“Wrestling is about larger than life characters. Remember the attitude era? Remember the 80’s? Everyone had charisma. You had cool storylines: long term and family-friendly in the days of Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, etc. and edgy and off-the-wall in the days of Stone Cold and The Rock. You know? Guys who you could idolize and aspire to be like and were men’s men and they looked like they could legitimately kick some ass.”
We’ve all heard that rant before, mostly from lapsed fans and certain ex-wrestling personnel who will continue to maintain that the old (or older) ways were the right ways until they lose their voices. And sure, we shouldn’t discount the opinions and criticism of people who just want the industry to succeed but we have to accept that sometimes this isn’t their only motivation for saying the things they do. The majority of current-day wrestling does have many areas in which to improve: perhaps some current workers could focus a little more on their physique, perhaps indy talent could put up clearer boundaries between themselves and the fans to create a ‘star aura’, a lot of matches are simply too long and the story contained within them could be told in a fraction of the time and…it is true that wrestling has lost a sizable chunk of the audience that came to it through sports due to the emergence of more absurd and supernatural content inspired by video games and comic books. These are all points we could discuss all day, the problem is the intention of some of the people making these points.
Nostalgia is powerful and comforting and the unknown is uncertain; therefore yearning for the past and bashing anything new is bound to appeal to a wide audience. But saying that Western audiences don’t want to watch Japanese wrestlers because they’re Japanese is ludicrous, making your roster mostly white isn’t going to draw in new fans and giving Women a less prominent role ain’t gonna do that either.
Wrestling isn’t dead, it just needs to evolve in ways that it hasn’t in a while.
If you want professional wrestling to be exactly the same as it was in the past then you are standing in the way of progress, but fear not…you aren’t the whole problem. In fact, there are a lot of things we can learn from wrestling’s past and in addition, there are a lot of things we need to change about its current direction. At its core, pro wrestling is a lot more like a sport than a soap opera. Yes it’s pre-determined and yes the moves used aren’t designed to inflict maximum damage to their recipients…however the psychology is the same; audiences pay to see a contest where there is a winner/winners and a loser/losers, whether the outcome of that contest is decided backstage before the show or in real-time is irrelevant. In one way or another, the winner of the contest is better than his or her opponent on that particular night.
And those facts are something that the majority of mainstream wrestling is not taking enough advantage of.
For all of the rhetoric spouted by talent about ‘moving the business forward’, TV wrestling (particularly in the USA) is desperate to rediscover its past success and has chosen to go about achieving this goal by utilizing the exact same techniques that last yielded overwhelmingly positive results 20 or even 35 years ago. Look around at WWE, AEW, Impact and what is left of the independent scene and you will see an abundance of gimmick matches, cartoonish and ironic characters, shouted promos full of soundbites and sweeping statements, an over-reliance on nostalgic elements, interference, non-finishes, matches announced when the show is already underway, backstage segments that are not interviews and a similar structure to in-ring competition where a specific signature move ends proceedings and the beginning of the finishing sequence (eg. You can expect the match to end from this point forward) is so obvious that you may as well hold up a sign saying ‘pay attention now.’
In my view, there have been two products breaking this mold and moving wrestling forward by presenting its fundamental principles in a modern setting.
The first product (or product section I guess) is not new at all: New Japan’s young lion matches have been a staple of Japan’s top company for a long time. Usually presented at the start of the show, matches between these trainees feature a basic set of maneuvers with a special focus on chain wrestling and striking. Though most matches end with a Boston Crab the absence of a distinct finisher for both competitors makes the timing of the finish less predictable. Young lions also spend a lot of time selling the effects of the moves used, moves that would only be used for transition in matches further up the card. These wrestlers also have no gimmick, distinctive gear or character from each other apart from the most important characteristic of all; a personality, a natural personality which makes itself evident without scripting or the forced adoption of a specific set of traits.
Once these wrestlers go on excursion and come back complete with unique gear and a character slapped on them, the subtle brilliance of their young lion days can, unfortunately, fade away, but maybe it doesn’t have to. Maybe you can cook the steak medium rare and take it off the heat before the sizzle burns it. For example: maybe the returning young lions just need new gear and nothing else and then it would feel like the human being you previously grew to know as a trainee had merely continued their journey rather than being wholly transformed into an essentially different person.
The other product I want to highlight is the re-birthed Ring of Honor. After their COVID-19 hiatus, they have returned with the utterly brilliant Pure Title Tournament. Complete with a clear set of rules: 3 rope breaks per competitor, no interference otherwise you’re fired, no closed fists to the head (first one gets a warning, second is an automatic DQ), judges scores decide time limit draws, every match starts and ends with a handshake etc. this tournament highlights how the grounded drama of sports can be applied to the world of wrestling. It also highlights how the upholding of rules and regulations can actually add to the shows entertainment rather than taking away from it. Honestly, wrestling has been breaking the rules for too long, it’s no longer special, the dead horse has been beaten enough; the more you do something, the less special it is, so just do less of it.
The Pure Tournament matches are also highly unpredictable and feel like they can end in a variety of ways, none of which induce eye-rolls. We’ve seen matches go to a split judges decision in which a single move cost a competitor the match, we’ve seen a tap-out happen from an impact move and even someone submit to their own hold; and that all happened over only six matches. And matches ending in all these different ways adds excitement, fans wonder how the next match will end and who is going to win, the way that sports fans wonder the same things on their way to the stadium. And this philosophy isn’t new for ROH, pure wrestling was part of their original identity but they took this aspect, changed up a couple of rules and expanded upon the presentation and viola’: innovation.
There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by the past and there’s also nothing wrong with breaking a few of the shackles that tie you to it. Wrestling should remember its past but it should never try to be it. All genres need to innovate if they are to stay relevant but the genre itself must not abandon its core principles for if that happens then it will cease to exist.
Pro wrestling: people fight, there are winners and losers but who will they be? And how? There has never been a greater draw for fans.