Professional wrestling (often shortened to pro wrestling or simply wrestling) is a form of sports entertainment and performance art which combines athletics with theatrical performance. It takes the form of events, held by touring companies, which mimic a title match combat sport. The unique form of sport portrayed is fundamentally based on classical and "catch" wrestling, with modern additions of striking attacks, strength-based holds and throws and acrobatic maneuvers, much of these derive from the influence of various international martial arts. An additional aspect of combat with improvised weaponry is sometimes included to varying degrees.
The matches have predetermined outcomes to heighten entertainment value and all combative maneuvers are executed with the full cooperation of those involved and carefully performed in specific manners intended to lessen the chance of actual injury. These facts were once kept highly secretive, but are now a widely accepted open secret. By and large, the true nature of the performance is not discussed by the performing company in official media to sustain and promote the willing suspension of disbelief for the audience by maintaining an aura of verisimilitude. Fan communications by individual wrestlers and promotions through outside media (i.e. interviews) will often directly acknowledge the dramatic and "fixed" nature of the spectacle.
Originating as a popular form of entertainment in 19th-century Europe and later as a sideshow exhibition in North American traveling carnivals and vaudeville halls, professional wrestling grew into a standalone genre of entertainment with many diverse variations in cultures around the globe, and is now considered a billion dollar entertainment industry. While since the 1980s local forms have greatly declined in Europe, wrestling from North America has experienced several different periods of prominent cultural popularity during its century and a half of existence and has been exported back to Europe to fill the cultural gap left by the aforementioned decline of local versions. The advent of television gave professional wrestling a new outlet, and wrestling (along with boxing) was instrumental in making pay-per-view a viable method of content delivery.
Show wrestling has become especially prominent in Central/North America, Japan and Europe (especially the United Kingdom). In Brazil, there was a very popular wrestling television program from the 1960s to the early 1980s called Telecatch. High-profile figures in the sport have become celebrities or cultural icons in their native or adopted home countries.
Although professional wrestling started out as petty acts in sideshows, traveling circuses and carnivals, today it is a billion-dollar industry. Revenue is drawn from ticket sales, network television broadcasts, pay-per-view broadcasts, branded merchandise and home video. Pro wrestling was instrumental in making pay-per-view a viable method of content delivery. Annual shows such as WrestleMania, Bound for Glory and formerly Starrcade are among the highest-selling pay-per-view programming each year. In modern day, internet programming has been utilized by a number of companies to air web shows, internet pay per views (IPPVs) or on-demand content, helping to generate internet-related revenue earnings from the evolving World Wide Web.
Due to its persistent cultural presence and to its novelty within the performing arts, wrestling constitutes a recurring topic in both academia and the media. Several documentaries have been produced looking at professional wrestling, most notably, Beyond the Mat directed by Barry W. Blaustein, and Wrestling with Shadows featuring wrestler Bret Hart and directed by Paul Jay. There have also been many fictional depictions of wrestling; the 2008 film The Wrestler received several Oscar nominations and began a career revival for star Mickey Rourke.
Currently, the largest professional wrestling company worldwide is the United States-based WWE, which bought out many smaller regional companies in the late 20th century, as well as its primary US competitors World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) in early 2001. Other prominent professional wrestling companies worldwide include the US-based Impact Wrestling, formerly known as Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA), and Ring of Honor (ROH), Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre and Asistencia Asesoría y Administración in Mexico, and the Japanese New Japan Pro Wrestling, All Japan Pro Wrestling and Pro Wrestling Noah leagues.
When talking about professional wrestling, there are two levels: the "in-show" happenings that are presented through the shows, and happenings which are outside the scope of performance (in other words, are real life) but have implications on the performance, such as performer contracts, legitimate injuries, etc. Because actual events are often co-opted by writers for incorporation into storylines for the performers, the lines are often blurred and become confused.
Special care must be taken when talking about people who perform under their own name. The actions of the character should be considered fictional events, wholly separate from the life of the performer. This is similar to other entertainers who perform with a persona that shares their own name (such as Kurt Angle and his fictional persona).
Some wrestlers would incorporate elements of their real-life personalities into their characters, even if they and their in-ring persona have different names.
Historians are unsure at what point wrestling changed from competitive catch wrestling into worked entertainment. Those who participated felt that maintenance of a constant and complete illusion for all who were not involved was necessary to keep audience interest. For decades, wrestlers lived their public lives as though they were their characters.
The practice of keeping the illusion, and the various methods used to do so, came to be known as "kayfabe" within wrestling circles, or "working the marks". An entire lexicon of slang jargon and euphemism developed to allow performers to communicate without outsiders' knowledge of what was being said.
Occasionally a performer will deviate from the intended sequence of events. This is known as a shoot. Sometimes shoot-like elements are included in wrestling stories to blur the line between performance and reality. These are known as "worked shoots". However, the vast majority of events in professional wrestling are preplanned and improvised within accepted boundaries.
Gradually, the predetermined nature of professional wrestling became an open secret, as prominent figures in the wrestling business (including World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon) began to publicly admit that wrestling was entertainment, not competition. This public reveal has garnered mixed reactions from the wrestling community, as some feel that exposure ruins the experience to the spectators as does exposure in illusionism. Despite the public admission of the theatrical nature of professional wrestling, many U.S. states still regulate professional wrestling as they do other professional competitive sports. For example, New York State still regulates "professional wrestling" through the New York State Athletic Commission (SAC). 
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Professional wrestling shows can be considered a form of theater in the round, with the ring, ringside area, and entryway comprising a stage. However, there is a much more limited concept of a fourth wall than in most theatric performances. The audience is recognized and acknowledged by the performers as spectators to the sporting event being portrayed, and are encouraged to interact as such. This leads to a high level of audience participation; in fact, their reactions can dictate how the performance unfolds. Often, individual matches will be part of a longer story line conflict between "babyfaces" (often shortened to just "faces") and "heels". "Faces" (the "good guys") are those whose actions are intended to encourage the audience to cheer, while "heels" (the "bad guys") act to draw the spectators' ire.
