Pro wrestling is a weird bastard art, and if you’re unfamiliar with its intricacies, the hordes of people in your social media circles obsessively pontificating about it every Monday night must be a truly confounding experience. Let our very own Dominic Griffin, lifelong wrestling enthusiast, teach you a little something right here, In This Very Ring…
“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called The Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called The Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call The Prestige.”
It may seem comical to say, but wrestling, in a lot of ways, is like magic. Convincing an audience that two men (who are often friends) not only despise each other, but are willing to severely injure one another just to hold a gold plated belt requires a great deal of skill.
Regardless of how personally acquainted you are with the ins and outs of the backstage reality, you’re a spectator to a falsehood, something closer to a magic trick or a con game than a play or a film. The carnie origins of the “sport” have an aggressive side to their deception.
Wikipedia defines kayfabe as “the portrayal of staged events within the industry as real or true, specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not of a staged or pre-determined nature.” The accepted and willing suspension of disbelief is a key element to enjoying wrestling, but it is not an absolute necessity. “Smart” fans are those who know wrestling is fake and have some measure of knowledge in how the art works, but enjoy the thrill of the show all the same. The craft is such that no matter how many times you saw Secrets of Pro Wrestling Revealed, you’re still in the dark about a lot of what actually happens behind locker room doors.
You may know there’s a booker, who is sort of a coach/head writer who orchestrates things in the promotion. You may understand the generality of how performers are played against one another throughout a wrestling card. You may know that a “work” is something staged and fictional, but a “shoot” is an unscripted deviation from the proceedings. Whether or not you gained this information from books, documentaries, or dirtsheets (wrestling journalism culled from gossip and out of kayfabe rumors), you’re still a mark. What goes on in the ring and on the screen is a con, and just because you know that you’re being conned doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
The modern wrestling fan is liable to refer to themselves as a “smark,” a smart mark who knows he is being worked, but loves it all the same. Love is relative. Those who self identify as smarks tend to be very cynical and their enjoyment of the business comes more from a high minded moral superiority than any sort of emotional effect intended by the product. Imagine a gaggle of onlookers watching Penn and Teller perform sleight of hand while passive aggressively snarking to one another how they know the secret of the trick. Now picture them going home to a message board where they argue with one another over who’s interpretation of that theory is better. Missing The Entire Fucking Point For Dummies.
People call those onlookers the IWC, or Internet Wrestling Community. It’s a pejorative generalization, to be sure, and a false one at that. Anyone who discusses wrestling on the internet is a part of the IWC, period. It’s just that the extremist fringe is how the majority are thought of. This happens in every fandom. That’s where Comic Book Guy comes from. Any complaints about the current state of the wrestling audience get lumped into the IWC argument: that modern wrestling crowds don’t know what they want and think they know better than the performers, making them impossible to please. If someone can’t be pleased, why try, right?
It’s not all on the audience, though. In the 70s, the lengths performers went to maintain kayfabe were well documented. In 1975, Ric Flair, Johnny Valentine and other wrestlers from Jim Crockett Promotions were in a severe plane crash together. It was an experiment at the time for these performers to travel together in a plane instead of on the road, and it cost a few passengers their careers. Now, remember, babyfaces and heels could not be seen together in public. In Flair’s autobiography, To Be The Man, he writes about masked hero Mr. Wrestling using his real name and posing as a promoter when the men were taken to the Emergency Room, because he couldn’t be seen with hated rival Valentine, even in such a severe case. Now, wrestlers take selfies with each other on Instagram.
The business has changed, and with it, the nature of the con. Apollo Robbins, a sleight of hand magician who calls himself The Gentleman Thief, is known for using his incredible pickpocketing skills as performance art. Here’s an example:
Matt Lauer and Ryan Secrest knew it was coming, but they got robbed all the same.
This brings us to CM Punk, the straight edge antihero of the WWE. Punk is a very talented professional wrestler, but his skills on the microphone are astronomical. He is without contemporary peer at making you believe whatever he says, largely because his self-righteous persona plays so genuinely, as a face or a heel. In 2011, fans knew how frustrated Punk was with his current place in the company, forever playing second fiddle to John Cena. With his real life contract about to run out and negotiations not going well, Punk cut a vicious shoot promo on Monday Night Raw that brought wrestling kicking and screaming back into the mainstream. It is lovingly referred to as The Pipe Bomb.
Stirring stuff, right? He manages to disparage his boss, his co-workers and even the audience who is eating up everything he says. By blurring the lines between fiction and reality, this led to a hot feud between Punk and Cena for the WWE Championship. Punk, working without a net, was to become a free agent the night of the title fight. The Voice of The Voiceless was going to take the title and leave. No one knew how much was scripted and how much was a part of the plan. This promo for the match itself is amazing.
This moment ushered in the Reality Era. WWE storytelling began to more effectively incorporate fan theories and conjecture, ably playing upon expectations to tell interesting stories. Everything about the Summer of Punk (as the angle came to be known) was loosely based on a similar storyline from Punk’s final arc in Ring of Honor in 2005, right before he signed with the WWE.
