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Professional wrestling, also affectionately or derisively referred to as sports entertainment, is a narrative endeavor. The athleticism, the ring-work, the production value; all of it is, ultimately, in service to narrative function. The play is the thing. It is for this reason that many people refer to the product as a type of soap opera, the hybrid blending of legitimate fisticuffs and Young and the Restless. One need only look to the bleed between the weekly programming of WWE and the storylines presented on E!’s Total Divas, a bleed that has become so muddled that the climax to one of the marquee matches at WrestleMania XXXIII featured the resolution of a years-long plot point from the aforementioned reality show. Wrestling is very seldom about the actual craft in the ring. There are legions of fans who would balk at such a thesis but looking at the product as it is presented currently, whether one is speaking of WWE, Lucha Underground, or even New Japan Professional Wrestling, the action happening in the ring only ever works if the narrative placing the performers between the ropes has cohesion and connects with the audience.
But what happens when it doesn’t?
WrestleMania XXXIII’s final bout featured a confrontation between Roman Reigns, a young superstar on an upward trajectory whose meteoric ascension has largely been attributed to preferential treatment from the ownership of the company, and The Undertaker, a performer whose legacy spans over two decades and who to many fans represents the essence of a bygone era. It was billed and sold as a clash of two dominant forces jockeying for the title of ultimate alpha dog, but what seems to have happened is that the narrative surrounding the match eclipsed the narrative that propelled the confrontation. The time of enjoying professional wrestling as a product in earnest seems to be long past. In the bygone era to which Undertaker largely belonged, “kayfabe,” or the veil that separated our reality from the one presented in the ring was opaque. Currently, you would be hard pressed to find any superstar without an Instagram or Twitter profile. The audience understands that these wrestlers are, first and foremost, performers inhabiting the space of a character. These characters are working within the frame of a narrative devised by writers and the spectacle that follows is no different from watching a stage production of Hamlet. As a result of the emerging transparency that the modern era has provided, the audience is acutely aware of things that happen off-stage. As such, much as a film can be rejected because of audience perception of the writer, director, or actors involved, so too can the same be said for modern angles in professional wrestling.
This creates an interesting dilemma for those tasked with weaving the narrative threads within the greater context of the product they are trying to create. In the case of Roman Reigns taking on The Undertaker, the company clearly wanted to sell an epic clash where the torch was passed between generations. It is a moving narrative when done correctly, and there are very few characters in the pantheon of professional wrestling who bring as much presence as The Undertaker. The issue arising from this particular pairing stems from the fact that the creative powers that be want to push Roman Reigns as being emblematic and representative of the modern era while the crowds largely do not want to accept him as such. While he is a talented performer in most regards, fans have often pointed to his less than charismatic delivery of scripted material and his lack of versatility within the ring as proof that he does not deserve the preferential treatment he has received.
At WrestleMania XXXII in 2016, Roman Reigns was crowned champion in the main event and the boos were so resounding that the audio levels had to be adjusted in order to sell the narrative that this was meant to be a moment of triumph. The audience rejection of Roman Reigns as the figurehead of modern WWE had begun long before and yet the narrative never shifted; never evolved to meet the desires of the audience. This raises an interesting point of contention among fans; are creative writers of ongoing narrative such as professional wrestling beholden to the whims of the audience they ostensibly serve? A comparable situation would be an enterprise such as serialized comic books. Writers have been known to roll initiatives back or alter plans based on critical and commercial reception from time to time, so why does professional wrestling seem to eschew this mindset?
The long and short of it seems to be a difference in the size of the audience and a lack of mainstream competition. While there are numerous professional wrestling organizations putting on quality entertainment on a weekly basis, nobody can touch the production value or entrenched popular culture cache of WWE. In return, the writers of their product largely do not tell stories that bend to the whim of their audience.
But is that entirely a negative? Does it not speak to a more concentrated form of narrative purity? There are no easy answers in this regard, however it does serve a central purpose that very little else could manage to provoke and that is engagement and discussion. It generates speculative creativity on the part of the audience with regard to how the story could have played out in another universe. It sparks arguments whether the narrative climax cohesively serves the story being told. It makes the fans talk.
And, for better or worse, people are talking.