Mention pro wrestling in public and you’re likely to get a livelier debate than you would with politics or philosophy. Is it a sport or a show? Is it real or fake? Who was the greatest wrestler ever? Where is “Parts Unknown”?
By the time you’re done reading this article, you’ll have enough pro wrestling knowledge to put anyone who disagrees with you into a Sleeper Hold, unable to budge the Iron Claw of your logic.
You’ll learn how wrestling got started and how wrestlers accomplish seemingly superhuman feats without killing themselves and each other. You’ll also learn about the top stars of the past and present. And if you’re already an expert on all things in the squared circle, you’ll discover that the action behind the scenes is often more bizarre and convoluted than what goes on in the ring.
The basic idea of wrestling — two people competing in a physical combat — is ancient. The Greeks engaged in a form of wrestling that has survived today as freestyle wrestling. The Roman Empire adopted elements of Greek wrestling with an emphasis on brute strength. The resulting form, known as Greco-Roman wrestling, requires wrestlers to perform all moves on the upper body only. Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling are the two international amateur forms practiced today in the Olympic Games. They have clear rules and weight classes. Points determine winners, and violations result in disqualifications. You can find more information on the rules of amateur wrestling here.
How is professional wrestling different? Unlike amateurs, professional wrestlers are paid. They also tend to be more skilled. A sporting commission regulates amateur wrestling, but pro wrestling is intentionally unregulated. In its early days, wrestling fell under the state sporting commission authority. League owners soon realized that they could avoid the hassle by classifying their shows as entertainment, not a competitive sport.
Wrestling does have rules, which we’ll explain in more detail later. However, the rules are loosely defined and loosely enforced. The skills of the wrestlers do not determine the outcome of the match. Instead, writers work on plots and storylines well in advance, and every match is another chapter in the story. Who wins and who loses is all in the script.
Does that mean that wrestling is fake? It’s true that the plots are predetermined and the moves are choreographed. Wrestlers aren’t really trying to beat up and injure each other. Sometimes, the bitterest enemies in the ring are really best friends, and the outlandish stories surrounding the characters are usually not true. However, simply calling wrestling “fake” is like calling an action movie fake. When you see a movie, you know that the actor didn’t really jump a burning car over an exploding bridge, but you’re still entertained. Stunt people and special effects crews worked to make those scenes seem real, and their work can be very impressive.
Pro wrestling is like that. Most wrestlers are exceptional athletes who train for many hours each day to maintain their physical condition. They practice for years to learn both the moves and how to execute them safely while still making it look dangerous. They suffer many injuries, sometimes severe. Their schedules are grueling. There’s certainly nothing fake about flying 20 feet through the air from the top rope.
Next, we’ll learn about kayfabe and the meaning behind some wrestling terminology.
Kayfabe and Wrestling Lingo
The wrestling code is called kayfabe, an old carnival term. In wrestling, it refers to the illusion that the characters and storylines are real. It was once an important wrestling code, and some wrestlers even stayed in character outside the ring to reinforce the illusion. To “break kayfabe” was to step out of character in the ring, or dispel the illusion. This dampened fan enthusiasm and hurt business, so promoters were not too kind to wrestlers who broke kayfabe, often writing them out of important storylines or not using them at all.
Kayfabe is not as important today. Pro wrestling is more or less open about the fact that the stories and plots are predetermined. They rely on the fans’ willing acceptance and desire to be entertained by the stories, but wrestling performers still need to stay in character during a match. When a wrestler breaks kayfabe, it is a shoot. A shoot can be a match where the wrestlers get angry and actually fight each other instead of using the choreographed moves. It can also happen when someone accidentally uses another performer’s real name, or when behind-the-scenes events spill into the ring.
Infamous shoots include:
- The MSG Incident: A group of wrestlers whose characters were enemies, but were friends in real life, hugged each other goodbye in the ring because some of them were leaving to join another league.
- The Montreal Screwjob: Popular wrestler Bret Hart was promised that he wouldn’t lose his championship belt in his home country to another wrestler whom he personally disliked. Instead, a crooked referee and the league commissioner seemed to cheat him out of his belt, although some suspect that the incident was worked — that is, a part of the planned storyline all along.
