As a fan of professional wrestling, there’s nothing in the world that’s funnier to me than when somebody tries to explain that wrestling is fake.
It’s not even the sentiment, necessarily – usually, it’s the delivery that seals the deal for me. They always do it with an air of wisdom, like they’re revealing some immense hidden truth. “It’s just men pretending to fight in their underwear”, they tell me. That isn’t true, I usually respond. Sometimes they let women do it too.
The past year must have been exhausting for the “wrestling isn’t real” crowd, as the (not) sport has gone from strength to strength since the tail end of 2022, and is now approaching a level of popularity not seen since the wrestling boom of the late Nineties. Imagine having to correct all those fans about a thing they already knew. They must have the patience of saints.
This week, industry leader WWE signed a $5bn deal with Netflix, and former superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was appointed to the board of parent company TKO. Television ratings are up, venues are packed to capacity, and I no longer feel shame when I wear my nWo shirt in public. Wrestling, much like The Great One himself, is cooking.
This weekend saw the latest instalment of WWE’s most popular annual event: the Royal Rumble. If you aren’t familiar, the rules are simple. Thirty wrestlers enter the ring at regular intervals and attempt to eliminate each other by throwing their opponents over the top rope. The winner receives a shot at the world title in the main event of WrestleMania – the company’s biggest event.
The format allows for high drama, not just because of the stakes, but because you never know who is going to appear next. A returning legend? A celebrity? One half of a mid-card tag team you forgot existed? It could be anyone!
This year’s show was lighter on the legends than usual, but still delivered on other fronts. Fan-favourite Bayley scored a much-anticipated win in the women’s Royal Rumble, which also saw the return of Naomi to the company after her shock exit in May 2022, and an incredibly strong debut by ex-AEW TBS champion Jade Cargill. The women’s Rumble also saw an appearance by current TNA Knockouts World Champion Jordynne Grace, marking a rare instance of the normally insular WWE crossing over with another company, and hinting at further collaborations in the future.
The men’s Rumble was also a hit, starting in the fotunate position of having several potential winners instead of just one or two bookies’ favourites. While many expected CM Punk, who made his shock return to the company after a decade last November, to take home the accolade, 2023 winner Cody Rhodes scored yet another victory in the event, putting him in an exclusive club of two-time consecutive winners along with Hulk Hogan. Shawn Michaels and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. Just days ago, ex-WWE boss Vince McMahon was accused of a litany of horrific misconduct charges by former employee Janel Grant, including sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. McMahon, who denies the allegations, calling them “replete with lies”, “obscene made-up instances that never occurred” and a “vindictive distortion of the truth”, resigned from the company on Friday evening, leaving WWE without a McMahon on its board for the first time since the 1950s.
Separate allegations surfaced in December 2022, to which WWE responded by having McMahon (who denied “any intentional wrongdoing”) appear on television in a stunt that was regarded by many as an act of defiance. It goes without saying that this stance has not aged well, and while Vince may be gone and the company is now under new ownership, McMahon and WWE are inexorably linked – for better or, in this case, very much for the worse. It is a black cloud over what should be the start of the biggest season in the company calendar, and has transformed what should be a potential turning point for the industry into an awkward and messy affair.
That doesn’t mean I’ll stop watching, though. Regardless of McMahon’s alleged misdeeds, WWE is made up of people who put their bodies on the line every time they enter the ring, and it is they – not the bosses or the CEOs – who deserve respect for bringing the business to the level of esteem it occupies today. No, they don’t actually hit each other, and yes, the outcomes are scripted. But wrestling still requires a level of skill and risk that you or I couldn’t begin to imagine – both in and outside the ring – and that’s worth a degree of respect.
It doesn’t get more real than that.