Why I Watch Professional Wrestling
Some things can be hard to explain; quantum physics, the offside rule, why some women go to the bathroom in small herds. Do they need moral support? Are there bodyguards? Is there some complicated hive mind thing going on where their minds automatically flip to BATHROOM mode? Anyway, one thing that’s often been the trickiest to explain, however, is what the appeal of professional wrestling is. While still popular on TV and in pop culture, it’s never quite managed to shake off some of the stigma associated with it over the years. “It’s a combat sport without the competition,” some decry. “It’s stupid, gross and fake” others calumniate. “Where’s my sandwich?” asks Bob. To these diverse and varyingly-valid arguments I give this answer – that’s the point. Professional wrestling is not supposed to be a sport; it’s a wildly varied circus stunt show dressed up as the already ludicrous world of professional boxing mixed with car crash American TV, and your sandwich is in your lunchbox Bob. Where else would it be?
Because it’s a pre-determined “sport”, wrestling shows are of a unique kind. They can essentially tell any story they want as long as it ends in two people throwing each other over their heads and into tables. Wrestling characters are by and large fairly simple, denoted as either a “heel” (bad guy) or “babyface” (good guy), with a few marketable character quirks around it to “get over with” (get a reaction from) the crowd. These “gimmicks”, as they’re known, include the red and yellow “Hulkamania” of Hulk Hogan, Kurt Angle the Olympic gold medallist, and literally every part of John Cena’s clothing, vocabulary and anatomy.
This way, it becomes fairly easy to get people to care about two people having a fight – the heel does something horrible to the babyface/his friends/his family/his gerbil or whatever. The babyface wants revenge. You see them fighting for a month or so. Then they have a big blowoff match. You get to make a load of money and roll around in it like Scrooge McDuck in the Federal Reserve.
Perhaps the two most influential and memorable storylines occurred roughly opposite each other in two different promotions in the late 90s; namely the rise of the nWo (New World Order) in WCW and the ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin vs Mr McMahon feud in WWF. The success of these angles led, in no small part, to the most profitable period of professional wrestling there has ever and possibly will ever be.
The former was a genuine revelation for the industry, debuting a small band of invaders who wanted to take down the company from within and who were booked as unstoppable badasses, beating every challenger to a pulp without much resistance. It introduced the world to “cool heels” (they wore black leather, beat everyone up and had awesome entrance music), turned Hulk Hogan heel for the first time in his career and built up the inevitable babyface victory over them. It was possible to make a new star in one night just from that feat and pretty much doubled WCW’s ratings for most of the year.
Austin v McMahon was what swung it back in the other direction, along with WCW becoming astonishingly atrocious after the quality plummeted at a rate that any respectable plane crash would call a bit dramatic. The story was based on the frustrations of its major audience, that being lower class working Americans, where Steve Austin played the angry frustrated blue collar worker trying to constantly get one over on his vile hateable boss. This featured many memorable scenes, including filling McMahon’s sports car with cement. The two men involved played their characters perfectly, becoming genuine megastars in the industry. Steve Austin’s catchphrases are chanted by fans at WWE events to this day.
Other great angles have revolved around relationships. Such as the time a very real backstage affair was made public in the form of Matt Hardy and Edge feuding over Lita. Shawn Michaels v Chris Jericho started due to a simple dispute over match tactics. Hogan v Andre the Giant started only because Andre wanted to beat up the Hulkster. All of these feuds are very fondly remembered, and feature motives no more confusing than “I think you’re being a bit of a d***”.
These are all rather simplistic ways of writing story-lines but have been proven to work. However, given that wrestling companies are generally run by billionaire carnies with the emotional intelligence of satsumas, the people in charge can sometimes get bored of normalcy and instead do something bugger-nuts-ballistic. For instance, there was that time a giant turkey thing hatched out of an egg halfway through the same show an undead wizard/ zombie/gravedigger man made his debut. This “undertaker”, as some called him, would go on to become one of the biggest ever stars in professional wrestling and, in addition to that, a pop culture icon. Thankfully, the turkey didn’t last the month.
This is where the car crash nature of wrestling comes in – wrestling ability is certainly a large factor, but fan interest in a feud will only really ignite because of the storytelling. While a good story can make for amazing programming, a bad story becomes amazing for completely different reasons. Some infamously awful examples: two Mexican best friends beating each other up with ladders to decide who got custody of a small child; a man climbing into a casket to shag a mannequin before holding up some goo and saying ‘I screwed her brains out’; the current WWE power couple initially getting together by one drugging, kidnapping and marrying the other without their consent; a Viagra on a Pole match; a tag match where one of the participants is God; an old woman giving birth to a hand; a man being buried in a desert in Nevada for several months; the male tag team champions at one point consisting of a wrestler and his mother; a tournament where more points were awarded for kidnapping an audience member than winning a match; a character called Mr Ass whose gimmick is exactly what you think it is, and the list goes on.
