Britain; and hard-hitting shoot style from Japan.
So while modern wrestling might not resemble the comparatively more realistic grappling of the 70s and 80s, it has also never been as athletic and varied as it is now. The physical exertion displayed, the fitness required to execute their spectacular arsenal, the sheer death-defying improbability of the bumps they take – yes, the stories and results might be predetermined but viewed on these terms who would dare call wrestling fake?
There is a backlash in the wrestling fan community to what they call ‘spot monkeys’ – wrestlers who take sickening, life-threatening bumps with no rhyme or reason to the story the match being told. I certainly understand that criticism. At the same time, in broadening its appeal to a larger audience, the sheer athletic spectacle of modern wrestling offers excitement in a way that perhaps it hasn’t regularly before.
Pro wrestling is not just about the story being told in the ring. It’s the context also, the story around the match in the ring. If we can accept that pro wrestling is ‘sports entertainment’ as opposed to a strict sport, then we can accept that wrestling is also character-based storytelling. And at its very best it can match some of your favorite TV dramas for sheer entertainment value. I can feel fans of The Sopranos, Twin Peaks, and The Wire blanche as they read this. Stay with me. I’m not trying to argue that wrestling hits the peaks of such shows as regularly or is as sophisticated in its storytelling. Let’s not forget such shows are divisive anyway, look at fan reaction to the Sopranos ending, or the whole of The Return.
What I will say is that wrestling takes basic themes: good vs bad, competition and desire to be the best, the underdog fighting against the odds. It then exaggerates them to an extreme, colorful, larger-than-life pitch. So by the time the wrestlers finally face off in the ring, much like when Luke Skywalker finally faces off against Darth Vader, or the Avengers against the forces of Thanos, the audience is bloodthirsty and hungry for redemption, for resolution.
When a wrestling storyline really works, it’s often because it hooks you with the unexpected or something the audience can relate to. When Stone Cold Steve Austin stood up to WWE head honcho Vince McMahon, it was because McMahon didn’t believe Austin was the right ‘type’ of person to be representing the company. He put every obstacle he could in Austin’s way to destroy him. When Austin hit back, every shat upon employee at the mercy of an asshole boss raised their middle fingers with Austin in recognition. They cheered every time Austin found a way to defeat McMahon’s attempts to ruin him.
When two ex-WWE employees stepped into a WCW arena shortly after leaving, they were presented as not really meant to be there. They were addressed by their real names, they turned up in the middle of matches or at the commentary booth unexpectedly. They declared war on WCW, the implication (although never explicitly stated) being that they were an invading party from the WWE.
When they pulled off the coup de grace of turning wrestling’s premier good guy Hulk Hogan bad, installing him as the leader of the newly named New World Order (nWo) the shock was so much that the ring was littered with rubbish and a fan rushed the ring in fury. WCW became must-watch TV. No one had tried to ‘take over’ an entire wrestling company before, and people tuned in to see who the nWo would attack and which shock acquisition they’d make to their ranks next.
More recently, AEW has had great creative success in the use of sit-down interviews and video packages to tell emotionally rewarding stories. They do so in a way that recognizes their product is not in a bubble. It recognizes a modern audience that wants to invest in modern forms of storytelling.
The match between brothers Dustin and Cody Rhodes at their Double or Nothing show was promoted with an extremely compelling video that played up the generation gap between the two and the reputation of their family name, like two sons jockeying to take over the position as head of the family. The video package to promote wrestler Darby Allin utilized a very sophisticated vision to put across the background and motivation of a complex character with a death wish. A character with layers like this wouldn’t be out of place in a show like Gotham, for example. Check it out here.
So, there we have it. I said at the start that I wanted to make wrestling fans of you all. I truly hope I have succeeded. As I’ve demonstrated above, pro wrestling has the power to entertain as much as the best action movies and grip with stories that can appeal to everyone.
I believe professional wrestling deserves another chance from a mass audience, but how about you? Did I make any fresh converts? Pique the interests of any lapsed fans? Do you think it’s a load of camp nonsense? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Now, ring the damn bell!