Saturday, November 26, 2016

Notes on wrestling, Part III: The athletes

Wrestling is fake. Somehow, this is both its dark secret and its obvious critique; inevitably, it is the great truth that critics declare to wrestling's partisans, who have all this time somehow failed to notice. As a rule, the standard point is to concede this criticism, but to insist that wrestling is a worthy enterprise despite this flaw; even though it lacks the prestige and excellence of true competition, it's still an interesting spectacle nevertheless. We accept what is fake about wrestling as a failing and a blemish; critics decide this is damning, and fans decide to love it anyway.

Here, I want to offer a different defense: wrestling is not actually fake. The outcomes of particular matches are (usually) predetermined, and (usually) neither wrestler is actually trying to beat the other into submission. But despite the pretext, winning matches through physical domination is not actually the point of wrestling. In reality, wrestlers have two goals:
1) To maintain an extreme degree of physical conditioning - not only in order to accomplish the second goal, but also in order to create and advance a personal brand built around body aesthetics; 
2) To master the physically demanding set of skills needed to perform matches safely and convincingly.
That's it. These are by no means trivial goals, or even remotely attainable for most people; a wrestler's struggle to achieve them is definitely not fake and certainly not scripted. Both require the raw talent, physical gifts, relentless training, and excellence in performance one expects of any athlete; the price of failure ranges from a legacy of mediocrity to employment problems to serious injury. A wrestler who succeeds will avoid injury, and at least have a shot at building a reputation, holding down a steady career, and making enough money to live and retire on. Fans, meanwhile, are acutely aware of all of this, and evaluate a wrestler's performance just as one would evaluate any other athlete's.


TRAINING

One of the first things that anyone who watches professional wrestling notices is that most of its performers are in ridiculously good shape. Not just "they could be athletes" good shape - we're talking good shape compared to athletes themselves.

In terms of conditioning, your typical professional wrestler is most comparable to basketball players, and only exceeded by extreme endurance athletes like distance runners and swimmers. They typically perform multiple times every week, periodically in Iron Man or Royal Rumble matches that can run for more than a full continuous hour. During that time, they are expected to run around the ring, to land acrobatics and execute stunts, and to do all of this safely and convincingly, with almost no margin of error. Wrestlers who are too tired to do this are "gassed", in wrestling jargon, and are considered inferior performers. Fans generally develop an intuitive sense of when a wrestler is gassed, but some even break it down into a science:
I wanted to know just how many minutes The Rock “worked” his match with CM Punk at Elimination Chamber. So, the match still fresh in my DVR, I re-watched it and, with my trusty stop watch timed whenever The Rock “worked”... 
Approx Bell-to-bell Match Time: 20 minutes
Rocky’s total “worked” minutes: 4 minutes 30 seconds
Percent of match “worked”: 22.5%
This, needless to say, was considered a poor performance, and evidence that The Rock - having spent about a decade away from the ring making movies - was out of shape. By the way, this, in professional wrestling, is "out of shape":


One reason why a professional wrestler can look like this and still be out of shape is that professional wrestlers are huge. Most are easily as large as professional football players, and they're generally much more muscular - for comparison, check out this clip from Wrestlemania II, when they actually fought NFL players in a battle royal. The Rock's diet is so insane that FiveThirtyEight has written about it multiple times (it basically involves truckloads of cod), and his workouts are comparable to a bodybuilder's.

Historically, of course, prolific steroid use was a major contributor to pro-wrestling physiques. After a 1993 federal drug trafficking prosecution, a 2007 Congressional investigation, and a horrific high-profile murder-suicide, the WWE implemented a "Wellness Policy" program featuring random drug testing and a strict disciplinary process. Like most such efforts in professional athletics, this solution isn't perfect; there are still loopholes in the program that are probably being exploited to this day. Still, the Wellness Policy has had an obvious impact on the industry. Performers are noticeably less massive than they used to be, and those who are often appear to have come by it honestly.

Aside from performance demands, a wrestler's fitness regimen is also significantly driven by an expectation - by management, and by the public - that they maintain a certain look. Some, like Mark Henry and Paul Wight, are simply promoted as enormous giants, and their regimens involve maintaining high body weight and enough cardiovascular fitness to perform. Others, like Big E Langston and Mason Ryan, are essentially bodybuilders; still others, like Tyler Breeze and Roman Reigns, are promoted as sex icons. As they age and their bodies break down, this level of fitness always becomes more difficult to maintain, which is why only a select few keep wrestling in their fifties.



