Disclaimer: The views given in the following column are that of the author alone and do not represent those of The Indy Corner.
Around a year ago I started a piece of writing about PWG (mainly prompted by a match between Brian Cage and Chris Dickinson which must have had William James turning in his grave) but shelved it due to a lack of time to finish and polish it. However, a recent PROGRESS show – well, a few of them –got me thinking about some of the issues which inspired the PWG piece, and thus I decided to have another crack at it. It’s a piece which I fear is going to give me nothing but grief (for reasons which will become apparent), but I needed to get it off my chest. It started off as a piece about PWG, but will mostly talk about PROGRESS: although I’m sure most of the issues raised here apply to the former promotion too.
A few years ago, as part of a philosophy module I was doing, I read John McDowell’s Mind & World, and came across the phrase “spinning frictionlessly in a void.” The basic idea is that we want the world to tell us when we get things wrong; for example, when we come up with theories in science, we want the world to judge whether they work or not – if we for some reason decided to do away with the theory of gravity, things would still fall to the ground regardless. Paradoxically, in order to get things right we have to be able to get things wrong; for if we’re right all the time, then it seems to suggest that there is no ‘world-in-itself’ against which to measure if our claims about it are right or wrong. Hence the idea of spinning frictionlessly in a void.
“The fuck does this have to do with wrestling?” you might ask. Well, the motivation for the PWG piece was the fact that for the past years the promotion has been somewhat suspended in stasis; it has no interest in growing or evolving in any way; it runs the same number of shows a year, to effectively the same audience, who cheer pretty much everything that goes on in the ring. It’s insulated; it effectively exists in a bubble – it spins frictionlessly in a void.
“So what?” you might say. If that’s the way Danny boy and his friends want to run their company – the shows a year, same venue etc – then they’re perfectly entitled to do so. Quite so. But the fact of fans reacting in pretty much the same way to every bout regardless of quality – and it’s here where the parallels with PROGRESS come in – is more problematic. From the point of the boys (and girls) this undoubtedly seen as a good thing – the fans always go nuts for what you do, what a great place to work! But is this really helpful for them as a whole? The key question here is: how are you supposed to become a better worker in an environment where you know you will be cheered virtually regardless of match quality? Imagine a student handing in a shit essay and the teacher giving it him back and saying “that was really good!” You can only learn if your mistakes are picked up on and corrected, if your work is subjected to some kind of evaluation based on standards. The crowds in both PWG and PROGRESS though, both seem to view what goes on in the ring via the principle of “everything is awesome.” Fine for the Lego movie, but not so much for pro wrestling.
Two questions spring up from this phenomenon; first, is it simply the case that that wrestling is so subjective that appealing to any kind of valid interpretation of a match is a waste of time? And secondly, how is it that we got to this current everything is awesome climate?
Let’s tackle standards first. An inevitable first response to the above will be; “wrestling is art, and art is subjective. You thought that match x wasn’t very good, but others disagreed. Cest La Vie.” (No-one ever says cest la vie, for reasons I’ll come back to.) It’s true that wrestling is an art form, and art is subjective. However, we nonetheless still have standards and values with which to critique and evaluate art. There are good reasons for arguing that Picasso’s Guernica is better than the drawing of her family my six-year old cousin did. And so it is with wrestling. We can argue quite successfully that Terry Funk vs Ric Flair is better than Scott Steiner vs. HHH, although other cases may not be as clear cut. So to simply say that wresting is subjective cuts little ice; there are clearly criteria by which we can evaluate a match.
What are these criteria though? This is an extremely difficult question to answer. It used to be of course, that box office was the ultimate arbiter – the best match and the best wrestlers were the ones that, to use a hackneyed phrase, put asses in seats (or PPV buys in a later era). But in an era where shows regularly sell out without a single match being announced, we can’t really use this as a criterion anymore. The one thing I will say is that I have no patience with Jim Cornette’s view that the standards that he grew up with in the 80’s are in fact a priori criterion that are applicable for all time. The standards by which we judge wrestling are contingent, and evolve over time. Indeed, the mark of greatness is that it can survive changing standards: Flair vs. Steamboat was great to contemporaries, great to us. No doubt there are criteria we can appeal to at a given time, although they may well be tacit in many cases.
