I recently went to a WWE live event in South Africa, and it was one of the most entertaining performances I had ever beheld. “But,” you begin to say, already sounding stupid and wrong, “didn’t you know wrestling is fake!?!1”. Of course I fucking know. It’s entertainment. And just as I didn’t really think Edward Norton was getting the shit kicked out of him in Fight Club, it didn’t make the movie any less entertaining. Professional televised wrestling has been going since the 1950s, and watching it as an adult today is still awesome. Here’s why.
Like most little dudes, I was glued to wrestling when I was younger but sort of lost track of it when I went to high school, where it wasn’t considered cool anymore. It was not until I was lucky enough to encounter it at a festival that it won me back. It was Download Festival 2016, on my gap half-year (white folks do weird shit I know), where I saw people lining up outside a tent. This was for WWE NXT (a development brand for the main shows), and after finding out that it was free, I decided to give it a try. It was unreal. The support for wrestling in the UK is massive, and the fact that everyone was drunk and covered in mud didn’t matter. You were supposed to boo the bad guys, and cheer the good guys. The more you did for either, the more invested you were. The more invested you were, the better you were entertained. Simple stuff.
It was only recently that I got into how wrestling works. Sure, when you’re a kid, all you want to see guys you like throwing guys you don’t like through tables. From gladiators, to kung fu movies, to school fights, we’ve always found something entertaining about people fucking up other people. And, since the beginning of time, we’ve told each other stories, narratives that base their drama on real-life experiences, without the limitations of reality. Professional wrestling marries those two human pastimes. Plus, featuring some unbelievably attractive superstars didn’t hurt one bit.
The basic structure is this: you get two types of wrestlers the babyfaces (or faces) and the heels. Faces are people you are meant to like. They don’t cheat, they’re fun to watch, they respect other wrestlers, they respect the crowd, and they want to be your favourite. Generally, they have hardworking backgrounds, and have earned their spot. Think early Hulk Hogan, the Rock, John Cena. The heels are the bad guys. The heels cheat, hate the faces, don’t care about the crowd, and seem to enjoy doing everything that is unsportsmanlike. Being foreign helps thanks to the human impulse to hate what isn’t like you. Think of wrestlers like the Iron Sheik, Edge, or the Miz. A heel and a face will have a storyline that will see them feud with each other for a few months, every time sucking you in to be even happier if the face wins, or even more bleak if the heel cheats their way to a victory. Everything that is true in the wrestling universe is referred to as “kayfabe”.
In order for this to remain interesting, you need to keep finding new ways to tell it, which is also not a foreign concept to storytelling. Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey hasn’t changed in decades any we still watch movies about it (Small summary: someone is told they’re a hero. They refuse to believe it. They meet an old mentor. They begin to believe it. Fight the bad guy, and lose. Go on a voyage of self-discovery, then win. Think Harry Potter, Star Wars, and every superhero or sports movie you’ve ever seen.)
So it constantly evolves and reinvents itself. Why are the two feuding? Why don’t we get whole teams to feud? If so, what happens if one member switches side? What if a face decides to cheat? What if a cheater is loved by the audience? What would bringing in new characters, rules, matches, backstories do to the relationship between the two wrestlers, and between the audience and the wrestler? These are the kind of questions WWE creative has to answer, and they have to do so every single week. This is basically Game of Thrones without having to wait a fucking year between episodes. WWE Raw has been broadcasting almost every week for 25 years. Throw in the 300 odd live events they host around the world, plus monthly massive pay-per-view events, and you got a lot of content to get through. And we haven’t even got to the wrestling yet.
The in-ring action is perhaps the most hotly-debated part of wrestling. Yes, it is fake. The guys are trying not to hurt each other. There are numerous practices and tricks to help the moves look bad without hurting, but they don’t always work. These guys and girls are still falling flat on canvas, glass, and all sorts of other stuff, every week. And while strikes and moves may be relatively painless, you can’t exactly fake momentum when a guy the size of your mom is flying through the air and landing on your head. These things have gone wrong all but too often, and constant barragement of bodies have lead to early retirements. Like rugby players, but with much less respect. The performers also have to play to their strengths. The woman and smaller guys need to do a lot more flicky flacky shit to be entertaining, while the titans can sort of just pick each other up and try cause a minor earthquake.
This is where wrestling starts setting itself apart from other sport. It’s entertainment. Listen to any pro wrestler get interviewed and they say exactly that. They set up matches with the aim of entertainment, not competition. There is no 0-0 draw, matchfixing, or parking the bus. It is there for you to enjoy. However, with that comes a new challenge: how do you work out who is the best, when the competition is set up? They see who is most over with the crowd.
