The connection between MMA and pro wrestling is something that most fans of mixed martial arts seem reluctant to acknowledge.
As something of a masochist, I spend more time than I should reading comments sections of MMA websites.
One thing I’ve noticed from this ceaselessly exasperating pastime is that stories even tangentially related to pro wrestling tend to provoke the kind of backlash ordinarily reserved for Fallon Fox articles.
This reaction seems to stem from a misunderstanding of what pro wrestling actually is. The “sport” has been so thoroughly maligned for myriad reasons that many people—and particularly MMA fans—are eager to avoid being associated with it.
So in light of this confusion, what follows is a list of five misconceptions MMA fans have about pro wrestling.
Many pro wrestlers may appear to be poor actors, but this is actually by design.
Professional wrestling is pure hyperbolic entertainment. If you’re looking for gritty realism, go watch The Wire. Muscle-bound men in spandex should be your first clue that organisations like WWE and TNA aren’t overly concerned with authenticity.
It’s also worth pointing out that there is an art to scenery-chewing, hammy acting. Just ask Nicolas Cage.
Can you imagine characters like Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan being portrayed by a DeNiro-like performer? Just imagine how that would look and be thankful that professional wrestling attracts more expressive performers.
Criticising the acting within pro wrestling is a bit like criticising The Muppets for not offering a realistic portrayal of puppet life.
It completely misses the point.
Some people seem to think that anyone with easy access to a pair of multicoloured tights can be a pro wrestler. But there is a difference between doing something and doing it well.
If you need any evidence to the contrary, go watch King Mo’s—one of the best athletes in MMA—first few matches for Ohio Valley Wrestling. For someone like me, who was once a pro wrestling connoisseur, it is painful to watch.
Professional wrestling requires years and years of training. Sure, if your physique is impressive enough, you might be able to get by on your looks. El Gigante, anyone?
But if you want to be able to perform like a Shawn Michaels or a Bret Hart, you had better be prepared to put in the work and pay your dues in smaller promotions.
Professional wrestlers are not merely charged with staging a fake fight. Their job is to suspend disbelief and ensure the safety of their opponent.
The last point is often overlooked by critics, who fail to grasp how difficult it is to keep your opponent safe while trying to convince the audience—at least superficially—that you are attempting to do the opposite.
This is plainly false, irrespective of your protests. Indeed, MMA is essentially what pro wrestling would be without predetermined outcomes.
We can even chart the progression from pro wrestling to MMA in Japan: From the more traditional organisations like NJPW and AJPW to shoot-style promotions like UWF and eventually to mixed martial arts with Pride FC—which still promoted occasional matches with predetermined outcomes.
There is also an element of pro wrestling pageantry to mixed martial arts. Granted, it’s not on the level of the WWE, but its presence is undeniable.
Also worth noting is that pro wrestling in its modern form arguably evolved from catch wrestling—a legitimate form of athletic competition.
Professional wrestling legends like Karl Gotch and Lou Thesz were pioneers of this evolution, using the catch-as-catch-can style in staged fights.
This evolution continued until, particularly in the West, the shoot element of the “sport” was almost entirely eliminated by the 1990s.
Catch wrestling lived on through mixed martial arts, however, with notable names such as Kazushi Sakuraba and Josh Barnett relying heavily on submission wrestling for their success.
This may seem like a semantic issue, but there is a crucial difference between “scripted” and “fake.”
Outcomes in professional wrestling are predetermined—and Santa Claus isn’t real, for those who were wondering. That much is obviously true.
But the idea that what pro wrestlers do inside the ring is “fake” fails to capture what these people put their bodies through.
Most people imagine that a wrestling canvas is a springy, almost-sponge-like surface. In reality, it’s no less forgiving than a boxing ring.
No matter how many hours you spend learning how to take “bumps,” every bodyslam and leg drop hurts.
The body of a professional wrestler is forced to endure more punishment than even the most gung ho of mixed martial artists.
This punishment, combined with a relentless schedule of television tapings and house shows, has led a significant number of professional wrestlers to rely on painkillers and muscle relaxers to keep up with their commitments. The body then absorbs even more damage, requiring the consumption of even more pills.
Many wrestlers have died far too young as a result of this vicious cycle.
To dismiss professional wrestling as fake is an insult, and ignores the reality of what these athletes endure almost daily.
While it may be true that pro wrestling has been watered down in recent years—which is partly why I haven’t watched it in over a decade—adults can certainly appreciate the content provided by the likes of WWE and TNA.
In simple terms, professional wrestling is an athletic soap opera. It is no different than any other form of entertainment that uses storylines and story arcs to hook viewers.
Everything you would expect to see in a television drama is included, except that pro wrestling can afford to be much broader than your average soap opera, complementing the drama with comedy and theatrics.
And then there’s the athleticism.
This aspect of the art is too often overlooked, as though performing the in-ring action requires little more than a pulse.
Even if you can’t appreciate the drama, you can still be moved by the feats accomplished by the performers.
In fact, a child likely isn’t yet capable of appreciating everything that professional wrestling has to offer.
MMA’s connection to pro wrestling isn’t something to be lamented, nor is it something that necessarily needs to be celebrated. But we needn’t deny that the relationship exists.