A General Theory of Good Wrestling (Guest Post by Sawyer Paul)

A big welcome to guest contributor Sawyer Paul, who has laid out a thoughtful theory of a not so straightforward question: what exactly is it that makes professional wrestling “good”? Sawyer’s piece gets at the core of what we’re trying to do here at Spectacle of Excess, and that’s to clarify and celebrate the artistry of this pretend sport. So a big thanks to Sawyer (and all the other recent guest contributors) for the help keeping wrestling theory alive while I work on getting my own wrestling writing groove back! 


I want to believe that good wrestling has value, and that this value contributes to the arts.

Does good wrestling exist? Of course it does. It exists *by design*. Good wrestling is one of the goals of this charade. Good wrestling is one of the reasons wrestling is fake. If legitimate wrestling were good in and of itself, there would be almost no reason to stage it. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Real wrestling—where the matches aren’t scripted and the moves aren’t designed around spectacle but to defeat an opponent—is unfortunately not very good. Have you ever seen real wrestling? It’s dreadfully boring. It is slow, difficult to follow, and hard to appreciate as a layman. Real wrestling doesn’t *communicate*. So in order to get good wrestling, first you have to fake it. We all agree on this, even if it’s not something that makes us feel very good.

But there is fake wrestling that is also not very good. Because *goodness* is a quality, it’s not something just anyone can do. You have to be good *at* wrestling to produce good wrestling. I’m sorry if this sounds simplistic but nobody ever explains this very well. When you first start watching wrestling, this qualitative measure isn’t apparent. You don’t know the difference between a good match and a poor one. You may feel something in your gut but you won’t be able to communicate this. Sometimes the commentators will say a match is good but you can’t trust them, because they are part of the charade and their job is to lie. This is common amongst the arts, and the qualities that make a good match are disputable. It may have something to do with mechanics or chemistry between performers, but it’s tough to nail down.

Good wrestling is not necessarily believable wrestling. Wrestling is different from other sports in this regard, because most sports fall victim to corruption due to of gambling. But gambling has never been a facet of wrestling, because nobody, not even in the old days, thought it was all that legitimate. Wrestling became fake because legitimate wrestling didn’t sell tickets. Wrestling is fake because what they can choreograph is more exciting than actually letting two grapplers try to beat one another. It’s also fake because it’s fun and profitable to lie.

This makes every action in wrestling a decision about entertainment and falsehood. Every wrestling move is built both to entertain and deceive.

Consider the headlock, which we think of as rudimentary, but not one we would see in a legitimate fight. It’s so simple, but both performers can make it their own. On offense, the wrestler can grind the head down, and they can show off their confidence and superiority. They can taunt. On defense, the wrestler can communicate agony. They can struggle. And they can wag their finger, to communicate to the fans that even in defense, the wrestler is in control. A headlock can become a note played and referenced throughout a match. Mick Foley can make people hate him for using it because he wasn’t doing more dangerous moves. Kevin Owens can call himself the Master of it because he uses it to so effectively make the audience hate him. But here’s something a headlock should never do: hurt. It should never actually cause intentional harm. And this is true of all wrestling moves.

Over time, you’re going to find your own idea of a good match. It can take some time. Mine took maybe twenty years to hammer down, so don’t feel any pressure to get it right away. You have to watch a lot of wrestling to know it when you see it. If you feel something for a match, try to figure out what that feeling is, and how it came to be. Unpack it. Think about it. And then go looking for more matches that make you feel that way.

To me, a good match is one where the performers are successful in communicating a piece of or a whole story, where an emotion is palpably transferred from performer to audience, and where none of the performers are physically injured. I know that sounds uncomfortably vague, but there’s a lot of great wrestling out there and it’s tough to fit it all in a container.

Let’s break that down into three parts:

1) the performers are successful in communicating a piece of or a whole story
2) an emotion is palpably transferred from performer to audience,
3) none of the performers are intentionally physically injured.

This is purposefully broad. Some of my favourite wrestling matches go over an hour, feature more than 20 performers, and strategically break the rules of the established narrative.

