This a guest post by Jeffrey Hartman. Jeffrey is a former teacher who views professional wrestling through the lenses of history and popular culture. You can follow the rest of his work at jeffreymhartman.com
The following will be one of the most obvious statements ever made about professional wrestling. My favorite types of matches are the matches I like the most. Redundant as this may seem, I have a point to make. I like any type of match that entertains me. The stipulation or style of a match matters little to me so long as the action keeps my attention. Scientific grappling matches can engage me as much as high-flying spot fests. Blatant comedy matches can work for me just as much as gory garbage matches. Each type of match entertains me in a different way, but each type can get a strong reaction from me if the performers give an exciting show. One might think I’m not discerning, but I am. For a match to truly entertain me, it needs a certain element.
I’ve noticed a trend among my all-time favorite matches. They’ve felt like actual competitions. This is the element I need for a match to become a favorite. Most of my favorites have had an air of believability about them. The most believable matches are those with the best selling, the least rest time, and the fewest obvious mistakes. Such matches can include outlandish, death-defying spots, so long as the performers sell them appropriately. They can include some built-in rest spots, but these need to be part of the story of the match. Performers make mistakes, which is forgivable, but too many will detract from the illusion of competition. The best matches convey this illusion to the point of believability.
With kayfabe being less sacred today than it had been during the 80s or 90s, the need for such illusion might seem dead. Contemporary matches are as much about spectacle as they are about storytelling. The business always has been about spectacle, with elaborate pageantry and flamboyant characters. Pageantry aside, these characters engaged in fierce competition in the name of becoming champions. Since the mid-90s, much of the spectacle has become high-risk, acrobatic spots. Stories and characters still are important, but that quest for glory is now secondary to the athletic performance. Fans are smart enough to predict outcomes and seem to prefer gritty, realistic characters. Today’s spectacle really is the physical theatrics of the match.
I can appreciate this. I like watching performers hit moves I couldn’t imagine being able to execute. Fans pay for a show, after all. Matches filled with such spectacle are fun to watch, but they are little more than gymnastics shows if there isn’t drama. The drama needs fuel. The best fuel is competition. Action for its own sake is impressive, but it’s most entertaining when it’s part of something larger. Even if what happens during a match is pushing the edge of believable, the notion that the performers are invested in a real and meaningful competition can make any kind of match work.
A match can feel like a competition from within. Great performers can put on an entertaining and convincing show through their raw talents. Some audiences might find this to be adequate. It can be adequate. Stepping from adequate to great demands a stake of some kind. This turns up the intensity of the best performances. Even sloppy hardcore matches can feel like something more if a coveted title is waiting. Take two or three or four gifted performers who can execute and sell and put them in a match with a stake and I’ll pay attention. Most other fans will as well.
Professional wrestling doesn’t need to compete with mixed martial arts by imitating it. The pageantry of wrestling should remain to distinguish it from MMA. Wrestling can borrow from MMA. It can borrow the rankings, divisions loosely based on size, and more than anything, the importance of titles. Wrestlers should seem to be striving for something. Grudge matches are fine sometimes, but a unified goal can bring everyone into the story.
Many fans lose interest when matches lack meaning. Having champions lose in non-title matches deflates the value of those titles by making champions appear weak. Throwing performers into matches with no story makes for a demonstration more than a show. With a renewed emphasis on competition, every match has a built-in story. This can happen in every promotion and every type of match. If a promotion relies on high spots and dangerous antics, it can keep doing so, but it can make the risks appear more crucial if the performers are after something tangible and everyone knows it.
Having competition between national-level promotions is a long way off, but the illusion of competition within promotions might help keep people watching. With the caliber of talent available today, performers can pull it off and I believe that fans are hungry for it. I know I am.