You don’t really find out about professional wrestling anymore, the way you might find out about a sport you’ve never heard of, like jai alai, or a niche art movement, like glitch art. You just grow up knowing what it is.
It’s been around for over a hundred years, and it’s enjoyed the world over, but wrestling broke out in the 1980s in the United States as a television product. Several wrestling companies launched TV shows – mostly regional, though a few aired nationally – and professional wrestlers reaching a bigger and bigger audience soon became bona fide pop culture icons: André the Giant, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and, of course, Hulk Hogan.
By the end of the eighties and throughout most of the nineties, wrestling came to be dominated by two companies, Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Eventually, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the WWF won the war, bought out WCW and now has such a stranglehold on the industry that the WWE (as it’s now known) is practically a synonym for professional wrestling as a whole. Even though most of the names in that list of wrestling legends came up in companies other than the WWE – Ric Flair didn’t work there until he was in his forties – most people couldn’t name a promotion other than the WWF/WWE. But they all know the WWF/WWE. I’ve never had to explain to someone, of any age, what I mean when I say I like wrestling. I just say “you know, like the WWE” and they get it immediately. Sometimes, when it comes to people in their sixties or seventies, I’ve had to clarify that the WWE is the same thing as the WWF, but, other than that, everyone gets it. Or, at least, they think they do.
I didn’t watch a lot of wrestling growing up, if I’m honest. I watched it with my cousins sometimes, I saw it on the TV flicking through when we got cable in my teens, I played WWE/WWF video games. But I wasn’t a wrestling fan. I knew about it, because it was everywhere. I knew the Undertaker, and Kane, and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and Triple H, and the Rock. I could sing Randy Orton’s theme music probably ten years before I ever saw a full Randy Orton match. But I didn’t watch wrestling growing up and I didn’t get into it properly until a few years ago, mainly because it felt alienatingly dense. It’s similar to why I’ve never read a lot of superhero comics. It comes burdened with this history of characters and conflicts, relationships and storylines, styles and trends, and so on, until the idea of getting into superhero comics just sounds like homework. But, in the end, I did become a wrestling fan, and the twist is that it’s not like superhero comics at all. I tried to follow just one mainstream superhero comic, Ms. Marvel, and it became a huge chore almost immediately. But wrestling hooked me.
Because, despite its name recognition, WWE is not all that wrestling is. It certainly aspires to be the only game in town, but there’s a whole world of wrestling beyond the grip of Vince McMahon. Last year, I decided to stop the flirting and commit to wrestling as one of my interests. I watched a lot of wrestling and spent a lot of money and even spent four months as an editor on a women’s wrestling website.
Here’s what I learned.
Part 1 – What is Wrestling?
Professional wrestling is so ubiquitous and familiar in pop culture – not just because it’s popular, but because it’s constantly portrayed and parodied and referenced in other works – that it might seem unnecessary to explain it all over again. But I think precisely because professional wrestling is taken for granted as part of the background noise of pop culture, churning away the whole time, beloved by its fans, avoidable for everyone else, that it needs defining. If you don’t already think much about wrestling, you won’t ever have to. It’s not like superhero movies, where it’s constantly shoved down your throat by advertising and news coverage and the fact your local cinema takes up so much of its schedule with them that they never get around to showing much of anything else. You can just not engage with professional wrestling on any level if you want and most people never do. They never have to really think about the very specific weirdness of what exactly professional wrestling is.
Wrestling is fake, obviously. That’s the first thing people who don’t watch wrestling always say. It’s a bizarre little ritual I’ve had to go through so often in recent times. “That’s fake, isn’t it?” they ask, as if you might say no. Wrestling is, fundamentally, people pretending to fight each other in front of an audience while the audience pretends not to know it’s fake. And when you talk to non-fans about it, for some reason, they always want to doublecheck that you know it’s fake. Sometimes they ask it as if it might be an open secret, something people aren’t supposed to know, but go on, you can tell me, go on. But it’s not like that at all. Everyone who watches wrestling knows it’s fake except little kids (and possibly Donald Trump) but it’s in the same way that everyone who watches a play or TV show knows it’s fake. That’s just the kind of thing it is, it’s a piece of narrative fiction. The crowd playing along as if it was real is just audience participation, like in a pantomime. Wrestling is basically a kind of serial theatre, where actors tell stories across multiple performances. You can film it and show it on television, but if there’s an audience there and they’re participating, it’s always gonna have that theatre aspect baked in, it’s always gonna be partially a recording of an evening of theatre.
