Words From the World of Wrestling
February 15, 2009
This month’s topic: Words.
I study words all day. Every day. I never stop. I wake up at 5am, read until 11am, walk to my office, and read some more. Then I wander to class or teach a class or go to a meeting or hide in a closet for a couple of hours before walking home to do more reading. (I even have trouble falling asleep because I keep thinking about the words I read just before going to bed.) In short: I?m a huge Word Nerd. Big time. Sadly, this ?affection for the linguistic and literary? (as I like to call it) has not yet resulted in a literary endeavor of my own. I?ve never written a novel. I?ve never written a poem (a worthwhile one any way). But I do write about words (and novels and poems). I write about how words work. In other words, I write about writing, specifically about twentieth-century fiction and/or twentieth-century philosophy.
And I love it.
But I also love wrestling, and for a long time I fought to keep these two loves separate. But more and more I find that I cannot separate them. Of course, I do not watch professional wrestling the way I read James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses or T.S. Eliot’s ?The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.? Nevertheless, the older I get, the more I realize that there’s something similar about the affection I hold for Bret Hart matches and that which I hold for William Faulkner’s fiction.
I find that writing about words and writing about wrestling converge in strange ways, and this observation leads me to the specific thesis/subject of this column: I have decided to gut my Wrestling Lexicon, trim the fat so to speak. My sensitivity to writing about words and the words I use to write about words seeps now into the anxiety that surrounds the words I use to write about wrestling. In short, I offer you the following examples of ?Words I Will Never Use Again When Reviewing or Discussing Wrestling Matches.? I have exactly three such words in mind this month . . .
Word #1: ?Storytelling?
I used to defend professional wrestling as if it comprised some sort of aesthetic, some sort of art that ?could be as powerful a narrative medium as any poem, novel, short story, etc.? I still believe a pro-wrestling match can be powerful, and I still believe?of course?that some sort of narrative structure frames it and supports it. The fact that ‘storytelling? happens in professional wrestling is not the issue here. What is the issue, however, is that many reviewers/fans have forgotten that all professional wrestling matches tell a ‘story,? that even horrible matches?by virtue of the fact that all matches are constructs comprised of artifice?offer the crowd some sort of thread to follow. Hell, even squash matches offer a narrative! ?I?m a star. You?re a loser. I prove my dominance. I beat you easily. You suffer horrible defeat.? Straight, plain, simple, and effective; (for a long time) these sorts of matches worked . . . now fans seem a bit too entitled, almost insulted when WWE runs a squash; ROH fans certainly throw a fit.
So, what does it mean when someone claims that a match was a MOTYC because it had a great story? In many ways, the word ‘storytelling? has become what I call an ?overcode,? a term or word that has worked its way into fan-discourse to such a degree that many fans now use it as if its meaning were obvious, as if ‘storytelling? was some sort of ingredient that matches just need a big dose of?e.g. ?This match needed more of a story!? or ?This match had a ton of storytelling!? To apply an overcode like ‘storytelling? not only cheapens discussion, it leads to arrogant claims and sloppy analysis.
Many people showed a great deal of annoyance that the Undertaker/Edge Hell in a Cell match did not even make the Wrestleview 2008 MOTY ballot (let alone make it into the Top 20!). And why? As far as I can tell, ?the match told an epic story of comeuppance, of Edge paying for his sins.? Does anyone else see the problem here? Let me expand:
First, nearly all professional wrestling matches and nearly all professional wrestling feuds participate in a narrative of payback. Why did Matt Hardy turn on Jeff Hardy? In a very real way, Matt turned on Jeff so that we can see Jeff (whom we love and adore) get payback, so that Matt Hardy will get his comeuppance . . . and I imagine that that payback will involve some sort of super stiff chair shot. That’s how wrestling works.
Second, while the claim that Taker/Edge ?told an epic story . . . of Edge paying for his sins? goes a bit deeper than just general comeuppance, referring to the many spots that the Undertaker used to defeat Edge, I still have to fill in the analytical gaps and to expand this ?overcode? or ‘shorthand? in order to make sense of what the writer is saying. For instance, Taker speared Edge (Edge’s finisher), used a video camera (the same weapon Edge had used nine months earlier), nailed a ?con-chair-toe,? and sent Edge ‘straight to hell? after the match by chokeslamming him off of a ladder and through the ring (actually, he mostly just pushed Edge off the ladder . . . but whatever). Now these echoes of their feud, of the ‘sins? that Edge committed certainly seem nifty, but some work needs to be done to figure out exactly why these echoes tell a better story than, say, Batista vs. Shawn Michaels (One Night Stand) or John Cena vs. Batista (Summerslam) or John Cena vs. Randy Orton (No Way Out) or Floyd Mayweather vs. Big Show (Wrestlemania) or CM Punk vs. William Regal (WWE Raw).
