Why I Love Wrestling
“Wrestling isn’t real” is often the criticism you’ll get when you let on proudly, or more likely sheepishly, that you’re a fan of professional wrestling. For most, it’s understandably a bit weird to passionately support a form of entertainment where men jog around in pants pretending to clock someone. Grown men shouldn’t like soaps. Grown men shouldn’t like Christmas panto. And grown men certainly shouldn’t be waking up at one in the morning and taking the Monday off work to fulfill this ridiculous habit.
But for me, wrestling is one of the purest and best forms of entertainment around. Not only that, WWE, being the industry’s best and most viewed brand, is about to enter another Golden Age. And I’m going to tell you why.
Whether wrestling is ‘real’ is not a debate that needs addressing for those who love it. At its most basic, pro wrestling is a classic tale of Good v Evil. Whether it’s Authority v Worker, Big v Small or Cheat v Honest, during its heyday, WWE told the story of ‘Heel’ (bad guy) v ‘Baby Face’ (good guy) better than anyone in the entertainment industry. Back in 1998, Stone Cold Steve Austin, a beer-swilling redneck, v Vince McMahon, his corporate boss and real-life Godfather of the industry I love, captured the imagination of a generation and WWF (as it was called at the time before some pandas were confusingly leathered with some steel chairs) went from the niche violent drama your parents would let you watch to a cultural phenomenon that everyone could relate to. It tapped in to a part of each and every one of us that wanted to raise the bird to our boss. That’s real.
What followed was 4 years of solid gold known as the ‘Attitude Era’. Superstars you’ve probably all heard of – Triple H, The Rock, Kane, The Undertaker, Kurt Angle and Mankind – carried the company from filling small arena to selling-out stadiums. It’s hard to pin point exactly why the Attitude Era caught the imagination so magnificently, but for most who fell in love with wrestling during that era, it was probably a few main factors: Firstly, it was the characters. They were distinctive, distinguishable and memorable but still had the complexity that people could relate to.
Take Triple H, for example. He started out in WWF as Hunter Hearst Hemsley, an upper-class snob who wore a tailcoat suit and carried a traditional spray bottle to highlight his effete snobbishness. But cheap gimmicks will only get you so far with a demanding crowd, so he created D-Generation X. And it went OFF. Kids loved them because they coined phrases like “Suck It!” while directing an ‘X’ towards their genitalia. But they weren’t youngster exclusive – they were part of the coolest gang at school you always wanted to be a part of. It was edgy enough to be cool but not X-rated enough to stop your parents from watching. Traditionally, you’d call D-Generation X ‘heels’ but they were just too cool with it that everybody loved them.
Wrestling hurts. And it should also be noted that during the Era, some of the stunts on show were breath-taking. The Tables, Ladders, and Chairs matches between the Hardy Boyz and the Dudley Boyz involved set-pieces that would rival most Bond opening sequences. Only they perform all their own stunts and they get put through tables for real. Even the real-life boss’ real-life son got overwhelmed with just how bloody exciting life was at the WWF and ended up throwing himself off the titantron. More than once..
The storytelling during the Attitude Era was also brilliant. And not just for the headliners – everybody had a piece of cake. Sometimes it was ridiculous – a 25 year-old former world’s strongest man knocked up an 80 year-old pensioner, for example. But the mistake outsiders make is that they seem to think fans don’t acknowledge the sheer stupidity of it all. We do. We’re not thick – we love it for it. We’re not taken fools either – it’s always done with a wink and a nod. We’re all in on the joke.
Wrestling and Politics
WWF/WWE was and is one the most fan-centric sports around. The company does wonders to keep fans feeling a part of the ‘universe’, as they call it. Meet and greets, fan rallies and a prominent social media presence mean fans always feel a part of the business. As a result, wrestling is notorious for its in-ring politics. Fans are always fully aware of who is out of contract and who is going to get the push to be the next big thing. This creates some fascinating storylines and ultimately incredible controversy.
The match that changed the face of the business took place back in 1997 and is referred to as the ‘Montreal Screwjob’. Vince McMahon and other WWF employees covertly manipulated a match between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels for the WWF Championship in Montreal. Hart was the reigning champion but was about to depart to main rival company WCW. Vince had agreed to let Hart win the match as it was in his home nation and he wanted to go out on a high. The pair had agreed that Hart would return for one night to lose the belt at a later date. However, without Hart’s knowledge, Vince instructed referee Earl Hebner to announce Michaels as the winner of the match following a submission move, even though Hart had not tapped out. Many believe it was a betrayal of Hart, who was one of the WWF’s longest-tenured and most popular performers at the time. Fans in the arena knew what had taken place and started rioting while Hart smashed up the set. It was awesome.