But wrestlers aren’t just actors. They’re actors and fight choreographers and their own stuntmen. In the independent scene especially, they’re their own writers, directors, cinematographers, costume designers, managers, accountants and public relations firm. It’s fundamentally different from other kinds of theatre, not just because it requires such a broad array of skills, but because it’s a form that resists the idea of authorship, as Japanese wrestler Shinsuke Nakamura writes in his autobiography:
So when it comes to the question of what pro wrestling is, I think “fighting art” is maybe more appropriate than trying to tuck it away in the box of “sports”. In that sense, then I guess the pro wrestler is an improv artist. As a kind of artistic action, you use your heart, technique, body, everything; you release all of this to express yourself as you fight. I believe this is the essence of pro wrestling.
There’s actually always a theme in the ring. Sometimes, it’s a theme you put together; other times, it’s a theme those around you want. The job of putting yourself out there while also addressing this business of themes is incredibly interesting. And since you’re not alone up there, you’re up against an opponent, it can’t all go the way you want it to. What shape will this living thing take in the end in the match?
The collaborative nature of wrestling is so all-encompassing, it doesn’t really allow authorial control. It’s not just the artists themselves but the audience who come together to write the story of a match together. The crowd is part of the ensemble too and its voice can be powerful: at the last live show I went to, the whole crowd booed a villainous wrestler called Zach Gibson so loudly the whole way through his pre-match monologue that no one could hear him. He didn’t stop, because he’s Zach Gibson and he doesn’t care what us plebes have to say, but another wrestler might have dropped their planned remarks and improvised something new in reaction to our booing. Even though he continued, the audience changed the performance with our reaction. We could have cheered the whole way through, aligned ourselves with Gibson, turned it into a story about Gibson triumphant rather than Gibson silenced. It’s the core dynamic of wrestling, cheers vs boos. If you’re a heroic character, or a “face” in wrestling lingo, you want the crowd to cheer. If you’re a villain, or a “heel”, you want the crowd to boo. It’s grown a little more complex than that over years, obviously, and people boo faces and cheer heels all the time, but, at its core, it’s about the audience deciding the tone of the story by acclimation. When Gibson’s team lost the match following his monologue, the crowd cheered, so it was a happy ending.
Wrestling, then, is a form of participatory theatre in which actors pretend to competitively wrestle each other while the crowd pretends it’s a real sporting event. It’s collaborative and improvisational, it’s serialised and you can follow rivalries and storylines over multiple events and episodes, across different companies even. The stories are soap opera basically, built around feuds and betrayals and trading in big straightforward emotions, but, like the best soaps, they can be rich in theme and social commentary. Class conflict is a frequent source of inspiration, with scrappy working-class underdogs facing off against arrogant upper-class snobs, but you can tell all kinds of stories through wrestling, as personal or as political as you like, as long as it involves a fight. It doesn’t even have to be all that realistic. Because the audience participates directly in the fiction of wrestling, or “kayfabe”, its own willingness to suspend disbelief sets the boundaries of its reality. If we accept that two wrestlers can attack each other outside their workplace and not get punished, then that becomes part of the story and it’s not limited to a lax office culture. Lots of wrestling has sci-fi and fantasy elements or outright absurd nonsense. Examples include WWE legend The Undertaker, whose character has literally been undead at various points, and the Ironman Heavymetalweight Championship, a wrestling title that has been held three times by a ladder, is currently held by an inflatable sex doll, and which former champ Joey Ryan once lost in a dream. (Other title holders include a dachshund, some guy from the audience, and the belt itself.)
It’s at once a very specific and peculiar form of theatre, yet also so malleable and expansive. It’s not quite like anything else. For one, it’s really, really dangerous. Wrestling may be fake, but wrestling injuries are very real. Some of that obviously comes from extreme spots like ramming someone in the ribs with a ladder, but it’s mostly just inherent to the art form. Matt Hardy’s spine fused to his pelvis not from taking some insane bump through a table, but from a simple leg drop – jumping and landing on his ass with his leg draped across his opponent’s body. The most serious injury I’ve seen at a live event happened just from someone jumping off the top rope, missing the people who were supposed to catch her and hitting a hardwood floor. That wrestler, Katey Harvey, ended up with two broken elbows, an injury that may yet have ended her career. Wrestlers are like acrobats without a net, forever at risk of maiming themselves right in front of you, and their long-term health suffers. John Oliver recently covered this issue in an episode about the WWE, which classifies its employees as “independent contractors” to avoid providing healthcare, while their employees die significantly younger than not just the general population but other professional athletes. The episode features a gutwrenching clip from an interview with Roddy Piper, explaining his rationale for wrestling into his fifties:
Wrestling is– it has a tremendous entrance plan. You come in, it’s “boy, here you are”, you’re rock and roll and everything is wonderful. It’s got no exit plan…What would you have me do at forty-nine? When my pension plan, I can’t take out ‘til I’m sixty-five? I’m not gonna make sixty-five. Let’s just face facts, guys.
