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Thoughts on Wrestling: What the hell is this thing?

How do you explain the wild, wacky, and wonderful world of pro wrestling?

Fill in the blank: Professional wrestling is _________.

Finishing that sentence in a way that paints both a complete and accurate definition of professional wrestling seems impossible. At least to me. Not because wrestling is this intellectually dense thing, mind you, far too complicated and abstract to be distilled down to any simple definition. On the contrary, by design, wrestling is the furthest thing from complicated or abstract. And that’s not an insult. That’s kinda the whole point.

If pro wrestling was this big-brained thing in the way that, say, I don’t know, quantum physics is, no one would ever buy a ticket to a show or buy their favorite wrestler’s t-shirt or tune in religiously every week to watch it on television, much like how no one in all of human history has ever bought a ticket to watch someone do quantum physics.

(For the record, I have no clue what quantum physics even is, much less what it looks like in practice. There’s a good chance this field of study is actually pretty badass, in which case, my apologies to all those involved. My ignorance on this is entirely my own. However, may I make a suggestion? How about looking into some merchandise to help, as they say in the wrestling biz, get the gimmick over? Quantum 3:16 would be a surefire hit, should you be able to do it without the other side getting lawyers involved. Feel free to steal).

It isn’t that pro wrestling is this cerebral behemoth that makes it almost impossible to define. It’s just that…well, what the hell are you supposed to say? How do you explain what’s happening here?

Professional wrestling is professional wrestling is the simplest, most correct thing to say, obviously. But as far as definitions go, it’s absolutely worthless considering, you know, that’s not at all how definitions work. By definition, a definition is supposed to define what something is to someone who doesn’t have a clue. Obviously.

Luckily for us in the modern world, the Internet holds the entire wealth of human knowledge, so let’s see how it attempts to fill in the blank. The following comes courtesy of Google by way of the Oxford English Language Dictionary.

Professional wrestling is a type of entertainment involving wrestling matches whose progress and outcomes are planned in advance, typically between performers with established character roles.

Okay, not bad, I guess. Not great. But not bad. I mean, it hits the high points: wrestling as a form of entertainment rather than a legitimate sport, wrestling’s predetermined nature, the wrestlers as characters and performers rather than actual combatants squaring off in a real fight—all of which is true and necessary to include in any definition of pro wrestling. But if you know anything about wrestling—and if you don’t, I appreciate the hell out of you reading this—this explanation leaves quite a bit to be desired. It’s like saying a dog is a four-legged creature with fur that barks. Sure, that’s what it is, technically speaking. But describing it in only in this way and nothing more says nothing about why people are so drawn to the damn things and love them so much and treat them like actual human beings and sometimes throw them lavish birthday parties complete with cake and party hats that the owners then put on the dogs just so they can commemorate the occasion with pictures like this.

To describe professional wrestling in this way is just basic. Basic to the point of being pointless. So enough stalling. Seeing as I’m the one writing this thing, now is as good a time as ever to take my crack at filling in the blank, to see if I can be more helpful than Google. And I shit you not, I’ve seriously racked my brain thinking about this, writing and re-writing what follows dozens upon dozens of times in hopes of giving the most complete, detailed, nuanced definition of professional wrestling that’s ever been given. If what follows falls short in your eyes, just know I gave it my all. Blame it on my stupidity and my small-town Alabama education. Drumroll, please…

Professional wrestling is a performance art in which mostly half-naked, mostly muscled-up performers pretend to hurt one another in what is essentially a collaborative, choreographed dance designed to look like a competitive fight, all for the sake of drama, all the while getting legitimately hurt during their performance, in an attempt to elicit an emotional response from the audience—an audience that is fully aware of the fact none of this is, in fact, legitimate combat, but they are responding to the performance as if it were because the audience understands this is their part to play in the drama of pro wrestling; to behave as if everything were real, otherwise, without this response, the art of professional wrestling isn’t possible.

You can see how saying Professional wrestling is professional wrestling is much simpler. For as silly and absurd as wrestling can be—and its silliness and absurdity register off the charts most of the time—the mechanics of how the art form operates is quite sophisticated when you think about it for longer than two seconds. Several things are at play with the storytelling of wrestling happening on multiple levels simultaneously. And my own definition, for as jumbled-up and word salad-y as it is, it doesn’t dive into the finer nuances of wrestling that make the whole thing work, like the characters and the entrances and the storylines and the presentation—all things we’ll touch on in greater detail in future writings.

