Lately there’s been quite a bit of talk resurfacing about wrestling being “fake,” much of it due to UFC President Dana White’s ill-advised Twitter commentary in which he disparaged WWE’s product using that clarifier. This is nothing new to us pro wrestling fans, as we’ve been subjected to that attempted derision by numerous folks over the years, a good many of them far more eloquent and worthy of discussion than Mr. White. It’s the standard mantra of those who don’t understand the business, and who fail to realize that wrestling has progressed many times since its inception and has fully embraced the “performance” aspect of what those very talented men and women do for a living. Wrestling has transitioned over and over again, from its earliest moments as carnival feats of strength and endurance to its current format, and there is little doubt the cycle will continue into the future. Dana White is first and foremost a businessman, albeit one with a knack for inserting various parts of his anatomy into his oratorical orifice, and generating publicity for his own product at the expense of a rival is understandably high on his priority list. Vince McMahon, naturally, can relate to every bit of that last sentence, and has remained publicly mum on the issue. That might seem a tad confusing at first, but likely is put into a great deal more perspective when you consider that he’s foaming at the mouth to further Ronda Rousey’s future with his company. As for the rest of us, my words of advice are simple: Embrace the fake. Giving in to the easy temptation to overreact to White’s bombast both misses the point and backs up his claims in one fell swoop. We know better. Or we should.
WWE’s big weekend defines the very fraudulence that makes pro wrestling as fun as it can be. Consider the fact that one of the major angles on Sunday’s epic SummerSlam show consisted of entertainer Jon Stewart, who was hosting the affair, using a folding chair to bash United States Champion John Cena into dropping his belt to World Champion Seth Rollins. If anything about that headline screams realism, consult your local psychiatrist immediately. While Stewart’s pacing for the telltale turn was a bit off (he had a really good night overall, in my view, but sort of gave himself away before his dirty deed), it served as proof positive that keeping things realistic was not on WWE’s agenda for the day. And that’s not as big of an issue as it sometimes seems to be. The over-the-top absurdity of wrestling is one of its critical linchpins, and equally importantly, one of the things that makes it different from anything else out there. That’s huge in today’s 24/7 marketplace of options, and should be celebrated rather than feared. It’s also not to say that pro wrestling shouldn’t have extremely realistic elements that accentuate its very real and very inherent dangers. The Brock Lesnar/Undertaker rematch, from its blood to its utter brutal physicality to its completely perfect ending showing the level of disdain the two men possess for one another, had a tone unlike anything else that evening. The rub? That match is just as fake, but didn’t look fake at all. Different circumstances and presentations generate different emotions. You get to run the gamut with wrestling, especially when it’s done right.
Only pro wrestling would follow all of that up with a Monday Night Raw in which the bulk of the evening centered around the victorious Rollins getting a statue in his own likeness presented to him. That might be ridiculous enough under any circumstances, but as a wrestling fan you can take it in stride. Knowing what you know (no matter how long you’ve been watching), you can be assured of the following things: The buildup for the unveiling would continue throughout the night, things will not go according to plan, and anyone standing on top of the world at the start of hour one will likely be reduced to tears by the end of hour three. Thus Monday Night Raw provided us another in its series of big moments, namely the curtain being yanked aside to reveal a very stoic and very warm Sting (face paint and heat don’t mix very well), and lost in the translation was the simple fact that a semi-retired WCW star was able to catapult right into a title match simply by showing up and absconding with a life-size statue of Rollins. None of that matters, of course, because we’re not supposed to put all the pieces together in order to ask too many questions. We’re just expected to go with the flow and when possible enjoy the ride. That doesn’t mean it should be done without care, of course, and that’s something the WWE has struggled far too often with in the past couple of years. Playing up to your audience is always preferable to dumbing it down, and that’s one of the things that opens the door to criticism from White and others. Just as in the real world, though, there are benefits to failing to take oneself so seriously. Especially when your business is built on deception.
