I just got back from watching one of my best friends wrestle his last match to about 50 people in Aberdeen, Ohio. Just ten weeks before, I was watching Wrestlemania 25 with tens of thousands of people in Houston, Texas. Over the past few years, wrestling has gotten a lot of attention (admittedly mostly negative), and more and more of my acquaintances want to talk to me about professional wrestling, so it’s been on my mind off and on for a while. I decided to try to encapsulate some of my thoughts into an essay, which quickly became a series of essays that I’m calling “Get Over.” Consider these all to be works in progress.
Wrestling Is For Idiots
Probably the most frequent comment I get when I tell people that I’m a professional wrestling fan (aside from a shocked and derisive “Really?”) is “How can you stand to watch that stuff?” Originally, it was an implication that wrestling is for idiots, but over the past few years it’s also taken on a tone of morbidity (which I’ll talk about in another essay). I’ve defended my enjoyment of professional wrestling with varying levels of success, but it was always with the understanding that my enjoyment of it came from a kind of universal perspective of professional wrestling. Then I met other wrestling fans on the Internet, and I had accepted the distinction between “marks” and “smarks.” Once I started going to a variety of wrestling shows, ranging from 70,000+ crowds at Wrestlemania to less than 20 people at an indie show, I stumbled across a third group. The original breakdown between marks and smarks doesn’t appear to be adequate, so I propose three new groups.
These marks still approach wrestling from a pre-kayfabe stance. A common phrase I’ve seen circulating around — “It’s still real to me” — doesn’t quite cover this demographic, as it’s always been real to them.
A good example is a woman I saw at WWC No Escape in June 2009, during the match between Nikita Allanov and Brian Beech. Nikita Allanov is a Russian wrestler and, as a heel, he comes out with the Russian flag and obvious anti-American sentiment. He’s “the foreigner,” a classic heel stereotype. So as he’s folding up his Russian flag, an older woman comes out of the audience and tries to steal it. She then spends the whole match screaming “Foreigners don’t belong in America!” and the like all through the match with a zeal and intensity that’s more than just good-natured wrestling taunting. Afterward I had dinner with J.T. Stahr, and he said that she comes to every show, and she always screams at the foreigner characters. At the same show, I also ran into a fan who was very irate at the heels for “swearing in front of his fucking kids” (his words, not mine), and when those heels broke character to speak sincerely on a man they considered a friend, the fan felt bad and wanted to apologize to them. Stahr’s the one who called those kinds of fans “true believers,” and the term is now stuck in my head. They love wrestling with a simple but intense passion that simply has to be seen to be believed.
Since most of my samples thus far have been from blunt, lower-class men and women from small Midwestern towns who still sincerely believe in a sport that has been openly fixed for well over a decade now, I can see why people would consider them idiots. This is the stereotypical audience that most people probably think of when they imagine professional wrestling fans. I had thought it was an invention of the media at worst or an outdated simplification of the original audience at best, but they still exist, and they still believe.
The term “smark” has been around for awhile. Short for “smart marks,” it means someone who knows that wrestling is fixed but remains interested in the product (I’m reluctant to use the word “fan” for reasons that will become clear). Generally smarks are looked down upon because they apparently can’t just enjoy the matches and the entertainment. I’m really specifically looking at a specific grouping of smarks here, though — the kind of smarks that cluster around Internet sites and email lists and wrestling forums and don’t seem to be satisfied with anything. They are so informed and involved with the backstage aspects of the products that they can’t enjoy what’s on the screen anymore. Really, they’re the polar opposite of the true believer.
I once had a fairly lengthy discussion with someone who was convinced that Triple H has brought nothing useful to the industry, and that he hasn’t earned any of the hype he’s gotten. When I tried to point out that he was talented and influential within the industry long before he was married to Stephanie McMahon, I was effectively shouted down under a barrage of “facts” that would make any conspiracy theorist proud. When I asked why he considered himself a fan of a federation that he clearly didn’t like, he said “Of course I’m a fan of the WWE. I just don’t like anything they do.”
In fact, Internet smarkdom has gotten so bad that if you admit liking a particular wrestler that’s on the smark’s radar, then you’re classified as a true believer. Triple H has been a popular target for years, but John Cena is rapidly become the newest target of smark ire. Dozens of other wrestlers rotate on and off the smark’s list of vilification, although it seems that very few can actually be liked by smarks (although a case can be made for Bret Hart holding such a distinction, but only within the context of the Montreal Screwjob). Really, though, the Internet smark seems to be full of hate and bile. They might not be fans, but they certainly have a lot of passion about something.
There is a third group of wrestling fans that seems to be growing, however. These are fans that are technically smarks — they understand how the business works, and they realize that wrestling is fixed. They don’t ignore the knowledge they have of the business, but manage to still find enjoyment in it. In fact, I would even go so far as to say they find enjoyment because of their knowledge. These are the fans that are making predictions on matches not because of the individual talent of each wrestler involved, but based on a combination of backstage knowledge gleaned from Internet sites and application of standard wrestling angles and forms. They’re the ones who buy merchandise for heel characters because they support the talent behind the character. And when something surprises them in a match, they’re genuinely excited to see where this new element takes things.
This isn’t to say that smarks are bad and marks are good — rather, it’s to point out an assumed dichotomy that’s false. For a while now, it’s been assumed that you have to “believe” to enjoy wrestling, or that you have to be bitter once you realize how things work. In essence, the implication is that you can’t be both informed and entertained; it’s one or the other. I disagree and totally reject this distinction because I have found one persistent and inspiring collection of wrestling fans that are incredibly informed and yet remain constantly energized and engaged by the industry.
Professional wrestlers themselves.
Let’s face it — to put your body on the line weekend after weekend to get less money than you spent in gas just getting to the event takes a lot of passion and enthusiasm for the business. Time and again as I’ve talked to people who work in the industry or listen to interviews, I hear about their love, respect and passion for professional wrestling. And the few times I’ve have the privilege to talk to after they’ve worked an event end up continuing to talk at length about… professional wrestling. Ask them about the latest WWE pay-per-view or the recent championship match on TNA, and you’ll get as passionate a view as you would from any true believer or Internet mark. They’re fans, plain and simple.
The Three-Way Dance
Each of these groups approaches wresting a different way. I would even go so far to say that they’re seeing three different products. Putting aside sub-genre preferences (fans who like the very showy WWE style might not like the more classic approach of HWA or the extreme style of CZW), each group of fan is looking at each match and promo with a different set of expectations and interests. And a non-fan who doesn’t know much about wrestling is looking at fans through their own expectations as well. Unfortunately, most outside observers (and indeed, quite a few fellow fans and industry people) look at wrestling fans as either idiotic shills vapidly accepting a spoon-fed product, or a bitter whiner who only gets satisfaction when they get a chance to tear someone down.
There’s a middle ground. Further, there’s probably dozens of subtle variations beyond the three broad groups I’ve painted here. And yet we all get enjoyment out of professional wrestling. That must mean that wrestling is nuanced and complex enough to appeal to a wide variety of people, people who wouldn’t otherwise find common ground.
Clearly, wrestling is for more than just idiots.
As a note, I have this article in a few places, and I’m compiling a lot of information and data (as well as some corrections). At some point once all the articles are done, I’ll give them a final rewrite and put them somewhere for consumption. Just wanted to make a note that I am certainly taking comments and critiques into consideration, even if you don’t see them in this version of the article.