Friday, November 7, 2014

Wrestling Is Wrestling

Pictured above: Wrestling
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
Every once in awhile, WWE fans on Twitter get frisky and want the return of the cruiserweights. This week, WWE Network and the official Twitter presence of the company riled up the base and came out asking if the fans wanted the division to come back, and predictably, the response was notable. Personally, however, I never saw the point of a separate cruiserweight division outside of its introduction in WCW. Sure, the old farts like Hulk Hogan weren't going to sell for "vanilla midgets," so they had to gain a foothold with the fans in some way. A lower weight class always seemed to be a temporary stopgap, an acclimatization period for when the wrestlers within would cross over and become main roster favorites. It took awhile, but eventually, wrestlers like Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, and Rey Mysterio became wrestling royalty. Furthering the idea, Daniel Bryan's ascension to the biggest deal in WWE would not have happened in the "halcyon" days of a cruiserweight division, because he would have been pigeonholed.

Pigeonhole is your word of the day, because it happens a lot in pro wrestling. Promoters find any reason to marginalize a talent that brings something different to the table out of reactionary fear of the different or protection of the interests of the current draws with whom they may be cozy and friendly with. Wrestlers are not just compartmentalized and segregated by size either. African-American wrestlers may have come a long way since days of legal segregation, but they still rarely, if ever, get a chance to run at the top of a major company. For every Bobby Lashley TNA World Championship run, you've still got every other major title run in TNA, WWE, and Ring of Honor that's whiter than snow. Still, at least Black wrestlers seem to have overcome style bias. No one really classifies it as "black wrestling" or "interracial wrestling" anymore, which is great. The same things can't be said for another historically marginalized group of people in women.

People, even colleagues, still classify things as "women's wrestling" or make big deals in a pejorative or othering manner about "intergender wrestling." As if a woman can't do a headlock, the fight for equality is still far from over, even though four of the five best performers on NXT right now are women (still luv u, Sami Zayn), even though at least half the standout performers in non-nationally televised independent wrestling are women, even though Candice LeRae's demand has made Joey Ryan relevant again. The problem, however, is not just in the fans and writers who continue to perpetuate the myths that "men selling for women is just NOT believable" or that women, somehow, are made inferior wrestlers because of estrogen or some shit like that. It's all in the promoters.

Since the dawn of the artform, promoters have tried to take a truly unlimited medium and put more boundaries and limits on it than have been necessary. Instead of asking what they can do, many promoters with few exception have bogged down their mission statements with worries about what they can't do. Truly memorable promotions have always succeeded because of risks taken. Most promotions dared not blur the lines, but the Memphis territory was out there doing Reality Era shit from before most people who would come up with that term were out of diapers. Hardcore wrestling could never hit the mainstream, thought most companies, until Paul Heyman blew the lid off that preconception with ECW.

Chikara, Inter Species Wrestling, Dramatic Dream Team, Michinoku Pro, RINGS, any number of influential, critically acclaimed promotions over the years have succeeded on various levels, whether financially or artistically, because they defied expectation and asked "what can we do" more than "what can't we do?" Even the best companies over the years still are held back by some doubts, but nothing is perfect, and wrestling tends to bring out flawed people to be trusted with presenting and promoting the action in the ring.

And those flaws in promoters are why, despite the proven history of risk-taking being the best chance for a company of breaking out, more people ask "what can't we do?" They listen to the loud voices that encourage segregation, compartmentalization, and marginalization of groups of wrestlers, because promoters in general tend to labor under the idea that every dollar is a good dollar. Granted, I have never put my money behind a business, so it's easy for me to be idealistic. Still, if a fan is going to bitch and moan about suspension of disbelief because Daniel Bryan can take down Ryback, or more pointedly, because a dude has to sell for Candice LeRae, is that fan worth any time?

History has borne out that extreme conservative mindsets die over time. If a company presents cruiserweights on the same level as heavyweights, then the fanbase will accept it at large. Those who disagree with that direction will leave. The same is true for purveyors of women in wrestling, whether against each other or against men. As long the bookers aren't total sleazebags and play out women in the ring as some kind of twisted rape or domestic violence fantasy, then the fanbase will come around, and the critics who are too bitter to accept it will fall to the wayside.

Wrestling doesn't need some kind of bizarre, Paragon League-style codex in order to work. Wrestling is, for lack of a better term, wrestling, and no matter what the size, shape, race, creed, or gender of the performers in the ring, it will tell its own story and be its own narrative. If that narrative includes cruiserweights, minorities, women, anthropomorphic animal avatars, rigged explosives, or anything that the mind can imagine, so be it. The people in charge of promotions need to keep moving forward and promote atmospheres where everything is possible while no bias or bigotry is able to pervade the atmosphere of accepted behavior1, and when that happens, the fans and the critics will drop their preconceived biases or fall to the wayside.

Some day, people will stop talking about "intergender" wrestling like it's some exotic subset, and talk about it for what it is, just wrestling. And some day, people will stop clamoring for the fucking cruiserweights to come back, because they never left in the first place. They became assimilated into the narrative and changed the game at the highest levels. Wrestling doesn't need unnecessary limits. Wrestling is wrestling, and it will always survive as long as the people putting it on never forget that fact.

1 - Of course, if the heels want to use bigotry and jerkdom to get their villainy over, well, that's just good storytelling as long as they get some kind of comeuppance.