If you’re a wrestling fan, all this seems obvious. You don’t have to be a wrestling fan for too long before you get it. It happens almost unconsciously. Again, that’s by design. But for those of you who don’t call yourselves wrestling fans and have somehow managed to make it this far—again, my sincere appreciation—let’s see if diving a little deeper doesn’t help.

“Professional wrestling is a performance art…”

If there is one thing tougher to define than pro wrestling, it’s art. Every philosopher, every great thinker worth their salt throughout history has at some point attempted to nail down precisely what art is and why it seems to be such a fundamental aspect of the human experience. As long as there have been people, there’s been people making art—be it cave drawings or basket weaving or TikTok videos. Art has to mean something, right?

Rather than getting too lost in the weeds, even more so than we already are, let’s just say that art is any creative expression attempting to emotionally move the audience. Perhaps that’s too simplistic, but for our purposes here, it’ll do. Books, TV shows, movies, music, and yes, even pro wrestling—all of these can be called art. But when people discuss wrestling, it’s rarely, if ever, talked about within the context of it being an art. Hell, it’s not even thought of as artistic. If you asked most people, wrestling fans or not, to rattle off adjectives they’d associated with professional wrestling, artistic would be one of the last ones they’d name. Stupid, dumb, silly, juvenile—all these would be said before artistic, even by those who claim to love wrestling.

But if we zoom out to 20,000 feet and look at wrestling this way, it’s nothing more than an extension of the theater; it’s performers acting out a drama in front of a live audience. It’s Shakespeare with steel chairs and suplexes. And if ol’ William’s body of work qualifies as some of the art-est art ever made, with graduate-level courses at prestigious universities devoted to breaking down lines of a single play, why is wrestling not talked about with at least a little bit of the same critical analysis or seriousness? I’m not suggesting wrestling achieves the same artistic heights as Shakespeare, nor that that should even be the aim of pro wrestling. I’m just saying the similarities are there. And you don’t even have to squint that hard to seem ’em.

One last thing. You’ll often hear wrestling described as a male soap opera. This, however, is a crock of shit. It’s something someone said once, and now everyone else repeats it as a fact without ever stopping to think about what it means or if it makes any sense (it doesn’t). For starters, even though the wrestling audience skews male, plenty of women are wrestling fans, too. And in fact, some of the biggest stars of the art are women: Bianca Belair, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair, and Ronda Rousey, to name a few. These women aren’t just popular womens wrestlers—they’re just popular wrestlers. Period. And labeling pro wrestling as this testosterone-fueled, male-dominated thing is a slap in the face to the growing LGBTQ representation within the industry.

Secondly, soap operas are not actively watched—meaning they are mostly consumed while the viewer is engaged in something else. They’re the elevator music of television, simply running in the background without ever grabbing your attention because nothing interesting is happening to command it. The lighting is bland, the staging is bland, the sets are bland, the dialogue is bland. Bland, bland, bland—like white people’s version of a Taco Tuesday party. No one has ever gasped in fear at any scene in General Hospital the way an arena full of people did when Mankind got tossed off the Hell in a Cell and then, later, went through the top of the damn thing, crashing through to the canvas below and looking like he might have died. No one has ever jumped up for joy at any point of The Young and the Restless the way the crowd in New Orleans did when scrappy underdog Daniel Bryan did the unthinkable and became WWE Champion in the main event of WrestleMania 30. The way the Dallas crowd reeled from shock at Terry Gordy whipping the cage door into the skull of Kerry Von Erich, as if Gordy had committed a crime against God himself (and in Texas, Kerry might’ve been 1B to the Almighty), ain’t no one ever reacted that way to any scene in Days of Our Lives. I could keep going, but you get the point. So, please, for the love of God, stop with the nonsense of comparing wrestling to soap operas. If—and this is a big if here—if wrestling and soaps share any commonality, it’s that both feature never-ending narratives, meaning the stories continue on and one, dating back years. But this isn’t as unique as you might think. Comic books function the same way. So do The Fast and the Furious movies. Those sonsofbitches went from street racing Mitsubishis to shooting a Pontiac into space.

“…mostly half-naked, mostly muscled up…”

Look, I’m not going to sit here and pretend to know why violence—or, in our case, merely the presentation of violence—inherently carries a hint of eroticism within it. If you don’t believe this to be true, where the hell have you been? I mean, look around you. From horror movies that feature incessant blood and boobs to every hero in a Marvel movie looking like a Greek God to even the idea that Greek gods, should they exist, must be hot as hell, sex and violence are inextricably linked. Even Jesus got sexy at some point. I distinctly remember this little trinket my grandmama kept on her mantle of Jesus up on the cross, spattered in blood, abs glistening like Brad Pitt in Fightclub, the kind that’s got that deep V-cut line that leads down to…and I’ll stop here for fear of going to Hell.

