In Defence of the Reality of Wrestling

A couple of frustrating conversations I’ve had recently got me thinking about this post that I wrote over two and a half years ago. But in trailing through my archive, I realised I never actually published it on this site (although it did get published in my university’s student newspaper). Purely for the integrity of the original piece, I’m posting it now as I wrote it then, and instead of updating it I’ll add in a few thoughts at the end. Enjoy.

Professional wrestling. To most of us, that means WWE. Many of us will have had some interest in it at some point in our lives, and to a lot of us it will be something we watched during childhood, but grew out of fairly quickly. To others though, it remains weekly viewing.

It has actually become something of a laughing stock down at the very dregs of the entertainment industry. Wrestling is made fun of in general society, it is proclaimed to be childish, cartoonish – and most often of all that horrible word: fake.

I honestly cannot refute that suggestion enough. It is predetermined, absolutely. To an extent it is choreographed too. Crucially, no wrestling company has claimed that what you see is real sporting competition in decades. But to me, that does not equate to being fake. To me, in many ways, professional wrestling is one of the most real things on TV today.

The knocks that the wrestlers take, all the slams and falls, are real. They learn a certain style of landing, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. There is no way to fake a 15 foot fall, which happens more than the wrestlers would probably like. Chairs are real, ladders are real, even with every precaution you can take there is no way to make them painless. Just a couple of weeks ago, one wrestler dislocated his shoulder on live TV, and still finished his match.

Yet the athleticism on display is off the charts. These guys do things that no other athletes can do. They are often built like bodybuilders, can have the agility of gymnasts, and act like mixed martial arts fighters. Wrestlers risk lives on a nightly basis, doing it 300 days a year. That WWE doesn’t have broken necks galore is either a testament to how good the wrestlers are at what they do, or a minor miracle.

Even if you look at it purely as a TV show WWE sets the bar high. It produces 6-10 hours of new programming on any given week, for the most part live in front of millions of people worldwide. Considering they aren’t seasonal like most other shows, and produce that content 52 weeks of the year, creatively that is extremely impressive.

The acting isn’t always good, but wrestlers are working in far tougher conditions than most actors. They are working not only in front of tens of thousands of people live in the arena, not only in front of millions watching via TV, but they often won’t have their script until a couple of hours – if that – before they have to deliver. They don’t have days or weeks to learn lines and rehearse, they don’t have as many takes as they want, and they don’t have stunt doubles when things get physical.

And they have to contend with frankly stupid levels of interactivity. If people don’t like what a wrestler is doing, either on a mic or in the ring, thousands of people will audibly chant “boring” on live TV. Or worse, if there is very obviously a mistake, wrestlers could be met with the dreaded chant of “you f***ed up”. Then after a show they will be met with thousands of tweets aimed at them – full of praise, sympathy or abuse.

For me, wrestling is a wonderful crossover type of TV show. You can support and analyse individual wrestlers like sports teams, and the athleticism on display really is incredible. But at the same time, everything you see in wrestling is character driven, and storylines play an integral part. At the end of the day, WWE tells a story. It is in the same market as Game of Thrones, Doctor Who or The X Factor. But those who call it fake are misguided, because it is way more real than reality TV, and indeed more real than most of what else can be seen on our screens. It’s about time wrestling got what it deserves from society – a bit of respect.

I still absolutely hate that word fake. From my experience, people who call wrestling fake have never watched the product, and it shows in their ignorance of what wrestling is meant to be. I mentioned that the presentation of wrestling as legitimate athletic competition was a thing of the past – I assume I was thinking back to the Hogan era of WWE, but in reality it’s openly been a performance going back to the 1940s or 1950s, if not before. The first accusations of wrestling being “fake” date back over 100 years – do people accusing wrestling fans today of watching a “fake” sport really have that little respect for us that they think we buy into that ridiculously worn out cliche?

It’s not about the battle we witness, it’s about the infectious reactions of tens of thousands of people live in an arena. It’s about the emotional investment that comes with it. It’s about the ability of an art form to make a difference in someone’s life, whether that’s through making new friendships, coming out of your shell, or helping you come out of some of the darkest times of your life with a shred of sanity left. That’s what’s real about wrestling.

I also talk about the interactivity with a crowd. What I didn’t write about then was the ability of a crowd to take over a show. Whether that’s by cheering someone who isn’t getting pushed – a la Daniel Bryan in 2013 and 2014, or whether that’s by turning on or completely losing interest in what is supposed to be a marquee match (see Roman Reigns at any of the last few Wrestlemanias). Fans now are smarter than probably ever before, and they will be entertained by different things now than ever before. That also makes writing and performing for them, at least in WWE, more difficult than ever.

If the athleticism then was off the charts, then what we have in our grasps now is other-wordly. I wrote this I think before I’d seen any New Japan, any Ricochet, Will Ospreay, Hiromu Takahashi, Young Bucks or anyone else of that ilk. They were all out there then, but I had only scratched the surface of the freakish athletic ability in the industry.

And here’s the thing, often it’s the same people who trash wrestling that buy into the personal “feuds” seen in boxing and UFC. That baffles me. They don’t realise that charades like those that Conor McGregor employs to drum up interest in himself, and by extension making himself box office, could be seen as outlandish even by WWE’s standards. It’s laughable.

Everything in sport is a storyline just as much as it is wrestling – in tennis and golf we have seen countless comeback stories in the last couple of years with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and Tiger Woods. In football Jose Mourinho is made out to be the villainous manager who falls out with his players and uses negative tactics to prevent his opponents winning, while last season the working class team of Burnley qualifying for continental competition for the first time in 50 years – or even Leicester City winning the Premier League after nearly being relegated the season before – are feelgood underdog stories.

Even in pub sports like darts or snooker, there are people who want to make a name for themselves by playing the villain. I think he’s since dropped the character, but for a long time Paul Nicholson tried to get under everyone’s skin each and every single time he stepped up to the oche. And that I even remember he did that proves it works.

So when you have someone like Daniel Bryan, or CM Punk before him, who wasn’t ever picked to be a top guy by the powers that be but work so hard and become so popular that they simply cannot be stopped and they force themselves into the top spot in the company – to me that’s a hell of a lot more real than a lot of actual sport.

Anyway, rant over.

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