As an adult in my late-thirties when people find out I’m a professional wrestling fan they often seem confused. “You know it’s fake, right?” It’s difficult for someone not in the know to understand the appeal of two oiled up men or women rolling around together in a choreographed fight. Most see professional wrestling for its surface appeal, and I’ll go so far to agree that if you don’t come to the show with a base level of understanding you may never quite understand the what the fuss is about.
The irony of professional wrestling is that people who outright dismiss it as a low brow, “Soap Opera for Men” don’t fully understand the nuanced performance and requisite beautiful athleticism and skill required to perform at the professional level; nor do they understand the subtleties of the performance and dismiss it with the tried and true, “you know it’s fake, right?” They equate a professional wrestling match to a boxing or MMA match, and since it’s a scripted performance where the winner is pre-determined, it is an inferior form of entertainment. What they’re missing is that professional wrestling is more akin to ballet than boxing, and should you watch it through that lens you’ll understand a little more what the appeal is to millions (and millions) of fans around the world. Imagine sitting dead-center while watching a ballet performance and the person next to you leans over and says, “that’s not really a black swan.” Yeah buddy, I know. That guy wasn’t a Mouse King either. Professional wrestlers are athletes, performance artists, actors, dancers, acrobats, comedians, deft public speakers, and work through injuries, pain, and difficult lifestyles to entertain the people who love it.
Before I delve into my personal love for pro-wrestling / sports entertainment, let me first give a little bit of history regarding how professional wrestling really became what it is today.
The first name on your road to becoming a fan, or at very least understanding the appeal begins not with a man named Hulk Hogan, but a man named Lou Thesz. Lou Thesz is generally considered the greatest wrestler of the 20th century and invented many of the moves wrestlers still use today. More importantly is that Lou Thesz was so wildly popular that he would sell out arenas and propelled professional wrestling from being a sideshow attraction to a mainstream form of entertainment. He really opened the door for making professional wrestling the international phenomenon that it is today.
There are many names between to be talked about, but let’s fast forward fifty some-odd years and get to Vincent Kennedy McMahon. Vince McMahon, having just taken over the World Wide Wrestling Federation from his father (also named Vince McMahon), had one of the hottest promotions, one of the hottest stars, and a great idea. Prior to McMahon wrestling was territory based and wrestlers moved from territory to territory to build their character and audience. You might have been Sterling Golden in Memphis, but in New York, you’re Hulk Hogan. Vince McMahon the younger took the numerous professional wrestling territories and started buying them out one by one, eventually created an international brand. He put nearly all his money into this endeavor, lastly putting his proverbial dick on the table to try a closed circuit (pre-pay-per-view)“Superbowl” of wrestling, Wrestlemania! On the back of stars like Hulk Hogan, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and more, Vince pushed the boulder down the hill that eventually became the multi-billion dollar international corporation and entertainment company that is World Wrestling Entertainment today. Vince McMahon, whose wife Linda is Donald Trump’s Head of the Small Business Administration, is a true American success story.
In the 1990’s Vince McMahon was put on trial for Steroid distribution, and the “kayfabe” of wrestling — the idea that wrestlers never broke character and maintained everything was real — was broken for good. That’s when “Pro-Wrestling” morphed into “Sports Entertainment.”
There are two important terms that fans of professional wrestling throw around a lot; “Mark” and “Smart.” A mark is someone who thinks it’s a real fight, while a smart understands it’s a performance. Even those of us considered “smarts” occasionally “mark out” when something legitimately surprises us or something happens in a match that is worth celebrating. Imagine again watching Swan Lake and one of the ballerinas climbs up on a balcony rail and pirouettes perfectly only inches away from death. The crowd rises to applaud her show of skill and athleticism: that’s marking out. This is important because those “marking out” moments are what we, the intelligent professional wrestling fan, wait for.
So, let me outline a couple of different type of matches and what the appeal is for me.
The music hits and wrestler number 1, let’s call him Adam, comes down to the ring. Adam is a skilled performer, whose moves all look very authentic. He’s charismatic, has excellent verbal skills on the mic, and is rarely boring. He also knows how to “bump” (fall) extremely well and takes a beating with gusto. Music hits for wrestler number two, let’s call him Matt, who comes down to the ring. Matt is also a seasoned and convincing performer, though not as crisp on the microphone as Adam is, and as such hasn’t quite broken through to main event status. If this was just a normal match, I’d watch this as a performance. I’d watch how they improvise (call) the match (though the winner is pre-determined, the choreography is done on the fly), and how they interact and execute the moves. I appreciate not only the well-performed body slam but also the convincing way the guy being slammed writhes in pain and “sells” the move. I let myself “mark out” a bit waiting for the finish and overall find it to be an entertaining story.
Imagine the exact same scenario as above, with a small exception: Matt, in real life (called “shoot” in wrestling parlance), was dating one of the female wrestlers. Not long ago Matt was injured and left the road to rehab. While on the road Adam and Matt’s girlfriend (let’s call her Amy) began having an actual affair. Matt returned from the road to find out his actual friend and his actual girlfriend were sleeping together. Management has gotten wind of this and decided to turn the situation into a story-line and take advantage of the “realism” the actual scenario would provide. Adam and Matt are looking across the ring at each other and they’re job is to put on a good show and not injure each other. Of course, in this particular match, the punches look a little more real than normal.
Adam and Matt are at it again, except this time they’re performing at Wrestlemania, the biggest show of the year in a match called “Tables, Ladders, and Chairs.” Matt and Adam work the match with “spots” (specific spectacular moves) that range from falling from the top ofifteen-footfoot high ladder through a table, to forcefully hitting each other in the head with chairs. The match is finally won when Adam retrieves a belt hanging from a cable fifteen feet above the ring floor. This is Adam’s first championship, which is a recognition by the company that Adam has achieved a personal level of success and thus is worthy of being the “face” of the company. He’s respected by his peers and fans alike and deserves a run with the belt.
In all three of the examples above, the entertainment is the same; two professionals performing at the highest level in a violent ballet that is meant to look convincing, tell a story, and be exciting. From the ring of the bell to the finale, the match itself tells a story and, even to a “smart” like myself, is unpredictable and surprising. In Match 1, it’s all about their skill. In Match 2, it’s about their skill and their professionalism in not letting personal feelings get in the way of protecting their partner. In Match 3, it’ also about the respect for these two performers to put their own bodies on the line for the sake of entertaining the fans and the recognition that Adam has proven himself worthy of a championship run.
Something that most people overlook and dismiss with the “you know it’s fake” comment is that professional wrestlers, while trained, still risk their well being every night because they truly love entertaining in their specific art form. Like a ballerina who sacrifices her own physical health through intense and robust training, professional wrestlers spend hours perfecting their moves, bodies, and performance skills all because they love their chosen discipline. For any WWE fans reading this, they’ll recognize that the scenarios above actually happened.
Ironically, people who consider themselves “above” professional wrestling because of their perception that it’s two men rolling around in tights simply don’t understand the nuance of the art form. It’s possible that their pre-conceived perception won’t ever allow them to see it any other way, which in my opinion is unfortunate for them.
If you’re looking for a primer on what professional wrestling is supposed to be seek out the following matches and performers:
Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H @ WrestleMania 30
Undertaker Vs. Shawn Michael @ Wrestlemania 23
The Rock vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin @ Wrestlemania 17
Undertaker vs. Mankind (Mick Foley) @ King of the Ring 1998
Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels @ Wrestlemania 12
Macho Man Randy Savage Vs. Ricky The Dragon Steamboat @ Wrestlemania 3
Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat @ WrestleWar ‘89