The Greatest Show On Earth
A century plus ago, when circuses and “freak shows” were considered acceptable by some judgmental folks in Victorian society, promoters of said types of entertainment would find some poor sap who actually bothered to pay a couple cents to ogle at a mermaid corpse (which had really just been a well painted and aged manikin glued to the bottom half of an old dried up deceased fish). This — err…“customer”, would then leave one exhibit (probably filled with a mixture of amusement at seeing something new, wondering if it really was worth the minute to look at something for as much worth as taking a young woman out to a picnic, and self doubt that he had actually seen a fish woman’s body), and get a “thank yo type of back slap from the promoter as he headed out to see what other exhibits he could pay to take in. Unbeknownst to him, the promoter “marked” him on the back with a taped piece of paper or cloth, thus giving a heads up to other promoters and staff when they noticed this on him that they could convince this particular gentleman to spend some money to see their other money making frauds. Easy customers like this would come to be known as “easy marks” or simply “marks.”
The same exact term is used for professional wrestling fans these days.
This Sunday, MetLife stadium, usually reserved to host NFL games (Including one Super Bowl), will be filled with sixty to seventy thousand “marks” to watch WrestleMania, the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, and Stanley Cup Finals of the professional wrestling world. It will be the thirty-fifth edition, and it‘ll feature fifteen or more matches, up to eight hours of action, grand spectacle type entrances worthy of Broadway, live musical renditions, fireworks galore, and performers playing roles that will include everything from a roaming musician who uses his guitar as a weapon, to a vegan environmentalist extremist who transformed his heavyweight championship belt from being made of leather to being made of hemp and stone, to a man who taps into his subconscious to become a demonic creature to battle his foes.
I won’t be among those “marks” in that stadium…but I will be among the millions of them watching through the highly successful WWE Network streaming service, which boasts millions of subscribers. When I mentioned such stats to a former acquaintance of mine, she seemed stunned and replied, “I didn’t even know there were actually real people who watched that sort of stuff.”
Well we do exist, and we turned the industry from a small money maker in which guys would break their legs for nothing to a billion dollar worldwide phenomena in which performers can make millions in just the last couple decades. I myself have been watching for two of those decades now, my first wrasslin’ memory coming in December 1997 when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin “stunned” an exposed fake Santa Claus for a child the fraudulent saint had insulted, and the then villainous group D-Generation X (who it just so happens will be going into the Hall of Fame — yes wrestling has one — this Saturday) were mooning the crowd in a show of disrespect. A much different product than the more sanitized and mainstream one we have today.
Professional wrestling is dominated by the WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment. Think of it as the MLB of the wrestling world if it were baseball. There’s others such as the upcoming AEW (All Elite Wrestling), Impact Wrestling, ROH (Ring Of Honor), HOG (House Of Glory), and the only other company that has been able to match the WWE in pomp and circumstance overseas — New Japan.
WWE hosts WrestleMania among other big name wrestling events, and its most infamous performers over the years have become mainstream and part of the fabric of Americana, whether it be Hulk Hogan, The Rock, or now John Cena. Its also has had UFC stars come on over to join from Ken Shamrock to Brock Lesnar to now Ronda Rousey. Connor McGregor has even talked about crossing over. Its one of the most healthy stock investing choices going today, and its tours extend across the world, even reaching United States troops during the recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
In my twenty-plus years of watching WWE, I have seen the company go from having women fighting in lingerie pillow fights to being on the verge of having the first ever female main event match in WrestleMania history come Sunday. From having the top fan favorite giving “the bird” to his boss to a Make A Wish record setter who fought for the children. From watching fellow “marks” get behind The Rock even though he verbally abused them as the “bad guy”, to watching a “good guy” at last year’s WrestleMania main event get booed out of the building (New Orleans’ Mercedes Stadium) by fans who were apathetically playing with beach balls as he took a bloody beating in what was suppose to be a heartbreaking and shocking victory for the villain in that match (It was not received as such).
Not all has been good with WWE, there’s plenty to be critical of. They have questionable business practices, rightfully ripped apart of late by opinion show host John Oliver. They have been in business with murderers in Saudi Arabia who have asked for and been granted a request to keep the female talent from performing overseas when WWE has shows over there. They fudge attendance numbers and claim sell out records they did not actually achieve. They ignore fans when they aren’t behind a story-line or when they protest a character being guzzled down their throat – and they’ll go as far as to edit pictures, edit crowd chants for recorded showings, and take away signs from the crowds when they’re trying to get behind someone the company doesn’t want them to get behind. And of course they are creepily too close and friendly with the Trump administration, which has shown a hatred for so many things the company claims to be open to in terms of progressive actions.
