Why do we watch wrestling? Why, in fact, do we watch any form of mass media? It is not just what we are seeing or hearing. Movies, music, books, computer games, graphic novels â€“ they all share one thing. And when it comes to wrestling, we can appreciate the action we see, marvel at the punishment taken, but at the core of it there is something much deeper. It is what it shares with the rest of the arts and entertainment industry.
It is an emotional investment in what is presented to us.
We encounter it all the time, and it is never the same for any two people. I personally find modern R&B music to all sound the same with banal lyrics, while many teenagers I know consider it the best music out there. And conversely I think that a lot of the music of Mike Oldfield is beautiful and stirs emotions in me, often without any words, while many I know find it sends them to sleep.
I have a friend who cries at the end of Casablanca every time she sees it, no matter how often she sees it. I still jump at certain scenes in John Landisâ€™ An American Werewolf In London no matter how often I watch it and how much I ready myself for them. It is an emotional connection, done very well in our opinions in these cases.
And like these, wrestling is also built on an emotional response within the audience.
Hulk Hogan became a hero through wrestling, and not just because he was pushed as a multimedia force. It was because he connected with Americans on a patriotic level at the height of the Reagan administration. It is no coincidence that he won his first title defeating a Middle Eastern character. People saw the larger than life hero, the living embodiment of Rambo and other movies of the era there, in person. They watched to see him overcome adversity and win and triumph in the end, because a win by Hulk Hogan was a win by the USA.
There was a connection on an emotional level. There was a connection with the character that went beyond watching something that entertained. He was a hero, the man men wanted to be and the man women just wanted, even if just in their fantasies.
On the other end of the spectrum were the villains, the bad guys. The Four Horsemen and the Freebirds had people wanting to see them get theirs. They were legitimately hated at times, occasionally to the point of needing real security escorts. True anger and true hatred are true emotions. There was still that emotional investment by the audience. They were not treated with apathy as so many other heels of the time were â€“ they were loathed.
Further, the great matches of the modern era have had a storyline of emotion. These went beyond more than just love or hatred for the characters as portrayed.
One of the most amazing story arcs started before Wrestlemania IV and went all the way through to Wrestlemania VII. And, to give it a cultural point of reference, it is a story that parallels the six Star Wars movies in a way. It may even be said, especially when looking at The Phantom Menace and Attack Of The Clones, it had a better emotional connection with its audience. It was the rise and fall and redemption of a character, and one that people grew to really care about. In the Star Wars saga it was Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader. What wrestling fans had was Randy Savage / Macho King.
Randy Savage won the Wrestlemania IV tournament and the world title to the joy of the audience, with the help of Hulk Hogan, who had become his mentor of sorts. Over the course of the next year his jealousy and emotions drove him over the edge so that at Wrestlemania V he fought Hulk Hogan, the man who had befriended him, and lost. He lost not only the title, but all he held dear, including the woman he loved. By Wrestlemania VI he was battling against the world, represented in the everyman character of Dusty Rhodes, The American Dream. And it was a battle he still could not win.
Then he cost the Ultimate Warrior his title and his glory, leading to them facing off at Wrestlemania VII with so much more on the line â€“ Savageâ€™s career, his life. And he was defeated. But in this defeat came his ultimate triumph as he was reunited with Miss Elizabeth and the fans took him back into their hearts, a position that he never then gave up in the WWF/E. And the crowd were with him in Los Angeles at the end, with many in tears at what they were witnessing. They were genuinely happy for the two people in that ring. Their emotional investment in that story was paid off in the best way possible, and the people responded.
A much shorter story-line that had just as large an impact on the audience occurred a few years later in WCW. Kevin Nash and Scott Hall had jumped from the (then) WWF and were starting to ride roughshod over WCW. Finally the WCW wrestlers had had enough and a six-man tag was slated for Bash At The Beach. Sting, Randy Savage and Lex Luger against Nash and Hall and a mystery sixth man. Who was it? Well, as every wrestling fan knows, it was Hulk Hogan, turning on the fans and WCW, and then delivering a speech that garnered a response so passionate that even watching now, listening to that crowd, seeing that ring fill with garbage, hearing Tony Schiavone tell him he can go to hell, brings a tingle to the spine.