FIGHTING

Ultimately, the art of wrestling is built around two skills: attacking an opponent, and reacting to (or "selling") the attacks. Both are to be done as convincingly - and safely - as possible, though these standards have fluctuated over the years. Decades ago, audiences were fine with cartoonishly unrealistic, Popeye-style windup punches and absurdly exaggerated flops...


...today, this usually only happens as a joke, and audiences generally expect to believe what they see. During the mid-to-late nineties a grittier wrestling style punctuated with high-risk stunts became popular - most famously culminating in Mick Foley's iconic, definitely-not-fake 16-foot fall through a table in 1998. Today, such stunts are less frequent (though they do still happen), and wrestlers try to avoid serious injury risks while still maintaining a realistic performance.

That is what "safety" means in the modern era. Wrestling has never been "fake" in the sense that nobody gets hurt; performers routinely land actual strikes on each other, and many falls, slams, and tumbles are physically impossible to pull off without some degree of pain or risk. The actual goal, in practice, is to avoid injury and minimize pain. To do this, performers master a large set of techniques and moves that are either standard practice for stuntmen, or that have been painstakingly developed in the industry over the years.

For example, one of the most basic skills a wrestler has to learn is how to take "a bump" - a hard fall, typically onto one's back. Taking a bump has two major components. First, one must try to hit the ground in a way that spreads the impact across as wide a surface area as possible; this diffuses the force hitting any one part of the body. Second, one has to try to avoid the whiplash that can accompany a bump, generally by tucking one's chin into the neck.

This technique may sound simple, but in practice it's very difficult to get right every time: it's physically counterintuitive and requires significant, active concentration. All-time wrestling great Ric Flair, for one, was known for his ability to take bumps, which is one reason why he managed such a long and relatively injury-free career. Obviously, however, a wrestler has to know how to do more than just fall down correctly - in fact, many of the stunts they have to master become absurdly elaborate.


While there is a technique to taking hits, there's also an art to it; after all, the aim isn't merely to be safe, but to be safe while conveying that one has actually been hurt. For this reason, ironically, some of the most gifted and respected athletes in professional wrestling are the ones who are best at getting beat up. One of the best at this, right now, is a guy named Dolph Ziggler:


Ziggler is a master of looking like he's just been murdered. He typically looks like he's doing nothing to protect himself from serious injury: his body goes limp, he hits the ground hard, and it often even seems like there's some whiplash going on. No matter how clumsy and stunted his opponent's performance actually is, Ziggler can make them look like a million bucks simply by taking his lumps convincingly.

Other wrestlers are better known for their offense. Sometimes, this just means being able to execute an attack safely: for example, even though it's one of the sport's most iconic moves, the "piledriver" is so dangerous that only a few performers (such as The Undertaker) are even allowed to try it. Other moves are simply too difficult for most wrestlers to even attempt, particularly flying acrobatic moves like the Red Arrow; botching a stunt like this can be extraordinarily dangerous, as Brock Lesnar discovered at Wrestlemania XIX when he attempted a Shooting Star Press and got a severe concussion for his trouble:


Incidentally, if you've heard the name Brock Lesnar before, there's a reason. Even outside of professional wrestling, Lesnar is a premiere athlete: he is an NCAA Division I wrestling champion and a former UFC heavyweight champion. And Lesnar consistently incorporates both amateur wrestling and mixed-martial arts elements into his professional wrestling performance, for example here working in kimura locks and knee lifts from his fighting background. The use of diverse fighting styles, each with their own arsenal of moves and holds, is a defining feature of the performance, which is why most wrestlers have some minimal training in "real" wrestling and fighting sports. Many, of course, have much more than minimal training. Kurt Angle is an Olympic gold medalist; Dolph Ziggler and Jack Swagger are both accomplished collegiate wrestlers; Alberto Del Rio and The Undertaker both have backgrounds in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and kickboxing; and so on. Here's how John Morrison describes his training:
...I practiced gymnastics. I also did martial arts. I wanted to be like a Hollywood stuntman...I had a lot more aerial coordination from all the hours I was spending in the gym. I could jump and twist and flip. All that skill set had a lot of carry-over into wrestling...how many steps to take between the ropes. The footwork. A lot of subtleties that people might not notice.
Morrison is right that these subtleties are easy to miss - but this is simply a testament to his skill as a performer and an athlete. It's precisely because wrestlers are so talented that their performance comes off, to critics, as so effortless.