A WrestleMania noob asks: Why the hell do people like pro wrestling so much?

Michael N. Todaro

A lifelong wrestling avoider interviews a lifelong wrestling fan. We all learn something about ourselves.

SB Nation will be covering WrestleMania this weekend and several great things have already been written in the lead-up to the event. In watching the preparation, I realized how completely I fail to understand professional wrestling and its massive following. So I turned to my good friend Bill for some answers. Here is our conversation.

Bill Hanstock
So what would you like to know?

Seth Rosenthal
Well, first of all, what is Wrestle Mania? Is that a disease? Is it just a mania of wrasslin?
Bill Hanstock
Yes it is a mania that is contracted in January and lasts until early April.
Your only relief is to take lots of wrestling and then complain a lot.
Or maybe not!
Seth Rosenthal
I'm sorry to hear that.

Bill Hanstock
Okay, let me back up
WrestleMania started when Vince McMahon (he's the guy with the pronounced Travolta-style chin-dimple) wanted to make the Super Bowl, only with wrestlemans.
So he made one! And the first one was pretty awful, but lots of celebrities came and lots of people watched it
and then he did a second one and it was EVEN WORSE
But by then he was committed, and eventually everything worked out.
So the way it works now is there's a WrestleMania "season" or "The road to WrestleMania" which begins at the Royal Rumble and lasts until WrestleMania proper
go on

Mcmahon_medium

Photo: Michael N. Todaro

Seth Rosenthal
Okay. Well, here I must back up.
You say "Super Bowl" of wrestling. The Super Bowl is famous for being a grand spectacle, but all that pageantry revolves around it being a real sporting event with all the inherent uncertainty magnified. Wrestling is...
...
...fake, is it not?
Bill Hanstock
Well, I mean it's MORE fake than the Super Bowl, sure.
But on the plus side, you don't have to worry about everyone complaining that, for instance, the refs are calling the game for the Lakers or w/e.
Because in wrestling, if there's a biased ref, it's at least part of the story and not just sports fans being insane.
Seth Rosenthal
That's fair. But really, just to be clear: Every element of a wrestling match, manic or not, is written, right? Every party involved is acting out a role and knows what's going to happen?
Bill Hanstock
The outcomes are generally predetermined, yes.
But the referee wears an earpiece and outcomes have been known to have been adjusted on the fly!
Some sequences are planned out ahead of time
But the matches themselves are generally largely "called" in the ring as they happen.
I mean ... shit hurts real bad.
These guys tear themselves and each other to pieces out there.
Seth Rosenthal

Oh yeah, I've seen one of those traveling semi-pro wrestling things up close and I don't doubt that it's painful.
But wait...
Someone contacts the ref and changes things up? And then the performers who are ostensibly hurting each other but also working together to not actually hurt each other just have to follow along? Or are they clued in somehow, too?
Bill Hanstock
The "changing the outcome on the fly" thing rarely happens, but generally, Vince McMahon is in the back watching the show and he and the director and a producer all have a line to the commentators and the ref in case info needs to be relayed to people
Seth Rosenthal
Okay, gotcha.
Bill Hanstock
And if there's bleeding (which there isn't really anymore, sadly), the ref is usually the guy who gives them the razor blade
But that's real inside baseball
Seth Rosenthal
Whoa
Bill Hanstock
(wrestling term)
Seth Rosenthal
Is there a format to all this? I get the sense a lot of wrestlers are involved in each event. Are they on teams? Tag teams? Every man for himself? Wait...are there women? I remember a lady called Chyna.
Bill Hanstock
Yes she existed.
There are several matches. Things vary wildly from year to year, but there is generally at least one world title match (there used to be two world titles) and some lower-tier matches and an Undertaker match and some multi-person matches, sure
This year there's a 30-man battle royale and a 14-woman "Divas Championship" match
(Those are two different things)
There's also usually a match that involves a celebrity, but not this year!
Seth did you know that Lawrence Taylor once main-evented a WrestleMania


Seth Rosenthal
I didn't, but I believe that. Who else has done things, celebrity-wise? I remember Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman doing some wrestling things.
Bill Hanstock
The Big Show wrestled Floyd Mayweather one time and it was glorious.
Maria Menounos and Snooki have had matches at WrestleMania. Pete Rose has been tombstoned by Kane at like three different WrestlesMania. Donald Trump shaved Vince McMahon's head at one. (He's arguably a celebrity.)
Mickey Rourke punched Chris Jericho like a month after he didn't win an Oscar. (Rourke, not Jericho.)


