Gary Spencer, one of the founders of new wrestling organisation Sell Out Wrestling, takes on the preconceptions of the art form.
“In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.”
Written during the 1950’s, Roland Barthes’ essay, ‘The World of Wrestling’, remains the most influential critique of professional wrestling to date. The author’s attempt to reclaim wrestling from the world of sport and thus reappraise it in the tradition of open-air drama, recognises both the performative and theatrical elements of wrestling, elevating what Barthes argues is criticised as an ‘ignoble sport’ to performance art. For those who read this and are already fans of professional wrestling, the comparison made by Barthes will be unsurprising. Yet for the uninitiated, the attempts to draw a parallel between what is effectively a part-choreographed part-improvised fight scene of predetermined outcome, to the drama of Ancient Greece, may seem an absurd and unsubstantiated leap to make.
The largest problem facing advocates of professional wrestling who regard the performance as an art form today, is the monopolisation of the industry by the multi-national WWE; formerly the WWF. The company’s flagship television show routinely outstrips its largest domestic competitor in live television ratings by over 500%, whilst also broadcasting to over 150 countries internationally. The hold the WWE has over the wrestling industry should not be understated.
As the most visible and successful wrestling promotion, it is often the case that non-wrestling fans equate professional wrestling with WWE, although there are many other independent alternatives. As such, public perception of wrestling is often based purely upon WWE’s presentation of the spectacle. But WWE no longer regards itself as a professional wrestling company, and therein lays the true nature of the dilemma facing the fans of professional wrestling today.
The rebranding of WWE in 2002 from a ‘sports’ company to a ‘sports entertainment’ company left many disillusioned with the WWE’s output; since that time the overall popularity of wrestling has slowly but steadily fallen. In a statement delivered in 2011 WWE’s owner, Vincent McMahon, stated that whilst “[The WWE] will always be loyal to our core business that made [us] a globally known entity … the future of WWE will be the addition of new entertainment content opportunities beyond the ring.” The statement of intended change as to the nature of its programming, coupled with the advent of the ‘social media era’, a concept constructed and propagated by the company, has seen the company’s focus shift from the performance itself and onto the audience themselves. By encouraging fans to engage with WWE via social media, the company has attempted to ensure a 24/7 relationship with its fans. The extension of the performance’s narrative outside of its traditional confines however has merely served to further reduce the importance of the performance; the audiences’ interaction with the spectacle superseding the spectacle itself.
Despite the WWE’s rejection of the performance in favour of its ‘24/7-audience-interactive-meta-narrative’, there exist a number of companies whom have taken it upon themselves to restore to wrestling its dramatic and performative aspects; those originally recognised by Barthes in the ‘squalid Parisian wrestling-halls’. UK organisations, such as PROGRESS wrestling, regularly draw audiences of around 700 people to their shows and continue to grow in size. Whilst such companies provide both wrestlers in the UK with a platform to perform and attempt to cater for the increasingly embittered wrestling fan, eager for the primacy of the spectacle to be reinstated, these shows rely upon many of the ‘entertainment’ based elements found within the WWE, whether in the form of comic relief or its sexualised treatment of women. As such, whilst one may continue to argue the relative merits of professional wrestling as an art form, one faces great difficulty in the modern era to point out an organisation which holds the dramatic notions of wrestling as of paramount importance.
What I hope to have made clear in this brief insight into the world of wrestling is the difference between the pre-conceived notions held by many about what they believe to be professional wrestling, the reason for its caricatured nature, and the nature of wrestling as spectacle. Until such a time that someone steps forward with a view to overhaul the landscape of the industry by the foregrounding of truly immersive and dramatic performances, I myself have taken up the challenge through the creation of a wrestling company, which aims to do exactly that.
Sell Out Wrestling’s debut show was intended to take place on the 1st of June @ The Asylum, Peckham. However, due to licensing issues, it has been postponed. Keep an eye out on our Facebook page for regular updates