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Why pro wrestling is the ‘most universal artform we have’

Think WrestleMania is not for you? Read these fans’ takes on why it’s actually great before you write it off.
Drew McIntyre will wrestle for the WWE championship at WrestleMania this weekend. The event originally was scheduled for Tampa, but due to the current pandemic will be streamed from a closed set in Orlando.
Drew McIntyre will wrestle for the WWE championship at WrestleMania this weekend. The event originally was scheduled for Tampa, but due to the current pandemic will be streamed from a closed set in Orlando. [ WWE ]
Published Apr. 1, 2020|Updated Apr. 1, 2020

There’s a saying among pro wrestling fans often attributed to the WWE’s Paul Heyman that goes, “For fans, no explanation is necessary, and for critics, no explanation will do.”

Perhaps it’s true, but we asked wrestling fans to give us a good explanation anyway.

With WrestleMania returning to TV screens this weekend, the Tampa Bay Times reached out to a group of smart, prominent wrestling fans and asked how they’d explain the greatness of wrestling to a friend who didn’t get it.

Their thoughtful responses might enlighten those who have never given pro wrestling a chance, or entice those who stopped watching years ago. Maybe they’ll just deepen the appreciation you already have.

Danielle Radford, TV writer and co-host of Tights and Fights

Danielle Radford
Danielle Radford [   ]

“You know how in musicals the idea is that they’re so filled with emotion that all they can do is sing it out? You just have to sing. That’s how wrestling is. They’re so filled with emotion — ‘I want to be the champ!’ or ‘You betrayed me!’ or ‘You slept with my wife!’ — that they have to fight. Wrestling is so much about friendship and betrayal, and how much that hurts as a human. It’s better than real sports, because in real sports, Cinderella stories never actually happen. Wrestling knows what you want, and the cinderella stories happen.”

Related: At Sligh Middle Magnet, WWE’s Titus O’Neil is a different sort of superstar

Evan Husney, co-creator of Dark Side of the Ring on Vice TV

“Wrestling is defined by good guys and bad guys. At a very young age I learned an important life lesson. I was 5. I loved GI Joe. Sergeant Slaughter was on GI Joe and he wrestled in the WWF. At the time, they’d transformed Sergeant Slaughter into an Iraqi sympathizer during Desert Storm, a bad guy. It went over my head. My parents took me to my first ever wrestling show, which was built up to Sergeant Slaughter turning heel against Hulk Hogan. I’m so confused, because everyone Is booing GI Joe. I’m like, ‘What’s happening? Who is this bald guy with a skullet beating up the all-American hero.' I was the only kid crying. My parents probably had deep concerns about my development. But it just kind of showed me that life, good and evil, isn’t so easily defined. Sometimes there’s a gray area. Wrestling is always a reflection of our culture.”

David Arquette, actor, pro wrestler and star of the wrestling documentary You Cannot Kill David Arquette

David Arquette
David Arquette

“Most look at it as fake or for kids or goofy and over the top, and you know, it is that, but it’s so many other things. Wrestlers have the ability to tell a story over any amount of time. It can be a quick story that doesn’t even have any dialogue, you can just watch it, and you get the story. They’re great athletes, and it’s an incredible spectacle, its Cirque du Soleil with testosterone. We put our lives on the line essentially every match, just to entertain. But there’s nothing like seeing the audience accept a wrestler as a babyface. It’s magical every time.”

Related: You won’t believe how hard they once worked to make professional wrestling ‘real’

Dave Schilling, writer and former WWE writer

Dave Schilling
Dave Schilling

“I’ve always said it’s maybe the most universal artform we have. It’s participatory. The audience is a character in the drama just as much as the wrestlers. What they cheer. What they boo. If they’re engaged or sitting on their hands. It drastically affects enjoyment of what you’re watching. In that way, it’s the closest you’ll get to classic Shakespeare productions. It’s the square circle, but it’s like theater in the round in how it functions. When you see it live it is a true group catharsis.”

