wednesday night wars

What a Time to Watch Wrestling

Photo: WWE/YouTube

A year and a half ago, I hadn’t watched wrestling for three decades. I watched devoutly for several years as a kid, during the heyday of Hulkamania, and then I graduated elementary school and moved on. I hadn’t seen so much as a single match in 20 years, not since my friends and I snuck a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon into the New Haven Coliseum to watch “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the Rock, and the rest of the gang tape the very first episode of WWE’s Smackdown on my 21st birthday in 1999.

Now it’s September 2019, and I watch six hours of wrestling a week, easy — more if WWE or its newly minted rival AEW put on a special weekend pay-per-view event, and more still if I step into the time machine of the Internet and watch old rivalries I missed long ago. I recently spent a long Saturday night watching Ric Flair and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat battle each other into oblivion in three separate matches from 1989, just because I’d exhausted that week’s options and wanted more, dammit.

And more is what we’ll all soon be getting.

For 20 years, the wrestling industry has been dominated by one person: Vince McMahon, CEO of WWE, by an order of magnitude the biggest player in the business. But now this 800-pound gorilla is facing genuine competition here in the States in the form of a new company, All Elite Wrestling.

Funded by the billionaire owners of the Jacksonville Jaguars, AEW is run by a quartet of the world’s best working wrestlers — including Cody Rhodes, son of WWE rival turned WWE employee Dusty Rhodes. Cody, an ex-WWE star himself, never got a fair shake in McMahonland; his colleagues at the top of AEW’s pyramid — Kenny Omega and brothers Nick and Matt Jackson, collectively known as the Elite — have never worked for the industry behemoth at all, splitting their time between Japan and the American independent scene. We’re talking bona fide new blood here.

Starting this week, the two tribes go to war. Tonight marks the debut of NXT, WWE’s acclaimed indie-flavored program, on the USA Network. It’s the company’s way of getting a jump on the competition: AEW launches its first-ever weekly show on TNT two weeks from now, on Wednesday, October 2. And two days after that, WWE’s Smackdown debuts on its new network, Fox, bookending each weekend with the company’s Raw broadcast Monday nights on USA.

Fans are calling this new burst of competition the Wednesday Night Wars — a return to the so-called “Monday Night Wars” of the ’90s and early aughts, in which WWE slugged it out with the Ted Turner-backed wrestling promotion WCW for ratings and pop-culture supremacy. In fact, McMahon has hired two of his old rivals from the period, WCW honcho Eric Bischoff and “Extreme Championship Wrestling” visionary Paul Heyman, to oversee Smackdown and Raw respectively. Meanwhile, wrestlers themselves have begun routinely exchanging fire in interviews and in running Twitter battles between brands. It’s like watching the Marvel versus DC war play out in miniature, with Spidey and Superman taking part in the hostilities directly — and I can’t get enough.

Perhaps you’re thinking what I would have thought if you’d told me this just two years ago: What the hell?

I mean, I’ve got my media-consumption hands full. I’m a full-time freelance critic who spends pretty much every free moment watching some show or movie or listening to some album or reading some comic I’m getting paid to write about. I’m a parent of two kids who have their own faves, for which I come along for the ride. My partner, the smartest person I’ve ever met, is a cartoonist and aesthete, adding another set of artistic reference points for me to follow. I don’t watch “real” sports, admittedly, but I play the occasional video game while high, and I think that counts.

Which is why I can tell you without fear of contradiction that wrestling — freaking professional wrestling — is as exciting and engrossing and life-affirming and generally excellent as all of the above. I enjoy it with a purity I didn’t think possible. I think you might, too. Because here’s the thing about being a wrestling fan today: 20 years’ worth of advances in technology, representation, and pure athleticism have made the sport smarter, better, and more fun than ever before.

Let’s start in the ring, where wrestling ain’t what it used to be — it’s better than I ever imagined it could be. When I was a little kid in the ’80s, watching Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant lumber around, whomping on each other, was the height of the wrestling experience for me. Today, dudes Hogan and Andre’s size move with a speed and agility I didn’t think possible, to the point where a random Monday-night fight between the towering “Monster Among Men” Braun Strowman and the musclebound Bobby Lashley would have been the stuff of elementary-school legend 30 years ago. They’re not considered especially strong workers either, compared to the likes of the all-around masters like Kazuchika Okada or Will Ospreay or, well, literally dozens of other men and women in the field.

