Wet Emotions and the Dry Desert of US Television Wrestling

April 9th, 2024

As someone who no longer watches WWE regularly, Wrestlemania weekend left me feeling a lot of ways about wrestling. This isn't a review. I have no true feelings on whether it was a good show or a bad show. I watched a la carte, and liked what I chose(Gunther/Sami > Rhea/Becky > Io/Bayley > the Six Woman, aaaand the end of Night 2, if you MUST know). WWE, lining up with what I've heard in the last year, seems to be in a good spot, made even better by the removal of Vince McMahon, whose awfulness as a storyteller was only surpassed by his awfulness as a human being. Despite the improvement, despite the scale and spectacle, despite year long storylines coming to a close, the emotions and storytelling felt off. Not that there wasn't emotion. There was a lot of emotions. Big, loud, boisterous emotions! Story beats like giant blocks stones, built up into a giant, drafty castle. Dry bricks lacking the wet mortar to bind everything together into something cohesive.

WWE stories that feel like they're built from lego, assembled through force and held by friction. You can build truly incredible things with legos and in the same way, no one should be ashamed of enjoying the stories within WWE. If you meet WWE on it's own terms, it can be a lot of fun!

But I want to talk about the mortar. The Wet Emotions that are often underused, and under appreciated in US Televised Wrestling.

Television Wrestling is a Snake Eating it's own Tail

Despite it's immense popularity, US wrestling has a paradox. There are so many structural things you need to do because they used to draw fans, and who old men in the industry claim still draw fans. These things mostly exist now to tempt back lapsed fans and please the legacy audience. Things that wrestling grows in spite of rather than because of. No one under 20 is getting into wrestling because they watched someone work a mean headlock(Okay maybe if it's like Kenta Kobashi defending his GHC title vs Minoru Suzuki that match wasn't GREAT but it still kinda rules and has a great, long headlock spot).

It's an old cycle. Have a cheating, mean heel beat up a white meat babyface. Getting the crowd to boo them. Then getting them to pay to go to a Live Show to see the babyface get their revenge. The fakeness of Wrestling has been known for a long time, existing in a Reality TV-esque limbo. You know it's shady but it's real enough that you can buy in. You'll pay money to see some scumbag get what's coming to him. It's like magic. You know down deep it isn't real, but you want to be fooled. Now though, we book these same stories, while following the Heel on twitter. We see pictures of him and his kids. It doesn't work anymore, but wrestling still does it because that's how they've always done it.

When these patterns started there was little TV wrestling. You had to sell people on things quickly by playing off those macro emotions. Good and evil, the fair vs the unfair. It's been said many times that western wrestling is a Morality Play(idk if Chris Hero coined this, but he's the person I remember saying it), where the good suffer unjustly until justice can be served for the audience. Simple heroes, simple villains, usually simple stories, in matches with simple limb work(Oh time to make sure the high flyer can't do any of the things you want to see the high flyer do by injuring his leg!!), in tag matches always building to the same hot tag. You'd go to a live show and see this maybe once a month. Once a week if you were a big fan of your local promotion! Now, there are hours of wrestling television, over exposing these patterns.

The stories in wrestling have evolved to get more complicated, but not necessarily deeper. They still need those simple beats, their clear cut characters, because that's what old time fans are used to. They don't know to look in between the notes, not because they're stupid, but because for years wrestling has taught them that nothing is there. WWE's Magic Misdirection has always been presentation. Bright lights, fireworks, screens everywhere, booming music. Keep moving, don't think about anything for too long.

While not impossible, complicated relationships are difficult in western TV wrestling. They need ultimately fit the Babyface/Heel dynamic. This complicated, wet space is liminal. Even the audience knows it can't last. Eventually some will explode, transforming into someone else completely.

I was never your friend. It's because of the fans. We've always been at war with Eurasia.

It's not like audiences don't crave the stuff in the middle. They thirst for moisture. Roman Reigns spent years wallowing futilely, unable to get over with the crowd despite plenty of talent, until the unsure, unstable relationship between Sami Zayn and the Bloodline(Roman faction, for those who don't follow this stuff and are just humoring me) became a focal point of WWE TV. Sami brought that rare TV wetness to wrestling, with real emotions and insecurities, allowing other characters change and grow just by being in the same scene as him. Just by reacting to him. Sami was a mason laying down the mortar for everyone else to lay their bricks.

