This is the fourth entry in a series titled “Realism in Pro Wrestling,” in which this performing art is analyzed as a platform for storytelling, one that has to follow the same rules of congruency and consistency of any other narrative.
Hence the term “realism” is presented to acknowledge a well-constructed narrative that lacks major contradictions within its discourse.
The article addresses certain phenomena in professional wrestling, and builds concepts around them with the purpose of edifying a small theoretical corpus, even if it only remains valuable within the limits of the series or any of its entries in particular.
I encourage the (very scarce) readers, especially those prone to pro wrestling erudition, to provide other examples besides the ones found in the text, preferably anything that’s not within the USA’s mainstream wrestling landscape.
If anyone’s interested in previous entries, here they are:
Professional wrestling is a dramatization of (sometimes not) fictitious events mixed with the very real demands and dangers of athletic performance. Pro wrestling promotions tell stories that take place mostly inside a beautiful, canvas-covered, polygonal stage. Such stories are varied, but there’s always a basic one followed by all promotions around the world; a primal fiction, if you will.
Which is it?
Personalities involved in the business will probably tell you about the eternal battle of Good against Evil incarnated inside the wrestling ring. (I feel tempted to mention how El Santo and Co. took it further by fighting classic representations of evil in the big screen.)
That’s a noble interpretation of the business but also untrue if offered as the answer to the question inserted above.
The most basic story in professional wrestling, the one that every promotion follows, could be summed up in a single word: competition.
All pro wrestling promotions around the planet are a complex machine that works only because a group of men and/or women want to prove themselves as the best thing around.
Titles (championship belts, trophies, medals or even words) are introduced by promotions to push the primal fiction further in their particular case. Most of them will establish one of such titles as the most relevant in the promotion (what English-speaking audiences call World Titles). Thus, the whole roster will try to accumulate victories over credible contenders to qualify for a World Title match.
Promotions will craft more complex stories out of the primal fiction, some of which might be focused on personal issues beyond competitiveness. Nonetheless, every action, even those insignificant bouts that take place at house shows, in the lowest zone of the card, is tied to that story of competition and desire to be the best.
It could be argued that the primal fiction connects every promotion in existence, blurring the often flickering line between real life and fiction involving those leaving it all in the ring. Wrestlers will prove themselves in several promotions as they ascend to the highest planes, where the mightiest business giants broadcast their gladiators to the masses.
The alluded battle between Good and Evil, faces and heels, is only a direct effect of the primal fiction. Like in any other space, polarizing personalities are likely to clash inside the ring. The promotion will pick one side and market it as someone closer to their ideal of a wrestler, an athlete, a person. The personification of such ideals will be promoted as the company’s hero, their champion. Any character that stands for something that differs with those moral standards will be scripted as the antagonistic, often villainous element in the equation.
Pro wrestling promoters deliver a message when positioning certain personalities as heroic or evil. Audiences are expected to respond accordingly, cheering or booing (though that’s not always the case, as stated in the first piece of this series). Promoters (supposedly) know their audience; hence they can manufacture messages knowing beforehand the resulting reaction to it, and the dynamic flows satisfactorily.
But character alignment in the heel/face spectrum is an imposition by the subjectivity of the storyteller. The fictional role of a promoter is that of an entity which gathers wrestlers from all over the region/country/world to compete, providing a stage for all those starving for glory.
Of course, to make things more interesting, wrestlers create characters whose personal traits are reflected in their actions. Certain wrestlers might count with undesirable personality traits (a lack of sportsmanship or the attitude of a jackass), and the audience will react like most would when facing people of such behavior. Then again, some segments of the audience will overlook those “flaws” and cheer said wrestlers if their skills earn them the right to.
In short: the alignment of a wrestling character is not above the primal fiction. All wrestlers in a promotion compete for the same prize, no matter if they’re heels or faces. Anyone can be an opponent.
Then, why align characters in a specific pole of the spectrum?
As mentioned earlier, characters make the performance more entertaining, and the promotion will not resist the urge to classify them as good or bad according to a “general moral standard” which, it is presumed, the audience and the promotion share. Nonetheless, the general moral standard is just an ideal.
Audiences now are fragmented, even if the cracks are minimal. It is hard to find a real mass as defined by authors of social studies. (One Night Stand's 2006 during the WWE Championship match being one of the possible few.) Hence, people will cheer or boo a character based on their personal opinion of him/her.
A great example would be R-Truth during his 2011 run as a heel. In spite of being promoted as a villain, his character was so fun, wacky and cartoonish that it was hard not to cheer for him, even if only to celebrate the arrival of the only piece of bearable comedy in WWE today.
In the primal fiction, R-Truth is just another wrestler competing for the spot as No. 1 in his promotion and the pro wrestling world. Fans will show their support or repudiation for R-Truth the competitor depending on how they perceive him as a contender and/or personality.
I think the experience is more interesting for the audience when there is no character classification imposed by promoters, when they are free to pick a wrestler for what he/she is first, a competitor, and decide what to do about it.
Heel vs. heel matches are not common because audiences are meant to hate both characters. If they do happen, one of the characters is scripted as less villainous or slightly closer to heroic than the other so the audience can rightfully support one of them without being conflicted about cheering a bad guy. Nonetheless, certain segments of the crowd will not care about the current alignment of both wrestlers and cheer for their preferred competitor.
Face vs. face bouts are a bit more common, though they are also tied to a planned turn in the scripting of one character, even if it is while the feud goes on. But when a championship is involved the primal fiction emerges, the story becomes transparent, more honest.
If two good guys are wrestling for a championship belt or match, their alignment is overlooked by everyone (audience, promotion and even themselves) and the essence of the story, their drive, takes the spotlight.
If you ask me, those matches are more interesting than the archetypical “good guy faces bad guy” story. Audiences are torn apart, forced to consider it through and pick a side. Wasn’t that the point of WrestleMania VI’s Ultimate Challenge? The company’s two top faces, its most capable contenders, confronted each other for supremacy. The crowd was absolutely fractured, electrifying the building with their opposing energies.
I know the structure and dynamics of pro wrestling matches won’t divert much from what they are and have been for long, yet it is important to remember that there’s a primal fiction from which others emerge, that in any given promotion, every wrestler is a competing for the same prize, thus anyone is a contender, an opponent, another challenge on the way to the top.