Things have been getting a little too… philosophical in here. A little too serious maybe. So we’re going to take a break from that; after all, we’ve got a lifetime of politics and sports to pick about for life lessons.
So I’ve got an idea about something I’m really excited to do. I’m going to talk about some things that I really enjoy, maybe some events, maybe some abstract ideas, probably some people, maybe a horse, who knows?
One thing I do know, is that there’s only one logical place to start. And that’s with the thing I consider to be the last great form of live theater and something I’ve already touched on at length in this blog so far: Professional Wrestling. Call if sports entertainment, call it rasslin’, call it fake… I don’t really care, because whatever you call it, it’s been a love of my life since I saw Goldberg parading around the ring with the WCW World Heavyweight Championship in the Georgia dome when I was an 11 year old kid.
And here we are, almost 20 years later, about to watch to what appears to be the thrilling conclusion of the in-ring career of the man who made me fall in love (phrasing) all those years ago. When Goldberg comes to Milwaukee next Sunday night to challenge Kevin Owens for the WWE Universal Championship at WWE Fast Lane (on the WWE Network, your free trial starts today), he’ll be making one last push to the top of the wrestling world. And at Wrestlemania this April, I’ll see what is likely I’ll see the completion of a story that’s taken taken almost two decades to tell. I’ll have been there for all of it.
I think that’s sort of oddly poetic in some way. I’m not sure what you’d call it, but the fact that this show happened to be in Milwaukee seems, I don’t know, I hesitate to call it anything more than a coincidence but its really starting to feel that way.
Here’s the disclaimer for some of the new readers – pro wrestling is, in fact, scripted. The winners and losers of the matches have been determined by teams of writers and bookers and agents and Vince McMahon (usually) long ago. So, if a lot of people find wrestling compelling, it’s probably NOT due to their desire to see two athletes engage in battle to see who has a better mastery of their sport or body. And that’s fine, at any given time at literally any given day you can figure out a way to pull up to the trough of sport and start chewing down the oats of competition. You can see fighting or football or soccer or bowling or poker or whatever you want, all the time. There’s enough competition to go around, it literally never stops. The reason that so many of us love pro wrestling so fervently isn’t because of that.
So what is it?
I’m by no means the authority on how everyone around the world consumes pro wrestling, but typically, people watch pro wrestling for the same reason they watch any movie or TV show: to see the stories of their favorite characters unfold on the screen. Will John Cena topple the villainous group of newcomers? Can Shawn Michaels break the Undertaker’s nearly two decade long winning streak at Wrestlemania? Can Daniel Bryan foil the treacherous authority and become the face of the company? Much like Walter White or Jon Snow or Iron Man, these characters face obstacles that they must overcome. They do the same thing, they just do it wearing spandex.
Well, in a sense. See, the wrinkle with professional wrestling is that, at any given time, there are typically at least four stories being told at the same time. There’s a lot going on here, so let’s dig in:
- Story One is the story that is being told in the ring during an actual “match”. An example of this would be that one wrestler has injured his ankle, and is trying to fight through the pain (this type of thing has a name – in ring psychology). It might be that a wrestler who typically acts like a good guy starts acting more and more like a bad guy (and vice versa). Steve Austin experienced this twice, first at Wrestlemania 14 where he earned the crowds respect by refusing to submit, and again three years when he earned their disdain by aligning himself with his hated enemy, Vince McMahon. Hell, it might be something as simple as one wrestler is really big and strong and he’s going to show his opponent how big and strong he is. It’s the backbone of what wrestling is built on. If you can’t tell a good story in a match, you’re not going to make it. On the inverse, a great performance in a big match in a grand stage can make you a star.When these stories are told well, they’re one of the best things in sports, because even though the winner has been predicted ahead of time you don’t really care. Once you’re invested into the match, you’re rooting like you would in any other sport.
- The first part I talked about, the story within the match, often ties in to the second level of story telling that takes place. This is the immediate short term story being told by a given wrestler. This is usually some sort of feud against another wrestler, or an authority figure, or their former manager, whatever. These things are called angles. John Cena going for his 16th title? That’s an angle. Luke Harper going after his former cult master leader Bray Wyatt for Wyatt’s title? That’s an angle. Roddy Piper bashing Jimmy Snuka with a coconut? Oh, you better believe that’s an angle.Oftentimes, there is a large multi-person angle that might take place to give an added layer of story-telling. When the nWo invaded WCW in the mid-nights, this became the angle that engulfed nearly every character on the show. This is what gives wrestling its soap opera type flair. It’s usually the most immediately noticed by the viewership as well. This is, also, one of the advantages a staged sport has over a legitimate one. In wrestling, stories are planned and told. In other sports, narratives are formed based on whatever happens,so whatever you’re trying to tell is typically revisionist history, at least in terms of a season or a game.
