Holy shit, so me and somekindofold saw WWE RAW last Monday and it was like the greatest experience of my life. Coincidentally we had seen Mick Foley’s spoken word tour at the DC Improv the week before, and besides being awesome in its own right, so much of what he said about wrestling made seeing RAW a more meaningful experience, which I didn’t think was a sentence I would ever write.
I think my main takeway was that so many of criticisms of wrestling just dissolve when you see it live. The “fakeness,” the overacting, the knowledge that it is staged/predetermined/whatever you want to call it, all becomes irrelevant. I think it’s largely due to the scale in person being completely different than the one you perceive from TV. Everyone knows how television sets can be made to appear to have more depth through lighting and camera tricks. I feel like the camera angles work to a disadvantage in televised wrestling, another, a concept I never thought I would contemplate.
It’s impossible to grasp the scale of the action from the television’s perspective. The ring is much higher in person than it looks on screen; the aisles surrounding it are also much larger. The video screens and lighting that I always imagined existed to fill the space and make it seem deeper and larger on television have the opposite effect. While in actuality it filled the entire wall of a stadium and looked mind-blowing large, when I watched the episode on TV the space seemed shrunk and the ceilings looked low. The night we went there were a bunch of ladders scattered around to promote the Money in the Bank match that was happening that weekend, and I spent a sad amount of time asking somekindofold to determine whether or not they were real ladders. Which sounds like a drunk question, but it wasn’t. For the record they were real ladders, which she kept telling me, but they were so freakishly tall I thought they had to be a painted backdrop. The point is, they were so tall in real life I couldn’t conceive of them being real, but on television they just looked like regular. fucking. ladders.
The part that made me the most sad (or I guess repentant, like I had to throw myself on the altar of professional wrestling and proclaim that I was once a non-believer, but had now accepted Ric Flair into my heart,) was the realization that in person, these wrestlers are working with 360 degrees of space, surrounded on all sides by audience members. This idea never transfers to television. When they’re doing a tag-team match, and one wrestler gets KO’d, or thrown out of the ring, that wrestler never goes anywhere. They aren’t picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, grabbing a bottle of water and checking their phones until someone tags them back in. They have to lie there, pretending to writhe in pain, until someone tags them back in, or they hit the lights and they are quietly ushered out.
I think this is notable for 2 reasons:
1. It seems like a fucking pain in the ass. It must be incredibly boring to have to passively lay there and act wounded for however many minutes in front of 15,000+ fans and however many at home viewers. The urge to space out and start looking around must be incredible.
2. Virtually no other program I can think of would put forth that level of dedication to maintaining an illusion.
I’ve been to show tapings before. As soon as the camera is no longer on, or no longer on them, most people break character immediately. Not necessarily in a bad way, live television happens fast and it’s understandable they need every second to read notes and make last minute changes. But these wrestlers are on every second. It’s clear that they’re as concerned with entertaining the fans that are there in the audience as they are with the far greater number that are watching at home. It’s one of the only events I’ve attended where I actually felt valued and like my experience wasn’t being sacrificed for the more lucrative promise of ratings.
Two comparisons kept coming to mind as I was watching, and they were two things I sure-as-fuck never thought I’d put in the same sentence as professional wrestling: theater and ice dancing. People always draw a distinction between acting for the camera and acting for a live audience. Not an actor, but to make a broad generalization, screen acting requires much more restraint. The closer perspective draws attention to subtle movements and expressions. Stage acting (again, generalization) necessitates a heavier hand to be understood by those that may be at the back of an audience.
Wrestling, it became apparent, was much more like theater. The things I hated about watching wrestling on television worked well, and dare I say it, looked sort of realistic, sitting in the 100 section. The problems I had with wrestling weren’t problems with wrestling, but problems with televising wrestling. And the problems with televising wrestling are the same problems with translating theater to television, what begins as an emotionally charged portrayal of Hamlet ends with (Hamlet Spoiler) Kenneth Brannagh flailing around in the most protracted death scene of all time.
