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Professional Wrestling Explains Everything

Professional Wrestling Explains Everything

(Image is a picture of a sticker of Shepard Fairey’s “Andre the Giant has a Posse” street art campaign that had been stuck to a Stop sign.)

Some of the most important terms in professional wrestling are “babyface” and “heel”. (Regular people might use the terms “good guy” and “bad guy”.)

Done right, the Babyface is the stand-in for the audience. They can imagine the Babyface being “their” guy. Someone who could be them and, even if not them, someone who is on their side. “Heel” is the antagonist. The opposition that needs to be overcome.

Most (seriously, almost all) matches have a Babyface vs. a Heel. A good guy vs. a bad guy. (Occasionally there is a bad guy vs. a bad guy match but it’s usually a match that happens when a promoter is trying to “turn” a wrestler from heel to face. More often, but still really rarely, there’s a good guy vs. good guy match but those are usually when a wrestler is either turning from face to heel or, more famously, “passing the torch“.)

The nature of the business is to sell tickets. The best way to sell tickets is to get people to *WANT* to go to the matches to see what happens. Ironically, the proven way to do that is *NOT* to have the good guys beat the bad guys every time. Why bother going if you know the bad guys are always going to win? The proven way to consistently sell tickets is to build the bad guy up and have the bad guy beat the good guy… but in such a way that the audience wants to see a rematch.

In the olden days, there were wrestlers called “jobbers”. They’d go out there and it was their job to lose, every night, against their opponents. There were Babyface jobbers and there were Heel jobbers. The point of these wrestlers was to establish their opponents as credible threats. Then, after you saw the wrestler beat any number of jobbers, you’d be able to wonder “what would happen if this guy fought that guy?” about any two wrestlers who regularly won matches.

Then, at the “big” show at the end of the month, you’d see a match between two guys who beat jobbers. At the big show at the end of the quarter, you’d see a match between two guys who beat the guys who beat jobbers. And *THEN*, at the huge show at the end of the year, you’d see a match between two guys who beat the guys who beat the guys who beat jobbers.

And that’s only interesting when there are good guys that you hope would win against bad guys that you hope would lose… but you don’t *KNOW* that they’d lose. You suspect that they’d win. And so it’s the uncertainty that has you show up to buy a ticket. The twist is that for that uncertainty to *REALLY* work, you have to be uncertain even though it’s the big show at the end of the year. Sometimes, you have to have the bad guy win at those too.

But you can’t always have the bad guy win. That’s a good way to lose money. You have to figure out when you need to pay off the debt incurred by the heel winning so often and then, on that night, have the babyface come out and slay the dragon. Make the audience say “Oh… yeah… that’s why I bought all of those tickets all of those other nights.”

In addition to those terms, there are another couple of very, very useful terms that Professional Wrestling has that cover a lot of really, really important concepts that are useful in real life.

The first one is “work”. When witty and insightful people say “pro wrestling is fake”, the phenomenon they’re describing has a term used within pro wrestling itself and that term is “work”. So, like, when you see one wrestler cradle another wrestler and obviously try to *NOT* hurt him when they’re ostensibly trying to beat each other into submission, that’s because the match is a “work”. When you see a wrestler run full speed for 10 minutes in a ladder match but then climb the ladder slowly, like they don’t have any endurance whatsoever, and their opponent can grab them before they get to the top… well, that’s because it’s a work.

This needs to be compared to the concept of the “shoot”. That’s stuff that happens “for real”. We’re not talking about stuff like accidentally hitting someone else (unfortunately, wrestlers “potato” each other all the time). This is for when someone reveals something from behind the curtain. Like when Matt Hardy, Edge, and Lita had their storyline where Lita and Matt Hardy were dating but Lita cheated on Matt with Edge? That’s because Lita and Matt Hardy were dating but Lita cheated on Matt with Edge. Other examples happen when, say, HHH blows his quad muscles or Vince McMahon blows his quad muscles. (Or, more recently, a wrestler announces his retirement because his leukemia has come back.) It’s stuff that really happens. Like, for real for real.

