By Will Pruett
Let’s try something new. Let’s try something different. Let’s try something I can get excited about.
Okay, so new is an overstatement. I’m still a white dude pontificating about professional wrestling.
I’ve been watching weekly WWE television for my entire adult life. Despite the assertions from my parents that I’d eventually grow out of it, I never did. Wrestling saw me through being mocked in middle school, being mocked in high school, being eventually accepted as a weird theatre kid in high school, being shy in college, being bold in college, not giving a cuss in grad school, and into my professional life.
It’s wild, to be honest, to have loved something this much for this long. So, why change what I’m doing now? I’ve watched and reviewed weekly WWE television in some from since 2009. It’s been eight years. A lot has changed about WWE TV. A lot has changed about me. My writing has been as much about my own relationship with professional wrestling as it has been about wrestling itself. As my interests in life have changed, what I look for in wrestling has changed. As I’ve found myself reading more feminist literature, I find myself looking for more actively feminist professional wrestling. As I’ve found myself questioning narratives and power structures, I can’t help but do so in professional wrestling.
Wrestling is more than just a couple people, a 20 square foot space, and fans. Wrestling is a reflection of our shared culture. Wrestling is as much about the stories we tell ourselves about good and evil as it is about athleticism. It’s as much about morality plays and melodrama as it is about 450 splashes and irish whips. Wrestling is a great art form despite it being frequently maligned.
I love professional wrestling. I love the pure heroism of it. I love the villains it can produce. I love the stories, both simple and complex it can create.
Looking at the last week in WWE, I can’t help but reflect on the nature of villainy. Wrestling doesn’t work without villains for heroes to overcome. This is basic sports storytelling as well. Watch ESPN going into a Super Bowl and you’ll see attempts to make various players the heroes and villains in the narrative arch they create. Wrestling, obviously, does this in a more direct way.
WWE made great strides in establishing two key villains this week: Tomasso Ciampa and Jinder Mahal.
One of these men is being presented as a the standard foreign antagonist we’ve seen time and time again in this art form. It’s common to see crowds get riled up over nationalism and WWE is finding a way to tap into a nationalistic instinct they’re never far from. They’re harnessing this by making Jinder Mahal an avatar for and a preacher of diversity. While Mahal has other villainous aspects, his character is rooted in a long tradition of xenophobia in wrestling.
The other man is being presented as simply ruthless and angry. There is no misunderstanding to justify Ciampa’s actions at the end of NXT Takeover: Chicago. WWE went as far as highlighting Johnny Gargano sacrificing himself for Tomasso Ciampa prior to Ciampa’s turn. Ciampa was angry, vicious, and unrelenting. Ciampa punished Gargano for an unknown reason. Ciampa is a villain because of his ruthless cruelty. He is not justified in a traditional sense, but I assume he’ll be justified in his own mind.
What makes a better villain? Is simply being a different race, despite the significant diversity of the WWE roster, enough? Is overwhelming cruelty enough? What makes these men wrong to standard viewers? For me, it is far easier to despise cruelty than it is to despise otherness. It is harder to empathize with exceptional and vicious anger than it is being different.
My plan is to use this space to discuss many of the things about professional wrestling I love, but I also want to use this space to call professional wrestling to be better than it has been for years. I want to advocate for social progress in professional wrestling, just as I would any form of entertainment. I know some folks are uncomfortable with this, but my hope is they’ll read and give it a shot. I promise to work in some jokes, weird musical theatre references, silly turns of phrase, and all the other semi-enjoyable things I offer on a regular basis.
This week’s essential viewing:
For the purposes of this column, this week will be presented as Thursday-Wednesday.
Pete Dunne vs. Tyler Bate for the WWE UK Championship from NXT Takeover: Chicago (May 20, 2017) – Remember what I said about simple professional wrestling stories being great? Pete Dunne is a bad guy willing to do anything to get ahead. Tyler Bate is a good guy who got ahead through hard work, despite his young age. They fought. It was amazing. Fans, even those unfamiliar with Bate and Dunne before this, were able to buy into the simple compelling story. This was a masterclass in how simple and effective wrestling storytelling could be.
Will Ospreay vs. Ricochet from NJPW’s Best of the Super Juniors (May 18, 2017) – They made a ton of noise with their statement match in the Best of the Super Juniors tournament last year. This year they had a similarly styled match, but the drama at the end was much more intense. Once again, this match stated that wrestling is an art form and, if you’ve read what I’ve written up to this point, you know I’m a fan of this perspective. If you’re into the state of the art in high flying drama, this is a match for you.