Third, the claim does absolutely no work; it signals an absence of critical thought and an application of an arbitrary ?rule? that cannot stand in for a larger analysis or for a better explanation. Can the ending moments of the Taker/Edge Hell in a Cell match make up for the awkward moments earlier in the match, e.g. when Taker lays around while Edge sets up furniture? Edge certainly knocks him down with a clothesline at one point, but the sheer amount of time that Edge takes to set up tables and ladders and garbage actually stretches the match’s narrative thin for several minutes . . . and I?m not sure the double-table chokeslam or a slew of counter-spots makes up for that.
Word #2: Work-Rate
?Work-rate? is another example of an ?overcode? that fans use to refer, at different times, to selling, ?technical? offense, and/or both. For years, it seems, the term has generated false binaries between two types of matches. I?ll call the first ?John Cena? matches and the second ?Bryan Danielson? matches. Now I do not purport to collapse all distinctions between two wrestlers as different as Danielson and Cena, but I think it’s important to critique the vast amount of misguided Cena-hatred floating around wrestling forums and the uncritical love-fest that Bryan Danielson fans dish out. Let me begin with Cena:
Work-rate’s first sin may indeed be an over-emphasis on ?excellence of execution.? I?ll admit, when I first got into independent wrestling (back in 2002 or 2003), I was amazed at how precise many of the matches involving Low Ki and/or Christopher Daniels were, i.e. how smooth and flawless and pretty the counters and suplexes and chops could be. Coming out of some heavy Bret Hart fandom, this was certainly refreshing. When I got into All Japan Pro Wrestling later in 2003, however, I just couldn?t quite get a handle on why so many people liked matches that didn?t have execution as good as matches with Daniels or Danielson or Low Ki. In fact, many of the slams and suplexes in AJPW looked downright sloppy . . . Where am I going with this?
I could name four or five matches from the Golden Era of All Japan Pro Wrestling that could potentially be the four or five best matches I?ve ever seen, and yet none of them have the smooth execution of a Christopher Daniels match. In short, execution isn?t everything; sometimes other stuff matters just a bit more.
So when wrestling fans storm into discussion boards, claiming that John Cena sucks because he doesn?t apply the STF ?correctly? (they do know its fake, right? That most sleeper holds are also applied incorrectly?), perhaps the first bit of wisdom I attempt to bestow goes like this: John Cena is certainly no Bret Hart when it comes to execution, nor are his spots as smooth as Christopher Daniels?, but just watch a few important moments in his matches. Forget (just for a second) that you don?t like his STF. Forget (for a minute) that you think his finisher is a valorized bodyslam. Forget (let yourself be distracted just this one time) that the Five Knuckle Shuffle is indeed lamer than the People’s Elbow.
Watch the end of New Year’s Revolution 2006 when Edge defeats him for the WWE Title. Watch John Cena; don?t watch Edge. What do you see? Beyond the blood. Just watch and see how good Cena actually is without even doing a single move. Not convinced? Watch the end of the Umaga/Cena match at Royal Rumble 2007. After choking out Umaga, watch him wait for the ten count, watch how he doesn?t celebrate the hardest victory of his career. In a match that one might call ‘spotty? or a ?copy? of their match at NYR 2007, watch what John Cena does through this match, the modifications of speed and slowness, the timing of his necessary counters, and the look on his face when his hand is raised: characterized as disbelief? Exhaustion? Shock? What an amazing professional wrestler.
He might not have had the year in 2008 that he had in 2007 (although it was far from a bad year!), but already in 2009 I see great things for him: a handful of great TV matches, a decent PPV match with JBL, and a potential Wrestlemania main event with Randy Orton. Forget execution or ?work-rate? . . . leave it behind. Execution is still certainly important, but look at a wrestling match not as a dance recital that deserves to be rated on ‘smoothness? or ?fluidness.? (Hell, what part of a ?wrestling match? should be smooth or fluid in the first place?!) Think of a wrestling match as an assemblage, a collective of interbombarding speeds and slownesses that draw affects out of us, that affect us, that do work. What sort of work does a match do? I guarantee that a ?John Cena? answer would be much, much longer than a ?Fluid match? answer.
But what to say of Bryan Danielson? For the sake of your sanity, I?ll be brief.
Let me first say this: He is an incredible pro-wrestler, and he is leagues better than most of the fellows on the ROH roster, but this does not put him beyond critique, nor does his ?technical? style make him better than John Cena in some sort of mysterious pro-wrestling category called ?work-rate.?