Sami had practice with stories like this with Kevin Owens, his eternal frenemy. They had a relationship that could only truly be built outside of WWE, in out in the wild west of wrestling. The type of relationship there are Homestuck Words for. Sami took that experience and enabled Roman to get over. WWE floundered at that same task for over for 10 years. Sami didn't have carry to carry him, he just had to create the conditions where a performer could shine.

Then the switch flipped and it was over. People fell into their new roles. The wetness was gone. Even emotional feuds like Gargano vs Ciampa suffer from the need for things to rest within this model. We see both flip back and forth between who is a cartoonish heel and who is the babyface. This is a binary signal compared to analog. We can't show subtle emotion naturally so we'll rapidly cycle back and forth between 1s and 0s

This only works because we allow ourselves to give into the conceit of wrestling. We don't look backward too far, and when we do, it's only when it's convenient. We borrow from past history, but we don't BUILD on the past, because the past is a shaky foundation filled with contradictions. If we try to look at things logically, both become unlikeable, unstable sociopaths. This crass type of characterization is ultimately a hard sell to modern audiences.

A Failure to be Sports

Danielson vs Blue Panther in CMLL is VERY sport!

Another problem with a Western TV wrestling... WWE, WCW, AEW, TNA, whatever... is that there isn't room for relationships because what they're doing isn't, emotionally, even a real sport within the fiction of Pro Wrestling. Because of it's nature as a morality play, wrestling is treated less like sport, and more like a life and death struggle. Matches are battles between good and evil, violent and desperate. A betrayal in wrestling feels more like someone changing sides in a war then switching sports teams. The latter would be too boring, but the former is stifling. The aggression leaves few places to go. War happens regularly between those ropes. How can even the smallest slight in the ring ever be forgiven? By making the base level sports, you can create contrast.

When you watch wrestling from Japan, wrestling form Mexico, or even some indie stuff, you can see all sorts of variations of this that make more sense. Sometimes an exhibition match is... an actual exhibition match. Sometimes people are screwing around in character. New Japan Pro Wrestling multi-man tag matches, designed to build to big shows, have wrestlers in t-shirts, sometimes goofing off, tagging out not for strategy but for the crowd, who wants to see everyone face off. This isn't an important match. It can't be. If every match is important, nothing is. You get to see the lighter side of your favorite wrestlers and, when the two PPV headliners meet in the match, the fooling around can all the sudden turn violent. Everyone's playfulness in the match makes the tense moment more tense. Drama arises from the contrast.

What's more, like in sports, there rarely are clear cut babyfaces or heels. People brought up on western wrestling will look at some Japanese match and say "Oh clearly THIS person is playing heel, and this is the babyface" because one controlled the offense more. These terms can still work, sometimes quite neatly, but they're not inherently true. They are just a lens to look at things with. They'll force everyone in their minds to conform to their lens. Or, depending on their school of thought, they might get caught up on "Tweeners", a supposedly "morally grey" characters who are simply "babyfaces with heelish tendencies...(Stone Cold Steve Austin) who will beat up other babyfaces."

These are merely an abstraction that removes a lot of the subtle story telling put there by skilled storytellers. Because that liminal space, that middle ground...? You can just live there. They're not tweeners. They're people.

Natsupoi, and my Favorite Betrayal in all of Wrestling

I've talked a lot on twitter and cohost about Stardom's Tam Nakano. Tam is, without a doubt, currently my favorite active wrestler and I will be talking more about her, but by talking about someone else first, I'll have a great example of existing in this middle space and set up a few more people.

Natsupoi is a little brat. A pro wrestling tinkerbell. A fairy who is as cute as she is frustrating. A talented performer who is easy to over look, but always ends up in some of my favorite matches. She is a great example of someone who can be selfish, short sighted, and even sometimes manipulative, but also be equally defined by her warmth and love. She was a member of the faction Donna Del Mondo, lead by Giulia(whom we will also get to). In a lot of ways, Natsupoi was the emotional core of the group, almost like their mascot. Natsupoi would have emotional ups and downs with people, especially with the now retired Himeka(If I start writing about Maihimepoi this will never get finished), but the doubt, frustrations, and insecurities always felt genuine. They hurt each other because they cared so much about each other.