Tomasso Ciampa’s actions after the main event of NXT Takover: Chicago (May 20, 2017) – There was a lot going on here. WWE subverted the post-NXT main event curtain call trope they’ve played into time and time again. The good guys lost and, when they lost, they took a long bow. It seemed like the show was neatly wrapping up, but Ciampa made sure it didn’t. This wasn’t just great in the moment, it was great in the long line of NXT Takeovers as well. WWE did some high-level storytelling with this.
Jinder Mahal’s WWE Championship Celebration from Smackdown Live (May 23, 2017) – This should be Jinder Mahal’s entrance forever. I don’t care how much money it costs to fly an Indian dance troupe all over the world, it’s worth it.
What I absolutely positively love in wrestling this week:
Since production is what I’ve learned to do in life (In case you didn’t know, I have a MFA in Drama), I look at wrestling production in a particular way. When NXT started running larger arenas in 2015, they did something really unique and cool. They turned the lights down on the crowd and focused attention on the ring when action was happening in the ring. At some point, they got away from this, lighting the NXT Takeover: Brooklyn II crowd the same as the SummerSlam crowd. In Chicago, NXT returned to its former basic lighting approach during matches and it was delightful.
What I absolutely positively love in the world this week:
Master of None, Season 2, Episode 8 “Thanksgiving” – Can we talk about Master of None on Netflix for a moment or three? I think it’s my favorite television show of all time. Aziz Ansari has produced two seasons of insightful, enjoyable, funny, and touching television I can’t help but re-watch again and again. One of the many highlights of the recently released season is the “Thanksgiving” episode, which offers amazing insight into multiple cultures I am on the outside looking into. By the end of this episode, I found myself laughing through tears.
Watch. This. Show.
Got something to say/react to in today’s piece? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @wilpruett. Just let me know whether you’d like your name attached to your statement or not. Alternately, there’s a comment section just below this article, so comment away!
To kick off this column, let’s go to the comment section of my last Pause where Arky wrote “The Scramble match is silly because effectively only the last fall matters.”
Arky, I respectfully disagree with your premise that the Scramble Match is silly in any way and refuse to listen to the paragraphs of reason you followed up with. Thank you for reading and have a great day!
Reader Alissa commented “As far as Bayley goes…and maybe my hearing is just bad, but it seems to me as if people are turning on her already. Her cheers are nowhere near the level they were when she debuted. And having her go at it on the mic with Bliss certainly doesn’t help. I agree with making things hard for her, since she got too much too soon anyway, but if you do that, have Bliss use really underhanded tactics to get the last laugh while Bayley refuses to give up until the eventual happy ending. But looking at the last weeks, Bliss didn’t need dirty tactics. She simply beat Bayley clean at Payback and easily dispatched her on RAW this week. All that does is make Bayley look like a weak chump. And while that wasn’t that different from her NXT-career at times, viewers on RAW might and probably will react a little different. And as a fan of hers, that’s not encouraging.”
Alissa, I couldn’t agree more about the diminishing crowd reactions to Bayley and them being symptomatic of a bigger problem. WWE is not doing justice to this character. They’re making many of the mistakes they avoided in her NXT run while at the same time hoping fans who loved her in NXT stay emotionally invested through bad booking decisions. WWE clearly doesn’t know what story they’re trying to tell with Bayley’s character and it’s all getting lost on the bloated Raw program. Raw is also not a show that encourages fans to cheer for nice people, which will be a problem for Bayley. Thanks for commenting!
SSMGOTW (Superfluous Shane McMahon Gif of the Week):
This week’s wrestling reading:
From time to time, I want to highlight some of the best wrestling reading I’ve found over the past week.
We’re Done Here:
So this was week one of a new thing. Feedback, either positive or negative would be awesome from y’all! Heck, if you have a better name suggestion, I’m about that as well. Let’s get interactive in this space and have some fun with it. I have to throw a thank you out there to Jason Powell, who has been nothing but supportive of me basically getting to write the kinds of things I’d like to read.
Will Pruett writes about wrestling and popular culture at prowrestling.net. Of interest to him are diversity in wrestling and wrestling as a theatrical art form. To contact, check him out on Twitter @wilpruett, leave a comment, or email him at email@example.com.