Michael Hamflett, wrestling podcaster for WhatCulture

“As a young child, finding wrestling resulted in me struggling to see the drama in Good and Evil in Hollywood or television because I had something that did it better. To this day, I’ve not been able to invest in Star Wars or Marvel because my big, dumb, escapist fun was always this instead. I can’t remember thinking it was real, nor being bothered when it being predetermined was a stick to beat it with. As I assume fans of those genres of movies or television shows haven’t either.”

Sal Vulcano, star of Impractical Jokers, performing Oct. 10 at Tampa Theatre

Sal Vulcano
Sal Vulcano

“Wrestling is escapism, athleticism and theater at its best. It’s a soap opera for all ages. A shared experience that is elevated by watching and discussing with other fans. It doesn’t take itself at all seriously while completely taking itself pretty damn seriously. It’s got something for everyone. Anyone whom I’ve ever introduced to it has gone on to enjoy it and become a fan. It’s possible to love it when it’s good and love it when it’s bad. Or at least love to hate it. I recently fell in love with it again about five years back and I am doing what I can to make up for lost time. ... Austin 3:16 4 LIFE.”

Lindsey Kelk, bestselling author and co-host of Tights and Fights podcast

“I’m a storyteller by nature and by trade and one of my favorite forms of storytelling is professional wrestling. I realize that might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about wrestling, mostly people are reminded of the bulky, hyper-tanned, over-oiled men of the ’80s and ’90s but truly, when it is at its best, it’s the storytelling that really makes it shine. There’s no point in two people beating each other up unless there’s a reason for them to do it — whether that reason is to prove who’s the best wrestler, a good guy versus a bad guy, a young upstart trying to prove themself against the old guard, these are all iconic storylines that we’ve seen through history, time and time again. The difference with storytelling in wrestling is the showmanship, the athleticism, the spectacle. You can switch on a wrestling show and see every kind of person represented, every kind of person telling a story you can immediately understand, pick a side and cheer for. It’s cathartic.”

Adam Silverstein co-host of Getting Over: Wrestling Podcast and deputy managing editor at CBS Sports

“Pro wrestling is really no different than everything else you watch on television — sports, soap operas, reality shows, dramas and comedies — except it’s a mix of all those genres in one. There are good guys (faces) and bad guys (heels), characters you’re unsure about and cliffhanger story lines that keep you interested from one show to the next. So when wrestling is referred to as “fake,” well, it’s no faker than everything else you consume. The difference is the variety of emotions you can feel and styles you can watch on TV or live with thousands of screaming fans, like at WrestleMania. ... Best of all, it’s never too late to get in, nor is it a big deal if you take a break. Fans are always finding it or rekindling past love for wrestling.”

Matt McCarthy, comedian and host of We Watch Wrestling podcast

“It’s about justice. It’s about little guy, beating up the big guy. It’s about putting right what was once wrong. Hmm, I guess it’s a lot like Quantum Leap. Anyway, it’s not about muscles, or moves, or violence. It’s about fighting for what’s right, and that’s what the audience wants. ... Plus anything can happen. You never know who’s coming out, because every wrestler ever is behind that curtain.”

Izzy Silagyi, 12-year-old YouTube host and WWE superfan

Izzy of Izzymania
Izzy of Izzymania [ Courtesy of Cody Silagyi ]

“You kind of get lost in the moment when you watch wrestling, and you get to create moments with your family like I do. It’s fun when me and my parents disagree on wrestlers, one likes one, one likes the other, and I’m like ‘this one’s gonna win.’ Instead of going to Hawaii, we go on vacation to see wrestling together.”

Related: WrestleMania’s departure leaves indie wrestling in a stranglehold

Tiffany Anne, co-host of All Elite Podcast

“Wrestling has changed from when I was a kid. There’s something for everyone. Someone might want a kids-friendly promotion, or maybe they’re into technical wrestling, maybe it’s death matches. I’m into the independent scene, and that’s booming right now. They have a lot of intergender matches, and we didn’t have that as a kid. WWE, when I was a kid, women were valets. Now not only are women getting more exposure wrestling each other, but they’re getting in the ring and holding their own, and even wrestling better than the men.”

WrestleMania 36

7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, streamed on WWE Network*

*The event originally was slated to be held in Tampa, but the current coronavirus pandemic prompted the move to a closed set without fans in Orlando.

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