The Case For Kayfabermetrics

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While this bit of #InternetWrestlingWriting came to us too late to be featured in this month's Classical Magazine (The One with All the Wrestling), we thought it was too good to go unpublished. So, without further ado, here's Kayfabermetrics' Matthew Timmons on the evolution of professional wrestling discourse and the math behind it. 

In the main event of October’s WWE PPV Hell in a Cell, a returning Bray Wyatt attacked fan-favorite Dean Ambrose, giving Seth Rollins a gift-wrapped victory. The most vocal minority of fans were not pleased, as they had hoped to see the red-hot Ambrose get revenge. In most cases this is the reaction you want -- passion = money is second only to, red (blood) = green (money) in wrestling algebra -- but there was one problem: they weren't upset at Wyatt for interfering. To them, Wyatt wasn’t the villain of the PPV; Vince McMahon and WWE’s writing staff, collectively know as “Creative”, were for writing in the interference at all.

For many modern wrestling fans, this exact scenario plays out within every single pinfall, submission and distraction-aided countout or disqualification. In the netherworld of the Internet Wrestling Community, victories aren’t about Wrestler A being “better” -- meaning both “best for drawing business” and “best for maintaining continued interest in one, or both, performers and/or a particular storyline” -- but Vince (and by extension, Creative) “hating” Wrestler B. Exacerbating the problem, wrestling’s “unreality” makes relatively innocuous statements like “I hate Randy Orton, he’s boring” a Pandora’s box of questions about the nature of perception and payoff: “What if we’re supposed to think he’s boring?” “What if that’s the work?” “How can we ever really know?”.

In order to deal with knowing we don’t/can’t really “know” anything while still managing to be aware that “knowing” is a possibility, we act like we know everything. When we ignore what our eyes see because of our perceptions of how those things happened, we lose any sort of nuance about the action itself. We no longer let the stories being told play out, and more importantly, apply our own personal definition to industry terms that few of us understand, and even fewer genuinely appreciate.

Most conversations by “smart” wrestling fans -- those not just “in on the joke” as David Shoemaker puts it, but obsessed with the set design and distribution methods of the comedy special itself -- divert immediately into the world of the dirtsheets. Instead of accepting a result of the action, fans attempt to “figure out” the result using innuendo and backstage politics, like it was a puzzle instead of a mystery.

Even when this loose coalition of like-minded internet automatons (their conformity fueled by the same math behind “Why all hipsters have facial hair”, but calculated in neckbeards) get what they want -- like John Cena getting obliterated by Paul Heyman Guy Beast and conquering monster Brock Lesnar at August’s SummerSlam -- there’s an almost categorical refusal to engage with the product directly.

Instead of asking logical questions about the text within the context of the medium -- i.e., if John Cena is positioned as WWE’s best hero, and he gets obliterated by Brock Lesnar, which character will be able to beat him (and how might they go about doing it)? -- there’s a rush to try to find an ulterior (and more importantly, extratextual) motive to the decision.

Which means “smart” conversations go like this: “They clearly put the belt on Lesnar to boost network sales.” “I read that Brock’s contract says he had to be champ or he’ll walk.” “Why will Cena job to Lesnar but not anyone else?” “Can the WWE put the belt on a part-timer?” Speculative and unknowable, these questions are, even more importantly, exhausting.

The ur-example of this was Daniel Bryan’s monumental victory over The Authority at WrestleMania XXX. One of the best wrestling storylines in ages, it ended in exactly the way fans wanted. The underdog hero, the true wrestling superstar, proved definitively he was the finest (and perhaps most beloved) performer in the industry. But, despite what was quite literally a fairy tale ending -- he even married the beautiful princess in real life -- there was still considerable consternation from “smart” wrestling fans.

