Fans can’t get enough when theater, sport combine
WrestleMania, that saturnalia of sweat and spandex, might best be described as one part sport, one part theater and one part wildly successful business model. But where one part ends and the other begins is often anyone’s guess.
Consider Triple H, formerly Hunter Hearst Helmsley. He’ll be one of the leading contenders at WrestleMania XXX in New Orleans this weekend. He also happens to be an executive at the real company that puts on WrestleMania — and thus presumably has a hand in scripting the whole event. (Spoiler alert: There’s a script.)
So while Triple H the fictional wrestler talks trash about his opponents, diehard fans are busy parsing theories about whom Triple H the corporate executive really wants to see win.
“It’s very hard to tell, at any given moment, what’s real and what isn’t, which is definitely one of the compelling things about pro wrestling,” said Jules Bentley, a local writer and ardent fan who argues that pro wrestling’s devotees are often wrongly stereotyped as either very young or very unsophisticated.
With WrestleMania turning 30 this year, pro wrestling probably has more adult fans than ever. So to really understand the weeklong festival of muscle-bound performance art that has settled in New Orleans is to plumb the murky territory where acrobatics, melodrama and corporate politics meet.
That’s exactly what pro wrestling’s biggest fans spend their time doing, and they can’t get enough of it.
Bentley, who’s been hooked since he first saw “Macho Man” Randy Savage as a kid, likens the whole phenomenon to the relationship between rap artists and their lyrics.
“A lot of rappers develop the cultural persona of a gangster, and you don’t know where what they’re saying in their music ends and who they are as people begins,” Bentley said. “I think that’s part of following the outside-the-ring stuff in pro wrestling. You don’t really know what you’re getting. You always have to know at some level that you’re being — ‘manipulated’ just sounds ugly — but it’s showbiz.”
On the real-life side of the spectrum between reality and fiction stands World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., the big corporation that dominates pro wrestling without any real competition.
WWE trades on the Nasdaq exchange, brought in more than half a billion dollars of revenue in 2013 and just launched an online video network that is big news in the media world. The company held more than 250 events in North America last year, drawing an average audience of about 6,000 people who paid almost $50 per ticket.
Of course, all of these fans pay to watch events that are ultimately — or mostly — fake. WWE and its script writers are deciding the outcomes and the major plot twists, even if no one involved ever openly acknowledges this.
And for pro wrestling’s followers, that’s not just OK, but gives wrestling a big advantage over nonscripted sports like Ultimate Fighting or even professional football.
Fans get all the drama of following a television series like “Breaking Bad” or “Scandal” and none of the dull blowouts that sometimes mar big sporting events. They never have to sit through a Denver Broncos-Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl or an Alabama-LSU BCS matchup. Even if the outcome isn’t what they want, it’s never boring.
Luke Hawx, who operates a wrestling school and puts on local matches in New Orleans, argues that professional wrestling is on the upswing after losing some of its audience to the Ultimate Fighting Championship in the 1990s, in part because real UFC fights aren’t always much to look at.
“Some fights suck,” Hawx said. “It’s just two guys laying on each other.”
To hear Hawx describe it, the wrestlers themselves occupy the same fuzzy zone between fiction and reality that fans do. He says most bouts are more improvisation than choreography — and always painful. He quibbles with calling it “fake” at all. “We hit each other,” he said. “We hurt each other. I could probably fill your notepad up with injuries.”
There’s also a brutal training regimen. It starts with conditioning — “most people puke and pass out in the first few days,” he said — and then learning basic moves like “bumping,” which just means falling flat on your back. “It knocks the wind out of you and gives you headaches and makes you dizzy,” Hawx said. “But you can train your body to get used to it.”
Yet there is no way around show business in wrestling. The people who run WWE, Hawx said, “They want guys who they think can make them money. They want draws. They want guys who look different.”
For the audience, this all makes for a fascinating spectacle, combining real athleticism, bizarre characters and endless speculation about why WWE executives decide to advance the career of one wrestler or another.
The big intrigue surrounding WrestleMania XXX involves Triple H and a popular upstart named Daniel Bryan.
The rivalry is complicated by the fact that Triple H is also WWE’s chief operating officer and the husband of Stephanie McMahon, daughter of company founder Vince McMahon. His real-world marriage and his role with the company aren’t separate from his wrestling persona. They’ve been woven into the fictional storyline that forms the backdrop for his matches.
But one popular theory holds that Triple H really doesn’t want Bryan to win WrestleMania because he doesn’t have the right physique or persona to be pro wrestling’s top star. Bryan’s fans have started something called the “Yes Movement,” and some believe it actually forced the WWE to include him this weekend.
Or whole thing is just a put-on.
Untangling reality from theater is often harder than it looks. Triple H, whose real name is Paul Levesque, is not really even the chief operating officer. The company’s public filings list him as executive vice president for talent, an apparently less stage-worthy title.
“For me, that kind of thing is the more interesting aspect of it,” said fan Andrew Quackenbos, a lawyer from Lafayette. “What’s the reason they’re giving someone a push over the top to win? The politics are very intriguing.”
Quackenbos plans on attending just about every WrestleMania event this weekend, along with his friend. Scott Connors, another local attorney who enjoys the type of Kremlinology involved in pro wrestling as much as the stunts.
“Triple H is married to the daughter’s boss,” Connors said. “That’s real.”
And with the proliferation of online media, there are more tidbits about the supposedly “real” side of things than ever. “If you were our age in the mid-90s and you wanted to be into wrestling, there was so little you could find out about it because the curtain was locked,” Connors said. “Now with so many blogs and people leaking stuff, it’s wide open.”
Connors himself had some scuttlebutt of his own to pass along. His office is in the Superdome, where WWE has been setting up for the main event. Triple H, Stephanie McMahon and her father are all set up in the Saints locker room, Connors said, and they’ve apparently got a team of writers with them.
Maybe the whole story line can change on the spot. “I’ve never really thought about what would happen if they really did have to switch something up on the fly,” Connors said. “Well, there it is. They have a setup almost created for that.”