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There is no governing authority for professional wrestling rules, although there is a general standard which has developed. Each promotion has their own variation, but all are similar enough to avoid confusion most of the time. Any rule described here is simply a standard, and may or may not correspond exactly with any given promotion's ruleset.
Due to the staged nature of wrestling, these are not actual "rules" in the sense that they would be considered in similar articles about actual sports like freestyle wrestling. Instead, the "rules" in this article are implemented and supposedly enforced for the sake of suspension of disbelief (known as kayfabe in the jargon of the business).
Matches are held between two or more sides ("corners"). Each corner may consist of one wrestler, or a team of two or more. Most team matches are governed by tag team rules (see below). Other matches are free-for-alls, with multiple combatants but no teams. In all variants, there can be only one winning team or wrestler.
The standard method of scoring is the "fall", which is accomplished by:
These are each explained in greater detail below. Typically, pinfalls and submissions must occur within the ring area, however there are times where it may be stipulated otherwise.
Most wrestling matches last for a set number of falls, with the first side to achieve the majority number of pinfalls, submissions, or countouts being the winner. Historically, matches were wrestled to 3 falls ("best 2 out of 3") or 5 falls ("best 3 out of 5"). The standard for modern matches is one fall. However, even though it is now standard, many announcers will explicitly state this (e.g. "The following contest is set for one fall with a 20-minute time limit.") These matches are given a time limit; if not enough falls are scored by the end of the time limit, the match is declared a draw. Modern matches are generally given a 10- to 30-minute time limit for standard matches; title matches can go for up to one hour. British wrestling matches held under Admiral-Lord Mountevans rules are 2 out of 3 falls.
An alternative is a match set for a prescribed length of time, with a running tally of falls. The entrant with the most falls at the end of the time limit is declared the winner. This is usually for 20, 30 or 60 minutes, and is commonly called an Iron Man match. This type of match can be modified so that fewer types of falls are allowed.
In matches with multiple competitors, an elimination system may be used. Any wrestler who has a fall scored against them is forced out of the match, and the match continues until only one remains. However, it is much more common when more than two wrestlers are involved to simply go one fall, with the one scoring the fall, regardless of who they scored it against, being the winner. In championship matches, this means that, unlike one-on-one matches (where the champion can simply disqualify himself or get himself counted out to retain the title via the Champion's Advantage), the champion does not have to be pinned or involved in the decision to lose the championship. However, heel champions often find advantages, not in Champion's Advantage, but in the use of weapons and outside interference, as these poly-sided matches tend to involve no holds barred rules.
Many modern specialty matches have been devised, with unique winning conditions. The most common of these is the ladder match. In the basic ladder match, the wrestlers or teams of wrestlers must climb a ladder to obtain a prize that is hoisted above the ring. The key to winning this match is that the wrestler or team of wrestlers must try to incapacitate each other long enough for one wrestler to climb the ladder and secure that prize for their team. As a result, the ladder can be used as a weapon. The prizes include but are not limited to any given championship belt (the traditional prize), a document granting the winner the right to a future title shot, or any document that matters to the wrestlers involved in the match (such as one granting the winner a cash prize). Another common specialty match is known as the battle royal. In a battle royal, all the wrestlers enter the ring to the point that there are 20-30 wrestlers in the ring at one time. When the match begins, the simple objective is to throw the opponent over the top rope and out of the ring with both feet on the floor to eliminate that opponent. The last wrestler standing is declared the winner. A variant on this type of match is the WWE's Royal Rumble where two wrestlers enter the ring to start the match and other wrestlers follow in 90 second intervals (previously 2 minutes) until 30-40 wrestlers have entered the ring. All other rules stay the same. For more match types, see Professional wrestling match types.
Due to the legitimate role that referees play in wrestling of serving as liaison between the bookers backstage and the wrestlers in the ring (the role of being a final arbitrator is merely kayfabe), the referee is present, even in matches that do not at first glance appear to require a referee (such as a ladder match, as it is no holds barred, and the criteria for victory could theoretically be assessed from afar). Although their actions are also frequently scripted for dramatic effect, referees are subject to certain general rules and requirements to maintain the theatrical appearance of unbiased authority. The most basic rule is that an action must be seen by a referee to be declared for a fall or disqualification. This allows for heel characters to gain a scripted advantage by distracting or disabling the referee to perform some ostensibly illegal maneuver on their opponent. Most referees are unnamed and essentially anonymous, though the WWE has let their officials reveal their names.
Special guest referees may be used from time to time; by virtue of their celebrity status, they are often scripted to dispense with the appearance of neutrality and use their influence to unfairly influence the outcome of the match for added dramatic impact. Face special referees will often fight back against hostile heel wrestlers, particularly if the special referee is either a wrestler himself or a famous martial artist (such as Tito Ortiz at the main event at TNA Hard Justice 2005).
For heel special referees, common ways of assisting the heel wrestler to obtain victory include, but are not limited to, the following:
Matches are held within a wrestling ring, an elevated square canvas mat with posts on each corner. A cloth apron hangs over the edges of the ring. Three horizontal ropes or cables surround the ring, suspended with turnbuckles which are connected to the posts. For safety, the ropes are padded at the turnbuckles and cushioned mats surround the floor outside the ring. Guardrails or a similar barrier enclose this area from the audience. Wrestlers are generally expected to stay within the confines of the ring, though matches sometimes end up outside the ring, and even in the audience, to add excitement.
In some team matches, only one entrant from each team may be designated as the "legal" or "active" wrestler at any given moment. Two wrestlers must make physical contact (typically palm-to-palm) to transfer this legal status. This is known as a "tag", with the participants "tagging out" and "tagging in". Typically the wrestler who is tagging out has a 5-second count to leave the ring, whereas the one tagging in can enter the ring at any time, resulting in heels legally double-teaming a face.
The non-legal wrestlers must remain outside the ring or other legal area at all times (and avoid purposeful contact with the opposing wrestlers) or face reprimand from the referee. In most promotions, the wrestler to be tagged in must be touching the turnbuckle on his corner, or a cloth strap attached to the turnbuckle.
