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Showing posts with label Wrestling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wrestling. Show all posts
Notes on wrestling, Part III: The athletes - 11/26/16
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.


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.


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..., 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 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.
Notes on wrestling - 10/20/16
This continuing series will feature explainers on professional wrestling from a left-Marxist perspective.

Notes on wrestling, Part II: The business -
Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of modern professional wrestling (and by that I mean the WWE*) is that it represents itself as a business. This wasn't always the case. Particularly in the late eighties and early nineties, wrestling shows came off more as a kind of spontaneous yet highly organized spectacle: athletes put on a show, a few announcers narrated the proceedings, a mob of fans showed up, and somehow all of this was caught on tape. Today, on the other hand, wrestling goes out of its way to make sure you know that you're consuming high-quality branded entertainment, that it's produced by a cast of highly-skilled professionals, all under the management of a powerful bureaucracy, and all, ultimately, making a handful of owners extraordinarily rich.

In practice, this means that prominent, recurring characters who appear on the show and play a role in storylines have included the WWE's CEO, COO, Assistant to the COO, Chief Brand Officer, Director of Operations, Senior Vice President of Talent Operations, Senior Advisor, Legal Advisor, and various Presidents, Commissioners, General Managers, and Assistants to the General Manager. Routinely, they'll appear on the show and talk about the company's managerial decisions, ratings, profits, sales figures, and marketing; in a running catchphrase, they'll justify various storyline decisions (rulings about who fights who and such) as what's "best for business".

Already, then, professional wrestling features an odd dramatic dynamic with no real analogy in any other form of mass entertainment: many of the entertainers are themselves actual managers of the production, and that role is itself incorporated into the entertainment. For example, Paul Levesque - better known by his stage name Triple H - is one of the company's highest ranking corporate executives, and appears on the show as such. But when he inexplicably comes out of retirement and wins the championship - a development that necessarily bolsters his real-world prominence - one cannot help but ask: did he actually leverage his real-life power as a corporate executive to make this happen? Did Levesque, for purely self-interested reasons, actually pressure the show's scriptwriters to give him one last victory lap, and at the expense of the other workers?

It may seem like a bizarre turn of events for a multi-million dollar company, completely beholden to profit-seeking shareholders and customers who demand conscientiously crafted storylines, to let one man turn its main product into a vanity project; the closest parallel would be if George Lucas fired Harrison Ford halfway through filming so that he could play Indiana Jones himself. But amazingly enough, a significant majority of people who watch the industry agree that this is exactly what happened. In fact, it's generally understood that Paul Levesque constantly uses his power and influence in the company to rewrite storylines in his own interest - either to burnish his legacy or to bury his rivals.

This sort of development is far from exceptional - it is actually one of professional wrestling's primary sources of drama. A common misconception about the performance is that, because it is scripted, it proceeds in predictable and uninteresting ways; for instance, the good guys always win and the bad guys always lose. But incredibly enough, wrestling storylines don't just pander to the audience, or follow dramatically logical, coherent narratives - they also emerge from a cauldron of backstage politicking, idiosyncratic vision, and elaborate industry norms and traditions. And because all of this is boiling just below the surface, it creates a genuinely fascinating metadrama - not about what the script will say, but about how it will be written.

When the business loses control of its product

Consider, for example, what is generally recognized as one of the most fascinating and exhilarating storylines in the modern history of professional wrestling: Daniel Bryan's struggle to compete in the main event at Wrestlemania 30.

Historically, WWE management has always preferred to promote wrestlers who fit the popular image of a wrestler - think Hulk Hogan or John Cena, giants with square jaws and enormous biceps who look good on promotional posters and lunchboxes. And in 2014, it became quite clear early on which meatheads the company had decided to push. One, Randy Orton, already held the championship, and was thus by the logic of wrestling entitled to a spot in the main event. The other, Dave Batista, was a veteran who had just landed a prominent (and for pro wrestlers, rare) role in a major blockbuster film, Guardians of the Galaxy. WWE executives plainly saw in him an opportunity for cross-promotion, so in short order they scripted Batista a preliminary victory that entitled him to his own spot in the main event.

In this way, the industry tradition of promoting heavyweights, the financial incentives of Hollywood synergy, and the narrative logic of main event entitlements all aligned to virtually lock in a main event between the two. Yet in the months leading up to Wrestlemania, it became clear that fans were completely uninterested in that fight, and instead wanted to see someone else compete for the championship: the charismatic, athletically gifted, but unusually small and somewhat odd-looking Daniel Bryan.

