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Professional wrestling is an athletic form of theater that revolves around mock combat performed in a squared ring. The storylines are typically based around interpersonal conflicts between good-natured "faces" and villainous "heels". While the ring is the main stage, additional scenes may be recorded for television in the backstage areas of the venue, in a format similar to reality television.
Professional wrestling as a form of theater evolved out of the commonplace practice of match fixing among American wrestlers stretching back to the late 19th century. Americans eventually came to accept professional wrestling as a performance art, fundamentally because it was more entertaining when faked. Professional wrestlers responded by adding melodrama, gimmickry, and outlandish stuntwork to their performances to further raise the entertainment. Nevertheless, the wrestlers kept pretending the matches were real competitions, and the fans played along—this is a tradition known as kayfabe.
In the United States, authentic wrestling is generally practiced in an amateur context; no professional league for authentic wrestling exists. Authentic wrestling forms have never been popular enough with Americans to sustain a professional league (and there is no clear reason as to why). A case in point is Real Pro Wrestling, an American professional league that dissolved in 2007 after just two seasons. In some other countries such as Iran and India, authentic wrestling is popular enough to sustain a professional career, and "professional wrestling" therefore has a more literal meaning in those places. India's Pro Wrestling League is a case in point.
In numerous American states, professional wrestling is legally defined as a non-sport. For instance, New York defines professional wrestling thusly:
Professional wrestling means an activity in which participants struggle hand-in-hand primarily for the purpose of providing entertainment to spectators and which does not comprise a bona fide athletic contest or competition. Professional wrestling is not a combative sport. Wrestling constituting bona fide athletic contests and competitions, which may be professional or amateur combative sport, shall not be deemed professional wrestling under this Part. Professional wrestling as used in this Part shall not depend on whether the individual wrestlers are paid or have been paid for their performance in a professional wrestling exhibition. All engagements of professional wrestling shall be referred to as exhibitions, and not as matches.— 19 CRR-NY 213.2
In the industry's slang, a fixed match is referred to as a worked match, derived from the slang word for manipulation, such as "working the crowd". A shoot match is a genuine contest where both wrestlers fight to win and are therefore "straight shooters".
Wrestling in America blossomed in popularity after the 1861–1865 Civil War, with catch wrestling eventually becoming the most popular style. At first, professional wrestlers were genuine competitive fighters, but they struggled to draw audiences because Americans did not find real wrestling to be very entertaining, so the wrestlers quietly began faking their matches so that they could give their audiences a satisfying spectacle. Fixing matches was also convenient for scheduling. A real ("shoot") match could sometimes last hours, whereas a fixed ("worked") match can be made short, which was convenient for wrestlers on tour who needed to keep appointments or who needed to share venues. It also suited wrestlers who were aging and therefore lacked the stamina for an hours-long fight. Audiences also preferred short matches. Worked matches also carried less risk of injury, which meant shorter recovery. Altogether, worked matches proved more profitable than shoots. By the end of the 19th century, nearly all professional wrestling matches were worked.
A major influence on professional wrestling was carnival culture. Wrestlers in the late 19th century sometimes worked in carnival shows. For a fee, a visitor could challenge the wrestler to a quick match. If the challenger defeated the champion in a short time frame, usually 15 minutes, he won a prize. To encourage challenges, the carnival operators staged rigged matches in which an accomplice posing as a visitor challenged the champion and won, giving the audience the impression that the champion was easy to beat. This practice taught wrestlers the art of staging rigged matches and fostered a mentality that spectators were marks to be duped. The term kayfabe is thought to come from carny slang.
By the turn of the 20th century, most professional wrestling matches were worked, and journalists every now and then exposed the practice.
American wrestlers are notorious for the amount of faking they do. It is because of this fact that suspicion attaches to so many bouts that the game is not popular here. Nine out of ten bouts, it has been said, are pre-arranged affairs, and it would be no surprise if the ratio of fixed matches to honest ones was really so high.— The National Police Gazette. July 22, 1905
The wrestler Lou Thesz recalled that between 1915 and 1920, a series of exposés in the newspapers about the integrity of professional wrestling alienated a lot of fans, sending the industry "into a tailspin". But rather than perform more shoot matches, professional wrestlers instead committed themselves wholesale to fakery.