If you’re curious about the link between sex and violence, I’m sure plenty of folks with high IQs and PhDs have covered this very topic in great detail in various books and essays and dissertations. There’s probably even a TedTalk. But if you’re like me and find the depths of your intellectual curiosity already filled and/or you have small children—and who the hell has time to read, much less function like a grown adult with those little hellions running around?—it might be best to simply accept the fact that, in the words of the Macho Man, “it is what it is.”
So why do wrestlers basically wear underwear? For the same reason Jesus has abs—sex sells. And they’re muscled-up, at least most of them, because people with muscles look better with their shirts off and make for better athletes. (There are notable exceptions to this physique rule of wrestling, with Dusty Rhodes and Mick Foley being the two that spring to mind first, though they’re far from the only ones. And while the emphasis on physical appearances has waned in modern-day wrestling—thanks in no small part to the rise of MMA, where the guy with the best pecs doesn’t necessarily win the fight—a wrestler’s physique is still of importance, for better or worse.)

“…performers pretend to hurt one another in what is essentially a collaborative, choreographed dance designed to look like a competitive fight, all for the sake of drama…”

Here’s where the real wonkiness of wrestling starts. It’s also, without question, the most misunderstood part, and the part that most non-wrestling fans can’t seem to wrap their heads around. To illustrate what I mean, let’s pull apart a question every wrestling fan has been asked somewhere in the ballpark of 17,000 times—at least—usually as soon as the other person finds out they’re talking to a wrestling fan.

“Oh, you like wrestling? Like the thing on TV? You know that stuff is fake, right?”

If you have ever said this, if this question has ever left your mouth, please apologize. Seriously. Send that apology over to @alabamaslampod on Twitter, where yours truly will absolve you of this heinous sin on behalf of the entire wrestling community. Think of me as your pro wrestling priest. “So you asked that stupid and condescending question? Give me a few Hell Yeahs, Too Sweet your co-workers at the office, and watch Savage/Steamboat at least 37 times. Peace be with you. Amen.

To put this issue to bed once and for all—yes, every wrestling fan knows it’s fake. And don’t use “fake.” Like ever. It’s disrespectful and also nonsensical to call wrestling fake. Wrestling is scripted. Predetermined. Santa Claus and The Easter Bunny are fake. Batman is fake. The scars and bruises and traumatic, life-altering injuries wrestlers obtain on a fairly routine basis are anything but fake. That’s the disrespectful part of it. The nonsensical part of calling wrestling fake is that to even ask this question, you’re making the assumption that the main draw of wrestling is the violence. And since everyone knows the violence isn’t real or legitimate…well, then, it’s all fake and phony, and the people who watch it must be idiots, right?

And this right here is the single biggest misconception surrounding the art of wrestling. So here’s the truth: The appeal of wrestling isn’t the violence. It’s not even the wrestling. Why? Because wrestling isn’t about wrestling.

Allow me to repeat myself—Wrestling isn’t about wrestling. Wrestling is about the stories. The narratives. The drama. The wrestling—the bell-to-bell action between the ropes—is nothing more than a vehicle for telling a story. That may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but trust me, it’s anything but. This slight distinction makes all the difference. The wrestling itself—the suplexes and submissions and high-flying, acrobatic dives—serves the exact same function as the use of the camera and editing in the world of movies or the use of language in literature: it’s just a tool being used to tell a story. That’s it.

Where the boxer or cage fighter’s goal is to win the fight, to knock his or her opponent unconscious or make them tap out, the pro wrestler’s primary goal is to entertain, to put on a good match. To tell a good story. And to do that, the relationship between opponents isn’t adversarial; it’s collaborative. It’s more dancing than fighting. Only this particular dance needs to look like a fight, like a physical contest between two opponents attempting to win. Otherwise, the inherent drama we associate with combat gets lost, and the whole thing unravels into nothing. The drama flies out the window.

(Side note: There is one form of wrestling where the legitimate violence, or the “realness” of it all, is the driving force of the drama. It’s called Deathmatch wrestling. You know, the kind of wrestling with the light tubes, where wrestlers staple shit to each other’s forehead and sometimes light themselves on fire or gash their bodies open so severely they actually die on the way to the hospital and have to be shocked back to life numerous times. Deathmatch wrestling is its own thing entirely and something we may touch on in more detail later. In short, though, the main appeal for deathmatch wrestling goes something like this: All that other shit is fake, but this is real. And they’re right. Sorta.)

