The art of appreciating wrestling

cm punk

This Sunday, WWE is bringing their April pay-per-view event Extreme Rules to Chicago. (Specifically Rosemont, but whatever.) As the elated owner of one of many tickets to witness this most noble, all-hardcore-matches event, I’m stoked as hell. It’s in times like this, though, that I’m reminded of one thing: few people that aren’t twelve or younger are still into professional wrestling. If they are, it’s not WWE. Independent companies like Ring of Honor, Dragon Gate USA and Chikara Pro have become more acceptable, as they present a more disciplined, action-heavy alternative to WWE’s melodramatics. More generally, though, I get a lot of the same questions in response to my declarations that a) I still follow it with devotion and b) am currently researching WWE for my master’s thesis. If I may, I’d like to provide a quick FAQ for some of the most common inquiries.

1) Isn’t it fake?

This is easily the most common one. There’s a progression I’ve noticed with people who’re no longer fans, or those who only order WrestleMania once a year (the wrestling equivalent of those people who only go to church on Christmas and Easter), as far as how they evolve into being not only non-fans, but sarcastic disbelievers. As a kid, most people are taken in by the pomp, circumstance and general mirth-inducing appeal of WWE’s brand of wrestling. As they get older, they get smarter, and since so much of pro wrestling adheres to the general logic of the carnival (entertain, amuse, never show how the tricks are done), they start looking for answers as to exactly what’s behind the curtain. In the internet age, you can easily find exactly what’s there, and how it works, and how it’s evolved over time. So, the illusion is gone, at which point you either say “fuck it, I’ll go with it,” or you feel burned by the fact that it’s all pre-planned. Because this shift happens by the time you’re verging on adolescence, usually your mom gets upset that you said “fuck.”

To actually get to the answer to my question, now, it both is and isn’t. Inasmuch as the match outcomes and the essential sequences within the match are predetermined, and that the matches are less athletic contests than feats of improvised action choreography, yes. Wrestling is fake in that respect. However, the level of meticulous physical discipline and training it takes to sustain even a five-minute match, to say nothing of the skill and performance involved in developing one’s persona, suggests that wrestling also isn’t fake in a lot of ways. Besides, to get all grad school student for a second, there’s no such thing as fake if it’s a tangible thing we can go and see. Or, as Jean Baudrillard would have you believe, everything is fake in this world including you and I, so there’s no point in disseminating whether or not our entertainment is real or not, is there?

2) If they’re trained performers, the moves don’t actually hurt, right?

Wrong. I’ve taken bumps in a ring before, and I’m here to say that the general delusion that wrestling rings are not unlike trampolines is bullshit. Those things hurt like hell. And even if the two or more competitors in the ring are taking all the necessary measures to protect one another, there are always mishaps, or blown timing issues, and then people get dropped on their heads, and I’m sure that’s plenty painful.

3) They’re all on steroids and drugs anyway, aren’t they?

I blame The Wrestler and Hulk Hogan for this one. Especially in the wake of the tragic events involving Chris Benoit a few years ago, the whole furor around “roid rage” with WWE wrestlers/Superstars/whatever they’re being called this week has come back to the forefront of public consciousness. This really started in the early 90s, in which Vince McMahon had to deal with a high-profile legal case involving steroid use in his company. Because Hulkamania changed the image of the WWF star to that of a man with muscles upon muscles, there was pressure to play into this image by finding ever more guys who were larger than life. To this day, it’s a serious issue within the company, for one because most of those guys can barely walk, let alone execute convincing moves or keep an opponent safe. Then, when stories started coming out about guys like Scott Hall or Jake “The Snake” Roberts (or even Shawn Michaels before he found God and a family), guys who were living hard and destroying their bodies to work 300 days a year, the tragic ex-wrestler emerged, canonized best by Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.

It’s true that drug use has been an issue in wrestling, and still is. WWE’s known policy of paying for former employees’ rehab bills testifies to this. However, it’s a misconception that all wrestlers are on drugs, especially in WWE right now, where their drug testing policy has become extremely public in the wake of the Benoit murders. It’s not a perfect system; I can think of three or four guys right off the bat who’re probably on the juice. It’s not just a wrestling problem, though. It’s an issue with professional sports as a whole.

4) It isn’t a sport, though.

Look into any pro wrestler’s physical conditioning program and tell me it’s not on par with any other athlete in a “real” sport. Also, wrestling is the only sport with no offseason. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but still.

5) It’s all stereotypes, and it’s offensive, and it’s low entertainment.

I’m going to leave the last of those alone, because I hear it a fair deal and don’t want to give the undertone of smug condescension inherent in that any further credence. As far as the first two items, it’s not perfect. Like any form of entertainment, it has a checkered history rife with ill-fated storylines and discourses. (See: Mohammed Hassan, the post-9/11 evil Arab who black-bagged the Undertaker one week and disappeared from WWE for good shortly thereafter.) That said, there’s also a dignity and history to wrestling, a prevailing sense of itself as a national institution like any other professional sport. Though it does traffic in more basic stories for the sake of accessibility to the broadest possible audience, at times it transcends those. Go back and watch the 1998 Hell in a Cell match between Mankind (known to more as best-selling author Mick Foley) and Undertaker, and witness how that match, while not very good as a wrestling match at all, transcends the narrative confines of pro wrestling and moves into the realm of high drama. Just because there’s some blood, T&A and bad ideas sometimes doesn’t mean that pro wrestling is a negligible art form. It just means it’s art like any other.

  • Matt Consolazio

    Yeah because stereotypes don’t exist in other sports.  Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians.  The Indians logo is literally a direct exaggeration of Native Americans.  And hell, offensiveness?  You know Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, and people like  Bill Romanowski speak wonders for the image on the NFL.

    I’m leaving basketball alone, because the NBA rules.

  • Bill Jones

    Great read, Dom. I like your take on things. The only thing I think I disagree on is I would not classify pro wrestling as “sport.” Are the guys on par with any other top athletes in terms of conditioning and performance? For sure. But think the term “sport” comes with the inherent idea of there being some form of competition, and due to the scripted nature (as much as I may love it) there is no true competition taking place, but rather an athletic performance. Sure, there’s competition backstage to the be the best and get a top spot in the company, but there’s the same type of behind-the-scenes competition in something like the acting world, though oftentimes minus the conditioning. I think without real competition, it’s hard to classify it as a “sport,” though I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t need the validation of being a “sport;” it’s just another form of entertainment.