Wrestling deploys many techniques used in theatre and pantomime, making it a highly entertaining sport
“Why do you watch it? You know it’s fake, right?”
That’s one of the common things a person who was never initiated to the appeal of pro-wrestling might say. Other things people might say include, “the punches aren’t even landing” or “you can totally tell it’s fake”. Yes, pro-wrestling fans are aware of this. That’s part of what pro wrestling is. It’s not a real sport. What goes on there is not an actual competition between two extremely jacked individuals (a large proportion of wrestlers take steroids) but is best described as an extremely visceral performance. That’s what pro wrestlers are. They are performers. Damn good ones at that. The acronym WWE does stand for World Wrestling Entertainment and entertainment is the key word to focus on here.
A core element of pro-wrestling is what is referred to as ‘kayfabe’. This is essentially the dedication of all actors involved in the spectacle of pro-wrestling to maintain the illusion of reality at all times. No one is meant to break character and all wrestlers are devoted to making the spectacle seem as real as possible throughout the show. This means that rivalries between them, romances, backstage encounters and interactions with the fans are all acted out in a convincing manner in order to perpetuate the crucial element of kayfabe.
Occasionally, it is difficult for outside observers to separate reality from fiction. In 2004-2005 an erotic triangle storyline came into light which consisted of wrestlers Edge, Matt Hardy and Lita. Lita had been romantic partners with Matt Hardy, but in 2004 it was found out that she had been cheating on him with Edge. Despite the reality of the situation for the trio, it was implemented in the WWE storyline. Fans turned against Edge and supported Matt and the two ended up fighting several times. The matches were scripted as is almost always the case with WWE, but like most gossip-filled stories with a knack for attracting the public’s attention, it was hard for fans to ascertain how much was real and how much was sensationalist gibberish.
Even though it is scripted, and the pro-wrestlers are indeed performing actors, there is no discounting the amount of pain they go through or the extreme athleticism and strength they display. The majority of wrestlers weigh over 220 lbs and stand over 6 feet tall. They are spectacles of strength and height. It is common practice for a wrestler to run towards the ropes and perform a high-flying manoeuvre using the momentum from the ropes’ elasticity and their weight. It would be difficult for an average person to perform somersaults and front-flip jumps over the ropes to land on their back on top of another person. But these guys do it every week.
To increase the illusion of stone-cold realism, wrestlers used to “blade” which meant they would cut themselves with a tiny blade either given to them by the referee or hidden in their hand wraps. This would often be done after they had taken a seemingly massive chair shot or another type of big damage to their face. This practice has now been discontinued since 2008 due to its slightly gruesome nature. Yet, what it does say is that these guys were devoted to their performances; they strove for catastrophic perfection. Other common things to see in pro wrestling include wrestlers getting thrown off ladders, put through tables, put through burning tables, thrown on tacks and hit with barbed wire sticks. In some more extreme forms of pro-wrestling, TNT and firecrackers are used and they blow up in random spots.
Pro-wrestling is much like a pantomime. Pro wrestling heavily relies on the interactivity between the audience and performers. Fans cheer, boo and yell out chants depending on the action. The reaction of the fans greatly determines how a wrestler’s career will evolve and shape; is he a good guy or a villain? The audience’s sounds reveal everything. The chants yelled by the crowd have become iconic in the world of pro-wrestling, such as yelling out ‘What!’ every time a wrestler takes a pause mid-sentence. Fans oftentimes even incorporate themselves in the match by giving wrestlers weapons to use such as kendo sticks, classical guitars and even prosthetic legs. The many ways of audience participation constitute pro-wrestling as more interactive than the majority of theatrical plays.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that pro wrestling is a very particular type of performing art. It is one of the most extreme forms of theatre. The wrestlers are playing characters and their wins and losses are scripted. But the pain they go through and the dedication they have in their craft is truly a thing to behold. This theatrical experience is certainly polarising, but undoubtedly exhilarating.