On Wednesday night I inadvertently wound up watching four hours of pro wrestling, when my boyfriend settled in to watch Wrestle Kingdom 11 on a whim and I, after dismissing it out of hand, found myself drawn into watching the matches.
[A warning. I dislike dilettante-style essays where cultural critics who know nothing about a topic decide to apply their skills to some phenomenon with which they become briefly infatuated, but do not admire. This is possibly one of those essays.]
At training earlier that day, a few of the guys - my boyfriend included - had spontaneously started busting out their best playground WWF moves. It reminded me so strongly of being at primary school in the late 1980s, the first heyday of the sport. The boys I was at school with were deeply versed in the WWF cosmology, the names of the stars and the details of the rivalries and the shapes of the moves they would mimic on the playing fields. Monikers like Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan, Jake the Snake and The Bushwhackers remain richly allusive in my mind, madeleines that when dunked release the smell of mown grass and the noise of squealing kids, yet also elusive in detail, given I never actually watched a match.
Up to this week, pro wrestling remained a subject I knew solely by cultural osmosis. I knew some faces, could visualise the costumes, could play mental recordings of classic moves, see bodies flinging themselves from one set of ropes to the opposite, building up momentum before unleashing it on their opponent. It's the same depth of knowledge that I have of, say, manga, or classical music.
What I did know was that pro wrestling was pure silliness. It was to be consumed, if at all, with distanced irony.
This irony was the way I used to approach the UFC. I began watching after I started training in Brazilian jiu jitsu, though I've never personally been tempted to move over from grappling into MMA. To begin with, I was revolted by the brutality, the blood. With time, I began to see the skill. In the most recent card, UFC 207's December 30th extravaganza, it was there in TJ Dillashaw's immaculately timed takedowns on John Lineker, in Cody Garbrandt's evasive footwork against Dominick Cruz, and in Amanda Nunes' surgical dismantling of Ronda Rousey with straight punches.
UFC was too real for me. Pro wrestling was too fake.
On the other hand, while I now enjoy watching most of the main cards of the UFC fights, the pre-fight bullshit turns me off no end. Whether it's the beef between Rousey and Miesha Tate, a kind of Ultimate Pout-Off, or Conor McGregor's endless gab in the lead up to his matches with the inarticulate Nate Diaz, or the inevitable moment when Dana White "holds apart" the two contenders as they "lunge" at each other during the weigh-ins, the performative aspect of the UFC leaves me cold.
Pro wrestling, of course, is nothing but performance. As my boyfriend said as we started watching the other night: 'It's like Broadway with body slams.'
As we watched the team matches, I began to see it. Four years of grappling have shown me how hard it is to move another person's body if they don't want you to. Watching the wrestlers, I looked for how they helped each other; how the impact of a blow is spread, how a headlock is used to give everyone time to breathe, how one fighter braces against another to complete a suplex. I began to appreciate the collaborative aspect, the choreography, the pure theatre.
A little googling whilst writing this piece brought me to the word 'kayfabe', the shorthand term that summarises both the staged nature of pro wrestling and the suspension of disbelief that allows the audience to disregard it. It describes how a fan can both appreciate the theatre and become invested in it.
Where I remain a confused is the motivation. It's impossible, of course, not to feel that all professional sport is, at some level, in some way, rigged - from who gets paid what to who gets to challenge whom, the hierarchies of opportunity and access, before we even get to the inflated rivalries and media spin. But there's an intransigent bit of my brain that keeps asking: why would you get into the ring if you already know the outcome? And even if I think of the bout as more like a ballet performance - where everyone knows both the role they have to play and their place in the company - if there's not some small seed of belief that this win could be yours, what drives you to do this?
This is not a conversion story. There was a follow-up to Wrestle Kingdom 11 on Thursday night, and I had zero interest in watching it. I am lacking in kayfabe, it turns out, and the miraculous escapes on the two-count and the agonised expressions of faux-injury quickly palled on me. But I am glad I gave that time to it. Wrestling Kingdom 11 was a one-night dalliance, but also a reminder of the enjoyment to be found in abandoning the self-imposed strictures of "good" taste.