Pokémon’s Ash Ketchum Is One of the Greatest Wrestling Managers Ever

I’m pretty sure I don’t like professional wrestling anymore. Don’t get me wrong—I love it and likely always will, but unlike in February and early March, where I was watching every episode of WCW Monday Nitro leading up to Lex Luger’s 1997 WCW Championship win, it’s no longer the kind of thing I seek any comfort or respite in. Over and over and over again during the past two months, I’ve been asked by both major American wrestling companies to allow them to entertain me, to cast aside my knowledge of the world as it is and instead partake in theirs. As other sports fans are finding out as leagues slowly figure out how to have spectator sports without spectators, it doesn’t work. Sports are not just a competition—they’re a celebration. Without any people around, what it looks like sport is celebrating is the end of the world.

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All of which is a very dramatic way of saying that my idle hours, once occupied by John Cena, Bret Hart, and Toru Yano, have been filled by Pikachu, Bulbasaur, and Wobbuffet. I’m all about that Pokémon life now, specifically the anime from my childhood and how it takes both the loose narrative of the video game it’s based on and the hazy adult understanding of the craze surrounding it and fashions a world where adults and children alike capture and train monsters so that they can battle in an arena of adoring Pokémon fans for badges, seashells, trophies, or whatever knickknacks a given season’s region might have laying around.

It’s been nice, the 176 episodes and three movies I’ve watched in, uh, a month and a half, nice enough that my initial goal of seeing things through until Misty gets her bike back now has no specific end in sight. I hear it takes 1000 episodes for Ash Ketchum to achieve his dream of becoming a Pokémon Master. What plans do I have, exactly? But my brain plays this awful trick on me where, even when I’m trying not to think about professional wrestling, it eventually returns there, happily or unhappily, in ways I never quite expect.

Pokémon, the video game that other writers at Fanbyte are better equipped to write about than I am, is a turn based RPG. In the two generations of it that I’m familiar with, the plot is roughly the same—you, the player, leave town with your companion animal and endeavor to be the very best, like no one ever was. It’s a great game, but its mechanics don’t translate well to narrative storytelling, and as such the Pokémon anime’s means of adapting those battles is to turn them into filmic bouts where the trainer’s strategy is called on the fly and often runs counter to long-established rules in the game, as Ash is always doing things like throwing his fire Pokémon into a match against a water Pokémon.

How is this like wrestling? Well, again, it’s a matter of how you adapt the mechanics of the game. Generation one being a Game Boy game, the animations for moves like Tackle were incredibly simple, one Pokémon jutting across the screen a little, the other recoiling. The anime takes a lot of liberties with this—while battling in the Indigo League, Ash and company are taken on a trip to Suplex City by a Bellsprout, for example—and the result is that the series’ Pokémon battles often have the narrative heft of a wrestling match.

Those matches are often great, too, beyond the novelty of watching cute mascots perform devastating slams despite the fact that they can spit fire or call lightning from the sky. The best bouts in Pokémon follow a basic wrestling format: the Pokémon and their trainers feel each other out, work their way up to throwing bombs, have a false finish or two, and end spectacularly. Beyond the field of Pokémon battle, the stories from episode to episode scan similarly to wrestling as well. The main story is one of conquest, Ash chasing the title of Pokémon Master. The side stories are either of redemption, like when Team Rocket decides that they’re going to help Ash and Pikachu, or revenge, as when Ash loses a match and trains until he and his Pokémon are past the point of exhaustion so he can win the rematch.

These stories aren’t unique to wrestling or to Pokémon, but what makes this connection so strongly felt, what makes it feel more intentional than the odd German suplex in an action movie, is the economy of characters used to tell those stories. When you get down to it, a wrestling match contains a lot of narrative for something that requires three people. When done right, those matches tell you everything you need to know about the skills and personalities of the wrestlers, as mediated by their relationship to things like rules and morality. Every episode of Pokémon involves Ash, his companions, Team Rocket, and the week’s guest character, so you get to know the players very quickly, and in some instances quite intensely. A Pokémon battle requiring two trainers, you get a feel for the skills and personalities of those trainers, and how they choose to assemble their squads is a reflection of that.

Pokémon is a series about managers and their stables.

Ash Ketchum’s goal may be the title of Pokémon Master, which is a less fancy way of saying that what he wants to be is a manager of champions. Remember wrestling managers? Yeah, they nominally exist now and may be making a comeback, but given American wrestling’s emphasis on the individual, it feels like managers are always going to be packaged with a wrestler or a tag team, as opposed to how they used to function, as the head coach of a squad with a united purpose.

