In Order to Make Its Future, Professional Wrestling Needs to Forget Its Past

Wrestling fans who say that it was better "back then" willfully ignore the fact that "back then" involved disregarding the "back then" that came before.

Everything good comes to an end. Actually, everything comes to an end, good and bad. The only constant is change. Yet in pro wrestling, there is a growing cottage industry devoted to fighting against that fact of life. More and more podcasts and Patreons are springing up, lead by disgruntled fans and industry veterans alike, who preach to choirs of people like them, telling them that wrestling used to be better, that it’s lost its way.

These people often see themselves as historians, but if they really followed wrestling history, they’d know that drastic change, a rejection of wrestling’s past, isn’t just normal, it’s what the whole thing is based on. In fact, it’s what we need more of today.

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The very birth of pro wrestling came from rejecting tradition and what came before, perverting it. Pro wrestling comes from amateur wrestling, a legitimate, non-worked sport. It was very popular in its day but in time flaws emerged. Because it was legitimate, the less exciting, less charismatic wrestlers could beat the ones with more star potential. Matches could be boring, could stretch on for hours, and end in unsatisfying draws.

Pro wrestling was created to solve those problems. If the matches were worked, the most beloved wrestlers could always win the biggest bouts. If the matches were worked, no match would drag on for five hours and end with no winner. If the wrestlers cooperated with each other, you could do more exciting things in the ring. All you had to do was make it fake, lie to the public, and fundamentally change what something was and always had been.

Some people did that and it worked, so more people did it, and it spread until this new thing, pro wrestling, became far more popular than amateur. An entirely new form of entertainment was created by showing blatant disrespect for what had come before it.

Tradition Bites

So pro wrestling was born out of doing whatever it took to entertain fans the most while making the most money. It has no loyalty to tradition, no integrity tied to the set rules of a sport. That is because it’s not a sport, it’s a performance. To stay true to pro wrestling’s roots would be to constantly change to whatever the public wants at a given moment, not to stay stubbornly at some perceived perfect ideal.

This is wrestling tradition, and if you look at its history, not only is refusing to change a bad idea, it is impossible. The territory era of wrestling can’t be recreated because it was built in a world that was far less interconnected. There was no internet and wrestling was usually not on national TV, so as a result you could have all these separate little promotions that were very unique from each other, full of talent that could be a star in one state and a relative unknown in the next.

Likewise, the wrestling of the 90s can’t be recreated for similar reasons. A promotion could blow its fans’ minds by importing a Japanese or Mexican wrestler, a Jushin Liger or Rey Mysterio, because unless you were a tape trading hardcore, puroresu and lucha libre were likely unknown to you. You could see a style that felt like a different world.

Rey Mysterio vs Eddie Guerrrero
WWE

That isn’t possible today in our far more intermingled culture. Fans and workers alike watch so many different things. The average wrestler today is far more well-rounded than in the past, but far more homogenized. Styles that were largely separate for generations have been melded together, much in the way that in the early days of MMA everyone knew one discipline and now it’s just expected that you know stand-up striking, grappling, and submissions as a starting point.

Some of my favorite wrestling ever was the first real US indie boom of the ’00s, but guess what? You can’t recreate that either. Companies like ROH and PWG emerged in the fallout of the deaths of WCW and ECW, during a strange period where there was a glut of top-tier talent and not enough full-time jobs to go around.

That legendary 2002-2008 ROH could exist only because it came about in an era where top talents like Bryan Danielson, CM Punk, and Samoa Joe could spend years being available for independent bookings with no one tying them into a guaranteed contract. Today someone snatches you up almost as quickly as you’re discovered. Nick Wayne isn’t old enough to vote but he has a verbal agreement with AEW. 2006 ROH could not exist today, no matter how badly someone wanted to recreate it.

The Business Always Changes

The ever-changing ways we consume media also make constant change a necessity for wrestling. If you grew up before the mid-80s, wrestling primarily made its money from live ticket sales. Promotions generally made little to no money from their TV show, sometimes even paying for the airtime. As a result, most wrestling TV shows were glorified infomercials, full of squash matches and promos, with big matches rarely, if ever, being given away for free. The whole point of TV was to create stars and hype big matches for the live shows, where the money was made.