Roddy Piper died aged sixty-one.
The WWE make work more dangerous for their employees by working them all year without an off-season, denying them healthcare and coercing them into competing against sound medical advice. But all wrestling is risky. It’s not just throwing fake punches, it’s backflips off the ropes and tossing human beings around like rag dolls and smashing each other with steel chairs. Even when everyone does their job right, sometimes things go wrong. You land weird from a dive and your knee fucking explodes. I’m not bothered by people being dismissive of wrestling, but it does grind my gears just a bit when they’re dismissive of wrestlers. Wrestlers put their bodies on the line every day for the entertainment of others, and if you can respect that in an acrobat or a stuntman or a professional athlete, but not in a wrestler, you’re a snob.
Part 2 – Who is Wrestling?
The WWE is the biggest wrestling company in the world, and operates an effective monopoly on wrestling in the United States. The second-biggest promotion is New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), but on its home turf, WWE lacks for serious rivals. There are a couple of other “major” companies, which mostly means companies with a TV deal: Impact Wrestling (fka TNA), Ring of Honor (ROH) and the upstart All Elite Wrestling (AEW), founded earlier this year by a group of former WWE, NJPW and ROH stars called The Elite. But they all pale in comparison to WWE, not just in size and power, but in cultural footprint. WWE is, as I said, almost a synonym for wrestling as a whole, and they’d like to stay that way. I could talk a lot about WWE in this section. I could review their shows in detail. I could tell you about the highs and lows of watching WWE programming over the past year. I’d watched a couple of WWE pay-per-views before last year, but since last year’s WrestleMania, I’ve gone full-time. I’ve only skipped one pay-per-view since, their third in Saudi Arabia, and I’ve been a voracious viewer of their developmental shows, NXT and NXT UK, which feature up-and-coming talent.
But I don’t want to talk about WWE very much. I watch their pay-per-views, but I can’t stomach the weekly shows featuring their main roster of talent, Raw and SmackDown Live, which run three and two hours respectively each week. I watch excerpts on YouTube to keep up with storylines, but the shows are too long and too full of stuff that’s not wrestling. The industry term for the talky parts of wrestling is a “promo”, which can be monologues delivered in ring or to a backstage camera, or bits of dialogue between multiple people. Promos are an important part of wrestling, since they create so much of the context for storylines, but WWE’s main roster shows spend way too much time on them. I like to skip most of it and get to the pay-per-views. I love the developmental shows in large part because they spend so much more time on wrestling, and even though they’re only an hour each week, they do so much more and so much better storytelling. It’s not just that they have a better balance between in-ring action and promos. Their in-ring action and promos are way, way better than almost anything on the main roster, to the point it’s a running joke in the fandom how superior the “developmental” shows are to the main roster. But you can only watch them on WWE’s streaming service, WWE Network, which is also where their pay-per-views are distributed now, so you can’t “vote with your dollar” by supporting the stuff you like, you can only buy it in a package with everything else.
You might also feel understandably squeamish about giving WWE your money. I know I do. Apart from denying their employees healthcare and safe working conditions, WWE is also in the midst of a ten-year deal with the Saudi Arabian government to produce pay-per-views there as part of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030, a plan to make the country more attractive to foreign investors, in part by playing up the Crown Prince’s image as a progressive reformer. WWE’s first pay-per-view in Saudi Arabia, The Greatest Royal Rumble, included ads promoting Vision 2030, and while they’ve toned down the explicit propagandising since the Crown Prince had Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist living in the US, murdered and dismembered last year, they haven’t backed away from the deal. (Defenders of the WWE portray them as trapped by the contract, but as I’ve written elsewhere, they could easily break it with little consequence.) The WWE is also entirely owned by the McMahon family, who are deeply enmeshed with the Trump political machine: as well as being huge donors to his first campaign, Linda McMahon, wife of CEO Vince McMahon, was appointed head of the Small Business Administration by Trump and only resigned to run a pro-Trump super PAC raising money for his re-election.
