Back on March 26, the Monday before John Cena and The Rock headlined WrestleMania, the two men met in the ring to explain why they would win on Sunday night. For Cena, the stakes weren’t just personal; according to him, his entire legacy was at stake.
“After WrestleMania, Rock, this is still my life,” he screamed at his rival. “I will be goddamned if you come in as a visitor, as good as you think you are, and take my life from me I risk my health every single night. You think anybody’s gonna remember that effort? Nobody remembers second place! That’s why I can’t lose! They know I can’t lose. That’s why I have to win. They know I have to win. That’s why they know I have to win this match more than anything in my entire life.”
Taken at face value, Cena’s speech was ridiculous, and its absurdity was only reinforced by the fact that even though Cena lost, the next night he “main evented” Raw with an apologetic promo.1 He didn’t find it necessary to open his speech with, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m John Cena.” Nobody forgot about him, because WWE would never let us. Winning didn’t matter; Cena being in the position to win mattered. Winning is only a common byproduct of the stardom Cena has already attained.
On Sunday, Cena headlined the Extreme Rules pay-per-view in an unforgettable brawl with Lesnar. Cena won the violent match, but Brock was painted as the man who won the war, since Cena left the ring bloodied and with his left arm hanging limp at his side. It was a stunning ending to a great show, the best PPV in recent memory. Every match was supremely choreographed and the whole card was so well paced that there wasn’t a down moment all night.
It was so entertaining that it didn’t even matter who won the matches.
Pardon me if that sounds ridiculous. Let me be straightforward: Of course winning doesn’t matter in pro wrestling — at least not in the way it matters in basketball or football. Those are real sports in which a big win or a championship can hearten a forlorn fan base, boost ticket and merchandise sales, and otherwise change the fortunes of a franchise. Nor does winning in wrestling matter like it does in boxing or MMA, where every victory propels a fighter closer to a title fight.2 Wins in wrestling aren’t an indication or even an approximation of who the better man is, insomuch as that means who would win a real fight.
And to be honest, that’s not what pro wrestling is about. It’s “sports entertainment,” in Vince McMahon’s timeless coinage — an amalgam of athletic showmanship and dramatic storytelling. What makes a wrestler “good” isn’t his toughness. It’s the way he conveys the concept of toughness — or weasellyness, scariness, arrogance, or dozens of other traits. It’s how he can make fans react when he’s in the ring and on the microphone. In most sports, accomplishment garners a positive crowd reaction; in wrestling, the crowd reaction is the accomplishment. In a sense, wrestling cuts out the middle man, which in the case of real sports is competition; its only objective is entertainment.
Take Extreme Rules. The show, as the name suggests, featured several matches that had special stipulations, like the Falls Count Anywhere match between Randy Orton and Kane; the Tables match between Big Show and Cody Rhodes; the Two-Out-of-Three Falls match between Sheamus and Daniel Bryan; the Chicago Street Fight3 between WWE champion CM Punk and Chris Jericho; and the anything-goes Extreme Rules match between Cena and Lesnar.
All the major bouts lived up to their overblown expectations, and the night generated a start-to-finish buzz that every live sporting event hopes for. Chicago is often cited as the country’s best wrestling city thanks to the enthusiasm of the vociferous local crowd. But WWE’s brilliant booking on Sunday can’t be discounted. They gave us all the things that make pro wrestling what it is: continuity (Zack Ryder attacking his old foe Kane backstage), melodrama (CM Punk’s sister getting involved in his match), ridiculousness (all things Funkasaurus), and “reality” (the very true-to-life brawl between Lesnar and Cena). And it was all fitted within a framework of great wrestling, which is not always a given for WWE. In recent years, the company has treated many PPVs as mere extensions of the television product, instead of climactic moments on top of the weekly WWE cable shows. As such, the in-ring product has often suffered. Extreme Rules was an exception to this trend, and it was a minor revelation.4
Note that I haven’t mentioned a single victor from Sunday’s show. For the record, they were Orton, Rhodes, Sheamus, Punk, and Cena. But like I said, that hardly matters.
Take the Sheamus–Daniel Bryan match. Hard-core fans were outraged at WrestleMania, when Bryan lost in seconds to Sheamus. As a result, the following night’s Raw seemed close to breaking into a riot. On a less successful show, Bryan’s Sunday-night loss might have been seen as another slap in his face. But the match was so well wrestled and the rest of the night was so compelling that no one complained. Give the crowd a good show and they’ll cheer like the fans they are. That’s not exactly a secret, but it’s something that WWE sometimes seems to willfully ignore. Bryan, who had spent the past few weeks avoiding confrontation with Sheamus and generally acting the tool, had played his role so expertly that he didn’t need to win Sunday night to emerge with a positive result. He just needed to look like he could have won.
