From May to August, 2017, I lived with my brother in Westchester County, NY, while commuting into the city for a summer internship. On the opposite side of thirty, I found it strange that my brother not only watched the WWE religiously, but listened to podcasts and attended Wrestlemania annually. Sure I liked the WWF (as I still sometimes refer to it) back in the day when I was young and impressionable, but who didn’t? Jumping onto one another off the basement couch broke up the screen-staring binges of Warcraft and GoldenEye.
But I’m 27 and hadn’t — non-ironically — watched a WWE match in over 15 years.
“I refuse to engage in something that makes me more stupid,” I would typically say as I strolled over to the other side of the couch with a glass of bourbon and a new novel. But I was staying with him and got my reading done on the train, so I decided to give it a shot. When I finally put down Portnoy’s Complaint or The Rachel Papers, I realized there was a magic that derived from beautifully sculpted human beings launching each other from ten feet up or chasing each other around the ring with folded-up chairs and kendo sticks.
It was primal.
No, the competition to wrestling isn’t real as — spoiler alert* — the winners are decided ahead of time. But that doesn’t make those flips, kicks, and crashes hurt less. That mat is basically wood. That’s real blood, a real dislocated shoulder, and real broken jaws.
And guess what? They’re doing this 3–5 times a week! Unbeknownst to me, a huge chunk of a wrestler’s career is done off-screen at smaller venues, hitting multiple cities in multiple states every week. This made me realize how difficult it must be on the wrestler’s personal lives. Unlike a professional athlete who plays half of his/her games at “home” with an offseason, wrestlers don’t have a “home-ring”, but constantly road-trip on circuits. Further, the WWE doesn’t have an offseason, but starts literally the day after Wrestlemania (the WWE’s Super Bowl).
You would think that with extremely demanding schedules and brutal physical tolls on their bodies, wrestlers would have flash-in-the-pan length careers, but the opposite seems to be true. The Big Show, Chris Jericho, Matt and Jeff Hardy, and John Cena, all contemporary wrestlers, all have careers spanning 10–15 years. Goldust, the sexually ambiguous wrestler covered head to toe in gold, debuted in 1990, the year I was born — he was in the ring last week; he’s 48 now.
*True story, I actually met Goldust on the Atlantic City boardwalk back in the early 90s — my brother, true to form, identified the wrestler in plainclothes — Goldust asked him not to blow his cover.
But just being able to sustain physical punishment over the long-term doesn’t guarantee you a career in the WWE. You have to…act. I haaated this part (still kinda do).
“You have to be able to work the mic,” my brother would tell me as I sat through another prolonged, cringe-inducing in-ring promotion by the guitar guy, the opera guy, the ugly guy, or that annoying couple while I reached for my sweating glass of bourbon. (Elias Samson, Aiden English, Ellsworth, and Mike and Maria Kanellis, respectively).
South Park even famously lampooned wrestling’s excessive drama between matches where the Shakespearian storylines were overshadowing the wrestling itself.
Then I started to view the in-ring and behind-the-scenes acting in the broader context of the WWE experience and I realized that these segments weren’t there simply to fill the void between matches or serve as comic-relief, but served a much more important function — they are the glue that binds the wrestlers to the fans.
Take Bayley for example (she’s a hugger) a fan favorite largely with young girls who completely embodies a “face” or “good-guy” wrestler. Bayley will continue to be a fan favorite amongst this demographic — likely the hardest for the WWE to reach — unless, of course, the WWE wants to re-write Bayley to turn into a “heel”. If the acting were removed from the equation, all wrestlers would be judged simply on their wrestling abilities and looks, therefore limiting their target audience to pure wrestling enthusiasts and men/women who want to ogle at beautiful bodies. WWE does stand for World Wrestling Entertainment, after all, and when has Good v. Evil not been entertaining?
A perfect example of this is Enzo Amore. Enzo dresses like a bomb went off in a 2005 Staten Island wardrobe, has a haircut like a troll doll, and is a pretty poor wrestler, but is a fan favorite strictly based on his personality and ability to “work the mic”.
Actually, wrestling’s ability to hit all demographics tastefully has come a long way since the days of bra-&-panties matches and foreigners shouting “Death to America!” in their native language, which might as well’ve been tongues. Sure it’s still easy to make foreigners “heels”, but even guys like Jinder Mahal (Punjab/India), Ariya Daivari (Iran), and Rusev (Bulgaria), come off as patriotic countrymen instead of romanticized stereotypes. And that’s not to say that all foreigners are always bad. Shinsuke Nakamura (Japan) is a “face” and total rockstar and fan favorite who will face off with Jinder Mahal at SummerSlam — this will be the first time ever two foreigners compete for the SummerSlam heavyweight title.
