I’ve seen a commentator survive a heart attack live on air, and then get mocked for it when he returned a few weeks later. I’ve heard 18,000 fans chant, “Hug it out!” at an adorable, bearded vegan and a fire-spewing demon. I’ve watched a cult leader, a male model, and someone who shoots bubbles in your face when she’s done talking to you — all fight on the same stage. This is a live, weekly, international touring show with heroes, villains, and everything in between. This is a showcase of everything that can’t happen anywhere else.
This is pro wrestling.
Like a vaudeville soap opera with choke slams, the WWE invites us to watch as attractive half-naked people fight for glory, respect, and a giant gold belt. Nothing about it is completely real or completely fake, but when archetypal representations of good and evil are battling like superheroes right before your eyes, that’s not exactly a huge concern. It doesn’t matter whether or not you actually believe any of it is happening, by the end of the match, you will care. Think of it like reality TV in a ring, but with the satisfaction of watching the person you hate getting triple powerbombed through a table.
It really does seem like everyone knows at least something about pro wrestling and you probably know at least one person who likes wrestling. But despite that, wrestling has eluded mainstream popularity and is still often considered the lowest of low art.
My own wrestling story is one borne completely of the Internet age. I knew who The Rock was, sure. And I listen to enough podcasts to know a few of the finer points of Jesse Ventura’s pre-political life (thank you, James Adomian). But I didn’t really have anyone in my life who would call themselves a wrestling fan.
Then I joined Tumblr. I just wanted a place to store my in-class doodles and find other people as obsessed with British television as I was. But after a few months, someone I followed started posting gifs of this gentleman:
He’s professional wrestler and hilarious face-maker CM Punk. The first WWE video I actually watched all the way through happened to be of CM Punk’s most famous speech, the day after it aired in June 2011. (Yes, wrestlers give speeches — usually about how amazing they are, or how great it will be when they finally beat that other guy.) Later termed the “pipe bomb,” Punk’s speech contained all the things a WWE employee isn’t supposed to say. He named other wrestling companies, gave a shoutout to his fired friend, and finally, got halfway through insulting WWE CEO Vince McMahon and his then-Senate candidate wife, Linda McMahon, before the mic was shut off.
Most importantly, CM Punk called out his opponent, John Cena. As the classic good guy, Cena’s been WWE Champion a record 11 times. It’s pretty much a given that he’ll have at least one major storyline at all times, in which he will undoubtedly be victorious despite being treated like an underdog. But Punk claimed Cena only got to his status because he was a family-friendly ass-kisser.
“I don’t hate you, John,” he said. “…I hate this idea that you’re the best.”
The pipe bomb was so interesting to me because it meant Punk wasn’t just a wrestler mad at another wrestler in slightly different undies. Instead, what really made him furious were the unspoken rules and values of the world he lived in — all represented by Cena and the forces that put him at the top. Punk was saying things fans had been feeling for years: Cena’s extended reign and, by extension, the entire WWE, had become stale. No longer content to hate the player, Punk was ready to change the game.
Or, as Joseph Campbell writes in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, “…the mythological hero is not the champion of things become, but of things becoming. The dragon to be slain by him is precisely the monster of the status quo.”
In the days following the pipe bomb, no one was quite sure exactly how unplanned or real it was. Google search still autocompletes “cm punk pipe bomb” with the word “real.” But at that point, it didn’t matter if someone else had long ago decided when and where Punk was going to become WWE Champion. I just wanted to see it happen. I wanted to see CM Punk punch John Cena in his stupid, square face.
Basically, wrestling boils down the fictional narrative to its most essential parts: good vs. evil; a protagonist and an antagonist. There are approximately a million and one ways to get to that monumental face-off, and the best thing about wrestling is that it isn’t afraid to try all of them. For instance, there are the Tea Party-inspired bad guys: Zeb Colter and the Real Americans, who walk to the ring carrying “Don’t tread on me” flags. Their anti-immigration antics even made The Daily Show.
While all pro wrestling is predetermined and scripted to an extent, actual live humans take those punches, and today’s wrestling world incorporates enough real-life drama that caring about whether or not something is actually “real” could easily send you off an existential cliff. What matters most is getting the audience to feel involved in what’s happening. It’s what the late wrestling writer, organizer, and publicist Michael Ryan called the Tinkerbell moment, “when Tinkerbell lies dead and the outraged audience shouts and claps and cheers; desperate to change the outcome.” The best wrestling crowds, he says, are the ones who suspend their disbelief enough to feel they can make a difference.
With the crowd on his side, CM Punk defeated Cena and remained WWE Champion for 434 amazing days. Which, it turned out, was long enough to see him transform from a young, brash hero into a selfish, insecure villain.
In December 2012, I finally got to see WWE live for the first time. My roommates and I got the cheapest tickets we could to their first show at the brand new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Up in the nosebleeds, we made friends with the fans around us, cheering and booing along with the entirely packed stadium. An angry, injured CM Punk stood on crutches in his private skybox yelling down insults.
I loved every ridiculous minute of it.