Like a haiku, Professional Wrestling is strengthened artistically by the ever present challenge to innovate, while maintaining some of the parameters that the form developed in. Yes, innovation is essential to the survival of the form, but part of the audience’s attraction is maintained by taking advantage of its traditional elements. Through the history of Professional Wrestling, it has not been the types of stories that shift, but who is involved and how they are packaged. Changes in society and television drive the innovation and rightly so. The traditional principles drive the story by giving the performers and in this case, the live audience, their logical roles for the program. In the same way modern adventures reflect the epics of old, Pro Wrestling draws its strongest elements from its own past and the past of storytelling as a whole.
The Greatest Accomplishment of All
On a recent episode of Monday Night Raw, current WWE champion CM Punk referred to the WWE Championship as “The most important title in the world.” This in itself is an important part of Pro Wrestling storytelling. The top title in the company, regardless of its name, should always be seen as the greatest accomplishment that one can achieve. This does not mean the greatest accomplishment that one can achieve in the sport, but that one can achieve in general. The Title, whatever it may be, is the greatest symbol of power in the Pro Wrestling universe. It has to be the primary justification for the villains, called heels, to do horrible things to their competition. Justice is only achieved when the deserving hero manages to obtain the belt, dismissing the heel who likely cheated his way into contention for or possession of the title in the first place. Yes, in reality, it is the wrestler who brings the real prestige to the title, not the other way around, but the symbol is the most basic motivator in this narrative’s continuity. Over the years, many heels have reigned as champion and gained the respect of the audience. The heel champion is an important element in the story cycle and helps the popularity of the top hero, called a babyface, reach his full potential. Give either face or heel the title for too long and the modern audience tends to tire of the character. Long, unopposed title reigns still haunt WWE staple John Cena. Though he continues to have solid matches and has not held the WWE Title in well over a year, it is still relatively common to hear fans say that he is too often presented as unstoppable and that he is due for a “heel turn.” This leads us to our next element.
A Change of Heart
An important element to the Face/Heel dynamic is a performer’s ability to change sides occasionally. Typically, a move towards “fan favorite” is called a “face turn,” while the opposite is called a “heel turn.” These turns are essential to Professional Wrestling, in large part due to its format. Wrestling does not have the luxury of pausing, so if a talent is sidelined with an injury, a suitable replacement must be found immediately. With less popular talent, it is possible to make this change with little or no explanation. Higher up on the roster, it is important that there be a solid direction for the character before making such a decision. Destroying a wrestler’s momentum is not just negative for the performer, but for the company as a whole. Loss of popularity is a reason for a fan to ignore a show and takes money out of the promoter’s pocket. A face turn is often preceded by a talent gaining the respect and admiration of the crowd while still a villain. Typically this occurs when a villain begins to accept their challenges (this will be discussed later in the column) and triumphs in fair competition. Perhaps the greatest example of this is Stone Cold Steve Austin who, without changing his persona to any great degree was able to go from Upper Mid-Card heel to the most popular Face that the company has ever promoted. On the other hand, heel turns tend to be a little easier to set up. A hero turning their back on the fans should be a shocking event and so can be exploited with little effort. If done even relatively correctly, the wrestler immediately has a logical storyline and momentum going into it. Perhaps the most important example of this is Hulk Hogan turning his back on WCW and forming the nWo. The biggest face in history may have been losing steam, but his turn made him look like the greatest villain of all time.
Violence is the Answer
In Professional Wrestling, a heel is less defined by his actions and more by inaction. Sure, attacking an undeserving party is still reprehensible, but few who step through the ropes are truly undeserving. Becoming an on-screen player in Professional Wrestling is essentially opening yourself up to attack. Everyone from referees to broadcasters are part of the great game. It is a result of this environment that good and evil in wrestling are divided by a concept of honor. Working with this logic, a face may attack a heel while they are at a wedding, birthday party or Bar Mitzvah and it is still acceptable. If a heel were to do the same, chances are the face was not deserving of the attack and his important celebration was unfairly ruined. What is unacceptable is if the face in question tries to escape. Cowardice is looked down upon, not violence. The “universe” of Professional Wrestling insists that the only valid way to solve a problem is through violence. This, of course, is directly related to the idea that the title is the most important thing in the world. As everyone moves towards or away from the title, it is the fights that send them to their next spot on the card. In a world completely obsessed with competitive fighting, the fighting itself must be considered good.
Through these three principles, wrestling has flourished into a multi-million dollar business. Now that the basic logic of Pro Wrestling has been established, the second part of this column will focus on how storylines are structured, expanded and concluded.