I think I was 12 when I realized that professional wrestling is dumb. It took me a while to get there. During the height of the WWE’s Raw is War era I never missed a Monday night of spandex-clad madness. I outgrew those interests about the time I bought my first Bic razor though, and now, nearly 20 years later, I can't help but wonder if I need to give wrestling another chance.
It seems everyone else has, because wresting is absolutely everywhere. SummerSlam took over the internet like it was the Super Bowl. The WWE is getting love on SportsCenter, on sports blogs, and all over Twitter. Even the UFC, which people have long thought would kill the WWE, is embracing its more theatrical counterpart.
Pro wrestling used to be exclusively for yokels in jorts, but not any more. Just last weekend Jon Stewart made appearances both at SummerSlam and Monday Night Raw. As he was hitting John Cena with a steel chair and then getting slammed to the mat the next night, it was hard to not feel the gravity of the moment. A well-respected political thinker with real cultural clout was playing pretend on the WWE stage.
What's drawing people like Stewart to wrestling? Why does Grantlandwrite thoughtfully about sweaty grapplers in sequined leggings? Could it be that the absurdity of the real world has finally caught up with the absurdity of wrestling, making the outlandish storylines of the WWE more a reflection of reality than ever before?
Yes, I think it could be that. The real world is full of real people who behave like pro wrestlers. Donald Trump is one obvious example. He’s essentially a ginger Vince McMahon and his entire campaign has all the hallmarks of a heel turn. He’s brash and arrogant, a total bully and completely obsessed with himself. He attacks opponents gleefully as we all wait for someone to slam his face into a turnbuckle. None of this should be a surprise. Trump has been associated with the WWE for decades and he's one of the rare people who doesn't have to change his everyday personalty to fit in with rest of the WWE. Trump was born a heel.
If you want to understand where Donald Trump’s persona came from, watch wrestling. Hell, watch wrestling if you want to understand the perpetual conflict in the Middle East, with its relentless posturing, or the Chinese economy, a seemingly unstoppable force propped up by bluster and done in by hubris.
Keep searching for wrestling’s influences on the real world and you'll keep finding them. And the easier it will become to understand why people are gravitating back to the “sport” (sorry, still can’t write that without quotation marks). Wrestling is pretty much the ur-text for reality TV, in which performers play themselves but bigger and louder, and the conflicts are clearly ginned up but aren't without real-world implications. When producers of Big Brother cast a season you can bet they’re looking at the same archetypes as the brains behind the WWE. Trolls as we know them came out of of wrestling too, and now they dominate the internet and increasingly, the tangible world. All of us on social media owe a debt to pro wrestling, not just trolls. Each time we write a Tweet or post a Facebook status meant to convey an idealized version of ourselves we’re creating characters. Some are heels, some are faces (that's wrestling for "good guy"), and like many wrestlers, some of us vacillate between the two.
On top of all this, the chief criticism of pro wrestling is fading away. The question of whether or not something is “real” is no longer relevant. Screaming “FAKE” at a viral video is so 2009. The only important questions now concern originality, cleverness and commitment. Its fans will tell you pro wrestling has all of the above.
What pro wrestling continues to lack though is the notion of true competition, where the best man entering the ring is the man who wins. More than the cartoonish characters and the soap opera storylines, it's the pre-determined outcomes that continue to keep so many people away. So here's the plan: Accept that the two wrestlers know who's going to win and think of wrestling not as a competitive sport, but as highly physical allegory about modern life. Then sit back, scream at the TV and enjoy the spectacle.
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