Professional Wrestling Is Life
Life is typically divided into three distinct stages.
We are born.
We struggle to define our existence.
It's no coincidence then that this would be the basic structure of most human stories; a beginning, a middle, and an end (or The Thee Acts). We see Three Acts in everything around us, be it our twenty-four-hour cycle (we wake up, we work, we go to sleep) or the entirety of our time on this planet (childhood, adolescence, adulthood). Even our intangible experiences of life are typically divided into threes: Good, Evil, a morally gray.
We give our lives meaning by fragmenting them into various stages of enlightenment, going so far as to create elaborate ceremonies (weddings, funerals, commencement, birthdays, bar mitzvahs & bat mitzvahs, communions etc.) to punctuate perceived growth. Without this highly organized punctuation life could become an unintelligible run-on sentence.
Similarly, in fiction, it's incredibly rare to experience a story that lacks structure. It's even rarer that a story isn't centered around a protagonist or an antagonist who learns a valuable lesson or, at the very least, changes in some way.
There are few arts that adhere to this structure as strictly as professional wrestling, and it can be incredibly effective.
When we watch a professional wrestling match, whether we realize it or not, we are watching the story of life.
Act 1 - Birth
The professional wrestler emerges from behind the curtain.
The audience does not really know what goes on behind the curtain. That dark space is vague and unattainable, just as we do not recall what took place prior to emerging from the womb. There is only the ramp, the ring, the audience, the wood, the rubber, the wire, the lights, and the steel.
These are the building blocks of the professional wrestling universe.
As the wrestler marches toward the ring, where the majority of their existence plays out, they are given a height, a weight, and a name.
"Making her way to the ring, weighing in at..."
This announcement is the wrestler's birth certificate. These facts help the rest of the world identify the wrestler. Their name embodies the wrestler's soul, sometimes even functioning as a literal indication of who & what they are; The Undertaker, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mr. Perfect etc.
After both competitors are introduced, the rules of the match are outlined. We find out what the stakes are.
"This match is scheduled for one fall and it is for the ICW Heavyweight Championship!" Whatever the specific guidelines (pin or submission, falls count anywhere, no holds barred etc) these are the commandments of a professional wrestling match, not unlike the commandments imposed on individuals by their family, country, or religion.
Early on in our lives we are told what to expect from the world. Some of us are sheltered from the inevitable darkness that awaits, while others are born directly into it. For the sheltered, we learn the "rules" of life from our parents. If we break those rules, we are punished. This is preparatory to our experience of life outside the family. Society gives us rules. If we break those rules, we are punished.
But, after gaining some experience, we learn that we're only punished if we're caught. An awakening to that fact determines who we will become in relation to morality; righteous or corrupt.
How a wrestler chooses to navigate the rules of their universe reveals whether they are a villain, a hero, or somewhere in-between. Personality is revealed through choice and action (see Somoa Joe's promo about this in NXT episode 11/11/15). The actions of a wrestler shapes how the world perceives them.
The referee is the wrestler's judge & jury, the ever-present overseer of the match. The referee is fallible, however; sometimes biased, corrupt, or inexplicably inept.
And so the scene is set. The world is established for all the players.
The ringside bell is rung, and the fight for survival and success begins.
Act II - Conflict
The ritual of ringing the bell is synonymous with being kicked out of the nest.
That sound represents our transition from innocence into experience. The wrestler has left the comfort of the womb, the wrestler has been introduced to the world, the wrestler has learned the rules of that world, and now the wrestler must fend for themselves.
Conflict is inevitable in life. How we manage conflict (how we overcome the pain and the suffering and the psychological trauma destined to dispel the myths of our youth) forces us to learn more about ourselves and the way the world works.
The wrestler's opponent represents the hardship of life. The wrestler learns, along with the viewer, that an unwillingness to yield, despite extreme hardship, is more often than not what determines triumph or defeat.
This is why professional wrestling can elicit such a strong emotional response from a an audience. It tells the audience that the impossible is, in fact, possible.
For example, seeing Sami Zayn win the NXT Championship isn't just about watching a hard worker get what they deserve. It's not about the Internet Wrestling Community getting what they want thanks to a good booking decision. The story of Sami's victory is the story of self-acceptance.
We lose our innocence and then we spend the rest of our days fighting to get it back or we become spiteful, turn against the world, and try to destroy the innocence of others. Both sides of that struggle can prevent growth. It is only when we move beyond our disillusionment, deny the temptations of evil, and hold true to our most honest selves that we're able to reclaim our identity and, as Sami Zayn once put it, "Do it your way!"
The more the wrestler "does it their way" in the ring (whether for good or for evil) the better that wrestler embodies the struggle of life.
As the wrestler progresses through their match, they find themselves in a variety of increasingly desperate situations. After an initial onslaught of punches, kicks, and holds the combatants segue into "High Spots". In pro-wrestling, a "High Spot" refers to a particularly "big moment": an impressive feat of strength, a shocking acrobatic display, or an exciting series of finishing moves.
These "High Spots" are synonymous with significant transitions in life, memories of such emotional intensity that they are forever burnt into the fabric of our consciousness; heartbreaks, marriages, divorces, deaths, graduations, promotions, revelations, etc.
This ebb and flow between "lower" and "higher" experiences is the ebb and flow of our human existence. There are good times and there are bad times. There is fortune and misfortune. That constant back and forth is the wheel of suffering. It is only when we break away from that never-ending process that we're able to attain nirvana or, in pro-wrestling's case, peace and victory.
As the wrestler progresses through a series of increasingly "higher" spots, their body slows down. The exertion takes a toll. The body betrays the wrestler and all that remains is the wrestler's will to survive. They are aging.
Act III - Death
Nearing the end of a match, the wrestler's breath becomes shorter, their actions less fluid. They now know, intimately, who their opponent is and what their opponent is capable of; they're familiar with life and how it works. The wrestler is wiser and more able to deal with conflict, but the wrestler may be too weak or too tired to keep fighting.
And this is where the wrestler's true strength is revealed.
At the end of their life in the ring, can the wrestler find it in their soul to use everything they've learned, push through the pain, deny death's grasp, and achieve victory one last time?
The wrestler is rolled up into a pin. The referee counts down to their death.
The wrestler kicks out!
The wrestler has defied nature, if only for one second. Somehow, some way, the wrestler will not give in. The wrestler will keep fighting and keep fighting until their last breath. The wrestler will not give in to temptation. The wrestler will not cheat. The good wrestler will prove evil wrong by winning their way on their terms.
As the wrestler deals a final, unexpected blow to their opponent, they move in for the three-count, and the referee and the audience count in unison. This count is closure. This count is the entire drama of life contained in three beautiful seconds.
One. Two. Three.
There is a cosmic Moment of Pop that radiates throughout the universe. The audience, like so many stars clustered together, explodes in a shared experience of ecstasy. In this moment, life and death are one.
The wrestler's arm is raised, and they give thanks to the world.
The wrestler stands in the ring for a moment, reflecting on their life. They mourn the passing of the moment, but they are proud for having lived it.
And then the wrestler slips back into the dark from whence they came; behind the curtain, and into the unknown.
This process is nourishing for pro-wrestling fans for a variety of reasons, but one of them is the unspoken understanding that a wrestling match is one great, big metaphor for life. We intuit that if our favorite wrestler can do it, so can we. If the wrestler can emerge from nothing, inspire an entire universe with their actions, and be remembered fondly for what they did, then maybe we all can.
At its best, pro-wrestling is nothing but life-affirming. It is a guide for living with courage, tenacity, and grace.