Cardiff transformed into the global capital of wrestling for a few days last weekend. A show of the US franchise, WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.) drew 60,000 wrestling fans to witness what was dubbed the ‘Clash at the Castle’. The venue was actually the Principality Stadium, a short walk down the road from the castle, but that detail concerned nobody.
Wrestling can receive a mocking antipathy from fans of mainstream sport. This is perhaps because it presents itself like a sport in many ways, it exists like it is a sport, it has fiercely passionate supporters like it is a sport. But it is not a sport. These shows offer theatrical entertainment rather than sport.
Wikipedia defines WWE as ‘entertainment-based performance theater, featuring storyline-driven, scripted, and partially choreographed matches’. Its choreography and stage management does not appear to impact its popularity. These shows shape a huge subculture containing many quirks, distinctive characters and soap operas, much like any sport. There are many black t-shirts, beefed-up physiques, thick shiny belts which fans can buy for hundreds of pounds to be like their heroes. There are body-sprawling tattoos and piercings, long hair, outlandish costumes, primal screaming. Within the WWE mode, there is an unmistakably American scale. Everything is big and loud.
I knew little about WWE beforehand, other than its high profile as a global brand. Perhaps some dim memory of its time as the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) when I was a kid. It was founded in 1953 and has undergone numerous iterations, mergers and acquisitions, and re-brandings. But I was intrigued enough to take an effort at photographing the spectacle. As I watched it unfold, and as I contemplated it afterwards, there was no great moment of realisation. I was left feeling slightly bewildered and faintly amused, and more British than I have for a while. ‘It’s not real’ I wanted to whisper, while trying to stuff my earplugs even deeper. ‘It’s all quite silly’.
Most of the contests follow a similar pattern. They are given texture by incorporating action outside the ring, sometimes involving the commentators and high profile spectators. Two-time World heavyweight boxer, Tyson Fury played a cameo role here and later expressed interest in a future career as a wrestler in the WWE. A wrestler’s apparent agony gives no indication that they are suddenly about to recover and win. (Perhaps it does to more experienced wrestling viewers, well versed in their backstories). Everything is amplified and stylised to the maximum, but it can still get boring over the course of a six or seven fight card. Costumes and props are significant, with this show’s headliners Roman Reigns and Drew McIntyre radiating a Game of Thrones vibe. Its script plays to a hysterical, juiced-up audience. There is clearly high entertainment value, but for me it all feels banal and, yes, essentially quite silly.
But it is hard not to respect the devoted physical conditioning of the wrestlers: their athleticism, their copious muscles, six-packs, risk-taking and commitment to their art. People must get badly injured doing this stuff. The human body is at the centre of everything, how it can bend and thrust and run and climb and jump. Amid all the machismo, the testosterone, the aggression, there is also a curious homoeroticism to the contests. Here is the really curious collision. Oiled up men and women in elite physical condition, often wearing not much more than tight fitting shorts, writhe around on top of each other because, we are told, they really really hate each other. It is not at all like some kind of socially acceptable, mass participation pornographic experience. Or is it?
On top of this, figuratively, is an uncomfortable moral queasiness. WWE glorifies and glamorises violence – albeit artificial, contrived violence – to people of all ages. This family friendliness was reflected in a Principality Stadium crowd containing many families, children, toddlers, even babies. Was that ok with me personally? Would I want my infant child watching this entertainment all that closely? In the day or two that followed, I noted similarities between those raging psyched-up wrestlers and my toddler’s histrionic performance about putting on her pyjamas. Perhaps she would find it educational.
One argument might go that most kids know that wrestling isn’t real life. What’s appealing is all the fizzy technicolour and costumes and razzmatazz and entertainment. That is the intoxicating thing. Not all the hitting people and inflicting pain. All the wrestlers get up and walk away at the end of a fight. It’s all pretend and kids know that, right? [Cut to awful smartphone footage of a real school-kid being repeatedly kicked in the head by a wrestling obsessed teen.] Of course you can never be sure about the causes of such complex behaviour. Physical strength and violence can be a kind of language for many, simply the most effective way of communicating that is available to them. An awareness of WWE’s wider influence was shown by the organisers in a week-long local publicity programme leading up to the main event, including one anti-bullying function.
WWE is indisputably very popular and massively profitable. It is disputably quite silly. And maybe that silliness is at the heart of its appeal to those who love it. It certainly appears to be a winning formula, an unstoppable commercial juggernaut now decades old and in ruder health than ever.
ONE! TWO! THREE! I’m out.
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