So now you know what “kayfabe” means. But what about those other terms that announcers use? Why is one of the perfomers a “heel” and the other one a “face”? Here are some common wrestling terms:
- Smark – A fan that knows what goes on behind the scenes, but still enjoys watching the events.
- House show – An event that isn’t televised.
- Promotion – A wrestling league, also known as a federation, or fed.
- Face – A good guy, a character who is designed for the fans to love and emulate. Short for babyface. Hulk Hogan was a face for most of his career.
- Heel – A villain, a character designed for the fans to boo. Examples include the Iron Sheik, Lance Cade and the Undertaker. Most characters will switch back and forth between face and heel during their careers.
- Sell – Making the wrestling moves look realistic and painful.
- Squash – A match in which a big name wrestles a nobody and beats him easily.
- Push – When league management directs the storylines to make a certain wrestler a big star.
- Angle – A part of the ongoing plot. For example, a feud between two wrestlers is an angle.
- Job – To lose a match in order to help push another wrestler. Sometimes, wrestlers refuse to job to another wrestler, resulting in a shoot.
- No-sell – When a wrestler stops selling his opponent’s moves. Sometimes it’s a part of the script — the heroic wrestler gets a second wind and suddenly becomes invincible. Other times, it happens because of poor wrestling skills or because a wrestler decides to break kayfabe.
- Screwjob – When a performer is double-crossed by either his opponent or the promoter he is working for. This refers to a legitimate double-cross, not one that happens within the context of kayfabe.
Next, we’ll discuss the rules that are made to be broken.
Rules of Pro Wrestling
The most important thing to know about the rules of professional wrestling is that they can be changed, disregarded, made up on the spot or broken at any time. As long as the referee is looking the other way (and it seems like he always is), anything goes. There are a few general guidelines, though. For example, most matches have a time limit of 20 minutes.
The standard way to win a match is by pinfall. You might hear a match described as “one-fall” or “three-fall.” A one-fall means that whoever has their shoulders pinned to the mat for a count of three loses the match. A three-fall is the best two out of three.
Wrestlers can also lose by submission. This happens when their opponent puts them in a submission hold, a maneuver that locks the other wrestler into a painful position. Eventually, he or she will signal to the referee that the pain is too great, and they simply give up. A wrestler who is rendered unconscious (by a sleeper hold, for example) is assumed to have given up.
Sometimes, wrestlers are disqualified (DQed). This is a grey area — there are plenty of rules for disqualifications, such as standing outside the ring for too long, using a foreign object, or receiving help from another wrestler. Whether or not anyone is actually disqualified for these things depends on what the writers have cooked up for the current storyline. In some cases, a DQ is not considered a loss. The match ends without any proper resolution. For example, sometimes a heel with a championship belt will intentionally get DQed if it looks like he might lose the match. The DQ means he didn’t technically lose, so he keeps the belt.
You might notice some wrestlers put an arm or leg onto the rope when they are pinned, forcing the ref to stop counting. This is an old rule in which any hold or pin must be broken immediately if the opponent manages to get some part of his or her body onto the rope.
Tag team matches have their own set of rules, but most wrestlers abuse and disregard them. A tag team match pits a pair of wrestlers against another pair (or even three-on-three). Only one wrestler from each team is supposed to be in the ring at the same time, and this wrestler is the only one who can legally pin the opponent for a pinfall victory. Teammates must tag each other’s hands to switch to a new wrestler in the ring, with ten seconds to make the change.
There are dozens of specialty matches, each with their own rules. These are often made up specifically for one match. In a ladder match, a championship belt or other prize is hung far above the ring, reachable only via a tall ladder in the center of the ring. The first wrestler to claim the prize gets to keep it. The winner of a steel cage match is generally the first performer to escape the cage, although some matches allow for wins by pinfall or submission. The WWE’s popular Royal Rumble matches dump a horde of wrestlers in the ring at once. Anyone physically thrown over the top rope and out of the ring is eliminated, and the last wrestler in the ring wins.
In the next section, we’ll learn how professional wrestlers “sell the show.”
Pro Wrestling Moves
A heel grabs his opponent and unleashes four monstrous punches directly to his head. The opponent is stunned, but remains standing. The heel then hurls him into the ropes, where he bounces off and runs headlong into a clothesline. The crowd hears the slap of flesh hitting flesh, and the opponent catapults into the air, slamming down onto the canvas with a solid thud.
