I’ve got some hobbies and interests that have at one time or another been considered a bit silly, childish or low-brow. Thankfully, over the years they’ve become respectable and mainstream. Comic books (or graphic novels if you’re still not ready to admit your shame) are now the biggest film genre in the world, and Iron Man is more recognisable than Mickey Mouse.
It’s become almost cliche to talk about how mainstream video games are now. Everyone and your gran plays video games. Whether you’re building worlds in Minecraft, swearing and shooting at children in Call of Duty, or sitting on the bus, mindlessly tapping away at Clash of Clans, you’re playing something.
When once I might’ve been hesitant to admit to having an interest in something like this, now everyone’s a geek, everyone’s in a fandom, and everything’s hunky dory. Except for one interest — professional wrestling.
Tell someone that you watch professional wrestling and you’re almost certainly going to be given some sage advice. First, their face will fold in on itself in embarrassment, like you’ve just told them you’re on the sex offender’s register, and then they’ll feel the need to tell you that professional wrestling is fake. “Don’t you know that?”, they’ll ask, as if you’re a child.
Imagine if someone told you they liked The Walking Dead, or Downton Abbey, or fucking Miranda, and you sniggered, tilted your head and said “well, you do know that show’s fake, right?”
You’d be rightly laughed at and ostracised. You’d have to cut all ties, quit your job, and move country just to avoid the embarrassment. Professional wrestling, though? Not only is it stupid, it’s fake, and you must be informed of this, in case it somehow flew over your head. Pretty much everyone who watches wrestling has to endure this tedious imparting of knowledge. Let’s talk professional wrestling, then, the fake sport that’s definitely not a sport.
First of all, professional wrestling isn’t fake, professional wrestling is pre-determined. There’s a key difference here. To call wrestling fake is dishonest and borderline disrespectful. Whenever a wrestler enters the ring to perform, he’s taking his and his opponent’s life in his hands. Becoming a wrestler takes years of training and is incredibly dangerous. Strength, athleticism, imagination and incredibly fast reflexes are just some of the attributes needed to be a good wrestler.
Falling onto padded wood and canvas, being hit over the head with steel chairs, and touring the world for 250 days a year takes a toll on the body. In The Walking Dead — which after a few days research, I can confirm is fake — when Rick is attacked, or a zombie is relieved of its head, or someone takes a punch to the mouth, it’s all fake. CG, stunt men, and editing keeps everyone safe. In pro wrestling, you’re live, you get one take, and you’re going to feel sore in the morning.
DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME
In late March 2015, Perro Aguayo Jr, a massive star in Mexican pro wrestling, took a drop kick, one of the simplest moves in wrestling. It’s one of the first moves a wrestler will learn, one of the most common and safest moves in wrestling, and something went terribly, freakishly wrong. Rey Mysterio Jr, one of the most popular Mexican wrestlers of all time, delivered a beautiful drop kick, Aguayo landed on the ropes to set up the following move, and the impact broke his neck, killing him instantly. He’s not the first to die in the ring and by the show’s very nature, he won’t be the last.
All the wrestlers know what’s going to happen when they get inside. They know the result and they know the story they have to tell. It’s pre-determined. Wrestling has screenwriters and writing rooms, wrestling has politics and bitter backstage backstabbing. The story of professional wrestling and how it works is often way more interesting than the story they tell in the ring. Occasionally, reality bleeds into fiction, in a way that simply isn’t possible in any other storytelling medium in the world.
THE MONTREAL SCREWJOB
Picture the scene: It’s 9 November 1997, we’re in Montreal, and it’s the WWF Survivor Series (World Wrestling Federation, now World Wrestling Entertainment after the panda people put the legal smackdown on them). Bret Hart, Canada’s biggest hero, and current WWF heavyweight champion, is on the verge of jumping ship to WWF’s biggest rival, World Championship Wrestling.
Bret and Vince McMahon - the owner and ‘booker’ of the show ( kind of a jacked up, insane mish-mash of movie director, CEO & sociopath) - have been going back and forth on contract negotiations. Vince doesn’t want him to leave, Bret doesn’t want to leave, but WCW, backed by colorising maniac Ted Turner, are offering him so much money that they’re having it delivered in massive sacks with the word SWAG stitched on.
