During a recent trip home, my mother asked me why I liked professional wrestling. The interest is relatively new, and arguably out of character. As a kid, I did own two WWF comic books (one starring the Ultimate Warrior and one starring Big Boss Man—both purchased, I think, at a dollar store) and probably some action figures, but up until 2018, I had only ever seen a few minutes of televised wrestling, each of which I found excruciating: stupid, silly, tacky, crass. In July of that year, my partner Tracy and I tried out New Japan Pro Wrestling (King of Sports) on the recommendation of a friend, watching an entire month-long G1 Climax tournament from beginning to end: 20 wrestlers, 19 nights of competition, and 181 matches (not including the undercard tags). At the outset of this project, I found the matches bewildering and overlong—sometimes surprisingly graceful, but often weirdly dull. By the end of the G1 Climax, I had learned to appreciate some of the differences between the wrestlers and had picked out a few favorites; I was developing taste. Tracy was already fully onboard, but there were several times I seriously considered never watching again, and it would be a few months yet before I called myself a fan. I was still adjusting to thinking of myself as that kind of person. As I developed the literacy necessary to enjoy the form, I was also negotiating with my shame.

Mom may still be adjusting as well. I did my best to give her a real explanation, describing a then-recent match between veteran star Chris Jericho and intriguing nobody Action Andretti, which in turn required me to explain the basic shape of Jericho’s career. He’s been a big deal in wrestling for a long time, I said, and he has an undeserved reputation for selfishness. People who don’t pay attention say he makes a point of beating promising young talent in order to suck the life out of their careers and keep himself relevant, but in fact he is a generous opponent, always looking for opportunities to elevate careers and lose big matches to unestablished up-and-comers. I’m a fan of him because he seems to be so good at finding things to love in other wrestlers. So in retrospect, the match that I was telling Mom about—the one where Jericho lost, in a genuine shock, to Andretti, a kind of doofy-looking guy who had never before appeared on TV—maybe shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, because of course, Chris Jericho would want to try to make an unknown into a name just by losing to him once, just to see if he could do it. Still, Tracy and I shouted for joy when Andretti got the pin, not because he had put on such an amazing performance (it had been good, not great) but because Jericho had been so generous. Losing to a guy the way he did meant something. It was an unexpected gift—a thrill to see.

What made that match great was the feeling of our shared authorship of the moment. Years of training had taught us that Jericho would definitely and overwhelmingly win the match—because we hadn’t heard of his opponent, who wasn’t even allowed the dignity of entrance music, we knew with absolute certainty what the outcome would be. But as the match progressed, and as the audience began to believe that their collective yearning for an upset victory would finally be satisfied, they allowed that feeling of wanting to flower. As it became more and more possible (even, increasingly, obvious) that they would get what they wanted, they filled the arena with a rising chorus of incredulous, delighted screams, culminating in a cathartic explosion at the end of the referee’s three-count. It was a singular piece of art, the kind of moment that only wrestling can really create, but it also wasn’t one of the ten best matches that I saw last year—which is why I felt a little puzzled to hear myself describing it to Mom as I attempted to defend my fandom. In the time since, I’ve worked out that this particular match provided a useful way of thinking about what makes wrestling interesting, and even sometimes beautiful, as a form.

The thing that trips most people up about wrestling is that it’s fake. This has its own appeal for me, as I strongly prefer fiction to the alternative, but if my goal is to enjoy a pretend story, several forms (books, movies, comics) recommend themselves before the cack-handed, culturally debased art that is pro wrestling. On the other hand, if I want to watch a physical performance, there are better athletes doing more impressive things in other places, and all in the service of real competition. There is a drama inherent to watching two teams, two institutions, or two people struggle to outdo each other and prove who is better, which (at first glance) does not really exist in wrestling, where no amount of striving can change the outcome. (At least most of the time. We’ll come back to that point.) Professional wrestling is worse for telling stories than any major medium, and as a venue for athletic competition, it’s even worse than that. A lot of the time—maybe most of the time, if we’re honest—the guy who would lose in a real fight wins the pretend one. And we’re supposed to cheer that.

It’s weird. I won’t tell you it isn’t.

When Tracy and I started watching New Japan, the first thing that made me think I might stick with it was beginning to appreciate how cooperative wrestling is. The goal of each match is not for the participants to succeed as individuals, but to tell a good story that serves their characters in the short and long terms. This usually works best when both wrestlers seem to be great at their jobs. If your opponent botches a move and fails to persuasively fake hitting you, you’ll probably pretend they got you really good. If you think that you can get away with it, you might even stumble around the ring, go stiff, and fall down. In cases like this, the announcers giving play-by-play to the audience at home are expected to lie if they think it will work, or to find an explanation if they can’t. A big part of their job is to smooth over anything that goes wrong and explain to the audience what they’re supposed to be seeing. Everyone involved—including the audience, if they’re feeling warmly disposed toward the performers or the promotion—benefits from an agreement to present, and to see, the match in the best possible light. The wrestler who’s going to win the match wants to look strong, and the best way to do that is to beat an opponent who looks strong. The wrestler who’s going to lose the match also wants to look strong. The best way for them to do that is to be beaten by an opponent who looks incredibly strong. Great performers help each other look good. Wrestling-literate fans love most the people who support their opponents the most. They love (we love) people who know how to lose well.