The obvious example here is Bobby Heenan’s Heenan Family, a gimmick so successful that it ran from 1974-1993, across the AWA and WWF. Think about the scale of that accomplishment for a moment, to have a gimmick run for nearly 30 years unimpeded, always at or near the top of the card. I can’t speak to Heenan’s AWA family quite as well as I can the WWF version, but you have this guy, this huckster in a sequined jacket whose motivation is to make as much money as he can, which means winning as many championships as he can. But he can’t fight Hulk Hogan or the Ultimate Warrior, so he goes out and recruits men who he figures can.

How do you become a manager of champions? If you’re Bobby Heenan, you go for thicc boys—Big John Studd, King Kong Bundy, and eventually Andre the Giant. You figure that even someone as powerful as Hulk Hogan has his limits and hope one of those guys is beyond them, too heavy to slam. If that doesn’t work, go after someone with technical skill, like Paul Orndorff. Groom someone like “Ravishing” Rick Rude. Bring in a pair of tag team specialists like Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard. And when none of that gets you the World Heavyweight Championship? Well, there’s always Ric Flair.

What’s incredible about Heenan (and every great manager, really) is the way they are able to integrate themselves into the characters of the wrestlers they manage. Heenan was given some duds, but when you imagine Rude or Mr. Perfect or even Andre the Giant, odds are that Heenan is standing next to them, flop-sweating about whether or not they were going to walk out with the winner’s purse. You got the sense that the man actually handled the business and strategy end of things for his charges, like without him their comfortable lives would fall apart in an instant. And, somehow, those disparate personalities always seemed like a reflection of his character without diminishing theirs.

It’s a lot more simplified in Pokémon, which is much more the product of writing and localization than the weird miracles necessary to make wrestling work, but it’s there and that’s one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed watching it so much. You can point to characters like gym leaders whose personalities correspond to the type of gym they lead, or to characters like Gary Oak, whose emphasis is on training his Pokémon to be as strong and powerful as possible, but, of course, the best illustration of this model is Ash Ketchum, who serves the same function in the anime as your avatar does in the video game.

If you’re unfamiliar with the era of wrestling where managers were primary antagonists, looking at the composition of their stables serves as a key for the storytelling mechanism of that promotion. If you’re unfamiliar with Pokemon, as Pokémon assumes you are, Ash’s teambuilding methodology, bringing together his ace, Pikachu, the generation’s starters, a flying Pokémon, and a wildcard or two, teach viewers the mechanics of not only the broader world of the series, but of the video and card games that you’re ultimately meant to purchase.

But Pokémon‘s focus, badges be damned, is the teambuilding, the way Ash becomes part of his Pokémon’s lives, rescuing Charmander from an abusive trainer, earning Pikachu’s trust, dealing with Chikorita’s jealousy, helping Heracross with his addiction to delicious tree sap, and knowing when to let go of Squirtle, Butterfree, and others under his care. It’s weird how his progression, itself a 23 year long narrative undertaking, is something of a goody-two-shoes version of a heel manager’s crew, constantly adapting to suit the motivation of the manager and his charges. Pokémon don’t leave Ash because he disposes of them, but because they reach a moment where their potential together is reached and it’s time to move on. It’s deeply, genuinely good, the kind of story wrestling has always had the potential for but can’t risk undertaking due to the length of time necessary to it, the fragility of real people, and the uncertainty of contracts. In a closed universe, unaffected by those things, these narratives get to play out in grandiose fashion.

Which is nice, because professional wrestling in 2020 seems destined to leave a universe of loose threads in its wake, wrestlers disappearing and reappearing for no reason other than that they’re available to report to their closed sets to shoot a week or two of television that will never resolve properly—how the hell can they right now? This is where it’s left me, piecing together connections between one kind of toy marketing apparatus and another, finding the cartoon version more satisfying than the real thing. If the pandemic ends and my interest in the world of Pokémon ends with my newfound ability to hang out with my friends again, it’s been a nice ride. If this nightmare goes on forever and I decide to stick it out with Ash and Pikachu instead of finding out what a Stadium Stampede match is, stay tuned for the essay where I freak out about the luchador bird and the submission octopus and the cat who looks like he throws a mean lariat. The connections are there, y’all! It’s not just quarantine brain, I swear.