WWE’s monopoly on professional wrestling can’t be broken simply by consumer rejection – if it could, it wouldn’t be a monopoly – but you do have some other choices as a fan. There’s the other major companies, though they have their own problems. NJPW doesn’t have women’s wrestling, for one, and ROH is owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a media conglomerate who run pro-Trump propaganda on their local news stations. You might not feel great lining the pockets of Impact owner Leonard Asper, a Canadian media mogul and monopolist in bed with the Tories, or AEW’s billionaire backer Shahid Khan, who was a major Trump donor in the past but has been mildly critical since his election. But lots of smaller companies distribute their shows online, through dedicated streaming services and video-on-demand sites. If you’re able to pay and willing to forego some of the genuinely good stuff on WWE Network – not just their pay-per-views and their developmental shows, but a massive library of classic wrestling from both their own back catalogue and those of companies acquired by WWE – you have some options. I’ve heard good things about Stardom World, the streaming service of Japanese women’s wrestling promotion Stardom, and the whole wide world of indie promotions is ready and waiting for you. There’s Pro-Wrestling: EVE, a women’s promotion based in the UK with a punk ethos, who’ve been counterprogramming WWE’s Saudi pay-per-views by streaming their own shows for free on Facebook. There’s DDT Pro-Wrestling, a Japanese company noted for their absurdist comedy – they’re the home of that title held by a ladder. And there’s my home promotion, Dublin’s Over The Top Wrestling (OTT), who have probably the best video production in the entire independent scene.
If you can, you should go to your local indie’s live shows. I know that’s not always possible. You may not have a local promotion – my “local” promotion is two and a half hours away by bus – and it’s not always affordable. But, if you can, I highly recommend it. Wrestling is best experienced in person. It’s a collaborative art form and, as well as just being more fun, the live experience is a good reminder that the “who” in wrestling isn’t really the companies. It’s the wrestlers, and there are thousands of them all over the world putting on fantastic shows in high school gyms and sports bars and even, occasionally, in an appropriate venue for a wrestling match. Most of them do it part-time, because the majors have all the capital, and the majority of those who do it full-time will never make it onto television. But they do it anyway, because they love it. It’s beautiful and inspiring, and it’s the heart of wrestling.
You can have wrestling without fancy video production or teams of writers or sold-out stadiums or a television deal. But you can’t have wrestling without someone in the ring doing the damn thing.
Part 3 – Why is Wrestling?
I fell in love with wrestling on October 30th, 2016. I’d flirted with wrestling before then. I watched WrestleMania XXX with some friends in college. I’ve still to this day never seen a full episode of Raw or SmackDown, but I’d sat in on a housemate’s viewing sessions a few times, and I enjoyed listening to fans I knew tell me about their favourite storylines. But that weekend, I went to my first live show, OTT Invasion of the Bodyslams, at the Black Box Theatre in Galway. It was a small show for OTT – it’s not even listed among their events on Cagematch, the wrestling equivalent of IMDb – and it was for a comedy festival, so there were several comedians involved who didn’t necessarily put on the best matches. And, if I’m honest, I can’t remember a lot of the wrestling, because I didn’t know enough about it to absorb it properly. But I adored it. It was just so cool to watch, all these ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I was instantly obsessed with Session Moth Martina, an Irish wrestler with a working-class party girl gimmick who’s both absolutely hilarious and brilliant in the ring. The main event was Pete Dunne vs Chris Hero (aka Kassius Ohno in the WWE) and, as well as being a great match, it was my introduction to the power of the crowd. My friends and I thought it would be funny to cheer the heel, Pete Dunne, but we were so loud and insistent, and the crowd was so full of non-traditional wrestling fans there for the comedy festival, that we pretty quickly turned the whole crowd in Dunne’s favour. Hero stood on the ropes and gave us two middle fingers, and we returned the favour. Afterward, he walked up into the stands to hug us. It was awesome.
Ask ten wrestling fans why they like wrestling and you’ll get fifty answers. It’s hard for the general public to see when WWE so dominates the idea of wrestling, but it’s a very diverse and versatile art form, and asking someone why they like it is like asking someone why they like movies or music or theatre. I like the pageantry and spectacle of wrestling, big personalities with colourful costumes, but I also like it pared down and minimalist. I think the Velveteen Dream, an NXT wrestler with a queer aesthetic inspired by Prince and Jimi Hendrix who cuts purring homoerotic promos on his opponents and recently entered a match on a litter dressed as the Statue of Liberty, is just about the most wonderful thing in the world. But my favourite feud in wrestling right now is a simple tale of friends turned rivals, Jordan Devlin vs David Starr. Starr has been obsessed with defeating German wrestler WALTER for the past couple of years, facing off with him over twenty times and losing every match. When it looked like Devlin would finally do what Starr couldn’t, Starr turned on him and they’ve been at each other’s throats ever since. It’s a tale as old as time, the stuff of Bible stories and Greek tragedy, but the people telling it are really, really good at what they do and I just lap it up. I can’t get enough of it.
