The Passion of Wrestlemania: Why MMA Will Never Beat Pro-Wrestling


The Passion of Wrestlemania: Why MMA Will Never Beat Pro-Wrestling

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza

One! Two! Three!” For one surreal moment last year, sitting at home on my couch, I felt unified with the 75,000+ fans in Florida when Roman Reigns finally downed The Undertaker at WWE Wrestlemania. It’s the biggest wrestling extravaganza of the year, and it serves as an annual arm-drag down memory lane for lapsed fans like myself to revisit the heady joy of pro-wrestling. We may be older and wiser to the tricks of the trade and the rigged nature of the industry, but when the intoxicating cocktail of athletic competition and physical theatre culminates at an event like Wrestlemania, wrestling becomes real to us all over again.

Most fans of pro-wrestling in general, and WWE in particular, wean themselves off the product after they learn the storylines are scripted and the matches are pre-determined. They graduate to MMA, a combat sport for real fighters – or so they believe. They trade in the dramatic storytelling of a WWE match for the methodical brutality of the UFC, Bellator, or any other MMA promotion. Realism is important to them… so I fail to understand how they think falling off a 20-foot ladder hurts less because it was pre-planned.

Both forms involve modern-day gladiators doing battle, in a square ring for WWE and an octagon for MMA. The crucial difference is that WWE is the equivalent of arthouse cinema to MMA’s viral YouTube clip. The YouTube clip is genuine and spontaneous, but the carefully crafted storyline and high-end production makes the motion picture more appealing to watch every time.

Maybe I’m ascribing too much cerebral capacity to those who are entertained by the sight of two sweaty individuals wordlessly grinding atop one another while making miniscule movements to gain some form of control. These are people who think watching Ronda Rousey lock in a first-round armbar makes them a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. They will share news stories about people getting mugged, and then wax eloquent about how they could have stopped that with a single-leg takedown. Theirs is a credibility borrowed from legitimate MMA fighters, and they will use it to stare down their noses at the fans of pro-wrestling.

Here’s a newsflash for those who believe pro-wrestling isn’t real. It friggin’ is.

Mick Foley knocking his tooth out, accidentally swallowing it with a mouthful of blood, and then snorting it out through his nostril in the middle of the ring really happened. Vader having his eyeball pop out of its socket before pushing it back in by hand and finishing the match really happened. Eddie Guerrero shedding literal pints of blood in his match with JBL really happened.

Last I checked, something that really happened is proof of realness. And every one of those instances is proof that pro-wrestlers are among the hardest individuals on the planet. Every bump, bruise, and scratch they receive in the ring is authentic, and deserves as much respect as a UFC fighter getting kicked in the head.

Unlike a Wrestlemania main event, which is the culmination of a year-long story arc akin to the thrill-a-minute climax of a Marvel film, high-profile MMA matches could end in a matter of seconds.

The Undertaker-Roman Reigns match at last year’s Wrestlemania blended the real story of an ageing veteran visibly struggling to keep up with a younger opponent with the in-storyline arc of an upstart challenging the established hegemon. Over the roughly 20 minutes of the match, it expertly exploited both my innate fandom of The Undertaker character as well as my real-world respect for the man behind the gimmick. I was so caught up in the spectacle of it all that by the time the referee made the three-count, I was chanting along with the crowd, all complaints about the moment’s authenticity forgotten.

An MMA match, which might be of interest to students of martial arts, has no such emotional payoff. The competitors are cookie-cutter badasses, with the only distinction between them being their tattoos and the sponsors on their tights. While WWE wrestlers portray characters with fleshed-out backstories and motivations driving them to fight one another, the only storyline you can ascribe to MMA is of two people accepting large sums of money to hurt each other.

Unlike a Wrestlemania main event, which is the culmination of a year-long story arc akin to the thrill-a-minute climax of a Marvel film, high-profile MMA matches could end in a matter of seconds with the crowd failing to get even slightly involved. When the matches go on longer than a couple of rounds, they usually devolve into lacklustre bouts with a split decision by the judges providing the tepid finale. As a spectator, give me the protracted drama of the WWE main event anyday, where the dramatic tension continues to climb until its explosive denouement at the sound of of the bell!

It all boils down to the spectacle of Wrestlemania, which means that the players on stage have an off-screen life too – that is of as much interest to fans as the on-screen characters they portray. A follower can experience the duality of a wrestler’s on- and off-screen personae, but MMA fighters are basically themselves. Conor McGregor is a cocky asshole in his matches and a cocky asshole IRL. The Undertaker is a motorcycle enthusiast outside the ring and an immortal zombie wizard inside it. You decide which makes for the more interesting character.

This weekend, the 34th edition of Wrestlemania will have taken place at the Mercedes Benz Superdome New Orleans. Coincidentally, UFC 223 will also have concluded on the same weekend, featuring a high-profile title match as its main attraction. As a fan of entertainment featuring punches and chokeholds, I know which event will draw my attention. One year ago, I watched Roman Reigns put The Undertaker away for what seemed like the last time. Today, I will be waiting with bated breath for the Dead Man’s gong to toll once more.

Because though MMA might be the flavour of the month. But pro-wrestling? To take inspiration from WWE’s tagline, it is “Then, Now, Forever.”