Eventually, it’s decided that Bret will leave amicably, which is pretty rare in the often childish business world of wrestling, but there’s just one problem. Bret doesn’t want to lose his title to Shawn Michaels, his opponent that night, especially not in Canada. Bret and Shawn have a lot of legitimate hate for each other, and it’s eventually decided that Bret won’t have to lose the title that night, but perhaps the next night; definitely not in Canada.
Cue ominous music.
At one point in the match, Shawn Michaels puts Bret Hart in the Sharpshooter, a devastating submission maneuver, and Bret’s own finishing move. Vince McMahon, at ringside for some reason, starts screaming something at the referee, who prompting signals for the bell. Bret Hart has submitted. Shawn and Bret are tangled at the legs, Bret a look of confusion and betrayal on his face, as he slowly realises what happens. The referee, Earl Hebner, sprints out of the ring, Shawn Michaels picks up the belt, cursing, and also heads backstage sharpish.
Bret Hart looks down upon Vince McMahon and lobs a volley of phlegm at his face. He climbs out of the ring and starts destroying everything in his path. He would later, backstage, punch McMahon in the face, and the whole series of events were caught on camera in an unprecedented documentary, Wrestling With Shadows. The crowd don’t really understand what’s happened, but it quickly transpired that a conspiracy between McMahon, Michaels and Hebner has led to Bret Hart having his title stolen from him, live on pay-per-view. It’s a bizarre, gleefully meta story-within-a-story, and has enormous ramifications for the entire industry. Bret Hart joins WCW, but never really gets on top again, due to terrible writing and various injuries (what should’ve been a safe, innocuous kick to the head leads to his retirement). Bret’s brother, Owen, dies in the ring after a pre-match stunt goes wrong. Vince McMahon, after the world learns of the real life in-ring chicanery, becomes Mr McMahon, the biggest bad guy in professional wrestling history, leading to a record-breaking run of popularity for the company. Said popularity leads to the two major rivals of the WWF closing down and being bought by the WWF, creating a monopoly that exists to this day. All of this, because of one decision made in a sweaty, humid dressing room. It’s a terrible story, but it’s a brilliant story, and it’s most certainly not fake.
IT’S JUST NOT FOR ME
None of this matters. The injuries, the backstage politics, it’s all dull as dishwater to my missus. She will occasionally mock me for my interest and enthusiasm for the show, but I’m determined to try and get her on board. I ask her if she’s willing to take part in an experiment, where I’ll show her a series of matches, to see if I can convert her. She agrees, as long as she can openly mock me. It’s an agreement we’ve had throughout the relationship, so I eagerly agree.
First up is Bret Hart vs Stone Cold Steve Austin from Wrestlemania 13. To me, this is the Citizen Kane of wrestling matches. It’s a simple story of one man trying to prove he’s better than the other. The match can only be won by submission, and for 22 minutes, the two men brawl in and out of the ring, beating the shit out of each other, and ending with Steve Austin (legitimately) bleeding all over the ring, locked into the Sharpshooter. Austin won’t quit, it’s just not in his nature, but Bret won’t break the hold. The camera zooms into Austin’s face, as blood is literally pissing out of his forehead. Austin roars in pain, blood dripping into his mouth, staining his teeth, the mat, and his opponent. Still Austin won’t quit. No one survives the Sharpshooter, but Austin does what no man does and refuses to quit. Eventually he passes out (not really, it’s written this way to make Austin look like a superhuman machine, but also put over how powerful the move is) and Bret, the biggest good guy in wrestling, snaps and beats the piss out of him with a steel chair.
At this point we’re in an era where good vs evil, good guys and bad guys, aren’t so clearly defined. The crowd turn on the good guy, cheer for the bad guy, and a new star is born.
Bec has no interest in this. She admits that she can appreciate the obvious strain the match is putting on their bodies, and that it’s a story well told, but it’s not doing anything for her. The blood puts her off, the violence puts her off, she can’t comfortably watch it knowing that a man is in pain and bleeding everywhere. She can’t enjoy it knowing that at any point someone could seriously injure themselves.
