IN LAIMAN'S TERMS: The Basis of Professional Wrestling
By Al Laiman
Jan 15, 2014 - 3:54:20 PM
credit Tom Jenner
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IN LAIMAN'S TERMS: The Basis of Professional Wrestling
The world is smaller than ever, and with modern technology, borders, oceans, and ethnic backgrounds mean a lot less than they once did. Where certain ideas, traditions, and culture once were contained by their aboriginal birth, they can now be transported and shared for free via YouTube, a blog, or even traveling there yourself. In anthropological terms, what happens with that is a process called "assimilation."
Assimilation, specifically cultural assimilation, is what happens when one group of people begin to adopt traits, mannerisms, and even language of another. Usually the most technologically advanced culture is the one forcing assimilation on others, but it is because of this process that we are connected to so many different types of people and cultures.
It is also because of this that professional wrestling can be so ubiquitous when it is done right.
Professional wrestling as it stands now is a television program created to entertain mass numbers of people under the guise of imitating a live sporting event where actual competition is taking place. This is not a new concept. In fact, it goes back to the Ancient Greeks and the conception of the theatrical arts.
One of the oldest (and still performed) plays is one that almost everyone knows for one reason or another, Oedipus Rex. Despite it being written over 2000 years ago, tragedy is still heavily based on the influence of this story. The tragedy of Oedipus is that he is told of his destiny, and yet he cannot escape it. Only through his realization and subsequent transformation can his story arc be completed.
Sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it?
Those who say that professional wrestling is an uncultured, redneck, fake waste of time aren't paying any attention to what professional wrestling tries to communicate as a whole. Like most media, it is created for consumption, but it is also a unique form of catharsis, which in layman's terms (see what I did there?) is the purging of one's emotions.
Last Monday night, Daniel Bryan unleashed his frustration on a Big Evil through which he had to engage in subterfuge in order to "defeat." The reaction from those being sucked into the story, both live and watching on television, told you everything you need to know about why this story was effective. The raising of the hands in a thundering chant of "YES!" echoed throughout Providence and likely silently to anyone watching who isn't insistent on Daniel Bryan being a boring midcarder with nothing to offer. Trust me, I've been invited to many wrestling groups where I hear that argument from haters constantly. There are wrestling fans out there determined to hate something that's popular and ignore the facts and reactions of others.
This story isn't a concept that has just been created though. When we look through how professional wrestling came about, it makes a great deal of sense. It also explains why it can captivate nearly anyone when they dislodge themselves from the preconceived notion that it's just a fake sport with a bunch of idiots demanding violence. That's the NFL, but I'll get to that.
While technology and culture have since grown immensely and exposed us to ideas and traditions that we would've never been able to know even as recently as 100 years ago, what hasn't changed within humanity is the desire for escapism and catharsis. Nobody has it easy, and the stresses of the rich and insanely overworked to the poor, desperate, and struggling all has a common place for an outlet: Media.
Theater derived out of ritualistic, religious traditions. When those traditions became performances, audiences found themselves captivated under a term most people know as "suspension of disbelief." Yes, they may have been sitting on a stone seat in a theater somewhere in Athens, but inside their mind, they were begging to fight through the dramatic irony and scream to Oedipus the King what the actor already knows but the character he's portraying doesn't. This is a phenomenon that almost all cultures have some variation of: Knowing something isn't really happening in front of them, but choosing to engage as an audience member and get lost in the story. Participating while watching something unfold with people pretending to be other people to tell a story for the entertainment of those watching.
Wrestling is the oldest sport in the world (besides war). In the 20th century with the rise of professional sporting organizations, namely baseball, the idea of professional wrestling was not a strange one. Legitimate competition on a professional level in a sport everyone could understand: Pin the other guy. However, those in charge of these events realized that if they could control the outcomes, the audience members would care a lot more. They could tell the stories they wanted to, make stars out of athletes, and engage the audience in a different way than the rest of professional sports. Thus, the birth of modern professional wrestling.
It is my belief that other sports that have since become major businesses have followed this model to some degree. I'm not saying Big Sports are 100 percent pre-planned like professional wrestling is, but you can see the patterns and influence of professional wrestling in the modern sports era, most notably the NFL. Like wrestling, a few specific superstars who are more talented (and marketable) than all the rest are chosen, featured, marketed, and sold to the viewing public. The better story that can be told is dependent on either a story arc coming to a satisfying close, or the biggest superstars colliding with the most on the line. Honestly, who didn't see the Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning collision ready to happen? It's The Rock vs. John Cena of football. Honestly, watch a modern sports game and try watching it the way you would a wrestling show and tell me you don't notice the pattern. Why would they do this? Because an underdog vs. underdog game simply doesn't sell. A match-up of two random teams with no story behind it doesn't matter. Brother vs. brother, retirement, superstars matching up against their best competition, that is what captivates an audience and makes for good business. I'm not condemning it by any means, I just notice the influence of professional wrestling in the way it's executed anymore.
But this article isn't about other sports, it's about wrestling. Professional wrestling, at its core, is merely combining theater, television, and athleticism, and pulling out the best parts of all of them. The story that can be related to by the most is likely the one that is going to be presented. We all subconsciously want to live vicariously through someone doing something that we cannot. Overcoming odds, reaching the top, being recognized, conquering your enemies, achieving your goals... Metaphorically speaking, professional wrestling is the embodiment of our lives.
The Road to WrestleMania every year takes someone who either has risen or will rise to the top of their game. In their way will be an antagonist of some sort; an obstacle to overcome in order to achieve their goal. What better feeling in the world is there to look back and realize how much you had to overcome and what obstacles you had to remove in order to get where you are? In professional wrestling, it's carried out through means of verbal sparring and physical confrontation. We can't all do that in our everyday lives, but we can relate to those stories because we all want to do that. Daniel Bryan has captured that essence like the chosen few have before him. The John Cenas, the Stone Colds, The Rocks, the Hulk Hogans, all at their initial rise have had that working with them, and they were able to run with it with massive amounts of fan support behind them.
Audience reactions like last Monday night's are not the norm. They are the result of either strategic planning, such as the rise of Batista and John Cena in 2005, or something that just couldn't have been planned and were thus unable to alter the momentum, such as Stone Cold and Daniel Bryan. There's no specific formula for what captures the lightning in the bottle of those rare moments, but when it happens, we're all treated to something that is thousands of years old and engrained in our psyche.
The subculture of professional wrestling is unfairly demonized, but it is no different than sports, entertainment, movies, television, or theater. When cultures have done their best to remove escapism and the arts from society, they always find a way to survive. This force is so powerful; this need for catharsis and a temporary distraction from reality, that it's no wonder that professional wrestling continues to engage us in ways that we sometimes can't explain, that we sometimes loathe, but as a whole, we love when it's done right.