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It's Fake?! : The Art and Athleticism of Professional Wrestling

Any wrestling fan that has attempted to defend the sport from criticism has heard the statement "but it's fake". This is quite possibly the most prominent reason given for why someone does not enjoy, appreciate or acknowledge professional wrestling for what it is. My personal efforts have involved trying to explain the intricate balance that professional wrestlers must maintain between athleticism, acting and public appearance. Each of these individually have a major impact on a performer's success and the effective mastery of all deserves praise/recognition. I want to state my stance clearly, wrestling is not fake. At least not in the way that people tend to argue. Are the matches and story lines predetermined? Sure. But that fact does not make it fake. Let's explore.


The biggest sticking point for most people in the "but it's fake" argument focuses on the predetermined outcomes of the shows themselves. I get it. In traditional sports (basketball, football, soccer, etc.) the winner is determined, ideally, by skill. The best team/player in that match up wins. But, as we also mentioned, predetermined story lines exist which makes the show itself fictional. It's important to remember that we are watching their world unfold in front of us like a piece of artwork. You wouldn't watch The Mighty Ducks and complain that their fictional team's win was predetermined and therefor less valid. Spoiler: It was predetermined. Professional wrestling embodies that story telling with a level of live action athleticism that is unparalleled.


Claire Kopischke, reporter for The University of Notre Dame's publication "The Observer", described professional wrestling as "not pure sport, not pure pretend, but a little bit of both" (2019). They continued to describe professional wrestling as "a dramatized spectacle that has real athletes put their health at risk in matches for entertainment". If I'm not making my point clear enough, professional wrestling is not one or the other. It's a unique combination of sport and art.


I would highly recommend the article "Blood, Guts and Suffering: The Body as a Communicative Agent in Professional Wrestling and Performance Art" by Daniel Schulze. He exemplifies how one of the most unique aspects of professional wrestling's relationship with art and athleticism is pain and suffering. The concept is novel and, in my experience, accurate. One of his primary claims is twofold.


A.) Humans have a special inherent connection with pain that can be explored through performance art. When we visually see someone experience pain we connect with them on a more meaningful level which can result in becoming more attached to the character. This form of communication is, in his study, more effective than verbal communication.

B.) Professional wrestling uses this element to create a bodily expression through their fictional violence and sometimes real pain. This spectacle creates a catharsis among the crowd that results in a closed connection between performers and the audience.


I believe this quote from the article best expresses the connection he describes "Attending a wrestling match is living through pain and suffering by proxy and immediately externalizing these emotions through movements of the body and shouting" (Schulze, 2013, p.6). Wrestling fans connect on such a level that they become proxies for the personas in the ring. This wouldn't be possible without the soap opera like elements of the show. The out of ring interviews, in ring drama and (more recently) social media digs have allowed fans to connect with the rivalries and backgrounds of their favorite wrestling worlds. This, coupled with the aforementioned in-ring proxy, creates a crazy strong bond between fans and performers. The kind of bond that has them wearing cosplay, carrying signs and wearing custom gear.


Now, going back to the "realness" and sport element of the show, here is another point that should be made. Unlike many other performing arts (television, movies, stage) most professional wrestling is live without the use of stunt doubles. Performers have to be able to pull off the high flying, hard hitting acts that their characters require. They can't tag someone in to take their place on a particularly difficult stunt. This means that in addition to being able to act well and portray their character believably, they have to be in top physical form with advanced knowledge of the ring. They have to be artists and athletes! I know that there are plenty of actors who do their own action stunts but how many of them do them weekly, live and in front of an audience that is either praising or booing them?


Professional wrestling is a unique combination of sport and art with fictional story lines driven by impressive displays of athleticism. Despite the fictional buildups, the action is real the risk is real, and the energy is real. I would challenge anyone who has never watched or has poor opinions of wrestling to watch it again with a different perspective. View it through the lens of an artistic performance featuring top athletes. Instead of trying to ignore that voice in your head screaming "it's fake" embrace it and remind yourself that yea, it's a fictional world with a fictional story but everything is real. Get drawn into it. Once you connect with one wrestler in the ring you'll understand how real it is and how amazing that special fan/wrestler connection is.


References


Kopischke, Claire. "The Art of Professional Wrestling". The Observer, University of Notre Dame. (2019): Print.

Schulze, Daniel. “Blood, Guts, and Suffering: The Body as Communicative Agent in Professional Wrestling and Performance Art.” Journal of Contemporary Drama in English. 1.1 (2013): Print.

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