Seth Rosenthal
Who's Donald Trump
Well that's a lot of famous people
Bill Hanstock
Snoop Dogg is usually hanging out somewhere
Seth Rosenthal
Wait, you mentioned "Undertaker" before. Like "The Undertaker"? I remember him from kids talking about him in fifth grade. He's alive?
Bill Hanstock
Well, I mean his gimmick is that he's an undead Old West mortician American badass, but yes he lives.
In fact, he is the WrestleMania constant. He has never been defeated at Wrestlemania! He is 21-0 and will be wrestling Brock Lesnar on Sunday!
You may have heard of Brock Lesnar.
He's that one guy with a wiener on his chest.
Seth Rosenthal
That's a person I've heard of but don't really know who he is. UFC?
Bill Hanstock
Yeah he was a champion NCAA wrestler and then a WWE champion and then a failed Minnesota Viking and then a heavyweight UFC champion and then his guts fell out and now he's back in wrestling!
Seth Rosenthal
Good, good, good.
Bill Hanstock
He's lived quite a life.
Brock Lesnar also did this at WrestleMania 19:

Shootingstarpressbybrocklesnarwwewr_medium


Seth Rosenthal
Do fans root for particular wrestlers?


Bill Hanstock
Yeah, fans root for wrestlers just like people root for sports teams.
It's SLIGHTLY less arbitrary because there are some wrestlers you are SUPPOSED to cheer and some you are SUPPOSED to boo. But then again, the Yankees.
Seth Rosenthal
True, true.
But since it's written, do the people running the event just cater to the biggest fanbases?
Bill Hanstock
lol oh my, heavens no
Seth Rosenthal
The opposite?
Bill Hanstock
I wouldn't say "the opposite" really. It's somewhere delightfully in between. Because the people running things (the McMahons and Triple H, largely) know that as much as wrestling fans complain (loudly and often), they'll never REALLY leave. Just like sports!
So you get a mix of things that please people, things that work best in the long run and things that they do just to try to make things not seem overly predictable.
What's happening now with Daniel Bryan is a great example of what you're asking about.
He's the little guy with the beard.
Seth Rosenthal
He's the one who says "yes."
Bill Hanstock
You've got it!
Seth Rosenthal
Very affirmative guy, that one.
Bill Hanstock

Yeah he has gathered a groundswell of unbelievable crowd support over the past couple of years, so that in combination with him being really great at everything has put him into the main event mix since last summer.
And he has been screwed over again and again on PPVs and on TV for like 6 months, so people are hoping there's finally a happy ending/payoff at WrestleMania. But there may very well not be! It may be down the road a ways still.
Who even knows
Seth Rosenthal
So is that what people complain about when they complain? Who gets picked to win things?
Bill Hanstock
Yeah or the way people are treated/presented. Like if someone people like is repeatedly made to look a fool or whatever.
Another case in point:
A couple years ago a guy named Zack Ryder created a Jersey Shore-type character while Jersey Shore was still a popular thing. No one was paying attention to him on TV or in the writers' room, so he made a YouTube show that showcased his personality and everyone on the Internet loved it.
So people started chanting for him at shows and on TV and bringing signs for him and stuff.
So WWE finally said "okay, fine, we'll give him a chance"
And they made a bunch of merchandise for him and he won a title and started getting TV time.
Then he got put into a storyline where John Cena stole his girlfriend and then a demon from hell put him in a wheelchair and then he literally got dragged to literal hell or something.
So to a lot of people it felt like they were being "punished" for supporting someone they weren't "supposed" to.
I dunno this is all totally crazy rabbit-hole stuff.
Apologies
Seth Rosenthal
Yeah, jeez.
Are there like...sets? CGI? Someone getting dragged to hell doesn't sound like something that could just happen in a ring.
Bill Hanstock
Coincidentally it did happen in a ring. Kane came up through the ring and dragged him into a hole and then fire came out of the hole.
I may be misremembering that particular storyline but that DID happen to SOMEONE


Seth Rosenthal
The ring happened to be positioned over a hell portal.
Bill Hanstock
Yeah never wrestle on a Hellmouth
that's just wrestling 101
Seth Rosenthal
My mom always told me that. I had no idea what she meant.
Do you have a favorite wrestler?
Bill Hanstock
Listen to your mother, Seth
Yeah my favorite wrestler right now is probably Daniel Bryan. Although I like the three guys in the Shield a whole lot, and several "indie" wrestlers
(They're wrestlers who are into Temple of Doom cosplay)
Seth Rosenthal
I have a follow-up, but first a sub-question: What's an "indie" wrestler? Are there like wrestling record labels? Or is that someone who hasn't made it to these big WWE events and wrassles in some other...league.
Bill Hanstock
Right now there are two wrestling promotions on television, but dozens of notable wrestling promotions all over the country and hundreds all over the world. Plus major promotions in Japan and Mexico, of course.
But yeah, you can go see really good wrestling in lots of places in small venues. Those are indie wrestlers. A lot of those guys get snatched up by WWE eventually.
(Guys like Daniel Bryan and two-thirds of the guys in the Shield)
Seth Rosenthal
Gotcha.
Backing up, how does your support for Daniel Bryan manifest? You want him to win? Or just to get a lot of action? Or what?
Bill Hanstock
GET SOME ACTION YEEEAAAHHHHHH

The_shield_wwe_medium

The Shield

Seth Rosenthal
MORE LIKE DANIEL BONIN'
Bill Hanstock
You mean how did I come to like him? Or what do I ultimately want?
Seth Rosenthal
The latter.
Bill Hanstock
Well most wrestling fandom comes down to one of a few things:
1. You want your guy to win his feud
2. You want to see _____ get beat up
3. You want _____ to beat up ______
4. You want your guy to be champion
That's what wrestling is and what it should be. A lot of wrestling fans take it further, however, and begin thinking they are "owed" certain things to certain people, or that some performers are getting held down, or deserve more airtime and so on.
I try really hard not to be one of those people.
The simpler you keep it, the more fun you're likely to have.
So I'd like to see Daniel Bryan get a long run as the top champion at some point, but as long as he's on TV and having great matches I'm happy.
So I root for him to win but am rarely sad when he loses (unlike, say, my baseball or football team).
Seth Rosenthal
So it's somewhere in between having a favorite sports team and having a favorite character on a TV show?
Bill Hanstock
Absolutely
Seth Rosenthal
That makes sense to me.
Bill Hanstock
You're right on target
Seth Rosenthal
I feel like I was "rooting" for Hank in Breaking Bad but that didn't necessarily mean I wanted him to "win." I just wanted him to be involved a lot because I liked him.
And he was fictional, so.
Bill Hanstock

