The Emperor’s New Clothes

Added by Laura Brooke

I have to confess I didn’t expect the furore that erupted after the publication of “Standards, Truth and Progress.” As a friend of mine (who is also my general sounding board on wresting matters) pointed out the other week in a conversation, this may have been a tad naive. “You wrote an article essentially telling fanboys/fangirls to stop acting like fanboys/fangirls – what kind of reaction did you expect? That said, ironically the reactions from said fanboys/fangirls essentially proved the point you were trying to make.” True enough. I genuinely thought that a few people would read it, a few would moan about it, and that would be that. However, “that article” – as it was referred to on a recent Indy Corner podcast – is still being discussed a month after publication. Indeed, there has been all sorts of speculation as to my identity; that I’m someone who works for some podcast or another who is conspiring to bring down Progress. Alas, as much as I enjoy being a woman of mystery, I can honestly say – and Mr Stuart Rodgers can back this up – that I appear in no podcasts, and am not involved in British wrestling at any level; well except for going to the shows of course. There may well be conspiracies afoot in BritWres , but this isn’t one of them I’m afraid.

I was pleased to see that the article struck a chord in some circles, with a couple of different people expressing the same view I did: that there is something problematic about the fan atmosphere that surrounds Progress at the moment. Indeed, it’s somewhat ironic that the last sentence of that piece used the phrase about the emperor’s new clothes, as it’s publication seems to have broken the taboo about acknowledging the fact that a lot of fans were ridiculously protective of Progress. The unspeakable truth is now being addressed, which is great – the piece was essentially written just to get something off my chest, but if it draws attention to something that clearly needed to be addressed, then it was a good few hours work.

One of the questions raised in the article was; is such an atmosphere healthy for any wrestling promotion? From Progress’ point of view, a potential answer might run thus: we’re selling out shows with the current formula, so the few people who are put off by the more excitable fans of “our little promotion” can go and whistle. And it’s hard to argue with this. However, the imminent departure of BSS, and probably Matt Riddle, leaves Progress with an awfully big hole to fill. Moroever, early indications are that Jack Sexsmith and Eddie Dennis are being primed to fill the gap (perhaps yet another indication that we’re living in some kind of odd alternative reality – Brexit, Trump, now this.) And in any case, any wrestling promotion surely needs to try and do what it can to attract as many people as possible. One of Progress’ current slogans is ‘all are welcome’; but as the debate in recent weeks has shown, some people don’t feel particularly welcome at the moment.

The issue I wanted to come back to in this piece was that of how we judge wrestling matches. There were a couple of potential responses to my comment on Glen Joseph’s tweet about a match – Di Matteo vs. Storm at Ch.52. One was that given the forum – Twitter, which of course allows 140 characters maximum – one can hardly expect detailed reasoning to back up the assertion. True enough. But interestingly, when I went back to read the tweet in question, I saw it was prefaced with “I don’t care what anyone says.” Now, this gesture of defiance strikes me as slightly odd; if the assertion was clearly self-standing, then why the need to qualify it? It seems to me that perhaps the author was aware that the veracity of said statement was slightly problematic, hence the qualifier at the start of the sentence.

The other response to my comment was that it was Mr Josephs’ opinion; that is, he was expressing an opinion which he has every right to do. And indeed he does, but this argument slightly misses the point, for two reasons. Firstly, this is not a freedom of speech issue; no-one is suggesting that Mr Joseph doesn’t have the right to tweet his opinion. But secondly, I feel we need to do a bit better than the argument “it’s correctly for him.” We’re back again to the notion of correctness I talked about in the first article here; specifically the idea that in language use, we want notions such as knowledge, meaning, reference to be tied to objective notions of knowledge, meaning etc. That is to say, we want the truth conditions of a statement like “Di Matteo vs. Storm was one of the top five matches of the year” to not depend upon Mr Joseph’s mistaken or incomplete conception of the best wrestling matches of 2017. To give an example coined by Diego Marconi; even if Bob believes the word ‘transvestite’ applies to anybody wearing a uniform, we still do not want the statement “all American generals are transvestites” to be true when uttered by Bob.