Getting over with the crowd means that the people watching are invested in that character. WWE can write whatever angles they like and paint their superstars in a variety of ways, but at the end of the day, some people are liked and some aren’t. Like a comedian doing the same set on the same night at two different venues, and getting vastly different reactions. As performers, it is their job to make you care about them, and if you don’t they’re just going to fall by the wayside. Some people get over with exceptional in-ring actions, some are physically dominant, some take more risks, some are funny, some are good-looking, and some just have a gimmick that works for no plausible reason. Entrances are a huge deal, and a good entrance can make or break a character, something that MMA and boxing are trying to get right too. Sure, for every thing that works, there are a dozen that don’t, and it is really common for wrestlers to drop a gimmick or even change their name and look and come back to give it another shot. Like most things in life, politics and business tend to ruin it a bit, with some folks getting pushed more than others, but in live performance, there’s no better barometer than the crowd. And live crowds are brutal.
While it is the ultimate goal of a wrestler to get a “this is awesome” chant from the live crowd, they are also not immune from the crowd shouting “this is boring”, “you can’t wrestle” or just generally booing when they are not pleased. And there’s a big difference between booing a villain for cheating, and booing the latest blue-eyed boy because you think they are being pushed too early.
The WWE is also a microcosm of the world, and reacts to its culture to stay relevant. The late 90s was the “attitude era” that all of us loved, with swearing, and beer, and blood, followed various spin-off eras. This was very much a product of its time were wrestlers had mental illness gimmicks, there was pretty overt racism, and the women were kind of there just to be attractive and have a match while you went to the loo. While not all the change is good, I for one miss the colourful language, a lot of it is good.
To save on the antics they can no longer get up to, the wrestling has had to improve. To avoid blood all over the ring, the wrestlers are not allowed to “blade” or cut themselves on purpose. There are steroid tests, to avoid more tragedies. And, probably most prominent, the women’s wrestling is actually wrestling. They were even so kind to renamed rename the performers from “divas” to “women”, which took them until 20fucking16 to do. I’m no feminist, but when you see little girls in the crowd cheering a female performer who has worked her ass off to get into the ring, when her idols were part of stripping bra and panties matches, you got to think something is right. (Not that I’m completely against stripping bra and panties matches, but you know, time and a place.) And sure, they may have to overcompensate for what they’ve done, but it all adds to the creativity required to keep you entertained in a modern era. Plus a lot of the performers are still hot. So yay.
And the support for these superstars is world wide. WWE travels all around the world constantly, and has to try out-perform competition like TNA, New Japan Wrestling, and all the indie scenes. That’s why a few weeks before their trip to South Africa, they were able to host Wrestlemania to a live crowd of 87 000 fans. Or why they had to add another Cape Town date and sold out the Dome in South Africa. Or why this past Friday they were hosting a massive event in Saudi Arabia. Their fanbase, talent, and entourage span the globe and, locally at least, it is the most diverse crowd I’ve ever seen. Most live events I go to are rock concerts or rugby, both of which have a white majority. WWE in Pretoria had young, old, black, white, coloured, Indian, Afrikaans tannies, English students, and Chinese Democracy. Ok not the last one, but the rest was true. Even though WWE has zero South African representation in any of its current rosters (Adam Rose and Justin Gabriel are out, perhaps you could count Ghanaian-born Kofi Kingston as pan-African local) its impact and support on the tip of Africa is massive. When it was still on eTV, WWE would often be in the top 10 most-watched shows in the country. There is something so simple about siding with one character to beat another character that is applicable across cultures. Plus, now in the Reality Era, everyone is able to follow their favourite performers on social media, so WWE has to find a new way to work that around kayfabe.
So before you write wrestling off as stupid and fake, remember that you may have stayed up past midnight to queue for the new Harry Potter book, given a shit about the royal baby, thought that the drama on Masterchef was genuine, spent 90+ minutes watching a goalless draw, been upset about your fantasy league picks, defended the honour of a club or society that you don’t really know much about, practiced an instrument you will never play for someone else, or any number of things that really seem pretty pointless in the bigger scheme of things. But you do them, because you like them, and you enjoy doing them. Wrestling, as a modern-day crowd-pleasing entertaining show, is something I, and literally millions of other people, enjoy. And that’s a lot cooler than being bored.
But UFC is still shit.