This might sound odd for a few reasons. Isn’t a good wrestling match where the popular wrestler you like wins? Isn’t wrestling better when the violence gets increased? And isn’t wrestling at it’s best when it drops all of its choreographed contrivances and seems to all like a true sport?

These criteria might be true to you, but there’s no objectivity to any of this. Sometimes, a match will only be good to *you*. This is fine. You are welcome to like what you like. Art is subjective and wrestling is art. But personally, I don’t like pro wrestling when veers towards legitimacy. I don’t want it to be real. I don’t want to forget that a performance is happening. I want to see a *performance*, not a fake fight. And as much as it might seem antithetical, I’m not a fan of violence. It doesn’t do anything for me to see one person greatly hurt another, even in a fake wrestling match.

Good wrestling doesn’t push towards legitimate sport. Good wrestling remains in the realm of performance. A move done well is not one done legitimately. A move done well sparks emotion.

There is no point system in wrestling. A wrestlers’ chance of winning a match has nothing to do with how well they perform. They win if the story has them winning. They play a part, and it is up to them to play it well. If they perform well in a lousy role, they might get a better role later. But it isn’t guaranteed. Good wrestlers can play in lousy stories their entire career.

But the play still has to be performed. So you get stories played out by poor wrestlers. The audience watches a wrestler win a championship who cannot execute an impressive sequence of holds and counters. They are inferior performers but placed in the role of “winner” for other reasons. Sometimes this is the fault of marketing or management, who feel like this performer is the right person to put on the poster. Go ask anyone who’s ever worked in theatre or film if the star is always the hardest working or most talented performer in the cast.

I believe far too much time is spent worrying about if wrestlers are playing the right parts than if they are performing the right moves.

It is important to keep in mind that a move isn’t performed for the sake of punishing an opponent or an attempt to win. There is a punishing sequence, a winning sequence. Wrestlers perform a win, and a loss.

It is important that no one is intentionally hurt. I know I keep repeating it but it should absolutely be a pillar of pro wrestling, and there should be some kind of comforting disclaimer in the credits: no wrestlers were harmed on purpose in the making of this match.

So what about the matches where the hero wins? Those absolutely can be great. And the right person winning can be a crucial component to the quality of the match. But the right person winning in a stinker can have precisely the opposite intended effect. I’ve seen so-called heroes boo’d out of buildings for failing to deliver a quality performance, and wrestling history is littered with handpicked heroes that win years of worthless matches.

Other things that matter as much as the right performer winning: the lighting, the art direction, the quality of the audio commentary, the size of the arena, who you are watching the match with, where you are in your life, and the level of scrutiny you’re comfortable administering onto this stupid weird thing we all love.

Wrestling is complicated. Figuring out why a match is any good is a hard thing. But in my attempts to quantify this, I often come back to the same questions. Why is a wrestler performing this move at this moment? What’s the point of this sequence of moves? Why does this one move so often segue into this other move? Why are some moves delightful when performed by one wrestler but worthless in the hands of another? What’s the internal logic of this match? Is anything from this match applicable to other matches between the same two performers?

Is there a formula to a good match? Or can it only occur by accident or circumstance? Can two performers conspire to create a quality match, and guarantee on their promise?

Can good wrestling move the narrative by itself? Do the wrestlers need to speak in order to communicate their desires, or can everything they want come through in the performance of holds? And is that approach more true to the medium than separating story from match?

Is there value in performing one wrestling move instead of another? Does it help or hurt a match to repeat moves, to use moves out if sequence, out of order? Is there a way to perform a move differently? Would this have improved things? Or was the way the wrestler performed it the correct way for this match? Can you tell the difference?

There are lots of ways to approach trying to find quality in a match. I don’t have all the questions. You’re going to have to figure out some of your own. But when you do, think about your questions like this: am I asking this right? Is there a way to ask this of myself where I get a better answer?

The most important thing is to keep asking questions. Don’t accept your knowledge as enough. Don’t accept what you see as the only thing wrestling can be. It can be wherever the performers, writers, directors, producers, and fans want it to be.

It boils down to, of course, try harder. Ask more of yourself and your thought process. If you do, you’ll find your good matches a lot faster than I found mine.


Sawyer Paul writes about wrestling at International Object. He’s an author and podcaster living in Toronto.

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