Watched on pay-per-view television and at live arena shows around the globe by hundreds of thousands, there is often a fine discrepancy between what is real and what is fake in professional wrestling. Among the numerous rosters, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is perhaps the most well known league, having made the popularity of pay-per-view soar in recent decades.
Attempting to categorise professional wrestling, particularly the WWE franchise, appears problematic. With brutally executed manoeuvres in each match, there’s no disputing that athletic prowess is required. Yet as violent as the wrestlers’ moves look, the majority of matches are scripted and the winner decided beforehand.
That the outcomes of matches were predetermined was once a well-guarded secret, but now an openly discussed reality. In WWE, ‘plotlines’ between characters can unfold over a number of years like a drawn out soap opera. But even ‘worked’ sequences can present real danger to the wrestlers. So is it heavily constructed entertainment, or is it a sport?
As with many of the ‘answers’ to questions surrounding professional wrestling, it is an inextricably woven combination of both. WWE Commentator, Scott Stanford, illustrates that it’s “run for both sporting and television entertainment: you’re combining a live in-arena show with a television show week after week, no reruns.”
Staunch supporters might be expected to aggressively argue its validity as a ‘real sport’. Chris Fitzpatrick, from New Jersey, has been a fan since he was 11, and Thomas Hall from Kentucky has been watching professional wrestling for as long as he can remember. But neither believe it is engaging purely due to its sporting value.
“It’s not pointless to claim it as a sport, but it’s kind of misguided,” claims Hall. Fitzpatrick similarly believes that professional wrestling is “misconstrued as overly violent and a male soap opera.” It’s easy to see why: a wrestler could be stricken with a barbed-wire board by their opponent, only to make a dramatic comeback speech minutes later.
“It’s a bit of everything. You have to mix in a combination of performance, athleticism and showmanship. Because you don’t really have a home base like a professional sports team does, the term sports entertainment really does fit.
“The showmanship aspect of it is probably more important than the sporting side. There have been wrestlers over the years with incredible athletic ability that haven’t been huge successes, while there have been some that have a limited amount of technique who are very successful.”
“For these viewers, fanaticism, like supporting a sports team, goes hand in hand with escapism
Yet as a performative sport, Hall thinks professional wrestling is overlooked: “people that do that on Broadway are praised for what they do and are given awards.” For the first-time viewer, why so many viewers continually invest time – and money – in the largely faked pretence of sport is difficult to comprehend. For WWE, founded in 1952; because it’s a lifestyle which has been growing for half a century.
“If Monday Night Raw suddenly went off the air, I’d be lost,” says Fitzpatrick. “For nearly 20 years of my life, WWE pay-per-views have been a great opportunity to get together with friends and immerse ourselves in a totally different world.”
For these viewers, fanaticism, like supporting a sports team, goes hand in hand with escapism. It’s a compelling situation, unlike supporting a sports team or being a fan of franchises such as Pokémon. Professional wrestling provides the opportunity to legitimately support fantasy within the context of the real world.
“The biggest misconception is that wrestling fans are losers. We’re not,” claims Fitzpatrick. “It’s just a form of entertainment we enjoy. It may be (by today’s society) a ‘geeky’ thing to be into, but whatever.
“I have dual college degrees, own a home, and make a great living. And I’m a huge fan of wrestling.”
“The characters, the storylines, the outcome of the matches consistently captivate the audience,” summarises Stanford, despite the fact that they are heavily contrived. There are no displays of denial; fans are ready to acknowledge the artificiality of the professional wrestling world. Yet those who “scoff at the fact that I am a wrestling fan and say ‘you know that shit’s fake, right?’,” Fitzpatrick terms “ignorant”.
“Me cheering for Chris Jericho to defeat his opponent is really not all that different from someone who cries during Terms of Endearment or laughs at The Hangover. Just because something is staged doesn’t mean it can’t elicit emotion, and doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care for the characters that these performers portray.
“Just because pro wrestling isn’t as dignified or refined as Broadway doesn’t mean you still can’t be enthralled by it. Humans all seem to have a basic desire to suspend disbelief.”
Hall eagerly reiterates: “We know it’s Tom Hanks on the screen and not Forrest Gump, yet we get sucked into it anyway because the performance given is so good that we forget what reality is. Then the lights come up and the illusion ends. Same idea with wrestling.”