You see, based on unsourced reports flowing from dirt sheets like sewage, they “knew” Bryan wasn’t what the powers that be wanted. That he only achieved this victory because of luck and in spite of backstage politics. In the eyes of this loud contingent, the domino effect of CM Punk quitting, Batista’s disastrous babyface run, and the lack of other options -- and almost literally nothing else -- put Bryan in this position.

And, most importantly, for a depressingly large contingent of adults, these “facts” not only meant that this once-in-a-lifetime story wasn't great because they perceived it as not what WWE had "really planned" nor "actually wanted". It also meant that, despite having shown either a willingness to adjust to the wants and desires of the fans or such a high-functioning ability to work them over as to render a distinction meaningless, the WWE couldn’t be trusted to deliver on what the fans wanted in the future.

What if fans of other entertainment thought like this? People don’t hate the Back to the Futurefilms because Robert Zemeckis originally cast Eric Stoltz in the role of Marty McFly. Try imagining if someone said, “Sure, Michael J. Fox was great and this movie was awesome, but it’s not what the filmmakers intended so it actually sucks” and then added, “And because I don’t like Back to the Future for this very specific reason, I also can’t trust that Forrest Gump will be any good.” You'd think that person was insane. And if they then called themself a Robert Zemeckis fan? You'd want to punch them.

It’s understandable to want to find answers to something as opaque as pro wrestling. Our favorite performer isn’t winning -- or, perhaps, just not winning in the way we want them to -- and we need to have a reason why. It’s an attempt to find support with “reason” and validate our opinions about the things we like. It’s human nature to want those things. But when it gets in the way of the enjoyment of the product, what’s the point?

If the key here is wanting a better understanding of what we are watching, searching for "why" backstage is an empty void. The path to salvation is delving further into the actual action itself, by treating the result as a kind of gospel, and more importantly, a quantifiable manifestation of both the conscious and subconscious desires of the “Creative” process. In this sense, statistics allow us to once again treat what we are seeing as a kind of absolute "truth", a way to better understand nebulous insider concepts like “pushes” or “burials” which are so often thrown around like physical laws of the universe and to recognize trends through recent and ancient history.

Statistics let us talk about what we are seeing on TV and leave the backstage stuff in the dust. It also allows kayfabe to live because we’ve given the result back the power to stand on its own. And just like real sports, new discussions can emerge about value. How exactly does the WWE articulate these values, you ask? Wins? TV time? Title reigns? All of the above? Yes, yes, yes!

And beyond these simple counting stats, there are more advanced concepts that can be extracted from these numbers. In the same way that xFIP and TS% have broadened our understanding of what is most “valuable” in sports like baseball and basketball while shattering preconceived notions we thought were undeniable truths -- Bunts are the best idea ever! Long twos aren’t a terrible idea! --  things like a quantification of legacy can help us understand how valuable a performer is to a promotion. Like any other athletic endeavor, we relied on worn, unsubstantiated narratives to talk about sports for so long. Now we have data to flesh out our understanding of what we are watching. If someone asks a question, stats can give us a language to address the situation.

Statistics in wrestling can do the same thing. We know Cena is considered “great” by the WWE, we know where that guy falls in their pecking order. But how do others benefit from getting in the ring with him? How close is anyone else to his spot? Can we get an actual mathematical percentage on the odds being overcome?

To put it simply, in professional wrestling it matters who your dance partner is and for how long/often you perform together. These are the basic building blocks of how promotions value a performer, how they make stars. Those are all quantifiable. By examining this instead of backstage nonsense, we can bring a new focus on the thing that actually matter - what happens in the squared circle.

These are things that are constantly talked about, and while there will always be issues with attempting to pour concrete on abstraction, the goal isn’t to determine whose is the "best" or "worst". It’s to create a new vocabulary for these questions. Kayfabermetrics, if you will, can evolve the pro wrestling conversation, move it away from that binary idea to what exactly those things mean within the context of professional wrestling.

It’s time to understand that we can make professional wrestling seem real again simply by accepting that it's fake. Just ask John Cena:

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