I kick out my right leg. Not because I want to, my body just reacts. It’s a reflex that otherwise only occurs when watching football. It’s right then and there I realize that my analytical distance has crumbled. There’s nothing separating me from the female wrestlers in the ring. The earlier men’s matches were sort of uneventful and dull. But when Becky Lynch finally writhes free of the iron grip her opponent, a black-clad dominatrix, had pinned her down with and in one smooth motion turns around, grabs her by the throat and smacks her down head-first onto the canvas, I instinctively ram my foot into the back of the chair in front of me. The man sitting there glowers at me. I raise my hands and shrug in apology. Perhaps my reaction is due to my surprise at the women’s physical strength since, unlike the men, they don’t have strapping large muscles. Or maybe it’s because I feel like I know Becky. I interviewed her at her hotel four hours earlier and I’d like to see her win. She started the match by enduring a series of humiliations. Now she’s getting her revenge.
But let’s back up: I’m sitting in a full-to-capacity Royal Arena in Copenhagen at the WWE’s first wrestling event in Scandinavia. WWE stands for World Wrestling Entertainment and is an enormous entertainment business with a revenue stream of over USD 650 million a year. This makes the WWE’s founder and owner, Vince McMahon, the head of the pre-eminent wrestling organisation in the world. I’ve taken the metro out of the old part of Copenhagen and into the recently-built Ørestad and its long, uniform boulevard where one modernistic glass, steel and concrete building after another rears over your head. This is where Royal Arena lurks like a UFO that Vince McMahon’s wrestling empire has sent out as the outpost for a future invasion. That’s probably also the true intention. The WWE has global ambitions these days.
The feeling of alienation I’ve experienced both before and during this evening’s event is solely mine. Everyone else I’ve met is a wrestling aficionado even though wrestling can only be seen on pay-per-view here in Denmark. The people in the stands are already familiar with the wrestlers. They know the codes, what and when to shout out and how to count down. Who’s a villain—a heel—and who’s a hero—a baby face. I’ve researched wrestling like crazy in the last days but lost my way somewhere between blind tags, head drops and pinfalls. I find wrestling fascinating from the outside looking in. I mean, how can a show that everyone present, wrestlers as well as audience, knows is fake violence still attract so many fans? On the other hand, that’s what we have been talking about over the past 18 months: post-truth, fake news, disinformation, populism and Donald Trump … Inauthentic and fake are no longer synonymous with irrelevant. Quite the contrary.
Silence is our worst enemy
In fact, my first question for Becky—or Rebecca Quinn as she’s called outside the ring—dealt with how she views this whole debate on fake versus real in wrestling.
“It’s a misunderstood question,” was her immediate response.
“You don’t go watch a film and say ‘well, this isn’t realistic, I’m outta here’. It’s the same with wrestling. You can’t fake gravity and the ring isn’t a bounce castle. We feel real pain and our bodies are stressed to the max. Do we have pre-determined outcomes? Yes, but our job is to get you to suspend your disbelief,” she explains in her distinct Irish accent. Perhaps her hair’s coloured fire-red to accentuate her Celtic origins. According to the official information, she’s 1.68 metres tall but she’s got some Adidas platform shoes on that make her at least ten centimetres higher. I’m interviewing her along with four other journalists, and she transforms seamlessly into and out of her wrestling persona: from Becky, who could easily have stepped out of the pages of a comic book or low budget action movie, to Rebecca, and back again. All depending on the questions she gets.
“Becky is me, just dialled up 300 percent,” as she says.
I want to know how you actually rise up the ranks as a wrestler when the match results are determined beforehand. It’s not like when a striker scores a bunch of goals in football.
“The better you’re able to create a deep connection with the audience, the greater your chances are to be promoted. That’s what it all comes down to. The deciding factor is the reaction of the audience. Whether they hate you or love you, it’s a good thing because you’re getting a reaction. The worst thing for us is silence. Silence is our worst enemy,” she explains.
This is also what the French thinker Roland Barthes described in his famous essay on wrestling 60 years ago, the first chapter of his Mythologies.
“There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre. In both, what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private.”
This is of the utmost importance in understanding wrestling. Everything from the manner you enter the arena to how you fight, win and lose, to how you communicate with the crowd is all about provoking the strongest feelings possible in the audience. Not just those who are seated ringside, but also the audience member who’s sitting in the top row, far away in the hall and the millions who are watching on their television screens. At a football match you can sit bored in silence for 90 minutes. A wrestling match has no other goal than the audience’s reaction. Wrestlers are emotional catalysts in a theatre of violence—populists of our raw primitive instincts. And they succeed when your emotions become stronger than your sense of reason.
The Montreal Screwjob
It’s not just me who keeps on grappling with the question of reality and illusion when it comes to wrestling. It’s a game that the wrestling industry itself propagates time and time again. Even Becky can’t avoid using these terms to describe how her past experience as a drama school student helped her climb to the very top.