Inside the ring, demonstrating theatrical talent is just as important as technical wrestling ability.
The wrestling superstars must be able to perfect a fake cry of agony as well as mask genuine pain. With the best wrestlers, there is often little to differentiate the two. Convincing audiences to forget the potential for injury and cultivating hatred towards villainous characters over a number of weeks is a more demanding job than that of any Hollywood actor, particularly during live shows. They are responsible for breaking the fourth wall, while simultaneously appearing to be ‘untouchable’.
‘Kayfabe’ is the notion of not breaking character outside of the ring, in order to maintain the illusion that the wrestlers’ characters and rivalries are real. However, the principle has been severely broken down in the past twenty years. In 1987, on-screen rivals Iron Sheik and Jim ‘Hacksaw’ Duggan were arrested, having been found taking drugs together. As one of the first major instances of kayfabe being broken, WWE (then WWF) took serious action – firing the Iron Sheik, and suspending Duggan.
“It hurt things a lot. It was during the 90s when the walls of it were broken down and they’ve never really been repaired. The lines between reality and characters started to blur and a lot of people claim it really hurt the product overall,” describes Hall.
“You can’t ask people not to associate with each other ever. It’s a very tricky area and can change a lot over time.” Professional wrestling demands much more than other forms of entertainment through the viewer’s suspension of disbelief in a fictional storyline.
But reality and fiction sometimes appear to merge together, and how immersed wrestlers become in their characters is put under close scrutiny, by fans and critics alike. As plotlines link closely or even overlap with the wrestlers ‘real’ lives, the line between the two is often blurred.
“I don’t believe CM Punk is a psychotic cult leader, but I do believe Steve Austin in his real life could be a brash tough guy who likes good old American beer,” comments Fitzpatrick.
“The best characters are often the ones who are just exaggerations of who they really are or what they really do. Guys like Ric Flair get lost in that character sometimes, but when you’re that great, it probably goes with the territory.”
Acting aside, things can go critically wrong inside the ring. Broken legs, necks and major knee injuries have befallen wrestling magnates Steven Austin, Hulk Hogan and Sid Vicious alone. The wrestlers spend over 200 days of the year on the road, travelling and taking part in matches. “It can be far more physically demanding that regular sports which have a six month season,” explains Hall.
A career in professional wrestling is well paid – Steve Austin made over six million dollars in 1999 – but it comes with a high death rate for under 65s. Stanford, who has a first-hand view in the midst of the industry, describes the wrestlers’ jobs as a blend of athletic ability and “punishment that they put their bodies through” night after night. Under extreme physical strain, taking excessive amounts of painkillers leaves them too numb to wrestle. Subsequently, drug abuse or using steroids provides a solution to carry on working – and in many cases, to death.
However, even the wrestlers are kept from the full truth on some occasions. The ‘Montreal Screwjob’ of 1997 saw WWE’s owner, Chairman and CEO, Vince McMahon double-cross the beloved defending WWF champion, Bret Hart. Hart had been loyal to WWF for thirteen years, and was signed under a 20-year contract. But McMahon engineered a match – with the participation of Hart’s opponent, referees, and other wrestlers – to see Hart lose both his WWF title, and job at WWF. The company still describes it as “one of the most controversial moments in sports-entertainment history”.
“Every time you think you have everything down as far as what’s real and what’s fake you get a curve ball thrown at you and realise the only people that know for sure are the people behind the scenes,” explains Hall. McMahon currently controls 88 per cent of the voting power in WWE, making him the puppeteer of plotlines who doesn’t need to guess what will happen next. Instead, with a team of creative writers, he has the ability to dictate it.
In any other sporting realm, this level of manipulation would be deemed unjust. But to avoid transforming into genuine fights, or developing similarities to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, strategic storytelling in professional wrestling is a necessity.
The amount of faked action and its potential to be seriously harmful are ultimately of no consequence. Viewers’ concerns are rarely about the realities that the wrestlers and the industry face, despite the acknowledgement that WWE is a business and a product. “I don’t watch it to hear about court cases or legal proceedings or backstage politics,” states Hall. “If I wanted to hear about realistic people having realistic problems I’d have a conversation with any run of the mill person.
“I want to see something I don’t see every day of the week.” Professional wrestling allows an interactive form of escapism where, unlike the majority of entertainment, the suspension of disbelief contributes to the reality of each fan.