If anyone really went through this, they’d probably end up with a concussion, a broken jaw and some cracked ribs at the very least. Pro wrestlers work very hard to make their moves look real, but inflict minimal damage. This is known as selling. If someone hits you with a pulled punch that barely touches you, but you time it correctly and leap backward as though you’d been smashed, then you’ve sold the move. Wrestlers really do hit each other, and it really does hurt. They just don’t hit each other as hard or get hurt as badly as they make it appear.
While a match is going on, stage directions and signals are flying between the performers, the referee, ringside officials and ringside managers. Occasionally you can spot the wrestlers talking to each other, planning the next series of moves. When it’s time for the match to end, the ref will tell one of the wrestlers to “bring it home.”
Complex maneuvers are carefully choreographed, and both wrestlers help execute the move.
Wrestlers also help each other pace the fight, going into a “rest move” like a simple headlock to stall and let the performers catch their breath. A ringside official can also inform wrestlers during a live TV performance when the show goes into a commercial. They then go into a rest hold for a minute or two so the TV audience doesn’t miss any real action.
Wrestlers use specific methods to reduce pain and damage. One method involves maximizing the area of contact. Your elbow is hard and sharp. Your thigh, however, is larger and well padded by muscle and fat. If you jump from the top rope and land on someone, the damage inflicted by your elbow could literally kill them. If you did a leg drop and hit them with your outstretched thigh, the force would be spread out over a larger area. It would hurt and probably bruise, but it wouldn’t do nearly as much damage as an elbow.
This tactic works with punches and even attacks with chairs and other foreign objects. Often, punches turn into open-handed slaps at the last second, so quickly you don’t notice. Other times, wrestlers use their forearms instead of their fists. Chairs are always used flat side first — using the edge would be dangerous. Getting slammed into the turnbuckle (the padded posts at the corners of the ring) is another way to spread force out over a large area, and it isn’t very painful.
Flying leaps and body slams are not as dangerous as they appear, either. Today’s wrestling ring is slightly padded and has a lot of spring action. Wrestlers avoid injury by spreading out the force of impact. No one ever gets slammed down directly onto their neck. Instead, they hit the mat back first. That said, high-flying leaps are among the most dangerous moves in wrestling. A slight miscalculation can lead to serious injury for the wrestler or his opponent. In 2001, a performer known as Sid Vicious suffered a severely broken leg after attempting a high-flying leap that he wasn’t properly trained for.
Piledrivers, a move in which a wrestler drives another headfirst into the mat, are popular because they look dangerous. In fact, they are dangerous. Performed properly, the victim’s head comes within inches of the mat, but never touches it. Miscalculate by a few inches, and serious injury will result. The list of wrestlers who have been hurt by piledrivers is a long one.
Watch enough wrestling, and eventually you’ll see some performers who don’t have the skills to sell their moves properly. You will notice punches that don’t even come close and reactions that are delayed by a second or two. Veteran wrestlers are experts at glancing blows and near misses that look completely real.
If wrestlers aren’t really getting hurt, then why do they sometimes bleed? Gruesome matches featuring wrestlers drenched in blood (known as “the crimson mask”) were frequent in the 1970s, and were especially popular in Japan. In many cases, capsules filled with fake blood are used. However, a more popular method is known as blading. A wrestler hides a small sliver of metal in his glove or in a turnbuckle, which he then uses surreptitiously to inflict a cut on his forehead. Head wounds bleed profusely, even if the wound itself is minor. However, blading is risky. It leads to scarring, and wrestlers can sever an artery if they don’t do it correctly. The Great Muta, a Japanese wrestler, is known for his gory blading practices.
Next, we’ll learn how professional wrestling began.
Professional wrestling grew out of the traveling carnival strongman, who would challenge anyone to beat him in the ring, or even to last 10 minutes. Challengers almost never won the prize money, since the strongman had helpers who would cheat to ensure his victory. Eventually, carnies realized they could make more money off the crowd than the entry fees of the fighters. They started accepting wagers on the fights, which were always fixed. Sometimes, the local fighter was even in on the fix, helping to hype the fight. These wrestlers used fake names and played up the animosity of the crowd to encourage betting.
