Earlier today I was asked the question, “Why do people enjoy professional wrestling when other things, like mixed martial arts, are real?” I include below the response I wrote for Quora.
This question presumes that the choice between MMA and WWE is an either/or proposition. Despite sharing common elements, the two are distinctly different forms of entertainment and are appealing for different reasons.
MMA is a legitimate athletic sport, while professional wrestling is a form of entertainment. While MMA’s results are not predetermined, this can be either a blessing or a curse. At best, mixed martial arts can be highly dramatic and unpredictable. At worst, it can be drawn out, boring or over in a flash.
Professional wrestling offers an improvement over the MMA model – it has the artistic liberty to craft its own narrative. If done well, there should never be a boring professional wrestling segment.
Furthermore, the creative domain of pro wrestling is large. Unlike MMA, pro wrestling offers tag team matches, lucha libre-style bouts (i.e. highly acrobatic performances), hardcore matches, elaborate music/video/pyrotechnic displays and storyline developments that make heroes, villains, and underdogs out of its characters.
Some people are troubled by this. They wonder how anyone can enjoy pro wrestling’s offerings when they know what they are seeing isn’t real. Strangely, they seldom fret over the scripted nature of television, movies, novels or other similar works. The key with all these art forms is the same – suspension of disbelief. The only way to truly enjoy a performance is by allowing yourself to be sucked in by it.
My second response is that it is naÃ¯ve to consider professional wrestling “fake.” Not only must wrestlers possess real resilience and athleticism, but what is presented in arenas around the world is far more “real” than most people understand.
While the key storylines and finishes to matches are predetermined, what happens between the ropes is mostly improvised. The effect is similar to that of improv comedy. Two performers who understand the basic toolbox of their craft can play off each other, creating a completely original performance each time out. In pro wrestling, as with comedy, becoming a master requires years of training and experience.
Connoisseurs of wrestling acknowledge these skills and are appreciative of seeing moves, counters and chains they never have before. For many fans the “real” aspect of in-ring performance is more important than the scripted component of who wins and loses. In most cases, the latter is a tool to enhance the former.
The best professional wrestlers not only know more moves than their MMA counterparts, but because wrestling is more a showcase than a pure competition, they are permitted more opportunity to display them. For example, a top rope hurricanrana or a superkick are spectacles to behold in wrestling, but they, like many other moves, are unthinkable in MMA. Again, people seldom seem concerned when similar actions occur in the context of, say, a Hollywood fight scene.
In MMA, the fighters who make it to the top of the card (ignoring political considerations) are generally the most skilled, but not necessarily the most entertaining. The best professional wrestlers are not only tough and athletically gifted, but also can speak well on a microphone, have great innate charisma, and possess the underrated ability to tell a compelling story using in-ring psychology.
Fan involvement is more pronounced in professional wrestling. If the fans chant for, buy the merchandise of, and generally support a particular performer, then WWE will, as a financially motivated company, push that performer higher up the card. This ability to drive the trajectory of the product creates a level of fan involvement MMA doesn’t provide. The pro wrestling business is a meritocracy, one in which fans are in control of who gets promoted.
I have also found the emotional connection fans have for their favorite wrestlers are often stronger than those they have for their favorite MMA fighters. Starting as a kid, I watched one of my favorites, Shawn Michaels, on television every week for years, gradually becoming more invested in the character.
But over time, I began to appreciate that the best wrestlers are hardly characters at all (e.g. CM Punk), but are merely exaggerated versions of their real personas. When I cheer as a fan, I am not only helping create a lively atmosphere, but I’m also expressing support to the performer behind the character. When your favorites win, it’s a vindication of sorts. It means that those who script the show see as much value in them as you do. Whenever you get a chance to meet the wrestlers at events (which happens surprisingly often), it only serves to make that connection stronger.
And the thing is, when all of these pieces fall together in just the perfect combination, there is nothing better in the world than professional wrestling. For those who want to experience this for themselves, I suggest you check out WWE’s Summer of Punk 2011 surrounding the Money in the Bank PPV and its main event match of the year.
Finally, for fans who are really in-the-know, pro wrestling websites offer backstage news that provides an entirely new dimension to the business. For example, in late March 2012, news broke that former UFC champion Brock Lesnar was in negotiations to return to WWE. This built fans’ hopes and anticipation for an imminent return. Trying to predict when it will occur and under what circumstances can be just as much fun as the matches themselves.
For another example, consider the case of WWE Superstar Daniel Bryan. After winning and defending the title for months in weaselly ways, this undersized but exceptionally skilled wrestler defended, and lost, his World Heavyweight Championship in near record time at Wrestlemania 28. As a big fan of Daniel Bryan, I was intrigued by how WWE would choose to present him at the show, an aspect distinct from his actual performance.
After the loss, I can’t help but wonder about the backstage politics that led to the title change. Has the company lost faith in him or was this done just for shock value? Is the fact that the new champion’s first defense is against another returning Superstar suggestive of the fact that Bryan’s time is over? I don’t know how things will shake out for him, but I can’t wait to find out.