The Story Behind the Violence: Storytelling in Professional Wrestling

By Zarira Love

Combining the drama and camp of soap operas with the physicality, athleticism, and violence of combat sports has proven to be a winning formula for the world’s largest and highest grossing wrestling promotion, World Wrestling Entertainment which classifies itself as “sports entertainment.” Here, a team of creative writers—and CEO Vince McMahon—formulate storylines which are translated to “the thousands in attendance and the millions sitting at home” through lengthy promos and backstage interviews and confrontations which culminate in (usually a series of) matches. Most wrestling feuds, in and outside of WWE, are between heels (bad girls/guys) and faces (good girls/guys). If all goes well, the heel gets their comeuppance, or when things go awry (or creative wants to draw heat for the heel) the heel stands tall over the face. Ambulance flipping, illegitimate children, and burning the remains of an evil witch have been part of recent WWE storylines.

New Japan Pro Wrestling classifies itself as the “king of sports,” focusing on in-ring action and long-term booking (a wrestler’s matchups, win, and losses), to tell the story behind the match. Based in Japan, most of the promos and interviews are given in Japanese, making this mode of storytelling vital for wrestlers to convey motives and personalities of their characters. Tetsuya Naito has become New Japan’s most popular talent through his “Tranquilo” character, cultivated while he was in the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre promotion in Mexico where he joined the heel stable Los Igobernables de Japon in 2015. While Naito’s promos and interviews are given in Japanese, his behavior (which includes hocking loogies at opponents and the crowd, his Tranquilo pose, and destroying the IWGP Intercontinental Championship), allows him to convey his ungovernable personality. And while seemingly reactionary, there is a story behind Naito’s current character.

After winning the 2013 G1 Climax tournament, Naito, then a face, was slated to main event Wrestle Kingdom 8 in a match against Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. However, a fan poll placed the IWGP Intercontinental Championship match in the main event (which may also explain why he destroyed this belt after winning it in 2016). A year after losing to Okada in the second to last match at Wrestle Kingdom 8, Naito debuted his “Tranquilo” character whose blatant disregard for authority, his opponents, and fans has given him anti-hero status. With newfound popularity, Naito advanced to the finals of the 2016 G1 Climax tournament, yet lost to Kenny Omega, who became the first gaijin (foreign) wrestler to win the tournament, but ultimately came up short to reigning champion Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 11. Naito and Omega crossed paths again in the final of this year’s G1, where Naito was victorious. Before the match began, Omega did his signature finger gun pose in the middle of the ring, representative of the stable he leads, the Bullet Club. True to character, Naito leaned into the gun, showing he was unintimidated and would stop at nothing to secure the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 12.

Regardless of promotion, wrestlers tell stories in-ring through wrestling maneuvers, taunts, and trickery among other actions, all in the pursuit of overwhelming and defeating opponents. Whether the drama surrounding the match, or the physical and mental rollercoaster of competition is emphasized, the central story is always the desire to win. Much like in literature, our satisfaction with the end of the story depends on how we get there.

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