The John Report: Why Do We Like Wrestling?
Why do you like wrestling? Ever been asked that question before by a loved one? Maybe it was somebody in your family or a close friend. They wonder why, even though you know it’s scripted and “fake,” you still watch that stuff. Ever come up with a really good answer other than, “I don’t know, I just like it.” Not the best answer, right? Fear not fellow wrestling fans, for I am here to try to provide answers to that question. At least I’ll give it my best effort and if I fail I’ll still give myself a Barry Horowitz-like pat on the back.
The first thing to think about is what drew you to the wrestling business in the first place. Chances are that you, like me, started watching as a kid. I’m not a psychologist or anything, but my belief is that when you see influential things as children they tend to resonate more with you as an adult than something you see when you’re 18 years old, for example. With pro wrestling, if your first experiences were as a child you’re going to remember the glory days. For me, that means Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Roddy Piper, Randy Savage, Ted Dibiase, The Hart Foundation, Demolition and all the rest. Those are the people I think of. I don’t know if I can pinpoint one exact moment that shaped me as a fan other than Savage’s first World Title win at WrestleMania IV. I think it was my first live show that got me hooked, to be honest. My uncle took me, it was probably 1988 and I remember seeing Andre the Giant. Wow, I thought, that guy was huge. He was also probably drunk and he couldn’t move very much by then, but as a kid all you can really think about was his presence. Things like the quality of the match don’t matter as a kid. It’s all about the spectacle. I think moments like that, seeing Andre in person, won me over as a fan for the rest of my life.
The next question is, especially if you’re an adult, what makes you keep watching? Shouldn’t you know better by now? Haven’t you grown up yet? I’d like to think I have, but I’m still a fan and I’m in the process of figuring out why. There are a few factors that I think will help narrow that down for us.
The “What’s Next?” Factor – We all follow various things like professional sports or television shows. Some we like more than others. Some we even obsess over. What they have in common is that they have seasons. They’re on for a certain number of days in a year and then they are off. Pro wrestling? Doesn’t have that. They run every week. No time off. No chance to enjoy what you just saw because you’re always thinking about what’s next. On the one hand, it sucks because you only have a week or so to digest things when a favorite of yours wins a title. In sports, your team wins the title and you can brag about it for as long as seven months if you’re a fan of the NFL. In wrestling, we don’t have that. On the other hand, that’s what makes things interesting. As soon as somebody wins the WWE or World Title, the first question is: “when is he going to lose it?” Fair or not, that’s what we tend to ask. (It should be said too that an offseason for wrestling could help the lives of those in the business. Their bodies need rest. That’s another column for another time, though.)
The “Good vs. Evil” Factor – The basis of storytelling always tends to involve good vs. evil. Yes, sometimes there are layers to the stories that take us in different directions at times, but most stories tell the tale of good vs. evil. Pro wrestling is no different. In fact, it is all about good vs. evil. We may know the good ones as babyfaces and the bad ones as heels, but the premise is the same. From the time we’re little kids watching the business we’re basically told to cheer for the faces as they try to beat the heels. The lines rarely blur in pro wrestling. Of course there are transcendent storylines like the epic Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin feud that saw Bret go from face to heel while Austin went from heel to face despite not changing his demeanor too much. That’s what was so great about that. They told us the same story, but in a different way. A new star was born, the likes of which we’d never seen before and may never see again. In movies the good vs. evil phenomenon is usually there while the sports teams we root for are the good guys while everybody else is the bad guys (unless you have a wager on the game, that is). Neither of those mediums is as constant as pro wrestling, though. We are conditioned to know that good versus evil is the ultimate story in wrestling. Let’s not overthink this. Pro wrestling, in its simplest form, is about good conquering evil. And it always will be.
The Live Factor – I’ve been lucky in my life to have been able to attend a lot of sporting events in my life as well as a lot of pro wrestling events, specifically WWE. I’ve been to playoff games in the NBA, NHL, MLB, regular season NFL games and while they’re all good for various reasons I tend to enjoy myself more at WWE events. I already wrote about that first time seeing Andre in person being one of those special moments. As a teen and later an adult I attended many more events in my life, probably somewhere between 20-25 WWE events over the years. Sometimes my buddies and I hit three shows in three days, driving upwards of 10 hours in the opposite direction. It was fun. During the Attitude Era you didn’t worry about getting liquored up, chanting random things at random times (you’ve seen WWE shows in Canada, right?) and making an ass out of yourself. I even like non-television events even more than most TVs. Sure, you won’t get on TV with your sign, but at least you’ll get 2½ hours of in ring action. Live Raw’s and taped Smackdown’s are good too. The best to attend live are PPVs, though. Of course, all of those are subject to the quality of the show. I once sat second row for a Raw that had about 20 minutes of actual wrestling. Paying $70 to watch a video screen isn’t the best way to spend a night. With that said, I still enjoy the rush of the crowd, the random “Wooooo’s” when things get slow and also the hooting that goes when the ladies come out. Good times. If you’ve never seen a wrestling show live I recommend it. The best thing to do is to take a little one whether it’s a son or daughter, a sibling, a cousin, a nephew or niece. Take them, watch their face as they watch the action and try to remember when you liked it that much. I think you’ll have your answer right there as to why we like wrestling.
