By Daniel DeMarco |Copy Editor|
There lingers a stigma in society surrounding professional wrestling.
The simple mention of it often brings a response like, “you mean that fake WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) stuff?”
I know, because I was one of those responding in that judgmental tone for many years after I had “grown out of it.”
I now see that I was mistaken, and unless you are a wrestling fan, you’re probably wrong too.
As I got older, I could not quiet that thought in the back of my head: Why are thousands of people, every week, buying tickets or tuning in to watch men and women fake-fight?
Eventually, curiosity and a nostalgic desire brought me to try to really figure out the multi-billion dollar industry that is professional wrestling.
“I feel somewhat too spoiled by MMA [mixed martial arts] to ever tune in to watch scripted fake fighting… That’s all it is, fake scripted fighting, nothing more nothing less,” stated my friend Ryan Sandoval.
“I don’t understand how you can sit and watch that. I feel like it’s honestly insulting to my intelligence,” continued Sandoval.
This is not an uncommon view—perhaps it is even yours as the reader—but it’s simply a case of completely missing the point.
Professional wrestling is indeed, much more than fake scripted fighting.
You’re doing it wrong if you’re getting hung up on the fact that wrestling isn’t real in the same vein as boxing or MMA is.
“People who feel the need to tell you ‘wrestling isn’t real’ clearly don’t watch wrestling… This show does not pretend to be an athletic competition. Instead, it’s a TV show, about a wrestling show. It has more in common with ‘Game of Thrones’ than it does with UFC,” said director and screenwriter Max Landis in his part-parody, part-educational short film, “Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling.” (Be sure to watch this incredibly entertaining short-film at the bottom of the page)
If your issue with wrestling is that it isn’t real, what right do you have enjoying any television series, film, or piece of fiction literature?
Imagine getting upset that “Breaking Bad” wasn’t real and Walter White was never actually a meth kingpin in New Mexico. But you would never do that, of course not, because that would be absolutely ridiculous of you.
Professional wrestling aims to tell stories; it has characters, it has story arcs, and the development of them can last nights, weeks, years, and even decades.
The same stories you find from mythology to comic books can be found in professional wrestling: stories of good and evil, stories of the underdog, stories of epics rivalries, stories of revenge, stories of adversity and triumph; they’re all there.
Mixed into the pot you have the action in the ring, the live athletic performances, or as some call it, the “fake fighting.”
I can understand why they choose the word “fake,” but “scripted” is much more appropriate, and even then, it’s only appropriate to a degree in many cases as plenty of professional wrestlers produce a significant portion of their craft through improvisation, alone and riffing with their fellow athletes.
The matches themselves absolutely require athletic and technical ability; the difference is they aren’t using their wrestling ability to compete, but rather to work together to create the illusion of competition.
“Most people who don’t really dissect it see it as a few men/women beating each other. But when you break it down, and view the technical aspect of it, the moves, the emotion, the psychology. It truly is art when you see a match fully come together,” stated my cousin and long-time wrestling fan Cameron Schafer.
It is the equivalent of dancers coming together and using their individual skills to create a symbiotic performance.
“These are professionals, not just athletes, but actors as well. Though you can argue to certain degrees, all wrestlers sell moves, they sell injuries and create drama. You watch wrestling to be entertained, whether by the wrestling, the story, and/or the drama. People who feel it’s childish or ridiculous lose sight of the entire picture and ignore the fact that it’s not supposed to be one thing or the other, but an entity which creates a concoction of theater and sports,” stated Schafer.
While it is live performing with predetermined results, it’s important to not forget the real physical trauma these athlete-actors put themselves through.
“Go out and fall off a ladder. Try to find a way to land on your head and not have it hurt. It’s physically impossible to ignore the pain that comes from it. You can protect yourself to an extent, but that only goes so far,” stated Schafer.
“It is scripted, but they take bumps, they get hurt, they work more than most if you think about it. WWE wrestlers work 350 days a year. Most of which is spent on the road. They don’t get to rest or recover. They go out night after night, taking beating after beating,” continued Schafer.
It is undeniable that professional wrestling is a harsh career path to choose. Its history has as brutal a streak as any true competitive sport, leaving behind athletes with irreversible physical damage and varying health problems, severe substance abuse, and death—often early death—whether natural, self-inflicted, and even in the ring.
You have wrestling legends like Terry Funk who continued wrestling for over a decade with one knee almost absent of cartilage and the other on its way there, leaving him with chronic pain for the rest of his life.
Scott Levy, better known to fans as Raven, admitted that before he became sober he was on a routine of steroids and some 200 pain pills on a daily basis. “It’s part of the job. If you want to be a wrestler, you have to be a big guy, and you have to perform in pain. If you choose to do neither, pick another profession,” said Levy in a 2004 interview with USAToday.
Chris Benoit is perhaps the most notorious example of how brutal a career in wrestling can be to an athlete’s health. His autopsy, after he murdered his wife and son before killing himself, revealed that his brain was damaged so severely that it more so resembled an 85-year-old victim of Alzheimer’s than the brain of a 40-year-old—his age at death.
