Professional wrestling has often been under fire and regularly faces harsh criticism for being ‘fake.’ It’s been a longstanding debate, with wrestlers and fans on one end and the ‘non-believers’ on the other. Although the answer is quite obvious, emotions run high on both sides. The question stands: what is so fake about pro wrestling fake?
Simply put, it is ‘scripted’ rather than fake, just like the Sylvester Stallone-starrer Rocky was. When we go watch films in a cinema, for two hours or so, we believe…we truly believe that Jake Gyllenhaal is a boxer who wants to win and avenge his wife’s loss. We suspend our disbelief to enjoy the stories being told on screen. But when it comes to pro wrestling, a lot of people can’t grant it the same courtesy.
So, why can’t we enjoy a wrestling match like we enjoy action sequences in films? Both are scripted, and are part of a bigger picture: to entertain the audience and tell a moving story. However, pro wrestling gets extra points as the wrestlers perform all the action sequences in front of a live audience. They don’t get multiple takes and stunt doubles to get it right. They get injured more often, and one mistimed maneuver can curtail an entire career.
Similar to TED Talks, Ignite is an international platform for speakers to deliver five-minute presentations. At Ignite Philly 16, Mike Quackenbush, a retired pro wrestler and co-founder of Chikara gave a presentation, which was possibly the best explanation I have come across regarding the issue.
“Pro wrestling is the most misunderstood form of entertainment on this planet,” he said. “And it’s the most fascinating and wonderful kind of performance art you could ever hope to experience.”
Quackenbush explained that pro wrestling has been misunderstood because for years it was stuck in a cycle of self-loathing – a performance art masquerading as legitimate sport. But, “the flavor of wrestling I like best is akin to comic book come to life,” he said. “It’s colorful costumes, superhuman feats of strength and agility. It’s heroes and villains, comedy and tragedy, and larger-than-life characters – the exact tropes that hooked me on the Justice League and the X-Men.”
The argument comes back to pro wrestlers giving a life performance with their bodies used as ‘props’ and their lives on the line with each move in the ring. This is, again, the foremost reason why the word ‘fake’ stings. “The risks we take to entertain our fans, the sacrifices we make along the way, the passion we pour into this pursuit, all of that is very, very real,” says Quackenbush. “And it cuts like the worst kind of insult if someone were to summarize your risks, sacrifices and passion with the word ‘fake’.”
The world of pro wrestling is no different than the Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings where some characters are rooted for and some booed…where the story and ecstatic journey must be enjoyed regardless of the script. Fun fact: Sean Bean didn’t really die in Game of Thrones season one.
Similarly, Undertaker doesn’t really die every time he loses a Buried Alive match, but his ‘death’ garners a strong reaction regardless. This is what pro wrestling is all about; a gut reaction, an audience’s emotional investment in a character and their journey. It engages and resonates with you. When Brock Lesnar conquered The Undertaker’s undefeated WrestleMania streak three years ago, fans felt the same sort of despair Game of Thrones fans did after watching The Red Wedding. Both moments struck a nerve with the audience; both had the same level of emotional investment in the narrative.
Quackenbush hits the nail on the head when he says pro wrestling is unlike any film, TV show, novel or a comic book because it is a uniquely dynamic and interactive experience. Films or TV shows won’t respond to the audience’s cheers or jeers and neither will a novel high-five you.
He sums it perfectly, when he says: “The restorative catharsis that our performance generates is shared between the people that craft it and the fans that go on the journey with us. There’s nothing fake about that.”
Almost all wrestlers, at one point in their lives, have been asked if what they do is staged. Many have responded in verbal jabs; some with physical jabs. In 2014, former WWE Champion Seth Rollins spoke with ArkTimes.com. He was asked whether people still asked him the same question. He responded by saying: “What is fake? It’s a television show, and a live performance. Nothing’s fake about it. We’re not telling you we’re out their fighting each other. We’re going out there to entertain you.”
“Being a character, executing a live performance, understanding what it is to connect with a crowd and elicit a specific response at a specific time using moves and body language and emotions…what we do is very complex. It’s underappreciated,” he added.
Former UFC fighter Lesnar once said: “There’s still human beings in the ring, flying around and risking their lives. If you can’t see that, you’re very ignorant.”
But one of my favorite explanations came from the New Day member and a PhD student Xavier Woods: “Simply understand that wrestling is one of the last forms of Shakespeare in the round. The crowd is watching men and women tell stories through physicality with an audience at a 360-degree setting,” tweeted Woods. “It’s fine if you don’t like it but there’s no need to disrespect us or the people who watch it by calling it ‘fake’… so, unless someone has figured out a way to defy gravity, then falling down will forever be painful and the pain we feel is very real.”
Note this article was originally published on IGN Pakistan. It’s been republished here solely for archival purposes.