What made this development fascinating was precisely the odd tension, not between the wrestlers, but between the company and its fans. Week after week, the WWE tried to gin up excitement for its main event; but week after week, the fans openly booed both Orton and Batista, while meeting Bryan with cheers the industry hadn't seen in decades - cheers that got so loud that they routinely threatened to derail the entire show. Eventually, as David Shoemaker wrote,
the fans literally cheered Bryan into the WrestleMania main event, and changed the course of scripted history — even if you believe that that was WWE’s plan all along, it remains true that Bryan’s success hinged on fans’ reaction to him. If he hadn’t exploded, he would have been discarded. But respond they did, to nearly unheard-of levels, and Bryan was the biggest star of the biggest WWE show of the year — or, if round numbers mean anything, of the decade.
In passing, Shoemaker touches on another unique aspect of professional wrestling: one can't always easily distinguish what's scripted from what isn't. In this case, I personally suspect that it wasn't scripted at first, and that fans legitimately forced the company to change its initial plan and place Bryan in the main event; among other things, his rise came at the expense of Batista, and clearly devalued what had been for the company one of its premium assets. Regardless, the mere possibility that the outcome wasn't entirely scripted was more than enough to create powerful dramatic tension in the way the story unfolded - particularly in the way that it mobilized the audience and gave them (possibly?) a significant role in the struggle over Bryan's fate.

Bryan's story demonstrates how dramatic tension in wrestling can emerge from the uncertainty over what real-world factors will dictate the storyline. Returning to the previous story of Triple H awarding himself the championship, however, it becomes clear that a lot of that uncertainty can emerge from the idiosyncracies of the managers themselves. And in his case, what we see is that despite their aspirations to bourgeois business-culture legitimacy, the company's corporate presentation is often a pretty thin facade.

An enclave from capitalism

Beneath the suits and ties, the professional posturing and the slick branding, the WWE's major decision makers are best understood as a clique of ageing jocks and carnies. Dan O'Sullivan, in this piece for Jacobin, ably charts their rise to power - but here, suffice to say that even the company's CEO, Vince McMahon, is less than 50 years from announcing matches for a shoestring promotion that took in as little as $1,000 per week. Many of the company's most influential decision makers come from even more modest backgrounds; today, stories of old-timers who worked their way up from working matches in high school gyms and sleeping in cars have become a notorious interview cliche in the WWE. Just as importantly, many of the company's managers (including McMahon himself) were in fact once wrestlers themselves. 

This makes the WWE's management quite different from other companies of comparable size and publicity. The people steering the ship aren't the usual cast of soulless, ruthlessly efficient profit-seeking MBAs and Ivy League elites - a significantly number of them are deeply weird nouveau riche wrestling fetishists who are clearly in over their heads. As CM Punk famously put it:
Vince McMahon's gonna make money despite himself - he's a millionaire who should be a billionaire. You know why he's not a billionaire? It's because he surrounds himself with glad-handing, nonsensical, douche-bag yes-men...
Again, note what's going on here: this is an actually legitimate and extremely damning critique of the company that one of its employees openly made on national television on the company's own show. His tirade (dubbed a "promo" in wrestling lingo) was so unexpected that it made mainstream national news. Here is how GQ put it:
Punk absolutely laid into the company in a blistering, wild-eyed promo speech that indicted everything about the WWE. He invoked the names of fired wrestlers, he lamented the loss of emphasis on wrestling itself...and he even tore into company figurehead Vince McMahon and his entire family...
What other company would deliberately publicize criticism of its own layoffs, or brutal personal attacks against its own CEO? So much of what happens in wrestling is genuinely difficult to explain through the ordinary logic of modern corporate capitalism, and comes as a shock when we encounter it.

The reason for this, I think, is simple: professional wrestling has not yet been entirely consumed by capitalism. The WWE is a virtual monopoly - its closest competitor is about to file for bankruptcy - which leaves it largely shielded from the crucible of competition and market pressures. It's an extremely young organization, which means that capitalistic norms and practices have had very little time to infiltrate and entrench themselves into company culture. And that's why the individual and often bizarre personalities of the company's management are so consequential. When egomaniacs like Triple H marry their way into power and co-opt the entire business to advance his own personal legacy, there are not - yet - any institutional or systematic mechanisms to push back against this. In a very real way, the patients are running the asylum.

Economically, then, what makes professional wrestling most distinctive is that it is, for now, a historical aberration. The WWE is more-or-less a regional travelling carnival show that exploded into an international multimedia juggernaut within a single generation - and we are still living in a unique time when the business of wrestling has yet to completely consume its culture. What this means in practice is that the WWE provides a spectacle unlike anything one can see in the soulless, corporate, brutally focus-grouped worlds of television and film, or the rigorously managed and increasingly depersonalized world of pro-sports. For now, we are seeing what happens when a bunch of working class grandpas who spent much of their careers in headlocks suddenly come into a lot of money and decide to put on a show.

