Today I’m going to continue my habitual practice of blogging about things that have nothing to do with writing or romance. Today’s topic, at least, have the slight saving grace of being about half-naked, muscular men covered in baby oil, making it slightly more audience-appropriate than my recent post about the sequel to a videogame that most of my readers have probably never heard of.
So, yes, today I’m talking about professional wrestling. I do occasionally mention this on Twitter and, as a result, I periodically get bemused comments who can’t quite square my fondness for flowers, purple hippos and lapsang souchong with an interest in watching grown men bodyslam each other through tables. Since this weekend is Wrestlemania weekend and we are on the countdown to the event that WWE (for those that don’t keep up, that’s World Wrestling Entertainment, the organisation that used to be called the WWF until they lost a lawsuit for the acronym against the World Wide Fund For Nature) assure us will be “the ultimate thill ride” I thought it would be a good time to explain exactly what was up with that.
And, actually, if you do want to reconcile my status as tea-drinking, top-hat wearing, smallsword-fencing dandy with a love of piledrivers and clothelines I think that phrase “ultimate thrill ride” is a pretty good place to start. Not, I should stress, because I think it’s a remotely accurate way to describe the largest and most prestigious of the WWE’s regular pay-per-views but because it’s so sincere-yet-tacky that it speaks to me of an entertainment tradition going back through carnivale and vaudeville into the music halls of the 19th century. And, frankly, that’s somewhere I’m very comfortable.
Before I say anything I should add that there is a metric craptonne of stuff wrong with professional wrestling. I don’t normally like the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ because, to me, it usually means “thing that I like but am too intellectually insecure to admit to liking for the fear it will make me look stupid or common”. Basically, I normally feel that if you like something you shouldn’t feel guilty about it and if you feel guilty about something you probably shouldn’t like it. But I do sometimes feel guilty about liking wrestling because, frankly, it’s a problematic industry. It has a history of misogyny, homophobia and racism that is very slowly getting better but hasn’t entirely gone away. It’s arguably quite exploitative to its performers. And people do get really, seriously badly hurt doing it. I am completely onside with people for whom some, most or all of these things are massive deal-breakers, and I’m in no way going to try to argue people out of being deal-broken.
Having just outlined all the reasons I probably shouldn’t like wrestling, here are the reasons I still do.
The Five Types of Martial Art
There’s sort of a meme in the amateur punching community that there are five reasons to study a martial art. You can do it for fitness, you can do it for self-defence, you can do it for cultural reasons, you can do it for competition or you can do it for display. People have a tendency to over-emphasise the self-defence and competition functions (and to an extent to conflate them) while ignoring the other perfectly valid reasons for training in this particular kind of physical activity.
We’re going to come back to the “wrestling is fake” thing a lot because it’s pretty much what everyone tells you when they find out you’re into wrestling, as if you somehow hadn’t noticed. I mean, seriously, twelve-year-olds know this. We don’t have to be told. One of the responses you can give to this criticism of pro-wrestling as a martial art is that it’s not “fake”, it’s just not focusing on the competition or self-defence aspects of martial arts training.
I often feel that there’s a bit of a double standard applied to wrestling in this context. You don’t see it so much these days but you used to quite often get bands of Shaolin monks going to theatres and performance venues all over the world putting on displays of Kung-fu. By and large, nobody said this was fake, even though most of the stuff you see in those performances was almost certainly choreographed and would get you killed in an actual street fight. Pro-wrestling is simply a martial that emphasises the display and performance aspects and, as someone who is interested in martial arts, I enjoy watching it from that perspective. And, yes, sometimes there are bits that annoy me because, like the Shaolin monks you see in theatres, pro-wrestlers quite often do things that would get you torn apart in an actual fight or use moves that are obviously less effective than simpler, faster, less complicated techniques (there’s a real excellent wrestler in the WWE called Cesaro whose signature move is a running uppercut and surely if there is one punch that does not benefit from a run-up it’s an uppercut). But, basically, it’s people doing recognisable martial arts techniques in a way that makes them more fun to watch than if they were legitimately competing.