But since wrestling is so surreal and there are a lot of secrets kept from the wrestlers (like even the outcomes of the matches until moments before the wrestlers wrestling in the match itself start the match), there are a lot of events where the wrestlers backstage are watching on the monitors and have to ask “wait, was that a work or a shoot?”

Sometimes a wrestler says something a little too real. Sometimes a wrestler hits another wrestler for real. Sometimes a spectator gets a little too excited and runs into the ring and the referee has to choke the crap out of him.

Sometimes the wrestlers are doing something fake but it’s intended to look so real that even the people who “know” it’s fake lean forward and say “holy cow, I think this is real!”

And, sometimes… well, I’ll let Hulk Hogan explain this one:

And the best way to engage the audience is to have a very small mixture of works and shoots between the conflicts of the babyfaces and heels to make them say “oh, my gosh… I have to buy a ticket.”

Are you not entertained?


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Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

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51 thoughts on “Professional Wrestling Explains Everything

  1. Are you not entertained?

    Not particularly. It can be impressive as a gymnastics exhibition performed by really big guys, but that is only entertaining for a short while. If I am relying on scriptwriters to entertain me, I can do better elsewhere. Viewed as drama, the form is quite, well, formulaic.

    Compare this with competitive sports. Any given game might well be uninteresting to the point of tedium. But it isn’t scripted. This lack of scripting is what is being sold. The game might be dull, but at least both sides are trying to win. This is why throwing games is the ultimate sports crime. And this is why when a game is dramatic–two top teams fighting it out with the game only decided in the closing second–it is glorious.

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    • At its best, wrestling is closer to melodrama than drama.

      As for competitive sports, my experience is that the best games could easily be happening in week 9 rather than happening during the playoffs.

      I mean, remember Tim Tebow? He had a real string of awesome wins there that came down to the last second. And, from what I understand, they were games that would have been blowouts had Elway or Manning been throwing the ball.

      Pro wrestling, at its best, does what movies about competitive sports do. The matches are close, the rivalry is palpable, and it all comes down to the big match at the end. And your team wins.

      Without having to deal with issues like “wait, are the Broncos the good guy or are the Packers the good guy?” (Though if I were making a movie, having Favre give his Elway impression before the game is something that I’d consider too hackish to include.)

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      • Pro wrestling, at its best, does what movies about competitive sports do. The matches are close, the rivalry is palpable, and it all comes down to the big match at the end. And your team wins.

        Yeah, that’s the thing. I don’t care much for those movies. The best sports movie of all time, in my opinion, is Bull Durham. A common alternative opinion is Field of Dreams. Neither is about winning the big game at the end. Major League does end with that big game. It is fun, but great art it ain’t.

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      • The fun thing about pro wrestling is that your team can be whoever you want it to be. Sometimes it changes while you’re watching the match, even. And it doesn’t matter whether your team is the Good Guy or the Bad Guy–it’s more important that it’s Your Team. You can knowingly and unreservedly root for the Bad Guy.

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        • When you first start watching pro wrestling, you cheer for the babyface and boo the heel. (When I was a kid, I couldn’t watch Ric Flair for more than a minute because I got too het up and it put me in an agitated state and I had to change the channel.)

          As you continue to watch pro wrestling, you start noticing that the heels are good at what they do. You notice how good they are at making you boo them and make you root for the other guy. Maybe they ask you to rise for their rendition of the Soviet National Anthem. Maybe they cheat during a match. Maybe they act cowardly and grab into the ropes and make the referee tell the babyface to return to his corner. Maybe they’re an Elvis impersonator or they moonlight as an IRS agent.

          “Wow… a lot of the babyfaces are interchangable…” you might think. “The heels! The heels are all different!”

          And you notice the difference between cheap heeling (“this guy, get this, is from A FOREIGN COUNTRY!!!!!”) and quality heeling (“He just looked at the audience and he put his nose in the air and scowled like he was smelling something.”).

          And, eventually, you see that more or less anybody can be a pretty good babyface but it takes *SKILL* to be a pretty good heel.

          And then you realize that you’re watching the show for the heels.

          Which is probably bad on some level.