This is the most significant equation in pro wrestling: how to end every big match with two victors. On one hand, there’s the notorious “Dusty finish,” named for wrestling icon and occasional backstage booker Dusty Rhodes. This ending occurs when a big match is rendered moot or upended, usually by a reversed decision. The most iconic Dusty finish was when Rhodes himself defeated Ric Flair for the NWA title at Starrcade 1985 despite the audacious interference of Flair’s Four Horsemen stablemates, only to have the decision later commuted to Dusty winning by disqualification — because the interference technically occurred before the pin — and, since the title doesn’t change hands on a disqualification, Dusty was stripped of the title he’d seemingly won. When used judiciously, this sort of thing is an effective ploy, but Dusty (as a booker) used it a lot. On the other hand, though, there’s the kind of ending we saw in Sheamus-Bryan: One guy wins, and the other guy grows.5 Bryan was tactical, psychologically superior, and often seemed the physical equal of the much larger Sheamus. He kicked Sheamus repeatedly while Sheamus was grabbing the ropes (which, per the rules, requires a clean break), allowing himself to be disqualified — and thus losing one fall — so that he would be able to beat his foe more easily in the following fall. That a brawler the size of Sheamus seemingly had to come from behind to beat the smaller Bryan speaks to the latter’s undeniable performance. Even though Sheamus won the match, Bryan emerged from it a more impressive fighter, and a more compelling character.
Something similar happened in the Cena-Lesnar match. Lesnar brutalized Cena with sheer physical dominance, but he was beaten in the end when Cena surprised him with a punch from a chain-wrapped fist and slammed him onto the ring steps. Cena won, but Lesnar, with his MMA background and apparently loose grip on reality, was so imposing — elbowing a chunk out of Cena’s head at the start of the match6 and putting Cena in a couple of vicious kimura shoulder locks — that he convinced most observers that Cena had been seriously injured.
Of course, not every fan will accept every ending, even pretty good ones. After Extreme Rules, there were complaints that Lesnar had been “jobbed” and that WWE had already emasculated their newly returned badass. This despite the fact that Lesnar’s performance was overwhelming — he left the match covered in Cena’s blood and smiling, for Pete’s sake — and despite the fact that Cena needed a fistful of steel to win, and despite the fact that the surprise ending basically followed the script of Lesnar’s early (and real) UFC loss to Frank Mir.
It’s nonetheless interesting that McMahon chose to let Cena defeat Lesnar after WWE spent big money to reacquire him. Given, McMahon has long shown a commitment to having the top hero — from Hulk Hogan to Cena — overcome long odds. But Extreme Rules raised an intriguing and primal question. If Lesnar’s success in the UFC wasn’t already enough proof that he would beat Cena in a real fight, then Sunday’s semi-scripted mauling certainly was. So why not have the real-world winner emerge victorious?
Back in the 1920s, there was a wrestling stable called the Gold Dust Trio.7 They were the most powerful group in pro wrestling’s fist heyday, and they helped mold the sport into its modern form. The Trio’s members were Ed “Strangler” Lewis, the champion; Billy Sandow,8 the businessman; and Toots Mondt, the enforcer and, more important, the wrestling visionary.
Prior to the Trio’s ascendance, wrestling mostly took place on fairgrounds and in vaudeville halls. It was, more or less, real. According to legend, grapplers would travel from territory to territory, taking on local tough guys, and if the wrestler began to feel overmatched, he would wrangle his opponent back against the curtain at the rear of the stage, where an accomplice would clock the local with a blackjack, unbeknownst to the audience.
The subsequent era of higher-profile, “championship” matches had its share of fixed bouts, but they contributed to a more fascinating reality. The Gold Dust Trio would change everything. Sandow hired Mondt to be Lewis’s sparring partner and enforcer; Mondt would take on opponents before they got in the ring with Lewis to make sure they were “worthy” foes, but in reality, he would soften them up for his colleague. Then, when wrestling audiences started to dwindle, Mondt conceived of a new style that combined Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling with brawling and boxing. The new hybrid was wholly entertaining and a primary ancestor of what we know today as professional wrestling. An implicit — if often unspoken — aspect of this new method was the fixed match. Fans craved drama and spectacle, so the matches had to build powerfully to the endings, and the endings had to be fulfilling. It made a lot more sense — both dramatic and financial — to plan that kind of action than hope it emerged by chance. And thus, wrestling diverged from its onetime cohort, boxing, which went the route of greater legitimacy, possibly to the detriment of the sport’s popularity. But that’s an argument for another day.
