A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Is professional wrestling for real?

Dear Straight Dope:

Perhaps you could help to settle an argument I am having with my coworkers: Is professional wrestling real or fake? Being a wrestling fan for many years I know that the outcome of certain matches--like when a wrestler is about to leave an organization--are determined ahead of time, and I know that a lot of moves are "choreographed" so the athletes don't get killed. Other than that, I say the outcome of most matches is not pre-determined and that the wrestlers really are trying to beat each other. The consensus around the office seems to be that the whole thing is a sham and the outcome of every match is already decided before anyone even steps into the ring. Please help!

Dogster replies:

"Fake" is such an ugly term. Can't we be satisfied with "predetermined outcomes"? Then again, it might depend on your definition of "fake."

In his recently aired special "The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling" (aired on an evil network we shall NOT name here), writer and producer Chris Mortensen likens modern-day professional wrestling to an addictive sports soap opera, albeit a soap opera viewed by over 25 million Americans a week. In tracing the history of professional wrestling in America, Mortensen describes how early 20th century wrestling matches could last as long as 5 hours--not conducive to most attention spans.

Adapting a more flamboyant and intriguing style, wrestling became more vaudevillian and was a staple of traveling carnivals and the like, until the First Golden Age of Wrestling, which began with the advent of television. The interview segment was created, and now wrestlers could expound upon their personas--ranging from Gorgeous George, who came to the ring wearing gaudy robes, golden bobby pins, and golden ringlets on his hair (which he had shaved as per a condition in a match he lost) to Classy Fred Blassie, who ridiculed the fans by calling them "pencil-necked geeks."

Popularity waned throughout the 60's and 70's, but the 80's saw a huge resurgence in the appeal of professional wrestling, culminating with a crowd of over 93,000 on hand to view Wrestlemania III in a sports arena. Today, pro wrestling is consistently the most watched show on cable televsion. But all this doesn't answer the question--is it faked?

Considering some of the moves utilized, it has to be. Consider the piledriver, wherein one standing grappler takes his (or her) opponent, turns them so that their feet are up and the head is down, puts the head between his knees and drops heavily to the floor--who needs a spinal cord anyway? Any martial artist can confirm that the wrist and elbow locks that are staples of pro wrestling are incredibly painful if done correctly, and I will attest to the fact that when a friend of mine and I were goofing around and he slapped a figure-4 leg lock on me, I howled and did everything possible to alert him to the fact that he could break my leg with only a slight bit more of pressure.

Wrestlers are pummeled with folding chairs, dropped onto wooden tables, thrown, punched, kicked, etc., yet seem to find some inner strength when the crowd rises to their defense and cheers mightily. Think of it as highly trained stuntmen taking abuse to their bodies for entertainment. Make no mistake, fake or not, for the most part these wrestlers are athletes in top physical condition, most with a background in amateur or college wrestling. The overall goal is to keep the viewer coming back for more. The fans have their favorites. That means that more often than not, the crowd favorite is going to win.

Not that there aren't mishaps. In 1953 Walter "Killer" Kowalski, a crowd favorite, was wrestling against Yukon Eric. After immobilizing his opponent in the ropes, Kowalski climbed to the top rope and jumped off the top turnbuckle ... and his shinbone ripped Eric's ear right off his head. Although he was declared the winner when Eric was unable to continue (big surprise there) Kowalski found that overnight, he had been transformed into a villain, a role he accepted and enjoyed. Kowalski's take on the incident? "These things happen."

Marcus "Buff" Bagwell just underwent neck surgery as the result of a mishap in the ring - he was hit accidentally by another wrestler (yes, I was watching at the time) and slumped to the floor. The wrestler who had unwittingly injured him while "aiding" Bagwell against his opponent then dragged Bagwell on top of the opponent, allowing the incapacitated Bagwell to be declared winner. He was then carted off on a stretcher--he is expected to wrestle again in 6 to 8 months.

I was tempted to call the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, same initials as the World Wildlife Fund, anyone see the irony in THAT?) in Stamford, Connecticut, and ask someone there point-blank if wrestling is fake, but then I remember what happened to Richard Belzer (facelock by Hulk Hogan) and John Stossel (clocked in the head by Dr. D) when they asked, so unless Cecil starts providing a medical benefit plan for the SDSAB, you're on your own in that department.

Instead I'll close with this comment from the Slammer, a masked writer who covers professional wrestling for the New York Daily News. Commenting on the A&E wrestling special in his May 15 column, he concludes, "Then came the classic question: 'Is wrestling real?' Well, let me ask you this: Is Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Great Pumpkin real? Of course they are, and so is wrestling. So we say to those 'experts,' get real, guys."

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