"But is it good?" The Only Worthwhile Debate In Modern Pro-Wrestling
"Unlike the never-ending story of professional wrestling, there's no meaningful fun to be had in a never-ending debate."
Watch pro-wrestling long enough, and you begin to recognize the patterns of wrestling matches and the tropes of the medium: the heel cheats, the babyface "comes back", groups and teams inevitably betray each other, veterans "pass the torch", and on and on it goes in an endless merry-go-round of (hopefully) joy and wonder.
Eventually, you may even want to see some of these patterns and tropes at work because they provide a sense of comfort, a return to your once simplistic, romanticized view of right & wrong.
Analyze pro-wrestling long enough, and you begin to recognize the thought-patterns of wrestling fans and the uniformly rigid perspectives that dominate debate within the community: this wrestler should turn heel, that wrestler should turn babyface, this wrestler isn't over so why are they getting a push, that wrestler is over so why aren't they getting a push, Vince McMahon is out of touch, we'll miss Vince when he's gone, just stop watching WWE, start watching indy-wrestling, indy-wrestling fans are the worst, casual wrestling fans are the worst, WWE is cannibalizing indy-wrestling, there's not enough selling, RAW is too long, strong style is too dangerous, there's too much flipping, everybody is interchangeable, The Attitude Era was so much better, Joey Ryan is killing wrestling, Kenny Omega is killing wrestling, Roman Reigns is killing wrestling, and the list goes on.
I have heard, read, and participated in these debates ad nauseum. It has become exhausting and completely boring to participate. Unlike the never-ending story of professional wrestling, there's no meaningful fun to be had in a never-ending debate. Wrestling, at the very least, surprises me on occasion.
What goes on in the pro-wrestling community can't even be described as "debate" anymore.
Debates represent opposed points of view with one side offering a cogent, convincing argument in favor of their perspective while the other side does the same, often with a degree of depth and nuance that demands careful consideration. These dialogues are not about remaining in a perpetual state of conflict wherein either side becomes more deeply entrenched in their original perspective. These dialogues are meant to resolve conflict with each side, at the very least, allowing the other to exist.
The listener walks away from that kind of real debate with a lot more than a vague sense of reassurance that their emotions are justified; they walk away feeling emboldened to do something of value.
The aforementioned list of wrestling talking points represents a monotonous loop of grievances, not criticism and not debate.
So how did we get here?
To answer that, we must examine how the language we use when speaking about and critiquing professional wrestling has altered our perception of the medium and changed the function of wrestling fandom.
"No thinking is required when you possess a grab-bag of fun phrases..."
The philosophical, conceptual, and practical dialogues about pro-wrestling's business & methodology don't just take place within the confines of a road-trip between gigs anymore. The legitimate schools of pro-wrestling thought & criticism created by wrestlers for wrestlers opened their doors to the masses within the past fifteen years.
This Pandora's box of pro-wrestling terminology - "over" (popular), "heel" (villain), "babyface" (hero), "buried" (not on television), etc - exploded with the advent of social media, and these phrases have trickled down into the hearts and minds of modern wrestling's "average viewer"; meaning that the default fan of today's era is someone with a semi-working knowledge of concepts and phrases that were once exclusive to the wrestling world behind the curtain.
These fans (or "smarks"; a combination of the words "smart" - which means someone who knows wrestling is fiction - and "mark" - which means gullible rube who believes wrestling is legitimate) used to represent a minority in the wrestling culture. The result of this shift is something like an elaborate game of telephone where the original depth and meaning of these philosophies, concepts, and dialogues have been watered down, misunderstood, misused, or misinterpreted.
This proliferation of pro-wrestling's concepts and phraseology has given birth to a generation of fans & critics who dare not color outside the lines of these familiar concepts and phrases. This is because they don't even know those lines exist in the first place due to the specific way they've been indoctrinated. It's as if "pro-wrestling fandom" is a specific uniform of thought and language that one must wear or else forfeit their right to the community.
These fans become blinded by the feeling of access that this language provides, whilst emboldened to regard their regurgitated, simplistic perspectives as worthwhile or, even worse, original; wielding a little bit of knowledge with unearned confidence as they angrily guard the gates of their fragile, white, male, cis, hetero fan-identity.