You naturally chafe with the people close to you. The Unit Structure of Japanese wrestling often feels more like a bunch of people living in a house together than a western wrestling faction(1 or 2 Leaders and then a pack of dorks). Conflict is normal, not a sign of an an incoming betrayal. Living together is hard, and so is being in a unit together. Each a brick in a wall that would shake unsoundly if not for the emotional mortar between them.

Natsupoi had past history with Tam from the starts of their career(If I start talking about Actwres girl'Z this will never get finished). Tam looked up to Natsupoi back before their time in Stardom. They grew close, became tag partners, and promised to do this whole crazy wrestle thing together.

Then Tam left. She went to stardom, abandoning Natsupoi. Not only did she abandon her, she lapped her. The awkward kung fu potato that was Tam Nakano was becoming one of Stardom's greatest. Jealousy, anger, frustration, and longing lead to a series of matches between the two. Soul wrenching, violent, tear filled matches. Their 2022 Cage Match was my favorite match of that year, with Natsupoi throwing herself at Tam like a wave crashing against the rocks. Within all this violence though, was lingering feelings from the past. The ends of these matches feel like aftercare. Pro Wrestling at it's best can be unbearably intimate(Honestly me and my friend Karami will just say a match is Fucky no reason to beat around the bush.).

The betrayal that eventually came, in the moment, would feel like a WWE one. Emotionally fractured by Tam, during a Unit vs Unit elimination match, Natsupoi finally cracks, grabbing her friend and leader, Giulia. There's confusion on all sides, but the reality of what is about to happen sets in. Giulia almost seems to resign herself in that moment(Giulia is so cool you don't understand. She's going to get over in WWE and you're going to think you understand and you're STILL not going to understand.). Tam kicks the immobilized Giulia, allowing Natsupoi to suplex her on the apron, leading to the end of the match(ONCE AGAIN IF I TRY AND EXPLAIN UNIT ELIMINATION MATCHES I'LL--). She can't keep fighting with her. She wants to be with Tam. She has to be with Tam. Something in her life had to change. Too much of themselves have been laid bare in the ring together.

What happens next is, I think, illustrates a very different philosophy on stories than WWE or AEW. Because Natsupoi isn't a heel turning face, or a face turning heel. She's not some tweener. Her actions are for love, but are selfish and impulsive. Doing something awful, for beautiful reasons. She is, as she always is, an emotionally impulsive brat. She made a costly choice, but it doesn't fundamentally change who she is. It adds to her. We're not learning Natsupoi was secretly a monster, or that she was never truly a friend to everyone in DDM. We are watching a character make a choice and then deal with the consequences. If this was in WWE, DDM would beat her down. There would be fist fights and brawling. Maybe John Cena's music would play as he ran in for the save. Fun, but vapid. Lego pieces snapping into place.

Instead what happens is much worse. Giulia talks to her. Natsupoi must be confronted with emotional wounds she just inflicted.

She even jokes like... "Really? You were just taking mad shit about Tam, weren't you?" She is cool headed, almost a good sport, but is trying to hide a layer hurt behind her tough girl persona. What would be portrayed on TV as a defection to a rival army is instead portrayed like a messy break up. Everyone bears their soul, their feelings, their insecurities. Natsupoi says she's done being DDM's mascot, that she has to leave and grow, only for Himeka, the woman she was the most close to, to say to her, tears in her eyes "... I never thought about you like a mascot. I respected and loved you."

No really she said that!!

Perhaps if words were said earlier, this would never of happened. Perhaps these relationships could have been saved. But a decision was made, and everyone involved had to live with the consequences. I've seen hundreds of men beaten by their angry ex tag-partner, having lost one match too many. He'll be fine by the next show. How much more torturous is it to sit there, listening to how disappointed and genuinely hurt people you still care about are about the decision you just made. Maika sees the conflict in Natsupoi making this decision, and you can see the stress and pain showing in Natsupoi's eyes(These are truly the eyes of a girl who broke up with 3 girls for another girl).

