During half-time of the 2020 Superbowl, Joey Janela announced via Twitter that his Wrestlemania weekend Spring Break show would feature Minoru Suzuki vs. Orange Cassidy in a first-time ever match.
Predictably, this prompted performative outrage from legions of fans and the Twitter commentariat schooled by the likes of Jim Cornette to reject anything associated with Joey Janela out of hand, and to see Orange Cassidy and his ilk as an affront to everything wrestling purports to be. You see, Orange Cassidy is a comedy wrestler, wrestling is a serious business, and to a dullard, “serious” is the opposite of “funny”. Routinely telling on themselves as having never actually watched one of his matches by complaining of wrestlers “forced” to sell for Orange Cassidy’s offence – the central joke of Orange Cassidy’s performances being that his opponent’s selling of his ineffectual strikes rarely moves beyond a bemused detachment – these self-styled defenders of pro-wrestling’s honour are evidently equally unfamiliar with the work of Minoru Suzuki, the opponent whose “aura” they claim to be speaking in defence of; Suzuki is a shoot-style pioneer, a veteran of Pancrase, and a truly intimidating presence, yes, but Minoru Suzuki is also the greatest straight man in comedy wrestling. Far from this match being an unexpected foray into funny business, it could be argued that comedy is the one consistent through-thread of Suzuki’s post-Pancrase career – from competing in HUSTLE, to elaborate Empty Arena matches in DDT, by way of a recurring programme with Mecha Mummy (He’s a robot! He’s a Mummy! He’s from Ancient Egypt, in the future!), to working as a literal “cosplay rassler” for NOSAWA Rongai’s produce shows, dressing up alongside long-time partner in crime Yoshihiro Takayama as Stan Hansen and Bruiser Brody, or the Crush Gals, Suzuki has never shied away from letting his reputation be played for laughs.
So why the outrage on behalf of Suzuki, or on behalf of wrestling as a whole? Spring Break will be just one of many shows taking place over Wrestlemania weekend, so as the old adage goes – if you don’t like it, don’t watch it, right? Perhaps the issue is that for fans partial to “comedy” wrestling, or to a more theatrical approach to the genre, or to the post-modern or “meta” approach that Joey Janela’s Spring Break has made its bread and butter in previous years, that point is self-evident, but to those who insist that the only way for wrestling to be successful, credible, or worthy of our time, is as a simulacrum of professional sports, attempting to convince the audience that what they see is “real”, then the existence of comedy wrestling, or any style of wrestling deemed to “expose the business” fundamentally undermines the perceived “reality” of all other wrestling. If one wrestling show is clearly fake, the logic seems to suggest, then it all must be. To follow this logic to its conclusion, a bland homogeneity that suited the tastes of one sector of the fanbase would be preferable to a diverse range of approaches. I have previously written, in a different context, about the dangers of the homogenisation of pro-wrestling.
The issue with affording primacy to the “Real” in wrestling is that there is simply no such thing. Not one person alive today – not wrestler, promoter, or fan – has lived in a world in which professional wrestling was a legitimate sporting contest. In a previous post, I discussed how criticisms of modern wrestling being showier, more acrobatic, and of more questionable integrity than its forebears dates back at least to the first half of the 20th century, and more than likely earlier still.
Wrestling has always existed in a hinterland between real and unreal, and has negotiated that division constantly, from the very first time a wrestler agreed to throw a fight, right up until the present day. There was no sweet spot, no magic moment when wrestling got the balance exactly “right”, and those who plead the case for an imagined purity of wrestling’s past make clear their own personal biases when that particular past just coincidentally happens to be in the precise time and territory in which they first became a fan. What luck!
To highlight Jim Cornette as the flag-bearer for this misguided nostalgia can provide a useful exercise. Cornette cut his teeth in Memphis, a territory widely derided by other wrestlers of the time as too gimmicky, too “pantomime”, of, in short, not being “real” enough, or not being “proper wrestling”. If one were to make that criticism today, Cornette will defend Memphis just as vociferously as he would have done in his debut year of 1982. To him, Memphis wrestling was wrestling done right, and “done right” meant that it was presented as “real” and sold to the fans as such. Any deviation from the formula of the wrestling of Memphis and, more broadly, the Southern states of the USA, in the ‘70s and ‘80s was a step in the wrong direction – a step away from wrestling as “real”, and toward wrestling as spectacle. His lived experience was the baseline, and the time that wrestling got it right – anything before was an evolution to the sweet spot, everything since has been a degeneration to a maligned modern style. In Cornette’s world-view, the only way for wrestling to make money is to convince the fans that it’s real, and “real” looks like 1970-1985.