Wrestlers were brought to the Gold Dust confederacy to face Lewis or to fight on undercards as the troupe traversed the nation. If a wrestler went off-script, as some purists were wont to do, he would soon find himself facing Mondt, who would beat the logic of the new system into him. The plan was to keep Lewis on top and to dramatize his reign as much as possible.
The Trio soon realized, however, that a single champ with an endless reign was bad for business. To keep things fresh (and believable), they had to supply Lewis with legitimate competition, and to legitimize them, Lewis needed to lose to them. So began the process of trading wins, a process that became so prevalent by the 1980s that it was used as a divining rod for future success (to a certain extent, this remains true today). When trading wins became the norm, it allowed the Trio’s perfectly honed entertainment to be spread over weeks and months instead of just across the span of one match.9
Winning mattered, of course, because everyone wanted to be on top. The significant fact was that winning and losing — even in that long-past era when wrestling was perceived as a legitimate sport — were subjugated for the greater good of entertainment. What mattered wasn’t who won, but how they won, and how the crowd would respond. What mattered was how one match would get the fans to buy tickets for the next one.
Creative booking isn’t the sole territory of professional wrestling. Leaving aside the fixed fights that have long haunted boxing’s landscape, pugilists and MMA fighters often fight lesser opponents on their way up the ladder. They also get pulled from cards — both by the fighters’ camps and the promoters — when they suffer injuries that might jeopardize their future legacies.
Despite the way UFC has adopted WWE’s video-package hype machine and its myth-building storytelling style, the fully scripted nature of pro wrestling is unique to that enterprise. So when John Cena beats Brock Lesnar, there’s a reason behind it. Does Cena-Lesnar II have a nice ring to it? Of course it does.
Winning is not irrelevant. It matters, like so much else in the wrestling world, as a signifier. It’s an indicator of a wrestler’s perceived worth. If he’s good enough, if he’s beloved (or hated) enough by the fans, if he’s perceived to be profitable by the powers that be, then he’ll be granted the high profile, wins, and championships commensurate to that perception.
Moreover, wins and losses are just one facet of wrestling’s good-versus-evil storytelling continuum. Every win by a villain is a pretense for his eventual loss to a hero. The story only works one way. Even in instances like Ric Flair’s years-long domination of the NWA title scene, it didn’t matter if he didn’t actually lose; it was the fans’ desire to see him get his comeuppance that drove his reign.
Flair himself has been ambivalent on the nature of wins and losses. He defers, as many wrestlers do, to the best interests of the “business” — a concept that leaves plenty of wiggle room to insert one’s own opinions, such as, “Losing to Lex Luger would be bad for business.” That may have been true. It may not have been. But that’s how Flair justified his actions.
Statements about the relative value of winning are often controversial within pro wrestling, especially among its fans. Many wrestlers have gone on the record to argue for both sides — and, often, one wrestler will argue opposing sides at different points in his career. In 1996, Shawn Michaels said that “winning is all that matters”;10 he ended his career by losing to the Undertaker at consecutive WrestleManias, which is statement enough.
A couple of weeks back, legendary announcer Jim Ross addressed a crowd at the Cauliflower Alley Club — a sort of Elks Lodge for retired wrestlers. His audience was largely made up of young wrestlers seeking sage advice and old-timers who call the club home. Ross gave his personal wrestling history and his opinions about the present and future of the industry. He was blunt, candid, and sometimes harsh about the business, but the crowd ate it up until he said that the title belts were mere “props.” He knew that most of the people in attendance held title reigns sacred, but “we have to kind of let it go,” he said. That was blasphemy to this crowd of true believers.
Winning is so controversial among fans because, even though it’s fake, it’s the only concrete way to measure a wrestler’s success. Frankly, if any sport could use a system of advanced metrics, it’s pro wrestling. Imagine a data spreadsheet that included screen time measured in milliseconds, crowd response tracked in decibels, and T-shirt sales tallied by region. Then we’d start to get a real idea of a performer’s worth.
But absent that, what we have is winning, losing, and complaining about it. WWE is alone at the top of the industry, like the Gold Dust Trio during its heyday. It used to be that if a guy underperformed in the WWF, you could say, “Well, he’s more of an NWA guy anyway; he’d excel there.” Sure, these days you could say that some wrestler would be better in TNA or Ring of Honor, but that’s about as backhanded as a compliment can be. Instead, we’re left to parse out greatness through a lens that we know is distorted — a wrestler’s accomplishment within WWE. Did Bryan gain anything by losing on Sunday? Did Sheamus gain by winning? How about Punk and Cena? You can argue it either way. What matters is whether we enjoyed it. What matters is if we watch Raw the next night and order next month’s pay-per-view. The “better man” doesn’t always win, because where would be the fun in that?