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          • Jaybird: And then you realize that you’re watching the show for the heels.

            Which is probably bad on some level.

            It made HBO a juggernaut. And allowed AMC to punch way above its weight for basic cable.

            Eta – heck, let’s go all in.

            The age of the anti-hero is how we got Trump.

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                • Al Snow explains that the heel can do anything. They can be a bully. They can be a coward. They can be exceptionally skilled (but take shortcuts because they’re lazy or arrogant).

                  The babyface can only do one thing: go after the heel.

                  Jump ahead to 10:10 on this to see him explain it better than I can (content warning, sometimes Al Snow uses earthy language):

                  https://youtu.be/yHhWGe02EeI?t=610

                  Heels are free to do anything they want. That *ALWAYS* makes them more interesting.

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                  • The serpent was the first heel; Cain was the first heel turn.

                    But the mother of all heel turns was G-d Himself with Noah the face.

                    (wait, is the fake fight between Satan and God the reason it’s called the Book of Job?)

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                    • The most amazing promo from the last 20 or so years came from Mr. McMahon and Stone Cold Steve Austin the night after WrestleMania XIV where Stone Cold won the world title.

                      “We can do this the easy way or the hard way”, Mr. McMahon explained to Stone Cold. He then gave a promo that seemed lifted straight from Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness.

                      Just bow down and worship me and the whole world can be yours. We can do this the easy way or the hard way. Stop being who you are and be who I tell you to be and do what I tell you to do. We can do this the easy way or the hard way.

                      And Stone Cold punched Mr. McMahon in the nuts. Stone Cold stood over Mr. McMahon as he writhed in pain on the mat.

                      “Let’s do it the hard way.”

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                  • It’s why everyone loves Tyler Durden. “I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, I am capable, and–most importantly–I am free, in all the ways you cannot allow yourself to be.”

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          • Late-stage Curt hennig when he was I want to say in NWO member or something I can’t quite remember clearly but the clear contemp had for the crowd every time he was out there it was just chillingly good

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  2. I was a serious pro wrestling fan from the 80s until around 2003. Then life got in the way and I lost touch. When I was a kid and didn’t understand the work thing at all, I really did think it was all real. We watched a lot of Memphis wrestling and the NWA shortly before it became WCW (I still maintain that the NWA during that period was the best era of wrestling period). By the time the Monday Night Wars were in full swing I understood all of the work, shoot stuff and finally began to appreciate the theater of it.

    These days I still don’t really watch wrestling religiously, but I keep up with WWE just a bit, primarily because I am enjoying watching the women’s division reach a high level of excellence (similar to MMA). The upcoming match with Rousey and Lynch is one I am looking forward to.

    I will also say that given the title of the OP I thought there was going to be an analogy in there about how every political conversation also needs a babyface and a heel.

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    • The Memphis wrestling on channel 41 was a big part of my childhood Saturdays. The King, Dutch Mantel, (Somebody) Dundee (and I almost forgot) Jimmy Hart-the quintessential heel manager –it was classic wrestling. It’s funny how small that studio was–I don’t think there were more than sixty or seventy people in the audience, but they did come to Louisville every Tuesday.

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      • We referred to it as ‘Channel 3 Wrestling’ because in the early days it was on the local NBC station. Dutch Mantel, Bill Dundee, Jeff Jarrett, Jerry Lawler. Those were some bloody matches at the Gardens.

        Jerry Lawler was the same age as my dad and they looked very similar. The other guys in the CWA reminded me of my dad’s construction buddies. All barrel-chested and not crazy built like other organizations. For me, Lawler is still probably my favorite wrestler of all time. I hated what they did to him in the WWE.

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        • It might have been on channel 3; I have a feeling my memory isn’t serving me so well. I forgot about Jarrett. Yeah, Lawler was great. I never made it to the Gardens for them (was it called “Championship Wrestling”?), but I did see a WWF event there. The main event was Hulk Hogan vs. Paul Orndorff.

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    • Somewhere around 1996, Bret Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin had a wonderful feud where they’d give the same promos in NYC one night and Austin would get cheered and Hart would get booed out of the building and then, the next night, they’d do the same thing in Canada and it would be reversed.