What’s more, there’s been tremendous cross-pollination between different regional styles of wrestling, leading to an in-ring product that’s more dynamic and offers more intriguing possibilities. Japan’s hard-hitting “strong style” and its British and European counterparts, the high-flying precision of Mexico’s lucha libre and Japan’s joshi women’s style, the death-defying, anything-goes ethos of the American independent scene, WWE’s sense of spectacle and showmanship: It’s all gotten mixed up, along with the wrestlers themselves.

Throw in the internet and companies’ individual streaming services, and great match-ups between wrestlers the world over are more accessible than ever. If you want to watch former WWE star turned AEW rebel leader Jon Moxley terrorize his way through the peerless competitors of New Japan, or see highflying Irish heartthrob Finn Bálor tangle with (equally hot) Mexican heel Andrade in WWE, or watch AEW’s “Elite” core of Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks engage in synchronized aerial combat with masked men Pentagon, Rey Fenix, and the Laredo Kid, it’s all at your fingertips.

What you’re looking at in the ring essentially shows the same jaw-dropping advances in athleticism as any other sport has over the past few decades. From basketball to track to figure skating, records keep getting broken and feats that would have once seemed superhuman are now routine. Watch Ricochet flip 630 degrees off the top rope to land on his opponent. Watch Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada wrestle an entire series of matches, including an hour-long draw and an hour-plus best-two-out-of-three-falls blockbuster, in which their energy level and ability to execute fast, high-risk maneuvers seemingly never flags. Watch Kairi Sane drop her “Insane Elbow” on her enemies from a height that would put even the great “Macho Man” Randy Savage to shame. It’s fun to marvel at what the disciplined human body can accomplish, and that’s as true in the squared circle as it is on the court or the ice.

And if you want to move beyond the ring and get meta, a whole cottage industry awaits you. Say you like the industry gossip part of entertainment journalism — news about hirings, firings, changes in creative direction, studio rivalries, and so on. With pro wrestling, that’s practically a sport unto itself, and the sheer quantity of information available on the internet has made playing along easy for everyone. Attempts to analyze the actions of McMahon, WWE’s mercurial, politically conservative chief executive — who runs a multi-billion-dollar business but is still present at virtually every taping, micromanaging the shows and changing scripts on the fly — have risen to the level of kremlinology. And since the place leaks like a sieve, reports about backstage goings-on, like the level of creative control exerted by former rival promoters turned on-again off-again employees Heyman and Bischoff in their new top creative positions, flow like sweet, sweet wine. Ever tried to read the tea leaves of a Netflix press release, or figure out how AT&T is going to change HBO, or follow the escalating content wars between the megastudios’ new streaming services? Get ready to flex those mental muscles on the daily.

Speaking of which, let’s say you’re the type of fan who’s as into what hasn’t happened in your favorite show or franchise yet as what has. You know the deal: You spent a year after Infinity War making predictions about Endgame; you’ve been unraveling Big Little Lies since they were just normal-size lies; that sort of thing. Now normally, as a critic, that’s the kind of stuff I try to stay away from; it’s my job to talk about the stuff that’s actually on screen, not the stories playing out in my head. In wrestling? All of that goes out the window. Just as it has with film and television, the rise of YouTube, podcasts, and social media have made speculation about wrestling a full-time obsession.

I’m not just talking about speculating as to whether the wrestler you’re rooting for will win a given match or feud, either. Theories and predictions are the stuff of life in the grappling game, as fans and commentators (the lines between the two are blurrier than ever) take to Twitter, Reddit, and their podcast mics and feverishly try to determine which outcomes make the most sense for building up characters, pleasing the crowds, making faces look good and heels look scary or sleazy, and so on. It’s not just who should win this match or this feud, it’s who each combatant’s next feud should be against, and who should win those, and what effect a win or loss might have on merchandise sales, and what the company in question ought to do to strengthen a particular character or build to a special pay-per-view event. It’s a combination of the Westworld subreddit and fantasy football, in which what’s likely to happen, what ought to happen, and what you wish would happen are all rolled into one.

