Has there been progress since the ‘90s, or is wrestling still just a violent cheese-fest?
When you talk to new people and start spending more time with them, you inevitably end up being exposed to their hobbies and interests. Maybe their idea of fun ends up being letterboxing, or a deep (hah) interest in rocks and minerals. You could be lucky enough to wind up in the company of an avid baker. Rather than kayaking or chess or record collecting, the hobby I wind up being adjacent to most often is professional wrestling. It is inescapable and inevitable; the time to take this sign from the universe and actually learn about it has finally come.
To find answers to the questions I had from the outside looking in on the world of wrestling, I located my most wrestling-invested associate, Adam Witt. There were a lot of questions that I needed answers to: how does one end up getting invested in a spectacle most people refer to as a fake sport? Do people who watch professional wrestling consider it a real sport? Do the wrestlers actually get hurt? What kind of snack options are available at wrestling venues?
Starting simply, I asked how Witt got into wrestling. “It’s one of the last remainders of my relationship with family. My estranged brother got me interested in the WWF when I was about nine years old.” He explained that this time period was during the height of the Monday Night Wars with World Championship Wrestling and the WWF – a golden age for wrestling.
Witt said that one of the things that kept him interested in wrestling was the live show aspect of the matches. Retelling one of the moments in wrestling that had the biggest impact for him, Witt said “there was a storyline where a swamp-man cult-leader named Bray Wyatt was trying to convince him to join the Wyatt Family, his swamp cult. They played this story, as they do, over months. As the story with the Wyatt Family rolled out, the crowd revolted. They – we – didn’t want this to go down. WWE did something they had only done in rare cases, if any, up to that point: they listened. On an episode of their weekly Monday show, Raw, Bryan fought against the Wyatt Family, climbed to the top of a steel cage, and led the entire crowd in a chant. I was at my house screaming at my TV, feeling like a kid again. I was 25 years old. I was watching a company that’s tried to do the same thing for most of my life change on the fly.”
Just like the intricate relationships, grudges, and histories in wrestling, professional wrestling’s status as a sport is very complicated. “There is a lot more athleticism than there was in the most public days of wrestling.” Due to the carnival-beginning ways of the practice, Hulk Hogan lifting up 600 pounds of Andre the Giant was once the height of professional wrestling. A display of brute strength was the form’s most iconic image for a long time. Witt said while that was once the case, “you now have wrestlers like Will Ospreay doing incredible gymnastic feats that, on the surface, might seem less like wrestling. That might be true, but I’d argue that it makes wrestling more of a sport.”
Professional wrestling and its status as a sport is a polarizing topic, but Witt goes on to explain that being an individual that enjoys the show is even more touchy. “Wrestling was most public during the steroid trials, the Chris Benoit murders, and the Attitude Era.” The Attitude Era was from 1997 – 2002, and had a more adult tone – increasing raunchiness, sexualization, and vulgarity were the Attitude Era’s calling cards. With this era achieving the highest number of viewers yet and shaping the rising familiarity with the sport in the public sphere, conclusions were drawn. Talking about some of those conclusions, Witt continued: “When you see wrestling in the news, it’s negative, and some of the fame that comes with wrestling encourages it. When this is all the layperson sees, why wouldn’t they think that it’s just as corny as it was in the 1990s?”
Even with these common attitudes, Witt points out what watching professional wrestling can provide something that other sports simply can’t rival. “The athleticism is unmatched. The storytelling can be moving and can be done in incredibly long form. I’ve seen wrestling stories unfold over twenty-plus years; if you’re really doing it right, that kind of drama can happen multiple times in a night. Wrestling’s greatest asset is that there is no kind of storytelling like it, on the physical and mental level.”
Sharing hobbies and interests as a way to get to know somebody can be fun and insightful. When asked how he would get someone into watching professional wrestling, Witt outlined his plan: “I would get them to join my swamp cult. Truthfully, there’s no good answer to this. I have a batch of matches I recommend and will watch with people because they do what wrestling does best: they tell anywhere between twenty and thirty years of story in twenty to thirty minutes.”
Going back to the evolution of professional wrestling over the years, Witt points to the shift in viewing platforms as making the sport more varied and accessible. “There’s such a staggering variety of wrestling out there that it’s impossible to think of something I can’t find. There’s high drama; there’s athleticism unchained; there are people all over the world beating each other up in backyards and putting it on Youtube; there are so many options to watch in person or in your home.”
It’s an interesting time to get interested in professional wrestling, even just by accident because your friend’s hobby is infiltrating your life. “I watched what I consider to be a dark age of wrestling with the Attitude Era, and now there are more companies than anybody knows what to do with. I’d almost like there to be less wrestling, but what I’d really like is for more people to sit me down, cook some popcorn, and show me their favorite matches.”