But prior even to Jim Cornette’s debut, the United States had seen multiple wrestlers work under cartoonish gimmicks, stretching any sense of credulity – multiple Egyptian Mummies and Frankenstein’s Monsters, including Dr. Frank and Eddie Marlin under the mask of the Mummy, in Memphis. In Argentina, more than a decade prior to Cornette’s debut in the wrestling business, Martin Karadagian of Titanes En El Ring had already wrestled with aliens, Mummies, and that veteran of “exposing the business”, El Hombre Invisible. Long before Cornette was even born, Jack Pfefer had spoken openly about wrestling as a “show”, and stacked his cards with monsters, freaks and human oddities, continuing the trend towards viewing wrestling as a near-literal “three ring circus” that had begun under the Gold Dust Trio’s drive to create the “Slam Bang Western Style Wrestling” that was the blueprint for wrestling as “sports entertainment”, under the guidance of former circus clown Toots Mondt.
Cornette departed Memphis in late 1983, to start arguably the most significant portion of his career, debuting in “Cowboy” Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling as the manager of The Midnight Express. While not averse to elaborate stipulation matches straight out of the Memphis playbook (for “Bill Dundee’s Cadillac on the line”, substitute “Loser Leaves Town Tuxedo Cage Match”), Mid-South made its reputation on high energy, hard hitting matches, on the blood and bruises that stand as signifiers of the “real” in the “fake” world of professional wrestling, on nuanced, and mature characters that stood in stark contrast to the one-dimensional gimmicks of the WWF and elsewhere, and on innovative use of television and production methods to create what Bill Watts almost certainly wouldn’t have described as a Brechtian alienation technique. In short, the Mid-South territory was gritty, violent, and what passed for “real” in the world of wrestling in the United States.
Prior to Mid-South rebranding as the Universal Wrestling Federation in 1986, another Universal Wrestling Federation has opened its doors in Japan. The Japanese UWF took Antonio Inoki’s philosophy of “Strong Style” and expanded upon it, creating a “shoot-style” promotion, influenced more by legitimate martial arts than by the tumbles, tricks and pageantry the Gold Dust Trio had introduced into professional wrestling. This was Japanese wrestling shedding its American roots, while reaching in its own way for the same imagined past of “real” professional wrestling that Cornette et al pine for to this day. Laying the foundations for a succession of successful “shoot style” companies, including future iterations of the UWF brand that would provide an early proving ground for our old friend Minoru Suzuki, the UWF also set the ball rolling on what would become the Japanese Mixed Martial Arts boom, as well as forcing the major promotions on the Japanese scene to modify their own presentation to better fit the tastes of an audience now conditioned to expect a more hard-hitting, “legitimate” product. It cannot be reiterated enough, though, that the UWF remained, in every way, a professional wrestling product – the results just as predetermined, and the rivalries just as manufactured, as anything being offered by the WWF. When presented with two “fake” fights, is it valid, or useful, to judge which of the two unrealities is the most real?
Any viewer, presented with a choice between a Mid-South wrestling match pitting Jim Cornette’s Midnight Express against arch-rivals The Rock N Roll Express or an Akira Maeda match from the UWF in the same year, asked to choose which looked the most “legitimate” or “real” would, I believe, almost invariably choose the latter. Yet it’s to this period of southern American wrestling, not to the increasingly “legitimate” shoot-style promotions of Japan, or to any earlier period of less performative pro-wrestling anywhere else in the world, that the likes of Cornette point to as their baseline of wrestling being taken seriously, and perceived as legitimate. It is a position that is both historically and geographically illiterate, and utterly devoid of nuance – many people have written on the changeable nature of “kayfabe”, on the development of differing approaches and ideologies behind professional wrestling, and on how both of these intersect with broader cultural trends, and it’s frustrating to see key figures within the wrestling industry reject all of this out of hand in favour of pointing to a static point in time and place, a postcard of the past, as The Real Pro-Wrestling.
It’s perhaps ironic to think that a sport which began as a legitimate athletic contest, which took to throwing fights in the name of maximising profits, then followed that path to the perhaps natural conclusion of incorporating carnival cons, gymnastics and clowning, prat-falls and broad vaudevillian characterisation, should still a century later be wrapped up in discourse around how to best convince the audience that all of those developments never happened, and that the stylised performance they’re watching is in fact a legitimate contest. As I wrote in my tribute to Mike Quackenbush, wrestling is concerned with what is true, not what is real. Many of the greatest stories ever told weren’t written with the intent of convincing the reader that what they’re reading is real, but it doesn’t make the lessons learned from them, or the emotions experienced, any less true.
A common criticism of wrestling deemed “unrealistic” is when a wrestler doesn’t “sell” a move; if a wrestler gets slammed from the top rope through a table, then pops up to their feet with no sign of pain, it’s “unrealistic”, because that move should have knocked them out. But, of course, it didn’t. We watched the wrestler flung from the ropes, watched them collide with the table, watched the table break into pieces beneath their body weight – all of this was undeniably real, and undeniably happened before our eyes, regardless of the circumstances by which it came to be – and then we watched that wrestler pop back up to their feet without so much as a second thought. It’s clear that the “no selling” is as real as the impact, because we witnessed both take place – the criticism isn’t asking for the match to give us more reality, quite the opposite, it’s asking for the match to give us more illusion, in service of a greater truth than the “real”.