Then pay-per-view happened, and all of a sudden wrestling had another key revenue stream. Instead of building to a big match that you’d run dozens of times untelevised around the country, you could now build to a big one that everyone would see and pay for at once. Then TV channels started valuing the ratings wrestling brought it, and more and more networks were willing to shell out large rights fees for it.

Here in 2022, WWE, the world’s biggest wrestling company, is making record profits because of mammoth TV deals. We are now living in a world where a promotion can make an obscene amount of money even if live ticket sales and PPV buys are poor. As a result, the TV product has been completely transformed from decades earlier. Big matches are given away frequently, shows are now expected to feel at least somewhat “important” on a weekly basis. TV is no longer the thing that sells the product, TV is the product.

Bianca Belair Becky Lynch WrestleMania 38
WWE

The world has changed in another way. In the past, if you as a fan fell off from wrestling, or any hobby, if you felt it had changed not to your liking, you just stopped consuming it and moved on with your life. You really had no choice. Before the days of VHS tapes, DVDs, YouTube, and torrents, it was hard to hold onto the past. You couldn’t just stay in it. Even when tape trading caught on, it was still something of a hassle to acquire an archive of your favorite wrestling. Even then, you would still be miss that sense of community, of belonging to a fandom. Yeah, if you felt like wrestling had gone downhill, you could watch your copy of Great American Bash ’89 until it disintegrated, but that’s all you could do. You could visit the past, but not live in it.

The internet changed all that. It made it easy to find people that share your interests and disinterests. Now if you feel like your hobby has gone to crap, not only can you rewatch what you liked, you can talk about it daily with people who feel the exact same way. Forums, social media, and podcasts, all devoted to people mourning and celebrating their childhoods.

You Can Take the Past With You If You Want

Today’s wrestling fans are the first generation of people that don’t have to leave the past behind. Thanks to the internet, you can be as active in a hobby you have lost modern interest in as you were when you thought it was great. You can spend all day discussing the past and reading, hearing, and watching new content being generated about it.

That’s why podcasters like Jim Cornette do so well. They sell an entire ecosystem for fans who hate whatever wrestling has become, a way to stay involved in a pastime they love when it has become something they no longer even like. And you know what? That’s fine. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the past and not having an interest in the present.

What is a problem is that many of these retro podcasts and forums aren’t just selling a celebration and examination of the past. What a lot of them are offering, what is often their main selling point, is covering modern wrestling, but through the lens of how horrible it has become. Hosts hate-watch and painstakingly review today’s product, week by week, comparing everything to the way it used to be. They’ve created a new way to be active in something you’ve lost interest in. Now the fun isn’t just reliving wrestling’s past, it’s critiquing its present in relation to it.

Lucha Bros vs Young Bucks_2021-09-05 AEW All Out 183
AEW

You can understand see appeal of these outlets offer. It is a bummer to just feel like something you loved no longer appeals to you through natural evolution, with no one being at fault. When you listen to these podcasts, read these articles, talk with these people, you’re getting your ego stroked. They tell you that wrestling was perfected in the era you grew up in and then it lost its way, and it could still be that good today if only these idiots knew what they were doing. You’re right in not liking what is currently happening, and anyone who does enjoy it is wrong. It used to be better.

But wrestling history shows that wrestling’s biggest successes almost always come from a dramatic rejection of the past. You have the switch from legitimate to worked, but you also have Gorgeous George, one of wrestling’s first big national TV stars, who was a far more flamboyant character than the hardnosed grapplers of the past. You have Vince McMahon’s WWF of the 1980s which turned wrestling into a glossy, family friendly living cartoon. You had Vince McMahon’s WWF of the late 90s, which rejected his own creation by becoming grittier and more outrageous. Wrestling’s next big boom almost never looks like its last.

I’d argue that, if anything, wrestling has been far too respectful of its past over the last 20 years. Look how much wrestling changed between 1980 and 1985, or 1993 and 1998. These are dramatic shifts in how wrestling generally looked and what the product was. Now look at US wrestling from 2000 and 2020. It’s different, but not that different. WWE, and even its competition, is still largely working off the template WWF and WCW established 25 years earlier. Everything from production to how shows are structured and formatted to how promos are done is very similar to a glory period that happened a quarter century ago. We’re still largely seeing refinements of the Attitude Era and the Monday Night Wars.