Ranking Wrestlemania

That's a great comparison! Yeah, there are certain people you just don't want to see bad things happen to.
Seth Rosenthal
Is there anything about wrestling-- the production, not the fans-- that consistently turns you off?
Bill Hanstock
NOT ENOUGH MANBUTTS
Seth Rosenthal
I imagine you scrawling that in huge letters on a postcard and mailing it to the WWE.
Bill Hanstock
I'll be asking them whether they received my postcards, certainly
I hate most of the color commentators (Jerry Lawler and JBL). They can really get in the way of a match sometimes.
Seth Rosenthal
Wait is Jerry related to Ralph?
Bill Hanstock
Bingo! (No.)
Seth Rosenthal
Also I don't know who JBL is. Is that Jerry Bin Laden?
Or Jon Bon Lovi.
Bill Hanstock
It's totally fine you don't know who JBL is. He's Justin "Bradshaw" Layfield, who is a Texan money advisor slash bigot who used to be a tough guy for hire who wore a shirt that read ALWAYS POUNDING ASS
Wrestling is the worst.
Seth Rosenthal
I mean, who hasn't worn that shirt for a few years.
Bill Hanstock
We were all in college once.
Well, except Jerry Lawler
Seth Rosenthal
I stopped wearing that shirt when I semi-retired to pounding ass only on weekdays. It would have been disingenuous to keep it on at that point.
Bill Hanstock
Yeah, real Monday morning ass-pounder
Seth Rosenthal
Well, what you kind of just grazed, and what I had in mind when I asked about what you don't like is something that bothered me when I first encountered wrestling in elementary school: Things seem to get, like, SUPER bigoted up in there.
Bill Hanstock
It is certainly much better than it was. But yes. Wrestling is somewhat behind the times when it comes to, like, gender and race relations.
I would like to say we are almost past the age where if you are the same ethnicity as another guy, that means you're going to be a tag team, but WWE in 2014 has a Tongan posing as a Mexican because they needed two Mexicans, so
Seth Rosenthal
There would not seem to be a short supply of Mexican wrestlers.
Bill Hanstock
You're correct.
But yes, sadly, being an adult wrestling fan means there's a lot you need to just ... be okay with. Which is shitty, but you can't really choose what flips the switches in your brain, I guess.
Seth Rosenthal
Sure, a lot of things are like that.
Bill Hanstock
Like if you're a Clippers fan!
Or a fan of that one team in Washington. The name escapes me.
Seth Rosenthal
Huskies.
Bill Hanstock
Right, yes. Horrible slur, "huskies"
Seth Rosenthal
But yeah, putting aside real-world stinkies to enjoy the good parts of something is plenty familiar to sports fans.
Bill Hanstock
Oh okay whew.
Seth Rosenthal
Well, but it seems a bit less acceptable in, say, television.
"Yeah this show is super sexist and racist and homophobic but I like the good parts!"
Bill Hanstock
lol
Seth Rosenthal
Like, because it's all written, it's harder to divorce the yucky shit from the good shit? Maybe?
Bill Hanstock
fans root for wrestlers just like people root for sports teams. It's SLIGHTLY less arbitrary because there are some wrestlers you are SUPPOSED to cheer and some you are SUPPOSED to boo. But then again, the Yankees.
Yeah like when Daniel Bryan is getting slapped by Stephanie McMahon and he's supposed to be the good guy and he's yelling "YOU HIT LIKE A GIRL" and I'm cringing and going, "Aw, c'mon man"
Oh I know what it's like.
Seth Rosenthal
Right, like, you can't just put that aside the way you maybe could an athlete having legal run-ins or something.
Or I imagine you can't.
Bill Hanstock
Have you ever read any Stephen King?
Seth Rosenthal
Absolutely.
Bill Hanstock
Okay, you know how Stephen King is 100% incapable of writing dialogue that doesn't sound like it's coming out of a 50-year-old white rich dude who's trying to sound "hip"?
Seth Rosenthal
I haven't read Stephen King since I was a kid, but yeah, that sounds right.
Bill Hanstock
That's what a lot of wrestling dialogue/writing sounds like. Just sort of tone-deaf. But since everything is filtered through Vince, it makes sense on some level.
Seth Rosenthal
I didn't realize how involved he is. I guess I imagined him as sort of a figurehead but he's like the head writer?
Bill Hanstock
There's a head writer, but they bring him everything for final approval. If there's anything he doesn't like he'll just be like F IT I'LL WRITE IT
But he's transitioning out of that and Triple H is transitioning in.
Seth Rosenthal
Triple H! I remember him from wrestling video games.
Is Sexual Chocolate still around? I was always him
For obvious reasons.
Bill Hanstock
Yeah! He's no longer AS sexual. Also, he dressed like Rick Ross for halloween!
it was a great costume
Seth Rosenthal
Good for Sexy Choco! (That's a nickname I just made for Sexual Chocolate.)
Oh wow, good job, SC. (Another nickname I made.)
Bill Hanstock
SexChoc
Count Sexula is now a beloved elder statesman of the WWE
Seth Rosenthal
I like that.
Bill Hanstock
We all do, buddy
Seth Rosenthal
Well, this has been productive. I don't know if I'll ever *like* wrestling, but I feel like I understand more what there is to like.
Namely: Manbutts.
Bill Hanstock
Well I'm glad I could illuminate a tiny bit of our horrid, terrible, wonderful, cringe-tastic sport.
Seth Rosenthal
Namaste.

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