In 1904 Frank Gotch won his first American wrestling title from champion Tom Jenkins, taking the first fall and forcing a battered Jenkins to get himself fouled out, or disqualified, rather than lose a second fall more legitimately. It marked the end of a six year reign for Jenkins, who later in the year would receive criticism for allegedly being ‘willing to lose’ after discussions with George Hackenschmidt ahead of their match in England. It wasn’t the first time the sport of professional wrestling would have questions cast of the legitimacy of the matches, and it naturally wouldn’t be the last.
Matches in those days could easily go for a couple of hours, and while there were claims of the sport being staged it still very much presented itself as a real contest between men. Compare such a match to TLC 2 at WrestleMania, as three of the best tag teams would launch themselves off of ladders, throw opponents through tables and slam steel chairs against skulls, all to grab a championship belt that was hanging from the ceiling. How much is different and how much is the same?
They are two vastly different representations of professional wrestling across near a century of time, but both fall under that same designation: professional wrestling. The industry has changed a lot from its days as a carnival side show attraction, undergoing many different coats of paint as its popularity would rise and fall over the decades. The industry’s legitimacy would continue to be questioned, with the veil gradually lifting more and more until WWF owner Vince Mcmahon tore it away to avoid being regulated by the athletic commissions. From the earliest days of fixing matches to pull more money from gamblers to announcing it’s all an act, the one constant was that decisions were made in the hunt for more money.
Today pro wrestling can look very different depending on what promotion or which wrestlers you’re watching. Yet there are fans, and even those within the industry, who can get hung up on putting wrestling in a box, seemingly in order to defend its legitimacy against those who threaten it with their crazier ideas. Spend enough time in the wrestling community and you’ll inevitably hear of a match that isn’t really wrestling, and will ‘kill the industry’ for one reason or another.
In 2016 Will Ospreay and Ricochet wrestled a match in the Best of the Super Jr Tournament that would turn the industry upside down as people either praised their incredible athleticism or bemoaned the death of the industry from all this ‘flippy shit’. Current AEW World Champion Kenny Omega has allegedly tried to kill the industry many times, but particularly in 2011 when he wrestled an exhibition match for Stardom against nine year old Haruka, unable to defeat the child within the three allocated minutes before it was declared a draw. He would then go on to put on some of the greatest matches of all time against the likes of Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito, but they could never have happened because the industry already died by his hands all those years ago.
Perhaps you’ve been at a wrestling show, where after an incredible back and forth exchange the crowd will chant in unison ‘this is wrestling’. You may have even heard it chanted ironically after an absurd moment, like Orange Cassidy planting his hands firmly inside of his jean pockets.
So what is pro wrestling then, specifically? What are the undeniable features that can be found across every example?
Even if we were to use the most mainstream of wrestling examples – WWE – it’s difficult to pin it down specifically. This is the same company that has had tremendous matches like Roman Reigns versus Daniel Bryan, but also spent much of 2020 telling the story of a fiendish monster that got burned alive in the ring only to pull supernatural stunts before crawling up through said ring.
Perhaps the pandemic era shouldn’t be counted given the circumstances, but then how can an undead wizard be such a beloved figure in wrestling’s mythos yet Ospreay/Richochet be an example of how fake it can be? Even when wrestling was exploding on the mainstream during the Monday Night Wars, Undertaker was walking around sacrificing the owner’s daughter on a cross while his brother dealt with the ludicrousness of the Katie Vick angle. Want to switch over to the competition? Then sure, you can enjoy Chucky the Killer Doll engage in a war of words with accomplished ‘real wrestler’ Rick Steiner.
Even if we narrowed down our scope of what pro wrestling is by its most mainstream examples, it gets weird. So what happens if instead of trying to narrow your definition, you start to embrace what people are doing with the concept?
One of my favourite shows to watch lately has been Gatoh Move’s ChocoPro Live, and on the surface it challenges your very notion of what pro wrestling should look like. Ichigaya Chocolate Square, the ‘venue’ for ChocoPro, is a tiny room inside a larger shared building. There’s no space for a traditional ring, choosing instead to lay down a chocolate brown padded mat about 14 foot by 7 foot. Wrestlers use the wall and edges of the mat to initiate rope breaks, and the window sills serve as a great launching point for ‘top rope’ moves. Opposing competitors will run out to sing together, as well as compete in a Janken tournament (rock, paper, scissors) at the end of each show.