“…all the while getting legitimately hurt during the course of their performance…”

There are two truths in pro wrestling: None of it is real, and all of it is real. A wrestling match isn’t a fight, but the performers still come away from it with their fair share of scars and broken bones because, simply put, falling down sucks. Big time. And contrary to popular belief, a wrestling ring isn’t a mattress. It’s wooden planks over steel beams with a little—and I mean just a fucking smidge—of padding. It hurts to fall on it.

I wish there was a place where non-wrestling fans could take a bump in the ring and not have the whole thing inevitably end up in ligation when the fan bounces their head off the canvas and KO’s themself. I’ve seen this happen, by the way. It ain’t fun. But that first bump inside the ring instills inside of you a deep appreciation for all the wrestling you’ve ever watched. There’s a real pain to this art. And hell, you don’t even have to take a bump to experience the physical toll wrestlers put themselves through every night. Here’s a challenge—and probably something you’ve already done—next time you and your friends have a few too many and that liquid courage is pumping through your veins, start laying into each other with chops across the chest, Ric Flair style (remember to WOO!). It won’t take long before everyone starts seeing and feeling the pain.

Pro wrestling is a brutal art form in a way no other artistic endeavor comes close to matching. It combines the physical aspect of pro sports—with the requisite high level of athleticism required and the ticking clock that comes along with that, counting down to the day when the needed athleticism becomes impossible to achieve—with the creative expression of the arts that, while taxing on the mind, is often very light on the body. It’s why writers, painters, filmmakers, and actors can all practice their craft at a world-class level well into their 70s. But for wrestlers, just like a pro athlete, it all gets taken away from you at some point. The injuries pile up. The body stops healing like it used to. All of a sudden, the one step you’ve lost turns into two, then three, then four, then you lose the ability to dance altogether—and that’s that. Your art gets taken away before you’re ready to let it go. And for some wrestlers, the physical pain from a lifetime of bumping coupled with the mental exhaustion of living a life out on the road 300-plus days a year winds up taking more than their art. It takes their relationships with loved ones. It takes their ability to cope without the use of painkillers or booze or both. And unfortunately, in a worst-case scenario that’s historically become far too familiar in wrestling, it takes their life. So wrestling isn’t fake. It hurts. Sometimes in ways the wrestler never comes back from.

“…all in an attempt to elicit an emotional response from the audience, an audience that is fully aware of the fact what they’re watching unfold isn’t, in fact, legitimate combat; however, they are responding to everything as if it were because the audience understands this to be their specific part to play in the drama of pro wrestling: to behave as if everything were real, otherwise, without this response, the art of professional wrestling isn’t possible.”

Pop quiz time: What’s the main difference between professional wrestling and other art forms? If your answer is the elaborate entrances, the tight-tights, or the finishing moves…wrong. These are merely tools of the art like we talked about, equivalent to wide shots and closeups in film or guitar solos and drum fills in music or unreliable narrators and point of view in literature. The ways in which people think wrestling is unique aren’t actually all that unique when you pull back enough to see the parallels in other arts.

There is one way wrestling differs from anything else: pro wrestling is participatory. Meaning the reactions from the crowd aren’t just desired—they’re required. They are a part of the drama, and not only that, they can and often do quite literally change the art being performed in the ring. For example, the audience not yet fully behind the babyface? Maybe the wrestlers delay the comeback spot. Perhaps the heel calls a spot on the fly to ramp up the heat. Although rare, there have even been cases where an audible has been called mid-match, where who wins and who loses changes solely based on the live crowd’s reaction.

And here’s the thing—there’s no equivalent to this in other works of art, mainly because no other art form has a truly participatory audience. Your reaction to a book doesn’t change the words on the page. You can yell at the screen till you’re blue in the face, warning the pretty young blonde that the psychotic killer clown with the hatchet is waiting for her just around the corner, and she should probably high-tail it outta there in the other direction, but guess what? No matter how hard or how long you yell, no matter how many times you watch it, the pretty young blonde will always and forever turn that corner and meet her demise. No matter what, it will never, ever change.

Even in other art forms where the audience’s participation isn’t entirely shut out of the experience, that participation from the crowd never really changes the art itself that’s being performed. Pearl Jam doesn’t make up new songs on the spot whenever they’re in front of a vibrant crowd. At most, maybe Eddie Vedder sings “Alive” with a little more oomph and throws out a few more tambourines.