No thinking is required when you possess a grab-bag of fun phrases, after all, and you're supported by a network of (literally) like-minded people - pre-packaged perspectives that do the work of having an opinion for you.
The mentors, guides, and leaders of this type of fan-turned-critic tends to be the disheartened voices of a bygone era who lament the way things currently are, lapsed fans turned experts who lament the way things currently are, lackeys & shills who offer no genuine point of view for fear of losing their access or revenue, and long-time pro-wrestling writers who help set the table for each month's recycled talking points.
In so doing, these voices feed the discontentment of their listeners & readers while simultaneously serving as an emotional release-valve for their listeners' & readers'; the fan gets trapped in a self-fulfilling cycle of angst, release, repeat.
I know this because I've fallen prey to it myself.
We have become far too comfortable with this inane process.
"We frame pro-wrestling in our minds as a private club that has finally offered us entry."
Don't mistake what you've read as a blanket condemnation of all pro-wrestling analysts and all pro-wrestling fans.
There is a great deal of creativity, ingenuity, and diversity in the community because professional wrestling appeals to everyone. But that creativity, ingenuity, and diversity still represents an outlier to the norm. If we're going to analyze a community accurately, then we have to consider its totality. As a whole, our community remains chained to the rocks inside Plato's cave bitching and moaning about the shadows on the wall not doing what we tell them as we ignore anyone who says, "You know there's an entire world outside this cave, right?"
Notice that the list of grievances detailed in the beginning of this piece contains little, if any, nuance. A fan is either a positive charge or a negative charge. You say one thing, I say the opposite.
Vince McMahon is out of touch or Vince McMahon is a genius. Both can't be true even if they are.
One might ask, in defense of modern pro-wrestling debate, would our dialogues be so simplistic if professional wrestling itself weren't so simplistic? Maybe the pro-wrestling medium doesn't allow for conversations much deeper than ratings evaluations and the analysis of booking mistakes?
That's an interesting point to consider. But before you go too far in developing your answer, allow me to stop you. Let's not assume the failing of our community is the fault of professional wrestling. Let's take some responsibility for the way we behave. Let's consider how the initial popularization of pro-wrestling's insider language was absorbed by fans as a means of access, not as a means of deeper understanding.
The way we've framed professional wrestling in our minds is not as a complex art worthy of analysis (or even as a show worth watching for fun).
We frame pro-wrestling in our minds as a private club that has finally offered us entry.
How has that needy aspect of the fan psychology reduced our dialogues to binary pissing contests?
Phrases like "babyface" and "over" and "buried" are not to be used like secret passwords or indicators of one's superior degree of knowledge and access to the club (because even when you're inside there are still VIP sections to fight for).
These phrases are to be used to articulate the method (in the scholastic sense) of professional wrestling performance art, as well as the business of professional wrestling. That is why a word like "work" (fiction) is of value; it clearly explains why professional wrestling is an art and exemplifies why pro-wrestling's methodology is useful to the larger culture.
If fans are going to use these phrases in their dissections of shows and promotions, then they must be used as a form of critical phraseology that helps the reader or the listener better comprehend the truth of the art that's being analyzed.
Put another way, these phrases are used too lightly, too quickly, too callously, and in lieu of an individual's expression of genuine thoughts and feelings. Our minds are as stale and interchangeable as the modern-day gimmicks we criticize.
This phraseology was not initially (and probably couldn't be) absorbed by fans in a way that was useful to the betterment of the art and the community.
What was once a shorthand for wrestlers to articulate the complexities of their art and their business has been reduced to a bastardized fan-speak that stands in for a purer, more worthwhile articulation of self. Our instinct is not to have a more natural fan-discussion about likes and dislikes (or even how good or bad a particular scene is). Our instinct is to rush to judgement in as dominant a manner as possible, hurling our catch-phrases at our enemies like the screaming wrestlers we admired in the 80s & 90s.
This is not to suggest that pro-wrestling language should never be used by critics & fans. This is to suggest that pro-wrestling language should not be used as a mental crutch, nor as a means of revealing one's superior level of access to the wrestling club. These words should be used with pointed respect, not necessarily for the tradition of the word, but for the word's ability to accurately articulate some aspect of professional wrestling that another word fails to articulate (e.g. "kayfabe", which is an extreme form of "staying in character so as to maintain the appearance of pro-wrestling's legitimacy").