“It allowed me to make it more real and believable,” she tells me.
Because nothing can call forth emotions like the belief that something real and unplanned has happened. In wrestling jargon, it’s not called “real” and “fake”, but “shoot” and “work”. Work includes staging, theatre, stunt and stomp. A shoot is when something unplanned happens and reality comes crashing in. One of the most legendary shoots is the topic of perhaps the most famous documentary film ever on wrestling, Wrestling with Shadows: Hitman Hart, which features the premier wrestling star of the 90s, Bret Hart. At the pinnacle of his carrier in the WWF, the predecessor to the WWE, Hart receives an offer from TV mogul and CNN founder Ted Turner, who sees an opportunity to topple Vince McMahon from his throne as the foremost wrestling promoter. If he can get Hart on his roster, he will be well on his way. Initially, Hart stays with McMahon but when, for financial reasons, the famous promoter reworks The Hitman’s contract, Hart decides to take Turner up on the multi-million dollar offer. Both he and McMahon feel let down by the other, and this ends up having dramatic consequences for the circumstances in which Hart leaves the WWF. For his last fight in Montreal, we watch Hart and McMahon plan a so-called “Schmoz”—a fight where everything will devolve into total chaos and Hart will end up disqualified. In other words, he’ll lose his championship belt but keep his honour intact— lose without really losing, and without his wrestling persona being humiliated. But his opponent, Shawn Michaels refuses to honour the agreement when he holds Hart down for the count. The referee counts down and McMahon ends the fight, and while Michaels flees off with the championship belt, Hart stands in the ring in disbelief, full of rage and dismay. And then he spits right in McMahon’s face. While the cameras are showing the spit dripping down McMahon’s cheek, Hart storms back stage, with all his anger seeping out the pores of his body. And it gets even more dramatic. When McMahon approaches Hart in the locker room, they end up in fisticuffs and Hart gives McMahon a black eye.
The incident became an immediate sensation in the wrestling world and was christened “The Montreal Screwjob”. I empathised deeply with Hart, with the honest face and noble values of honour and sacrifice. And I know the feeling of being fucked over by a boss. It was a rare moment of raw honesty— or was it? The day after watching the film, I began to be consumed by doubt. I mean, what better way for Hart and McMahon to end things? Hart, of course, got what he wanted—lost his belt but kept his honour since everyone knew he was robbed—and McMahon got the scandal of the century ensuring everybody would be glued to their seats and their screens for the next wrestling event. As a matter of fact, thanks to “The Montreal Screwjob”, McMahon was able to create his own wrestling persona, The Evil Boss Mr. McMahon, who every so often cheats his wrestlers or interferes with matches. What if this wasn’t a shoot, but rather a work shoot? And, yes, that’s a concept too in wrestling. It’s when something everyone believes to be true turns out to have been planned after all. I spent a lot of time on Google and discovered that there were more people than just me who shared the theory that “The Montreal Screwjob” was in fact a work shoot. It makes perfect sense from a wrestling standpoint. My feelings shoved aside any voice of reason while watching the film. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that McMahon was taking an unusually long amount of time to dry off the spit, letting it slowly cascade down his face while the cameras recorded everything. That’s also one of Roland Barthes insights: “In wrestling reserve would be out of place.” Allowing oneself to be humbled and not doing anything to hide it is a key part of wrestling. I was also not thinking of the fact that the cameras weren’t rolling when Hart gave McMahon the famous black eye. Maybe this wasn’t actually a documentary on wrestling but rather an extension of wrestling. A type of sophisticated work shoot leaving me choked up with emotion as the substance of reality was disappearing like sand through my fingers.
And it’s like this exact mechanism where reality and fiction blend together provoking nagging doubts about what is actually authentic and real has become a significant factor in our society— something that’s readily apparent in the world of fiction.
Take Westworld, last year’s big hit series on HBO about a company that arranges virtual trips to a classic Wild West town where guests, freed from society’s morals and laws, can shoot, murder, and fornicate without consequence in a world of robots with artificial intelligence that resemble human beings down to a “T”. A rather unbelievable story that you nevertheless accept part and parcel, probably because we recognise our social and existential situation in the tension between the “real” people, who are finding out who they and their companions really are when laws and morals are scattered to the wind, and the robots, that suddenly start building autonomous selves from their simulated memories and emotions. For what is the truth about man actually? The civilised being or the person we are when we can do whatever we want with impunity? The civilised being who buys his goods, travels, and picks his or her partner per social strata or the robot that only appears to have free will? The immoral human or the robot that suddenly acquires integrity and emotions? Or as they constantly ask during the series: “Have you ever questioned the essence of your reality?”
Or take Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle that has become a world-famous literary sensation. It’s namely because of this doubt about what separates real and imagined and the feeling that everything has become a story and an image—and thus, in a sense that we’ve all become artists—that Knausgård decided to part with the traditional role of author as the creator of an imaginary world.