Can todayâ€™s wrestlers and story arcs garner the same sort of responses? Is there still that element there in a jaded public used to being cynical about the product, and used to being burned by wrestling promotions over and over? Or is wrestling just seen today as a background entertainment, eye candy that is fine but means nothing? A form of â€˜reality televisionâ€™ in that it is just a supposed slice of life, but is about as real as the spaceships in Star Trek?
At times it certainly seems like it. But then we get a chance to watch the Shawn Michaels â€“ Undertaker story arc from Wrestlemania 25 through 26. Putting my personal opinion of the matches themselves aside, the build, especially for Wrestlemania 26, was filled with enough emotional undercurrent that it would capture the imagination of anyone watching. Michaels had to conquer the unconquerable or die trying, and yet, after the previous year, the Undertaker was not interested. He had won once already. He refused Michaels, even though Michaels needed it. And then Undertaker gained the championship, and so that gave Michaels a hope â€“ he had to win the Royal Rumble so he could face the champion. But he was eliminated, and that was when the first big emotional curveball was thrown at the audience. How could Michaels do it? He lost it and attacked referees but he was as stunned as the audience. He had lost his one chance. But then we had the Elimination Chamber PPV and Michaels appeared out of nowhere and cost the Undertaker his title. Undertaker finally agreed to face his nemesis, but Michaels had to put something on the line â€“ his career, his wrestling life. Michaels lost, career over. And that it is still talked about more than a year later shows how powerfully done it was. The two old gunfighters out for one last chance at glory, the classic Western showdown. Or, at a stretch, the Rocky / Rocky II story arc with Undertaker in the Rocky role, and Michaels playing Apollo Creed.
Yes, emotion was there, and even now, in 2011, it is still there.
The Rock returns and vows to stay and the crowd responds with love and gratitude. Edge is forced to retire and everyone is upset, responding from the heart. Undertaker appears injured after his Wrestlemania match and genuine concern is shown. The discomfort many feel in the set up of the Jeff Jarrett â€“ Kurt Angle feud involving their shared family is a response born of reality.
Wrestling relies on this emotional call and response now as much as it ever has. The crowds will not sit and watch if they are not allowed to have it. They will not chant along to catch phrases if they are just words. But they will if those words have some resonance, even if it is just fun to do with a character they know and appreciate. There are too many other entertainment and art options for people to stick with something that means nothing to them, beyond just something to watch for the sake of watching it.
It is said that art and its relevance and its greatness can only be appreciated when viewed in conjunction with the culture that created it. However, truly great works of art transcend this because there is something in the psyche of a great many of us that it resonates with. People today still marvel at Renaissance works, at Classical Roman architecture, at films like Citizen Kane, even when not considering the eras of their creation. And wrestling is the same. People still talk about Randy Savage v Ricky Steamboat from Wrestlemania III. That emotional response is there for all time in the classics of all the arts.
And so, as much as movies, as much as music, as much as any other entertainment form, wrestling relies on characters and stories that people need to care about. And because of this even the worst wrestling match from a technical standpoint can still elicit an unbelievably strong and positive emotional response. Hulk Hogan against Andre the Giant from Wrestlemania III is a classic example. Would that match â€“ as woeful as it is from a technical stand point â€“ even still be talked about twenty-plus years later if it did not have that story that connected on such an emotional level behind it?
Emotion â€“ it is there. It has to be there. Take it out and it becomes watching two teams, neither of which you support, compete in a sport you have a passing interest in. Wrestling is more than that, and good wrestling is much more. It is real. Yes, on one level at least, it is real.
For something else well worth your time reading, check out James Alsop and his Keynotes And Keyholds. I stand in awe of his talent.
Rhett Davis has a good look at Extreme Rules, while I am really liking the new format Jonah Kue is using in his columns.
As usual, feedback, comments, etc can be left below. Also, I have 2 options for my next column – a piece of fiction or a look at a really bad wrestling match. They’ll both appear eventually (sorry!), but are there any preferences for which one should come first? Cheers and whatnot!
Tags: Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, jeff jarrett, Kurt Angle, movie, Randy Savage, shawn michaels, Star Wars, The Rock, undertaker, view from down here, WCW, wrestlemania, wrestling, WWF