Putting that aside though, the irony is though, that the line “we have differing opinions on the matter” is rarely followed up with a plea for toleration or pluralism (Everyone is Welcome to have their own opinion perhaps?) More often than not, a dissenting will be met with something like “the majority of respondents thought this was good; you did not; therefore you are in a minority and are wrong.” Now this implies a consensus theory of truth; a crude characterisation would be something like: snow is white if and only if a majority of inquires state that snow is white. This would trouble many of us I suspect; we want to say ‘snow is white’ because it really is white, as opposed to the fact we simply say it is.
It’s easy to see the problem here: not only are we in a ‘might makes right’ situation, but what actually happens in the ring seems to drop out of the picture. We want our judgements to be subject to rational constraint; that there is something which stops just anything we say from being the case. This is one of the key themes of Orwell’s 1984; Winston, by holding that 2+2=4 in a society which says 2+2=5, is not wrong simply because he is in the minority – there is something in the world that makes it so, and thus it is possible to be in a minority of one and still be right.
I need to say something about the responsibility of promoters here, who do themselves no favours when they say things that are palpably untrue. I’m going to pick on Glen Joseph here, who tweeted after a recent PROGRESS show that a match on the card (which I’m not going to name here, everyone knows what it was) was in his top five matches of the year. As an example of an alternative fact, it was a belter. But ridiculous statements like that do him or anyone else no favours. Of course, I don’t expect him to say “check out this middling match from this card”: he is after all, there to hype and promote his product. Even propaganda though, has to be slightly rooted in reality. There are a number of ways that he could put the match over credibly; as it was, you ended up coming to the conclusion that he must not have watched a lot of wrestling in 2017. The point is though, how can we expect the fans to try to be objective when the promoters are coming out with this sort of thing? For fans tend to take such pronouncements as the gospel, or at the very least as a kind of ‘official’ interpretation of a match. Which leads to my second point; fans cheering anything and everything is a symptom, not a cause.
I suspect that one of the reasons fans of promotions like PWG and PROGRESS tend not to want to criticise anything is because they want to be seen as being supportive. As a friend pointed out the other day though, supporting someone isn’t – or shouldn’t – be synonymous with saying everything they do is great. To re-use the example from earlier; when a student hands in a poor essay, you don’t tell him it was great – you point out what was wrong and how it could be better. But many wrestling fans these days have the mentality a lot of football fans have – “if you criticise the team, you’re not a real fan.”
It goes beyond this though. In particular – to focus on PROGRESS now – we need to look at how the company has marketed itself. PROGRESS sees itself not just as a wrestling promotion, but as a community. If WWE is the equivalent of Manchester United – a sprawling corporate entity who’s only goal is to milk the fans for all they’re worth – then PROGRESS is something like Salford City: a grass roots affair where everyone knows the tea-ladies’ name. Thus, the identity of the fans becomes entwined with the company, and thus helps to insulate the company against criticism. It’s a lot harder to tell Eddie Dennis he should go to the gym more, or Laura Di Matteo that those corn rows do her no favours, when they’re your ‘friends’, for lack of a better term. Detachment doesn’t always bring objectivity, but it very often does. If you’re inside the bubble, it can be very hard to utter a home truth.
Another point to consider is one that I think Dave Meltzer made a while back; there are no casual fans in wrestling anymore. The contraction of the audience for wrestling over the past 20 years or so means that by and large most fans are now hardcore fans. (Hence Vince’s creative struggles over the past ten years or so – Vince’s genius was his ability to appeal to the casual fan; now there are no casual fans – QED.) On this reading, the zealots – let’s be kind and call them Ultras – are not a recent phenomenon: they were always there, but just in the minority. Now, due to the aforementioned contraction of the wrestling audience, they are the majority; the Mensheviks are now the Bolsheviks.
It may seem questionable to pen an article stating that there is a worrying problem in wrestling, with particular reference to British wrestling, at a time when it’s arguably more popular than any time since the 1980’s. British cards are no longer reliant on imports/ WWE rejects in order to draw, which is undoubtedly a very good thing. However, the current level of hyperbole that accompanies it does no-one any good. Some sort of objectivity is needed; otherwise to an extent what happens in the ring becomes meaningless; and given the risks that wrestlers take when they step between the ropes, this is surely the last thing anyone wants. Additionally, it burdens future generations of British wrestling and wrestlers with unfair/impossible standards to try and live up to. At the moment however, it takes a brave man or woman at a PROGRESS card to say that the emperor has no clothes.