Viewers of professional wrestling have to accept two counterposed realities at the exact same time: No, this isn’t really happening and Yes, this is really happening. These realities aren’t as irreconcilable as they first appear to be, woven together as they are by a (mostly) consistent internal logic. As long as the rules of the world are maintained and upheld, the parts of wrestling that are real and the parts of wrestling that are fake and the parts of wrestling that are both, which is most of them, can cohabitate within the universe of a given wrestling match and, more broadly, an entire promotion.
These rules that tie the fabric of wrestling reality together aren’t commandments. They’re more like the laws of physics—or more specifically, they’re like the physics engine in a video game. Because, in special circumstances, these in-world mechanics can be bent or ignored: Maybe you have to get someone over, or maybe the story calls for it, or maybe something has gone horribly, horribly awry.
These mostly-unspoken wrestling mechanics invisibly shape the the stories, matches and promos fans watch week to week, and I’m going to attempt to pin the wave upon the shore and name them all. I’ll be basing most of these rules on the observed reality of American arena wrestling in companies like WWE; fellow wrestling physicists are free to point out rule variations in an accredited academic journal or my DMs. For our inaugural journey into the mechanics of wrestling, let’s talk about space.
Before we get to the whats and hows, we must assess the various wheres, and how location impacts wrestlers’ actions on the most basic level. Your standard sports arena setup provides a huge stage for the grand play of Sports Entertainment to be acted out upon, but here are the sets that are most important:
Has many parts, which we will presently divide up:
THE MAT: The mat is neutral ground. It’s like Final Destination with items turned off in Super Smash Brothers—it’s the control group, the baseline against which we can judge everything else. This is where we level set, this is where the action is pure and simple and true. The mat is our zero, and everything else is math.
THE TURNBUCKLE: The turnbuckle giveth and the turnbuckle taketh away. A wrestler standing atop the turnbuckle is at their most potentially-powerful and also their most vulnerable. Leaping off the turnbuckle to execute a move makes the maneuver roughly nine times more powerful than performing the same move while standing, and many of the most impressive feats available to pro wrestlers can only be performed with the kind of height provided by the top of the turnbuckle and the relative safety of the minimal-but-crucial padding of the mat below—yet the turnbuckle, she is a fickle mistress. If an attack comes while you’re futzing around on the turnbuckle, that counterstrike is also about nine times more effective than it would be if delivered face-to-face on the mat. And then you fall down.
THE APRON: The hardest part of the ring. You don’t need to remember this because it will be said no fewer than nine times per broadcast. It’ll be emphasized even more if a move is successfully executed on the edge of the mat just outside the ropes. That’s the apron, and it’s the hardest part of the ring. Which is why the wrestler who just ate a spear and smashed spine-first onto the apron is writhing in agony—because that part of the ring? That’s the apron, and it’s the hardest part.
THE ROPES: The three ropes that circle the ring serve three primary purposes: freedom, ensnarement, and woosh. The first is obvious: The ropes are the markers that delineate if you are inside or outside the ring. A performer can enter and exit over, under or through them; grabbing the ropes also releases the wrestler from a pin or submission hold. But a fighter can also easily get tangled within the ropes—almost too easily. As in, it might not look like a wrestler is trapped in the ropes so much as they’ve sort of woven their limbs around them once or twice and could just as easily extricate themselves from the knot. But don’t be deceived! They’re super stuck in there, really. To that point, taking a hit while twisted between the ropes is probably about two or three times as injurious as taking a similar hit standing up would be.
Finally, using the ropes, a wrestler can go woosh. We’ll dive more into this a little later, but just know a wrestler can woosh higher or further or faster or all of the above with the slingshot-action the ropes provide.
UNDER THE RING: There are no physical or ethical limits to what can await you under the ring, but mostly what emerges from its depths are A. Other wrestlers and B. A variety of weapons, from tables to kendo sticks to sledgehammers to buckets full of thumbtacks. For those truly in need, and pure of heart, and enough of a shitheel to go rummaging around down there, anything a wrestler desires can be found beneath the ring. The nether region of the ring is also an excellent hiding spot for the cowardly, but be warned that taking refuge beneath the ring mid-match triples the odds of another previously-unseen combatant also lurking beneath the ring (See “A. Other wrestlers”). If the wrestler has a significant enemy besides the person they’re supposed to be fighting, hiding beneath the ring quadruples the odds that said hidden combatant will be the sworn enemy of the cowardly restler seeking respite in the under-ring abyss.
More Pro Wrestling:
- A Pilgrimage to Scott Steiner’s Shoney’s
- The Supernatural Powers of Keiji Mutoh
- ‘On Cinema’ is Wrestling
BEYOND THE RING:
A wrestling match isn’t a place, it’s a feeling, and it can exist anywhere. The crucial non-ring locations where wrestling still happens are explored below:
entry ramp, backstage
FLOOR: The floor outside the ring is like the mat in the ring, but more hurt-y. Falls hurt more, attacks hit harder, the gravity is somehow denser than it is in the ring.
ANNOUNCE TABLES: … unless you’re atop an announce table, in which case gravity is less of an issue, and all of the same rules from the top of the turnbuckle apply. Being slammed through an announce table deals slightly more damage that an attack from a wrestler leaping off the top of the announce table will deliver, which is usually more than the average top-of-the-turnbuckle move. This is handy if you want to render a wrestler mostly unconscious, or set them up for a heroic comeback after taking a nap among the wreckage of the announcers’ table for a short while.
CROWD: The crowd as an entity is one thing; the crowd as a location is another. A wrestler who enters the ring by walking through the crowd rather than the entrance ramp, is a Wrestler of the People. They are symbolically announcing their populist approach to ass-whooping, or they have been in-story booted out of the federation but simply cannot be stopped from getting back in that ring. A wrestler emerging from the stands must be over with the crowd to not enter to a riot of in-your-face boos, and to get the crowd excited and on that fighter’s side, which provides the wrestler a tangible in-ring advantage: at least for the first part of the match, while the crowd is still cheering for their populist hero, the favored wrestler may appear to take less damage and hit their opponent harder, having become more powerful through the love of the audience.
ENTRANCE RAMP: Wrestlers are extremely vulnerable on their initial walk out to the ring. They haven’t officially entered the match, their theme music hasn’t finished playing, they’re simply not prepared for a fight—so if a fighter is ambushed on the entry ramp, something as simple as a few good punches might be enough to take them out of the fight before it begins.
BACKSTAGE: If wrestlers are vulnerable on the entrance ramp, they’re absolutely fragile backstage. Any wrestler in the middle of a backstage segment is extremely prone to attack, and inexplicably defenseless—the backstage void strips fighters of almost all of their fortitude. In this placeless place, one surprise strike from behind is enough to make an ambushed wrestler crumple like they’ve been shot.
Now that we understand how key locations impact wrestlers’ performance, we can move on to more advanced topics: Force, momentum, time and entropy. Stay tuned.