The Power of the Punch

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In a single night, Brock Lesnar -- after suplexing it into oblivion -- shattered the face of professional wrestling and recreated it in his own image. Almost literally, and certainly metaphorically, that face was John Cena’s.

For his part, Cena’s virtuoso turn as “Assault Victim No. 1” may have been his finest moment as a performer: If the job of professional wrestler as artist is to make the other guy look good through the illusion he’s really hurting you, Cena was Picasso painting Guernica. And it was Cena’s sacrifice -- his abdication of the throne and the SIXTEEN german suplexes he perfectly bumped and sold for over the course of twenty minutes -- that confirmed the heart of professional wrestling is still beating.

That’s because professional wrestling isn’t pyrotechnics, HD cameras, the stage, the ramp, or the ring. It’s not the backstage crew, the performers or the Creative team, either. It’s not even the show those people come together to make.

Professional wrestling is the lie.

It's a series of worlds designed by entertainment companies to entice people to visit in exchange for money, and its sales pitch has been most effective when it’s not just accepted but believed. And the struggle between those two things has been the industry’s greatest rivalry. As David Shoemaker once said, “If the history of wrestling were itself a storyline, the central conflict would be the tension between the real world and wrestling’s peculiar unreality.” The storyline he’s referring to -- professional wrestling’s meta-narrative -- is, and has always been, turning that tension into money.

Acceptance is a choice based on comfort and, obviously, personal preference. Belief is a compulsion driven by faith. When “nice people spend eternity in Paradise” and “some lady was made by a dude’s rib” are viable explanations for moral existentialism and biology, it’s easy to monetize. Not surprisingly, so are “that man is an irresistible force that runs on Hulkamania” and “this guy is an Old West undead zombie mortician, who also fights”.

But while it’s an easy bubble of money to blow up, it’s difficult to maintain and even harder to transition out of. Early promoters didn’t just think the people watching were either dumb enough to not realize it was fake or naive enough to believe it was real; they were equally afraid of what telling the truth would mean for the effectiveness (read: profitability) of their show. So the reality -- that the movements and stories choreographed, the results predetermined -- was not only actively ignored but quarantined.

This allowed professional wrestling to achieve domination in a field it created and in a market it almost exclusively populates. There is no “professional” professional football and the farthest that athletics dips into kayfabe are legends like Jordan’s “flu” game or baseball’s unwritten rules.

However, when the curtain was pushed back, wrestling companies began to accept “acceptance” over “belief”. Once the magic of profitability created by information asymmetry -- the golden goose of perpetual devotion that often comes with blind faith -- and novelty are gone, an entity must stand on its own merits. When professional wrestling was “a totally real sport, we promise” and not “sports entertainment”, it was compared to sports where it had an inherent advantage in being able to determine the winner or story line that was “best for business”.

As more and more of the business was exposed -- sometimes to avoid legal trouble, sometimes to explain why things like racism, misogyny and xenophobia were justified  -- that idea didn’t change, but the markets and worlds it operated in did. Bounced from sports to scripted entertainment, expectations of an entire new set of fans -- a semblance of continuity and logic, compelling characters that react to situations consistently and, of course, easily remembered tropes and catchphrases -- forced them to monetize interest instead of faith. And in that world, it’s safer to give technically proficient performances with fantastic production values that tell fun if ultimately inconsequential stories than it is to say anything or make the viewer question themselves or the things they’re watching.

It’s a niche the WWE's filled brilliantly and they've moved from selling ice cream bars to creating movies based on the characters and brands as part of a larger Universe. The outside world now sees them not necessarily as a fake sports company, but media producers who have become known for their focus on the future of distribution and rabid fan base. In doing so, they transcended the confines of their new markets and become the next evolution in commerce: a content factory.

Content has become a commodity no different than pork bellies. The WWE, or at the very least, wrestling that’s able to make money, has evolved from a world created with a single goal in mind -- put butts in seats -- into a multiverse.  An ability to create what the market desires in whatever format they would most like to consume it is more important than the vision or beliefs of any one person in the company.

This transition has been the hardest, happened almost exclusively because of the man who became its sacrificial lamb on Sunday evening at SummerSlam. His understanding of what makes the show work -- and more importantly, that it is a show -- has allowed the struggle to revert back to that original central conflict between the reality and what the company would like you to believe is the reality. But instead asking whether or not its "real", the conflict now comes from whether or not the company understands what the fans “really” want to see.

And after a long decade of LOLCENAWINS, the company is trying to prove that the idea they are laughing at the fans from behind the curtain has stopped. With a dark and serious truth -- the physical manifestation of what happens when bad intentions decide they are going to destroy something beautiful -- they are trying to beat out of us our acceptance of a company we presume as out of touch and into us an understanding that Brock Lesnar’s destruction of the world we knew is something we can believe in.

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