It is the results of wrestler’s careers like this that have sparked immense change in the industry in the last decade, but nonetheless it is still an incredibly tough career path that will always take a toll on athletes.
This is perhaps the one area that even non-fans can agree with passionate fans about: the wrestlers work incredibly hard to do what they do.
“These people, wrestlers, invested time, blood, and sweat into their passion. They go out and create art, for us and for themselves,” stated Schafer.
“I don’t like the script, the story, or the characters… It does help that they do stunts that keep people engaged, and I am sure they put real blood, sweat, (and while they won’t admit it) tears into the work they do. That I can appreciate,” stated my friend Matthew Delgado.
“I respect the hell out of the athleticism and the physical work they put into the show,” stated my cousin and long-time wrestling fan Michael Rojas.
“I respect the athletes that do it, no one can just walk in and say I’m going to be a pro-wrestler. It takes years and years of skill and that’s admirable,” stated Sandoval.
But as I mentioned before, this is much more than scripted fake-fighting, and this is more than just athletics. No one knows this better than the elite wrestlers themselves.
Colby Lopez, who fans will know as Seth Rollins, or Tyler Black from his Ring of Honor days, put it in his own words in an interview with Arktimes.com what being a wrestler is all about: “We’re going out there to entertain you… People just don’t understand the art form of what we do. It’s a mental and physical grind… Being a character. Executing a live performance. Understanding what it is to connect with a crowd and elicit a specific response at a specific time using moves and body language and emotions. What we do is very complex. It’s underappreciated.”
To me, it all comes down to viewer misperception that leads to the polarizing nature of professional wrestling.
This idea that it’s just “fake, scripted fighting, nothing more nothing less,” is the absolute wrong mindset to have.
That would be like watching “House” and being upset that it was fake scripted medicinal practice. You would think someone was ludicrous to react in that manner towards a TV show.
“I really can’t think of any other good thing other than that it offers an escape from reality for people much like the rest of TV,” stated Delgado in regards to the positives of wrestling he perceives as a non-fan.
And that’s exactly it; it’s entertainment, and the viewer is supposed to utilize their suspension of disbelief as they would with any other fictional show.
There are surface-level ways to enjoy it and in-depth ways to enjoy it just like any other form of entertainment.
You allow yourself to become invested in it like you would with a film, a book, or a theatrical play because it’s using those same elements of characters and drama, just within the setting of a competitive wrestling circuit.
“We know it’s a work. We know it’s fake. We have fun regardless,” stated Rojas.
And any fan, myself included, would be willing to admit that it doesn’t always deliver and it’s far from consistent.
“For the most part, wrestling is awful with bad story lines. But when it’s on, it’s on,” stated Rojas.
“A lot of wrestling sucks, but when it’s good, it’s f—— great!” said Landis.
It deserves some leeway though because it is unlike a film, a book, a play, or a TV series in some significant ways.
For most wrestling, there is no off-season like a TV series has or the time between books being written.
Even most sports have an off-season.
Those that don’t, such as combat sports, only have athletes competing maybe five times a year, at the most.
The premier wrestling organization, WWE, is putting on two shows—minimum—a week. Often times they’re also doing un-filmed “house shows” and/or pay-per-views along with their mandatory two.
Some organizations don’t put on shows quite as often, such as New Japan Pro Wrestling. Their style—known as “Strong Style”—is more intense and physically demanding than WWE’s style.
If they did work as often, the wrestler’s careers would be dramatically shorter from wearing their bodies down so quickly, much like a brawling boxer often has a shorter career than a technical boxer.
Perhaps the most important difference though, lies with the overall story.
“We are the book that never ends. There’s always another chapter,” said Executive Vice President of WWE Paul Levesque, better known by his character name of Hunter Hearst Helmsley or Triple H.
If a wrestling organization’s story ends, it is because of failure; they went out of business. Otherwise, they must continue week after week, month after month, and year after year.
They must continue creating stories, putting on matches, developing characters, bringing in new characters, and phasing out old characters all the time with no breaks. So no, it’s not always in top form.
“Some story lines are bat-s— insane and nonsensical, but you invest in characters and ring work,” stated Rojas.
As a fan, you persist on watching because you never know what’s coming next, and you know it’s not going to stop changing and developing.
It delivers in a fundamental aspect of human life. Professional wrestling is a medium for one of mankind’s oldest pastimes: storytelling.
“Humans crave melodrama, they crave fiction. When you’re sitting alone and texting, it’s because you’re bored. Our imagination is our greatest gift, and our greatest curse, because we’re bored all the time. And that’s what fiction does for us, it gives us a sort of simulator for bigger stories and bigger emotions,” said Landis in his short film.
Landis continued, “From Long John Silver, to Perseus, to Neo, to Walter White. We love watching people grow, change, struggle; good people, bad people, we don’t care, we want to see it man! We need entertainment and we need it now. And when you watch wrestling, that’s what you get.”
Director and screenwriter Max Landis created this short-film with elements of analysis, parody, and education. It is stock-full of cameos and sure to be an enjoyable watch for fans and non-fans alike.