“You know it’s fake, right?” – professional wrestling and the respect it deserves

Published: March 15, 2018

Wrestler John Cena picks up wrestler Randy Orton as wrestler Triple H (R) looks on during the WWE Monday Night Raw show, on August 24, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada. PHOTO: GETTY

Being a proud pro-wrestling fan, I’d like to talk this sport in Pakistan, the mockery I experience, and why I love watching it despite it all. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if wrestling is “fake”, I’d be a millionaire right now.

So let me start off with the facts. Wrestling is not fake; it is scripted. There’s a difference.

Firstly, what is so wrong with something being “fake”, for argument’s sake? Do you watch movies? TV shows? Why do you watch them, if, technically speaking, they are “fake” too? On top of that, most of the stunts in movies aren’t even performed by the actors themselves; they are performed by stunt doubles.

On the other hand, professional wrestlers undergo years of training and perform all their moves and stunts themselves, taking serious physical risks, and all on live TV. They are professional athletes, and if athletes of other sports can get respect in Pakistan, then so should professional wrestlers.

I watch wrestling for the same reason people watch TV shows – the story. Which, by the way, is exactly what the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is – a TV show. And not just that, but it is the longest running weekly episodic television show in US history (you read that in Michael Cole’s voice, didn’t you?). And we all know the “heel” (the bad guy) is going to lose to the “baby face” (the good guy) at the end. So why watch it?

For the journey, of course.

Moreover, these wrestlers keep their on-screen personas active almost 24/7. Wherever they go, whether they are arguing with fans on Twitter, or are greeted by hecklers at the airport, they try their best to stay in character; true to their alter egos. This is called “kayfabe” (wrestling has its own lingo, and it is absolutely fascinating if you look into it further). Professional wrestlers basically lead a double life, and most of them are better known by their ring names than their real names. Everyone’s favourite current Hollywood superstar, Dwayne Johnson, better known as ‘The Rock, also got his big break in the entertainment industry through the WWE.

I distinctly remember watching my first wrestling match when I was nine-years-old. It was No Way Out, and the future UFC Heavyweight Champion, Brock Lesnar, was defending his title against the fan-favourite, Eddie Guerrero. The latter won, and I remember witnessing the genuine joy in the crowd that night as a hard worker like him finally won the big belt.

My father, looking at me as I watched the post-match celebrations with my mouth open, said to me,

“You know this is all a drama, right?”

I couldn’t understand where this came from. If this was so “fake”, why were thousands of people in the crowd cheering for this guy?

Talking about wrestling and how important it is to me, I have an admission to make. I have cried while watching this sport, and I’m not ashamed of it. In fact, I am proud, because I find it worth my time to watch these guys leave their blood, sweat and tears in that squared circle, as they spend over 200 days a year away from their families, just for the sake of our entertainment. The least we can do is respect that level of commitment.

So yes, there have been three distinct occasions where I have cried while watching a wrestling show (thus far). The first was in 2004, when Triple H and Shawn Michaels finally settled their rivalry in a Hell in a Cell match. I absolutely loved Michaels, and I would be lying if I said his Sexy Boy theme song wasn’t a guilty pleasure (still is, sort of). I was so convinced that Michaels would win and prove he is the “better man”. But I was devastated when the despised ‘heel’, Triple H, won. Years later, I found out the two men were best friends the entire time. Childhood ruined, you could say.

The second time I cried wasn’t much long after. In November 2005, Guerrero passed away, and I was heartbroken. It struck me what the reality of wrestling was. These men would devote their entire lives to this business, both physically and emotionally, and by the time their careers ended, life would be completely drained out of them. Guerrero passed away due to a cardiac arrest at the age of 38. How many people die from a heart attack at such a young age?

It was only two years later, when the worst tragedy in wrestling history took place, that things took a turn for the worse before they got better.

In June 2007, famous wrestler and former world champion Chris Benoit murdered his wife and young son and committed suicide, putting a lot of mainstream focus on the WWE. Questions were being asked as to why this happened, and what prompted a seemingly sane and stable wrestler to suddenly carry out such a heinous crime. The WWE needed to clean up their act, and clean up they did. The company initiated a wellness policy and started the transition to PG programming. There was to be no more blood, no more chair shots to the head, and no more moves in the ring that could potentially lead to serious injury. The talent’s health finally became the number one priority.

Going back to the times when wrestling made me cry, the last time it happened was quite recent. It was April 2017, I was 22-years old, and it was WrestleMania 33. If you follow wrestling, then you know which match in particular I am referring to. It was The Undertaker versus Roman Reigns, which was seemingly The Undertaker’s retirement match. It is still unclear whether he will return, but for what it’s worth, it can be called a picture perfect ending for a character such as The Undertaker.

Undoubtedly, professional wrestling was at its mainstream peak from 1998 to 2001, when WWE was embroiled in what has since become known as the Monday Night Wars against the World Championship Wrestling (WCW), bankrolled by the founder of CNN, Ted Turner. Back then, the struggle for ratings led to a high quality on-screen product. The quality of story-telling, amongst other things, may have dwindled, but the money kept pouring in for the millionaire Chairman, Vincent Kennedy McMahon.

As wrestling transitions into a new era, I have seen women’s wrestling evolve from women simply considered as eye candy to being given a prominent role on every wrestling card. The word “diva” was removed, and female wrestlers were given just as much respect as their male peers. Gone were the days of just good-looking models dominating the female roster, as they were replaced by women who were actual wrestlers, and had paid their dues to become WWE superstars.

For someone like me, who started watching wrestling circa 2004, it is astonishing to see how far we have come with women’s wrestling. At WrestleMania 32, which is the biggest show of the year for the sport, the best match by far was the Triple Threat Match for the Women’s Championship between Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks. The women stole the show, and have continued to do so since.

With little to no actual competition to the WWE, it is easy to get frustrated with the quality of the company’s on-screen product. Dull and lazy storylines where talented performers are underused can force even hard core fans like myself to lose interest. However, it is also fans like myself who keep coming back to watch every time a fresh storyline or new talent emerges, as we wonder what this could mean for the business and for our entertainment.

So yes, wrestling may be a scripted sport, but it is nonetheless entertaining and addictive, and as a sport-loving nation, Pakistan certainly has a lot of room to make wrestling its own.

Ahmed Shah

Ahmed Shah

The author is an aspiring journalist and linguist. He is a football, wrestling and world history enthusiast. He speaks Urdu, English, Turkish and Spanish. He tweets @AhmedShah94 (twitter.com/AhmedShah94)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.