By Neil Dhingra
In terms of book-length philosophical studies of professional wrestling, Douglas Edwards’s thoroughly enjoyable Philosophy Smackdown (2020) claims to be “the first of its kind,” which makes me wonder if a book-length theological study — “from parts unknown” — could exist. The grounds for skepticism, which I think Philosophy Smackdown helps resolve, would seem to be Donald Trump and the virtue of humility, of which professional wrestling seems to have too much and too little, respectively.
The dark connection between Trump and wrestling isn’t merely that Trump has participated in sports entertainment and been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. The scholar Sharon Mazer has argued, “Trump’s fans go to his rallies the way wrestling fans go to the arena,” with “aggrieved” and hypermasculine populism. To the response that wrestling fans realize that Wrestlemania is scripted while nuclear conflict with North Korea is not, Mazer writes that many of us seem to want the spectacle to be real: “We want to be smart, but we also look to ‘mark out’ as the fans say, to believe that what we are seeing is real conflict, real blood on the mat, real valor.” Likewise, in a recent article in Political Science Review, David S. Moon suggests that Trump supporters often realized that, yes, he was being manipulative but still wanted to “mark out”: “becoming not ‘the believing sports fan’, but ‘the believing voter.’”
Are wrestling fans placing themselves in the politically and spiritually perilous position of desiring to be conned? Douglas Edwards notes wrestling fans don’t passively accept any programmed spectacle. “Wrestling fans,” he says, “hate being told what to think by wrestling companies.” Besides their willingness to reject the corporate promotion of the wrong wrestler — a “face” (or heroic) Roman Reigns, for instance, wrestling fans also desire spectacle because it offers the pleasure of then figuring out the “real” story.
Fans, Edwards continues, “are dedicated, informed, relentless in their pursuit of the truth of a particular issue,” reading dirt sheets, listening to podcasts, and watching documentaries to figure out the Montreal Screwjob or why one wrestler is being pushed and another held back — perhaps, like the bearded and unkempt (and talented if short) Daniel Bryan or capable women wrestlers, quite unfairly. Given the near-impossibility of this endeavor, wrestling fans come to understand both that appearances are never to be trusted and that there’s rarely an inner reality found once all scripts and choreography have been peeled away. After all, wrestling fans still want their theatrical puzzles — when the wrestling federation WCW intentionally presented only quasi-reality in 1999, with an onscreen “writer,” no less, that gimmick failed. Reality, then, is neither simply the machinations of a demagogue, whether Trump or the fictional WWE CEO “Mr. McMahon,” nor getting past performance to a pure realm of cold and penetrating scientific analysis without politics, costumes, characters, and fog machines.
In other words, the world of professional wrestling is complex and interactive, and, as Douglas Edwards states, wrestling fans embrace the theatricality of wrestling and seek to hold it accountable. They can do so on two grounds. First, wrestling fans can spur promotions to belatedly recognize and draw on those deeper dramatic contexts that have always been part of wrestling. If a character begins to win the audience’s approval, the wrestler will need to embody certain core virtues to continue to resonate. When the unlikely antihero Stone Cold Steve Austin fought Bret Hart in Wrestlemania 13 in 1997, he finally turned “face” by refusing to submit to Hart’s sharpshooter, while Hart became “heel” by then cowardly beating the defenseless Austin. Edwards writes, “Austin, due to his epic display of fortitude, was cheered as he walked out of the ring on his own steam.” On the other hand, Ronda Rousey entered the WWE with great publicity after having been a once-unstoppable mixed martial arts champion, but audience reaction likely caused a scripted heel-turn in which her boastfulness in “thinking that, as a former UFC champion, she could beat any wrestler,” foreshadowed a loss to Becky Lynch. More recently, and positively, Edwards has discerned an Aristotelian friendship of virtue in Kenny Omega’s appreciation for the down-on-his-luck Hangman Adam Page’s drive, skills, and courage amidst adversity in All Elite Wrestling. Their odd couple pairing connected with fans and critics after both wrestlers had seemed to underperform in terms of storytelling as individual wrestlers. All in all, as the philosopher Lisa Jones has written, wrestling is about moral narratives of justice, however rough and however deferred.