Leave the Past Behind

Where old-school fans are wrong is that wrestling doesn’t need to pay more respect to the past, it needs to pay less. It needs someone with the mindset that Vince McMahon had in 1984 or that Eric Bischoff had in 1996. For all their numerous faults as human beings and their checkered creative histories, their successes came from being people who basically disrespected what came before, who were arrogant enough to think they could do it better, who wanted to remake things in their own image.

I personally like a lot of wrestling today, but wrestling shouldn’t be focused on me, the fan who has been here for decades who is rapidly approaching middle age. Wrestling should be focused on creating a new generation of fans. New generations always want something a little different, they don’t want what their parents had, they want something that feels new, like it was made for them. The goal shouldn’t be to win back fans that stopped watching in 2001, the goal should be to create fans that weren’t alive in 2001.

None of this is to say that every older fan should force themselves to like every new development in wrestling, to have no personal preferences and act like everything is equal. It is natural that as things change, they eventually pass us by.

The Rock stunner Steve Austin WWF
WWE

For some people, wrestling is just a passing hobby they have as kids or teens. Some love just one run of a promotion or one generation of stars, and when that ends, they leave. Some people are lifers or at least make it until their senior years before they feel wrestling has changed so much that it no longer contains enough of the elements that first appealed to them. It seems far weirder, far rarer, for someone to like the same thing for 30-60 years as it constantly shifts and mutates than it is for someone to feel like it no longer resembles what they loved.

But some in this new era of older fans act like their hobbies owe them a lifetime of new entertainment that is tailored to them. I get it — when something you love ends, it can be heartbreaking, or like a personal attack on your own tastes.

But no hobby, certainly not wrestling, owes you a lifetime. In fact, if most of these fans were honest with themselves, they’d acknowledge that whatever wrestling they fell in love with was probably hated by many in the generation that came before them. They were fine with the business changing for decades until it got to the point where they fell in love with it. Now they want that change to stop, for the whole thing to be frozen in amber the way they fondly remember it. As hobbies change, it’s like the baton is being handed from one generation of fans to the next, and when I see some of these older fans complain, it’s like watching them not want to pass that torch that someone else gave up to them to begin with.

No Hobby Owes You a Lifetime

If those fans were honest with themselves, they’d also admit that it’s not a coincidence that the wrestling they think is the best, that should be what wrestling is forever, is often the first wrestling they fell in love with, some of the first they ever saw. What a crazy coincidence, right?

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, but it can deceive you. The wrestling that hooked me as a kid was 1993-1994 WWF. That wrestling had some highlights, but from both a business and creative standpoint, it is seen as a down period. But when I saw it, I loved it, because I was meant to be a wrestling fan. Something about wrestling appealed so much to me that even a crappy version of it hooked me.

When I watch that 93-94 WWF today, I still love it, but I also am very aware that if it hadn’t been the first wrestling I saw, I wouldn’t think much of it today. When I watch it today, I’m not just watching it, I’m reliving my childhood, I’m remembering what it felt like to discover something, to fall in love with something.

123 kid owen hart
WWE

Nostalgia is the closest thing we have to time travel and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying it, but we can’t dictate the present based on it. If I watch 1993 WCW today, I get a charge out of it, because as it happened, all I could do was read about it in wrestling magazines. My parents didn’t get TBS and local video stores didn’t stock WCW tapes. So when I watch it today, I become that little eight-year-old kid again, giving myself what I was denied.

It’s awesome. But guess what? It’s awesome for ME, because of my personal history. 1993 WCW? It kind of sucks. And I recognize that. It would be crazy to impose my nostalgia on future generations, to insist this is what I loved, so this is how it should always be.

Life, if we’re lucky, is not one good, unchanging experience stretched out over 80 years. Life is a series of amazing discoveries that we ride for periods of time, punctuated by heartbreaks when those things change so much that they no longer become ours. You fall in love with things, you enjoy them for as long as you can, and whenever they become unrecognizable to you, you look for the next thing to fall in love with.

To demand that pro wrestling, or anything, should remain just the way it was when it hooked you is not just an impossible request, but a selfish one. It denies future generations a chance to find the version of wrestling that they’ll love. It goes against what pro wrestling is at its very core. The only thing pro wrestling is loyal to, what it should be loyal to, is making the next fan, not maintaining the last one.

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