To be, or not to be, that is the question. Wrestling has always been a show, but the way a show is presented has evolved, and sometimes degenerated in to something simpler. We look back at the times when it was great, hoping it can be great again, all the while feeling the need to tune in. We dream out our fantasies, and share them with those who enjoy looking forward. We’re waiting for the next shocker, the next great match, the next talent to jump ship. We’re always anticipating, sometimes we get it right, and other times we get it terribly wrong.
The way we perceive wrestling changes depending on the person, the promotion, and more importantly the era we live in. You could likely name some of the eras off the top of your head, so it might be insulting to list ’em as you could tell me what they were called in the 80s, late 90s and 2000s. But this isn’t about eras, it’s about the identity of professional wrestling.
There’s no more important lesson than when we become aware of kayfabe. Like finding out Santa Claus isn’t real, there comes a time when all young fans learn (some figure it out quick, or are told) the wrestlers are not trying to hurt each other. If you think back to the old days, the business had almost everyone outside it fooled. Kayfabe was crucial, it’s like .. being a magician, and instead of letting everyone think you’re magic, you show them it’s a scam anyone can do. No one was ever sawed in half and bunnies didn’t magically appear from of a hat. Speaking of magic, we should look at the example of circuses.
Let’s Go To The Circus.
Wrestling began in circuses. Punters were in awe of huge, ripped men they’d hire as wrestlers. They put on matches which looked real, but it was always a work. Everything in a circus worked the attendants, as the point was to entertain with a perception of reality. There were many varying acts, with none being anything like the other. The colours, the atmosphere, the people, contributed to a fun all-rounded circus which would make tons of money on the road. Circuses remained a primary form of entertainment for centuries.
I don’t want to get in to the negative aspects of the circus much, like how they would rip people off, mistreat animals and have foul conditions. There was no regulation, and they got away with many things they wouldn’t be able to now. But eventually the circus died, as it lost its mystique, variety, and freedom. In the end, the negatives were too much for governments to ignore, and other forms of entertainment made the circus a less than credible business venture.
You know, when you look at professional wrestling, whether it be today, yesterday, or thirty years ago, it keeps much of the qualities of a circus. Shall we make some comparisons? What would WWE be like if it was a circus over a hundred years ago?
- The Ringmaster – Vince McMahon
- Big Animal Tricks & Fights – Brock Lesnar, Braun Strowman
- Clowns – Matt Hardy, B-Team, R-Truth, Heath Slater etc.
- Acrobatics/Gymnastics – 205 Live
- Fire Breathing – Entrances & Pyrotechnics
- Daredevil Acts – Shane McMahon
- Magic Shows & Mystery Games/Acts – The Undertaker. Or Kane appearing from nowhere.
- Juggling – Back-and-forth action.
- Tallest Man – The Great Khali
- Little People – Hornswoggle, El Torito
- Masked People – Luchadors
- Strongman – Mark Henry
- Dancing – Naomi & Lana
- Famous Sideshow Performers – Celebrities, Legends.
Almost every promotion in the world have elements of a circus to it. They like to have varied acts, they like to be colourful, and they like to stand out with a unique image. They don’t usually play well with others, but when they do the results are amazing. Every circus has a main draw, and every wrestling promotion always wants to make their draw bigger.
Circuses became obsolete because easier, more accessible forms of entertainment came along. It’s difficult to imagine anything usurping professional wrestling, as there’s nothing like it. Perhaps if UFC became scripted and turned in to an entertainment show? Would anyone buy it ? I guess the fights would look more “real”, but would the UFC be able to give variety like wrestling does? It’s hard to imagine, as it’s been always about the fighting. UFC is a sport, while pro wrestling posed as one from the beginning. UFC is about strong fighters in short matches scheduled months apart, while wrestling is about durable wrestlers who work longer, scripted matches to a tight schedule.
So with that said, wrestling can’t become obsolete because there’s nothing to replace it. Unlike the circus, wrestling is destined to live on forever in some form. Will there ever be a drastic shift in how it’s presented? Can it evolve in to something more than it is? Has the formula reached its true potential?
The Magic Exposed.
Another thing, when does magic stop being magic? When it’s over? Or when you show everyone how fake and scripted it is? Vince McMahon did this in the 90s, and instead of killing the industry like many old promoters predicted, it had the opposite effect for his company. Now the fans knew what they were getting, they could enjoy it for what it is, instead of thinking in the back of their heads if it’s real or not. It was always there, and many media outlets tried to expose the business for what it was.
Vince beat them to it and admitted it was “Sports-Entertainment”. There’d always been predetermined winners, but now fans could enjoy the journey. Much like a TV show, fans knew the characters portrayed were not how the wrestlers were in real-life. It cleared up a lot of confusion, and Vince capitalized like any good ringmaster would, while other promotions closed trying to do what worked before.
It happened not long before the Attitude Era, when the WWF was struggling and business was super competitive. WWE had always been a circus with its crazy gimmicks, but the Attitude Era gave them an opportunity to be magical in another way. Instead of sticking to kayfabe, they were dedicated to opening it up so they could bring adult content to its programming. It was fast, it was wild, and it very much resembled a circus of old. Nothing was off-limits, and they could be as crude as they liked. They had to be, as it was the only way they could entice fans away from the other mainstream circus act known as WCW.
Shock & Awe. RIP.
Somewhere around 2007/8 .. the business went backwards. There’re many reasons WWE had to cut back on its edgy content, but what fans were left with was a poor imitation of what they grew up with. Instead of a circus pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on television, we got a carnival with faded colours. We lost the dangerous stuff, lost the edgy segments, and in its place we were given a relaxing day out for the family. And that’s great for the kids, but I guess many adults wish they could go to the circus for acts they’re not going to see anywhere else.
