The main difference between professional and amateur wrestling is that pro-wrestling is not a sport. While amateur wrestling is a combination of pins, holds and manoeuvres, pro-wrestling is essentially a brawl. It is often referred to as 'punch/kick' and, while an element of competition remains, pro-wrestling is intended as entertainment.
Modern pro-wrestling, or 'sports entertainment' as it is often termed, has its origins in American carnival side-shows. Typically, the side show would feature various opponents in a series of matches that were essentially rigged. Perhaps a little betting would take place in the audience, and the crowd would be treated to several minutes of combat. If members of the audience declared that the fights were fake they'd be invited up to take on a wrestler - the result would still be a forgone conclusion but it all added to the entertainment for the evening.
Professional wrestling is a popular form of entertainment worldwide. Japan, Mexico and the USA all have pro-wrestling traditions, and they also have one or more large businesses involved in the promotion of the 'sport', with many lesser (so-called 'indie') groups also dedicated to it. Pro-wrestling is less popular in Europe, or at least doesn't attract the same sort of following as it does elsewhere.
In Japan, technical skills are greatly appreciated. Paradoxically, so is brutality. Japan is home to the 'deathmatch', where ring ropes might be replaced with barbed wire or where the ring floor might be strewn with exploding boards. The Japanese audiences almost worship successful wrestlers, and many American stars - notably the likes of Mick Foley, Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho - have gained success and fame working there.
Mexico also idolises wrestlers, particularly masked wrestlers, and is home to the tradition of high-risk, high-flying moves known as 'luchadore'.
In the USA, many pro-wrestlers start in another sport entirely - often professional football - and take to wrestling if their first choice of career fails. American wrestling depends more on power and charisma than skill. In recent years, however, the US market has become a lot more cosmopolitan and the skills and ideals from Mexico and Japan have made their way into the US scene.
Central to most pro-wrestling is the depiction of the age-old battle between good and evil. There are heroes to be cheered and villains to be booed in every wrestling promotion, and these are essential to making the event interesting.
This on its own is dull fare, so there is usually a motivation over and above titles or individual victories for wrestlers to fight each other. Additionally, some of the larger groups will attempt to build storylines around particular performers. To make these performers more easily identifiable, they will have a unique appearance or methodology.
To understand pro-wrestling, it helps to speak the language. Wrestling jargon stems from the language of the carnivals where it first grew up. The first, and most important term is 'kayfabe'. This refers to the code of silence that wrestlers are supposed to adopt: what goes on in front of the audience is real, and the wrestlers really are the characters they appear to be.
Breaking kayfabe was once a very serious offence and wrestlers have had their careers put on hold or ended entirely for doing so.
Marks - People who watch wrestling. A mark is someone who believes what goes on in the ring. This has also entered criminal terminology as the victim or target of a con.
Marking - The thrill that fans get from watching a particular wrestler, or sometimes just a move. You might hear someone say, 'Yeah, I'm a total Ric Flair mark!' or perhaps, 'Did you see that top rope Huricanrana? Boy did I mark for that!'
Workers - The wrestlers.
Booker - The person who decides who fights whom and (often) who wins the match. When the outcome is determined in advance this is known as 'booking the match'.
Work - Anything that happens in the ring that isn't real.
Shoot - Anything that happens for real.
Shooting - The fine art of saying exactly what a wrestler really feels about an opponent or situation.
Doing the job or Jobbing - Losing a match.
Jobber - A wrestler who is booked to lose to make another wrestler look good.
Putting him over - When an established wrestler loses to a newcomer to help him develop a following.
Over - The measure of a wrestler's popularity with the crowd.
Heat - The amount of noise the crowd makes when a wrestler appears.
Pop - Spontaneous crowd reaction to a wrestler, comment or move.
Babyface or Face - A good guy.
Heel - A bad guy.
Spot - A particular move or hold.
Transition - The process of getting between spots.
Working stiff - The act of a wrestler not pulling his blows.
Selling - Making a move look good by reacting appropriately.
No-selling - Just plain not reacting to a move.
Now we know that, we can move on.
How A Match Works
The booker sets up a match between two wrestlers - usually one heel and one face. The heel will, on his way to the ring, do what ever he can to make the crowd boo him. The face, on the other hand, will want the crowd's support. Prior to the match, the two will work out an opening series of moves and transitions. They will not, contrary to popular belief, choreograph the whole match.
When the action starts, the wrestlers will attempt to pass information to one another as often as possible. Although a move might have a complex technical name - 'Spinning Throat Slam Suplex', for example - it will have a much shorter name that the wrestlers will use to call the spot. For example, The Undertaker performs a move where he lifts his opponent into the air by the throat and then sends him crashing to the floor. The commentary team will tell you that the move is called a 'Chokeslam'. In the ring, The Undertaker will call the spot by saying 'goozle' to his opponent. The other wrestler then knows what's coming and how to sell the move. If the names are concise enough, a series of spots can be called in the space of a minute or so. Wrestlers will often employ rest-holds to convey this information; you will sometimes see two wrestlers in a headlock, or watch one wrestler talking to a prone opponent. Usually, the commentary team will cover this as 'talking trash'.
The decision over who wins is sometimes left to the crowd. A wrestler might be very over on a particular night and, rather than disappoint the crowd, that wrestler will be informed mid-match that he should win.
In any event, the match will usually give both wrestlers a chance to display a few well-liked moves, as matches in which one wrestler dominates the entire way through and beats an opponent easily - referred to as a 'squash' - are never popular. Eventually, one wrestler will employ a match-ending move called a 'finisher'. This will result in either a pin or a submission.