Some multi-wrestler matches allow for a set number of legal wrestlers, and a legal wrestler may tag out to any other wrestler, regardless of team. In these matches, the tag need not be a mutual effort, and this results in active wrestlers being tagged out against their will, or non-legal wrestlers forced to enter the battle.
Sometimes, poly-sided matches that pit every man for himself will incorporate tagging rules. Outside of kayfabe, this is done to give wrestlers a break from the action (as these matches tend to go on for long periods of time), and to make the action in the ring easier to choreograph. One of the most mainstream examples of this is the Four-Corner match, the most common type of match in the WWE before it was replaced with its equivalent Fatal Four-Way; four wrestlers, each for himself, fight in a match, but only two wrestlers can be in the match at any given time. The other two are positioned in the corner, and tags can be made between any two wrestlers.
In a Texas Tornado Tag Team match, all the competitors are legal in the match, and tagging in and out is not necessary. All matches fought under hardcore rules (such as no disqualification, no holds barred, ladder match, etc.) are all contested under de facto Texas Tornado rules, since the lack of ability of a referee to issue a disqualification renders any tagging requirements moot.
Regardless of rules of tagging, a wrestler cannot pin his or her own tag team partner, even if it is technically possible from the rules of the match (e.g. Texas Tornado rules, or a three-way tag team match). This is called the "Outlaw Rule" because the first team to attempt to use that (in an attempt to unfairly retain their tag team titles) was the New Age Outlaws.
To score by pinfall, a wrestler must pin both his opponent's shoulders against the mat while the referee slaps the mat three times (referred to as a "three count"). This is the most common form of defeat. The pinned wrestler must also be on his back and, if s/he is lying on his stomach, it usually does not count. A count may be started at any time that a wrestler's shoulders are down (both shoulders touching the mat), back-first and any part of the opponent's body is lying over the wrestler. This often results in pins that can easily be kicked out of, if the defensive wrestler is even slightly conscious. For example, an attacking wrestler who is half-conscious may simply drape an arm over an opponent, or a cocky wrestler may place his foot gently on the opponent's body, prompting a three-count from the referee.
Illegal pinning methods include using the ropes for leverage and hooking the opponent's clothing, which are therefore popular cheating methods for heels, unless certain stipulations make such an advantage legal. Such pins as these are rarely seen by the referee and are subsequently often used by heels and on occasion by cheating faces to win matches. Even if it is noticed, it is rare for such an attempt to result in a disqualification (see below) and instead it simply results in nullification of the pin attempt, so the heel wrestler rarely has anything to lose for trying it anyway.
Occasionally, there are instances where a pinfall is made where both wrestlers' shoulders were on the mat for the three-count. This situation will most likely lead to a draw, and in some cases a continuation of the match or a future match to determine the winner.
To score by submission, the wrestler must make his opponent give up, usually, but not necessarily, by putting him in a submission hold (e.g. figure four leg-lock, arm-lock, sleeper-hold).
A wrestler may voluntarily submit by verbally informing the referee (usually used in moves such as the Mexican Surfboard, where all four limbs are incapacitated, making tapping impossible). Also, since Ken Shamrock popularized it in 1997, a wrestler can indicate a voluntary submission by "tapping out", that is, tapping a free hand against the mat or against an opponent. Occasionally, a wrestler will reach for a rope (see rope breaks below), only to put his hand back on the mat so he can crawl towards the rope some more; this is NOT a submission, and the referee decides what his intent is. Submission was initially a large factor in professional wrestling, but following the decline of the submission-oriented catch-as-catch-can style from mainstream professional wrestling, the submission largely faded. Despite this, some wrestlers, such as Chris Jericho, Ric Flair, Bret Hart, Kurt Angle, Ken Shamrock, Dean Malenko, Chris Benoit, and Tazz, became famous for winning matches via submission. A wrestler with a signature submission technique is portrayed as better at applying the hold, making it more painful or more difficult to get out of than others who use it, or can be falsely credited as inventing the hold (such as when Tazz popularized the kata ha jime judo choke in pro wrestling as the "Tazzmission").
Since all contact between the wrestlers must cease if any part of the body is touching, or underneath, the ropes, many wrestlers will attempt to break submission holds by deliberately grabbing the bottom ropes. This is called a "rope break", and it is one of the most common ways to break a submission hold. Most holds leave an arm or leg free, so that the person can tap out if he wants. Instead, he uses these free limbs to either grab one of the ring ropes (the bottom one is the most common, as it is nearest the wrestlers, though other ropes sometimes are used for standing holds such as Chris Masters' Master Lock) or drape his foot across, or underneath one. Once this has been accomplished, and the accomplishment is witnessed by the referee, the referee will demand that the offending wrestler break the hold, and start counting to five if the wrestler does not. If the referee reaches the count of five, and the wrestler still does not break the hold, he is disqualified.
If a manager decides that his client wrestler should tap out, but cannot convince the wrestler himself to do so, he may "throw in the towel" (by literally taking a gym towel and hurling it into the ring where the referee can see it). This is the same as a submission, as in kayfabe the manager is considered the wrestlers agent and therefore authorized to make formal decisions (such as forfeiting a match) on the client's behalf.
Passing out in a submission hold constitutes a loss by knockout. To determine if a wrestler has passed out in WWE, the referee usually picks up and drops his hand. If it drops to the mat or floor three consecutive times without the wrestler having the strength to hold it up, the wrestler is considered to have passed out. At one point this was largely ignored. However, the rule is now much more commonly observed for safety reasons. If the wrestler has passed out, the opponent then scores by submission.
A wrestler can also win by knockout if he does not resort to submission holds, but stills pummels his opponent to the point that he is completely out cold. To check for a knockout in this manner a referee would wave his hand in front of the wrestlers' face and, if the wrestler does not react in any way, the referee would award the victory to the other wrestler.
