Cody Rhodes performing with a pectoral muscle torn off the bone. Credit: Jack Francis

Everyone has their preconceptions about pro rasslin’, but what lies behind pyrotechnics and the pageantry and what makes wrestling so special.

“You know it’s fake, right?” – words as familiar to any wrestling fan as Hulk Hogan’s “whatcha gonna do, brother?!”. There’s this notion among non-fans that you, a wrestling fan, must be informed that what you’re watching isn’t ‘real’. As if I wasn’t aware already.

One of the most iconic characters in all of wrestling is The Undertaker, a persona which has, at times, been billed as a literal dead man who harvests the souls of his opponents. Now in reality, I’m aware he’s a near-seven-foot Texan named Mark Calaway with questionable views on Black Lives Matter and gun rights – but when I’m watching his macabre walk to the ring with special effect lightning raining down, I’m transfixed. All I see is The Undertaker, a dead man. Wrestling does that to you.

In hindsight it isn’t hard to work out how I fell in love with wrestling. I was about five years old, at the height of what became known as ‘The Attitude Era’, a time where plodding behemoths and old-fashioned sensibilities were being replaced by a more risqué product of violence, blood and sex. This time helped a generation fall in love with the sport.

Luke Flood, a 36-year-old fan, found his interest sparked during The Attitude Era, saying “I remember flicking through Sky at the age of about 12 and seeing The Rock beating someone up on the outside of the ring. I was always into sport as a kid, and I was just starting to get into rock music and ‘counterculture’ stuff.

“It felt like an amalgamation of the two. It felt edgy and punk rock but with all the spectacle and drama of sport. That’s what pulled me in.”

An iconic image from the Attitude Era. Credit: Jack Francis

It was no different for Adam Nicholas, 31, video editor for WhatCultureWWE.

He says, “Like many, my earliest memory was seeing ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin storming down to the ring. I forget the finer details of what was happening, but it didn’t matter – I had to see more.”

I won’t pretend wrestling isn’t scripted. In Adam’s memory, Austin wasn’t marching down to the ring to legitimately beat someone. But the experience becomes special when you forget that, when you feel like you’re watching two gladiators battle each other bloody for the title. This suspension of disbelief is known as kayfabe in wrestling parlance. It allows fans to escape into the most vital part of wrestling – storytelling.

Athletic prowess can be found just as much in gymnastics as it can in professional wrestling, and blood and violence are aplenty in boxing. Story is what keeps you coming back.

Nicholas says, “If I had to sum up why I kept coming back to wrestling, in a word, it’d have to be ‘storytelling’. When wrestling is good, there’s nothing like it. You’ll struggle to find a better storytelling medium.”

When wrestling underwent its boom in the late-80s, these stories focused on good vs evil in an obvious way. Hulk Hogan vanquishing Sgt. Slaughter, an American military character who became an Iraqi sympathiser at the beginning of the First Gulf War, for example. Lines of good and evil were firmly drawn, appealing to the sensibilities of fans at the time.

This evolved over time, and the lines became blurred. Fans cheer the monster villain, just because he looks cool. They buy up merchandise for the wise-cracking bad guy, just because he says it how it is. Fans gravitated towards villains, or at least, anti-heroes.

But as fans were drawn to the dark side on-screen, they became more aware of the dark side off-screen. Wrestling has always been plagued by controversy. Adam Nicholas describes it as a “less than flattering” history, and it’s down to each fan to decide where they draw the line for what they can and can’t support.

For many, it will have been the rampant steroid abuse in the mid-90s, or the string of avoidable deaths that have plagued wrestling for decades. For Nicholas, it was WWE – the leading promotion in the world – announcing mass cuts at the start of the pandemic while raking in record profits.

“I just didn’t feel like I wanted to support a company that would do that to their workers.”

For others, these scandals are more shades of grey rather than black-and-white issues to dictate fandom. Luke Flood is one of those fans, commenting, “I’ve never been put off so to speak, any big corporation is going to have morality issues.”

Let’s address the elephant in the room, ‘fake’, and why it can be so jarring. There’s few, if any, forms of entertainment struck more by tragedy than professional wrestling. Listing them all would turn this feature into a novella of obituaries. From in-ring deaths, overdoses, suicide – blood is spattered across the annals of wrestling history. The nadir came in June 2007, an event that drove away countless fans, myself included for a time. Chris Benoit, a leading wrestler in the WWE, murdered his wife Nancy and his seven-year-old son Daniel, before taking his own life. No definitive reason for this heinous crime has ever been reached, but an autopsy revealed Benoit, 40 at the time of his death, had the brain of an 80-year-old with severe Alzheimer’s. The cause of such severe damage – wrestling. Chair shots to the head, undiagnosed concussions, sustained trauma night after night, all cheered on by the masses.

Chris Benoit and real-life friend Eddie Guerrero celebrating in March 2004 – both would be dead within three years. Credit: Jack Francis

This is one example but pick your poison. ‘Premature deaths in Professional Wrestling’ has a Wikipedia page far longer than you would ever wish to see. The product is different today, more family-friendly, with fewer moments that make you wince with phantom pain. But I still feel challenged when I see someone spiked onto their head. Simply put, as one commentator said in his deep Oklahoma drawl, “it ain’t ballet, folks.”