By Will Pruett, ProWrestling.net Senior Staffer (@itswilltime)
I have a problem. I don’t think it’s just me, but I’m hesitant to throw anyone else under the bus. The year is 2018 and suddenly I have no idea how to judge professional wrestling. I don’t know what is good. I don’t know what is bad. I don’t know how many stars are in the sky and how many stars a wrestling match deserves. Am I watching wrestling wrong? Have I always been wrong? What’s happening?
Let’s start with some old common knowledge. When I listen to an older wrestler on a podcast, or almost anyone in the wrestling business, I am told wrestling (and a wrestler) should be judged on money made. While this has never felt authentic to me, I could always listen to the argument for it. If wrestling is about getting people into the building and exciting fans, money made is a solid metric.
This has always led to me bristling at the idea of judging art with a spreadsheet. If I can tell whether wrestling is good or bad by auto-sorting by a column in Excel, what’s the point of watching? Much like the top grossing films are not always the best films (aside from The Last Jedi, which is perfect), the top grossing matches are rarely the ones I leave with optimism welling up inside about the art form.
Add to this that WWE is about to make more money per show than any wrestling company could have dreamed of a decade ago. Raw and Smackdown are billion dollar properties on cable and broadcast television. Does this make Raw and Smackdown the best wrestling shows of all time? Should I auto-sort my spreadsheet and declare all of wrestling done? This would be a flawed way to approach them.
Alright, so with money off the table, let’s talk about match quality. We are currently experiencing an embarrassment of riches in the match quality world. One of wrestling’s most notable reporters and critics, Dave Meltzer, recently changed his entire match rating scale at the beginning of 2017 (six stars), in the middle of 2017 (six and a quarter stars), and in the middle of 2018 (seven stars) to accommodate for advances in match quality. We now expect more of wrestling than ever when we turn on our televisions.
It’s strange because I know there are a ton of great matches out there, but I find I don’t have time for most of them. I know NJPW puts on amazing cards, but I can’t bring myself to watch all of them all of the time. 205 Live is becoming a match quality based show and division with a diverse cast of performers, but I can’t always make it to the network to see them. WWE UK is pumping out content again and it’s about to pick up. I don’t know if I’ll ever see a single episode of NXT UK.
Match quality is entering its over-saturation phase. Knowing the majority of wrestling critics rated a match five stars or must watch is not a motivator anymore. It’s simply another week in the golden era of match quality. 1998 me would read this and scream at me for being non-committal about something so great.
The sweet spot for watching wrestling seems to be stories told, but in and outside the ring. Now, I’m not talking about in-ring storytelling and its amorphous definition that often boils down to working the leg. I’m talking about broader stories told through multiple platforms. The problem? These are amazingly subjective.
Being The Elite is a great wrestling storytelling triumph for some and a hokey obnoxious overacted show for others. There is very little middle ground. What about Dave Lagana’s work on Ten Pounds of Gold for the revived NWA? It’s not making money yet, but it is inspiring others to care about what they’re watching. I never thought I could care about a Nick Aldis match, especially in the aforementioned golden era of in-ring quality, but here I am.
Another standard I look to for wrestling in 2018 is social progress. I know it’s not the best way to look at wrestling, since wrestling is classically a regressive art form often decades behind the times, but it’s what I want. This standard rarely lines up with any other standard though. I fell in love with wrestling watching convicted domestic abuser Steve Austin beat up people weaker than him. This is a tough realization to come to. I hope wrestling has learned to be better than this, but I’m not always sure. Look at the transphobic Bobby Lashley’s sisters segment or the use little people dressed as pancakes in New Day’s WrestleMania entrance.
I have no idea how to evaluate wrestling in 2018 because it is so fragmented. It’s rare to find a match I can emotionally invest in the story of that also delivers quality in the ring. Even rarer is hearing about those matches making a ton of money. It’s time for all of us to rethink how we’re evaluating this art form. It’s time to listen to new voices and new critics. It’s time to read more from people who we haven’t heard from before.
Wrestling is coming into its own as a viable art form. It’s making money, which allows it to take risks. It’s become more and more acceptable in the mainstream world. Getting a broadcast network to pay a billion dollars for Smackdown proves this. Wrestling, in our glut of cultures and subcultures, is entering a whole new phase of existence and there will be growing pains. Maybe this is what I’m feeling. The old system of looking at wrestling never worked well, but it was never notable enough to mention. Now, with wrestling getting bigger and better than ever, we all need a fresh new approach.
What I absolutely positively love in wrestling this week:
WWE 24: The Hardy’s – Woken – I rarely anticipate a WWE documentary to be unflinching. I purchased almost every WWE DVD documentary in the 2002-2013 period and devoured them. Nothing made then comes close to this. WWE told the story of Matt and Jeff Hardy with an eye on truth and it was great. They talked about addiction as the medical issue it is and showed true struggles with it. This piece was both inspiring and heartbreaking. If WWE is truly trying to win an Emmy, this is a piece that could do it.
What I absolutely positively love in the world this week:
Jurassic World: Evolution – Who among us has never wanted to build a successful theme park, then set a herd of raptors loose in it? I have no idea why it took so long for a game like Jurassic World: Evolution to exist, but I’m overjoyed about it existing now. I’ve been addicted to this PS4 game for the past week and it just gets better. People still come to my park, even after over 20 of them died when all the carnivores broke out! What a wonderful world we live it.
SSMGOTW (Superfluous Shane McMahon Gif of the Week):
MMA Shane is Life
We’re Done Here:
While I can get all mixed up in my own head about how to watch wrestling, I truly love just watching wrestling. I went to WWE’s house show in Anaheim on Sunday night and, while it wasn’t my favorite house show ever, watching kids race to the barricades to high five wrestlers will always be the best. On top of all that, we saw a great improvised main event after the top rope broke. That’s the kind of surprise we could never plan. Fun times! Wrestling is great and wonderful.
— Will! (@itswilltime) June 25, 2018
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 see his video content, subscribe to his YouTube channel. To contact, check him out on Twitter @itswilltime, leave a comment, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.