The debate and division over professional wrestling have been a cornerstone of American athletic entertainment — particularly the legitimacy of it.
I mean, everyone knows that professional wrestling is fake, right? The outcomes are determined; the spots are planned ahead of time.
It’s a show, not a sport.
There is no way that someone would beat someone with a chair or get choked out by a sock or fall from a cage and live or even wait to take a move that would clearly hurt them. And this line of thinking has taken pro wrestling from a cultural phenomenon to something that is seen as stupid, and those who like it as either idiots who thought it was real or losers who were into a fake sport. But it’s not a fake sport.
It is athletic entertainment. Or, in simpler terms, stuntman theater.
Wrestling found popularity as a part of traveling carnivals and vaudeville shows in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It started as catch-as-catch-can wrestling and quickly gained popularity as the form evolved and started to mirror the choreographed athletic event that is on TV five days a week today.
After 1913, wrestling's popularity would see a major decline, with the media focusing on the illegitimacy of it. The Midwest was the only exception to this. And if you have ever gone to an amateur wrestling event in the Midwest, you’d understand why.
The industry struggled through the mid-20th century until the advent of television and the creation of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). The industry reached its absolute peak in the 1980s and '90s and has maintained steady popularity until the last few years when the popularity as a whole started to wane.
Now, why am I talking about this? Well, I am a theater student and consumer, and I have enjoyed watching this product for years. And smartened up to the real nature of it quickly.
What I have found from people who don’t like the industry or don’t want to watch it state the same reason; it’s so fake, why would I watch it? Well, let me tell you.
First off, it’s not fake.
The outcome is predetermined, the moves are planned, and the athletes are working together to perform the match they are in properly. But when you see a performer jump off a ladder or cell, when you see someone go through a table or get slammed in the ring, that is a real bump.
That is someone actually taking an actual powerslam, or suplex, or a dive off the ropes, but it is being performed in the safest way possible. Mainly for performers to be able to entertain fans without completely destroying their bodies.
Performers have gotten injuries, broken bones and developed pain med addictions from the damage done to their bodies. People have even died while performing, the most famous being Owen Hart.
Remember, this is a business that came out of traveling carnivals, so working roadshows every night is in the job description, and real combat moves can add up quickly. I mean, these performers spend years training, working out and honing this artistic craft to be in their best physical shape and put on amazing performances for the fans.
I think of the Jake Paul vs. Tyron Woodley fight and the argument of if the fight was fixed, but no one questioned if it was real. Whether it was or wasn’t, Tyron really took that right. Hell, any boxing match that was rigged still saw those boxers take live rounds. Remember, fixed isn’t always fake.
Second, it’s a performance. Don’t think of it as a sport. If you go into a wrestling show with that perspective, you are gonna be disappointed within the first 10 minutes. Because you are going to immediately question how real it is.
That mindset was fine in the '70s and '80s when the inner workings of the business were kept secret and safeguarded from the world, and the “is this fake” question was more of a real question.
But now, with the business being “exposed,” you have to come into it with a different mindset.
You can’t look at it like you would a UFC or boxing match, waiting for these two athletes to beat the hell out of each other until one can’t go anymore while praying it didn’t go to the scorecards. You have to look at it as two athletes who are working together to execute a series of physical and dangerous stunts for the enjoyment of the audience.
That’s why I tell people to think of it as stuntman theater. When you think of stunt people, you think of these athletic people doing dangerous stunts, so the actors don’t have to.
And it’s not a safe job. There is always a story of a stunt gone wrong that hurt or even killed the person performing it. So when you think of it like that, your mindset goes from “this is so dumb, it’s so fake, it’s not a real fight,” to “I can’t believe they agreed to do that, did it and it didn’t kill them.”
You have to use the same suspension of disbelief that you do for a movie and TV show. Just because you know it’s not real doesn’t make it not feel real. How many people cried at the end of "Endgame," and that was a superhero movie.
If you made it this far, then all I have left to say is to try it with this new perspective.
If you still don’t like it cause you think it's crappy entertainment, fantastic; God bless; I wish you all the best; you tried. Personally, I think it has become a little bit campy, especially WWE.
But don’t just use the same tired-out argument that has been used since the '90s. Just say it isn’t entertaining and turn something else on. Because as a fan of theater and entertainment, to me, this is just the perfect cross of the storybook emotions of a Cinderella tournament run with the unpredictable certainty of a movie.