“Ultimate Robot Fighting is fixed?! I thought it was real — like pro wrestling — but I guess it’s just fake — like pro boxing.” — Philip J. Fry
Kevin asked about this in the comments yesterday; I’m going to try to make a fuller explanation here of what I mean, in a way that should not require foreknowledge of wrestling.
Pro wrestling, along with boxing and UFC, is centered around two dudes (or gals, on occasion) beating the hell out of one another until the other one quits. The winner is covered with glory and/or money, the loser with shame and ridicule. In boxing and UFC, it’s more about the athleticism or the sport, which occasionally produces great characters (Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao if you’re a more modern fan), but you’re not there to see a story. You’re there to see a fight. Boxing has long periods between fights at the pro level, usually months, and while I don’t know UFC that well, I would assume, given the brutal nature of the sport, there is also a certain amount of lag between fights. There would have to be.
Pro wrestling, on the other hand, is different. First of all, among all athletic endeavors (if you don’t want to call it a sport), it has no off-season.
Think about that for a moment. In the WWE, wrestlers are often wrestling three to four days a week, around 50 weeks a year. That doesn’t count appearances for other reasons (like John Cena’s truly admirable and consistent delivery for Make-a-Wish kids). In independent wrestling, it’s less frequent but for a lot less money.
The consequence of this is that a wrestler, on average, wrestles some 200 matches a year. In other words, more than the entire career of any boxer. Part of the reason this is possible is because, of course, wrestling is scripted, and is specifically designed to look amazing but cause as little actual damage as possible. That’s not always possible — injuries are frequent, to say the least — but the idea is to keep things as easy as possible.
Here’s the thing about wrestling moves — most of them would cripple somebody, if not kill them outright, if done by an amateur. I’ve experienced a full nelson, and it is unpleasant, to say the least. If I were stronger/taller, I could kill somebody with it. (For David Weber fans, Anton Zilwicki mentions this in one of the spin-off series.) If you wonder why the vast majority of UFC matches last a minute and a half or less, there’s why.
But let’s return to the topic. When you fight that many times a year, you can’t simply say “Let’s fight!” “Them’s fighting words!” and go at it. Pro wrestling needs a story, a structure, to keep people interested. Mike Tyson didn’t fight Evander Holyfield dozens of times in his career — he fought him twice. John Cena and Randy Orton (to name the two most prominent at the moment) have wrestled each other, not counting developmental leagues, probably at least thirty or forty times just counting TV and PPVs. They’ve done this over a period of years, and with tag team matches you can keep things fresh, but still, that’s a lot of encounters.
Wrestlers are always adding new moves to their repertoire, but for a lot of wrestlers, if you’ve seen one particular match, you’ve seen them all. (I like Orton more than many, and Cena gets a lot of shit that’s undeserved, but they do wrestle A LOT.) So why do we (speaking of wrestling fans) still care? Because wrestling is about the characters first, and the athletics second.
I do not believe there are many people on Earth who do not know Hulk Hogan. As an athlete, outside of his stuff in the AWA (American Wrestling Alliance) or Japan, he’s sub-par. I could name a dozen wrestlers, right now, who are more exciting in the ring, than he ever was. But as a character? He was Truth, Justice, and the American Way. He was a real life Superman. You ALWAYS wanted him to beat the nefarious bad guy, especially if it was a dirty furriner. (I didn’t, but that’s because my sister liked him, so I had to hate him.) He had charisma out the wazoo.
And then the nWo (New World Order) happened in WCW in 1996. Hulk Hogan, Super Good Guy, goes evil, becoming “Hollywood Hulk Hogan.” And people went apeshit. (In wrestling jargon, this is called a heel turn.) I mean, people were throwing stuff into the ring at him — that’s how betrayed they felt. Then he comes back to WWE, wrestles the Rock at Wrestlemania (otherwise known as actor Dwayne Johnson) and despite the fact he’s supposed to be a bad guy — he was brought into to be a bad guy — the crowd supports him. They love him, because they want to honor his career and because, stay with me here, HE’S SUCH A GREAT CHARACTER. I don’t know how many hundreds of matches Hogan had over his career (and seriously, Hulk, you’re well over 50 years old, let’s keep that ‘had’, shall we?) but people still cared about him.
That is what I mean by character driven entertainment. Storylines, even as simplistic as “Hogan vs. Evil Foreigner”, are crucial to wrestling. Sometimes they’re more complex, but more often than that, they aren’t.
I’ll give you one more example of a compelling character in pro wrestling. In the early 90s, there was a tag team in WCW called the Hollywood Blondes — Brian Pillman (who was an absolute lunatic) and a newcomer named Steve Austin. Now, again, I think there’s enough crossover between WWE and mainstream society that you know who I mean by the latter, but work with me. They were a good, solid tag team, but the management in WCW didn’t like young Austin, didn’t think he had much of a chance, so they let him go. WWE picked him up, packaged him in a new gimmick as the enforcer for Ted DiBiase, the Million Dollar Man. They did everything they could to push him, but his reaction was tepid at best.
Then came the birth of Stone Cold Steve Austin. (Fun fact: his legal name was Steven Williams, but it was considered too similar to another wrestler, “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, so he changed it to Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man notwithstanding.) He was in a feud with Jake “the Snake” Roberts (another wrestler from the 80s who’s relatively popular and a master character), who was at this point in a semi-Christian phase, and would always quote from the Bible, in particular John 3:16.
In one of the greatest promos in history, Stone Cold responded on this occasion: “Oh yeah? Well Austin 3:16 says I just whupped your damn ass!” WWE made MILLIONS, if not BILLIONS off of t-shirts which simply had “Austin 3:16” on the front. Stone Cold Steve Austin was not Hulk Hogan, American Hero. No, he was a beer-swilling redneck from Texas (occasionally called by the announcers “the Bionic Redneck”, in reference to his many injuries and the Steve Austin angle) who hated his boss (Vince McMahon, another fantastic character) and got to beat the shit out of him, on occasion.
I don’t remember which wrestler said this — probably Chris Jericho, given the reference — but he said “the best characters of wrestling are the people themselves, turned up to 11.” And that fits Austin to a tee. As an athlete, well, he was an exceptionally tough beer swilling redneck, but not exactly “ripped”. Yet, it didn’t matter. He was, to use another wrestling term, “over” with the crowd.
So, that’s why I mean by character driven entertainment in pro wrestling.