It barely sounds like pro wrestling right? Yet for all of its unique flair, it still manages to get to the heart of what I personally consider to be pro wrestling: athletic theatre.
Wrestlers still deliver and take moves in an effort to defeat their opponents by pinfall or submission. Seasoned ChocoPro performers like the Best Bros Baylian Akki and Mei Suruga perform moves normally reserved for high fliers with access to ropes and turnbuckles. The matches are fun but also tell legitimate wrestling stories. In fact, Chris Brookes and the Pencil War has been the most compelling wrestling storyline of 2021 for me personally. The singing and Janken might show that they don’t all hate each other (except Chris Brookes) but they’ll still sell the wear and tear from their matches into these moments, nor does it stop them from fighting hard when the bell does ring.
Is ChocoPro what everyone wants from their wrestling product? Maybe not. But it’s a promotion that has managed to survive and thrive during the pandemic, making money despite having no paid attendance and uploading every show live and on demand to Youtube for free. They pride themselves on having no pay wall. It succeeds because people want it to, funding the show through donations and merchandise. The wall of Ichigaya Square is plastered with the names of people who have donated to the show and to them, ChocoPro is pro wrestling.
Like any creative medium, when artists challenge themselves they can produce something truly fascinating. ChocoPro works because of it thrives against its limitations, and this same concept is what makes Yoshihiko work as well.
Ever heard the saying that a great wrestler could carry a broom to a four star match? Well, Yoshihiko the inflatable sex doll is the living embodiment of this notion. As you would expect, an inanimate doll can’t actually wrestle, but in the hands of talented performers like Kota Ibushi, they can carry the doll through a match.
Much like a child might emulate their heroes by chokeslamming a teddy bear onto a bed, these wrestlers literally carry Yoshihiko through spots and near falls, pulling off moves on it while also flipping and bumping as they would when taking a move from a real opponent. Seeing Ibushi throw himself around the ring taking series of repeating Canadian Destroyers ‘from’ Yoshihiko can easily be dismissed as stupid. However when you look at the immense skill and creativity that it takes to craft and execute a match against something that cannot move of its own volition, you realise that it’s like an artist exploring the boundaries of their own medium.
As a wrestling fan you don’t have to find enjoyment in this more absurd form of wrestling. It’s essentially the industry equivalent of Avant Garde, working on the fringe and experimenting with what we understand as pro wrestling. If you prefer your grappling to be between two actual people inside of a ring following a defined set of rules, then that is fine. Movie fans aren’t expected to enjoy every genre out there. If both Parasite and Transformers can be considered films, then why does wrestling need to be pigeonholed into a box? Even if you dislike one, it’s still a film.
In the earlier days of the industry limitations were there because keeping the illusion of reality was still the most important thing. Even as the questions flew about its legitimacy, every wrestler worked hard to present themselves and the sport to be as real as possible. In 2021 there’s no more veil of kayfabe trying to hide the real truth. We know it’s a show and we choose whether we want to suspend disbelief or not. If that’s the case, why limit ourselves to those constraints anymore? When we find out Santa Claus isn’t real (spoiler!), we don’t stop celebrating Christmas, we just change how we go about it.
This idea was eloquently discussed by Terry Funk during his appearance on the Steve Austin show:
“What is Professional Wrestling? It was a pure shoot in 1905. And it was total entertainment when Vince [McMmahon] announced it total entertainment in 2010. Well if you stretch a line along that, we all evolve somewhere along the line. And what we evolve to is what the people wanted us to be. What turned the turnstile. That’s what this business is. What the people want it to be, and that’s what it always is.”
What do people want wrestling to be? There is no singular answer to that. Some fans want sixty minute classics between two mat technicians. Other fans want crazy stunt spots or clever comedy. Then there are those who want it all. It’s why you have shows like Bloodsport and ChocoPro both being able to succeed. It’s why Dramatic Dream Team will put on serious main event wars as well as be a home for Andreza the Giant Panda. It’s why Minoru Suzuki can legitimately intimidate fans at ringside and then welcome those same fans into his store with a smile (or wrestle on a baseball field using the bases for rope breaks).
Pro wrestling is amazing, and part of that reason why is because it can be so many things, and it will continue to evolve just as it has since back in the 1800s when carnies would come up with interesting backstories for their prize wrestlers. If one style doesn’t interest you, then you can just take advantage of the current golden era for accessibility and focus on a promotion that better suits your interests.
Let’s stop trying to define what pro wrestling isn’t, and instead embrace what it is.