A countout (alternatively "count-out" or "count out") happens when a wrestler is out of the ring long enough for the referee to count to ten (twenty in some promotions) and thus disqualified. The count is broken and restarted when a wrestler in the ring exits the ring. Playing into this, some wrestlers would "milk" the count by sliding in the ring and immediately sliding back out. As he was technically inside the ring for a split second before exiting again, it is sufficient to restart the count. This is often referred to by commentators as "breaking the count". Heels often use this tactic in order to buy themselves more time to catch their breath, or to attempt to frustrate their babyface opponents.
If all the active wrestlers in a match are down inside the ring at the same time, the referee would begin a count (usually ten seconds, twenty in Japan). If nobody rises to their feet by the end of the count, the match is ruled a draw. Any participant who stands up in time would end the count for everyone else, while in a Last Man Standing match this form of a countout is the only way that the match can end, so the referee would count when one or more wrestlers are down and one wrestler standing up before the 10-count does not stop the count for another wrestler who is still down.
In some promotions (and most major modern ones), Championships cannot change hands via a countout, unless the on-screen authority declares it for at least one match, although in others, championships may change hands via countout. Heels are known to take advantage of this and will intentionally get counted out when facing difficult opponents, especially when defending championships.
Disqualification (sometimes abbreviated as "DQ") occurs when a wrestler violates the match's rules, thus losing automatically. Although a countout can technically be considered a disqualification (as it is, for all intents and purposes, an automatic loss suffered as a result of violating a match rule), the two concepts are often distinct in wrestling. A no disqualification match can still end by countout (although this is rare). Typically, a match must be declared a "no holds barred" match, a "street fight" or some other term, in order for both disqualifications and countouts to be waived.
Disqualification from a match is called for a number of reasons:
In practice, not all rule violations will result in a disqualification as the referee may use his own judgement and is not obligated to stop the match. Usually, the only offenses that the referee will see and immediately disqualify the match on (as opposed to having multiple offenses) are low blows, weapon usage, interference, or assaulting the referee. In WWE, a referee must see the violation with his own eyes to rule that the match end in a disqualification (simply watching the video tape is not usually enough) and the referee's ruling is almost always final, although dusty finishes (named after, and made famous by, Dusty Rhodes) will often result in the referee's decision being overturned. It is not uncommon for the referees themselves to get knocked out during a match, which is commonly referred to by the term "ref bump". While the referee remains "unconscious", wrestlers are free to violate rules until he is revived or replaced. In some cases, a referee might disqualify a person under the presumption that it was that wrestler who knocked him out; most referee knockouts are arranged to allow a wrestler, usually a heel, to gain an advantage. For example, a wrestler may get whipped into a referee at a slower speed, knocking the ref down for short amount of time; during that interim period, one wrestler may pin his opponent for a three-count and would have won the match but for the referee being down (sometimes, another referee will sprint to the ring from backstage to attempt to make the count, but by then, the other wrestler has had enough time to kick out on his own accord).
If all participants in a match continue to breach the referee's instructions, the match may end in a double disqualification, where both wrestlers or teams (in a tag team match) have been disqualified. The match is essentially nullified, and called a draw or in some cases a restart or the same match being held at a pay-per-view or next night's show. Sometimes, however, if this happens in a match to determine the challenger for a heel champion's title, the champion is forced to face both opponents simultaneously for the title. Usually, the double disqualification is caused by the heel wrestler's associates in a match between two face wrestlers to determine his opponent.
Although extremely rare, a match can end in a forfeit if the opponent either does not show up for the match, or shows up but refuses to compete. While this, by itself, is not particularly worthy of note, one thing that IS important to note is that, although the "Champion's Advantage" states that a championship cannot change hands except by pinfall or submission, a forfeit victory is enough to crown a new champion. The most famous example of this happened on the December 8, 1997 episode of Raw is War, when Stone Cold Steve Austin handed the WWE Intercontinental Championship to The Rock after refusing to defend the title.
Forfeit victories are extremely rare in wrestling. When a pay-per-view match is booked and one wrestler is unable to make it for one reason or another, it is usually customary to insert a last minute replacement rather than award a wrestler a victory by forfeit. Forfeit victories are almost always reserved for when the story the promotion is telling specifically requires such an ending. In addition to the aforementioned moment between Steve Austin and the Rock, the most recent instance of this happening was in March 2009, when Triple H decided not to show up for a handicap match against Cody Rhodes and Ted Dibiase Jr., instead opting to attack Randy Orton in his own home.
Despite being, statistically, an extremely rare occurrence, Charles Wright is one wrestler who is famous for turning forfeit victories into his own gimmick. During the late 1990s, Wright called himself "The Godfather" and portrayed the gimmick of a pimp. He would often bring multiple women, who he referred to as "hoes," to the ring with him, and would offer the sexual services of these women to his opponents in exchange for them forfeiting their matches against him.
A professional wrestling match can end in a draw. A draw occurs if both opponents are simultaneously disqualified (as via countout or if the referee loses complete control of the match and both opponents attack each other with no regard to being in a match, like Brock Lesnar vs. Undertaker at 2002 Unforgiven), neither opponent is able to answer a ten-count, or both opponents simultaneously win the match. The latter can occur if, for example, one opponent's shoulders touch the mat while maintaining a submission hold against another opponent. If the opponent in the hold begins to tap out at the same time a referee counts to three for pinning the opponent delivering the hold, both opponents have legally achieved scoring conditions simultaneously. Traditionally, a championship may not change hands in the event of a draw (though it may become vacant), though some promotions such as Total Nonstop Action Wrestling have endorsed rules where the champion may lose a title by disqualification. A variant of the draw is the time-limit draw, where the match does not have a winner by a specified time period (a one-hour draw, which was once common, is known in wrestling circles as a "Broadway").
Also if two wrestlers have been given a disqualification by either the referee or the chairman, this is a no contest and if there is a title on the line the champion keeps the championship.
