A Unique and Beautiful Beast: The Case for the Classification of Pro Wrestling
There are those in wrestling media and among wrestling fans who’ll have you believe that wrestling should be classified a sport. They cover wrestling as if it were MMA, and often times combine the two together in their comparisons as if the only difference between the two were the staged results.
Conversely, there are those in the industry and among fans who will swear to you that pro wrestling is completely and unequivocally theater or performance art. Chris Jericho is actually one of those people, oddly enough. They feel that there is nothing sporting about wrestling, mainly because of the staged nature of it.
So, which one is it, sport or theater? That’s a hard question to answer, and everyone’s got their own opinion, including myself. Unlike some of the extremes, I find the answer is somewhere in the middle. I’d even go as far to say that pro wrestling isn’t either, but rather, it’s in a category all to itself. Search your feelings; you know there is nothing else out there that remotely comes close to what wrestling offers.
However, it’s not completely scripted entertainment either. Yes, there is a script, and yes, unless you’re John Cena, CM Punk or someone with as much tenure as the former or sharpness as the latter, you pretty much have to follow it. What separates Monday Night RAW from, say, Game of Thrones is that you can go up to Punk, Jericho, Christian or really any other wrestler who doesn’t go by their given name and call them by their ring name and they’ll understand. Try going up to Sean Bean and saying “What’s up, Ned Stark?” You’ll probably get a sidelong glance and shaking of his head.
The centralizing force in pro wrestling is what makes it so unique – kayfabe. An old carny word, kayfabe has become common language amongst us Internet fans. For those who may be reading it for the first time, it’s basically the term that defines the pact among all wrestlers, promoters and other folks involved to pretend that everything they did in the ring was on the up-and-up, that it wasn’t staged.
Although that term has been lessened in impact over the years with fans actually becoming “smart”, it still exists within the context of the shows themselves. Part of the reason why people still go to see professional wrestling is that they are able to suspend their disbelief and soak the performance in as if it were real. I’ve always said that the business is at its best when it makes you forget it’s staged, even for one second. It’s the kind of investment that you can’t get from a movie or television show.
That’s why it’s such a mistake when people try to shoehorn comparisons to TV or sport when analyzing what’s best for the business. What works on scripted television or even reality television is not guaranteed to work for pro wrestling, same with sport. There are elements of both that fit in, there’s no denying it. However, to say that wrestling is completely art or completely sport would be to deny it its truly unique nature.
The sad part is, part of that denial comes from within the largest company in the industry. WWE for years has eschewed traditional wrestling booking in favor of hiring television writers to its creative team, some of whom have no experience in pro wrestling whatsoever. It’s not like that decision is killing them. Sure ratings are down, but they’re making record profits.
Still, even people outside of Stamford would be better served of thinking of pro wrestling as a one-of-a-kind form of entertainment. Not completely sport, not completely theater, it is its own beast, an amalgamation of amateur wrestling, street-fighting, martial arts, theater, stand up comedy, improv, public speaking, gymnastics, physical comedy and Vaudeville that just can’t be classified. If you stop trying and accept it as what it is, I guarantee you, you’ll save yourself a lot of headache.
Tom Holzerman is a lifelong wrestling fan and connoisseur of all things Chikara Pro, among other feds. When he’s not writing for the Camel Clutch Blog, you can find him on his own blog, The Wrestling Blog.
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