The only member of DDM to not be hurt by this, Mai, leaves silently. She left Tam's group, Cosmic Angels, to join DDM not too long ago. Why would Natsupoi leave to be with a bunch of ex idols? It's as if Natsupoi's decision made her reflect on, and feel uncomfortable with her own. What does the little Brat see in Tam that I don't?(Mai Sakurai has a great moment, years later, as she goes to depart Stardom, where she admits to Tam that... while she doesn't regret leaving Cosmic Angels, her time there with her, with Tam, was important to her. In 2022, those feelings were still too raw)

No one suddenly flipped their character. All these decisions, everything said, were all deeply, painfully in tune with their characters, made unpredictable not through big sweeping story beats but by seeing what lays emotionally between two different human beings. This experience changed everyone involved, but instead of pivoting their characters, they all accumulated emotional scars, adding to the texture of their individual stories.

These scars are never forgotten. Every time Natsupoi would meet in the ring with DDM, old wounds would ache. Not necessarily violence and anger(though certainly some anger), but also melancholy and longing. Frustration... and at times, moments of understanding. Wounds heal. You can forgive an ex easier than you can forgive a someone who tried to break your neck with metal stairs. Forgive someone who cheated at a sport sooner than someone who tried to end your life.

This is my favorite betrayal because everyone it's so real, so relatable. No one suddenly becomes a monster. They are themselves and you see each deal with the emotional weight differently. Natsupoi's actions weren't evil but they were selfish. She suffers the consequences for her selfish decision, but also gets what she wants. She gets to be with Tam. This isn't a morality play. Natsupoi isn't expected to karmically pay the balance. It's a gooey, complicated mess. The sticky, cohesive, wet emotions* I crave, the stuff that binds all these characters together.

Western TV Wrestling can dip into this, but they can't stay here. It's like trying to hold a switch between on and off... you can do it, but the switch will fight you. It wants to be one way or the other. The Team gets back together, but eventually, Ciampa betrays Gargano and the cycle repeats.

But What is the Story About?

“When I’m expressing myself in the ring, there are times I’m thinking, “Girls probably have an easier time understanding this.” [...] I hear men talk about it just like, “Oh Tam hates Giulia.” It’s not that simple!

I think about this Tam quote a lot (While this translation isn't public, thank you Dana for making so many translations for the community). While I don't like to go down the route of pro-wrestling Gender-Essentialism, I do think a of people, despite watching a lot of Pro-Wrestling, aren't actually good at watching pro wrestling(If you're feeling judged, I doubt my own ability to truly watch all the time, but like all mediums, appreciation almost becomes a skill you can practice). Over here, it's even worse because many have been trained to think The Story is being told when a mic is in someone's hand. That the wrestling is a vapid but fun action scene. That "Five Star Matches" are overrated because "Where's the story?"

Most people's idea of a story in the ring is 'he worked a limb'(Targeting an opponents limb to hobble them during a match. Usually this targets a pre-existing weakness, or an important body part to someone's offense). Oh his leg was hurt, then he tried to do his top rope finisher, and got caught in his hubris. That, though, isn't really the story. That's the plot. That's the series of events that happened, but why did they happen, and what came of it? What does it say about the people involved. What do their mannerisms say. Watching Tam and Natsupoi wrestle in 2022, you watch the walls coming down between the two. There is no limb work, just souls laid naked before each other. There's no limb work, not because either is incapable, but to quote Tam her self... Those aren't the stories she wants to tell.

Let's enjoy our time alone in this steel cage hell where there is no escape.

No matter how much you scream or cry, I won't let you go.