It’s an interesting bit of insight that I’ve never considered. Something really could go wrong at any second. It rarely does, but it could, and this makes me feel a bit weird. Am I watching this hoping to see something go wrong? I like to think I’m there for the stories and the ridiculous metaness of it all, I’d like to think it’s a bit more than just Bumfights in an arena. For her, it’s just too much.
We take a break from gore, and I decide to go for pure showmanship and athleticism. Edge & Christian vs The Hardyz in a tag team ladder match. She’s going to love this. In a ladder match, something is suspended high above the ring, usually a title, and the first person to climb the ladder and retrieve the item wins. This is the first tag team ladder match and lead to an explosion in popularity of the match, each increasingly dangerous and full of spectacular leaps and stunts.
In this first match, the men knock seven shades of shite out of each other with 15ft ladders, take death-defying leaps of faith from said ladders, and generally just fly around and look cool. They’re super heroes come to life in a 20x20 ring, and the crowd eat it up. Despite all the moves and falls, no one is injured, and both teams become massive stars afterwards. For Bec, it’s just too much. She cringes every time someone comes off a ladder. Again, she appreciates and respects the idea of it, but she can’t understand how I can watch it.
“I know something terrible isn’t going to happen, because you wouldn’t make me watch it, but how can you enjoy this live, knowing that at any moment someone can fall and break their neck?”
I’m a bit lost for words. I mumble something about how much training they go through, but she’s not buying it. Two matches in and it’s not looking good. I decide to change tack and go for something a little more low budget. I show her a clip of Chuck Taylor, working for the American company CHIKARA. In the match, Taylor takes out an invisible hand grenade from his invisible pocket and launches it in slow motion at his opponent. Everyone in the ring freaks out, and rightfully so, a hand grenade can cause serious injury and has no place in a wrestling ring. One of the wrestlers, in a pique of self-sacrifice, dives onto the invisible hand grenade in glorious slow motion and takes the brunt of the explosion.
It’s completely fucking stupid and ridiculous, but they play it so straight, you can’t help but love it. Bec is instantly taken.
“See, this is stupid,” she says, “but it’s funny and no one is getting hurt.”
Pro wrestling has been out since the 1980s. Wrestlers from Hulk Hogan to John Cena all admit that it’s a show, that it’s pre-determined, but CHIKARA takes this admission a step further and plays with the tropes and conventions of professional wrestling in an interesting way. The audience, who usually have a cynical suspension of disbelief, is turned into a participant, and the mock horror from the fans as Taylor launches the grenade, turns into gleeful giggles, and everyone loves it.
It only gets sillier. We watch a match featuring the video game inspired Super Smash Brothers, who come out with NES controllers painted onto their trousers. At one point, a quick-witted opponent hits the pause button on the cloth controller, and the wrestler is now static, stuck in time. There’s a colony of ant wrestlers, there’s an anthropomorphic Egyptian cobra wrestler called Ophidian. It’s really stupid and it’s brilliant.
We watch more and more matches and then the unthinkable happens. Bec says she’d be up for seeing this live. I’d done so much research, come up with all these classic, mainstream matches I was going to show her, and invisible hand grenades and a man-snake is what gets her on board. There’s no accounting for taste.
WWE, the biggest wrestling company on the planet, is in an interesting state at the moment. Their show was once based around violence, bad language and scantily-clad women. Then Chris Benoit happened.
Chris Benoit was one of, if not the most, respected pro wrestlers of all time. He wasn’t particularly good on the microphone, he didn’t have the most impressive-looking body, frankly he was a bit of a short-arse, but he overcame all of these traditional limitations and worked all over the world, perfecting his craft. He was known for his exquisite work in the ring, trusted as someone who could pull a good match out of any one, and his determination eventually led to being crowned heavyweight champion of the world at Wrestlemania XX. At the end of a hard-fought match against Triple H and Shawn Michaels, he was embraced by the late Eddie Guerrero, a man he’d toured the world with, a man who, just like Benoit, was told he’d never be champion, never be the top guy. Both men won world titles that night on the biggest, grandest stage of all, and embraced in the ring, covered in sweat, ticker tape, and carrying about 25lbs of gold. It was one of the most beautiful and iconic images in wrestling.