A wrestling match may be declared a no contest if the winning conditions are unable to occur. This can be due to excessive interference, loss of referee's control over the match, one or more participants sustaining debilitating injury not caused by the opponent, or the inability of a scheduled match to even begin. A no contest is a state separate and distinct from a draw — a draw indicates winning conditions were met. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably in practice, this usage is technically incorrect.
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While each wrestling match is ostensibly a competition of athletics and strategy, the goal of each match from a business standpoint is to excite and entertain the audience. Although the competition is staged, dramatic emphasis can be utilized to draw out the most intense reaction from the audience. Heightened interest results in higher attendance rates, increased ticket sales, higher ratings on television broadcasts (which result in greater ad revenue), higher pay-per-view buyrates, and sales of branded merchandise and recorded video footage. All of these contribute to the profit of the promotion company.
In Latin America and English-speaking countries, most wrestlers (and other on-stage performers) portray character roles, sometimes with personalities wildly different from their own. These personalities are a gimmick intended to heighten interest in a wrestler without regard to athletic ability. Some can be unrealistic and cartoon-like (such as Doink the Clown), while others carry more verisimilitude (such as Chris Jericho, The Rock, John Cena, Steve Austin, and CM Punk). In lucha libre, many characters wear masks, adopting a secret identity akin to a superhero, a near-sacred tradition.
An individual wrestler may sometimes use his real name, or a minor variation of it, for much of his career, such as Bret Hart, John Cena and Randy Orton. Others can keep one ring name for their entire career (cases in point include Shawn Michaels, CM Punk and Ricky Steamboat), or may change from time to time to better suit the demands of the audience or company. Sometimes a character is owned and trademarked by the company, forcing the wrestler to find a new one when he leaves (although a simple typeset change, such as changing Rhyno to Rhino, can usually get around this), and sometimes a character is owned by the wrestler. Sometimes, a wrestler may change his legal name to obtain ownership of his ring name (examples include Andrew Martin and Warrior). Many wrestlers (such as The Rock and The Undertaker) are strongly identified with their character, even responding to the name in public or between friends. It's actually considered proper decorum for fellow wrestlers to refer to each other by their stage names/characters rather than their birth/legal names, unless otherwise introduced. A professional wrestling character's popularity can grow to the point that it makes appearances in other media (see Hulk Hogan and El Santo) or even give the performer enough visibility to enter politics (Antonio Inoki and Jesse Ventura, among others).
Typically, matches are staged between a protagonist (historically an audience favorite, known as a babyface, or "the good guy") and an antagonist (historically a villain with arrogance, a tendency to break rules, or other unlikable qualities, called a heel). In recent years, however, antiheroes have also become prominent in professional wrestling. There is also a less common role of a "tweener", who is neither fully face nor fully heel yet able to play either role effectively (case in point, Samoa Joe during his first run in TNA Wrestling from June 2005 to November 2006).
At times a character may "turn", altering their face/heel alignment. This may be an abrupt, surprising event, or it may slowly build up over time. It almost always is accomplished with a markable change in behavior on the part of the character. Some turns become defining points in a wrestler's career, as was the case when Hulk Hogan turned heel after being a top face for over a decade. Others may have no noticeable effect on the character's status. If a character repeatedly switches between being a face and heel, this lessens the effect of such turns, and may result in apathy from the audience. Vince McMahon is a good example of having more heel and face turns than anyone in WWE history.
As with personae in general, a character's face or heel alignment may change with time, or remain constant over its lifetime (the most famous example of the latter is Ricky Steamboat, a WWE Hall of Famer who remained a babyface throughout his entire career). Sometimes a character's heel turn will become so popular that eventually the audience response will alter the character's heel-face cycle to the point where the heel persona will, in practice, become a face persona, and what was previously the face persona, will turn into the heel persona, such as when Dwayne Johnson first began using "The Rock" persona as a heel character, as opposed to his original "Rocky Maivia" babyface persona. Another legendary example is Stone Cold Steve Austin, who was originally booked as a heel, with such mannerisms as drinking on the job, using profanity, breaking company property, and even breaking into people's private homes. However, much to WWF's surprise, the fans got such a charge out of Austin's antics that he effectively became one of the greatest antiheroes in the history of the business. He, along with the stable of D-Generation X, is generally credited with ushering in the Attitude Era of WWF programming.
While true exhibition matches are not uncommon, most matches tell a story analogous to a scene in a play or film, or an episode of a serial drama: The face will sometimes win (triumph) or sometimes lose (tragedy). Longer story arcs can result from multiple matches over the course of time. Since most promotions have a championship title, competition for the championship is a common impetus for stories. Also, anything from a character's own hair to his job with the promotion can be wagered in a match.
Some matches are designed to further a story of only one participant. It could be intended to portray him or her as a strong unstoppable force, a lucky underdog, a sore loser, or any other characterization. Sometimes non-wrestling vignettes are shown to enhance a character's image without the need for matches.
Other stories result from a natural rivalry between two or more characters. Outside of performance, these are referred to as feuds. A feud can exist between any number of participants and can last for a few days up to multiple decades. The feud between Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat lasted from the late 1970s into the early 1990s and allegedly spanned over two thousand matches (although most of those matches were mere dark matches). The career-spanning history between characters Mike Awesome and Masato Tanaka is another example of a long-running feud, as is the case of Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon, one of the most lucrative feuds in the World Wrestling Federation during 1998 and 1999.
In theory, the longer a feud is built up, the more audience interest (aka heat) will exist. The main event of a wrestling show is generally the one with the most heat behind it. Commonly, a heel will hold the upper hand over a face until a final showdown, heightening dramatic tension as the face's fans desire to see him win.
Throughout the history of professional wrestling, many other elements and forms of media have been utilized in professional wrestling storytelling: pre- and post-match interviews, "backstage" skits, positions of authority and worked behind-the-scenes feuds, division rankings (typically the #1-contendership spot), contracts, lotteries, news stories on websites, and in recent years social media.
