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Wrestling vs Reality: Athletes, Entertainers or Both?

25/07/2016 11:38 | Updated 25 July 2016

Wrestling's relationship with reality is a curious one. Prior to the 1980s, competitors and promoters alike protected 'kayfabe' - the convention of presenting staged performances as authentic- with their lives.

WWE, the flagship corporation of this pseudo-sport, was particularly committed to keeping up the act and even punished employees who broke character. Oh dear.

By the '90s, however, the internet age was approaching, blogs were benefiting from more backstage insight and WWE chairman Vince McMahon had appeared in front of the New Jersey Senate to admit professional wrestling was: 'an activity in which participants struggle hand-in-hand primarily for the purpose of providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest.' The bag was now a distant memory to the cat.

So, why did McMahon, who had previously fined wrestlers for potential spoilers, 'expose' his own industry? Put simply, he wanted to avoid paying so much tax.

Amid an investigation into pro wrestling's legitimacy, there was a chance that the Athletic State Commission of each US State would be at every WWE event, would introduce a license to competitors and referees as well as levy a tax on all ticket gates. McMahon wasn't so hot on the idea and decided to come clean.

Interestingly, though, his admission did nothing to derail wrestling's popularity, particularly throughout the 'Attitude Era' - WWE's much-mourned paragon period for shock value storylines, sublime stunt work and sex appeal. WWE is still hugely popular today, but it's a very different product and it's worth doffing a cap to what came before. 'BAH GAWD ALMIGHTY! GOD AS MY WITNESS, HE IS BROKEN IN HALF!'

That there can even be any cross-generational comparison in pro wrestling is testimony to how multi-layered it really is. It's easy to dismiss wrestling as 'fake' but then isn't most of the stuff we see on TV anyway? WWE's soap opera in spandex as it's sometimes termed retains a committed cult following of hardcore fans. And why? It's escapism, just like any other long-running series, which depending on your disposition, may or may not have already jumped the shark.

Of course, it would be disingenuous to suggest that everyone likes wrestling and perhaps the sticking point for cynics is that match results are indeed pre-determined. Sure, it's not a sport, but that doesn't mean it's any less a display of athleticism. WWE superstars are some of the most incredible athletes in the world and even if the context isn't, the risks of their performances are real. Mick Foley did fall from the top of the Hell in a Cell cage at King of the Ring 1998.

It is this fascination with and commitment to spectacle that ultimately drives wrestling's appeal. It is why wrestling sells out multi-thousand seat venues; it is why there are 63 licensed wrestling video games; it is why despite countless pleas from WWE to the contrary, my teenage self felt compelled to try and moonsault.

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