Three years later, and Benoit is booked to win another world title. Something weird has happened, though, Benoit isn’t answering his calls and has gone missing. The one thing you don’t in pro wrestling is no show an event, and for someone like Chris Benoit to do so meant something terrible had happened. No one could’ve predicted this, though. Sometime between 22-24 June 2007, Chris Benoit murdered his wife and child, then killed himself. Tests conducted on Benoit’s brain suggested it was “so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient”. Brain damage, drug abuse, depression are all blamed, but we’ll never know exactly what was going on in his head when Benoit did the things he did.
WWE reacted swiftly. After initially producing a glowing tribute show, much like they did when former stars Owen Hart and Eddie Guerrero passed away, WWE quickly distanced themselves from Benoit when police released details of the deaths. Benoit was erased from the history books, mentions of him were forbidden on TV, and it’s only been in the last year or two that he’s started being acknowledged by the company again.
The company transitioned from its hard-hitting, adult content, and a PG rating was sought for by Vince McMahon. Steel chair shots to the head were banned, a lot of moves were banned, styles were toned down, the in-ring product was generally watered and slowed down. In the wake of criticism of the company and suggestions that brain damage accumulated over the years in the ring might’ve lead to Benoit’s death, the show has become sterile. However, we’ve also entered a new, weird meta-era of storytelling. Wrestlers now start storylines on Twitter, and real life rivalries and stories bleed into the the writing, creating a new, fascinating type of storytelling. AJ Lee, a “Diva” (professional wrestling is still a bit backwards when it comes to gender politics), took to Twitter to air her grievances about how the company paid and treated its women stars. This was written into the show. Once the question was “is this fake?”. Now the question is “is this real?”
CM Punk (actual, non-ridiculous name, Phil Brooks), AJ Lee’s husband, mixed up real life and reality, with his ‘pipe bomb’ speech live on TV. At one point Punk stares at the camera, which WWE is often at pains to hope you don’t actually notice is there, and broke the fourth wall by waving at us, a shit-eating grin on his face. “Whoops, I’m breaking the fourth wall!” he cries triumphantly, and then he goes on to demolish the fourth wall. He goes on to mention the real-life backstage machinations and politics of Hulk Hogan et al, discusses the mistreatment of wrestlers by management, but who’s talking here? Is it CM Punk, or Phil Brooks? What was real in that speech, what was fake? That people even had to ask was what made it so interesting, and in the end it doesn’t matter, because it was entertainment and that’s all that matters.
Vince McMahon once said that pro wrestling “ain’t ballet”. He is so wrong. It’s no coincidence that Black Swan and The Wrestler, two films about people trapped and consumed by their art forms, were directed by the same person, Darren Aronofsky. He recognised the pain both wrestlers and ballet dancers put themselves through to put on a show. He showed the politics, the backstabbing, and the sacrifices they have to make in order to entertain people, whether it’s 500 people in a theatre, 15,000 people in an arena, 30 people in a school gymnasium, or millions watching at home. Just as it takes a lot of hard work and talent to become a ballet dancer, so too does it take a lot of hard work, talent, and a bit of mental illness to be a wrestler. As Chris Candido, one of a long list of wrestlers who died long before their time said, “From the very fact that at some point during our lives we say that we want to be professional wrestlers… there is obviously something mentally wrong with us.” He ain’t wrong.
Yeah, wrestling is hokey. The next Wrestlemania features a match between a Southern Gothic cult leader and an undead wizard, and you know what? It’s going to be fucking brilliant. Wrestling tells stories in a way no other medium can. Its characters can last decades, constantly evolving, and yeah, wrestling is often bad, cringe-worthy, and often downright offensive. But when wrestling is good? Wrestling is brilliant. Wrestling is art. Wrestling is basically ballet.