Hyperreality and Suspended Disbelief in Wrestling

“AS GOD AS MY WITNESS, HE IS BROKEN IN HALF.”

Mankind plummets 16ft into an announce table from the top of a cell, and Jim Ross — genuinely fearing for Mankind’s life — reacts with the same conviction he would if he knew there was no threat at all.

The greatest wrestling personalities are the greatest actors, athletes and public speakers. They’re the ones who create the hyperreality of wrestling, and allow us slip in and out of the state of suspended disbelief.

Despite the WWE’s best efforts in the past, there’s no way you’re still unaware that wrestling is scripted.

You know the outcomes of the matches are predetermined, and the storylines are pre-written. You know wrestlers, commentators, managers and everyone in the industry make up a vast cast of characters that may or may not reflect their real life personalities.

You know there’s no possibility the world of wrestling has so many charismatic and well-spoken men who actually get their brain punched in for a living.

mick-foley-steve-austin-and-shawn-michaels

As if the world of wrestling was its own separate universe with warped laws, early wrestlers fell neatly into two camps: heel and face. Heels are the bad guys and faces are the good guys.

Amid the exciting action, in-depth storylines and cartoonish characterization, wrestling has more in common with comic books than it does any other kind of medium, even its closest analogs—UFC, boxing, and Greco-Roman wrestling.

You only have to have a quick look at the underwhelming aesthetic of UFC to understand why wrestling is scripted, why it doesn’t matter that it’s scripted, and why scripted action is decisively more entertaining. More entertaining, at least, than two blokes feinting jabs at each other for a couple of minutes before one gets caught in the temple and has to go to hospital.

 

And so, the wrestling industry has near-complete creative control over a hyperreal universe where good battles evil, men of superhuman athleticism can survive having their neck cracked against concrete, and anything can happen.

My first experience with wrestling was video games, and until around 6 months ago, I’d not seen a single minute of televised action. I don’t know at which point I caught on that wrestling was scripted, but it was one of those moments years ago that I didn’t care or give it a second thought or question to which degree. For me, it was a video game anyway.

Wrestling evolved from a sport that shocked the world with its insane feats of endurance and heroics to an elaborate theatre production.

Looking back at outsider reactions in 1994 (Art Donovan’s regrettable guest commentary on King of the Ring springs to mind), it’s astounding to believe that wrestling’s dark secret stayed hidden for so long. The Undertaker drawing supernatural power from a smoking urn. The Million Dollar Man refusing to appear in front of a crowd of ‘peons’, yet being a wrestler by profession. Yokozuna’s weight going up 100 pounds every week.

Professional wrestling managed to keep the act up for decades. Some fans found out during Vince’s steroid trial or his public admission in 1989, but without a doubt it was the Montreal Screwjob that blew the lid off the entire charade.

In the Survivor Series PPV, 1997, Shawn Michaels was set to face Bret Hart as the main event. Vince had agreed that he wouldn’t let Bret lose in Canada, or to Shawn Michaels. Bret entered the ring under the belief he was pre-determined to win the match, only to have his own finisher pulled on him by Michaels that resulted in a false decision by the referee (under orders from Vince) that Shawn was the winner.

The look on Bret’s face is heartbreaking, as the WWE top brass get surrounded by security and make a hasty exit.

This event gave birth to the Attitude Era — a time where the scripted nature of wrestling was commonly accepted, and fans suspended their disbelief.

Instead of signaling the WWF’s downfall, the Montreal Screwjob made wrestling more popular than ever. More violent, more sinister, and more hilarious, going beyond cartoonish and elevating itself to the world’s biggest in-joke.

…And it’s this in-joke that’s a major part of wrestling’s charm. They know it’s fake. You know it’s fake. Even today, wrestlers will make cracks in the fourth wall, but rarely break it.

Wrestling went from denying this secret to playing with it, and requiring fans to go into Orwellian doublethink mode whilst watching. The entertainment value no longer came from Hulk Hogan laying a leg drop on Jobber #46, but from the eagle-eyed search for a grain of reality amongst the fiction or the audience’s willingness to go along with kayfabe. It’s a testimony to how compelling wrestling is when it can convince millions of people to suspend their disbelief and slip into being marks for an hour or so.

The same way soap operas can compel rabid fans to beat up the actors that play evil characters, the rich fiction of wrestling has the power to overcome our cynicism in the information age — where true life trumps hyperreality.

Space landscape-obsessed dreck penman. Appears on TechCrunch, The Next Web, and on Secret Cave in a far less restrained capacity.