Ever since, WWE has consciously used off-screen tensions as part of their storylines, realising A) fans already know what’s what anyway, and B) it creates more drama. That sort of off-screen politics has continued through they years and was perfectly illustrated at this year’s Wrestlemania – WWE’s Super Bowl. Brock Lesnar was the champion. Not only that, he was possibly the most ‘legitimate’ champion ever given that, in the past, he was a successful UFC champion. But he was also out of contract after the match. Roman Reigns was the new kid on the block who the company seemed determined to push as the face of the WWE. The problem was they did it so blatantly and predictably that everyone hated Reigns for it. I told you we’re not thick. Everybody knew Reigns was going to win at Wrestlemania. And WWE knew that everyone knew he was.. So they made Seth Rollins win instead! It was a perfect example of the business’ ability to annoy, shock and then pay-off loyal support.
Theatre of Wrestling
The unpredictability of wrestling can’t be underestimated as a pull. I promise you, you have not felt anything like a truly unexpected heel-turn. Remember when you found out Kevin Spacey was Keyser Söze? Try finding out Stone Cold had joined forces with Vince at Wrestlemania 17. Shocked at Darth Vader being Luke’s father? Guess you can’t have seen Vince McMahon finding out he’s the father of the Irish midget Hornswoggle. Or when Fredo broke Michael Corleone’s heart? Nah. Seth Rollins putting steel to his Shield brothers’ backs hurt more, I reckon.
Wrestling does pure theatre as well, if not better, than anything you’ll see in the West End. Just take the entrances of The Undertaker and Bray Wyatt. They’re a masterclass in creating an ambience. The wrestling is just a backdrop for that.
Sometimes even the acting ability doesn’t really matter either. Heart and charisma are far more important for a baby face. Having said that, if you’ve got all three – you can become the highest grossing actor working in Hollywood. But even an A-listed celeb like The Rock has to scratch that itch and return for pop every now and then. As did Arnie, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Mr. T before them.
Present and Future
In a flash, the Attitude Era past us by without even blinking. The buy-out of main competitors WCW and EWC in 2001 meant the WWF had more superstars than they could handle and nobody got the airtime they deserved. The writing had to create bite-size stories that could easily be digested and the wrestlers had no time to develop characters. The rise in health and safety also meant a lot of the aggression and bonkers stunts had to be abandoned too. The WWE continued to relatively thrive but for the purists, we never felt it was the same. But there are signs of late that things may be starting to get better..
The main thing WWE has addressed is the basic infrastructure of development. Wrestlers are no longer having to prove their worth in 15 minutes. The inception of NXT, WWE’s feeder company, means wrestlers get the coaching and airtime to perfect their craft. And the main roster is reaping the rewards with a pool of talent that grows by the day. WWE no longer needs to call upon past legends like The Rock, Hulk Hogan or Shawn Michaels to bail out a lackluster PPV card.
The NXT generation is now starting to dominate the company. Seth Rollins, the first ever NXT champion, is now justifiably and thankfully the WWE champion. Rounded and charismatic wrestlers like Bray Wyatt, Daniel Bryan, Dean Ambrose, Ryback, Wade Barrett and newly promoted Adrian Neville are hot on his heels too: Pun intended. They also have the best female wrestler I’ve possibly ever seen in the UK’s Paige.
There’s also a sense of genuine threat about the place with wrestlers like Brock Lesnar giving the company a legitimacy and intimidation they haven’t had in a long time. Possibly only Guardians of the Galaxy star Dave Batista offered them that in the last decade. Incidentally, both of those two were former UFC stars – both companies seem prepared, and even eager, to explore a cross-over in the future. Arguably the greatest female UFC fighter of all time, Ronda Rousey, is rumoured to be penned in for a WWE match at next year’s Wrestlemania, for example.
WWE is also very much a forward thinking company these days. The creation of the WWE Network (imagine Netflix for wrestling) has made it easier and cheaper for fans to stay in touch with the sport that they love. There’s even some original programming with the characters outside the ring like Total Divas and a new show with Jerry Springer. They’ll probably be rubbish but at least they’re indicative of a culture around the company these days.
And that’s the other thing.. Wrestling, 90% of the time, is rubbish. But 5% of the time, it’s great. And the other 5% of the time, it’s fist-pumpingly extraordinary. It’s stories and characters. It’s a new comic book every single week. It’s constantly evolving and second-guessing you and itself. It’s unifying and that’s real. And here’s the best bit: it’s never ever finished.
As Bret Hart says in his book ‘Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling’: “To me, there is something beautiful about a brotherhood of big, tough men who only pretend to hurt one another for a living instead of actually doing it.”
I love wrestling. And that’s why.