Also, anything that can be used as an element of drama can exist in professional wrestling stories: romantic relationships (including love triangles and marriage), racism, classism, nepotism, favoritism, corporate corruption, family bonds, personal histories, grudges, theft, cheating, assault, betrayal, bribery, seduction, stalking, confidence tricks, extortion, blackmail, substance abuse, self-doubt, self-sacrifice; even kidnapping, sexual fetishism, necrophilia, misogyny, rape and death have been portrayed in wrestling. Some promotions have included supernatural elements such as magic, curses, the undead and Satanic imagery (most notably the Undertaker and his Ministry of Darkness, a stable that regularly performed evil rituals and human sacrifice in Satanic-like worship of a hidden power figure). Celebrities would also be involved in storylines.
Commentators have become important in communicating the relevance of the characters' actions to the story at hand, filling in past details and pointing out subtle actions that may otherwise go unnoticed.
A main part of the story-telling part of wrestling is a promo, short for promotional interview. Promos are performed, or "cut", in wrestling jargon, for a variety of reasons, including to heighten interest in a wrestler, or to hype an upcoming match.
Since the crowd is often too loud or the venue too large for promos to be heard naturally, wrestlers will use amplification when speaking in the ring. Unlike most Hollywood acting, large and highly visible handheld microphones are typically used and wrestlers often speak directly to the audience.
Professional wrestling mimics the structure of title match combat sports. Participants compete for a championship and must defend it after winning it. These titles are represented physically by a title belt that can be worn by the champion. In the case of team wrestling, there is a title belt for each member of the team.
Almost all professional wrestling promotions have one major title, and some have more. Championships are designated by divisions of weight, height, gender, wrestling style and other qualifications.
Typically, each promotion only recognizes the "legitimacy" of their own titles, although cross-promotion does happen. When one promotion absorbs or purchases another, the titles from the defunct promotion may continue to be defended in the new promotion or be decommissioned.
Behind the scenes, the bookers in a company will place the title on the most accomplished performer, or those the bookers believe will generate fan interest in terms of event attendance and television viewership. Lower ranked titles may also be used on the performers who show potential, thus allowing them greater exposure to the audience. However other circumstances may also determine the use of a championship. A combination of a championship's lineage, the caliber of performers as champion, and the frequency and manner of title changes, dictates the audience's perception of the title's quality, significance and reputation.
A wrestler's championship accomplishments can be central to their career, becoming a measure of their performance ability and drawing power. In general, a wrestler with multiple title reigns or an extended title reign is indicative of a wrestler's ability to maintain audience interest or a wrestler's ability to perform in the ring. As such, the most accomplished or decorated wrestlers tend to be revered as legends despite the predetermined nature of title reigns. American wrestler Ric Flair has had multiple world heavyweight championship reigns spanning over three decades. Japanese wrestler Último Dragón once held and defended a record 10 titles simultaneously.
Often a match will take place under additional rules, usually serving as a special attraction or a climactic point in a feud or storyline. Sometimes this will be the culmination of an entire feud, ending it for the immediate future (known as a blowoff match).
Perhaps the most well-known non-standard match is the cage match, in which the ring is surrounded by a fence or similar metal structure, with the express intention of preventing escape or outside interference—and with the added bonus of the cage being a potentially brutal weapon or platform for launching attacks. The WWE has another provision where a standard cage match can end with one wrestler or wrestling team escaping the cage through the door or over the top.
Another example is the WWE's Royal Rumble match, which involves thirty participants in a random and unknown order. The Rumble match is itself a spectacle in that it is a once-yearly event with multiple participants, including individuals who might not interact otherwise. It also serves as a catalyst for the company's ongoing feuds, as well as a springboard for new storylines.
While the wrestling matches themselves are the primary focus of professional wrestling, a key dramatic element of the business can be entrances of the wrestlers to the arena and ring. It is typical for a wrestler to get their biggest crowd reaction (or "pop") for their ring entrance, rather than for anything they do in the wrestling match itself, especially if former main event stars are returning to a promotion after a long absence.
All notable wrestlers now enter the ring accompanied by music, and regularly add other elements to their entrance. The music played during the ring entrance will usually mirror the wrestler's personality. Many wrestlers, particularly in America, have music and lyrics specially written for their ring entrance. While invented long before, the practice of including music with the entrance gained rapid popularity during the 1980s, largely as a result of the huge success of Hulk Hogan and the WWF, and their Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection. When a match is won, the victor's theme music is usually also played in celebration.
With the introduction of the Titantron entrance screen in 1997, WWF/WWE wrestlers also had entrance videos made that would play along with their entrance music.
Other dramatic elements of a ring entrance can include:
Another method of entry involves descending from the ceiling with a Zip-line or rappel line and stunt harness. This has been done by Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XII, by Sting many times in WCW and TNA, and has gained major controversy over its role in the death of wrestler Owen Hart at Over the Edge.
Special ring entrances are also developed for big occasions, most notably the WrestleMania event. For example, WrestleMania III and VI both saw all wrestlers enter the arena on motorized miniature wrestling rings. Live bands are sometimes hired to perform live entrance music at special events. John Cena and Triple H are particularly notable in recent years for their highly theatrical entrances at WrestleMania.
The women's division of professional wrestling has maintained a recognized world champion since 1937, when Mildred Burke won the original World Women's title. She then formed the World Women's Wrestling Association in the early 1950s and recognized herself as the first champion, although the championship would be vacated upon her retirement in 1956. The NWA however, ceased to acknowledge Burke as their Women's World champion in 1954, and instead acknowledged June Byers as champion after a controversial finish to a high-profile match between Burke and Byers that year. Upon Byers' retirement in 1964, The Fabulous Moolah, who won a junior heavyweight version of the NWA World Women's Championship (the predecessor to the WWE Women's Championship) in a tournament back in 1958, was recognized by most NWA promoters as champion by default.
For most of its history, men and women would rarely compete against each other in professional wrestling, as it was deemed to be unfair and unchivalrous. Andy Kaufman used this to gain notoriety when he created an Intergender Championship and declared it open to any female challenger. This led to a long (worked) feud with Jerry Lawler.
