Existential Crisis on Two Earths
Last week I talked about the importance that a commentary team plays in both a combat sports event and a professional wrestling show. During which, I glided over the statement that everyone is deliberately attempting to build a story with a compelling set of characters and conflict, except for when it comes to the actual competition – the fight. Fighters promote the fight and themselves pre and post-event, but this becomes a secondary concern once the cage door is shut behind them, and the official says they may touch gloves if they so choose.
I feel as though this point has been beaten into submission, but as there are no referee stoppages in prose, it’s almost my duty to state:
The matches of pro wrestling have a predetermined outcome, but the moves do hurt, and the damage sustained takes its toll on the performer’s body. Injuries are a reality.
Are we all clear on this point? Yes? Marvellous, because I have to talk briefly about more than the obvious difference between a predetermined wrestling match and a legitimate (for lack of a better word) sporting contest, as so far I’ve highlighted the crossover between both worlds, but not talked too extensively about where they separate.
It is during those bell-to-bell moments that the separation is defined, as it reveals to us the true nature of our Wrestlers and our Fighters. Whether surrounded by ring ropes or chain links, what they do defines them.
It comes down, simply, to why do people do what they do? To be the best? To entertain? To make the most money? Or some other answer? Ultimately, there must be one defining characteristic, to which all others are secondary, on both sets of canvases.
As an aside, we will not be discussing the mere passion for their chosen path as the main reason for pursuing it. First, this is almost implicit in all ventures of this nature – that which is not the norm. Secondly, as it is a both starting point and driving force behind many different walks of life, it is not a singular, defining characteristic of any one in particular.
So, wrestling, what defines a wrestler? Often we are given two answers: to make the most money, or to be the most entertaining. It comes down to a philosophical difference. If professional wrestling is viewed solely as an occupation, then it is a venture to obtain the most money for both yourself and the company that you work for – because the more money you bring in for them, the more you are worth, and therefore the more you are paid. If it is an art form, then the emotional response that it generates from an audience is its end goal. I fall into the camp that declares it an art. Why? Because I’m pretentious, yes, but there are other reasons.
Theoretically, we can take a big name, a-list celebrity, and place them in a high profile match, with little to no training. They would be paid handsomely for this exhibition, as well as bring in a significant amount of revenue for the company. However, just because Kanye West could generate Wrestlemania level money tomorrow, by announcing a venture into the world of wrestling, doesn’t mean he’d be considered a good wrestler by anyone. He’d be thought of as a fantastic draw.
Now it is only fair to point out that a very good metric to see how entertaining someone is, is the money people are willing to pay to see them, or on their merchandise. Being able to draw good money is an undeniable characteristic of a good wrestler, but not the defining one.
You’d imagine that a mixed martial artist would have an easier nature to categorise. Aren’t they simply competing to be the best? Well, yes, some, but not all. Often in combat sports, you find competitors staying on long after their prime, when their physical skills have diminished, and a championship title doesn’t ever seem to be in their future. Frequently, they know this too, but continue to stay on. There are still fights to be fought, and theirs is still a name that generates some interest amongst the fans.
So does this mean that MMA is really mainly about the money? These are prizefighters after all. It accounts for the previous generation lingering longer than their time, as there’s still gold to be earned, even against those who clearly aren’t top challengers yet – just up and comers trying to make a name off an established one. It explains the drive to win, as the winner gets the winner’s purse. It even gives rhyme as to why the entertainment aspects have found their way into what is supposedly a serious sporting contest, but it does not explain the lack of such characteristics in some contenders.
What of the fighters that don’t talk trash and incorporate the showman aspects into their fights? I’ve mentioned him before, Demetrious Johnson, a pound-for-pound great, and perhaps the most skilled ever at his weight, does not draw superstar level PPV buys, or generate great media interest, but no one would ever argue he’s a bad fighter because of this. Conversely, Chael Sonnen, one of the sport’s best entertainers will not go down in history as one of its greatest performers. Neither money nor entertainment is a martial artist’s main concern. Some extremely skilled sportspeople are just not fun to watch in or out of the cage. (Sorry, GSP.)
Not money, not entertainment, not championships – what’s left? To compete, not even necessarily to win. Someone is always going to lose a fight, but it doesn’t mean they’re not a competitor. Fighters, simply, fight. In this way, fighting is different to wrestling because it is thought of as good in itself (intrinsic value), whilst wrestling, whether for money or entertainment value, is a means to an end (extrinsic).