The problem with entertainment options these days—TV shows, sports, books, blogs—is that there are too many of them. This especially applies to professional wrestling.
Hardcore fandom of just about any kind becomes toxic, and one need only look at the controversies around gender and race in Star Wars, casting in Marvel movies, or literally any criticism of video games and gaming culture. This has probably always been the case, but there’s a reason the term “echo chamber” is used so often to refer to social media. This part isn’t news to you, I bet.
The real problem, I think, is that if you read Star Wars rumors every single day and your whole thing in life is that you’re A Star Wars Guy, then anything related to Star Wars which forces you to confront something about yourself and your relationship to a fictional universe you love is naturally upsetting. I do believe that art, once sent out into the world, isn’t for the artist anymore but the audience. But the audience now tends to take ownership of these things in ways that aren’t necessarily good for anyone involved.
With professional wrestling, this can be a particular problem because there’s just so much of it.
You can very easily watch 10-plus hours of professional wrestling a week, and a lot more around big events like SummerSlam or WrestleMania. That’s the content equivalent of a full season of a prestige TV show every single week. Just look at wrestling Twitter during any big wrestling event, and there’s a whole lot of complaining about it, especially if it’s a main-roster WWE show. If you were watching 50 or 60 seasons of your favorite show every single year, you’d find a lot to complain about too.
Please note that this doesn’t come from a place of “wrestling is stupid.” I’ve loved professional wrestling for as long as I can remember.
I became a teenager during the Monday Night Wars, with the WCW’s landscape-changing NWO angle going up against WWE’s Attitude Era. In any given week, you could watch more wrestling than you can today, because WCW and WWF were still separate entities, each putting on three televised shows a week, plus PPVs, ECW still existed, and so on.
Thanks to the surging popularity of wrestling, and the nascent internet, a whole community cropped up around this time, spreading rumors and creating the first truly large generation of “smart marks,” mega-fans aware of the backstage stuff. I was definitely one of them, who knew (or thought I knew) all the industry goings-on thanks to a telephone game of rumors originally reported by a handful of legitimate insiders, which made their way down the food chain to, ahem, “news” sites and message boards.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say I thought about wrestling all day, every day, for the majority of my teen years. When I wasn’t watching wrestling shows, I was waiting for wrestling shows. I was reading the rumors, and playing the video games. Every week, all year long. Sports entertainment has no offseason. (At least being a hockey writer now, I’m forced to dial back my consumption in the summer.) I burned myself out on all it, stopped watching for about 15 years. Maybe I’d check in on a WrestleMania here and there, but that was about it.
With the reemergence of pro wrestling as a bigger deal in certain circles, including media, over the past few years—this tweet is very, achingly true—several of my friends have been getting back into it. Which is fine. Like what you like and spend as much time with it as you want to. I was personally content to watch just the pay-per-views on my WWE Network subscription, once or twice a month. I was happier that way, and happiness should be everything here.
But then about a year and a half ago, I was added to a wrestling group chat with some of those friends, and friends-of-friends, who watched a whole lot more than that. More specifically, as men in their 30s, they were into it in the way I had been into it as a teenager. They knew as much about the behind-the-scenes stuff as I did 20 years ago, and they watched every Raw and every SmackDown. Every pay-per-view from pre-show to wrap-up show. Every NXT, every 205 Live. New Japan events online. Ring of Honor. Plus, sometimes, even Impact Wrestling.
In the chat, these guys would talk about wrestlers I had never heard of and had no interest in learning more about, using slang and references to things I didn’t recognize. Hundreds of messages a day. I felt very old and out of touch, but one thing I noticed had not changed about smarks: My god, do they ever complain.
Every show had at least three matches that were booked in ways that were unforgivable. Almost every match had a guy whose workrate sucked or whose character wasn’t any good compared with what he had done in the indies. All those grievances I had in 1999 about why Test was getting a push could now be applied to Mojo Rawley. My old complaints that it was nonsense that Kane was pushed as almost invincible despite being a poor in-ring worker whose matches showed no variation could’ve been cut-and-pasted for Jinder Mahal today. These men see wrestling the same way I did when I was 16: I knew, to an extent, how the business worked, but hated that it wasn’t what I wanted wrestling to be.
I left that group chat after a couple of months. The way they wanted to talk about wrestling wasn’t for me because I didn’t want to put in the time commitment that was obviously required to trade emoji punches and puke-faces with these guys over every match. It was a slew of messages I was just ignoring, every day. Who has the time for that, let alone to watch all the shows?
I’m not uncritical. The smark still lives in me. I can’t stand how every Roman Reigns match is a collection of Superman punches, moments leading up to Superman punches, or the immediate aftermath of Superman punches. I am wholly bewildered by what anyone sees in Dean Ambrose. I think the number of high-end matches Shinsuke Nakamura has had since coming to the main WWE roster can be counted on one hand. I thought both WrestleMania and SummerSlam were borderline unwatchable this year. I sought out All In just to see what all the fuss was about, and thought for all the hype that it was only about as good as a not-great NXT TakeOver.
(I get hate-watching, too, because I have inexplicably seen every episode of The Big Bang Theory. To hate-watch it is a comfort of some kind to me, and I’m not about to spend my time in therapy exploring why. But I’m not also reading Young Sheldon message boards and looking up casting rumors for the next girl Raj blows it with, y’know?)
I love wrestling. I lost my mind over the Kenny Omega/Kazuchika Okada trilogy; have been overjoyed by the rebirth of serious tag team wrestling; delighted in North American wrestling promotions taking women seriously for the first time ever; and still love watching big guys like Braun Strowman and Samoa Joe just beat the absolute shit out of people. Good or bad, though, I also don’t think about those things for more than a few hours a month. Which seems like the right amount to me.
And WWE is more than happy to help. Watch any pay-per-view you want; before every match they will show you a four-minute video package, slickly put together by the promotion’s world-class production crew, telling you literally everything you need to know about why this match is happening and what the motivations are for all involved. For devoted wrestling-watchers, it’s an annoyance, but to the casual fan, it’s a valuable “Previously On” segment. (All TV shows should start with four-minute Previously-Ons, but that’s a different take.)
If I do happen to hear that a Raw or SmackDown was particularly good, I’ll check it out, and find myself sitting through long, boring promo segments to open every show, just to get three or four decent-at-best matches that, even if they’re in the 20-minute range, are interrupted by two commercial breaks. There’s so much filler built into every show that I wonder how I ever had the patience for it. Was it always this way? I’m never going to try to find out.
Once again, this isn’t to say I’m above any of this. Wrestling was once pretty close to being my entire world. But I’m a different person now. I actively avoid movie spoilers and, for films I really want to see, even trailers. I kind of ruined Game of Thrones for myself by reading the books after Season 1, you see.
On Sunday night, while checking Twitter between matches on Hell in a Cell, I saw someone mention a rumor that there would be someone making a big return during the main event. That someone ended up being Brock Lesnar, and when his music started mid-match, I felt a little let down. “Ah, pretty cool,” was all I ended up thinking instead of, “Whoa, god damn, it’s Brock Lesnar!” Not a great feeling, to know you missed out on that.
Everyone is free to consume art—and make no mistake, pro wrestling is art—in the way they see fit. But as with anything else, people who make something Their Whole Thing (in this case, identifiable by Bullet Club shirt ownership) are only going to end up wanting that thing to be something it isn’t. And because of wrestling’s unique approach to programming, that wanting eats up an insane amount of your time, and perhaps making you unhappier than if you just took one half step back. It’s Faustian, in its way, the way your desire turns nearly everything it touches sour.
But you don’t have to do it. Or: just maybe do it a little less.