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Going To The Mat: What Makes Wrestling Compelling

Going to the mat is an opinion column for the Unofficial WWE Podcast, where I, Cody Churchill, roll out one of my many hot takes regarding the world of wrestling, and attempt to convince you of it. Whether you agree or disagree, I’m going to the mat for this:

What makes wrestling so compelling are the moments where the line between real and fake grows either uncomfortably or amazingly thin.

Here’s what I mean: Very early in a young wrestling fan’s life they are informed, often by an outsider, that pro wrestling is scripted. This is perhaps met by denial, anger, and bargaining, but eventually, as one grows up, they come to grips with the fact that professional wrestling is certainly scripted. When a fan becomes an adult, they need to decide whether they are going to continue being a fan or not. Some buy in due to the entertainment value, some due to good storylines, and some due to athletic performances. Some even remain fans out of a sense of duty or nostalgia for the better days gone by.

There was a time when I was very young, when I watched Monday Night Raw and believed that it was real. Of course, that time was followed by an edgy adolescence where I ignored professional wrestling except for the occasional video game. Then, as a fully grown adult male, I made the decision to get back into it. Why? Well for me, it has been the ingenious ways that kayfabe meets reality.

I tried to explain this to my wife this last weekend when I saw Rey Mysterio Jr. embrace his son Dominick before his debut at SummerSlam 2020. This was an emotional moment within storyline to be sure, but what got to me was the reality behind the characters being portrayed on my TV. In that moment I saw Oscar Gutierrez embracing his son Dominik Gutierrez and ordaining him into the family business. I tried to explain the layers of this to my wife and probably sounded like a total mark. But the fact stands that a proud father was welcoming his son into the big leagues, and the emotions were real, and those emotions got to me.

Those are the moments that keep me watching. We’re talking about the anxiety that Edge felt before his fateful match at Backlash earlier this year. His concern about whether or not he could pull “the greatest wrestling match ever” off was real. In that moment, I saw Adam Copeland struggling with his past injuries and the expectations being placed on him by the company. We’re talking about Ric Flair saying that all he wants is to be Charlotte’s dad and a part of Randy Orton’s life after his near-death experience. We’re talking about things like CM Punk’s (Phil Brook’s) growing frustration with the company–that took a chance on him and then wasted his potential–bleed through in promos that blurred the line between work and shoot. Or, a bit more recently, we’re talking about the various reunions and departures of The Shield.

No other form of entertainment can blur the line between made-up story and real life like professional wrestling can, because no other form of entertainment has true kayfabe. When an actor is done filming their movie or TV show, they get to leave their on-screen persona at the door when they’re done. While this is growing increasingly true of pro wrestling, it’s still not entirely true. Many wrestlers still generally stick to kayfabe on their social media accounts and during appearances, even if some of it is a little bit tongue-in-cheek. However, the pro wrestler is technically playing themselves whenever they make a televised appearance, to the point where sometimes it’s hard to tell where the character ends and the real person begins. And I eat that up.

Kayfabe is such a unique phenomenon in entertainment that it takes a non-wrestling fan quite some time to understand it. In fact, the origins of kayfabe itself are still disputed, mysterious, and shadowy, just like they should be. In other outlets where there is a semblance of kayfabe, it is only a poor facsimile of the depths that pro wrestling goes to. Of course, what this does is make the moments where kayfabe is bent or broken on-screen all the more impactful. That is what made the recent Undertaker documentary so incredible. We finally got to see the man behind the character, and his backstage interactions felt like a forbidden and satisfying fruit to finally see. That is also why the Tales of the Deadman extra feature was so well-received. That is why I am thankful for a post-kayfabe wrestling culture.

See, now that we have some idea of what the true-life reality is, it actually colors in the on-screen moments. When Drew McIntyre asserted that Randy Orton should have been fired on multiple occasions, and Randy Orton fired back that he was more valuable to the company than Drew, I cracked a wry smile. Because I know a little bit about Randy’s antics behind the scenes, and I also know that his counter remark was factually true. And as the line between real and fake was blurred, it hit a sweet spot that no movie or other TV show can. That same spot was hit by Rey Mysterio embracing his actual son in the ring after his first match and telling him how proud he was of him. Oscar didn’t need to act in that moment, because the reality behind the moment was so close to the kayfabe portrayal.

Here’s hoping for more moments like that in the weeks and months to come, because they make pro wrestling worth watching, even for a fully-grown adult like me. And I’m going to the mat for that.

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