On Getting Worked

Pro wrestling will give you trust issues.

The language of pro wrestling is the language of deception. Mark, work, selling, and kayfabe are little strands of carny DNA that show us wrestling’s origins — a callback to when strongmen traveled with carnivals across the United States, bilking gullible Dust Bowl Alpha Bros out of money by goading them into rigged matches. Even if one of the local hayseeds looked like he might actually win a match with the strongman, another carny (hidden behind a curtain) would bash the poor guy’s head with a blackjack, making it look to the crowd like he’d just gotten winded from exertion. When a carnival barker had an audience successfully bamboozled into taking part in the spectacle, they were “working” the crowd.

Sometimes wrestlers don’t even know why they lie. It’s such a way of life for them that they don’t need a particularly good reason to do it. Listen to any interview with a very old pro wrestler and you’ll learn that they body-slammed eight beluga whales a day while in their prime, were single-handedly responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union, and taught Mickey Mantle everything he knows. Vince McMahon wasn’t even canonically acknowledged as the main guy behind WWE until 1997, after the Montreal Screwjob. Previously, President Jack Tunney was the narrative svengali who booked matches, stripped titles, and suspended the dastardly heels. To the casual viewer, Vince McMahon was just an interviewer and sometimes-ring announcer who really liked to scream things. Why the pointless deception? Why pretend that a figurehead like Jack Tunney ran things?

¯_(ツ)_/¯ – Vince McMahon, verbatim quote

Of course we’re all fascinated with what’s going on in the back room. We snicker online about how a wrestler politicked his way into moving up the card, and how real-life beefs have worked their way into the storyline, because it’s fun and we feel clever. But take a look at any given thread on /r/squaredcircle, and you’ll see a lot of angry, bitter folks who are way too smart and savvy to enjoy pro wrestling. For the internet smark strawman I’m using here, they’re so determined not to get worked that they’ll dig their heels in and cross their arms and treat everything wrestling-related with skeptical disdain. They don’t watch a match to see a story unfold with bodies and canvas and ropes — they look for cracks in order to feel smart for noticing them.

Here’s the thing: Getting worked is a crucial part of enjoying pro wrestling. 

I’ll give you an example: Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins at Elimination Chamber for the World Heavyweight Championship. When Dean was announced as the winner, my girlfriend and I made so many noises of delighted disbelief that we accidentally scared the dog. An upset! Against all odds, the fan-favorite underdog won! Sometimes the little guy really DOES pull through and and ahhhhh, wait a minute, nope, dusty finish, lost on a technicality, cowardly heel retains, should’ve seen it coming. I couldn’t stop laughing — I was so happy because I just got worked by these lousy carniesThey played on my desires and expectations like a fiddle, and it was masterful.

It works both ways. When Sami Zayn finally struggled up that hill and won the NXT Championship, old-school NWA babyface-style, we also got worked, because we wanted him to win so badly that we let ourselves be wholly engrossed in the storyline and match. Professional wrestling is based on the manipulation of the crowd’s emotions, and when Sami won the title, we surrendered to the absolute joy of watching this doofy little ginger dude achieving his goals. Pro wrestling almost requires more suspension of disbelief than other types of fictional media, because the stock criticism of the art form is “you’re stupid if you believe it because it’s faaaake.” You don’t have to believe that something’s real in order to enjoy it like it’s real.

It’s brave to let yourself Feel Stuff about oily superhumans putting each other through pieces of furniture, and it’s a victory to overcome self-consciousness about the things you love.

-Ryan Boyd

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One Comment

  1. September 23, 2015

    I’m reminded of a video Henessey Youngman did comparing Joseph Beuys and Jay-Z, and how they both told ridiculous, improbable stories about near-death experiences that were clearly untrue. Sometimes letting go and simply rolling with what is sent your way makes for a much more satisfying experience in the end.

    I will forgive r/SC for all its faults, though, simply because their Whose Line Is It Wednesday threads always put me on the floor with laughter.

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