Aaron's Wrestling Analysis - An Essay on Pop Culture
May 2, 2007 by Aaron Whitaker

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"Competition is a process or variety of habitual behavior that grows out of a habit of mind ." [- Willard Beecher, page 85]

Throughout history, the notion and desire to be the "better man" has captivated competitors in many sports. It is my belief that it derives from an evolutionary instinct which can be observed in many life forms as they battle for supremacy and, eventually, the chance to mate. Nothing brings out this primeval instinct in humans more than hand to hand combat and more specifically - wrestling.

For many cultures, wrestling is a way of life. It is a widely accepted form of entertainment that allows us to watch the struggle for dominance. From the Greco-Roman wrestling tournaments held in ancient Rome and Greece to the modern day lucha libre promotions in Mexico. Wrestling is an integral part of them particular societies and, as I aim to show, a key component of American society today. This shall be achieved by critically analyzing the wrestling industry with reference to all three sections of the initial question.

The basis of this essay will be centered around arguably the most dominant wrestling promotion ever - the World Wrestling Federation/Entertainment - and a company, that today, six years after it filed for bankruptcy, still has a cult-like following with very passionate fans - Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) .

Through the years, the WWF/E has globally entertained the masses. It is, in itself, an icon in the media world. It has created an international brand for itself with the use of intriguing storylines, creative characters and above all else, the desire to hold a monopoly over the global mainstream wrestling industry. By destroying any competition that arose during an era coined "The Monday Night Wars", WWE was able to single handedly run out of business rival promotions World Championship Wrestling (wCw) and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW).

Though the company is a worldwide phenomenon, certain icons of the business have transcended the boundaries of being labeled "a sports entertainer" and have become a fundamental part of modern day 'popular culture'. Two of the most popular and recognisable celebrities, with their roots in wrestling, are Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bolea and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Movies such as "The Scorpion King", reality TV shows like "Hogan Knows Best" and various television cameos all reflect the current popularity of these performers. And that is what they are - performers.

Having read Max Weber's "The Theory of Social and Economic Organization", I believe the success of these two characters can be attributed to their abundance of charisma. He states that charisma is: . . . a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which s/he is set apart from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.

This, in my opinion, perfectly evaluates why these two were able to break into mainstream culture - namely the Hollywood Film Industry. Having the "superhuman powers" is a trait that the general public can aspire to. It gives them a hero, or a relatable character to sympathize with. They both hold the power to engross an audience. To borrow a phrase from the Spiderman series; "with great power comes great responsibility". They were responsible for ratings. Fans eagerly tuned in each week to see the latest chapter of the Rock's saga with Stone Cold Steve Austin and fans willingly paid to see Hulk Hogan slam Andre the Giant. This match was booked as "the unstoppable force meets the immovable object" and it clearly shows how the WWF were able to manipulate and promote a spectacle that fans would want to watch.

With this popularity and financial success however, animosity and rebellion usually followed. In the early 1990's, with the WWE, then the WWF, as the dominant American wrestling company, strictly aimed at the child market, a grittier and more realistic product was needed for the minority of fans who appreciated talent rather than characters. This company was Extreme Championship Wrestling.

"ECW was a small promotion based out of Philadelphia that prided itself on its rabid fans and a hardcore wrestling style." [Mick Foley -Have a Nice Day (1999), Page 365]

The company's aim was to provide an alternative product; to "accentuate the positives and hide the negatives" (Tommy Dreamer, Rise and Fall of ECW DVD, 2004) of its performers. Usually, they were disgruntled employees looking for solace and a place to make a name for themselves doing what they do best - wrestle. Either they had left WWF having portrayed characters they weren't happy playing (Xanta Claus in WWF became Balls Mahoney in ECW), left wCw due to frustration at their characters direction (Mick "Cactus Jack" Foley left wCw and became an instant star in ECW) or they were future stars trying to break into the American market (Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero would start in ECW and become famous for their runs in wCw/WWE). The ambition and desire that this mixture of employees held was a formula that would ultimately gain the company cult status amongst its "rabid and dedicated fans".

Paul Heyman, the ex-owner of ECW, said it best on an episode of WWE Friday Night Smackdown. He stated, while referencing ECW, to Vince McMahon, the owner of WWE that "it was counter culture and up in your face" ( 1kt1e_paul-heymen-shoot - as accessed on 23/04/2007)

At a time when WWF was presenting a child and sponsor friendly product with characters like Doink and Dink the Clowns, ECW was pushing the limits of violence and having great matches with the use of barb-wire, flaming tables and drawing pins.

Ironically, for Vince McMahon and his fellow creative staff to ultimately win the "ratings war" with wCw, they would "borrow" many concepts straight from ECW and deem it "Attitude". The dominance shown by WWE would then eventually put wCw and ECW out of business in 2001 and take most of its talent in one swoop.

This bankruptcy aside, due to the company's ability to create a new sub-culture through its fan base, a return for the company was audibly called for. Thomas Wolfe, the American writer, stated that a cult is a "religion with no political power". If ECW was to be classed as a "cult company", then the political power the fans held in getting the brand resurrected in 2005 would directly contradict Wolfe. This contradiction shows how the company, from having a small, cult-like following in 1995, evolved into a popular culture, mainstream accessible icon in the space of ten years.

As stated above, the modern professional wrestling business has taken away the element of "the better man". Because of the fact that wrestling is pre-determined, how can these performers be judged on their wins and losses record? No more is winning key to a performer's livelihood. No more does the "better man" prevail. The deviation away from competition into scripted outcomes is not appealing to most casual fans in society as it is portrayed as a soap opera and, hence, deemed not a true sport. The backstage set-up is more reminiscent of a sitcom than a sport; Creative writers, editors and agents/producers all help to script the result of every match. This is due to the WWE's aim which is to entertain. As it is classed as entertainment, many theories can be applied to the production itself, the TV show they produce on a weekly basis. The whole wrestling industry, not just WWF/E, relies on one simple fundamental rule. This rule is founded in Vladimir Propp's Theory on Narrative, as presented in Roy Stafford's "Media Students Book" (page 34). Propp suggested that every story must have certain character roles in order to create compelling situations. Wrestling is based upon the standard conflict of a hero or "face" battling a villain or "heel". The "princess" or reward is a championship title. This simple dynamic has worked for millennia, as evidenced in many biblical accounts e.g.) David vs. Goliath. Conversely, the more popular and unique matches from recent times have juxtaposed the norm and been face vs. face matches. The most modern example could be "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan vs. The Rock at WrestleMania X8. Being that these two megastars each had their legions of fans; the crowd response was split, generating a more surreal atmosphere due to said crowd's inability to choose a favorite.

The wrestling industry is forever changing. New characters will always be introduced and old characters will inevitably be forgotten. This has been procedure for decades; ever since Vince McMahon Sr. sold his wrestling company to his son, Vince McMahon Jr. His revolution in redefining the wrestling business into sports entertainment opened doors for a media break through. By creating entertainers, the possibility to make popular culture icons and produce creative shows has allowed the WWE to become a staple in American, nay the world's, culture.

"The biggest thrill in the world is entertaining the public; there is no bigger thrill than that." [ -Vince McMahon Jr, Owner of WWE]

by Aaron Whitaker (View/Submit your feedback here)..

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