If pro-wrestling (and particularly pro-wrestling criticism) is ever going to be useful to the larger world outside our little cave, then wrestling needs to be described and dissected in terms non-fans can actually understand.
Our conversations and our writings must be more accessible, not less.
"We've become so beholden to these phrases and these thought-patterns that we fail to originate within the larger wrestling consciousness..."
What does it mean to someone who doesn't watch RAW that "Roman Reigns isn't as over as he could be"?
That phrase is complete nonsense to a non-fan.
We do not consider this enough as people who purport to love our art and wish for its continued ascendance in popular culture. We're so inside ourselves that we aren't aware of how we're speaking (and thinking) in terms that aren't useful to others. This inadvertently reaffirms the perception that pro-wrestling is something that doesn't appeal to a wide audience, that it's not accessible, and that it's "fake" or "stupid".
Also, if wrestling fans just seem angry all the time as they trade their insider-terms, why would a casual television viewer want to participate in that process?
But suppose the phrase "Roman Reigns isn't as over as he could be" does mean anything to someone who casually watches WWE.
Why should "Roman Reigns isn't as over as he could be" even qualify as worthy criticism?
In reality, that kind of claim doesn't qualify as criticism. It's not even an opinion. It's a gussied up version of, "I don't like this guy because reasons!" or "Hey mommy & daddy wrestling guru, look what I can do!"
And yet, in the pro-wrestling community, that's all you need to be participating in a dialogue.
The wrestling phraseology has been re-purposed to suit our needs, not the needs of wrestling, and the result can be damaging.
Let's consider Roman Reigns for a moment, and the community's reaction to his prominent booking over the past two years.
How much of the community's negative response to the Reigns-push is the result of WWE's genuinely bad booking, and how much of it is the result of a self-fulfilling fan-prophecy built upon familiar phrases like "shoved down our throat", "Cena 2.0", "Terrible on the mic", "Terrible in the ring", "You can't wrestle", "You still suck!", "Push", "Forced", etc. ?
How do those phrases, which are triggered within us the moment we recognize a particular booking-pattern, alter our perception of reality and make it impossible for us to fairly evaluate a performer?
We don't have anything other than the words themselves to go on, and those words and their meanings shape our perceptions and our emotions, which then effects how we express those perceptions and emotions.
In short, we stagnate (which just so happens to be one of our favorite criticisms of WWE). This stagnation of thought fails to spur on meaningful change within the community.
The lack of variety and depth in positions of power within the community also serves as a tacit endorsement of any stagnation that exists in professional wrestling. The machine chugs along despite a desperate need of a renovation. The irony of this is revealed in how many of these fans genuinely regard their binary "push him"/"don't push him" arguments as solutions to their problems when, in fact, they are an extension of the larger problem. Their frustrations, which may even be founded, aren't articulated in a manner that actually suits their frustration nor in a manner that's actually useful to the promotion or the performer they're insulting.
"I do not care why you think SmackDown's ratings are down..."
Over the past month I've heard and read repeated explanations for why Jinder Mahal is solely responsible for the "disastrous" ratings of SmackDown Live, why The Shield Reunion is nothing more than WWE's latest attempt to get the crowd cheering Roman Reigns, and why Sami Zayn's heel turn is an inevitable dud.
I read and hear all of this thinking, "You're doing it wrong."
I'm not so comfortable hurling useless generalizations like these into the pro-wrestling ecosystem anymore.
I'm certainly guilty of having done so in the past. I've recorded and written some variation of similarly terrible "takes" since I started in 2012. But I'm committed to doing better. Because pro-wrestling deserves better than, "#SDLive's ratings are down because Jinder sucks - the numbers don't lie - everyone agrees with me!"
Not everyone agrees with you.
And whether or not people agree or disagree with you is never evidence of your rightness or wrongness.
Citing "other people" and "ratings" when you talk about your opinions is just another way to defer responsibility for having an opinion. It reveals that you don't even possess the courage and the conviction necessary when entering an ideological fight.
I do not care why you think SmackDown's ratings are down.
I don't even care that SmackDown's ratings are down.
I'm not even sure they are (that's how little I care about it).
I don't care why the WWE put The Shield back together, and I don't care if anyone thinks they're doing it because of an ulterior motive as nefarious as "getting Reigns over".
