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The Word on the Rings: Wrestling Criticism, Part 1

Part one of a two-part series on the state of wrestling criticism: is there room for a deeper analysis of professional wrestling, beyond memes and intrigue?

I sometimes think that wrestling fans are more connected to the Internet than any other fan of a sport or a spectacle. Rightly or wrongly, we watch a lot of livestreams to keep up with the latest episode of RAW, or because things like Lucha Underground or NJPW aren’t carried by local cable providers. We visit a lot of websites to feed our fandom: be it the official websites of promotions, or wrestling sites that provide news and analysis and reviews and rumors (like this one, for example). The Internet feeds us more information than any other medium available to wrestling fans of years past.

We can probably even argue that the fundamentals of wrestling changed because of the Internet. Thanks to rumors and inside stories, the mystique of wrestling is all but gone. We don’t see people wrestle anymore: we see more promos and more skits. Today’s wrestling fans are more interested—perhaps even invested—in the works outside the ring: the latest signings, the hundred or so moves made in an independent promotion, or the way talents get “buried” or “pushed,” depending on the moods and agenda of “the powers that be.”

Right, something to that effect.
We don’t really have to go far to see this: we see the same thing in wrestling sites, in wrestling forums, or even among ourselves. With the mystique of professional wrestling all but gone, it’s become easier for us to take our emotional investments in wrestling beyond the ring. Perhaps even beyond our understanding of it.

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I’ve never stepped into a wrestling ring, and I really can’t claim to understand all that happens in that ring, much less a machine as big as the WWE. There are people I push for: I believe that we need to see more of Antonio Cesaro in the ring, for example. There are changes that I advocate: promos (especially by The Authority), for example, take too long and take too much time away from wrestling matches. There are people I rally for to become champions: for example, I really want Brock Lesnar to have the World Heavyweight Championship back, and perhaps Seth Rollins is in a better position to carry a title with a history and reputation like the Intercontinental Championship.

Consider how Rollins could be carrying something bigger than a belt, but a tradition like this one.
But those are opinions, and don’t carry a lot of weight compared to the facts of pro wrestling. As a fan of pro wrestling who isn’t privy to what’s really going on, I don’t know those facts. I don’t know what goes on in creative meetings, or what are the motivations at work in booking matches. I try to stop where I know I have to stop, and that’s in parts of wrestling that I do not know a whit of (no matter how much I try to convince myself that all there is to it is to cite a few “dirt sheets” here and there).

Wrestling, to me, is a lot like reading a bit of fiction for the first time: it’s a story already written and plotted out beforehand, no matter how many changes are tweaked here and there. The most I can do is to critique the narrative: the consistency of story arcs, or the way the physical drama plays out before me whenever I watch a wrestling match. “Critiquing the narrative,” for me, exists because I don’t want what little intelligence I have insulted by inconsistent fiction.

Like fiction, a lot of things—big or small—should move stories forward. No “suspension of disbelief” should get in the way of clutching your head when your head has been attacked for half the match. Title shots and rivalries should further the story: there should be no doubt about people’s motivations to aspire for a title. Or that wrestlers entering month-long feuds should have a strong reason—a deep moral crisis—to feud that long.

Or that often, for that matter.
But the moment that criticism reaches weird places—things like who should be pushed and who shouldn’t, who’s being “buried” and who’s not, or a conversation on “backstage politics” from a very limited understanding of how wrestling works—that’s when wrestling criticism fails.

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I have nothing against the shallowness of memes or creating depth where there is none: there’s a time and a place for everything. What I have something against, though, is when wrestling criticism doesn’t do justice to the spectacular things that wrestling has to offer: either as a well of insight, as a bridge to distant norms (in the WWE’s case, American ones), or as a mirror to our everyday lives. 

Now is a time as good as any for wrestling fans to redeem the absence of resonating critique, like when Jack Swagger and Zeb Colter were portraying a story that was a commentary to a contemporary American undercurrent. Now is a time as good as any for wrestling fans to get into the narrative of the “chickenshit heel” champion that Seth Rollins isn’t: for someone whose story revolves around cunning and devious designs, the Architect’s story is projected instead through having multiple wrestling matches in a pay-per-view. Now is a time as good as any for us to consider the narrative of Bray Wyatt: why is this charismatic and multidimensional figure—one who inspires in us the David Koreshes and the Max Cadys of fact and fiction—losing those dimensions in favor of a very incoherent storyline?

There's an idea.
The way I see it, if we’re going to feed our fandom, we also need to feed ourselves. There are things outside of wrestling sites that can feed into our understanding of wrestling. There are things more important to the stories of wrestling than saying that this wrestler needs a new finisher, or that a triple-flip moonsault could be more awesome if it ends in a piledriver. There are things that we already know that contribute our understanding of wrestling better than the things we don’t know: basic dramatic structure in high school English, for example, can add more depth to the way we see wrestling than if we all pretended—or claimed—to be better wrestlers than Eva Marie.

Things like this, for example.

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What we could use less of is the kind of criticism we’re privy to everyday: backstage intrigue (surely we know better than that), or how John Cena has “five moves of doom” (surely we can do better than that), or the overemphasis on botches (surely we understand that these things happen). It doesn’t make better wrestlers, it doesn’t improve the storylines we watch, and it sure as hell isn’t too fun to keep harping on every single day.

What I’m asking for is a better kind of criticism than what we have now. But is there even room for it?

I think there is, but it’s often de-emphasized in favor of things that are easier to understand, or easier to digest. That kind of wrestling criticism, I think, is best left to small circles, and not the broad “Internet Wrestling Community.” It’s something that should be actively encouraged to thrive, perhaps in schools or small groups on the Internet. Somehow, I think that kind of criticism keeps wrestling real: in the sense that it keeps the logic and reason of wrestling fiction in check. It’s a kind of criticism we could use a little more of, I think.

I began this essay with the Internet and how it changed wrestling. Maybe the Internet is a place for that criticism to happen. And it should.

But with the kind of fans that seem to fuel wrestling criticism today, is that even possible?

That, I think, can wait for Part Two.

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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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