In wrestling, the reactions from the crowd are as much a part of the story as the action inside the ring. And without that participation, without the cheers and the boos and the gasps and the “Holy Shit” and “This is Awesome” chants, you can hardly even call the thing professional wrestling. Without the crowd, the whole thing feels…off. And we actually have visible proof of this, by the way. Because of COVID, we got to see for the first time in history what pro wrestling looks like without an active audience, and to call it strange would be an understatement. It was weird to the point of being uncomfortable. Like seeing your middle school math teacher piss-drunk at the Applebee’s kind of uncomfortable.

It isn’t just the fact that the wrestling audience is an active part of the drama that makes the whole thing unique. It’s that the modern-day wrestling audience is in on the bit. Keep in mind wrestling is inherently built on a lie. None of it is “real” in the sense that these two people in the ring are legitimately trying to hurt one another for the sake of sport, and the audience knows this. (For how long the audience has known this is up for debate. For the most part, newspapers in big cities stopped reporting the outcomes of matches in the 1930s, sensing that the whole thing wasn’t entirely on the up and up. And “smart” fans–meaning fans smart to the inner workings of the wrestling business–have been around since at least the 1980s, when the first wrestling newsletters, the most famous being Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer, started gaining traction. Then, as was the case with most things, the Internet changed everything completely, killing off the kayfabe of wrestling–or the presentation and belief that wrestling is real–once and for all. And while the erosion of kayfabe didn’t kill the business, it certainly changed it.)

But for the art of wrestling to work, the audience can’t react as if they know. So we play the part of an unknowing crowd. We willingly forget the rabbit is always in the hat. We suspend our disbelief and allow ourselves to be swept away in the drama of it all, not just for the sake of entertainment and escapism, but because we understand we have to hold up our end of the bargain. We live and die with every punch, every kick, every suplex and submission because without our reaction, none of this is possible.

Professional wrestling is magical. It’s beautiful. It’s an art that can move you to tears and make you jump out of your seat, and if you’re lucky, it can be the focal point for some of the most meaningful relationships in your life. That last part I’m saying from experience.

I have only one memory of my grandfather. It’s him, and it’s 7-year-old me, and we’re sitting beside each other on the couch, watching on his big screen TV that was about the size of a damn Prius (this was the 90s) as the silent, now black and white face painted Sting stalks the villainous NWO from atop the rafters in WCW. And when I tell you this memory is burned into my mind, I mean I could take a piece of paper and sketch out the entire room’s layout, from where the TV was to what the walls looked like to the color of the couch–everything. It’s that vibrant, that crystal-clear.

My grandmother, who was Mimmie to me, she and I shared a love of wrestling. She’d tell me stories about watching Ric Flair main event the Lauderdale Coliseum back in the day. How he’d come through once, maybe twice a year, and tear the house down for 60 mins against an opponent that, looking back, probably had no business sharing a ring with the world champ. But she said Flair carried him through it like he did so many other guys in towns all over the country. She’d tell me these stories in her tiny kitchen, chain-smoking Newports as I sipped on a Bubba Cola–which, if you don’t know what that is, means your family didn’t have to shop at Save-A-Lot.

When I was sixteen, Mimmie and me went to this little rinky-dink wrestling show. It was the first and only wrestling show we ever went to together, and throughout the show, I watched this 60-something-year-old woman turn back into a little girl. Booing the bad guys, cheering the good guys. Neither of us knew who these wrestlers were, but it didn’t matter. We were caught up in the magic. During intermission, she came back from the concession stand with a candy bar and a flyer advertising the promotion’s local wrestling school. I’ll never forget the way she handed it to me, a little gleam of excitement in her eyes as she said, “You should try this.” And I did. She even forged my mother’s signature on all the waivers because I wasn’t old enough.

The best part about all this is that come Saturday night, some other grandmother in some other rinky-dink small town will bring their grandchild to a wrestling show. And this show will be in some rundown building, a thousand miles away from the bright lights of any big city arena, filled with wrestlers that’ll never come close to having thousands of adoring fans chant their name but keep showing up every Saturday night to perform, because being given a chance to play the star even in the tiniest of buildings under the dullest spotlight imaginable in front of an audience that’s more empty chairs than people gives them just enough of a high to make all the other shit life throws at them the other six days a week worth it. And this grandmother, she’ll holler and carry on and stomp her feet and high-five the good guys and boo the bad guys. And the grandchild will spend half of the time watching the ring and the other half watching her, watching this old woman with the bad hips and the bad knees turn back into a child, shot through with excitement and electricity that the grandchild hasn’t seen before and will never forget.

Because that’s the power of pro wrestling. If you let it, it’ll sweep you up, carry you away, and make you forget that what you’re watching is a lie.

So yeah, the best way to describe it is Professional wrestling is professional wrestling. That right there says all you need to know.

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