Despite wrestling’s ghoulish corporate infrastructure, there is redemption in the wrestlers themselves—and the fans. (Illustrations by Rachal Duggan.)
No offense to you, but I know I’m largely writing this for an audience whose only exposure to WWE in this century came when John Oliver “EVISCERATED” the professional-wrestling megalith in semi-viral segments (rightfully, I must note) on his show for taking money from the corrupt, vile, Saudi Arabian dictatorship and staging a show hosted by two awful people: The Crown Prince who murdered a journalist and racist steroid abuser Hulk Hogan. Liking WWE is a burden, a curse, a disease, and the thing I do that causes me the most shame—and I’m a person who makes a living writing about music on the internet.
I suspect that in today’s climate, even considering attending WWE’s Live Event on November 25 at Madison’s Alliant Energy Center is a non-starter for many reasonable people, given the facts I’ve listed above. Refusing to separate the art from the artist feels like the way we should approach art in 2018. We wouldn’t tolerate R. Kelly as a bank teller, so we shouldn’t tolerate him as an R&B iconoclast. But fans of the WWE have had to deal with this dissonance—of actively hating WWE and everything it stands for, while also loving the wrestling itself—since at least 1980, when Larry Zbysko turned on Bruno Sammartino (look it up). Wrestling probably even helped give us the the fascist political landscape we have today: Donald Trump made his biggest early forays into the larger consciousness of society via wrestling events. He hosted some Wrestlemanias at one of his hotels in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and he had a wrestler fight for his right to not have his head shaved at Wrestlemania 23. WWE Owner Vince McMahon’s business partner and wife, Linda, serves in Trump’s administration as administrator of the Small Business Administration, which is both unfortunate and entirely consistent with Trump’s horrific cabinet.
But where the separation gets tricky is in the performers themselves. How much do you hold the crimes of Vince McMahon against Daniel Bryan, a vegan whose Wrestlemania 30 title win remains the best sporting event I’ve ever watched live? How do you weigh WWE giving Donald Trump air time in 2007 and re-hiring Hogan against the fact that it gave us the New Day, three African-American performers who have been given unprecedented creative latitude for wrestling performers of color not named The Rock “Dwayne” Johnson? How much should you punish John Cena, a man who has done more Make-A-Wish one-on-ones with dying kids than anyone ever, for thanking the bone-sawing butchers who paid for him to wrestle in Saudi Arabia? How much do you hold the wrestlers, who have been refused the right to unionize repeatedly and uniformly, and who have been denied the right to make a living at other wrestling companies commensurate with WWE’s salaries anywhere else due to monopolistic overreach by WWE, accountable for WWE’s chairman being a post-capitalist demagogue who will chase dollars wherever they lie, even under Hulk Hogan’s bandana of casual racism?
All of this to say, I will be at the WWE Live Event on November 25. I have seats somewhere in the 15th row. The show is a “house show,” which means that it won’t be taped, and the performers can generally have more fun, have longer matches, and enjoy more artistic expression (more on this later). It’s the thing I’m most looking forward to seeing—particularly Bryan, who’s been announced as appearing—of all the possibilities in Madison, this entire year. Let me try to explain why.
First off: Yes, I know it’s fake. Every person at every WWE event, on some level—even the toddlers—knows that what they’re seeing is fake. But do you go to Star Wars movies for real-life verisimilitude? When wrestling—from WWE to the variety you perform to a camera in your backyard trampoline wrestling federation—is at its best, it tricks you into thinking what you’re seeing is not scripted or predetermined. You get caught up in the emotion, and care about what’s happening. It tricks you into believing that Brock Lesnar can’t possibly beat the Undertaker, who was 21-0 at Wrestlemania. It tricks you into believing that Braun Strowman can’t use a grappling hook to tear down a set, or that Jake the Snake can turn a fairly common move into something devastating. It tricks you into believing that the underdog can’t beat the Big Dog Roman Reigns. Wrestling is fake, but when it’s convinced you it’s real, it’s the best entertainment money can buy. Suspension of disbelief is a hell of a drug.
Secondly, this is a city that loves the theater, right? As of this writing, Madison still has more theater spaces than it has mediocre poke restaurants, and basically every night of the week you can see some form of public performance, be that Shakespeare, some folks at Broom Street acting out their childhood trauma in an original play, or improv comedy in the basement of a pizza joint. Even with all this variety at my fingertips, I still believe that the finest form of American theater is professional wrestling. It’s also the best improv theater ever: Though the endings are pre-determined, any match you’re watching is mostly figured out on the fly by the performers themselves. The performers know they have 10 minutes and they know the finish—i.e. who’s winning and how—but they have to decide how to get there, and often do so without much pre-planning. Every match you’ll see at the Alliant Energy Center is a delicate ballet among three to 10 people (the ref helps tell them when to finish), wherein the performers have to convince a crowd that the match is “real,” do moves to each other without injuring each other, and hit their marks on time, while also keeping the crowd invested and entertained. Tell me that’s not infinitely more interesting and fun to watch than some 23-year-old covered in flop sweat taking situational suggestions from a crowd of drunks. When wrestling is good, it’s beautiful, amazing art.
A wrestling crowd is often one of the few true democracies we have left. Where else can you voice your displeasure and force an entire company to make someone a champion—or not a champion—based on your boos and cheers? There’s a universe that exists where The Rock “Dwayne” Johnson is still trying to get over as a clean-cut babyface, where audiences are still booing the ever-loving shit out of him. The way people still cheer for old-ass Shawn Michaels and the now nearly truly Deadman the Undertaker is the reason that WWE booked them to headline their blood-money event in Saudi Arabia the way they did (with a lot of 50-year-old men doing crotch chops, more or less). How you react to certain wrestlers during the show in Madison could have an impact on future storylines. In a future where Netflix renews shows based on algorithms that include how many episodes you watch while sleeping, wrestling is one of the few entertainments where audience participation not only matters, but is actually the point.
And finally, as The New York Times posited 2 years ago, everything is wrestling. In ways big and small, wrestling is a microcosm of the times we’re living in. Every storyline, both on TV and away from TV, intersects or overlaps with the realities of existence. Nikita Koloff being the biggest heel during the Cold War. Stone Cold Steve Austin being the hero of the common man at a time when Americans first started being replaced by machines. The bland, corporate John Cena being the biggest star during a time of relatively boring American prosperity for those at the top. What is Vince McMahon but a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, trying to smash competition, and turn everything into “content”? If you hate wrestling—or can’t at least consider that it might be as vital as all the other art you support—you actually hate that it’s reflecting the realities of your banal modern existence.