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.