      Same guys. Same promos. You’re a heel here, you’re a face over there.

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    • When I was about a junior in high school, one of the local TV stations ran an hour-long live wrestling show each Saturday night. The “crowd” was a bunch of people who showed up to watch, standing outside the ring cheering/booing/etc. One week I went with a couple of friends. The ring was set up on a small sound stage. One camera, fixed position. The only place there was room for the crowd was in the space between the ring and one wall — maybe 15 feet front to back. That wall painted black so it didn’t show up in the shot. Back in a corner they had a second camera, a light, and a backdrop where they did interviews.

      Highly educational at the time. Many of the moves were played to look good for the camera — from the side where we were standing you could see how it worked. The interviews were fun. The announcer did the intro while the main heel stood off to the side. When it was time, it was like throwing a switch — a spitting, screaming maniac went on. As soon as he stomped out of camera range, turned it off. The people in the crowd were playing a part too, since everyone there could see that it was a work. After the on-air part was over, the top babyface went over to the ring rope on the crowd side and said something like, “Good job, people. You really helped make it work tonight.”

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      • The interesting thing is, since wrestling fans are some of the most obsessive on the planet (if I remember, like, half of the top ten most edited wikipedia pages are wrestling related), if you knew the date and where you were, I could probably find the results for that taping.

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  3. What, not a word about the bookers (writers) themselves? Dominated by a surprisingly small number of people overall (Russo, Sullivan, Bischoff, Heyman), capable of ruining a company with a few bad choices. And all of them eventually write themselves into an onscreen role. I sometimes think Donald Trump’s biggest problem is that he thinks he’s in that situation: an onscreen character who also wants to be the booker, but the rest of the world isn’t playing by his script.

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  4. One thing that happens in the Senate is the thing where, on the floor, they’re yelling about other senators being the enemy and, two hours later, they’re seen together at the bar laughing and discussing the upcoming golf game.

    The stuff on the floor was a “work” and the friendship at the bar is the “shoot”.

    That seems to have evolved into folks working a work into a shoot. I don’t know that that’s better. (Though it is a lot more “authentic”.)

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    • I think it depends on what the primary focus of a viewer/reader is. Do they want to be entertained? Or do they want to think? And this can change with every viewer at every opportunity. I know, from reading his articles, that Jaybird loves wrestling and video games, but that he also seeks out poetry. His writings that are informed by philosophy are the work of someone who truly loves the medium. Compare and contrast.

      I happen to prefer the moral ambiguity of writers such as Conrad and McCarthy but will stop every now and then to enjoy the simple humor of an Adam Sandler flick. I have written here about the awe-inspiring Dekalog of Krzysztof Kie?lowski. But he will never take the place of Howards Conan for sheer boyish delight.

      People want different things at different times.

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    • A lot of people want to see things as spectacle-filled epic battles of “good vs. evil” without any nuance?

      I think it’s more that people want to see epic battles of good v evil without anything at stake. That’s what separates pro wrestling and Star Wars from, say, WWI. Or, for some people anyway, continued protections for pre-existing conditions by insurance companies.

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    • @saul_degraw

      This debate goes back to Ancient Greece at least – the debate between heroic epics and more nuanced drams was a major theme of the debate between Aeschylus and Euripedes in The Frogs.

      Of course Aristophanes was on the other side to you on that one – he believed that straightforward displays of heroic virtue was high art, and nuanced human drama was of lesser worth.

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      • @james_k Given Aristophanes’ tendency to humor, I’m not so sure that whatever side he espoused was the one he really valued most. It’s been at least a half-dozen years since I read him, though, and that in an old translation, so feel free to school me :).

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        • I haven’t read the Frogs in nearly 20 years, but my classics teacher certainly interpreted Aristophanes’ position as sincere. It starts with Dionysus going into Hades to get Euripides, and ultimately concluding that Aeschylus is the right choice, so that doesn’t feel like him joking. also Aristophanes was pretty conservative for his day so it makes sense he would feel that way – he preferred straightforward stores that provided heroes for people to aspire to emulate.

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