No Gimmick Required

The Contract Is Polluted

The current anaemic WWE product can trace its roots to Russo's rejection of kayfabe.

by Raywat Deonandan
December 21, 2002

This column is a regular feature on It is reproduced here with the author's permission.

Yes, I'm still alive. In the world of wrestling web writers, though, the length of my absence is barely a blink compared to some of the more high profile disappearances. (Hyatte, I'm looking at you... Well, figuratively speaking, of course.)

To tell the truth, I've been having a hard time finding the motivation to watch WWE wrestling of late. I've been relying, when appropriate, on recaps, especially Scott Keith's excellent rants. To be honest, I usually skip down to the match outcome and rating, but the hit counter doesn't know that.

So much of what I love about professional wrestling is being sapped away from the current product that I longer have that rush of excitement when Monday night or that monthly PPV rolls around. It's a point reinforced by observations made during my recent sojourn in Southeast Asia, where wrestling is still held in high popular regard as true sport and/or semi-sophisticated entertainment. I truly miss those days when that view was held in North America.

Here's a photo from a mall in downtown Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo. It shows a group of grown men silently focused on the TV screen. The photo doesn't do the scene justice, since there were actually a couple dozen men gathered (as they are everyday at almost every hour). What were they watching? Rikishi's fat ass being smushed into some jobber's face:

(If the image doesn't show, it's because the geocities server is temporarily overtaxed. Try again in an hour or so.)

The Malaysians' demeanor reminds me of Japanese wrestling fans. In a match in Japan, the arena might be filled with thousands of people, but you can sometimes hear a pin drop. The fans are that focused on the technical aspects of the match. This begs the question, of course, of whether such fans are aware of the worked (scripted) nature of wrestling. I suggest that they are, but that they are sophisticated enough to be able to appreciate a technical display even within the context of staged theatre.

This certainly makes sense when you consider other popular Asian forms. Mixed martial arts (MMA) in Japan and Hong Kong, for example, sometimes incorporate both worked and shoot fights into their programmes, with the full knowledge and consent of the fans. This may arise from the Oriental martial arts tradition, wherein tournaments usually include "demonstration matches," which are, in pro wrestling terms, merely worked fights.

North American wrestling draws its appeal from a different source. Our love of wrestling tends not to flow from a familiarity with martial tradition, but rather from a culture of theatre and cinema. In short, most fans in the West watch for the show. And it's the show that's been lacking of late.

Now, many internet writers have already explored the reasons for WWE's creative decline (e.g., McMahon out of touch with today's audience, HHH wielding too much political power, etc.), so I won't bother. Instead, I wish to point out --as I have been doing since I started writing this columnó that the essence of a good North American wrestling show is the storyline arc. From conflict born of heroic love, to a climax of confrontation which yields some form of redemption, a classic epic arc has always been at the heart of a wrestling programme. Its lack is, I suppose, why I find today's pair-ups so anaemic.

There's another aspect of wrestling storytelling which may be pertinent to restoring the thrush of excitement we used to experience. (Remember when Stone Cold finally faced Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania? Or when Hogan and Andre locked up in the Silverdome? Ahh, those were the days.) It has to do with a kind of unwritten contract between audience and performers, a licence for the latter to engage in all manner of action so long as the payoff is climactic narrative, while the former willingly suspends disbelief and allows it to be so.

The Russo era of breaking kayfabe in a winking insider manner is finally showing its effects. That contract between fan and wrestler is poisoned. In a recent article in Toronto's Globe & Mail newspaper, Russel Smith discussed the penchant of early 20th century playwrights Brecht and Pirandello to constantly instruct their audiences that a falsehood was being perpetrated upon them, that the play was not real. (Apparently, philosopher Roland Barthes believed that this kind of storytelling, something he called texte scriptible, would one day unhinge capitalist society.) This somewhat reflects Plato's belief that fiction necessarily perpetrates a lie upon the citizenry.

It seems to me that Russo was trying to be the Bertolt Brecht of the wrestling world. He, also, did not succeed in dissolving the capitalist diktat, but might have managed instead to forevermore pollute the genre of professional wrestling. Is suspension of disbelief really attainable anymore, when we will always look for that knowing wink to the crowd, or the insider lingo? Or is this merely a "smark" disease, not applicable to average fan?

Perhaps the latter is true. As I am writing this column in my office, I am also listening to the Live Audio Wrestling radio show. A very attractive female admin assistant just came in to deliver something, and was very excited to hear disembodied voices discussing wrestling. She then goes on at length to describe how much she enjoyed last night's WWE offering.

So maybe what we are seeing is actually an evolution of genre to a new philosophy and new fanbase. It's no longer about the telling of grand heroic tales, but rather a variety show filled with conflictive vignettes and sketches. I wonder how long those Malaysian men in the mall will keep watching?


Happy.... whatever it is you celebrate, everyone.

I'll be gone for a couple of weeks over the holidays, too, so don't expect prompt replies to your emails! As always, I invite everyone to visit my website. Also, for you aspiring journalistic writers out there, I invite you to visit my other site, The Podium, which is a sort of sociopolitical commentary magazine. We're always looking for new submissions.

I'm Raywat Deonandan, and you're not. (That never gets old.)