In the 1980s, mixed tag team matches began to take place, with a male and female on each team and a rule stating that each wrestler could only attack the opponent of the same gender. If a tag was made, the other team had to automatically switch their legal wrestler as well. Despite these restrictions, many mixed tag matches do feature some physical interaction between participants of different genders. For example, a heel may take a cheap shot at the female wrestler of the opposing team to draw a negative crowd reaction. In lucha libre, cheap-shots and male-female attacks are not uncommon.
Intergender singles bouts were first fought on a national level in the 1990s. This began with Luna Vachon, who faced men in ECW and WWF. Later, Chyna became the first female to hold a belt that was not exclusive to women when she won the WWF Intercontinental Championship. While it is a rare feat in WWE, in TNA, ODB participates in singles intergender matches. Also, ODB's kayfabe husband and tag team partner Eric Young held the Knockouts tag team titles for a record 478 days before it was stripped by Brooke Hogan because Young was a male.
Midget wrestling can be traced to professional wrestling's carnival and vaudeville origins. In recent years, the popularity and prevalence of midgets in wrestling has greatly decreased due to wrestling companies depriving midget divisions of storyline or feud. However, WWE has made a few attempts to enter this market with their "minis" in the 1990s and the "junior's league" as recent as 2006. It is still a popular form of entertainment in Mexican wrestling, mostly as a "sideshow".
Some wrestlers may have their own specific "mini me", like Mascarita Sagrada, Alebrije has Quije, etc. There are also cases in which midgets can become valets for a wrestler, and even get physically involved in matches, like Alushe, who often accompanies Tinieblas, or KeMonito, who is portrayed as Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre's mascot and is also a valet for Mistico. Dave Finlay was often aided in his matches by a midget known mainly as Hornswoggle while in WWE, who hid under the ring and gave a shillelagh to Finlay to use on his opponent. Finlay also occasionally threw him at his opponent(s). Hornswoggle has also been given a run with the WWE Cruiserweight Championship and feuded with D-X in 2009.
The U.S., Japan and Mexico are three countries where there is a huge market and high popularity for professional wrestling. But the styles of professional wrestling are different, given their independent development for a long period.
Professional wrestling in the U.S. tends to have a heavy focus on story building and the establishment of characters (and their personalities). There is a story for each match, and even a longer story for successive matches. The stories usually contain characters like faces and heels, and less often antiheroes and tweeners. It is a "triumph" if the face wins, while it is a "tragedy" if the heel wins. The characters usually have strong and sharp personalities, with examples like Doink the Clown, whose personality is melodramatic, slapstick and fantastical. The opposition between faces and heels is very intense in the story, and the heels may even attack the faces during TV interviews. The relationship between different characters can also be very complex.
Although professional wrestling in Mexico (Lucha libre) also has stories and characters, they are less emphasized. Wrestlers in Mexico are traditionally more agile and perform more aerial maneuvers than professional wrestlers in the U.S. who, more often, rely on power moves and strikes to subdue their opponents. The difference in styles is due to the independent evolution of the sport in Mexico beginning in the 1930s and the fact that wrestlers in the cruiserweight division (peso semicompleto) are often the most popular wrestlers in Mexican lucha libre. Wrestlers often execute high flying moves characteristic of lucha libre by utilizing the wrestling ring's ropes to catapult themselves towards their opponents, using intricate combinations in rapid-fire succession, and applying complex submission holds. Lucha libre is also known for its tag team wrestling matches, in which the teams are often made up of three members, instead of two as is common in the U.S.
The style of Japanese professional wrestling (Puroresu) is again different. With its origins in traditional American style of wrestling and still being under the same genre, it has become an entity in itself. Despite the similarity to its American counterpart in that the outcome of the matches remains predetermined, the phenomena are different in the form of the psychology and presentation of the sport. In New Japan Pro Wrestling, All Japan Pro Wrestling and Pro Wrestling NOAH it is treated as a full contact combat sport as it mixes hard hitting martial arts strikes with shoot style submission holds, while in the U.S. it is rather more regarded as an entertainment show. Wrestlers incorporate kicks and strikes from martial arts disciplines, and a strong emphasis is placed on submission wrestling, and unlike the use of involved storylines in the U.S., they are not as intricate in Japan, more emphasis is placed on the concept of Fighting Spirit, meaning the Wrestlers display of physical and mental stamina are valued a lot more than theatrics. Many of Japan's wrestlers including top stars such as Shinya Hashimoto, Riki Chōshū and Keiji Mutoh came from a legitimate martial arts background and many Japanese Pro Wrestlers in the 1990s began to pursue careers in Mixed Martial Arts Organizations such as Pancrase and Shooto which at the time retained the original look of Puroresu but were actual competitions. Other companies, such as Michinoku Pro Wrestling and Dragon Gate wrestle in a style similar to Mexican companies like AAA and CMLL. This is known as "Lucharesu".
Professional wrestling has developed its own cultures, both internal and external.
Those involved in producing professional wrestling have developed a kind of global fraternity, with familial bonds, shared language and passed-down traditions. New performers are expected to "pay their dues" for a few years by working in lower-profile promotions and working as ring crew before working their way upward. The permanent rosters of most promotions develop a backstage pecking order, with veterans mediating conflicts and mentoring younger wrestlers. For many decades (and still to a lesser extent today) performers were expected to keep the illusions of wrestling's legitimacy alive even while not performing, essentially acting in character any time they were in public. Some veterans speak of a "sickness" among wrestling performers, an inexplicable pull to remain active in the wrestling world despite the devastating effects the job can have on one's life and health.
Fans of professional wrestling have their own subculture, comparable to those of science fiction, video games, or comic books. Those who are interested in the backstage occurrences, future storylines and reasonings behind company decisions read newsletters written by journalists with inside ties to the wrestling industry. These "rags" or "dirt sheets" have expanded into the Internet, where their information can be dispensed on an up-to-the-minute basis. Some have expanded into radio shows.