But in terms of storytelling, WWE has given me some of the greatest stories I’ve ever enjoyed over the last two decades. As frustrated as they seem to make me at times both in and out of the ring, I cannot deny they have taken me on some great rides. From watching guys like Steve Austin and Daniel Bryan overcome an evil authority figure trying to keep them down, to watching fans’ chants take performers like Becky Lynch or Kofi Kingston from sideliners to main event stars, to loving to hate and watch villains lose like Triple H or Roman Reigns (Pay no mind to what WWE wants him to be to me), to being in absolute shock when The Undertaker finally lost a match at WrestleMania back in its thirtieth edition in 2014 (Just so happens to be the greatest WrestleMania if you ask me).
Professional wrestling is scripted and pre-determined. The performers are characters that are more like personalities you’d find in other TV shows than a sporting event. It showcases the ridiculous wrapped up in the idea you’re suppose to buy this is all a legit fighting federation where you should care who wins or losses or who has the championships. So why am I so attracted to such a thing? What’s with my fascination for two decades for a “fake sport”?
Professional wrestling is “fake”, and believe it or not most fans are well aware of such. Which is why backstage rumors about where future storylines are going or which performers are in line for a “push” (hetting treated as important attractions) has become an industry onto itself with various podcasts and radio shows.
Fans even have groups they can be divided into. There’s the casual fan who tunes in and out every now and then. There’s the “mark” (my brother is a good example of one) who lives and dies for the company and almost always defends their story-lines and booking (scripting wrestling match cards and results) decisions. Then there’s “smarks” (of which I’m probably the closest group to) who tend to be critical of bad story-lines and “hijack shows” (Not going along with the reaction the company wanted from the crowd). Every now and then all three of these groups agree to help a certain performer break out as a major star and sometimes their different outlooks create polarizing personalities. But all of them in some minor or major way love pro-wrasslin’.
On paper many outsiders looking in might be astounded this has become such a wealthy industry. Guys in costumes pretending to be out of this world or over the top characters while “pretend fighting”? Yet funny enough the same folks don’t seem so astounded that films involving talking Racoons make up to two billion dollars each worldwide, or stop themselves from arguing online about the next installment in a series involving an intergalactic civil war.
And as for the “pretend fighting” part? Matches are pre-determined and beefs are scripted, but make no mistake about it; this ain’t something anyone can just do — one has to be able to be athletic, take cues to time matches right, protect themselves and their sparring partner from injury, make the crowd believe you’re actually trading blows, and all the while keep the crowd invested so you don’t get hit with the dreaded “boring” chants. Anyone in the ring must earn the trust of the other, as they are putting their lives in their hands of someone else. Thus performers have had gruesome injuries (such as Steve Austin getting near paralyzed when a pile-driver went wrong in 1997) and there’s even been extreme cases of death.
On top of all this the lifestyle of being a professional wrestler is tough. You’re on the road more than two hundred days a year, you beat your body up taking years out of your life while having a “look” to uphold, and steroids/drugs have haunted the industry in the past. You can say many things about professional wrestling, but you cannot discount or disrespect what these folks sacrifice and do to themselves to entertain others.
So yes, it’s a predetermined sport, but athleticism and technique are a part of the industry every bit as much as spectacle and entertainment is. So many dismiss giving pro-wrestling a try because of the whole concept of a “fake sport” and I do wonder if they realized how “real” a good bunch of the performance actually is if they’d be more open to appreciating it.
Granted, just because you can see such things in the performance doesn’t mean it’ll be for you. Folks can pick and choose what “legit” sports works for them as well. Even I, who watch and follow all four major team leagues, would prefer a hockey game to a baseball game. So let me get to what I believe is the biggest reason I continue to watch and follow this crazy industry — story.
I love a great match every now and then, and I could easily tell you about matches that stand out to me. The performance of the wrestlers involved are to be commended and they put on one hell of a show. But one major factor into making it all work is story. If you don’t care about who wins or who claims that championship belt, the story hasn’t done its job.
If not for the athleticism and in-ring performances, stories in professional wrestling can captivate a crowd and have them cheering a hero finally conquering the unstoppable villain…or booing as the villain walks up the ramp with a sly grin in victory as we realize to our horror the hero that will finally stop his reign of terror has not yet arrived. It’s a tried and true formula that has been told many different ways, but it works and has created some amazing stories.