Just because Danielson can counter a wristlock in twelve different ways, this does not make his performances any better than John Cena’s, no more ?work-rateable? than the World Heavyweight Champion. In fact, their matches have a great deal in common: (1) an interest in modifying the speeds and slownesses of offense and counters, (2) an interest in giving fans a complete display of their move set (Danielson actually does this to a fault, I believe), (3) an interest in the occasional comedy spot, (4) an interest in balancing on a razor’s edge between ?good guy? and ?bad guy? (although both certainly lean more toward ?good? these days), and (5) an interest in doing what’s best for the match itself, for modifying a match when it needs to be changed ?on the fly,? for pursuing the ?vision? of a match?even in hostile environments. A false dichotomy, then, has been constructed between these two wrestlers and the two ‘styles? or ?brands? that many fans associate with them. I certainly do not think that they work identical matches, but I think if we refuse a word like ?work-rate? or other magical categories that try to keep them separate, it might be interesting to see (1) how very similar the two wrestlers are and (2) how John Cena might actually be the better of the two.
Maybe. Onto the next word . . .
Word #3: Psychology
I hate this word. With the fire, if I may be allowed a dramatic moment, of a thousand suns. I hate this word SO much.
?This match just didn?t have enough psychology.?
I swear to God, I?ve heard this complaint hundreds of times over the past four or five years, and my response (for four or five years) has not changed: What exactly, for the love of all that might possibly be sacred, do you MEAN? Of all the ?overcoding? that occurs in fan-discourse on professional wrestling, ?psychology? might be responsible not only for the greatest amount of confusion, but also for a great deal of really bad journalism and the most dogmatic, fascist, and thoughtless ?wrestling? columns on the Interweb.
Oddly enough, ?psychology? is often used to signify something along the lines of what ?work-rate? often gets used for: selling. If wrestlers get locked in a knee bar for a couple of minutes before making it to the ropes, ?psychological? readers of pro-wrestling matches often key into that injury, remarking the moments when the wrestlers ?forgets? to sell the damaged leg or sells the ?wrong? leg or completely ignores the imaginary pain he’s ‘supposed? to be in. If a wrestler doesn?t sell the injury throughout the match (pausing to grimace and hold it even after moves he or she delivers to his or her opponent), then the match often gets cited as an example of a match with ?poor-to-no psychology? (which amounts to ?little-to-no story? . . . note that ?psychology? can also mean ‘storytelling? for some fans and columnists).
I want to share two things with you that I?ve read recently, two things that may sound na?ve, that may sound inconsequential in pro-wrestling fandom, but I think that the following two passages might actually make some sort of sense to certain readers and that they might serve as a way to rethink what it is wrestling columnists and/or wrestling reviewers and/or wrestling fans spend time doing. Both passages come from French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, and they speak mostly of how critics might write (as I do) about ?literature.? Remember my claim at the beginning of this column: that writing about wrestling might overlap in strange (and useful) ways with writing about literature:
(1) ?My ideal, when I write about an author, would be to write nothing that could cause him sadness, or if he is dead, that might make him weep in his grave. Think of the author you are writing about. Think of him so hard that he can no longer be an object, and equally so that you cannot identify with him. Avoid the double shame of the scholar and the familiar. Give back to an author a little of the joy, the energy, the life of love and politics that he knew how to give and invent? (from Dialogues).
(2) ?There are, you see, two ways of reading a book: you either see it as a box with something inside and start looking for what it signifies, and then if you?re even more perverse or depraved you set off after signifiers. And you treat the next book like a box contained in the first or containing it. And you annotate and interpret and question, and write a book about the book and so on and on. Or there’s the other way: you see the book as a little non-signifying machine and the only question is ?Does it work, and how does it work?? How does it work for you? If it doesn?t work, if nothing comes through, you try another book. This second way of reading’s intensive: something comes through or it doesn?t. . . . This second way of reading’s quite different from the first, because it relates a book directly to what’s Outside. A book is a little cog in much more complicated external machinery. . . . This intensive way of reading, in contact with what’s outside the book, as a flow meeting other flows, one machine among others, as a series of experiments for each reader in the midst of events that have nothing to do with books, as tearing the book into pieces, getting it to interact with other things, absolutely anything . . . is reading with love? (from Negotiations).
I hope it’s clear that fans that rely on ‘shorthand? or ?overcodes? like ‘storytelling? or ?work-rate? or ?psychology? look at a professional wrestling match as if it were a box with something hidden inside it, as if a professional wrestling match had to be ?figured out,? as if a professional wrestling match had a meaning that needed deciphering and/or explaining. There’s NOTHING to interpret in a professional wrestling match; each match is merely a collective of surfaces that only seeks to draw out an affect from you. The only questions that matter: How does it work? Does it move you? How can you give back Joy? These questions might sound a bit too touchy-feely for some fans, but I guarantee that they demand intensive (even if simple) answers . . .
So next time you watch a match, ask different questions: Without relying on typical ?overcodes,? what’s happening in front of me? If this match is a machine, how is it working? How can I watch and/or write about what’s happening ?with love?? Many fans will understand these questions immediately . . . others, perhaps not.
Until next month, Wrestleviewers! Feel free to email me. I?d love to hear from you!