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The Word on the Rings (7/10/15): The Evolution of the Pro Wrestling Physique (Part 2)


Part 2: Of pro wrestling body types, and has the role of the body diminished in pro wrestling today?
Read Part 1 here.




On September 12, 1991, the youngest Von Erich brother shot himself in the head, eighteen days before his 22nd birthday. He never really made it big in the ring until 18 years later, when the Von Erichs were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Kerry and Chris Von Erich.
Chris Von Erich was the runt of the litter: at 5’5” and weighing in at 160 pounds, the youngest brother in the legendary Von Erich wrestling family wanted to make his own mark in the ring. Asthmatic, fragile, and drug-addled, Chris was relegated to “fun” tag team matches and saw little action in the ring, facing off against Percy Pringle III (also known as Paul Bearer) while his tag team partner did most of the wrestling.


Yes, that Steve Austin.

That thought, I think, must have lingered in Chris’s mind as he wielded his gun in a far area of the family ranch. And it’s the same train of thought that continues to weigh on the business, and those of us who watch it.

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At the time, a person with Chris Von Erich’s body build didn’t have any business being a pro wrestler. The biggest stars that set the industry’s blueprint at the time were all big, muscular supermen. When Chris debuted in 1990, Hulkamania was running wild as the WWF Champion, the Ultimate Warrior was red-hot as Intercontinental Champion, and Sting defeated Ric Flair in the Great American Bash. The ideal wrestling body has the bodybuilder template all over it, and the three great icons of wrestling at the time were all former bodybuilders.

Modern-day professional wrestling, in a way, owes its existence to bodybuilding. Before the World Wrestling Federation as we knew it then, there was Vince McMahon’s World Bodybuilding Federation. The WBF shared a lot of things in common with wrestling: theatrics, over-the-top performances, and to a certain extent, kitsch.


Even I was rather baffled with this.

It was not until the steroid investigations and trials of the early 1990s that all these “body stories” were translated into the ring. With McMahon at the helm, the chiseled body was the norm, only giving way to slimmer and more athletic builds as the public turned a more critical eye to wrestling. Today, the Greek-statue body is but a trope in a business of many bodies.

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To my mind, wrestling bodies can be classified into four broad categories:

MATABUFFS: (Samoa Joe, Kevin Owens, Vader)
The Matabuffs are the behemoths of the ring. They’re not well-muscled, but they’re capable of athletic feats and wrestling ability. Usually they’re classified as brawlers who intimidate the viewer through sheer force and domination. That doesn’t mean that they’re burly hulking figures who just clobber their foes with punches and easy slams: at times, they inspire awe with their wrestling talent and remarkable agility.

I'm not talking about "Vader Time" Vader, but Big Van Vader.
PATPATINS: (Colin Delaney, Zach Gowen, Archibald Peck)
They’re basically stickmen, but a lot of us stick by them. More often than not, patpatins are the underdogs of the tale. All too often, they’re left motionless in the ring after a thorough beating. However, there are those occasions that they become unlikely heroes: with a simple roll-up, or the assist from a very likely hero, they end up overcoming all odds and emerge the victor.

I prefer "marching band leader" to "barrister."
BATAKS: (Roman Reigns, John Cena, Lex Luger)
Bataks are a staple of professional wrestling: the chiseled Adonises who have all the advantages needed to emerge as conquering heroes (and quite rarely, narcissistic villains). Not only do they have the bodies to prove their rank in the ladder, but they also often demonstrate power and athleticism in the ring.

Luger as "The Narcissist" is an awesome gimmick.
PAYATHLETES: (Randy Orton, Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins)
While not rail-thin or jacked-up, the Payathlete is somewhat the “new normal” of professional wrestling body builds. They have just enough muscle definition to look like credible threats in the ring, but they also demonstrate in-ring superiority through in-ring skill or sheer athleticism. I'd venture to say that this is the kind of wrestler that we expect to see more of in the future.

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Two things these archetypes have in common: the smallest of them can beat you up, and the biggest of them can definitely beat you up. The body is all about credibility.

There are overlaps to speak of, of course. And if the last People Power survey is any indication, it’s that overlap that defines what most of us think should be the best body in professional wrestling.

Without steroids and performance-enhancing substances, the fiction in the ring no longer mirrors myth, but reality. Much of the mystique of pro wrestling has been uncovered over the years, and most of us now believe that any body type can win in the ring. Stripped of 24-inch pythons and peaks and freaks, credibility in wrestling is now about the freshness of storylines, wrestling skill, and ring generalship. In a way, we root for “real” bodies, as if the narrative of wrestling today is us projecting our own body builds into the ring.

