In Official Hands
Wrestling is at its best when it captures the zeitgeist. When Pro Wrestling manages to match up with the mood of a generation in such a way as to become a voice of that generation, it gives us characters and moments that we begrudge losing when that period has long since passed.
The WWE, being in the sole position as the only truly widely recognised global wrestling company, often sets the tone – or discovers what it is and recreates it for themselves – for the majority of the pro wrestling world. So today, I’m specifically going to be examining the nature of the shows they produce, and as I’ve often talked about what Mixed Martial Arts has taken from Pro Wrestling to help with its promotion, I also want to point out that intellectual theft is a two-way street.
Because of the nature of the product, how wrestling is presented is fluid. There is no truly fixed formula. This means that not only is how the television broadcast put together being constantly evolved, but the action in the ring develops as well. Look at the earliest matches you can find through a simple search on YouTube, and it’s the equivalent of comparing how films (an also relatively young industry) have developed over the last hundred years.
The way in which the majority of characters are presented in today’s Wrestling – for the most part – are somewhat believable people, with slightly exaggerated personalities, and sometimes interesting ring-names. They’re not really the cartoon characters we saw in the 80s and early 90s. Yes, Brock Lesnar is “The Beast Incarnate”, but that’s hyperbole surrounding a very large, athletic character. He’s not a literal demon/devil figure.
This being such, there has been an attempt to further legitimise the rules and regulations that a referee must enforce. There is significantly less leniency seen towards cheating. Even towards minor offences such as the illegal tag partner running in to interfere with the match, there has been a noticeable effort to keep within the boundaries of a realistic enforcement of the rules. It’s not something they try to highlight in the broadcast, because the obvious implication of doing this would be to admit that rules weren’t previously as big a concern.
I’m not claiming that this change is a direct result of the rise of the UFC, in particular. It’s an attention to detail that marks that they’re leaning slightly more towards sports presentation than entertainment, at this point in time. There has really, truly been only one clear thing taken from the world of MMA: referee stoppages.
Perhaps as thrilling to the blood hungry as the knockout or submission, the referee stoppage is the moment when the third person in the cage decides that one of the combatants is not intelligently defending themselves and is receiving too much punishment as a result. They step between the fighters and call the match off. It’s certainly not unheard of in other sports, but due to the nature of Mixed Martial Arts – specifically the allowing of one fighter to grapple another to the ground and strike them once there – it’s a much more frequent occurrence.
Fight back! The referees will shout. Fight back! Before stepping in and waving off the contest.
As this image becomes a more recognisable one in modern media, so too has it become more frequent in the modern squared circle. Perhaps eight or nine years ago you’d have only found Bryan Danielson delivering repeated elbows to a person’s head, causing the referee to eventually stop the match. (This technique was even referred to as the MMA Elbows.) And would’ve only been seen on the smaller, independent circuit, where matches are typically more experimental than the mainstream product.
However, as recent as February of this year, in the WWE’s own NXT promotion, you find Kevin Owens repeatedly powerbombing his opponent until the referee declares him not only the winner of the match, but new NXT Champion.
Like all forms of great entertainment, it seems almost reactionary to the current culture – holding up a mirror to society itself. Whilst a match being stopped at a referee’s discretion might not be the most revolutionary of the latest trends, it does begin to hint to us perhaps what direction the overall product is taking.