I think part of it is that there’s a tiny, hyper-rational part of my brain that dislikes anything which tries to do too many things at once, and which therefore sees spectator sports as a fundamentally inefficient mode of entertainment. Nine times out of ten, the most effective to beat another person in an athletic competition is to do something that is shit boring for an audience to watch. I obviously have profound respect for MMA fighters and wouldn’t to get into a fight with any of them but actual MMA bouts tend to be very fast and not look especially impressive. And I get that if you have a detailed appreciation for that style of fighting then you can get a lot more out of it but that’s a level of homework I really don’t want to do for my entertainment. By contrast, seeing somebody hit a Phoenix Splash from the top rope is impressive, even if you know nothing about wrestling.
Basically, if I’m watching athletes for entertainment, I want those athletes to be using their athletic abilities to entertain me not to outdo somebody else at a wholly arbitrary test of skill.
Stories Told Through the Medium of Punching
Despite the fact that this is my official, professional author blog I really hate using the phrase “as a writer”. But, um, as a writer I’m obviously quite interested in storytelling. Perhaps, more generally, as a writer and reader, and gamer, and pop culture junkie and all round nerd, I’m interested in storytelling across a variety of media. In particular, I’m always fascinated by stories that can only be told in the medium they’re told in. This comes up a lot with videogames because if you’re telling a story using text and images it’s very easy for your primary storytelling mechanism to be reading and looking at stuff, rather than interacting with a virtual environment and this, I think, genuinely holds back the storytelling in some games. Much as I love Bioware, a lot of their later games basically feel like movies interspersed with shooting.
The stories you get in wrestling are profoundly simple. They’re mostly about rivalries of one sort or another and because wrestling is grounded in a Vaudeville tradition that is often quite silly those rivalries (“feuds” in the parlance) can centre around championships, romance interests, personal betrayal or pot plants, shampoo commercials and, of course, clipboards. Wrestling is ridiculous.
And, actually, when I talk about storytelling in wrestling I think I’m much less interested in narrative (“I want to beat you in our next match because you beat me in our last match”) than I am in character. I’m fascinated by the way really good pro-wrestlers will establish who their character is and what their character’s relationship is with their opponent through everything from dialogue, to facial expression, to just the way they do their moves. At its most basic level, there are two types of wrestling character: the “face” (the good guys we’re supposed to cheer for) and the “heel” (the bad guys we’re supposed to boo). But a skilled performer can build a remarkable amount of nuance into the fundamentally simple archetype of “I want to win fights and am nasty.”
The moments that sum up the narrative power of wrestling for me are those occasional spots (“spot” is industry slang for the individual moments that make up a match) where somebody makes a damaging mistake that, on the face of it makes no sense, but is completely in-keeping with the personality that they have established for their character. Like when two bitter rivals sacrifice an opportunity to win a six-man ladder match because they get too distracted beating the hell out of each other. Or when somebody is so arrogant that they under-estimate their opponent or so aggressive that they get themselves disqualified. And, yes, this isn’t how real professional sports work—it’s not like Andy Murray will be defending his championship at Wimbledon and then suddenly Novak Djokovic runs onto the court and he’s so overcome with emotion that he turns away from the net and gets a tennis ball to the back of the head. But, admit it, wouldn’t that be so much cooler?
Basically, what I appreciate about pro-wrestling is that as well the matches being individually cool to watch they are genuinely building towards a larger story (I mean, except when they’re not – I have no idea what’s going on with Dolph Ziggler right now). It means that you’re not just invested in who wins, you’re invested in how they win and what else happens around the match. You’re interested in who slaps who in the face, who slams whose hands into the definitely solid steel steps, who has scouted whose finisher and knows how to avoid it. When you watch most sporting competitions you’re just watching two (or more) people who are very good at doing something doing it in order to see who does it marginally better. With a wrestling match, when it works, you’re seeing two fully developed semi-fictional characters fighting about something and you know who they are and why they care and why you should care.