Martial arts and legitimate combat sports, like ballet, are about masking your pain – the kind of selling we have to accept as “realistic” in professional wrestling, would never be seen in the UFC. It’s extremely unlikely that you will hear a mixed martial artist grunting and groaning, or crying out in pain, as they struggle to escape a submission hold. The “playing to the back rows” hobble on an injured leg, the clutching of damaged ribs, the winces and grimaces of the wrestler holding back pain, that we all look to as evidence of the “real” in wrestling are nothing of the sort – but they all contribute to the truth of the story. They are, if anything, hyper-real.
Wrestling is ever-changing, and its entire history is one of navigating the space between sport and theatre. As every development within wrestling has changed the terms of this conversation, so too has the emergence of Mixed Martial Arts, and the UFC specifically, as a major player in mainstream sports and pop culture, altered that conversation on wrestling’s behalf. Not only does wrestling borrow techniques from MMA, it adapts its own tropes in response to an audience better educated than ever as to what professional combat might look like – no longer do WWE referees lift a wrestler’s arm three times to indicate that they have passed out in a submission hold, because the urgency at which an MMA referee would respond in the same situation has taught the audience that to risk a fighter to continue in that position would be extremely dangerous, and thus has been rendered “unrealistic” in the sphere of professional wrestling. The traditional structure of a wrestling match has been altered to appear more competitive, to better suit an audience more au fait with how a fight might realistically pan out.
Just as Japanese promotions of the 1980s had to choose whether to follow the path laid down by the emergence of shoot-style, and promotions of the early ‘00s had to reconcile what wrestling’s place was in a world where MMA was emerging as a major factor, the promotions of today have to reconcile the perceived “reality” of professional wrestling in which MMA routinely highlights the absurdity of that position. A regression to the wrestling of the American South in the mid-1980s would do nothing to convince an audience schooled on Mixed Martial Arts that wrestling is any more “real” than the flips, superkicks and comedy spots that wrestling’s premiere nostalgists spend so much of their time deriding. The question in its simplest form is whether professional wrestling should mimic MMA in the pursuit of the perceived credibility of being presented as “real”, or to further separate itself from MMA in order to explore the possibilities of wrestling as a unique, creative form.
At a time where the concept of convincing people that professional wrestling is a legitimate sporting event seems rightly preposterous, I wonder of the value in further aping Mixed Martial Arts. If the best that professional wrestling can be is a facsimile of legitimate combat, why would any curious viewer choose to watch wrestling, when examples of genuinely legitimate combat are readily available? If there is money to be made in presenting combat sports as “real”, then it is money already being made by the UFC, not by professional wrestling.
The strength of wrestling isn’t in its reality. It’s in its truth, and it’s in the moments that only wrestling can create – where the barrier separating reality from the “work” is blurred. Where, even for an instant, the audience are left wondering if what they’re seeing is “real” or “fake”. A strike that lands a little snugger than expected, a promo that feels like it crosses a line, or a momentary break of character. These are moments that only professional wrestling, and no other art form, can produce, because no other art form so perfectly walks the tightrope between fiction and reality. But every one of those moments only resonates if it is in service of the story, of forging an emotional connection, in service of that greater truth.
Every one of those moments I mentioned is one tool in the storytelling belt of a professional wrestler or promoter, as useful a means of forging a connection with the audience as the eye contact made between a struggling babyface and a concerned fan, or a villainous heel’s derisive promos. Each of these tools exist to communicate the story of one match, of one show, and of professional wrestling as a whole – to paraphrase from Cara Noir’s manifesto, wrestling should tell its own history in every match.
It is here, again, that I think that Cornette et al are misled. The goal of forging that connection is not to convince the audience that what they are seeing is “real”, but to convince them that the story you are telling them is true – that a story about pain, adversity, and struggle, contains all of those elements laid out in the correct order, to the right ends. We are not here to convince the audience that what we do is real, but like a professional magician, to make them forget for a moment or two that it isn’t. Just as the audience for the magician buy their tickets wanting to be fooled, tricked and outsmarted, even if they spend some of their time trying to spot the inner workings, audiences watch wrestling because they want to be “worked”. They want to be shorn of ironic detachment, and engage with the story fully on its own terms, because they believe in the truth of that story, even if they don’t believe it to be necessarily “real”. This is the same way that millions of people engage with movies, television, theatre and literature every single day, and there is no reason to suggest that wrestling should be any different.
The people who buy tickets to our shows aren’t “marks” to be conned, but willing co-conspirators, and the best art that wrestling can create is that which takes the audience along for the ride. Whether that is through a violent, “realistic” approximation of a mixed martial arts contest, or a rivalry between two Invisible Wrestlers, or between a mixed martial arts legend and a robot Mummy from the future doesn’t change that fact.
I’m Patrick W. Reed, and that’s my opinion.