(Originally published in Issue #5 of Cobalt Magazine at Warwick University, released in March 2016. Read that version here, on pages 36-39.)
Some things can be hard to explain – quantum physics, the offside rule, why some women go to the bathroom in small herds rather than, as one would reasonably expect, individually. 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 like a weird urinary Roomba? Anyway.
One thing that’s often been the trickiest to explain, however, is the appeal of professional wrestling. While still a big deal on TV and in pop culture, it’s never quite managed to shake 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, however, I say this: 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 a unique kind of TV, where 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 tease them fighting for a month or so then have a big blowoff match where you get to make a load of money and roll around in it like Scrooge McDuck in the Federal Reserve.
Some 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, or the famous breakup of the Mega Powers where Randy Savage became paranoid about Hulk Hogan’s blossoming relationship with Savage’s valet Elizabeth, subsequently turning heel on his tag partner. Shawn Michaels v Chris Jericho began due to a simple dispute over match tactics, and Hogan v Andre the Giant was just because Andre wanted to beat up a sweaty clay-man with a ridiculous moustache. These feuds are all fondly remembered, and feature motives no more confusing than “I think you’re a bit of a twat, mate”.
This is all a rather simple way of writing storylines and is proven to work, but given wrestling companies tend to be run by billionaire carnies with the emotional intelligence of a satsuma, 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 a pop culture icon, despite having a midlife crisis where he fell madly in love with motorbikes and started wearing leather vests and bandanas. 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 who’s gimmick is exactly what you think it is; a Hog Pen match wherein the winner is the first to throw his opponent into a pig pen filled with mud and shit; and a reverse battle royal, where everyone started outside the ring and raced to get in it. How that match managed to last more than 3 seconds I have no idea.
While this sort of writing can be entertaining in retrospect, viewing it live makes it crystal clear that nobody has any idea what they’re doing. This combined with 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 (make fans warm to) Roman Reigns as the next big hero character despite looking like a greasy Expendables villain and being the least talented of a very well regarded trio.
Roman’s push has been going on for about 18 months by now and has never even begun to look like working; he has the charisma of a large plank of wood with a drawing of The Rocks face glued on it upside down, has about three moves of which one 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 just about had enough and started booing the piss out of him. Management has responded by muting the crowd. Genius.
Due to the clashing styles of PG 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.
Lucha Underground especially isn’t really a wrestling show. It’s headed by Robert Rodriguez of all people and portrays a strange noir Aztec meta-show (it’s a TV show about a wrestling show, for all extents and purposes), played relatively straight but with a knowing Grindhouse-esque mentality about how ridiculous the whole thing is. There’s a phoenix, a dragon, the living embodiment of death itself, and a man called Prince Puma who’s spirit animal is the jaguar. It’s oddly brilliant, and something completely different to the often flavourless corporate wallpaper paste of WWE.
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 wrestlers 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 helped 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 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.
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 with extremely good reason. But I watch it, basically, because it’s fun.
Oh and Brock Lesnar’s fucking massive.