Some fans enjoy a pastime of collecting tapes of wrestling shows from specific companies, of certain wrestlers, or of specific genres. The internet has given fans exposure to worldwide variations of wrestling they would be unable to see otherwise. Since the 1990s, many companies have been founded which deal primarily in wrestling footage. When the WWE purchased both WCW and ECW in 2001, they also obtained the entire past video libraries of both productions and have released many past matches online and on home video.
Like some other sports, fantasy leagues have developed around professional wrestling. Some take this concept further by creating E-feds (electronic federations), where a user can create their own fictional wrestling character, and role-playing storylines with other users, leading to scheduled "shows" where match results are determined by the organizers, usually based on a combination of the characters' statistics and the players' roleplaying aptitude, sometimes with audience voting.
From the first established world championship, the top professional wrestlers have garnered fame within mainstream society. Each successive generation has produced a number of wrestlers who extend their careers into the realms of music, acting, writing, business, politics or public speaking, and are known to those who are unfamiliar with wrestling in general. Conversely, celebrities from other sports or general pop culture also become involved with wrestling for brief periods of time. A prime example of this is The Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection of the 1980s, which combined wrestling with MTV.
Some terminology originating in professional wrestling has found its way into the common vernacular. Phrases such as "body slam", "sleeper hold" and "tag team" are used by those who do not follow professional wrestling. The term "smackdown", popularized by The Rock and SmackDown! in the 1990s, has been included in Merriam-Webster dictionaries since 2007.
Many television shows and films have been produced which portray in-character professional wrestlers as protagonists, such as Ready to Rumble, ¡Mucha Lucha!, Nacho Libre, and the Santo film series. At least two stage plays set in the world of pro wrestling have been produced: The Baron is a comedy that retells the life of an actual performer known as Baron von Raschke. From Parts Unknown... is an award-nominated Canadian drama about the rise and fall of a fictional wrestler. The 2009 South Park episode "W.T.F." played on the soap operatic elements of professional wrestling. One of the lead characters on the Disney Channel series Kim Possible was a huge fan of pro wrestling and actually featured it on an episode (with two former WWE wrestlers voicing the two fictitious wrestlers featured in the episode). The 2008 film The Wrestler, about a washed-up professional wrestler, garnered several Oscar nominations.
The 1950 film noir Night and the City, directed by Jules Dassin and starring Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney, told the story of a promoter in London trying to make it big, and featured a match involving real professional wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko.
With its growing popularity, professional wrestling has attracted attention as a subject of serious academic study and journalistic criticism. Many courses, theses, essays and dissertations have analyzed wrestling's conventions, content, and its role in modern society. It is often included as part of studies on theatre, sociology, performance, and media. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a course of study on the cultural significance of professional wrestling, and anthropologist Heather Levi has written an ethnography about the culture of lucha libre in Mexico
But this was not always the case; in the early 20th century, once it became apparent that the "sport" was worked, pro wrestling was looked down on as a cheap entertainment for the uneducated working class—an attitude that still exists to varying degrees today. The French theorist Roland Barthes was among the first to propose that wrestling was worthy of deeper analysis, in his essay "The World of Wrestling" from his book Mythologies, first published in 1957. Barthes argued that it should be looked at not as a scamming of the ignorant, but as spectacle; a mode of theatric performance for a willing, if bloodthirsty, audience. Wrestling is described as performed art which demands an immediate reading of the juxtaposed meanings. The logical conclusion is given least importance over the theatrical performers of the wrestlers and the referee. According to Barthes the function of a wrestler is not to win: it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him and to give the audience a theatrical spectacle. This work is considered a foundation of all later study.
While pro wrestling is often described simplistically as a "soap opera for males", it has also been cited as filling the role of past forms of literature and theatre; a synthesis of classical heroics, commedia dell'arte, revenge tragedies, morality plays, and burlesque. The characters and storylines portrayed by a successful promotion are seen to reflect the current mood, attitudes, and concerns of that promotion's society (and can, in turn, influence those same things). Wrestling's high levels of violence and masculinity make it a vicarious outlet for aggression during peacetime.
Documentary filmmakers have studied the lives of wrestlers and the effects the profession has on them and their families. The 1999 theatrical documentary Beyond the Mat focused on Terry Funk, a wrestler nearing retirement; Mick Foley, a wrestler within his prime; Jake Roberts, a former star fallen from grace; and a school of wrestling student trying to break into the business. The 2005 release Lipstick and Dynamite, Piss and Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling chronicled the development of women's wrestling throughout the 20th century. Pro wrestling has been featured several times on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. MTV's documentary series True Life featured two episodes titled "I'm a Professional Wrestler" and "I Want to Be a Professional Wrestler". Other documentaries have been produced by The Learning Channel (The Secret World of Professional Wrestling) and A&E (Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows). Bloodstained Memoirs explored the careers of several pro wrestlers, including Chris Jericho, Rob Van Dam and Roddy Piper.
Although professional wrestling is worked, there is a high chance of injury, and even death. Strikes are often stiff especially in Japan and in independent wrestling promotions such as Combat Zone Wrestling and Ring of Honor. The ring is often made out of 2 by 8 timber planks. There have been many brutal accidents, hits and injuries. Many of the injuries that occur in pro wrestling are shoulders, knee, back, neck, and rib injuries. Professional wrestler Davey Richards said in 2015 "We train to take damage, we know we are going to take damage and we accept that."
Less than 25 years after the 1990 WrestleMania VI, one third of its 36 competitors had died including André the Giant and main event winner The Ultimate Warrior (all of these deaths had occurred before the age of 64).
Dragon Gate is a unique promotion as they still follow many of wrestling's biggest traditions, one being that veterans get theirs first because rookies need to "pay their dues" like they did.
There is a sense in which wrestling resembles nothing if not a kind of postmodern commedia dell'arte
We train to take damage, we know we are going to take damage and we accept that," he says, adopting the air of a very muscular guru. "We know we are going to be slammed and we're going to be hit and we're going to be fallen on. We know we're going to dive onto concrete floors. We are tempting fate every time and it is a very tough sport. It is only for tough people who are brave enough and who can accept that pain.
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