In the late 1800s, promoters put wrestling events in arenas, much like boxing. For a few decades, many different individual promoters held wrestling events. Although there were championship belts in existence, none of them had any real authority. In 1901, promoters got together to form a loose organization called the National Wrestling Association, which awarded a single championship belt.
After World War II, the NWA divided wrestling into regional leagues. These federations were still a part of the NWA — they had a gentleman’s agreement not to steal each other’s talent or expand their arena shows into another league’s region. However, the Northeast federation, known as the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) was a bit of a maverick. Vince McMahon, Sr. started the WWWF in the early 1960s, and his son, Vince McMahon, Jr., took ownership in the 70s. McMahon, Jr. shortened the name to World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and almost immediately broke the gentleman’s agreement. He went into direct competition with the regional leagues, stealing their talent, scheduling arena shows on their turf and scoring lucrative cable TV contracts. Small leagues couldn’t compete.
By the 1980s, only one of the old regional NWA leagues was still in existence, operating in the Southeast. This league essentially became the NWA. Media mogul Ted Turner purchased it and changed the name to World Championship Wrestling (WCW). He pitted WCW’s televised events against McMahon’s WWF, and for a while, WCW was on top. It drew top talent away from the WWF and beat them in the ratings.
Several factors, including poorly conceived storylines and a federal investigation for steroid distribution (for which McMahon was eventually cleared) brought the WWF to its low point. However, McMahon recovered with creative angles and young, talented wrestlers. In 2001, he purchased WCW, taking control of the wrestlers, trademarks and video library. Today, the WCW no longer exists.
One other league had a major impact on pro wrestling: Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). A minor league based in a Philadelphia bingo hall, ECW gathered the attention of fans through late night broadcasts on local sports networks. ECW promoted a “hardcore” style, with wrestlers performing daring, dangerous moves that at times seemed completely insane. Gone were the cartoonish characters of the WWF. ECW featured beer-guzzling lunatics, ladder matches in which the ladder’s only function was as a weapon, and an obsession with smashing each other’s bodies through tables, usually after a flying leap from the top rope. ECW never made very much money, and it only existed for about five years before the company went bankrupt. But the popularity of the hardcore style had a huge impact on the WWF (now World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), due to a lawsuit by the World Wildlife Fund). Vince McMahon, Jr. bought ECW, and a grittier style of wrestling moved to the mainstream.
In the next section, we’ll check out some of the most famous pro wrestlers throughout history.
Professional wrestling has seen thousands of performers step between the ropes, but only a few have left a lasting mark on the industry. Here’s a sample:
- Frank Gotch – Generally recognized as the first legitimate champion, Gotch wrestled in the early 1900s. He also took part in one of the first “screwjobs” in pro wrestling history. Challenger George Hackenschmidt had been injured while training (possibly by someone hired by Gotch), but agreed to lose as long as Gotch let him win one of the three falls so he wouldn’t look bad. Instead, Gotch trounced Hackenschmidt and won the first two falls.
- Lou Thesz – A longtime champion, Thesz wrestled from the 1940s to the 1960s and held a winning streak that lasted years. He was the Hulk Hogan of his era.
- Gorgeous George – George Wagner was a competent wrestler in the 1930s and 40s when he came up with an idea that would completely change the face of wrestling. Wagner created the character of Gorgeous George, a blonde haired, furred robe-wearing prima donna that audiences hated — and they poured into arenas to boo him. From the first use of entrance music to a female attendant spraying “disinfectant” around the ring, the Gorgeous One laid the foundations for the theatrics that are the core of modern pro wrestling.
- Bruno Sammartino – Italian-born Sammartino is widely regarded as the greatest wrestler of the post-war era. Sammartino relied on athleticism and skill rather than any gimmick, and fans still respect him for his integrity and dedication. Sammartino recently refused a spot in the Wrestling Hall of Fame, saying that pro wrestling had become vulgar and harmful to children.
- Hulk Hogan – Terry Bollea is the face of pro wrestling for many fans who grew up watching during the 1980s. His tanned frame, blonde hair and yellow bandana evoke fond memories of “Hulkamania” in anyone who watched him wrestle. Hogan was the biggest star of his era and one of the most popular faces of all time.
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