Not only that, but (WWE especially) there seemed to be an aura of complacency. As there’s no serious competition, bigger promotions didn’t need to try too hard. They could charge what they wanted, produced what they wanted, and still made tons of money as it’s the only show in town. Instead of a circus, WWE became about turning over a profit and appeasing shareholders. They pushed acts which were better for them, instead of what’s better for the show. This practice wouldn’t have gone down well in the past, as many would’ve walked out in disgust. Fans don’t care that much anymore, they say they do .. but they don’t. No matter how bad it gets, fans can’t help but tune in through force of habit. They’ll still remain in their seats when Roman Reigns is the main event. They keep hoping for better, but there’s no reason to assume it will.
And it’s not getting better because everything’s been done before. It’s almost impossible to shock anyone (in a good way), there’s only so many decent story lines/angles. Much of the craziest ideas were done in the Attitude Era, and television networks won’t allow those again unless it’s in a cartoon. Notice how shows like Family Guy, South Park, Rick & Morty, hell .. even The Simpsons, get away with so much? It’s because they’re cartoons. It’s easier to accept shocking language/segments in cartoon form than it is on a show with real people. Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy has admitted they sometimes sing a song to lessen the impact of something really offensive, because it’s entertaining to the point the viewer doesn’t register how offensive it is; remember the AIDS song? Better yet, watch Camp WWE and see what Vince McMahon (and Co.) get up too on their own network.
So What Is It?
In terms of WWE I’m unsure. There’s the main roster which is like a carnival which never strays from the norm. We have 205 Live which is slowly becoming NXT 205 Live. Speaking of NXT, it’s more like ROH than WWE. Impact Wrestling? Well, for a while it was a terribly run circus with little draw, but these days its reputation is slowly coming back. New Japan is like the biggest old school wrestling promotion in the world, as they continue to treat wrestling like a sport (most the time) despite everyone knowing otherwise; they sure do love their 5-star matches!
Wrestling promotions like Impact, ROH, NJPW and Lucha Underground are coming together to do great business, while WWE likes to play alone in its bubble. There’s definitely motivation by lesser companies to survive in a world dominated by the family carnival. And they don’t want to copy it, they want to keep producing things like “Broken Matt Hardy”; gimmicks WWE would never dare to try first.
Across the world it feels like wrestling is growing, but it isn’t. Through much of wrestling’s history, it’s been a niche form of entertainment which rarely garners mainstream attention outside of anything controversial. Wrestlemania (and arguably the Royal Rumble) is probably the only time of year casual fans hear about it. They tune in because their friends and/or families want to watch it, and to them it’s the same old show. It hasn’t changed much, and it isn’t likely to change much, the only difference is the names & faces. And til the day the business looks at itself and realises it’s always going to be a niche, then it will remain so.
In order for wrestling to be really mainstream, it would need to evolve. The companies would have to work together to deliver the biggest cards in their histories. It would need controversy, amazing story lines, and a willingness to try new things. It wouldn’t be afraid of doing bad business sometimes, as anything worthwhile has an element of risk. WWE and other companies are expanding, but the world doesn’t care. There’s only so many times you can watch before shows become predictable, and anyone remotely smart will think they are insulting to their intelligence. This is something which needs to change, because I believe it’s the main thing which drives possible new fans away.
For a while I’ve wanted to take a step back and look at what the business is doing without slandering it, or being too biased as a fan myself. Now that I have, I feel like a weight has been lifted. I understand why I feel the way I do about wrestling today. I do appreciate it but man .. much like Peter Griffin would say, for crying out loud, someone throw a pie? Someone do something shocking .. please. I just want Lesnar to come out next Monday, trip over Heyman, injure his leg so he can’t walk, then Strowman comes out and literally eats him alive. Ok .. so he won’t eat him, but he’ll cash in and we can move forward, but you get what I’m saying right? At least I’m trying to think of something people will tune in for.
I’m tired of waiting for things to happen, and I’m sure others are too. Would you rather go to a professional wrestling circus with acts you’ve never seen before? Or spend extra to go to the family fair? So you can watch a nicely polished product with all the best acts in the world going all out with limitations? I’m mixed on that. Seriously though, if you took the positives from each promotion and infused all of it in to one show, it would be the greatest thing wrestling’s ever done. Not that I’m expecting that ever .. I’m just dreaming. I feel like there should be a lot more going on, but most of it is happening outside of WWE.
We’re The Same.
I’m of the impression that many are like me, they are patiently waiting for things to happen. The industry has the talent, it just needs to put them in the right spots so they can make the right noise. What do you think? Has wrestling lost its magical circus atmosphere? Will it ever come back? Do we even want it back? Or are we content with the family carnival producing the same acts with different names each year? Is there a case for making products “edgy” again? Or do you think it’s a simple case of getting better creative people behind the scenes? Will it always be like this so long as Vince McMahon’s the ringmaster?
Will WWE become a circus again when Triple H takes over? So many questions which can only be answered in time. As fans, we should have a say in how the future of wrestling unfolds. We have the power to change it, but only if we care enough. Not that I’m saying we don’t! I assume if you’ve read this article you care about wrestling. We all like different things, but the one thing we have in common is we are wrestling fans. Some enjoy the sports-entertainment aspect more, and others like 5-star matches more.
And while we argue among ourselves, we waste energy which could be put in to appreciating the good. When we argue we come across as pathetic to anyone who isn’t in to wrestling. They might call us childish, they might think we have no lives for watching “fake” fighting, but we all know better. We all know what we like, and we’re likely to enjoy wrestling as long as we live. We can’t be dissuaded. We can’t be horrible. All we can be are wrestling fans together, sailing the waves of an industry which may one day create a wave so enormous, we’ll be riding it all the way with smiles on our faces. Have a nice day everyone! See you again soon.