Several reasons explain why professional wrestling became fake whereas boxing endured as a legitimate sport. Firstly, wrestling was more entertaining when it was faked, whereas fakery did not make boxing any more entertaining. Secondly, in a rigged boxing match, the designated loser must take a real beating for his "defeat" to be convincing, but wrestling holds can be faked convincingly without inflicting injury. This meant that boxers were less willing to "take dives", they wanted to have a victory for all the pain to which they subjected themselves.
If a shoot match was ever performed in public, it was often the result of a "double-cross", which was when a wrestler had agreed to throw a match but then fought to win. During his career, the wrestler Lou Thesz observed that some shoot matches were performed to settle business disputes between rival wrestling groups.
Promotional cartels for professional wrestling emerged in the 1910s in the East Coast of the United States (up to that point, professional wrestling's heartland was in the Midwest), and these cartels quashed what little authenticity professional wrestling still had. In addition to the old advantages of fixing matches mentioned above, fixing matches allowed the promoters to artificially turn their more charismatic wrestlers into champions, whom audiences preferred. Fixing matches also allowed promoters to make long-term plans. With shoot matches, a promoter usually had to wait to see who won the match before making further plans with either wrestler.
Before the cartels, professional wrestlers occasionally had to fight authentic (shoot) matches to preserve their credibility. As promoters gained control over more of the country's wrestlers, there were fewer independent wrestlers who could publicly challenge the promoters' wrestlers to shoot matches. If an independent wrestler made a public challenge, the cartel wrestler could use his contractual obligations to his promoter as an excuse to refuse the challenge. Some promoters used "policemen" to deter independent wrestlers from challenging their stars. These "policemen" were powerful wrestlers who lacked the charisma to become stars. The independent would be forced to face the policeman first, who would give the independent a vicious thrashing that would put fear in him and force him to spend a long time recovering.
Promoters also had to deal with "double-crosses". It happened at times that a promoter was forced to award a victorious double-crosser the title of champion to preserve the facade of sport. The promoters punished such wrestlers by blacklisting them. Blacklisting could be fatal for the wrestler's career as there were few independent venues where they would still be able to find work. Double-crossers could also be sued for breach of contract, which is what happened to Dick Shikat in early 1936 after he did not throw a match as agreed. In the trial, witnesses testified that most of the "big matches" and all of the championship bouts were fixed.
In April 1930, the New York State Athletic Commission decreed that all professional wrestling matches held in that state had to be advertised as exhibitions unless certified as contests by the Commission. The Commission did on very rare occasions hand out such authorizations, such as for a June 1934 championship match between Jim Londos and Jim Browning. This decree did not apply to amateur wrestling, which the Commission had no authority over.
Wrestling fans widely suspected that professional wrestling was fake, but they didn't care as long as it entertained.
Not the least interesting of all the minor phenomena produced by the current fashion of wrestling is the universal discussion as to the honesty of the matches. And certainly the most interesting phrase of this discussion is the unanimous agreement: "Who cares if they're fixed or not—the show is good."— Morris Markey. The New Yorker. April 18, 1931
In 1933, a wrestling promoter named Jack Pfefer started talking about the industry's inner workings to the New York Daily Mirror, resulting in a huge exposé. Unlike most promoters, Pfefer didn't pretend that professional wrestling was real, and he passed on the planned results of the matches just before they took place, which the Daily Mirror published. The exposé neither surprised nor alienated most wrestling fans, though some promoters like Jack Curley were furious and tried to restore the facade of kayfabe as best as they could.
Newspapers tended to shun professional wrestling. It was a form of theater that pretended to be real sport, which offended journalists whose business was telling the truth. Eventually promoters resorted to publishing their own magazines in order to get some press coverage and communicate with fans. The first professional wrestling magazine was Wrestling As You Like It, which began in 1946, printed in Chicago. These magazines, naturally, were faithful to kayfabe.
Before the advent of television, professional wrestling's fanbase largely consisted of children, the elderly, blue-collar workers, and minorities. When television arose in the 1940s, professional wrestling got national exposure on prime time television and gained widespread popularity. Professional wrestling was previously considered a niche interest, but the TV networks at the time were short on content and thus were willing to try some wrestling shows. In the 1960s, however, the broadcast networks moved on to more mainstream interests such as baseball, and professional wrestling was dropped. The core audience then shrunk back to a profile similar to that of the 1930s.
