The “why” behind pro wrestling has always been a little murky, though no murkier than the impetus motivating any other professional sport. In your standard Big Four American pro sports, the goal is to win the game; those stakes imbue the action of the sporting event with meaning. Ben Simmons isn’t annihilating his opponent with a tomahawk dunk because it looks cool, he’s doing it because he possesses an elite athleticism and a winner’s mentality and also because it looks really fucking cool. But ultimately Simmons does it because it gives his team two points, and amassing points is how you win basketball games. It’s then the job of broadcasters and sports journalists and fans to tease out and/or invent the stories and narratives based on the results of the game.
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In pro wrestling, though, the inverse is true. The results of the matches are pre-determined, and it’s the job of the wrestlers to convey the story they’re trying to tell within the ring. The narrative might play out over weeks or months or even years, told in promos and backstage segments and throughout smaller matches leading up to the Big Match, but the story ultimately has to be told in the ring, through the wrestling itself. Otherwise, all the noise around the match is merely that: Noise. And after the match is done—depending on how well the story was conveyed—the audience is left with the job of making meaning. The match results were decided by some writers and executives in a room long before the match happened; how the match is remembered by those who watched it is what determines if any of it really mattered. There are no objective measurements like wins and losses and championships—all that’s made up. The feelings are the only part of wrestling that’s real. Which is why pro wrestling’s been so interesting lately: if there are no fans in the stands, does any of it matter?It sounds like an existential question. It isn’t. It can be answered with science. Let’s dive into our special, COVID-19 edition of the Mechanics of Wrestling:
Crowd: Film dorks love to talk about how the setting of a film is actually a character in the film, which is worse than pretentious—it’s a mistake. Where something happens is plenty important on its own without needlessly anthropomorphizing a personality onto a perfectly good physical location. And while the crowd of a wrestling show is comprised of human people, the crowd is not a character. It is a location. They’re the backdrop against which wrestlers fight, and their presence (or lack thereof) is a component of the environment of a match.
Within kayfabe—which is to say, within the “reality” of pro wrestling and not the reality of reality, which is slightly to the left of the “reality” of wrestling but coming closer all time time—who a crowd cheers or boos when two or more combatants are in the ring doesn’t have any bearing on who wins or loses the fight. And yet, different environments inevitably benefit some combatants more than others. To wit: In the WWE, it’s standard practice for wrestlers to take an L in front of their hometown audience. On the one hand, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule; on the other hand, there’s the Montreal Screwjob.
In my inaugural column on space, I talked a little bit about how some wrestlers are populists who literally gain power through the crowd’s support, some even going to far as to eschew heading into a match via the entrance ramp in favor for marching to the ring through the arena, amid throngs of fans cheering them on and desperately trying to hi-five them and snap a non-blurry picture of their descent. This isn’t just storytelling about who the wrestler is, it’s also a show of force. “These people are on my side.” It’s not a deciding factor in a match, but more of a way of asserting how powerful a wrestler already is.
Sometimes a match progresses out of the rig and the fighting spills into the audience, where the more popular wrestler (usually the babyface, AKA the good guy) generally has the advantage. The heel (AKA the bad guy) is literally fighting their opponent in hostile territory, amid people booing their attacks, cheering when they get hit, and also maybe trying to hi-five them, but not as much as they try to hi-five the good guy. These shows of support generally lend the babyface the advantage in a fight—as in, it’s a good indicator the face will prevail—and unless the heel is trying to literally exit the arena and escape the match, they may send them scampering back to the more neutral territory of the ring.
Object permanence: Wrestlers lack object permanence. If you take just one thing away from this entire series, let it be that. That sole fact will help explain roughly 70% of any confusion you experience when watching a wrestling match. Why is that guy flexing in front of the crowd instead of running after the opponent he just chucked out of the ring? Because the guy he tossed has since left his line of sight, and the flexing wrestler has therefore literally forgotten his opponent exists. He forgot there was another man, a fight, a job to be done. He didn’t see him and so he was gone and so he was alone, standing in front of an adoring crowd who loved him, loved him for being him, loved him because he had just done something cool—he can’t remember exactly what it was that he did but he has perfect faith it was both extremely rad and deserving of wild praise from the assembled masses—and this is good, this feels great, things could go on like this forever with the wrestler flexing and the crowd cheering and whoops his opponent snuck up from behind and cracked him in the spine with a folding chair, oh no, aw dang, oh that’s right, that’s what he was doing, he was throwing around this guy who’s now standing over him, leering, ominously hoisting the chair above his head again, he’s a wrestler, shit, he should probably fight this guy or something, he seems really mean.
If a wrestler can’t see their opponent, they forget they exist. Sometimes they forget they were even wrestling. It seems nice, honestly, until the other shoe drops.
Audience: Whether they’re present or not, wrestlers always know there’s an audience watching. The audience is distinct from the crowd inasmuch as the crowd is the physically present assemblage of fans watching a wrestling show live, and the audience is everyone watching the show on TV or streaming or vicariously following along via the anguished tweets of other fans. Lately, both AEW and WWE matches have been without crowds, but still performing for their at-home audiences. For that I think it’s fair to say many of us are grateful, but also oh my god what are you doing stop punching each other and go the fuck home. I know it’s your job to risk your lives, but not like this.
Next time, barring heightened weirdness in the world of wrestling and the world at large, we’ll resume our regularly scheduled content and talk about our next mechanic, momentum. Until then, stay safe, tussle scientists.