Dress Up Your Roger Ebert in Tights and Sequins

When will wrestling journalism start treating the "sport" like art?
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Wrestling is, amongst other things, an art rich in the possibility of its execution. The first time I ever heard wrestling referred to what it really was out loud was when Colt Cabana said he was starting a podcast he was going to name "The Art of Wrestling." For as long as the true nature of the beast had been revealed to the public, discussions about wrestling from this perspective had been few and far between. Sure, David Shoemaker was turning heads as the Masked Man at Deadspin, and Brandon Stroud toiled in near anonymity for Fan House, but compared to what the prevailing tone for wrestling journalism was, they were crazy men shouting into the abyss compared to the rest of those who made bones writing about professional wrestling.

In the days of kayfabe, wrestling journalists always kept up the ruse, treating the act like a sport. Stanley Weston pioneered the medium, and Bill Apter ran with the framework and expanded it. To many fans, their magazines were the only way they learned about territories outside of the ones they plunked money down to see monthly or watched on local television weekly. Pro Wrestling Illustrated and its ilk --referred to collectively as “Apter mags” -- created a mystique about certain performers that didn't travel regularly. Mystery created curiosity, and curiosity created fandom.

John Stossel and Geraldo Rivera were among the first to try and rip down the veil to expose the “mystery” behind wrestling, trying to suss out what the medium really was in the early '80s. Stossel in particular paid a hefty price, receiving an ear-box from Dr. David Shultz. But once the first claw pierced the drapery, the rest of the fabric was ripe for shredding.

In the span of fifteen years, the then-World Wrestling Federation abandoned all pretenses of being "real" and even embraced the breaking of kayfabe as part of the actual story itself. Vince Russo -- the much-maligned alleged architect of the Attitude Era -- would (as he is wont to do) take it to its (il)logical extremes, going so far as to create a story in the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling where the announcers would note when and where Bill Goldberg wasn't following the script.

Journalistic focus needed to shift to how the entertainment industry had been documented as the public perception of wrestling morphed from sport to high-impact theater. This would have required Apter mags to branch and evolve into something better equipped to service a fan base that was more cognizant of what wrestling really is. Instead of simply relaying the proceedings like any other sport, they needed to treat the business like Variety -- which covered the insider news and financial details of its industry -- and Entertainment Weekly -- an outlet for artistic op-eds and criticism. Unfortunately, the two-pronged evolution didn't exactly follow through the way it should have.

As the influence of Apter mags deteriorated, a new tone was set by Dave Meltzer and then mollified by those who came after him with another collective of publications: "dirt sheets." Lead by his Wrestling Observer newsletter, Meltzer and his brethen  broke new ground by reporting on backstage dealings and financial news. Wade Keller, Dave Scherer, and nearly every other prominent wrestling writer followed in Dave's footsteps.

They wanted scoops, rumors, ratings, show gates, buy rates, and everything else that could be measured in hard, concrete numbers. Even those who dared to stray away from hard news like Scott Keith tended to couch their writing and opinions using those same metrics, to the point where enjoyment of a show almost felt like it was tied to how well it would do financially.

Gauging the financials of the wrestling industry is a fine practice indeed. Meltzer has made a name for himself, and despite any shortcomings I or any of his other critics may think he has, he deserves every bit of acclaim he's garnered over the years. The problem, of course, was that no one took the other lead as strongly as he did in the artistic direction.

Where is our Roger Ebert? Certainly, many people are trying to fill that role. Some of us, myself included, write looking more to provide a voice of critique of stories and artistic merit rather than business practices. The same could be said of Shoemaker (now at Grantland), Stroud (currently moved onto the Uproxx network), and writers such as Nick Bond and Tom Breihan who have been featured here at the Classical. But what is the upward mobility of someone who writes about wrestling in a way that isn't either robotically analyzed through hard numbers or systematically put down as the cultural dregs of the American working class in the mainstream media?

In a way, the biggest enemy of the wrestling critic is the product which they set out to analyze. Vince McMahon built an empire exploiting the basest common denominator, and while his WWE juggernaut has cleaned up its act somewhat over the years, not a show of his goes by without some obnoxious character portrayal based in a white privilege view of society that becomes a cause for concern among wrestling fans with a healthy amount of social conscience. Because WWE remains rooted in the past while other media have forward thinkers driving their art forward, critics can find attaining some modicum of success writing for an outlet bigger than the major blogosphere to be mighty difficult.

So, where does the current situation leave the wrestling critic? Is writing about wrestling as an artistic endeavor financially futile? Ebert was allowed to become the voice of a generation because people paid him to illuminate the cultural merit (or demerit in some cases) film. The lack of proliferation of artistic wrestling writing because the money is not there is highly ironic in the face of a current scene so rife with writers obsessed with how profitable a given wrestling promotion is. Then again, truth is oftentimes funnier than fiction.

Cabana has enough name recognition that people subscribe to him en masse, and those subscribers buy enough merchandise from him that his venture is profitable. He's an outlier right now, but all pioneers start out as outliers, right? Maybe if folks like Cabana and Shoemaker and Stroud all turn enough heads and show the world that wrestling fandom can engender progressive thought and meaningful criticism, slowly but surely, balance can be restored to the figurative wrestling Force, so to speak.

Still, nothing has ever been gotten without a little bit of struggle. The fact that the healthy, artistic arm of wrestling was never allowed to evolve from generally thoughtful people like Bill Apter back when the veil of kayfabe was first removed is just a damn shame.


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