We probably won't see too many Steiner-ish bodies in the future.
And that, to me, is a bit of a challenge: because wrestling is no longer fantasy set in a highly-realistic setting, the role of the body has diminished. Today’s wrestling relies less on stories told through the body (and its pains and labors), but promos. We no longer see the conflict play out in locks and slams, but backstage drama and promos that last longer than matches. The wrestler’s body seems to matter less now as a means to carry stories through physical action, but the physique that holds the head that does all the talking. Or that it flips the table over in a contract signing.

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The diminished role of the body is something we see a lot in the stories that play out in modern professional wrestling. Put plainly, the body matters less now.

While Jamie Noble and Joey Mercury are two of the greatest wrestling minds, the two former cruiserweights now take the “enforcer” roles usually left to bigger wrestlers. In NXT, the “strongman” gimmick was not lent to a man with highly-defined muscles, but to Simon Gotch: a guy who straddles patpatin and payathlete. The IWGP Heavyweight Championship, traditionally carried by wrestlers who look like they can legitimately kill you (like Shinya Hashimoto, Masahiro Chono, Kensuke Sasaki, and of course Salman Hashimikov), is now carried by Kazuchika Okada: a guy who fits the mold of the “new normal” of professional wrestling bodies.

For a bit of wrestling history: Hashimikov in red, Victor Zangiev in blue.
Or consider a wrestler like Daniel Bryan, whose entire wrestling career was written around his size. Bryan was not a typical wrestler who fit the mold of the bodies that told a story in the WWE: at just 5'10" and 210 lbs., Bryan had to tell his story around not fitting in. His size made him a "B+ player," but with an "A+" reception from the crowd and an unparalleled skill in wrestling, Bryan could arguably be the wrestler who finally ended the chapter of size stories in the WWE.

Those changes also reflect in the kind of things that take place in the ring. Today, the ring is no more than a podium to make a promo. Gone are the days where we would fear the imposing might of a giant taking apart the underdog: rather, we’d see them talk about it. While this has changed in recent times, it’s still a bit odd to see physicality in the ring. To see Brock Lesnar take people to Suplex City is satisfying, and to see Zack Sabre Jr. wrestle is a treat. Otherwise, the body is now nothing more than a microphone stand.

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Which brings me to Part 1: Roland Barthes’s thesis was that body types express to excess the role of the wrestler in the play. Today, I kind of question that. Maybe it was true then, but it does not necessarily hold true now. A lot of the things we hold so fundamental to wrestling are now gone by way of dirt sheets and shoots and books or behind-the-scenes footage. Mystique is lost in today’s professional wrestling scene. We now know that a cruiserweight like Jericho can restrain a big man like Goldberg. We now know enough of wrestling to cheer for Kevin Owens, and boo him on cue. Some of us go as far as to deride the WWE of having “too many bodybuilders,” or call “steroids” on unusually fit and sculpted pro wrestlers.

Well maybe not this guy.

But it’s all just evolution: today’s viewer (and maybe pro wrestling creatives) are confronted with new challenges by which to read into pro wrestling. To make the body relevant again, I think we need longer matches that truly showcase the finer points of wrestling. We need less talk and more action in the ring. To make the body relevant, it should be used: showcased in moves and spots and showdowns. The wrestler’s body should still matter to share that important story to the world: the limits of what the body is capable of.

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All this brings me back to Chris Von Erich.

If Chris were alive today, he would probably find room in a business that no longer puts pressure on people to be big. He’ll probably do well, too, and be someone we can cheer on and root for. But the crowds of the Sportatorium and the small TV outlets of WCCW are very different from today’s WWE Universe. To them, mystique still mattered. The fiction was still as important as the Von Erich Claw.

Would I want to see the Von Erichs make their mark in professional wrestling history cutting 15-minute promos, and the body almost rendered irrelevant in the play? I don’t think so. And it’s something that should weigh in our minds, too:

As the role of the body diminishes in the ring, must the wrestling diminish, too?


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Marck Rimorin (@marocharim) is an advertising professional, writer, bookworm, and overthinker. While a lifelong WWE fan, he also watches puroresu, lucha libre, and old clips of European wrestling. When not caught up in reading, making brand communications, or eating waybread under the shade of mallorn trees, Marck writes the overthink piece for Smark Henry: The Word on the Rings.

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