Why Wrestling Can’t Modernize

Published on January 8th, 2013 in: Over the Gadfly's Nest, Pro Wrestling, Sports |

By Paul Casey


Wrestling is not a sport. It is some combination of martial arts exhibition, magic, and comic books. It is a dangerous profession. As I wrote around this time last year on Popshifter, there are many reasons why professional wrestling has not gained legitimate mainstream acceptance.

Over the last year in WWE—the most powerful wrestling outfit in the world—CM Punk, independent wrestling hero and one of the most gifted technicians in at least a decade, has held the main world title. He has held it for over a year, straight. In modern times this is extremely rare. In the old days title reigns lasted years; now they last months with a much wider pool of talent vying for the top prize. This is not really a bad thing—even though some would-be traditionalists argue that it has added to wrestling’s decline—as when the wrestlers in competition are talented and the bookers know how to weave storylines together it can reflect the best aspects of professional wrestling: fast, brutal, hilarious, and supremely athletic.

I have admired Punk for a long time, and when he shook up the company in 2011, it was an exciting time to be a wrestling fan. I hoped, as many did, that this would be the moment when wrestling finally moved on and progressed beyond emulating the successes it had in the past. Even though there have been many fine things about CM Punk’s run as the top guy in WWE (and arguably in all of pro wrestling), it emphasizes again how deeply ingrained wrestling’s problems are.

Doing great shoot promos and putting in great work in the ring is not enough to make one forget that the machine in which every match and every performer must exist is dysfunctional, anachronistic, and self-defeating. WWE and TNA—the smaller, but not quite Indie promotion owned and run by Dixie Carter—have a lovely visual presentation. They have done nice little things, such as miking the ring to let the wrestlers speak during matches.

The presentation is, however, merely trying to reflect the popularity of MMA. There is no indie solution, either. One look at Ring of Honor and you will see the small timers have no better ideas than Paul Heyman did in the ’90s: 1) Make it more dangerous 2) Make it more closely resemble a sport, which is also surprise! MMA. Chikara at least attempts to diverge but is ultimately beholden to the same small heads more obsessed with golf claps and botched moves than being invested in characters and stories.

Look at how CM Punk has been presented—and possibly how he wants to present himself—and one sees how stupidly limiting this is. Professional wrestling does not need to emulate MMA now any more than it needed to emulate boxing in the 1980s.

There are many narrative possibilities for wrestling when the notion that it should aim to be a sport is discarded:

1) You can abandon the idea that everything has to happen objectively. You can shoot the inside of wrestlers’ heads. You can shoot dream sequences. You can do openly supernatural story lines. There have been tentative steps towards this over the years, particularly with The Undertaker, Kane, and The Brood in the late ’90s. If executed properly, this could draw in the comic book crowd like never before. You can shoot private moments. Being able to do this allows you to cultivate more subtleties and character traits than is possible within the current system, which has been in place for at least four decades now. Think of a character who does not simply have an onscreen “girlfriend” but a genuine relationship with another human being every week on television. How different would it be if the stakes were more The Sopranos and less Days of Our Lives?

2) By doing the above you can put a different focus on the kinds of artists who can succeed in wrestling. Good actors, comedians, and writers can find a place within wrestling and put the weekly show on the level of Saturday Night Live and Boardwalk Empire.

3) You can discard the final, unhelpful remnants of BIG MAN wrestling, which states that a smaller person or a woman cannot be champion. Why? It’s not realistic! Fuck realism. Realism: Eat a dick. There have been many women in wrestling who deserved to be in contention for major titles. Only one, Chyna, got anywhere. Smaller people have recently gotten to the stage where it is not so much of a barrier—although larger men still absolutely have the advantage—but women are very, very far from being able to become world champions and more importantly, getting paid accordingly. This would allow for much more diverse talents to engage with wrestling, as well as switch up the kinds of story lines and matches people can see on television or at live events.

Professional wrestling and people like CM Punk can do so much more than wrestle physical matches and break the fourth wall in promos. There was a point in the 1990s when the business of wrestling seemed like it had the potential to become something individual, as it grew out of its carnival con-job past and became its own thing. A look at what Eric Bischoff was doing in the mid to late part of that decade is perhaps the best indication of this. Every show was packed with ideas: different styles of wrestling, wildly varied characters, overarching story lines, and a deliberate and concentrated attempt to get away from the way things used to be done.

To get back to that level of inventiveness or inspired pilfering is not going to be done by trying to repeat that format, but in finding something entirely new. It is certainly not to be found in MMA, or through that favorite cry of a desolate mind: BACK TO BASICS!

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