This was Tam's last tweet to Natsupoi before their cage match and it lets you know exactly what stories Tam wants to tell. Now the formula of Sports can be temporarily shed for something more violent and intimate. It's one thing to work someone's leg, but another to work their soul. When one grabs the other's hair, is to destroy them? Or is to hold on, to be close, to be connected? Two girls slap themselves on top of a cage not because they want to win -- if they want to win, all they need to do is fall(Okay the rules of this match actually make this not true cause they were fucking weird so just shut up and let me be poetic) -- but because this is all that is left for them to communicate with. A steel cage, traditionally, is used as a way to prevent outside interference, or to prevent a cowardly opponent from escaping. Here, it is a cage for their emotions, a place where they can't escape how they feel for each other. How you feel for for someone can be deeply painful. You can't escape your feelings, locked in a steel cage hell.

They talk a lot in WWE about walking into Cage Match and never walking out quite the same. They say it, but never show it. Well, the story here is walking in an aspiring rival and leaving wanting to be someones partner, literally being transformed by steel and tears.

I could go on about this forever. Talk in detail about Giulia and Suzu Suzuki, how their fighting went from hateful exs, how Suzu fought out the hate inside her, mellowed out, how she confronted Giulia again during the end of her Stardom tenor and... had a sports match. Until the end. When the passion game back one last time. Brawling, clawing and screaming not as angry ex's again, but reliving an old spark.

Conflict exposes the intersection between two people, bearing the soul, and creating change and growth. A lot of people loved the Wrestlemania XL main event, and it was mechanically fine. It was certainly crowd pleasing, but at the end of the day, the story between Roman and Cody, as people, is simply "one has something the other wants". They don't expose anything about one another. They don't force anything to change. There isn't much of a story, just intricate plot beats. Both men leave this feud barely changed, the only change being one of status. The richest emotional callback is Seth invoking the SHIELD(lol he fucking bleached his hair for the run in), and his 12 year ago betrayal of Roman(Holy shit 12 YEARS???). Roman's old wounds cost him the title. That callback loses much of it's impact to me though because the characters are already so static.

Roman didn't change going into this feud, and continued not change. Cody came in fully formed, like he hatched out of an egg in a suit. He had obstacles, but he didn't have growth. This isn't a great story, even if for many it ended in a great moment. Moments are WWE's true stock and trade. Like the Millennium Falcon lego set. You built that with only that?! You don't need to be a great story to have a show that feels great. It's a great Pop Song, whose catchiness undeniable. There's no shame in liking that.

It still burns me though, to see them cite themselves as the "Company who tells stories". There are so many more places to look where people are free to weave deep stories. It's not just a "Stardom tells great stories and everyone else sucks" thing. They're just my favorite, and their style of storytelling doesn't land for everyone. Their style of work doesn't either. I could talk about non-stardom wrestling. I could talk about Eddie Kingston and Jon Moxley, the two fucking wettest boys in wrestling, physically and emotionally. AEW is only mildly better(And sometimes simply worse.) than WWE on the story front, and mostly just because some wrestlers are given enough room to cook. Or get away from US cable TV entirely. Please, if you love wrestling, look outside what's on TV.

I sometimes feel like a fraud liking what I like so passionately because there is so much to enjoy that I can't sample everything. There is so much, something for everyone, something for the tastes you don't even know you have.

Stardom and New Japan too vanilla? You can watch TJPW and DDT. Marvelous and Dragon Gate. Ice Ribbon and idk, fucking Gleat or some shit. There are tons of Mexican indies if AAA and CMLL isn't raw enough. For english wrestling you could watch PWG, GCW, DPW... You can go back in time and watch 90s All Japan, or old Territory wrestling. Maybe you want TV so bad you go back and watch Lucha Underground(It's dead and over, you can literally watch it like a TV show it's on Internet Archive or some shit), which realized if it was going to be on TV it should act like a TV show, with stories that fit their style and the medium.

Not all of these places are going to be oozing with wet emotions. Maybe you don't even want that. But if you've only watched the wrestling that is easily accessible, you probably don't even know what you actually like yet. Many of my favorite non-industry people to listen to talk about wrestling don't even think a lot of the stuff I like(I saw someone compare Tam to Cody Rhodes and that is the meanest thing I've ever read in my entire life.) is good... But you rarely see arguments. Sometimes it's even more of an excitement, realizing we're all weirdos and wanting to know why everyone likes what they like.

Well, I know what I like and it's Blood and Tears. The wettest emotions.

tags: Wrestling