The Performers Factor – My last group of variables is the most important one. After all, where would we be as fans without the people that travel the world to see us? They’re the ones that turn us into the fans we are. We follow them through every twist, turn and bump because they are important to us. As kids we have our favorites based on the good guy/bad guy lines that rarely tend to blur. As adults – or smart fans in this case – we have our favorites based on characters, in-ring work and promo skills. The heel/face line isn’t as important as long as the performances are good. You know why WWE peaked from 1997 to 2002? Because characters like Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley, Kurt Angle, Triple H and others resonated with us. We had never seen a good guy that was also a badass like Austin before. We had never seen somebody as creative as The Rock in terms of what he said. When you can relate to characters that are that good, you’re going to be drawn in to the show. You’re going to want to tune in week after week, month after month and year after year. Then, when those people move on, you keep watching because you hope you’ll be there to see the next one. Ask any wrestler past or present what the best part of being in the ring was/is? You know what they’ll say? Performing for the fans. You can’t get that rush from anything else. They live for that adrenaline rush and we love them for that. Most of the time. Remember when Eddie Guerrero won the World Title from Brock Lesnar at No Way Out 2004? Remember what you felt like when that happened? Notice what I said there. Remember what YOU felt. I’m not even talking about Eddie. I’m talking about you. You know why? Because when Eddie won that belt it felt like we won. We got to know the guy he was because they told us his story and we cheered him. When he died, we mourned him. We also remembered him with smiles because that’s what he put on our faces as fans. I could go on and on about the connection that we have as fans with the performers, but there’s no better example than the late, great Eddie Guerrero.
I feel like dedicating some space to some things I don’t like about the wrestling business because that’s only fair. I don’t like how there’s no union to take care of these wrestlers financially the way pro sports or many regular everyday jobs have unions. It’s hard life to begin with and once you get out of that spotlight it can lead to bad things. How many more wrestlers need to die in their 30s or 40s until that changes? I also don’t like the rampant drug use that exists in the business although I will applaud WWE for their Wellness Policy. My only wish is that it existed 30 years earlier because it could have prevented the loss of so many people. I can only hope and pray that one day there exists a time where we don’t have to read about another wrestling passing away by means that could have been prevented with the proper care.
Now that we’ve tackled some of the variables that shape us as fans (there are many more I could write about, believe me), let’s look at the question again: Why Do We Like Wrestling?
I think the best answer to is to say that we like it because we have an emotional attachment to the pro wrestling business. We truly care about it. We want it to succeed. We want hundreds of wrestlers to be employed and to make a lot of money. We want to help them get there. All we ask is that we get entertained in the process. “Help me help you.” (What am I, quoting Jerry Maguire now?) It can be caused by a number of things I mentioned above, or things I didn’t even think about mentioning, because to each of us we have our own personal feelings. I like the work in the ring more than anything, but you can’t tell a good story with that alone. You need to involve promos, characters and twists in the storylines. There’s a reason why some of us can remember match results from a random PPV from 1996 while we probably can’t remember the math problem we did at the same time. We didn’t care about that math problem like we did about wrestling. When you care about something, you tend to remember things and develop memories that will last you a lifetime.
The basic principle of pro wrestling fandom is this: If you understand how the matches work, how the characters develop and how they can bring the fans into it then you’re a fan. If you question why people are watching a “fake” event where nobody is supposed to get hurt then you’re never going to be a fan. The haters need to look past the exterior. They need to understand what pro wrestling is really about. It’s that connection between the performers to us, the fans. It’s that real sense of emotion that we can feel whether we’re in an arena or watching on a TV screen. When it’s great, there’s nothing better. When it’s bad, you hope things get better. Why? Because you care. Maybe we can’t define what made us care or how we ended up caring about the business so much, but all you know when you watch Raw, Smackdown, Impact, ROH or some random indy promotion is that you like what you’re watching. Maybe it’s the workrate, maybe it’s the promos, maybe it’s the characters, maybe it’s the storylines. You know what? It could be all of those things. It SHOULD be all of those things.
Pro wrestling is not “two dudes pretending to fight in their underwear” if you truly understand it. It’s an art form at its best. When you come to that realization you tend to appreciate it more. I think that’s what happens to us as “smart” fans who, unlike many fans pre-Internet, “get” what wrestling is supposed to be. I pity those people that make those bad jokes about how “he’s not really hitting him” because those same people are the ones that will spend $10 on a movie about vampires. That’s a story just like pro wrestling is. They’re not really vampires just like Stone Cold isn’t really hurting The Rock. The difference is one is on a screen while another is presented in a live action format in front of thousands of people. Pro wrestling is theatre. It’s theater just as much as Broadway is today or when the Ancient Greeks were doing it thousands of years ago. It’s not sport because sport is competition where the result is unknown, but it’s entertainment made to look like sport. Call it pro wrestling or even sports entertainment. Whatever you call it, the real fans know what it is.
Why do we like wrestling? We like wrestling because it’s an emotional roller coaster that takes our emotions on highs and lows on a regular basis. We like the characters that are created to make us the think. We like the performers that make us proud with their dedication. We like the fact that no matter what else is going on in our lives, we can cheer on our favorites while booing our villains. We like that, despite its intricacies, the story is easy to follow. The list goes on and on.
Why do we like wrestling? I think we know. It’s just that the answer isn’t that easy to figure out. Just like the wrestling business. There isn’t one thing that makes us like wrestling. There are many things. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, you don’t. It’s as simple, or maybe as complicated, as that.
What do you think? Why do we like wrestling?
John Canton – firstname.lastname@example.org
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