To the uninitiated, it may seem as if professional wrestling is a niche thing—a small subset of bizarre Americana passed down from your great-grandfather’s generation when carnivals would blow into town like a dust storm and strongmen would put each other into wrist-locks in an attempt to woo the crowd with its spectacle. It is, much like the galaxy, much larger than you can comprehend: it exists on cable television, in the form of Vince McMahon’s WWE, certainly, but it also exists in small independent shows in armories in Cleveland, Ohio, in over-the-top less real than professional wrestling would allow demonstrations in sound stages in Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. There are inevitably two men battling for the right to keep their faces hidden in Mexico at this very second, as there are competitors in Osaka icing down their shoulders after a brutally stiff match that left the crowd buzzing long after the final bell.
Yet in the same way that when we attempt to comprehend something galactic we are easily overwhelmed by the massive incalculability of it all, I too find myself at a loss to explain the universe of wrestling to you—of how it bubbled up in regional territories across the United States, only to be exported across the globe and adapted to fit the cultural norms of its new world—an alien life force that learns the customs of its inhabiting planet to not only fit in, but to eventually transcend the being that it once was. When forced with such enormity, we as humans tend to turn within: to attempt to understand ourselves first, before viewing things on a much smaller and micro-level—to match cores with what we perceive to be a leviathan of tangled bodies and streamer-littered arenas.
When I ask my creative writing students to practice empathy, I ask them to describe the walls of their high school. I have them point out every detail as if they are the ones walking through the hallways, running their hands across the cobalt blue lockers, descending the dusted over staircases, catching a waft of cigarette smoke and body lotion coming from the bathrooms. To many, their high school serves as a sort of memory palace: a place where spatial memory is firing at a rapid rate, allowing the person to recollect facts and feelings with relative ease. It is the specificity that causes an emotional connection in the reader—not necessarily because the reader can picture what the writer is saying, but because the reader is picturing their own high schools; their lockers a dark crimson instead of a muted blue, perhaps, but still a link has been forged—a common bond of nostalgia. One cannot explain the origins of the cosmos without first examining one’s own walls.
I tell you this because I feel a beauty in my heart when I watch professional wrestling—of how a pre-determined set of motions and outcomes can cause me to resonate with a fictional, yet extremely real character in a way that brings me great joy; as if an old friend has succeeded at something that they hold more dear than anything else in the world. I feel that same beauty when I recollect the moments of my youth with others who share my interest—a common text that allows a reading of runes between strangers. It is the reason why, despite having a long laundry list of things that should be getting done after the sun goes down, I am watching men and women hundreds of miles and minutes away slap each other across the chest, making grand declarations with every syllable and every springboard spot. I tell you this so that you can understand that at professional wrestling’s most universal level, it is tasteless schlock with circular logic, and extreme levels of disconnect and disbelief—yet at its most microscopic level, it bores its way into you in a way that resonates with all things you hold dear; that if you happen to look at it a little closer, you might see that, yes, the punches do not land flush, if at all, but you might also unlock a nuance that keeps you imagining something realer than whatever is written in the stars.
And so, when a wrestler on my too large television makes a gigantic claim that he is here to earn the respect of the WWE Universe, even though I like to pretend that he is talking to those in the world that believe that everything we watch is up to simple chance and happenstance—to the children in the front row who cry real tears when their favorite superstar is counted out in a match they could swear that they would win, I know that I am a part of this galaxy; that these stars align wildly in ways that surprise me—that what I witness is what I am.
Yet we must remind ourselves that the universe exists outside of what we see—we can reminisce about the lockers in our high schools, but we can choose to neglect what went on inside of them; the vibrating wobble of thin plates of steel when they are bounced off the center of a forehead when swung violently open.
I watch approximately seven to ten hours of professional wrestling a week. To most people, this might seem egregious, but to a true professional wrestling fan, this number does absolutely nothing for my ethos. Primarily, I watch exclusively WWE programming, which consists of two weekly cable shows (Monday Night Raw, as well as Smackdown Live), as well as an additional one-to-two hours of OnDemand material through the WWE Network, a service that provides original content, as well as archives of professional wrestling dating back to the late 1970s. Certain weeks, there is a “Special Event,” previously known as a Pay-Per-View, which are typically held on Sunday nights and last another three-to-four hours. Everything that I watch on a weekly basis is considered part of the WWE Universe canon: what happens on Monday night is typically alluded to on shows later on in the week. I watch “Talking Smack,” a broadcast-type show shown after Smackdown Live, where wrestlers break down what occurred on the show prior. I watch YouTube videos of unaired backstage promos. I read the tweets of my favorite wrestlers, who straddle the line of staying in character and attempting to exist as humans outside of the universe. I watch NXT, which gives a sneak peek into WWE’s developmental program, where you can watch newly signed wrestlers practice their craft as well as attempt to forge characters that connect with the audience. I do this every week. I have done this infinitely.
However, what has always interested me is what happens when the world is not watching. There is a saying in wrestling: “if you see something, you are supposed to see it,”—if they linger too much upon a wrestler who is injured, it is for the purpose of narrative and is a part of the story; if the camera quickly cuts away and does everything possible to prevent showing the blood, chances are things did not go as planned. Before every television taping, there are “dark matches,” which are contests not meant to be seen by anyone but those in the audience. Typically, these matches are meant to hype up the crowd and prepare them for the show that is about to start—the local DJ playing the hits before the headliner starts their set. Here, wrestlers try things out that are not ready to become canon: the practicing of new moves, the first draft of a new character. Often these matches serve as tryouts for wrestlers; entertainers who have caught the eye of WWE and are hoping to bring them up to the main stage. It is here, in these gaps, where the true stories are told: that before a story is ready to be seen, it still exists on a level that is both tremendously human and somewhat ghostly—even the phrase “dark match” seems to carry an ominous weight; that it somehow shouldn’t exist—that it should be erased from any and all memory.
So, consider this my confession: an admittance that it is impossible for me to exist in two worlds at once, despite wishing I could somehow compartmentalize my obsession with a faux-sporting event that has left men broken and burned out, that has celebrated everything that I try to keep myself separate from. There are things that are simply too large to not be a part of—their blackness will swallow you whole if you allow it; that even when we wish for things to not be seen, they are witnessed anyway—the inadvertent kick to the eye, the hours of wrestling fast-forwarded on the DVR after returning from the bar so that you can somehow launch yourself back into a universe filled with the strangest things that cause you to question what it is you love. I am here for this. It is dark, but I am here.