Seem familiar? This is what’s known as a heel turn, and it’s executed so well the “smart” fans can’t help but cheer for it. Fans of Punk had followed him from the indies up to the big leagues, so for the diehards seeing the similarities between the two storylines worked on so many levels. It made Punk a huge star, leading to a year-plus long title reign. Sadly, he still played second fiddle to Cena, and his fatigue recently led him to walk away from the company altogether. No one knows if it’s a part of a storyline or if Punk just quit because he didn’t get to headline Wrestlemania this year. He is just gone. That people even theorize one of the WWE’s biggest performers abruptly breaching his contract as being one big work is indicative of the storytelling we deal in now.
With Punk on the sidelines, there didn’t seem to be anyone else capable of adequately furthering the Reality Era agenda.
Enter Triple H. Hunter Hearst-Helmsley. Last bastion of the Attitude Era. Real life son-in-law of owner Vince McMahon. One of the most studious wrestlers in history, Trips is known for his propensity for politicking backstage and manipulating things into his own favor. He spent years at the top of the food chain while being married to the boss’ daughter, Stephanie, sometimes at the detriment of younger talent. A lot of fans hate his guts because of the persona they’ve projected onto him: a selfish sociopath obsessed with etching his name into history, even if it means rewriting the history books.
Triple H was a top star, yes, but in his prime, he was easily outshined by The Rock and Steve Austin, as well as Mick Foley, the performer who helped make his career with their legendary feuds. Fans always perceive Triple H as a guy with a chip on his shoulder who will bury newer talent he considers competition. Just google “Triple H burial” for a fun jaunt through his past victims. Of course, this isn’t necessarily indisputable fact. We don’t truly know what goes on backstage. This is just what the audience thinks of him.
The other side of the picture is Paul Levesque, Triple H’s real name. He cut his long hair, wears more suits, and has moved his way up the corporate chain to be second only to his father-in-law when it comes to creative control of WWE. As his backstage power has grown, he’s essentially been responsible for a great many things the fans who despise him happen to love. He spearheaded the WWE Performance Center, a school of sorts of newly signed developmental talent to hone their skills, and NXT, the training show where these performers work (easily the most beloved program by diehard fans) is also his baby. Under his watch, new stars like Cesaro, The Shield, and The Wyatt Family have gotten over huge, and have been booked more effectively than new talent has been in years. Maybe Triple H isn’t such a bad guy after all.
Why then is he the best villain in wrestling’s modern era? Well, he learned it from his pop.
Vince McMahon wasn’t always known as the cantankerous owner of the WWE. For years, onscreen he was just a boisterous ring announcer. People knew he ran the company, but he wasn’t swagger strutting to the ring every week and booking himself in matches. That started in 1997, when Vince very publicly screwed Bret Hart, his then top star, live in pay-per-view. Bret was leaving for rival WCW and didn’t want to drop the world title to Shawn Michaels the night before his contract was to end. When you leave a company, it’s customary to do the honors for someone on your way out. Bret and Shawn were former friends, but hated each other at this point due to a number of reasons, chiefest among them Michaels being a drug addicted egotist. Bret didn’t want to lose to someone he hated in his hometown and preferred to do the job the following night on Raw, handing the title over instead of losing it outright.
Instead, Vince, on screen, changed the ending of the match, having the referee ring the bell while Shawn had Brett locked into his own finisher to add insult to injury. Vince knew this act would net a great amount of heat, so he changed his onscreen persona. He became the evil, backstabbing boss everyone assumed he must be to have done something like this. He came out on television and said “Bret screwed Bret” and the villainous Mr. McMahon was born. That villain needed a hero to fight him, and the world was given Stone Cold Steve Austin, one of the biggest stars of all time. Everything worked out.
Triple H has done the same thing. He has been a heel in the past, through much of his career, but rarely was booked in situations where the audience was treated to the comeuppance he so richly deserved. It didn’t help that Triple H was usually so preoccupied with being cool that he couldn’t help but mug for cheers even when being the bad guy. However, now that he is in Vince’s role as the on-screen authority figure of the WWE, he’s openly embraced the fans’ perception of him, and plays it up with efficacy.
Here he is openly mocking the fans who photoshop .gifs of him on Reddit every night:
Here he is in an extravagantly produced montage, rewriting his own history (narrated by his equally brilliant wife):
Vince may have crafted a similar turn, but he has never been one to worry about the internet or anyone that uses it, because he’s just a little out of touch. I imagine Triple H reads message board posts about himself all the time, and his new persona as the smug, baby boomer superiority spewing patriarch of pro wrestling is him twisting the knife into their wounds. As the new Troll King of the WWE, he’s a magician kicking punters in the shin for looking up his sleeve. He represents everything that works about the Reality Era and the kayfabe 2.0 that governs it.
It doesn’t matter if they think they know how the trick works. If you perform it well enough, they’ll always come back for more.
 Wikipedia defines a wrestling card as “the lineup of the matches that will be staged at a given venue for a given performance.” It also refers to status, as top stars are considered main eventers and the supporting players who aren’t quite there yet are mid carders.