So this is the first secret to enjoying professional wrestling. Understand, or anyway believe, that the results of a match don’t really matter. What’s important is that each performer works hard to make the match benefit their own character’s story, and the story of their partner(s).

The second secret contradicts the first. Professional wrestling is, in actuality, easily one of the most competitive disciplines on Earth. It only sometimes doesn’t look that way from the outside because we know that wrestlers allow their putative opponents to pin them. The competition is not mainly about wins and losses. It’s about value. In order to have remunerative, creatively rewarding careers, wrestlers need to always be building their value (in terms of things like crowd connection, skill, physical appearance, and ticket sales), and they also need to routinely prove that value.

Although Chris Jericho planned to lose to Action Andretti—indeed, given the way these things tend to happen backstage, we can safely assume he all but demanded to lose—helping the younger man’s career was a secondary benefit. The primary beneficiary really was Jericho, who demonstrated his value by showing that 1) he could have a good match with an unproven wrestler, 2) he was seen by the audience as a big enough star that beating him felt important, and 3) the fans loved him enough that a theoretically embarrassing loss would only make them fonder. He was competing with every other wrestler on the All Elite Wrestling roster, and for that matter every other wrestler on Earth, by showing that he could be more cooperative, more generous, more invested in his partner’s success than most other people. By losing the way that he did, he reaffirmed his own greatness and cultivated the rapport that he’s built with the fans who gamely boo him each week, not because they hate him but because he is a heel, and heels want to be booed. That’s another way they demonstrate their value.

And this kind of competition does eventually help determine wins and losses. Sometimes—maybe often, for all that I know—demonstrating enough value can lead a promotion’s booker to change the outcome of a match. By putting on great shows, wrestlers pressure the people behind the curtains to revise plans, give them signature wins and championship belts, and pay them more generously when their contracts come up for renewal.

Today, Chris Jericho is still on every episode of AEW Dynamite. Action Andretti, who wasn’t able to demonstrate anywhere near the same amount of value in the months that followed their match, is not—and when he is there, he’s losing. He wrestles in other promotions weekly, building a case for himself, biding his time until his next shot.

Talking about wrestlers in terms of their “value,” as if they were human assets, feels weird and anti-art. But this is an essential part of the strange power of wrestling. It’s a form where things like ticket and merch sales often become part of the text—pieces of evidence that the performers can use to argue that the fans truly do love them, or don’t love them as much as they should. They also serve as a means by which fans communicate about their love to wrestlers and promoters. We all think all the time about demonstrating our own value to other people so they will give us work, pay us better, or love us. Wrestling is a form where these anxious, painful, herky-jerky negotiations between workers and employers, friends and lovers, public figures and fans are explicitly embedded in the art itself. It’s about desire. It’s about begging for the things you want and need. It’s about earning those things. It’s about not being able to earn them. It’s about giving to others. It’s about withholding. It’s about the sticks and carrots we use to motivate each other, and which our cultures use to motivate us. It’s about exploitation. It’s legal sex work conducted in public, on national TV. It is a constant, frequently humiliating striving.

My point in telling Mom about Jericho vs. Andretti—I have since decided—was that while the stories explicitly told by wrestling shows are mostly nothing special, the story of a performer’s career can be surprisingly rich and even beautiful. Great wrestlers continually tweak their characters and revise their stories in order to build and maintain productive relationships with their coworkers and fans; through improvisational, flirtatious performances in matches, promo battles, and interviews, they learn what audiences want and how best to give it to them, while at the same time always hinting that the best is yet to come. The result is a collaborative storytelling medium both hypnotically subtle and stupidly blunt, with each episode and every story arc embodying a simultaneously commercial, artistic, and erotic game played by the performers, the people who run the promotion, the thousands of audience members who are watching live in the building, and the hundreds of thousands of people watching from home. Jericho understood that the fans would love to see a nobody beat him. He knew how to do that and win in the process. There is real joy in witnessing such virtuosity—and failed attempts at virtuosity. I have enjoyed watching Action Andretti stumble and search for the approach that will fit him best since.

(My first suggestion to him, if he asked, would be that “Action” isn’t a name.)

Professional wrestling is the art of creating and inhabiting a version of yourself that other people can’t help loving. When Jericho makes his entrance, the audience sings along with his music, and when the music stops, they insist on finishing the song. Seeing people do the work to establish and sustain that kind of relationship—watching them struggle to outdo each other in the art of being loved—is the beautiful thing about wrestling. That’s why I watch. In my own life, I would like to become a lovable character too.

Mike Meginnis is the author of the novels Drowning Practice (Ecco, 2022) and Fat Man & Little Boy (Black Balloon, 2014). His story “Navigators” appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012. Follow him on Bluesky @mikemeginnis.bsky.social.