* For many wrestling fans, equating pro-wrestling with pro-wrestling as it appears in the WWE will easily be the most controversial remark I make in this series. Obviously this is not at all fair; there are today a million smaller independent promotions hosting a billion professional wrestlers outside of the WWE, and it's generally understood that their work - technically, artistically, and even politically - is often vastly superior to what appears in the WWE. Suffice to say that it's also infinitely more obscure, and in this series I'm much more interested in discussing wrestling in its most influential and culturally consequential venue than in popularizing worthy but fairly marginal promotions. 
Notes on wrestling, Part I: Introduction -
Professional wrestling is not generally regarded as prestige entertainment. Just the opposite - to many Americans, and especially those with the privilege of writing about such things for a living, it's considered an absurdity and an embarrassment. It's something that educated, cultured, and decent people are not only disinterested in, but actually find disagreeable to talk about; the stereotype of a wrestling fan is that of a crass, unfashionable working-class rube with a taste for violence.

I want to begin this essay, then, by reminding leftists that all of these attitudes - and particularly, all of them clustered together into the same stigma - are extraordinarily suspicious. First, they mark a set of often arbitrary and subjective tastes and norms that just so happens to be disproportionately shared by the privileged, and disproportionately rejected by the powerless. Second, they critique and villify what is at worst an extraordinarily marginal form of violence - and out of all proportion to the often insidious and far more pervasive violence that afflicts our society. And third, the stigma against professional wrestling rarely comes from a place of lived experience or even cursory knowledge of its culture; as a rule, critics are not merely unfamiliar with it and its history, but proudly ignorant, and would be ashamed to know anything more than the barest details.

Consider, for example, a typical series of remarks from liberal columnist Katha Pollitt, who touched on professional wrestling a while back. How should the democratic egalitarian respond when she sneers that it is "witless - Americans can't get enough of it"? Today, Pollitt insists that we should support Hillary Clinton for president, since we supported other candidates who "voted for [the] Iraq war also". What is the ideology that embraces this repetition - and then broods that professional wrestling "is popular because it corresponds to reality...which fights one war after another"?

To be sure, there is a left critique of wrestling. Historically, it has been afflicted with every bigotry you can name. This does not much distinguish it from anything else in our culture, and particularly in recent years wrestling has made significant strides, even stepping ahead of the curve on some issues; still, it has a history of racism, sexism, and homophobia that must be grappled with. Wrestling also remains a horrifically exploitative industry characterized by union busting and gross inequality between the richest and poorest workers; again, this hardly distinguishes it from any other industry in late capitalism, but it cannot be disregarded.

Still, whatever the merits of the popular stigma against professional wrestling, it is clearly caught up in a discourse that fosters elitism and that, through scapegoating, confounds our understanding of violence. This should be enough to raise the hackles of anyone concerned about the insidious ways that ideology can entrench hierarchy and perpetuate oppression; it should at least compel the skeptic to suspend her judgment, and to reconsider, with fresh eyes, the profound and even revolutionary spectacle of grown, greased-up men wrestling in their underwear.

Yet another thing Thomas Friedman doesn't understand: pro wrestling - 6/24/15
Friedman has a baffling complaint about current tensions between the US and Russia:
...this time it seems like the Cold War without the fun — that is, without James Bond, Smersh, “Get Smart” Agent 86’s shoe phone, Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe-banging, a race to the moon or a debate between American and Soviet leaders over whose country has the best kitchen appliances. And I don’t think we’re going to see President Obama in Kiev declaring, à la President Kennedy, “ich bin ein Ukrainian.” Also, the lingo of our day — “reset with Russia” or “pivot to Asia” — has none of the gravitas of — drum roll, please — “détente.” 
No, this post-post-Cold War has more of a W.W.E. — World Wrestling Entertainment — feel to it, and I don’t just mean President Vladimir Putin of Russia’s riding horses bare-chested, although that is an apt metaphor. It’s just a raw jostling for power for power’s sake — not a clash of influential ideas but rather of spheres of influence: “You cross that line, I punch your nose.” “Why?” “Because I said so.” “You got a problem with that?” “Yes, let me show you my drone. You got a problem with that?” “Not at all. My cyber guys stole the guidance system last week from Northrop Grumman.” “You got a problem with that?”
Grotesque trivialization of a horribly destructive international conflict aside, what does Friedman think professional wrestling is actually like?

He wants things to be more "fun", and his idea of fun: cartoonish gimmicks (the shoe phone), outrageous promos (Khrushev's shoe-banging), sensational storylines (the space race), and better catchphrases ("ich bin ein Berliner", "detente", etc). This is an argument that international politics should be more like the WWE, not less. Friedman imagines that pro-wrestling is just two guys saying stuff like "You cross that line, I punch your nose." This is what it's actually like:

This is an exact literal depiction of what Friedman wants. The entire point of professional wrestling is to take what would otherwise be a boring conflict and make it as entertaining as possible. The next time Thomas Friedman wants to pretend like he's in touch with the working class, maybe he can give the classist condescension towards its culture a rest and ask his taxi cab driver to explain to him why Rusev hates John Cena.