Photos: Greg Gallinger 

Roland Barthes once described pro wrestling as not a sport but a spectacle, where larger than life characters with exaggerated passions act out physical and emotional performances concerning grand struggles between good and evil, light and dark, justice and injustice.

It’s not hard to see where he’s coming from. Pro wrestling has always played to a mass audience, just like many other forms of entertainment: stand up comedy, musical concerts and theater. They can be viewed when one is alone, but they are not meant for a solitary audience. The sheer amount of exaggeration—physical and emotional—has a purpose: To reach the entirety of the crowd, to make sure that every single person in the audience understands what is being performed and the emotions behind those performances.

So yes, pro wrestling is a spectacle that requires a larger than life attitude. It doesn’t matter if it is in an 80,000 seat stadium or a 200-seat VFW hall; wrestling is meant for the world stage, so it’s best to play for the world: Shouting, running, jumping, pointing, big faces, pulsing muscles, hard hits, colorful attire, biting storylines of betrayal, anger, and accusations.

But what about subtlety? Does that belong in a spectacle like pro wrestling? Inherently no, because the thing about a spectacle is that it doesn’t allow for subtlety. It has to be big and loud and obvious. Good guys are good guys, who smile and wave and never cheat. Bad guys are bad guys, who cheat and snarl and rub their hands like Snidely Whiplash.

I don’t believe that. I think wrestling can be more than just a spectacle. It can be more than just a “male soap opera.” It can be more than garbage entertainment, a joke for so-called sophisticated minds to point and laugh at.

Pro wrestling can be subtle. Subtlety gives it depth; it gives it layers. It falls upon the performers to utilize it and upon the viewers to pay enough attention to notice it.

Jake Roberts was subtle. Jake Roberts had layers. He didn’t scream into the microphone like his counterparts. No, Jake was quiet,slow and methodical. In an avenue where to be loud was to be like everyone else, Jake understood the roar of the whisper. He eased you in with that soft gravelly voice, almost assuring you of his gentleness even as he described the painful things he was going to do to you in the ring. Underneath the surface of the muscular pro wrestler was a master of mind games. Underneath Superman was Lex Luthor.

To give you a more recent example, I turn to Kenny Omega at New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Invasion Attack 2015. Omega has always had an air of ostentatiousness surrounding him. All you have to do is watch a YouTube video of him wrestling an 9-year-old Japanese girl and you’ll get the picture.

When he came into New Japan late last year as a permanent roster member and the Bullet Club’s latest brother-in-arms, Omega kept that same oeuvre: Goofy faces, arm stubble chainsaws, and a move that I can only describe as him sticking a flagpole up Ryusuke Taguchi’s ass (okay, not literally, but it was in that general area).

Things changed during the main event of Invasion Attack. It was A.J. Styles vs. Kota Ibushi for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Omega was at ringside supporting Styles, defending champion and fellow Bullet Club member. But this was a different Kenny Omega than the one we’d seen for the past few months. He was much more subdued, keeping out of the way while Styles and Ibushi wrestled. The only time he tried to interfere was at the very end, when he hopped up on the apron while Ibushi was on the top rope, ready to hit the Phoenix Splash. Still, Omega didn’t actually do anything. He just stood on the apron and looked at Ibushi. Ibushi just looked right back at him and shook his head.

After the match was over and Styles had retained, Omega, with the most half-hearted of smiles, got in the ring and delicately clapped for A.J. Styles. While Yujiro Takahashi and Tama Tonga cheered and celebrated with the champion, Omega acted like he had just saw someone else win the Oscar. Keep in mind that it was only a few hours earlier during his IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship match that Omega was hamming it up, including a mock La Parka dance.

What we saw during the main event of Invasion Attack was subtlety at its finest. Omega dropped the spectacle and presented the viewer with a complex, layered man. Here’s a guy who was best friends and tag team partners for years with Kota Ibushi in the DDT promotion. And now they were together again in New Japan, albeit on opposite sides of a war. But Omega couldn’t completely let go of the past; his hesitation in interfering against Ibushi proves it. When Styles won, Omega’s face told the story. The Bullet Club was going to take him to the top—hell, it already gave him a championship—but at what cost? How much was all of this worth anyway?

Ibushi was great here too. One simple shake of the head conveyed so much: Ibushi’s disgust over Omega’s betrayal, his annoyance over Omega’s interference, his attempt to focus on the match and not on his former partner. It’s so subtle, but it’s also so powerful. Years of history were being playing out in a matter of minutes. I understand that the lay fan might not know the history between Omega and Ibushi, but for the dedicated, long-term fans, this was incredible. That’s what wrestling can be: smarter, deeper, better.

You’ll never get rid of the spectacle in pro wrestling. The bang will always be there and I’m okay with that. But the really heavy stuff, the deep, nuanced drama that can evoke so much emotion with the smallest of actions? That comes with subtlety; that comes with the whimper. All pro wrestling has to do is incorporate it. All the fans have to do is look closely.