Which is where the ice dancing comes to play. One of my biggest beefs with pro-wrestling was the weird hand-to-hand combat stuff, the stupid, exaggerated fake stomps and slaps and the ridiculously pained expressions on the wrestlers faces. It seemed like mockery, we know John Cena isn’t getting slapped unconscious every night, so why do we have to pretend we think the motherfucker is dead.
Every two years when the Olympics rolls around I have the same conversation with myself. I love the stunt portion of the routines and cringe through everything else. I don’t want to watch Meryl Davis do sassy little wrist motions, I want to see that bitch do a barrel roll and crush Svetlana’s dreams of ever getting a gold or a potato for her family. What I finally learned from Sochi and my sudden acute interest in ice dancing (bandwagonitis?) is that that is not really the point. I’m not an ice dancer (shocking) but a lot of those little movements, I would intimate, do double-duty as flourishes and time-fillers, serving to make it look less awkward as the dancers skate halfway across the rink to set up another jump.
Which omg, was exactly what happened at RAW.
This shit was like a ballet. There is no other way to describe what transpired than beautifully coordinated. It was art. Wrestlers being flung from the ring, others storming it, bulky-ass men handling each other with both the delicateness of a monarch butterfly and the dumb brutality of King Kong. The stunts were truly much more impressive in person, where you are able to process that it doesn’t matter if Kane and Roman Reigns know the outcome of a match, it’s amazing that even with prior knowledge and rehearsing, they are able to hurl themselves off a swaying rope without breaking their necks.
I think that’s what Mick Foley meant at the Improv when in response to a question about people who criticize wrestling for being predetermined, he said something to the effect of ”broken bones are not predetermined.” At the time I thought he was simply saying that despite all the planning in the world, during a match there is a certain accepted level of risk. Nothing can be truly pre-determined when Murphy’s Law exists. However I now think what he was insinuating was more subtle, but much farther reaching. At the show, Foley gave an anecdote about being knocked unconscious in a 1998 match with the Undertaker. As he lay unconscious, wrestling personnel pulled him to the side and sent out Terry Funk in his place to “buy more time.” As in, after a minute and a half of unconsciousness, the intent was to stall long enough for him to regain consciousness and get back in the ring. Funk proceeded to get the shit kicked out of him until his shoes literally fell off. Mick Foley reminded the audience that in the NFL the clock would undoubtedly stop for a player injury, but not in the WWE.
There are intricacies to the sport and performance of professional wrestling that often go overlooked but are no less real. Like any other athlete, they train, they prepare, and then they are at the will of chance. The Crying Wrestling Fan reminded us there are sacrifices to be made. We mourn for the Sidney Crosby’s of the world, when young players are struck down in their prime, we lament that “their hearts were stronger than their bodies.” But we never think about Mick Foley and his busted knees and his permanent brain damage caused by a career full of concussions.
An ice dancer knows their routine, that doesn’t mean they’re going to land their jumps. Performers learn scripts or songs or sketches or whatever, that doesn’t mean they’re not going to choke. Sure, pro-athletes don’t know how their games will turn out, and I don’t have a lot of great sports analogies because I don’t watch much sports, but if you told former shitty Leafs goalie Andrew Raycroft that it had been pre-arranged his team would win, I’m sure that asshole would still find a way to let every goal in. Predetermined is not prescient, and a storyline is not a crutch for lack of talent.
Wrestling is a live performance with the physicality and theatrics of competitive sports or theater. I think Foley is credited with coining “sports entertainment” and I think it’s a very apt description. The fact the competitors know the details of the match doesn’t make it “fake,” it makes it compelling. The sheer coordination and precision involved in pulling off some of these stunts without creating an actual bloodbath as opposed to a fictional one is astounding. You really need to witness a couple of 250 pound men climbing 10 feet in the air and colliding to feel the full impact.
Hold me Ric Flair, I think I’m a believer.