If you’ve read any of my books or any of my blog posts or anything I’ve ever said on Twitter, you’ll probably have realised that I am one meta son of a bitch. Perhaps for this reason, one of the things I find most fascinating about wrestling is that, for a large part of its audience, the appeal seems to be that you pretend it’s real even though you know it isn’t. It’s sort of a bit like stage magic in that regard. I mean, yes, you know that Dynamo can’t really walk on water and that David Copperfield can’t really fly but if you don’t, at least, pretend a little bit that you believe they can then you’re left with a fundamentally boring demonstration of mediocre special effects.
“Kayfabe” is the industry-insider term for the pretence that the scripted events that occur in pro-wrestling are, in fact, real. Again, the part of me that is really into that kind of thing, just loves the fact that there is a word specifically for “pretending that fake things are real”. It wasn’t that long ago that this was a completely industry-only concept and that the appeal of wrestling really did rest on the audience members (or “marks” in the beautifully unapologetic slang of the industry) taking absolutely everything at face value. But since the 1980s at least it’s been fairly well accepted by the vast majority of wrestling fans (or “smart marks” or “smarks” in the, again, beautifully unapologetic slang of the industry) that, yes, it’s all made up and, no, we don’t particularly care. And while some people mourn what they see as the death of kayfabe and miss the idea of kids going along to wrestling shows thinking that Big Daddy really was trying to beat up Giant Haystacks I personally really like the necessary double-think involved in being a “smart” wrestling fan. I honestly think I wouldn’t like wrestling anywhere near as much if I thought it was real. But then I also wouldn’t like it anywhere near as much if I didn’t, on some level, pretend that I do.
This whole dynamic makes the interaction between performers and the crowd unique and peculiar because wrestlers need to commit 100% to the idea that they are competing in a legitimate (non pre-scripted) athletic competition while also working a crowd that knows full well that they aren’t. This dichotomy reaches its zenith in the “you deserve it” chant. It’s very common, especially in the WWE which has quite strong preferences about who should win championships, for more athletic or technically proficient wrestlers to be passed over in favour of performers who have “look” that appeals to Management. This means that when a fan-favourite wrestler who is perceived as lacking company backing wins something the crowd will often break out into “you deserve it” in recognition of the fact that this performer has been putting on entertaining matches for a long time but has, until now, not received the formal recognition of their employer.
This makes no sense if you pretend, even for a second, that it’s an actual sport. You don’t need to tell Andy Murray (sorry to use Andy Murray as an example again, he’s literally the only professional sports person that I’ve heard of) that he deserved to win Wimbledon. He obviously deserved to win because he won. And in conventional sporting competitions the winner deserves to win by definition unless there’s been actual cheating. Ironically, in professional wrestling it’s often the opposite in that people who win by cheating tend to be people who the audience like more than the Management.
For example, in the middle of last year, Kevin Owens (a popular wrestler, with a strong following from his work on the Indie scene) was in a match for the recently vacated Universal Championship against three other wrestlers, at least two of whom they fans were well-aware had the full support of company Management (one of them was Roman Reigns, who I honestly think is better than people say he is, but who is very much resented by the fans because he’s very much a darling of the company and he keeps beating people he probably doesn’t deserve to beat). The matched ended with the actual COO of the Company (wrestling companies tend to be owned by wrestlers these day) coming in and ambushing the last Owens’ last surviving opponent and literally handing Owens the championship.
The crowd went nuts with “you deserve it” chants. Because they never, in a million years, expected that the WWE which far prefers people who look like this
to people who look like this
and which has a history of resenting and burying performers who have made names for themselves outside the history would ever put their main championship belt on a guy like Kevin Owens.
That is both weird and beautiful.
And I like things that are weird and beautiful.