Wrestling can be dramatic and operatic like that, but it can also be really, really silly. For every Dusty Rhodes promo about the struggle of the working class, there’s a Scott Steiner promo where he tries to calculate the odds of losing his next match and it just turns into hilarious gibberish. I don’t know if I can give you a more hilarious example than a title that’s been held three times by a ladder, but the great tradition of comedy wrestling is alive and well in all corners of the industry. The level of danger can also vary a lot: most matches are just two people pretending to punch each other in a ring, and those are great, don’t get me wrong, but some matches are a forty-six-year-old man jumping off a twenty-foot steel cage through a table, and that’s just amazing as a sentence, let alone something you can actually watch happen. Wrestling can tell small personal stories, like Devlin vs Starr, or it can tell huge political ones, like Kofi Kingston’s struggle to become the first black WWE Champion of the modern era despite the opposition of a corporate culture at best indifferent and often openly hostile to non-white wrestlers, which culminated in a fantastic match at this year’s WrestleMania where he won the belt. I like wrestling for the same reasons I like action movies: fictional violence can be both an excellent storytelling device and just fun to watch for its own sake in the hands of talented artists. It can be used for serious drama and silly comedy and shocking horror and every other kind of story.
But I love wrestling because of its participatory element, the collaborative and improvisational ethos that makes the audience part of the show. I like appreciating the genius of a singular author as much as the next critic, but there’s something really special about this populist impulse at the heart of the form. The connection and camaraderie, both within the audience and between the audience and the performers, is completely unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. And, if I’m being totally honest, I love wrestling because it’s dangerous. Risk isn’t just practically necessary for wrestling, it’s essential to the appeal of the art form. It might still be fun to watch even with zero risk involved, but the real danger involved is a core part of the performance. It’s what makes you leap from your chair and gasp and cheer and chant, whether in a crowd of hundreds or alone in your bedroom. It’s like trapeze or rally driving or Tom Cruise doing all his own stunts because he’s a lunatic: you have to respect performers who put so much on the line for your entertainment. Wrestlers are artists who literally leave their blood, sweat and tears on the canvas. It’s grotesque and frustrating that their art form is so heavily monopolised by a company who treats them so poorly. (Though, to be fair, the indies can be pretty laissez-faire when it comes to safety. I suspect a mat at ringside might have spared Katey Harvey a lot of hardship.)
I adore professional wrestling, and some of the artists I think about most these days are wrestlers. I haven’t gone more than a couple of days in months without rewatching Daniel Bryan’s hyperbaric chamber promo, when the people’s hero I’d cheered at WrestleMania XXX gave a bizarre, unsettling speech about why he’d turned heel to regain the WWE Championship. The hype video for Jordan Devlin vs David Starr at OTT Homecoming may well be the best hype video in the industry for twenty years. Kay Lee Ray and Viper’s crazy hardcore match at Insane Championship Wrestling, featuring just the most fantastic commentary from a very game pair of Scotsmen. Samoa Joe telling real-life alcoholic Jeff Hardy to “act like this is an AA meeting and shut your mouth while I’m sharing with the group”, a diss so devastating it causes nearby Randy Orton to momentarily break character and duck for cover. The entrances to the main event of WrestleMania 35, the first time a women’s match has main evented WrestleMania. Charlotte Flair, daughter of living legend Ric Flair, arrives by helicopter, former UFC icon Ronda Rousey has her entrance music, “Bad Reputation”, performed live by Joan Jett, both emblematic of their entitlement and favourable treatment from management. Then, in comes working-class hero Becky Lynch, to the same cheap entrance theme, written by WWE’s in-house composers, that she’s used for years, but this time tens of thousands of people are singing along, because her opponents may have the company on their side, but Becky Lynch has the world. Some days, I’ll just be sitting on my couch, going about my day, and the image of Charlotte spearing Becky through the set of SmackDown will spring unbidden to my mind.
I put off getting into wrestling properly for a long time because it felt so dense and alienating, and that can be true, especially with WWE. But, most of the time, you don’t need to know anything. The crowd will tell you who to cheer and who to boo. You might come to disagree with them over time, as you get to know the characters better and figure out who and what you like. But it’s not hard to get into wrestling. If you think it would be fun to watch people pretend to kick the crap out of each other, you’ve already got everything you need.