While this sort of writing can be entertaining in retrospect, having to sit through all the inane gibberish can be delicately referred to as a mind numbing chore. This, combined with an incredibly stubborn management that seems to actively enjoy doing precisely the opposite of what fans want, can be frustrating and often boring – such as the current attempt to “push” Roman Reigns as the next big hero character despite being the least talented of a very well regarded trio. Roman’s push has been going on for about 16 months now* and hasn’t started to look like it’s working. He has the charisma of a large plank of wood with a drawing of “The Rock’s” face glued on it upside down. He has about three moves, one of which is called the god-damn Superman Punch, and he gets to wear bulletproof armour in his matches for some reason. This last part is a rather apt metaphor for how management is treating him at the moment, and the fans have repeatedly voiced their disapproval at WWE’s recent picks for main event talent.
Due to the clashing styles of PG13 TV and management not being able to evolve their ideas beyond things done twenty years ago when you could show boobs and poop on screen and nobody cared, the WWE is currently in a lean period of too much empty predictable nothingness happening on their shows.
Luckily, it’s not the only game in town – promotions like Ring of Honor, New Japan and Lucha Underground have had room to breathe away from mainstream attention and corporate sponsors, and have turned out much the better for it.
You may have noticed I’ve barely mentioned the act of physically wrestling in this article. Put simply, most modern wrestlers are fantastic. While the overall shift from “do things that don’t hurt but look like they do” to “hurt yourself immensely but pretend you’re fine” is generally a bad thing, both for the wrestler’s health and the minds of the audience, wrestling nowadays is a much more athletic venture than in the 80s and 90s. People like Chris Jericho, Daniel Bryan and CM Punk help to shift the tide away from immobile giants like King Kong Bundy and The Great Khali, with a new emphasis on mat moves and technical grappling. It’s almost as if you should be good at wrestling to be a professional wrestler, and not just be really, really tall.
The best wrestlers need more than just moves, however; legends like Shawn Michaels, Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart, Ric Flair and The Undertaker know it’s a constant performance from the moment you enter the arena to the moment you leave, and all the little things such as facial expressions, body language, and selling moves to make them look more dangerous than they are make you forget it’s all pre-determined and they’re not actually trying to hurt each other. Watching a match often requires significant suspension of disbelief, especially when a lot of moves are set up by one wrestler not being able to stop running, but when you’re invested in a match it can be exhilarating. The recent blossoming of women’s wrestling with the help of NXT can only be good for the business as well, and makes for a fantastic change from the damn Bra and Panties matches that were prevalent only a decade ago.
So back to the title; why do I watch professional wrestling? Well, I watch it to see impressive physical feats of strength and endurance. I watch it to be engrossed in storylines, both wacky and serious. I watch it to see what’s coming next for my favourite wrestlers. I watch it because it’s a pantomime, a comic book, a soap opera with powerslams, almost a parody of sports in general. It often gets looked down upon, sometimes for extremely good reasons. But I watch it, basically, because it’s fun.
Oh and Brock Lesnar’s bloody massive.
- The Undertaker v Shawn Michaels, Wrestlemania 25 (2009) The best match I’ve ever seen. No words will do it justice, just go watch it.
- Samoa Joe v Chris Daniels v AJ Styles, TNA Unbreakable (2005) If only TNA had kept up with this sort of thing instead of the Dupp Cup. One of the best three way matches of all time.
- Bayley v Sasha Banks, NXT TakeOver: Respect (2015) The first ever Iron Woman match, and a modern classic.
- TLC2, Wrestlemania 17 (2001) Absolute carnage from start to finish with some classic spots that will live long in the memory. Fabulous mayhem.
- CM Punk v John Cena, Money in the Bank (2011) While the match was brilliant, it’s worth mentioning just for the crowd’s reactions alone. CM Punk saved WWE in 2011.
- Mankind v The Undertaker Hell In A Cell, King Of The Ring (1998) If you still think wrestling doesn’t hurt because it’s fake, watch this match. How Mick Foley is still alive is a mystery. Not one for the squeamish.
*From when this comment piece was first written in March 2016.
First featured in Issue 5 of Cobalt Magazine, March 2016. All content owned by Jonny Young, with some new edits.