What do the referees do in all of this? Largely, they control the flow of the bout. The might react to cues from the commentary team that it's time for a television commercial break, or signal the wrestlers that the match is drawing no heat from the crowd and should go straight into the finishing sequence. Referees also react to outside interference, and are sometimes called on to signal to the backstage area for a run-in by 'security' or additional wrestlers.
An 'angle' is a continuing storyline involving one or more wrestlers. This can be rivalry (a 'feud') or some kind of development. Often, wrestlers will use an angle to justify changing between a face and heel character type. Sudden changes confuse fans, but if reasons can be established, the wrestler remains as popular but for different reasons. They retain the heat they had, stay as over and are still drawing fans in to watch the show.
A good angle can help get a wrestler over. A bad one can sink a career. Here's an example from WWF history.
The Undertaker makes a dramatic heel turn, declaring himself 'The Lord Of Darkness'. He proceeds to recruit other wrestlers to his cause, some forcibly. On various broadcasts, he warns that during the show there will be a sacrifice. Each sacrifice adds another wrestler to his cause, until The Undertaker finds himself leading a group of seven minions. He calls this group 'The Ministry Of Darkness' and proceeds to play a series of mind games with WWF owner Vince McMahon. The Undertaker taunts McMahon, has The Ministry attack members of McMahon's own stable of wrestlers ('The Corporation') and finally settles on pursuing Vince's daughter Stephanie. This leads to The Undertaker kidnapping Stephanie and then attempting to marry her in a bizarre ceremony. This ceremony is broken up by 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin, leading to a minor feud between Austin and The Ministry. The Undertaker reveals that he serves a Greater Power, and that this Power demands that Austin be sacrificed. This leads to a confrontation between The Ministry and Austin during which it is revealed that the Greater Power is none other than Vince McMahon himself!
So what did this angle achieve? Firstly, it gave an injured Undertaker time to heal - although he was a major part of the angle, he did very little actual wrestling. Secondly, it gave several WWF stars a chance to rejig their image: Edge, Christian, Bradshaw and Farooq all came to prominance as members of The Ministry of Darkness. It also added a new dimension to the ongoing feud between Vince McMahon and 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin, showing that the evil Vince would indeed go to any lengths to get at Stone Cold. It was also good for some chilling moments as The Undertaker and his evil minions went about their work.
This basically describes what sort of character the wrestler is. In the 1980s, the WWF went through a phase of creating increasingly unlikely wrestlers - from the infamous wrestling hillbillies to wrestling plumbers and even a wrestling dentist. Some gimmicks work well - they are based on the wrestler's own personality and help the performer's own charisma shine through. Others - notably the 'silent assassin' gimmick - are meant to disguise the fact that the wrestler has no charisma.
- Irwin R Shyster - tax man
- Isaac Yankem DDS - dentist
- Doink - clown
- Gangrel - vampire
- Papa Shango - voodoo priest
- The Big Bossman - prison guard
Heels are allowed, even required, to cheat. They can do this in numerous ways:
The referee can be distracted by the appearance of a companion or manager.
Another wrestler can appear and interfere with the match (called a 'run-in').
The heel can waffle the face with a steel chair, employ a variety of objects (from the ring bell to title belts) to lay the face low or just hit him in the testicles (a 'low blow').
Another favoured tactic is to knock out the referee; this is a sure sign that things are about to get bad for the face.
In times past, this was achieved through the employment of concealed razors. Known as 'blading', it would add a little extra authenticity to the proceedings. Having a face full of blood - as cuts to the face or scalp tend to bleed profusely - is known as 'wearing the crimson mask'. Being actually busted open, intentionally or otherwise, is known as the 'hard way'. Thus you might hear, 'Hey, Mick's wearing the crimson mask tonight.' 'Blade?' 'Nah, hard way.' These days, with extra risks being taken by certain wrestlers, the blood you see is usually the result of a real injury.
One of the most important things in a wrestler's career is a 'push'. This is where the wrestler is promoted heavily, gets to work some high-profile matches against opponents who will make him look good, and generally gets to show off. A wrestler who can capitalise on a push can make his career. Sometimes, unpopular wrestlers get pushed for no apparent reason but, in the main, fan favourites get picked. A push will often culminate in the wrestler getting a shot at a title. If he's popular, he will probably win. If not, he loses and the push ends.
Wrestling is Fake
Yes and no. Yes, of course it's fake. Much of this piece has been an explanation of how the whole con - and it is a con - works. However, wrestling moves can and do hurt. The wrestler is not just an overweight actor in bizarre spandex. They are more closely related to stunt men, except that they undergo a higher level of risk. The moves they use are carefully applied to cause minimum pain and risk to both the wrestler performing them and the opponent who receives them. Accidents happen. People are injured and die in the ring. It is a dangerous business, and when tragedy strikes in pro-wrestling it is as real as any other sporting disaster.
So Why Watch?
A good question. Some people just need things to cheer for and things to boo. Others watch because, deep down, these are still atheletes we're watching. A few people watch because they love the violence. The larger-than-life personalities, the battles and struggles, and the occasional outburst of outright comedy make pro- wrestling entertaining in the same way that a soap-opera is entertaining, although in soaps you won't see the lead characters waffle each other with 'steel' chairs or throw each other around in quite the same manner as you might in the wrestling ring. Keep in mind that it's meant to be entertaining and not taken too seriously and you might even enjoy it.