This is not a conundrum exclusive to the wrestling world. Reality television has pushed that medium so far to the precipice that regular programming has been exported to websites in order to free up broadcast space for the networks to spinoff existing properties. As for movies, original thought is lacking in the extreme. It would appear to this writer that major motion picture studios are likely not even willing to take your call unless you’re peddling something with a built-in fan base, no matter how small that base might be. Once you’ve run out of comic books and sixties television shows and radio serials to vandalize, what’s a director to do? The “reboot,” of course. Lovely thought, and occasionally needed, but generally just the work of the promoter, out to get you to part with some more precious cheddar over something you’ve already paid for before. If you’re fortunate, you’ve only paid for the same song or movie or whatever twice or three times, rather than seven or eight as each new device comes to market. From that to video gaming to apps, the timewarp of cannibalizing temporary popularity in order to achieve bigger and better results eventually devolves into depressing depreciation. We already know that less is more, but what about too much of more? Welcome to the now.
In that regard, wrestling has a big advantage. As a property that’s had to reinvent itself consistently by its very nature, wrestling has an innate and inherent ability to adapt. In addition, wrestling has to repackage similar storylines several times within a year while still finding ways to seem different and varied. From characters to feuds to finishes, there isn’t a single aspect of the sport we love that isn’t subjected to constant reinvention within a very finite industry. Discovering actual “new” ways to do things becomes a cottage industry all in its own, and that underlying truth drives wrestling to do what many of those other forms of entertainment struggle mightily to accomplish: present the obvious in a very esoteric manner. Rewarding those that follow the business in all its iterations while opening your doors to new prospective fans is critical, and wrestling is in a great position because it’s always been attempting to do just that.
Whether wrestling gets that right and takes advantage of its unique positioning is another matter entirely, of course. It would help, though, to have some fun along the way. In my mind, that’s why WWE fans were so responsive to Sara Lee and ZZ during the rather rough return of Tough Enough. The personality aspect of the business has always been a huge factor in wrestling, but it’s even more crucial in a time period when social media rules the day. Athletic gifts and physical prowess should and will never depart the game entirely, but charisma will trump it now more than before. WWE has come under fire for having a certain “type” in mind, seemingly from the start, but the current environment has forced even those hardened wrasslin’ bookers to put down the old school notepad in favor of more modern devices. It’s an area, frankly, where WWE has been behind the proverbial eight ball for much of the last few years, measuring its desire to push company-created stars against its responsibility to give the fans what they are looking for. This can never be a perfect equation, but we can at least say that the seeds have been sown for future generations to yield a more palatable crop. The rewards will be reaped by those who prove they belong in a wrestling ring, with all the inevitable bumps and bruises that come with it, but truest accolades will be reserved for the chosen few who can present their character well while never letting it become so serious that it overshadows their work.
There are a few tears to be shed for the realization that the days of Mark Calaway becoming so immersed in his gimmick that it’s difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins are coming to a close. It’s got plenty to do with why the overtones of his series of matches with Lesnar have been so profound and so weighty: we recognize that we stand at the precipice, as do they. Once things reach whatever conclusion they do, nothing can be the same anymore. Even with such as this, though, wrestling finds a way to entertain before, during, and after the spectacle itself, something advocate Paul Heyman could write a series of books on. This is the fulcrum of pro wrestling’s appeal: taking what could otherwise be mundane and turning it into cataclysmic, epic proportion. Ever try to explain a current storyline to a friend that doesn’t follow? Good luck with that. Better to just turn on the match itself and let the action do the talking. It’s certainly not to suggest the build isn’t important. It’s just way more important to someone who’s already on board and looking for excitement and reinvigoration.
At the end of the day, the “fake” label as it pertains to wrestling should be reserved for those who don’t know better. As far as I am concerned, though, it should be celebrated, and not celebrated quietly. It should be screamed from the rooftops, from the wrestlers claiming identities from countries they haven’t even visited to the ruined weddings to the interrupted funeral services to the Katie Vicks. Well, okay, maybe not that last part. Failure to recognize the patent fakery for what it is, entertainment value, is a refusal to acknowledge the ironic truth embedded in wrestling’s storied past. It doesn’t always work, natch, and it’s not pretty when it fails, but it’s a misconception to assume wrestling itself doesn’t acknowledge its own history. Rather than treating the “fake” dagger as a piercing barb, wear it like a badge. This past weekend was a fantastic time to be a wrestling fan, warts and all. From NXT’s consistently solid efforts to the headline news of SummerSlam to the Ric Flair and Sting reveals of Raw, it had something for everyone and plenty of intensity. Fake? Indubitably. The reality, though, is that fake is what the business has always been about. Own it and love it. That’s keeping it real.