WWE: Wrestling Thespians
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Wrestlers may not get the credit they deserve as athletes, but what about as actors? Richard Cosgrove explains...
It is a truth universally acknowledged that professional wrestling isn't really a sport as such, and it follows therefore that we can't really call the participants sportsmen. There's no denying, however, that despite the outcomes of matches being scripted in advance, the actual bouts themselves are legitimate displays of incredible athleticism and the wrestlers involved are more than worthy of being called athletes.
The 'wrestling is fake' argument has raged for decades, and I'm not here to try and convince you otherwise. I am here, however, to put forward the hypothesis that while we may not give wrestlers the respect that they deserve as athletes, there is a very credible argument for treating them with the same reverence that we afford our favourite movie stars. Let me explain.
Wrestlers and movies have long gone hand in hand. Hulk Hogan brought the WWF (as it was back then) into the mainstream spotlight when he appeared in Rocky III (1983) playing a wrestler called Thunderlips. Canadian born 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper managed to lose the spandex when he followed Hogan onto the big screen in John Carpenter's underrated They Live (1986), and in recent years Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson has gone from being the most electrifying man in sports entertainment (albeit with the most ridiculous finishing move in sports entertainment) to sitting atop the movie world and hanging out with the likes of Bruce Willis.
On the surface it may seem that making the leap from the squared circle to the silver screen is just another example of the kind of ego stroking moonlighting that musicians usually get up to, but whereas the vast majority of singers who dabble with their inner thespian seem to possess less charisma than one of Hacksaw Jim Duggan's two-by-fours (a rare exception being white rapper Marshall 'Eminem' Mathers who garnered critical acclaim when he played, ahem, a white rapper in 2002's 8 Mile) the transition from wrestling to acting isn't actually that big a jump.
As I pointed out at the top of this article, there's no question that wrestlers are highly trained and extremely talented athletes, but as any fan of watching sweaty men in tights throw each other around a ring knows, the actual matches themselves are only half of the story. Alfred Hitchcock said that every hero is only as good as his villain, or words to that effect, and this is especially true in wrestling.
There's more drama in most WWE storylines than there is in some actual dramas on television. The mark of a great wrestler is not what he can do in the ring, but how well he can make you care about the fact that he's apparently trying to put his opponent into a coma by stamping on his head, or actually throwing him from the top of a twenty foot high steel cage (ask Mick 'Mankind' Foley if he thinks the bumps aren't real after The Undertaker did just this to him at 1998's Summerslam). The best wrestlers can sell a story both outside and inside of the squared circle and have you willfully suspend any disbelief you may have, much like a bone fide movie star.
Watch somebody like Shawn Michaels, or his spiritual successor CM Punk in a match, and you'll see more acting talent than some of the supposed A-list actors that we all worship possess. Listen to current next big thing Daniel Bryan work the crowd, hold twenty thousand people in the palm of his hand and have them chanting 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' and you'll see a more captivating performance than some of Hollywood's biggest guns give on their best days.
A good movie is all about storytelling, and this is exactly what makes the likes of Payback, the latest WWE release, so fun to watch. Each of the matches on display here have been built up over the preceding weeks and months to ensure that on the night the crowd is either baying for their favourite babyface or cheering on their favourite heel (unless John Cena's wrestling in which case everybody over the age of twelve will be booing, but at least they care enough to do so). This is no more evident than in the long awaited return of CM Punk to the ring after his gutsy defeat by The Undertaker at Wrestlemania XXIX to face the wonderfully arrogant and charismatic Chris Jericho in Punk's home town of Chicago. To say that the two men's entrances are almost as entertaining as the match itself may seem like something of a backhanded comment but it's really not, as both men have a deep understanding of the value of entertaining the audience and possess all of the acting chops of their cinematic brethren but with the added bonus of being their own stunt doubles.
Of course just as not all actors are Oscar material, there are some terrible wrestlers and I've sat through more than a few bouts that had me counting the minutes of my life that I'd never get back, and while I've almost certainly not made a dent in the resolve of those of you who subscribe to the wrestling is fake school of thought, perhaps next time you see a fight on screen you may just consider that the wrestlers of the world are effectively going out there and putting on their own live without a net stunt shows every night. It's not about who wins (well, yeah, it kind of is sometimes for us fans, but let's stick to my point here), it's about the quality of the performances, and talent like Daniel Bryan, Triple H, CM Punk and The Undertaker (and yes, if we must, John Cena) are giving it all every time they step in the ring.
WWE Payback is out now on Blu-ray and DVD!
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