(I shudder to think...a wrestling promotion trying to make a wrestler more popular)
And I really, really don't care if you think Sami Zayn's heel-turn is a dud.
I don't even care if Sami Zayn is, technically, a heel or not. I honestly don't know what he is, I just know I enjoy it.
These debates about ratings, pushes, heels, babyfaces, indy vs corporate, casuals vs diehards, and everything in-between have outlived their usefulness.
All I care about now is the answer to one question, "Is it good?"
"Is it good?" is the seemingly elementary question fans & critics should be focused on above all others, because that is a human question not the performance of a binary function.
Like pro-wrestling itself, "Is it good?" has the appearance of simplicity (an "either/or" answer), but it contains the promise of something deeper and more sustainable.
"Is it good?" is not just "Is it good, yes or no?"
The debate that follows "Is it good?" is the starting point for a better pro-wrestling criticism, a better pro-wrestling community, and a more useful conversation that promotions might actually be inclined to absorb. "Is it good" doesn't require a secret password - it requires honesty.
"Is it good" becomes a specific examination of why it's good (or not), and the who, what, where, and when of its goodness (or badness).
"Is it good?" is simultaneously an examination of self because it begs the question, "Why do I think this is good? Am I right? If so, how can I prove I'm right? If I'm wrong, why do I like something that's bad, and how do I explain why I like this badness?"
"Is it good?" is an examination of culture & community, what we value (or don't) as a people, what divisions exist within that community, and what bridges (if any) exist across those divisions.
"Is it good?" instructs us to value what pro-wrestling is, not the feeling of reassurance access offers.
"Is it good" is the one question we need to be asking over and over again, because that is the fundamental question all constructive criticism asks.
And it's never boring. It is the first step that leads in any direction. There's always a new place to go with that question if you ask it sincerely and thoughtfully enough.
So please don't interpret "Is it good" too literally.
While that specific phrase itself can be a good enough beginning, "is it good" can come in the form of "how is the lighting affecting my emotions", "why does Kevin Owen's hold his rear chin-lock for so long", "how has Roman Reigns' gimmick evolved for the better over the past year", "what is it about Kenny Omega's mannerism that is so intoxicating", or "why has the blocking of backstage segments never changed"?
All of these questions are a reflection of the basic evaluation of artistic quality. When we bicker about "pushes", "ratings", "top guys", and the like, we are not evaluating the art of professional wrestling, we are evaluating how much we think we know about it.
"Is it good?" can lead to a deeper discussion about the fundamental nature of "good", both in terms of art and in terms of morality, how those concepts are interrelated, and whether or not objectivity even exists.
That sounds like a really interesting discussion, doesn't it?
Instead of having that discussion through the lens of professional wrestling, we're trying to figure out who "the next top guy" deserves to be (and isn't it funny how that conversation never incorporates the possibility that the next "top guy" could be a woman or someone who is gender-neutral).
"Tell me what you feel and why you feel it in your voice..."
So enamored with our insider language and our endlessly repeating simpleton gripes, we've ignored a deeper examination of the visual, narrative, and performance quality of professional wrestling.
This basic principle of "Is it good?" allows for a wider variety of perspectives and a depth of consideration that is currently inaccessible.
"Is it good" is a means of breaking our forth wall, and pushing ourselves to be better, more thoughtful, and more gracious individuals.
The next time you hear a familiar claim about ratings, Reigns, heels, babyfaces, selling, flips, indies, or eras, I encourage you to respond, "But is it good?"
And if you believe it is good, state your case without relying upon the familiar phraseology of professional wrestling. You will throw off the person you're talking to and force them to think on their feet. Cite your experiences, your emotions, and your frames of reference related to other mediums. Tell me what you feel and why you feel it in your voice. It might be difficult to not say "push", "work", "buried" etc, but resist the urge to draw from that grab bag of helpful phrases and thoughts.
Explore the who, what, where, when, how, and why of your emotional responses. When analyzing or criticizing professional wrestling, know that you are existing for wrestling in that moment of critique and that wrestling is not existing for you.
Professional wrestling is bigger and better than our biases, our frustrations, and our desire to feel "in on it". The concept of a professional wrestling community born out of this understanding is more inclusive and more at peace with itself than what we currently identify as the IWC (Internet Wrestling Community).
Let's hit the reset button on our minds.
Let's do right by pro-wrestling so that it might continue to do right by us.
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