Tuesday, March 20, 2018

What Is Wrestling? (Psst, It's Art)

Wrestling is whatever you want it to be, but that means Jordynne Grace is more right in that it's art
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
Jordynne Grace is known for a lot of things in pro wrestling. She's one half of Team PAWG with LuFisto. She's starting to travel the world to ply her craft. She's also a renowned powerlifter who can probably lift you, yes, you sitting there reading this over her head. She's also got one of the more engaging and entertaining Twitter accounts among wrestlers of any level of employment. Sometimes, she gets into scraps with folks, whether it be fans or colleagues. Her latest spat was more the latter.

Over the weekend, she got into it with people, including Davey Richards and Josh Barnett, arguing over whether wrestling is an art or a sport, respectively. In the near nine-year history of The Wrestling Blog, you should know by now that I lean more towards the art side of the spectrum in this argument with about a Ford F-150's truckload worth of posts explaining why. I say "lean" because in all honesty, wrestling is what one makes it out to be. It's the most malleable artform that has a basic, rigid-seeming structure that I can think of. Movies and television can be anything, but the media lend themselves to infinite possibilities of what stories they can tell. The limit is only the money involved.

Pro wrestling is different in that you have to have a ring and you have to have the presupposition that it's a sporting contest. In reality, if you have those things, you can do pretty much whatever you want (and some might argue you don't even need the ring) and it'll still come across as pro wrestling. Case closed, right? Well, not exactly. You have some folks who like to peek their heads into any debate and insist wrestling HAS to be a certain way, and it HAS to follow some arcane rules in order to be wrestling or else it deserves to have nuclear weapons deployed upon it, isn't that right Jimmy?

Wanting to kill anyone who likes Lucha Underground works up a mean appetite
Photo Credit: Kevin Steen
Anyway, the common theme of those who think wrestling should be done in one specific way is that they think it should be presented as a sport at least, and that it should be considered a sport at most. The thing is, they're not completely wrong. Not just anyone can do pro wrestling. The activity takes a certain amount of dexterity and stamina to do well. You don't have to look like John Cena or LeBron James or even CM Punk to do it, but you should probably be able to chew gum and walk at the same time at the very least. These hard-liners do have some merit in claiming that it's a sport, even with the worked results.

Where folks like Cornette and Richards and Barnett fall off the rails is that many times (especially in the cases of those named in this sentence), their insistence on calling it a sport stifles aspects of wrestling that make it great in the first place. Even in the most shootiest of shoot-style promotions have artistic flair to them in some way in that it's not a shoot fight in the least. It's coordinating movements into something that looks like a stylized — idealized, yes, but still stylized — version of a fight. It's grittier. It looks more realistic. But it is to a shoot fight what, say, Saving Private Ryan is to actual war. In this comparison, Chikara would be something like Ender's Game or Pacific Rim or some other fantastically stylized movie that depicts war.

This vision gets even more muddled when moving onto more mainstream promotions. Yes, New Japan Pro Wrestling has more of a sports trapping than WWE does at this point. For that matter, so does Chikara because you have to accumulate consecutive wins to get title shots, unlike in WWE where title shots seem to be given out in turns or whatever. But I'm digressing. New Japan does feel more like a sport than WWE does, but at the same time, it embraces the character-driven aspect of wrestling, the theatrical aspect so to speak, not just with the characters it embraces, but with how the matches seem to unfold more as long-form cinematic fights rather than something one might see in the Octagon. Even if that kind of match progression lends itself to a sporting commentary, it still causes such a disconnect to hear Barnett talk about wrist control for three-quarters of a match between The Strip Club Money Thrower and Goofball What Uses Too Much Hair Product and Plays Air Guitar Whenever He Can Get It In. Who the fuck wants to hear about technique when the overarching story of the match has to do with more dramatic arcs?

Of course, my definition of "it can be whatever it wants to be" for wrestling does skew it really close to what art is. Even if the inherent structure of it and the athletic trappings might give folks pause in declaring it for certain as art, it feels like Grace is waging battle with more accurate weaponry than the other dorks are. Besides, whom are you going to trust, the cool wrestle lady that every indie promotion in America and elsewhere is looking to book, or the bridge-burning troll who swears he's going to be a paramedic soon and the guy whose professionalism as a commentator ends when someone he doesn't like is wrestling? I know whose side I'm going to.