Saturday, September 14, 2013

Blood, Sweat and Chairshots: The People's Champions

Professional wrestling is a strange beast.  It's a "fake" sport with predetermined outcomes and storylines that can often make daytime soap operas seem realistic.  Why should I, a self-described lover of good stories, be so fascinated with a storytelling medium as bizarre as professional wrestling?

Well, for one thing, pro wrestling might be the single most interactive form of storytelling this side of improv comedy.

Before we start, I should probably clear a few things up.  First, professional wrestling isn't really a sport in the strictest sense of the word.  Though a high degree of athleticism is a must to become a wrestler, the outcomes of matches are predetermined.  You'll notice that I put the word "fake" in quotation marks above because that word simply doesn't apply to wrestling.  See, even though the outcomes are predetermined, wrestlers still put their bodies through quite a bit of punishment during the course of a match.  Besides things like knife-edge chops and chairshots--which are very real--just the simple act of falling (taking a "bump") onto the mat involves landing on a hard wood surface without much give.  Injuries are commonplace, and more than one wrestler has been forced to retire early due to their bodies giving out.

Second, the comparison to daytime soaps is common, but not altogether fair.  It's true that characters and stories can go in bizarre directions, and the melodrama can certainly go over the top.  But while soap operas are ostensibly about normal people reacting to arcane plot twists, wrestlers' characters are anything but normal people.  Wrestlers' characters are meant to be larger than life--superhuman embodiments of good, evil or the common man.  They are really closer to comic book superheroes, only with slightly fewer capes and superpowers.

Basically this.
For those of you who have never actually watched pro wrestling, the general formula for a storyline goes something like this: Wrestler A and Wrestler B do not like each other.  Usually Wrestler A is a good guy (a "babyface" or just "face") and Wrestler B is a bad guy (a "heel"), and they are fighting each other over something (a Championship belt, a title shot, custody of Wrestler A's kid, etc.).  Since this is wrestling, the only way to settle the dispute is in a wrestling match, which you can see this Sunday on Pay-Per-View!

The details of any given storyline will be different, depending on characters involved and the particulars of what they're fighting over.  The best stories flow with a similar logic to something you would see on other ongoing series: the heel gains the upper hand, or manages to evade the face until the hero can dig deep and overcome the odds to win in the end.
There are three things about this formula that are unique to pro wrestling, however.  First, wrestling is truly an ongoing story.  Since there is no off-season or time-off period to speak of, the stories never really end.  New feuds often begin as soon as another has ended, and every show or event is an opportunity to extend the storyline further.  Though most feuds in the modern era last anywhere from two to six months, it is not unusual to find in them story threads that might go back a year or more.  The feud between CM Punk and the Undertaker going into Wrestlemania 29 technically only lasted a couple months, but it was part of a larger arc going back over twenty years.

Secondly, the story structure doesn't just apply to overall feuds; it applies to the matches as well.  Each mach is designed to tell its own internal story, and when done well will have a unique logic that still follows something of a three act structure.  Ring psychology is a fascinating thing, and is complex enough to warrant a post of its own.  Suffice to say that each match should be a short microcosm of the story at large, as told with body slams and punches.

Third, and most importantly, the fans can have nearly as much influence on the direction of a story (or "angle") as the bookers and writers.  There's two ways that fans can do this: through merchandise and through reactions.  The first is easy enough to understand--the more merchandise a wrestler sells, the more popular he or she is.  Strong merch sales can influence the higher-ups to give that wrestler extended time on T.V. ("giving him a push").

The second and most important method ties in very closely with ring psychology.  See, while the outcomes of pro wrestling matches are predetermined, much of the matches themselves are improvised.  The wrestlers go into a match knowing the ending and knowing certain sequences ("spots") that they are going to perform, but the rest depends largely on the crowd.  Good performers will mix spots that get the fans excited with spots that cool them down and build the tension.  By the end of the match, the wrestlers should have the fans buying into whatever they're doing.

Usually, crowds behave the way that management expects, or how they have been conditioned to behave.  Sometimes, however, live crowds react in ways that the writers don't expect.  Maybe the supposed heel in a feud gets pops (reactions) like a face during his matches.  No matter how dastardly he acts, the fans just refuse to boo.  Or sometimes crowds can get behind someone low on the card to the point that management cannot turn a blind eye.  If reactions are strong and consistent enough, the writers may be forced to alter their plans.

Take the case of WWE star Daniel Bryan.

Under that beard is another beard.
For a long time, Daniel Bryan more or less languished in WWE's midcard.  However, through hard work, great matches, a simple catch-phrase ("YES!," followed by "NO!" and later "YES!" again), and ironically an 18-second World Title loss at Wrestlemania, Daniel Bryan slowly became one of the most over (popular) wrestlers in the WWE.  Even when he was playing an angry, insecure heel the fans refused to boo him.  By mid 2013, the chants of "YES!" were so loud and so consistent that WWE decided to put Bryan into the main event of their second-biggest show of the year.  I'll let the pop he gets speak for itself:

Not only did Bryan go on to win that match, but now all of WWE programming is dedicated to his quest to regain the WWE Championship that he was screwed out of that same night.  And all of it is because the fans made their voices heard, loudly and live on T.V.  Is there any other medium where fan input can have such a direct impact?

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