- This brings us to the third layer of storytelling that’s happening in the ring at any given time, and strap yourself in here because we’re about to get a little meta. As you saw in my insane ramblings about HHH from a few months, these characters aren’t just telling short term stories, but (the good ones at least) are telling stories that help to develop their long term character. This usually takes place over a few years. When you look at AJ Styles, for instance, you see a man whose been developing the reputation of the king of the indies, the world’s greatest wrestler, for over a decade. Every performance he puts on in the ring cements his character as a must see attraction.These long term character developments often help to tell some of the greatest in ring stories as well. The layers sort of tie into each other. It’s less hierarchical and more circular than this list makes it out to be. Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 24 might be one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of this. Flair, an old man nearing the end of what might be the most storied career of all time, put his career on the line against Michaels at the grandest stage of them all. What happened next, to paraphase a click-bait website, was magic. They took a match that featured an almost 60 year old man and made it an all time great. You can’t do that in a football game people. The physical brutality of the sport forces out a lot of the greats before they’re ready to be finished. As such, this kind of long term storytelling really isn’t available in many other fields of entertainment outside of the field of entertainment celebrity worship: singers, movie stars, Kardashians, etc. Even in fiction, characters simply don’t exist for this length of time. The ones that do are typically pretty iconic.
- Lastly, There might not be any “real” winning and losing in wrestling, but the wins and losses do tie into the fourth story telling device available – the actual real life implications on the performers.Hey, I never said celebrity worship is a bad thing.Hell, 33 million people just tuned in to watch an awards show featuring a bunch of movies that most of them probably didn’t even see. People aren’t tuning in to the awards shows for the awards, and if they are, it’s usually because they’re rooting for a specific director or actor (think Leo in 2016). The same level of celebrity worship, for lack of a better term, exists in pro wrestling as well. We see these performers kill themselves for us hundreds of nights a year, and we want to see them succeed in exchange. In this industry, the wrestlers sort of take the form of both your favorite team and your favorite celebrity. You get to experience the excitement of seeing your favorite wrestler win the championship, but you also get to see the years of hard work and sacrifice pay off for a human being when they achieve their dream of becoming champion, or main eventing a pay per view, or appearing at Wrestlemania. It’s what made Daniel Bryan so popular. We didn’t just want him to win because he had a fun character, we wanted him to win to see it validate his decade long odyssey to the top of the business. When he finally captured the title at Wrestlemania XXX, the entire stadium went absolutely fucking bananas. When CM Punk appeared in his home town of Chicago at Money in the Bank 2011, the fans in that building were cheering for their hometown boy, CM Punk or Phil Brooks or whoever it was. The incredible story that they told was a cherry on top of an already electric atmosphere caused by a person, not a character.
Not to put myself over (my blog, whatever), but I went to the Super Bowl, a Big Ten Championship football game and an MLB playoff game within a year of that event and none of them were close to being as loud as the Allstate Center was when Punk made his entrance. Not by a long shot.
By the way, I know that Punk video is a long video, but you should really give it a watch if you have an hour to burn. It’s one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen.
I guess that’s what makes pro wrestling so great, at least to me. There’s a million other reasons, if I’m being perfectly honest. The
welcoming community, the excitement of a live event, the shared history, the breathtaking performance, they’re all amazing… but I think the most important thing, the thing I love the most, are all those storytelling mechanisms I just droned on about working together creating lifelong memories for me. I’ll hear those echoing chants of “CM PUNK, CM PUNK, CM PUNK” in my mind until the day you have to put me into the cold, hard ground. I’ll never forget staring at the TV, slack jawed, watching Seth Rollins cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase in the main event of Wrestlemania to steal the championship. I’ll never forget Daniel Bryan seeing Daniel Bryan get pinned in 18 seconds and you’d better believe I won’t forget the moment he won that tile two years later before my very eyes.
And I’ll never, ever, forget where I was when I saw Goldberg put Hulk Hogan up in that jackhammer on Monday Nitro before pinning him for the championship in 1998. I’ll never forget where I was the first time I fell in love.
That was, coincidentally, the first time someone asked me I knew it was fake (thanks, Mom). That was also the first time that I knew that I didn’t fucking care. I’ll be taking that attitude again this Sunday when I watch Goldberg add to his impressive resume with one last big win. This business is what you make of it. And at Fast Lane, I’m betting that what I’ll be making is another memory. If you aren’t planning on watching, maybe you should.
Maybe you’ll fall in love too.