Professional wrestling has been on the fringe of the pop culture spectrum for some time. It is a relatively known commodity, with simple short hand and a level of iconography brought on by the likes of The Rock and Hulk Hogan that allow for easy referencing in pop culture. But outside of a brief period in 2011 when a CM Punk promo (monologue) caught the attention of the American media, it is rare for wrestling to get any outside attention in a positive light. But despite its obvious flaws there is an underappreciation for the art-form by the general public caused by certain stigmas and preconceived notions. With the WWE’s biggest event Wrestlemania next week, now is a good time to look into the genius of pro wrestling.
I grew up watching wrestling with my dad, my interest rising and falling throughout the years depending on where I and the quality of the shows were at. While I still follow it and have my current favourites like Dolph Ziggler in WWE and Shinsuke Nakamura in NJPW, I’m not into it the same way I was years ago. But my appreciation for pro wrestling has only grown with the arrival of a local promotion by the name of TCW (Tasmanian Championship Wrestling). Being able to witness it firsthand at a grass roots level has helped to open my eyes into how everything: the characters, the matches and the stories, come together to form the whole product.
There is a stigma to the product that the industry has struggled to shake for decades. To put it simply: That it is fake. The sporting costume that professional wrestling wears has made it easy targets for those who see storytelling as secondary to competition. They might point to MMA as the adult form for when you’re ready to ‘grow up’ from the theatrics. But sport revels in the theatrical, and wrestling is an extension of that idea and has been open about its reality for a while now. There is no upfront illusion as to the legitimacy of the fights. But you as the audience are invited to suspend your disbelief and let the story take control.
Each match tells its own story, with shorthand prompts and hints to the larger storyline surrounding the men and women involved. One battle is merely a chapter in a larger story, and the primary conflict (often centred around the title) carries its own subplots. Many stories are simplistic in nature, but the WWE in particular tries to make their product accessible to new fans from a week to week basis as any soap opera would.
When the fans buy in, the show transcends its usual barriers. Watching moments in time where the crowd gives in to the moment and explodes in happiness (the Daniel Bryan ‘Yes’ chant or Dolph Ziggler winning the championship against Alberto Del Rio) show how a couple of people can hold the emotions of an entire crowd in the palms of their hands. And when people buy into a story, as was the case with CM Punk and John Cena in 2011, the value of the product suddenly becomes far clearer.
Professional wrestling is a far more active medium than its entertainment contemporaries. Movies and TV are passive, the product is made and you then watch it, completely separate from one another. Video games require active participation, but outside of multiplayer games where the events transpire according to the actions of the players (in which case it takes on more of a sporting arena), the participation is with a pre-programmed product separated from the ability to truly react. A wrestler however can react to the ebbs and flow of the crowd. If a pre-prescribed heel (bad guy) gets cheered, he might forgo certain initial plans and play off of the improvised moment. Or much as a stand up comedian might do he can respond instantly to a heckle (Randy Orton is great at this). They can act and react to the whims of an audience that other mediums can’t do, opening up a dialogue between them and the audience. If we despise a movie villain, we just have to seethe in our contempt. In wrestling, it is actively encouraged to tell them that they suck. And they’ll probably tell you that you do too.
This is where going to an local independent show has helped to open my eyes. Watching the WWE on TV comes across as clean and stylised, altered much like a magazine photoshoot in order to get the right angles and impressions across to the consumer. A smaller local show can’t do that, so everything comes across as more genuine and real. If something is screwed up, the fans see it, and it becomes part of the show, where as it can just be edited out on TV. You can better appreciate the work each person puts in and you can understand the little subtleties that separate it from both other forms of entertainment and sport. And when you are in a crowd who wants to be a part of the show, then you feel compelled to join in. Cheering and booing and chanting along, participating with the show and feeling a sense of belonging to the product.
If you go into a show only thinking that it’s stupid and ‘fake’, then you’re going to blind yourself to anything else. A closed mind is hard to open, and our perceptions more often than not determine our reality. We are fully capable of accepting that a movie is fictional, yet it does not stop us from engaging with it, entering the world it presents and allowing that piece of entertainment to affect you on an emotional level. If we are to treat professional wrestling in this same way, a collaboration between sport and theatre (hence the term ‘sports entertainment’ Vince Mcmahon pushes heavily), then we can allow ourselves to engage with it the same way we do a movie, only more intimately because of the possible interaction between audience and wrestler.
The parameters are different, sure. Most wrestlers aren’t Hollywood calibre actors even though some do see success in the medium. But most actors also aren’t capable of doing what professional wrestlers do. The physical workload and toll on a professional wrestler is as intense as any other sport, and their schedule is downright brutal with over 300 shows a year at the WWE level. They have to manage all of this while also selling the story of the match and their character to the fans, in real time, in person and through the screen. It is why it takes years of training, and when everything comes together and clicks, it truly is an incredible feat.
Pro wrestling isn’t for everyone. Much like we have a preference in action or comedy or drama, wrestling is just another genre and another medium that we might enjoy. But it is time for the art of professional wrestling to be appreciated. It has had moments of intense popularity (the Hogan era of the 80’s and the WCW/WWE war of the mid to late 90’s) but it has never shaken the stigmas and stereotypes that it has to lumber around with since before I was born. It, like any form of entertainment and artistic expression, is a hard profession to survive in and it demands a price to for you to thrive. And even if it has dull periods, the truly special moments will etch themselves into your mind and resonate with you years later. I still remember as a kid sitting in the crowd for the WWE Global Warning tour (the first time they had been to Australia in 20 years), and hearing a deafening roar I’ve never heard matched when The Rock entered. Experiencing and understanding the art-form only helps to appreciate the connection between audience and performer. And it makes it that much easier to lose yourself to the show, much as you would your favourite movie or book. And that’s the bottom line…