This sport, unlike any other, marries the physicality of combat with the artistry of storytelling, creating a unique blend that captivates audiences worldwide. While today’s wrestling is often synonymous with theatricality and predetermined outcomes, its roots are deeply entrenched in genuine athletic competition.
Tracing the origins of contemporary professional wrestling takes us back to the period around the American Civil War, a time when distinct wrestling styles began to crystallize. These styles, each with its own set of rules and techniques, laid the groundwork for what would eventually evolve into the professional wrestling we know today.
Among the earliest styles to gain prominence in the United States were Irish Collar and Elbow wrestling. Brought to American shores by Irish immigrants, it quickly resonated across the nation, particularly in New England. The style, known for its initial posture of grasping the opponent’s collar and elbow, was accessible and appealing, especially to the immigrant community. Its simplicity, requiring minimal equipment and space, made it an ideal pastime and a means of settling disputes. The style’s preference for agility over brute strength allowed individuals of various physiques to compete, democratizing the sport in a way that few others could.
During the Civil War, Irish Collar and Elbow wrestling assumed a role beyond mere entertainment. It became a tool for diffusing tensions among soldiers, serving as a peaceful conflict resolution method. However, by the 1890s, the style’s popularity waned, giving way to new forms that would continue to shape wrestling’s future.
Simultaneous with the rise of the Irish Collar and Elbow was the development of Greco-Roman wrestling. This style, in stark contrast to its Irish counterpart, emphasized physical stature and strength. Prohibiting holds below the waist, Greco-Roman wrestling was a test of upper body power, favoring larger, stronger athletes. However, this focus on strength came at a cost. Matches often stretched for extended durations, leading to a perception of the style as slow and tedious. The early 20th century saw the decline of Greco-Roman wrestling, as audiences sought more dynamic and engaging forms of entertainment.
The third pivotal style in the evolution of professional wrestling was Catch-as-Catch-Can, or Catch Wrestling. Originating in England and blending with the American folk style known as Rough and Tumble, Catch Wrestling marked a significant departure from its predecessors. It was more permissive, allowing holds below the belt and a wider range of maneuvers.
Rough and Tumble, known for its brutal and often injurious nature, influenced Catch Wrestling’s development but was eventually outlawed due to its dangerousness. Catch Wrestling struck a balance, offering the excitement and variety lacking in Greco-Roman and Collar and Elbow, while maintaining a level of safety. Influenced by diverse grappling systems such as Freestyle wrestling, Jiujitsu, and Indian wrestling, Catch Wrestling’s fluidity and range of moves made it immensely popular. By the 1920s, it had become the dominant style, laying the foundation for modern professional wrestling.
The evolution of wrestling from genuine athletic competition to a blend of sport and entertainment is closely linked to the venues where it was held. Initially, wrestling matches were common attractions at touring carnivals, as well as in pubs and theaters in urban areas. The move to city venues brought wrestling into the limelight, garnering attention from the sports press and elevating it from a regional pastime to a national spectacle.
Notable historical figures played significant roles in wrestling’s rise to prominence. Thomas Edison’s installation of electric lights in arenas revolutionized the viewing experience. President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent fan, promoted wrestling as part of a healthy lifestyle. Meanwhile, PT Barnum integrated wrestling into his traveling circus acts, broadening its appeal.
Carnivals were instrumental in introducing the concept of staged wrestling. Professional wrestlers would often challenge spectators, offering cash prizes for victories or enduring the match. These challenges, sometimes involving plants, laid the groundwork for the scripted nature of modern professional wrestling. The development of wrestling was paralleled by changes in boxing. The London rulebook influenced both sports, but it was the introduction of the Marquis of Queensbury Rules that marked a divergence. Boxing evolved into a more regulated sport with gloves, time limits, and a prohibition on grappling, while wrestling incorporated time limits but moved further away from its combative origins.
The introduction of time limits in wrestling was met with mixed reactions. Critics argued it would lead to more scripted matches, while proponents saw it as a necessary evolution for entertainment value. Catch wrestling, with its faster pace and emphasis on submission holds, thrived under these new conditions, marking a shift towards a more theatrical presentation.
The rise of catch wrestling saw figures like Frank Gotch become household names. Gotch’s reign as World Heavyweight Champion exemplified the appeal of dominant athletes in wrestling. However, his prolonged dominance also highlighted the pitfalls of predictability in sports, where extended winning streaks can diminish the excitement and unpredictability of matches.
Perceived Authenticity in Professional Wrestling
Professional wrestling’s transition from being perceived as a legitimate sport to an entertainment spectacle was a gradual process deeply rooted in its historical development. Until the 1920s, wrestling in the United States was commonly viewed as a genuine athletic competition. However, as the sport progressed into the 1930s, a notable shift occurred, marking the beginning of its identification with theatrical elements.
The transformation in public perception regarding wrestling’s authenticity progressed over time. By the late 1990s, a significant portion of the audience had started to question the genuine nature of the sport. This marked a pivotal moment when a considerable number of viewers began to recognize professional wrestling as primarily staged entertainment rather than a legitimate athletic endeavor.
While professional wrestling events are choreographed and staged, it’s crucial to acknowledge the physicality and athleticism involved. Wrestlers execute scripted maneuvers, showcasing their athletic prowess while staying in character. This blending of scripted narratives with genuine physical exertion forms the unique essence of professional wrestling, blurring the lines between entertainment and athleticism.
The earnings of WWE wrestlers vary widely, with top performers like John Cena and Brock Lesnar commanding significant paychecks. Cena, a part-time WWE superstar, reportedly earns around $8.5 million annually, while Lesnar, the Universal Champion, holds one of the highest salaries in the industry, estimated at 12 million. These figures illustrate the lucrative nature of professional wrestling careers for top-tier performers.
The origins of wrestling trace back thousands of years, reflecting its status as one of the oldest combat sports. Ancient cave drawings and reliefs from Babylonian and Egyptian civilizations depict wrestlers engaged in combat, highlighting wrestling’s enduring historical significance as a form of physical competition. Vince McMahon, the influential figure behind WWE, holds a staggering net worth of $3 billion, solidifying his status as the wealthiest individual in the wrestling industry. His leadership has propelled WWE to unprecedented financial success, exemplified by the company surpassing the $1 billion revenue mark in recent years.
Professional wrestling’s transformation from ancient grappling art to modern-day spectacle reflects its ability to adapt and evolve. It has continually reinvented itself, blending athletic prowess with dramatic storytelling, to remain a beloved form of entertainment. Today, professional wrestling stands as a testament to the enduring appeal of a sport that has mastered the art of captivating audiences with a mix of reality and fantasy.