“Everything has become absorbed into the enormous realm of the imaginary,” he writes with contempt. “Just the thought of a fictional character in a fictional plot made me sick—I reacted physically to it.”
This is the reason My struggle is a plotless, phenomenological, essayistic piece of exploratory existential literature. With Knausgård, literature had to change its strategy and become documentary because the threshold between fiction and reality has become porous—even though the acquired authenticity in My Struggle is contaminated by the very fiction Knausgård tries to avoid. After all My struggle is still of course a novel, something which Knausgård himself admits up front when he writes that he “fights fiction with fiction”— just like The Montreal Screwjob.
The question is where this ontological uncertainty comes from. I don’t believe it’s a mystical outbreak of paranoia. I believe the condition is brought on by technology. The democratisation of information technology has not just made us more enlightened. It has also turned us all into communion officers and spin doctors with ourselves as the message. Everyone sends and everyone receives. I mean, I do it myself all the time— post that update, this article, that GIF, and that particular photo (of my food, my cycling trip in the US, from my time at the wrestling show, of my self). We’ve all learned to tell our own story so it sounds better than it actually is in reality, and when everybody does it the doubt about what is authentic becomes epidemic. And as everything becomes more and more digitalised, “webified” and reliant on a communicative presence on social media in order to even count as real, the question is whether an off ramp exists, or if we’re left to just lose ourselves in an endless regress of shoots and work shoots whose value will be measured in the emotional impact they’re able to evoke.
Trump the wrestler
This is what I couldn’t get out of my mind during the breaks between the wrestling matches in Royal Arena: how much wrestling reminds me of Donald Trump—his whole persona and way of communicating. A man, who in addition to his wealth and his reality show also spent time in the WWE universe. The most famous incident happened in WrestleMania 23 in 2007, where Trump took down Vince McMahon and then later shaved him bald in the middle of the ring. On the video footage, Trump looks like he’s right in his element. The more I think about it, the more his campaign and turbulent presidency remind me of wrestling. He aims for the maximum emotional effect—both for the good, like when he promises to fight for jobs, and for the bad, like when he puts down disabled people, threatens political opponents, or flirts with racism. Contempt is just as good as jubilation while at the same time, truth and consistent communication is completely irrelevant to him. Work, shoot or work shoot—it means nothing. The effect is everything. It’s as if when Trump left the wrestling ring to become President, the entire American public sphere turned itself into one big wrestling arena. He’s the popular villain, the heel that his supporters love to see smash the hero and the politically correct story about the morally upright defeating the deplorables. The guy who wins just as much, if not more, when the audience become outraged and provoked by his infamy and provocations. There was a reason Obama warned Democrat voters “Don’t boo, vote!” People booed Trump like they were at a wrestling match. And in the end, there were enough people content to just boo instead of vote and Trump became president.
The king of paranoid post-modernism, the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, once said that Disneyland existed to convince us that everything else outside of Disneyland was not fake. Perhaps today he would say that wrestling exists to convince us that everything else—our politics, our everyday life, our social media-mediated relationship to one another—doesn’t adhere to the dynamics of wrestling.
RKO! RKO! RKO!
Back in Royal Arena, the evening concludes with a battle of the giants: A.J. Styles, Jinder Mahal and Randy Keith Orton. Orton, or “The Viper” as he’s called, is the fourth-highest paid wrestler in the world. He looks like a Navy Seal crossed with Brandon Walsh from the TV show Beverly Hills 90210. Jinder Mahal, who should crack open the Indian market for the WWE and is climbing up the top rungs of the ladder in McMahon’s wrestling stable, plays the role of the evil Oriental despot. A.J. Styles is the Appalachian biker who flip-flops back and forth between good and evil.
Jinder hurls A.J. into the metal fence surrounding the ring. He doesn’t get up again that evening. But while Jinder is bragging and cursing at the audience, Orton sneaks up behind him and grabs ahold of his neck. The intensity rises and people begin to rhythmically chant: RKO! RKO! RKO! What they’re shouting out is Orton’s signature submission hold, named after his initials. Orton gets up behind Jinder, grabs him by the neck and smashes him into the floor. The audience roars and stands up in unison, and I follow along. In fact, I don’t sit down again that evening until I get home. The heroic rock music is pounding through the speakers. We clap as The Viper leaves the ring and heads backstage. Then we file out of the WWE UFO and into the Copenhagen night.
In the metro on the way home, a boy and his mother are practising that wrestling move where you stomp on the floor while pretending to throw a punch. I check my Twitter feed. “Trump angry at everyone,” reads one headline. The next one reads: “James Comey is planning to take his revenge on the President…” I know it’s journalism but now it sounds more like the story line for next weekend’s WWE Smackdown. Welcome to WrestleWorld.