The culture of pro wrestling has long fostered an environment of blind followership above critical thought. That flaw is central to many of the problems that hinder pro wrestling both creatively and economically.
From the very top of the business, those who work for WWE aren’t first-of-all expected to make the company as profitable as possible, nor is it their priority to make good creative work. The workers at WWE are first-of-all expected to satisfy the wants -- and often whims -- of Vince McMahon, whose objectives are only partially consistent with maximizing profit and are fairly indifferent to doing good creative work.
The various tryouts at all levels of wrestling are as much about demonstrating whether a wrestler can do what gets over with a paying crowd as they are about demonstrating the wrestler can do what gets over with the tastes of the one giving the tryout, tastes that range anywhere between a reasonable attempt at a vision for pro wrestling all the way to personal pet peeves. So make sure if you take a shoulder tackle out of a headlock in front of Arn Anderson that you take the opponent all of the way across the ring with you. Don’t stomp with your strikes in front of William Regal; make sure you put the hard back of your hand against your opponent’s face when you apply a headlock. When someone works up out of your hold at an ROH tryout, reapply with a different hold. Don’t be a phony at an Evolve tryout.
Though wrestling in the last 14 years has eased (but not eliminated) its fondness for bigotry and hazing, it’s still a world often ruled by lovers of irrational devices like macho egoism, cult of personality and intimidation.
Pro wrestlers are often taught from Day One not to think for themselves. They are typically taught by a trainer who believes he knows best, who believes there’s one right way for all time. Wrestlers are indoctrinated with an array of rules, many vague and contradictory: "slow it down", "less is more", "tell a story", "sell", "work the crowd", "don’t beg for it", "do what the crowd wants", "don’t let the crowd work you", "work a hold", and so on. Pro wrestlers are hardly encouraged to question these imperatives or to even sufficiently understand what they attempt to mean. Indeed a better understanding of these corrections might lead one to question whether they are actually imperative for all times and places.
The trainer is unaware of the historical context he lives in. He knows the figures of wrestling’s past, but he knows them only as champions of the ever-receding parts of the old dogma that’s survived through to today to live on in his ideology. He’s oblivious to the fact that the champions of those past generations were as critical of his generation as he is of the new one. He forgets that his generation violated as many of the previous one’s sacred mores. Naturally in his myopia he sees himself on the threshold between decency and decadence: an assessment he fails to understand as anything more than a righteous coincidence.
Over 100 years ago wrestling pioneer and teacher Martin “Farmer” Burns believed he was in the same predicament.
Farmer Burns decrying spot monkeys in 1914 pic.twitter.com/koB8xkpqyx— Brandon Howard (@BrandonThurston) December 26, 2016
Farmer Burns decrying spot monkeys in 1914 pic.twitter.com/koB8xkpqyx
— Brandon Howard (@BrandonThurston) December 26, 2016
For all the essential teaching Burns gave, those who came after him dissented against some of his lessons. While the old carnies were already over, younger wrestlers dared push the supposed limits in effort to make themselves stand out.
For 100 years we have neglected to teach our students how to think, taking comfort instead to merely teach them what to think.
Dictating that new wrestlers should work according to the rules of yesterday assures the old wrestler’s security and relevance. “No one else may get over unless they get over on my terms. So they may not be as over as me. So I am the source of knowledge.”
There are only two conditions in my view wrestlers should be obliged to follow: to be safe and to get over, in that order. What “getting over” means will change with every time and place. Figuring out what that entails is the challenge. In trying to achieve that, to get over, we are informed by our own experiences and those of our elders; we must learn from those lessons, but we are not confined by them.
Nor should we subscribe to the outright fallacy that those with the superior experience must always be right. Those with credibility have earned our attention but not our automatic deference. If we defer completely to those who came before and never think for ourselves, never innovate and never adapt, then neither the creativity nor the holy economy of the wrestling industry will ever improve.
Champions of the old way of prescribed thought may point to their money as proof they are right. They will overlook the money of the young and already successful wrestlers whose work they don’t understand. Yet there will never be enough autograph signings or asses-put-in-seats to earn anyone enough money to purchase the truth.
Just the tone and vocabulary of this writing might upset some who are discomforted by any critique of their uninquisitive ideology. Such is the anti-intellectualism required of philistines who hold a beautiful craft hostage.
Let us take old ideas out into the present and try them, and may they live or die on their own merits in a modern time and place, not on the cults of personality that instilled them. Let us listen and experiment and question and think for ourselves, and then create a better wrestling world than the one we inherited.
Brandon is a feature writer for Fightful.com, an independent pro wrestler and trainer. Follow him on Twitter at @BrandonThurston. Email him at [email protected].
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