WWE | Pro Wrestling

Professional Wrestling’s Identity Crisis

Conflict is the term that best embodies pro wrestling. Not the traditional conflict between wrestlers, or the sorts of backstage strife which dominates online dirt sheets. Rather, the lifeblood of an entire industry is constant, nagging conflict within itself. Companies like WWE, TNA, ROH, and WCW and ECW before them, constructed businesses AROUND problems they failed to solve. They stacked solutions like Jenga blocks.

Contradictions have always existed in wrestling: performers need to look comic-book big, but they better not use drugs to get that way; women need to be taken seriously in the ring, but we’re only going to promote them as sex objects; fans need to believe that wrestling is real, while we extend storylines beyond the realm of belief… and so on, and so forth.

It wasn’t too long ago that these “conflicts” were easy to manage. Lie to the fans, put out a fake press release, and you’re done. But in the modern era of social media, 24/7 news cycles, and endless “me too!” journalists, things aren’t so simple anymore. Essentially, the industry is ripping apart at the seams.

Pro wrestling is caught between form and function. What that means, is, it can’t decide whether to promote itself as a sport, or as an art. Remember back in high school, when marching band geeks and cheerleaders tried to convince you that what they were doing was as much a competition as what the guys in pads and helmets were doing? Same thing here – the only difference is, there’s a lot more testosterone involved.

As a fan, I love that wrestling falls into a weird grey area. The whole point of the “sport,” or “sports entertainment,” is to tell stories. It doesn’t matter than the outcome is predetermined. When two athletes lock-up, after weeks of an epic build, I can’t wait to see how things play out. I’m not worried about what’s “fake,” or how this fits into the greater storyline. My belief is completely suspended.

MMA has capitalized on this same idea, to a certain extent. Do you think The Ultimate Fighter is anything more than a multi-month hype machine? Check out the post-show pay-per-view buyrates and get back with me. The problem is, when main-events can’t match the build, fans go home disappointed. And then the next month, they question that 50 dollar purchase.

Modern wrestling struggles with reaching both in-ring enthusiasts, and story lovers. No company has been able to successfully bridge that canyon. Some people say the wrestling itself is an art-form, that all the “entertainment” around the product is glitzy hot air. Others fast-forward through matches on Monday Night Raw because they just want to get to the talking parts. The “good stuff.”

But how does professional wrestling successfully balance both worlds? How can the company keep both sides happy? Should we talk about “WWE” in the same breath as The Walking Dead, or Breaking Bad? Or should ESPN do more coverage of Ring of Honor and TNA? After all, reviewers grade wrestling matches in the same way judges grade cheerleading competitions.

Right now, the business is in a transition stage. It’s impossible to say where things will be in five years, or even where things SHOULD be in five years. The entertainment landscape is changing quicker than face/heel turns under Vince Russo’s booking committee. So fans should appreciate what a unique entity pro wrestling is. That really, instead of being divided between sport and entertainment, we can celebrate having the best of both form and function.

And recognize that, being critical isn’t always the same thing as being a critic.

Michael A. Wiseman is a featured writer for Between the Ropes. His work has appeared in his own Google Drive account, and in the e-mail inboxes of his friends and family. He currently writes about wrestling, entertainment, and technology. You can follow him on Twitter @therealwiseman.

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