Take for instance the character of The Undertaker, a supernatural figure who went 21–0 at WrestleMania, facing off withsome iconic figures in the industry through the years and having some of the greatest matches in the industry’s history while at it. Then comes the villainous and “legit UFC fighter” Brock Lesnar, who finally defeats the beloved “dead man” at WrestleMania XXX. Lesnar from here goes on to win the championship on multiple occasions, each time holding it hostage and rarely defending it to the frustration of the fans. Taker, meanwhile, went from an unstoppable being to one limping towards retirement in the years since with some big wins and tough losses that have made him more humanizing of late, his supernatural aura fading since his streak was broken. Because we invited Taker into our homes for years the repercussions of such a defeat and watching the villain who pulled it off go on to greater things has effected us the viewer in our sympathy and respect for Taker…and our anger and contempt for Lesnar.
The fact someone can watch for years and watch characters evolve and grow can only add to a story-line. Take the example of Daniel Bryan, a great performer who was pushed by the voices of the fans to overachieve the expectations set for him and become a mega favorite. He overcame real-life backstage politics mixed with in-ring storytelling and won the championship at WrestleMania XXX. But as he reached his peak, Bryan received news of what at the time was thought to be a retirement inducing injury. We felt for the real life man as he had what he loved taken from him just as he reached his peak.
Flash forward four years later and Bryan is miraculous cleared to compete again, coming out of retirement-and then has his ego blow up leading to him turning on the fans. Bryan becomes an in your face environmentalist judging the fans and is currently trying to hold down another performer going through exactly what he went through five years ago, becoming a hypocrite that questions his “look and ability to attract ticket buyers” just as was questioned about him when he was the underdog the fans were behind. His character has evolved from a humble fan favorite to an egotistical jerk who believes his own hype and wants to keep down anyone else trying to rise through the ranks just as he did.
This transformation and evolution through the years does not just effect the performer’s characters though. It can effect many industry notions as well. The biggest and most recent of these have been the placement of women in the professional wrestling world.
Women used to be just eye candy in ludicrous segments such as lingerie pillow fights or mud bath matches. Their matches would last maybe seven minutes top and were seen as “piss break” matches (Matches that allowed crowds and TV watchers to take a quick bathroom break or grab some more food/drinks in between matches they really want to see). In the last couple years that has changed with women having their own pay per view events, having well received tournaments, and taking part in some of the best and longest matches on a card. And finally to where they are now, about to close out a WrestleMania for the first time in history.
But it’s not just watching history being made for history’s sake that makes me such a big supporter of this. The women have earned this. In this particular story-line, UFC legend Ronda Rousey has come over to the WWE and won the Women’s Championship on the RAW division. Ric Flair’s daughter, Charlotte Flair, who has become a well known standout performer in her own right, has won the Women’s Championship from the SmackDown! division. Finally there’s Becky Lynch, a bad-ass tough red-headed Irish lass who has won over the crowd who made her from just another competitor on the card to perhaps the most popular figure on the roster at the moment (male performers included!). These three women will battle for BOTH championships in the main event’s winner-take-all triple threat match.
The story-line has been building for months. Rousey’s character has transformed from fan favorite to a cocky villain. Flair’s character has grabbed an edge back, becoming just as dirty and successful as her father. Lynch meanwhile is the crowd favorite, undoubtedly the one who the fans want to see win. Included in the road to this match have been character turns, shocking championship results, a memorable female Royal Rumble (A legendary annual over the top rope match), and wild segments that include the “arrest” of the women in a scene of mayhem and chaos. No other story-line on the card has built up the way this one has. This is a main event worthy of WrestleMania regardless what gender is involved.
The women involved are all beautiful in their own right, but they aren’t being seen as eye candy. They are showcased as seemingly legit warriors who all evoke emotions from male fans like me not necessarily exclusive to sex appeal but that we care enough about their characters themselves to cheer or root against them. This is good storytelling that can cut across norms of the place of genders in story-lines.
I guess what I’m getting to in this long-winded piece is that if you happen to wonder how it is that something that on the surface is so ridiculous and over the top and ”fake” can still receive such an audience, then maybe you should look a little deeper. The performances in the ring are not “fake”, the story-lines and the emotions they evoke are not “fake”, the intense debate among fans about where characters’s arcs should go are not “fake”, and the hype and excitement I and others still get from watching characters we invest so much in are not “fake.” No more than investing in a movie franchise or a sporting event’s results are “fake.”
Yes, it’s not a perfect industry. Yes, it still has some more evolving to do. Yes, there are such things as shows and events that bomb with fans. But for the most part, pro-wrestling still entertains me.
WrestleMania is this Sunday and I gotta tell you, regardless of some of the very legit issues that have been raised of late about the WWE, i’m just as hyped for it as I would be if my Buccaneers were in the Super Bowl. I have my Becky Lynch shirt ready to wear and my voice is ready to cheer and boo for hours from my living room couch.