Trust me, the WWE knows what they’re doing and it works. While I used to believe, and would tell my brother, “the best part about wrestling is that you get to see the diversity of white trash in America”, I can’t help but notice how (actually) diverse the crowds are at these events. In fact, I would say that the WWE attracts the most diverse (age, race, gender) crowds out of any sporting event in the country. Sure, some of the most popular wrestlers (and rightfully so) are big and/or chiseled white dudes from the South and Midwest (see* Braun Strowman, Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton, AJ Styles, Seth Rollins, Bray Wyatt et al.) But there is no doubt that the WWE has acknowledged the country’s diversification and planned accordingly. Signed wrestlers from outside of this demographic include, The New Day (perhaps the most popular trio in wrestling), The Usos, Roman Reigns, Sami Zayn, Samoa Joe, Enzo Amore, Big Cass, Tozawa, Apollo Crews, Mustafa Ali, Primo, et al.
In fact, Sami Zayn, who I had believed was of Irish descent due to his red beard, flat cap, and intro music that is of the Dropkick Murphys ilk, is actually the son of Syrian-Muslim immigrants to Canada — maybe there is a future heavyweight champion somewhere amongst those refugee children.
That brings us to the women. Man, has women’s wrestling changed since my brother was putting me in a sharpshooter back in the early 90s as I screeched for my father who told us to quiet down while he watched the Giants lose to the Cowboys… sorry for the flashback. But back then the ladies were relegated to eye-candy sometimes (literally) in their underwear, where the wrestling was expected to be bad; but hey, they were pretty and didn’t take up too much time. Unfortunately, upon doing research for this article, I discovered that the change didn’t really occur until…gulp… 2015. Read about the events that sparked the change here.
But it’s 2017 and we’re finally a progressive nation (no, I couldn’t type that without laughing), but the women’s division (previously named “The Divas”) after finally given a legitimate chance to showcase their stuff are absolutely killin’ it. Led by the “Four Horsewomen” — Charlotte Flair (ring a bell?), Becky Lynch, Bayley, and Sasha Banks — the women create matches that are on par with the quality of the other matches that night. The women’s drastic role change in the WWE is largely thanks to NXT, the developmental league where women are given equal training to the men and equal time in the ring. The result is an overall better product that is more popular than ever — are we taking notes Silicon Valley?
Don’t believe me? Check out these highlights from Alexa Bliss vs. Sasha Banks Great Balls of Fire — My favorite match of the summer… for more reasons than one.
Let’s get back to that primal part. I’d be lying if there wasn’t still sex appeal to wrestling. There is still plenty of it and then some. I’m very open about my total fan-boy crush on Sasha Banks. So, yes, some of the women wrestlers wear skimpy outfits, but these also are some of the most talented wrestlers. And some of the most talented women wrestlers who could easily pull off a skimpy outfit choose not to — like Becky Lynch, arguably the most beautiful wrestler, but chooses to wear less revealing outfits because it better suits her character — a win for choice! Lastly, not all of the women would even want to wear a skimpy outfit of yore, and that’s a good thing too. The WWE seems to finally treat the women like the men by hiring wrestlers of all shapes and sizes based more on skill than looks, which creates a better show.
You think I was going to talk about how the women looked without addressing the men? Especially after I made that progressive comment before? Come on.
While the ‘roided, rippling age of bronzed-god wrestling has long passed, the male wrestlers, like the women, are a complete mixture of sex appeal and skill. Take Roman Reigns, this hair-flowing Samoan looks like he belongs on that erotica novel your aunt purchased at the supermarket and is awkwardly reading next to you on the beach. Randy Orton has that shaved-head-and-tattoo-sleeves-bad-boy look and always surprises me when he doesn’t leave on a motorcycle at the end of every match, while Seth Rollins could be the poster-boy for CrossFit — he wants you to know he CrossFits. But Kevin Owens — arguably one of the most skilled wrestlers — has a beer-belly and looks like he hasn’t lifted a weight in years while The New Day are a trio ranging from big-guy to NFL runningback to freak athlete body types.
To me, the WWE seems to have found a perfect balance of sex appeal and quality entertainment.
So yes I love the highflying flips into tables and unexpected super-kicks. Yes I love how the WWE has evolved into a more gender-equal spectacle and admire how it attracts the most diverse following in the country. And yes I love Sasha Banks. But the reason why I love the WWE the most is because of their generosity.
The WWE and many of its superstars are extremely generous and give/participate in a variety of charities. The most famous being Make-a-Wish, where John Cena is the all-time leading “wish grantor”. Here is a list of charitable wrestlers.
But please, WWE I’m begging you, please, please stop the Fashion Police film noirs.
And please get Ellsworth off my screen.
Ben D’Alessio is a writer and law student in New Orleans, LA. He is the author of the novels Binge Until Tragedy and Lunchmeat. Both are available on Amazon and the publisher’s page. 25% of profits are donated to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN).