It’s something that I don’t say very often, but I’m a fan of Word Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). The stigma is such that I’ve a friend that keeps his interest in wrestling a semi-guarded secret and my girlfriend is mortified when people find out about my pastime. WWE is often branded as being “fake”, aimed at children and having a fan base consisting of “sad” men who never left adolescence. These accusations are unjustified.
WWE is scripted entertainment brought to life by talented performers. It doesn’t pretend to be a competitive sport: it is sports entertainment. It’s not an open competition, like football or rugby, but rather a television drama like The Sopranos. People often deride wrestling for the fact that the results are pre-determined, but I’ve never heard anyone criticise Tom Cruise for having learned his lines and knowing what is going to happen in his films. Has anyone ever criticised the Mission Impossible films for being “fake”? No, because they are accepted to be works of scripted and acted entertainment- just like WWE.
It’s true that a large portion of the WWE’s fan base is under the age of 14, but so is Doctor Who’s. This doesn’t mean that the show can’t be tailored to suit different demographics. Just as many Doctor Who fans that now follow the show were first fans of Tom Baker, older WWE fans (or WWE universe as the company likes to call them) still follow the show because they grew up watching Hulk Hogan in the 1980s. Just as David Tennant’s return as the Doctor in the autumn thrilled fans that grew up watching him, so did the return of The Rock to WWE in February 2011.
The WWE at its best provides moments that will be remembered for a lifetime. None stand out more than one that occurred three weeks ago at Wrestlemania 30. Coming into the event, The Undertaker had amassed 21 consecutive victories at the biggest wrestling show of the year. ‘The streak’ as it had become known was, some thought, never to be broken. This year’s challenger, ‘The Beast Incarnate’ Brock Lesnar, despite being a former UFC heavyweight champion and by all accounts an intensely intimidating figure, had no chance. Lesnar, a man that left WWE unceremoniously in 2004 before returning in 2012 for a number of sporadic appearances, was surely going to become the Undertaker’s next victim. Such was the certainty, that before the match, bookmakers had Lesnar as a 12/1 outsider in a two-man scripted encounter. The shock when ‘the streak’ was ended was palpable. My facial expression on my sofa at home mirrored those of the crowds in New Orleans. Think about your reaction to the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones, imagine if it turned out that Danny Latimer had actually killed himself in Broadchurch or if the Titanic didn’t sink. The narrative up to that point had everyone believing The Undertaker would win. The result was that everyone in attendance and watching at home was utterly stunned.
WWE isn’t just watchable for what happens on-screen. Like any other TV show, there’s a flood of gossip regarding the goings-on backstage. What makes WWE unique is that the backstage goings-on and crowd reactions to various events can have a huge impact upon the eventual storyline. In a sense, this mirrors the world of football; Recently, Assem Allam has felt the wrath of Hull City supporters over a proposed name change; Vincent Tan is hugely unpopular at Cardiff City; and Rangers fans have refused to buy season tickets in protest at how the club is run. The decisions of the people in charge of these organisations are ultimately dictated by financial considerations. WWE is no different; the knowledge that its fan base could revolt if Daniel Bryan didn’t leave Wrestlemania 30 as the WWE World Heavyweight Champion forced the hand of the WWE.
Bryan first rose to prominence in 2012, after his stint as the World Heavyweight Champion was ended in 18 seconds after a swift kick to the head at Wrestlemania 28. Fans felt that Bryan, despite being a villain (or heel) at the time, had been unfairly treated by WWE. Since then, his popularity has soared and two very brief WWE title reigns in late 2013 left the WWE universe wanting more. In January, his followers desperately wanted Bryan to win the 30-man Royal Rumble. When this didn’t happen they let their feelings be known.
Matters were made worse for WWE when the return of popular wrestler or “superstar” Batista was leaked online, forcing the company to announce his arrival weeks before the Royal Rumble. The original plan was to have Batista make a surprise return at the Rumble and go on to face the champion, Randy Orton, at Wrestlemania. That his return was announced in advance made it obvious in the eyes of Bryan fans that Batista was to win the Rumble and that Bryan wasn’t destined for a title victory at the biggest show of the year. Crowd reactions became so hostile that plans had to be changed. Bryan was put into a match with his nemesis Triple H, with the victor earning a chance to be added to the title match (in pro-wrestling 3 people can compete in the same match!). Once The Undertaker had lost, it was clear that WWE was not going to shock its fans twice in one night, and amid fireworks and ticker tape, Bryan won the championship.
Wrestlemania 30 was a show that a WWE fan could be proud to show to a cynic. It provided a huge pay-off for those that invested time following closely and stood alone as a spectacle for those watching as a one-off. To enjoy WWE you need to suspend reality in the same way you do when watching a film. The result at Wrestlemania was the equivalent to a World Cup final that has been designed to be as exciting as it possibly can be. WWE provides entertainment within a sporting context. You could pay a lot of money to see the main event of a boxing card only for it to end in the first round, a boxing promoter cannot guarantee entertainment in the same way WWE can. This is the crux of Sports Entertainment: WWE is a sports show that it is scripted in order to guarantee entertainment.
WWE is far from perfect. It can be as frustrating as it is entertaining and the manner in which it portrays women and ethnic minorities can be deplorable. It is though in a unique space in the TV entertainment market: it is based upon sport, scripted like a drama, and can be shaped by viewers like a reality show. It should be seen for what it is rather than what it is perceived to be. This post won’t remove any of the stigma associated with being a fan of WWE, but it’s hopefully demonstrated that it’s unwarranted.