So we come back to the issues raised in the last article; just what are the criteria for judging the quality of a pro-wrestling match? I will have more to say about this shortly, but the original article addressed the fact that there was somewhat of a credibility gap with regards to some of the utterances from the guys who run Progress; a gap that has widened since publication. In addition to the aforementioned tweet from Mr Joseph, I gather that recently Jim Smallman proclaimed that he’d watched more WWE than New Japan this year. This is a fairly significant statement, given that Progress from it’s inception has marketed itself as ‘strong style pro-wrestling’, which would indicate a significant debt to NJPW. I suspect that one of the reasons that people have been attracted to Progress from the beginning is that they wanted an alternative to the sanitised, child-friendly product that WWE put out; yet now Progress seem to be looking to identify themselves with WWE. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a relationship with WWE, but it seems like Progress are trying to have their cake and eat it here; and from a standpoint of sheer logic, if you eat the cake, you cannot have the cake as well.

Back to the idea of the standards by which we judge wrestling matches. Sorry to drag philosophy into things again; but Hilary Putnam coined the term ‘the division of linguistic labour’ in his work on meaning; which is essentially a fancy way of saying that in many instances we are happy to defer to the opinion of experts. For instance, I can’t tell the difference between an elm or a beech tree; but that’s ok, because there are people who can, so we shift the burden of responsibility onto them. In more recent times this sort of thing is called ‘epistemic authority’.

The question I want to ask here is: who are the experts in wrestling? Are there any? It’s not as daft a question as it sounds. Back in the days when the business was ‘closed’, as it were, you would naturally defer to those who were ‘insiders’ and thus possessed knowledge that others did not. However, between the advent of the internet and to a lesser extent the voluntary exposure of the business by WWF and later WCW, anyone who was interested – i.e. the smart fans – could learn about the mechanics of the business. The next logical step was then that said smart fans would become wrestlers themselves and/or start their own promotions. Kevin Steen is a prime example of the first; Progress is an example of the second. So who are the experts when it comes to wrestling Based on the above….well, no-one really. We appear to be in a situation where there is no division of linguistic labour or epistemic authority. One opinion is seemingly as good as the next; a state of affairs that surely no-one can be particularly happy with.

How it can be resolved though, is difficult to say. Indeed, it might be that this is something that highlight’s wrestling’s odd status as a quasi-sport. Although wrestlers are just as physically fit/ athletic than anyone in any sport, they have no way of ranking themselves in a pure competition like other sports. If you win the 100m at the Olympics, you’re entitled to call yourself the best sprinter in the world; similarly, if you win the Ballon D’Or, you’re the best footballer, and so on. But because of the nature of wrestling, wrestlers are not able to be ranked on ‘pure athletic criteria’, for lack of a better term. There are measures of success of course; if you get asked to compete for NJPW, or WWE. Then again, being signed to WWE isn’t necessarily a measure of quality; look at Jinder Mahal for instances.

It occurs to me that we might say that there are internal and external aspects to wrestling. Internal is what goes on in the ring; so athleticism, ability to execute moves, selling, ring psychology, and soforth. External might be classed as the ability to excite a crowd and/or to provoke the desired reaction from the audience. This needs to be developed more fully; but the basic idea is that there is some sort of causal and directional relationship between the internal and external aspects; between what goes on in the ring and outside of it. I argued in “Standards” that something had gone wrong with this in Progress, and that it ultimately wasn’t beneficial for the wrestlers, nor in the long run the promotion itself.

Looking back “Standards” was a strange piece; a mix of what we might call ‘wrestling theory’ and contemporary commentary on an aspect of the business. In some ways this one falls into the same trap. But if it ignites even a quarter as much discussion as it’s predecessor did, then it will have served it’s purpose.