Then there’s wrestling jargon, which has evolved into something of an art form unto itself. I’ve already used a bunch of it in this piece, stuff that’s become commonplace, as it’s been passed down from the carnival circuit where “professional wrestling” originated — back when “kayfabe,” or the refusal to break character and admit this is a performance art in any way, was sometimes violently enforced — through our understanding of how all good-versus-evil narratives work. Faces, or babyfaces, are the good guys. Heels, their opposite, are the bad guys. Face turns and heel turns happen when one becomes the other.

When heels get booed, they have heat; when faces get cheered, they get a pop; when they do something really easy to get either, it’s cheap heat or a cheap pop. When you’re really popular, or really hated if that’s what your job is, you’re over. A story beat is an angle. When something looks real but isn’t, that’s a work. When something looks real and is, that’s a shoot. When something’s supposed to look like a shoot but it’s actually a work, that’s a worked shoot. Rabid fans are marks. Rabid fans who think their knowledge of the stuff in this paragraph makes them better than the rest of the marks are smarks, or smart marks. Needless to say, the applications for this subcultural language in everything from pop music (Kanye turned heel!) to politics (when Republicans talk about civility it’s a work, when Democrats talk about civility it is, sadly, a shoot) are endless.

And if you’ve got a rooting interest in advancing social justice through the arts — which, by the way, you should — the endemic sexism and racism that plagued wrestling all the way through its boom years in the ’80s and ’90s is now largely a thing of the past. The two biggest stars in WWE right now are the Ghana-born daredevil Kofi Kingston, the company’s second-ever black WWE Champion after Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Becky Lynch, a hugely charismatic Irish woman. Both wrestlers made it to the top through sheer force of personality and fan goodwill, forcing their employer to adjust plans on the fly to accommodate their talent.

Gaybaiting gimmicks? Gone. Sexually fluid, Prince-referencing star the Velveteen Dream is hugely beloved in WWE’s indie-style NXT brand, while lesbian wrester Sonya Deville fights her way up the women’s roster with a rainbow flag in her back pocket. Transgender woman Nyla Rose is the top heel in AEW’s women’s division because of her furious physicality and for no other reason. When an old-school commentator took a shot at openly gay wrestler Sonny Kiss, the wrestling community had the performer’s back, though if you can dance like this you probably have no problem holding things down on your own. Even xenophobic “foreign menace” heels are a thing of the past. No more Iron Shiek and Mr. Fuji — today wrestlers like Asuka and Shinsuke Nakamura are greeted like rock stars, and have their names pronounced correctly to boot.

Obviously billionaire-backed companies never have clean hands, and some of those hands are dirtier than others. But representation does matter, not only for wrestlers from marginalized groups who now have opportunities they’ve been too long denied, but also for fans who want to enjoy the show without feeling actively insulted. In that regard, wrestling is no longer stuck in the past.

Which leads us to the biggest obstacle, both past and present, facing the appreciation of this art form: Is it fake? Well, yes — in the same sense that the ballerinas performing Swan Lake aren’t really swans, or that no one on Game of Thrones actually ever rode a dragon. The difference between then and now is that the artifice is okay to talk about. You suspend your belief in order to get swept along by the story and the spectacle; then you step back and analyze that spectacle the way you would any art form. The skill involved, the stuff that makes a great dancer or great actor or great wrestler great, is very real, even if their pain, anger, grief, lust, and triumphs are largely feigned. A good storyline and a talented performer can induce you to suspend your disbelief way up past that top rope.

No, the combatants in a wrestling match aren’t really trying to hurt each other. On the contrary: For a wrestling match to really work, the competitors must work together to make their rivalry look real. There’s something beautiful in that, something I’ve had a hard time articulating in my newfound ardor for the sport. But at the heart of it all, when I watch good wrestling, I see men and women who love their bodies, who love each other’s bodies, and who love what they can do with them together. It’s exactly like watching actors or dancers operate at peak condition. It’s moving, sumptuous, often very silly, and just as often, absolutely glorious.

What a Time to Watch Wrestling