There is a second form of accountability based on the physicality of the sport. When David S. Moon writes that wrestling fans want to “mark out,” he draws on the work of Sam Ford. But Ford speaks of the “smart” fans who realize that wrestling is kayfabe, or scripted, as wanting to “momentarily forget that they’re playing a role” by praising the “storylines” and “in-ring performances that still sell them” (my emphasis). They “seek moments where they are pleasantly surprised by a performance, narrative twist, or storyline” (my emphasis). But why do they only find this happy forgetfulness for a moment? And what does it have to do with something that Edwards comparatively neglects, namely in-ring performances? Just as the right storyline can offer a glimpse of justice, the inescapable physicality of wrestling shows us transcendent possibilities. Lisa Jones notes that in wrestling, as opposed to most competitive sports, beauty can be part of the function of the moves, rather than incidental to it.
Also, in a recent profile of Becky Lynch, the journalist Molly Langmuire recounts,
I watched Chyna, her muscles glistening, lifting the wrestler Ivory over her head as if she was made of feathers. I watched Austin square up against Bret Hart in a ferocious match that ends with Austin, his face smeared with blood, passing out rather than submitting. I watched the classic, brutal match between Mankind and the Undertaker, which plays out like a battle between man and death itself (the symbolism in wrestling is never subtle). While the Undertaker wins, the image that stays with me is Mankind persisting in the face of it.
Perhaps what we wish to believe in is that what is practical can be beautiful. Perhaps we also hope that, finally, we are not constrained by our limitations, all those obstacles that seem to face us, and even death itself. The chance for these fleeting glimpses, evoked by the flips and throws of real human bodies, seems to be what fans can ask from wrestling promotions.
If this is true, while demagogues may borrow from the exaggerated rhetoric and gestures of professional wrestling, wrestling fans should be able to see through them while understanding that they are never quite alien to the theatrical world of politics. In other words, wrestling fans should be able to contextualize Trumpish politicians, whether right or left, and see them as the inevitable losers in pay-per-view matches, unable to display Austin’s unlikely virtues or show us wrestling’s momentary transcendence — that “persisting in the face of it.” Professional wrestling, we might say, can be a form of civic education.
Finally, we have the question of humility. Christians are called to show humility in imitation of Christ who “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself” (Phil. 2:6-7); he “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:8). Humility presents a different and thornier problem because, if professional wrestlers manifest some Aristotelian virtues, such as courage, the theatricality of wrestling initially seems to exclude humility. But this can remind us of a paradox in nearly all sports, perhaps most profoundly pronounced in sports entertainment.
To get at that paradox, we first must ask what humility is. As the philosopher Michael Austin notes, humility cannot involve self-denigration or acting with an artificially low self-assessment, because that may entail holding a false belief or acting performatively. Instead, humility should allow for proper self-assessment but with an other-centeredness that’s present in sports as a good athlete seeks to do her best not only with her teammates — the wide receiver must also block — but also with opponents whose competition is simultaneously cooperative as it is necessary for everyone to pursue excellence. Thus, Austin raises the question of an athlete who’s asked at a press conference if she’s the best in the world. If she clearly is the best, might she answer honestly? Austin says yes, but minus chest-thumping and with “gratitude for the opportunity to develop and display [her] athletic excellence,” which presumably includes all her opponents.
That other-centeredness is present in wrestling because opponents must cooperate, otherwise they will inevitably injure one another and have a less interesting match. A recent article on the Undertaker notes, “He also liked making his opponents look strong” and recalls his calling for a banned move to be used during a match — with him as the recipient. In a fascinating study of a British wrestling school, Broderick D.V. Chow explains that the lock-up that begins most professional wrestling matches exemplifies “paraconsistent logic”: “It is a hold that is a not a hold, a struggle against the other that is at the same time cooperative.” The chain wrestling that seems to exhibit fierce hostility really requires “kineaesthetic empathy.” The ringwork that appears to be self-assertion involves flow, “a loss of self-consciousness and a feeling of absorption in working with another person.” Those bodies that look perpetually clenched and flexed must “work loose.”
Thus, professional wrestling may not show humility, but becoming a wrestling fan involves a paradoxical form of education in realizing that much of what initially appears to be egoistic requires an intense focus on the flourishing of others. Thus, becoming a wrestling fan is a fascinating process of unlearning. As a number of wrestling scholars have pointed out, we must recognize that the fearsome Awesome Kong is also Kia Stevens, whose arms, one of her co-stars on Netflix’s wrestling series GLOW recalled, “wrapped gently around my neck like my head was an injured piglet” in a training session. This unlearning is presumably translatable to other practices and settings, whether workplaces or Westerns, in which we can still appreciate the puffed up appearances, but with irony, as we realize the deeper simultaneity of mutuality and trust
So, perhaps there can be a theology of professional wrestling after all. Douglas Edwards’ Philosophy Smackdown can have an even more unlikely companion volume.
Neil Dhingra is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland.