Pro wrestling. You either love it, or you hate it. Or maybe you hate that you love it, and hate whenever anyone finds out that you love it.
Sound familiar, spandex-superhero enthusiasts? Before billion dollar movies and cultural ubiquity, you probably felt the same way about comic books. Now, just as taking comics more seriously led to more serious and artful comics, some would argue it’s time for the grappling game to win a respected place in pop culture.
Welcome to this month’s Roundtable, a four-way fray at the center of wrestling and fandom.
Announcing first, Patrick Ross, co-owner of THIS VERY WEBSITE, along with regular PPV event-reviewer Jason Segarra. In the other corners, Voices of Wrestling contributor and board game geek JR Goldberg, and the undisputed champion of wrestling/comics crossovers, Headlocked writer Mike Kingston!
Ring the bell!
Does pro wrestling transcend its general public perception? Why is it more worthwhile than people tend to think?
JR: Probably? This may come across as cynical, but I think only a very small percentage of any art form transcends public opinion. It’s just with things like film and music, we already see a very small percentage of it. Taking music as an example, in any given year, the number of albums you could realistically listen to is like, 1% of all albums released, and only 1% of that 1% would be considered transcendent in any meaningful way.
Wrestling has the disadvantage of having a much greater percentage of it is readily available for consumption. Even if the numbers may be in line with something like music or film, the viewer is faced with its warts more regularly. As a music fan, I can avoid terrible music. As a wrestling fan, I can’t avoid terrible wrestling. The peaks, which is what we judge art on, are of equal quality.
Jason: I think the misconception here is that the only “worthwhile art” is high art. I think even the most ardent fans of grappling wouldn’t try to proclaim it as some sort of high-concept Wagnerian masterpiece … well, maybe Lucha Underground, but I digress. Wrestling is like a fast food burger. Sometimes it’s amazing and you can’t imagine eating anything else, and sometimes it’s some garbage out of the microwave. The majority of pro wrestling’s critics – particularly those who don’t actually watch it – seem hung up on the fact that it’s not legitimate fighting, as if you can’t appreciate a work of fiction.
The true “artistry” of sports entertainment comes from a combination of storytelling and physical motion – it’s not entirely unlike ballet. In both you can see muscular men in bedazzled tights pretending to be demons as they tumble rhythmically with one or more partners to tell a relatively simple, but layered story – except that in wrestling, sometimes that demon chokeslams one of the other players through a table. When done well, wrestling can be compelling storytelling. It can be rooted in the nuanced development of a character (like the Bayley Vs. Sasha Banks match from NXT’s Takeover: Brooklyn 2015) or pure physicality (see Kenny Omega Vs. Kazuchika Okada from this year’s NJPW Wrestle Kingdom), but it’s out there if you’re willing to weed through the muck to find it.
Patrick: It can. In Max Landis’ excellent Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling video, he caps it off by explaining: “A lot of wrestling sucks. But when it’s good, it’s fucking great.” There are some moments in wrestling history that have made me feel like no big budget blockbuster movie or any other form of entertainment possibly could. Movies don’t get me emotional very often, nor do television shows, but Daniel Bryan finally winning the big one at WrestleMania XXX? That shit was real, man.What a moment! Photo by WWE
Wrestling has the unique advantage of being able to respond to its audience on a week to week — and sometimes even minute to minute — basis, which gives the potential for stories that resonate so much more. We as fans feel like we’re part of the experience, not just observing it from afar, which is why it’s upsetting when most of the time it doesn’t utilize that advantage. Most times you have to wade through the garbage, of which there is a lot. JR had a great point that fans of other forms of entertainment can generally just skip it. If I think the Avengers suck, I will simply not buy Avengers comics. If I hate Star Wars movies, I won’t go. But if I hate Roman Reigns, he’s taking up sometimes up to a third of my television program every Monday night, so I don’t really have much of a choice.
Mike: I think it absolutely does and I don’t even think that’s a question. Unfortunately, I think the WWE’s brand domination definitely limits what people get to experience in terms of the medium. WWE is going to be your introduction to wrestling in 95 out of 100 cases, and that’s probably a conservative estimate. And the high cost of entry into the game (i.e. a good television slot on a strong network) largely eliminates any competition from the game. Lucha Underground was great for the art form in that it showed a different way to tell these stories but ultimately it wasn’t reasonably accessible until midway through Season 2, and now seems to be falling apart. That, to me, is the single most limiting factor to the progression of the medium.
Ultimately, the fans are also complicit in this. Over the past 10 years, wrestling fans have proven that they’d rather complain about what WWE isn’t giving them rather than actually support the companies that are. As an independent wrestling fan, it was infuriating to listen to people screaming about the quality of women’s wrestling on WWE when Shimmer was giving them just that. If you’re someone that produces wrestling content, how do you even counter that mentality?
Why does pro wrestling deserve to be a part of geek culture? Does it? Is it already there?
JR: I think “deserve” is an interesting word that implies some level of gatekeeping within geek culture that is unfortunate. Wrestling is clearly something that has a subsection of fans that obsess over it beyond the casual fan it is marketed toward. In my mind, that’s the only qualification. I don’t really feel comfortable saying something is geek and something is not. If a wrestling fan views themselves as a geek and derives some sense of community or ride from that, awesome! If they prefer to view it as separate, also awesome!
Jason: To be honest, I’m pretty certain there’s a heavy overlap in the wrestling fandom and geek circles already. For the holdout, however, I think once you get past the “redneck jock” stigma of pro wrestling and appreciate it for the circus that it is, your average geek would find a lot to like. Its visual narrative typically occupies a space not too dissimilar from superhero comics, and storylines don’t stray too far from it, either. There are cartoony superheroes like Roman Reigns and John Cena, uber serious “gritty” antiheroes like Randy Orton or Seth Rollins, everymen like Sami Zayn and monsters like Braun Strowman. Shoot, the ongoing saga that is Lucha Underground literally advanced several key plots between seasons with a comic series that had lasting effects on the storyline of the television series.
Sure, sometimes you don’t so much suspend disbelief as break that shit in half, but I’m not reading Sex Criminals because I think people actually freeze time when they climax just like I don’t hate wrestling just because it makes no sense that a leg drop is enough to knock someone out.
Patrick: Too many people seem to get caught up in the fact that it’s “fake,” but I have news for them: Emilia Clarke is not actually commanding dragons and Robert Downey Jr. isn’t actually flying around in an iron suit. If you don’t like wrestling simply because it’s “fake,” I guess you stick strictly to non-fiction?
Wrestling exists in this strange middle ground where until people give it a fair shake, it’s judged as being too jocky for the nerds and too nerdy for the jocks. But I think pro wrestling has so much in common with comic books and superheroes, in general, that it’s crazy to not give it a shot. The same hero and villain archetypes that you see in comics, and movies like Star Wars, are present every Monday and Tuesday night [on WWE’s Monday Night Raw and Smackdown Live]. Both action movies and comics feature scripted conflicts that culminate in highly choreographed fight sequences–the only difference is in pro wrestling, those fight sequences take place in front of thousands of people, performed by the actors and not stunt doubles, in one take. How is that not actually way cooler than the alternative?
Mike: Wrestling has always been a part of geek culture because it’s always been supported by geeks (myself included). I think just by the nature of what it is, you’ll never win over the soccer moms but it’s kind of ludicrous to hear someone who reads comics or goes to the Ren Faire give wrestling a hard time.
I think you can definitely change people’s minds, but they have to be open to it. One of the things I’m trying to do with Headlocked is sneakily educate people about the art form by wrapping it up in a coming-of-age drama. We hide the medicine in the food, so to speak. I’ve had a number of people buy our book that weren’t wrestling fans that have come back to tell me how differently they view it now after reading our story. It’s definitely one of the things that I’m most proud of.
“Headlocked: The Hard Way” is now on Kickstarter, and features stories by Mick Foley, Ric Flair, Kenny Omega and more, plus another classic cover by Jerry “The King” Lawler!