In 1989, Vince McMahon testified before the New Jersey Athletic Commission that professional wrestling is not a real sport because its matches have predetermined outcomes. He did this to have the World Wrestling Federation (his business) exempted from sports licensing fees. Shortly thereafter, New Jersey deregulated professional wrestling. The WWF rebranded itself as a "sports entertainment" company.
In the early years of the 20th century, the style of wrestling used in professional wrestling matches, whether fake or real, was catch wrestling. Wrestlers strove to make their worked matches look realistic, and for that reason promoters preferred to recruit wrestlers with real grappling skills.
In the 1920s, a group of wrestlers/promoters known as the Gold Dust Trio introduced moves which have since become staples of the mock combat of professional wrestling, such as body slams, suplexes, punches, signature moves, and out-of-ring count-outs.
By the early 1930s, most wrestlers had adopted personas to generate public interest. These personas could broadly be characterized as either faces (likeable) or heels (villainous). Native Americans, cowboys, and English aristocrats were staple characters in the 1930s and 1940s. Before the age of television, some wrestlers played different personas depending on the region they were performing in. This eventually came to an end in the age of national television wrestling shows, which forced wrestlers to stick to one persona.
Wrestlers also often used some sort of gimmick, such as a signature move, eccentric mannerisms, or out-of-control behavior (in the case of heels). The matches could also be gimmicky, such as the wrestlers fighting in mud or in a pile of tomatoes. The most successful and enduring gimmick to emerge from the 1930s was tag-team matches. Promoters noticed that matches slowed down as the wrestlers in the ring tired, so they gave them partners to relieve them. It also gave heels another way to misbehave by double-teaming.
Towards the end of the 1930s, faced with declining revenues, promoters chose to focus on grooming wrestlers who were charismatic with no regard to their skill, because it was charisma that drew the crowds, and wrestlers who were both skilled at grappling and charismatic were hard to come by. Since most of the public by this time knew and accepted that professional wrestling was fake, a background in authentic wrestling no longer mattered. After this time, matches became more outlandish and gimmicky, and any semblance professional wrestling had to catch wrestling faded. The personas of the wrestlers likewise grew more outlandish.
Gorgeous George, who performed throughout the 1940s and 1950s, was the first wrestler whose entrance into the arena was accompanied by a theme song played over the arena's loudspeakers, his being Pomp and Circumstance. He also wore a costume: a robe and hairnet, which he removed after getting in the ring. He also had a pre-match ritual where his "butler" would spray the ring with perfume. In the 1980s, promoter Vince McMahon made entrance songs, costumes, and rituals standard for his star wrestlers. For instance, Hulk Hogan would delight the audience by ripping his shirt apart before the match.
The first major promoter cartel emerged in the eastern half of the United States, although up to that point, wrestling's heartland had been in the Midwest. Notable members of this cartel included Jack Curley, Lou Daro, Paul Bowser, Tom Packs, and Tony Packs. The promoters colluded to solve a number of problems that hurt their profits. Firstly, they could force their wrestlers to perform for less money. As the cartel grew, there were fewer independent promoters where independent wrestlers could find work, and many were forced to sign a contract with the cartel to receive steady work. The contracts forbade them from performing at independent venues. A wrestler who refused to play by the cartel's rules was barred from performing at its venues. A second goal of the wrestling cartels was to establish an authority to decide who was the "world champion". Before the cartels, there were multiple wrestlers in America simultaneously calling themselves the "world champion", and this sapped public enthusiasm for professional wrestling. Likewise, the cartel could agree on a common set of match rules that the fans could keep track of. The issue over who got to be the champion and who controlled said champion was a major point of contention among the members of wrestling cartels as the champion drew big crowds wherever he performed, and this would occasionally lead to schisms.
By 1925, this cartel had divided the country up into territories which were the exclusive domains of specific promoters. This system of territories endured until Vince McMahon drove the fragmented cartels out of the market in the 1980s. This cartel fractured in 1929 after one of its members, Paul Bowser, bribed the wrestler Ed "Strangler" Lewis to lose his championship title in a match with Gus Sonnenberg in January 1929. Bowser then broke away from the trust to form his own cartel, the American Wrestling Association, in September 1930, and he declared Sonnenberg to be the AWA champion. Curley reacted to this move by convincing the National Boxing Association to form the National Wrestling Association, which in turn crowned a champion that Curley put forth: Dick Shikat. The National Wrestling Association shut down in 1980.
In 1948, a number of promoters from across the country came together to form the National Wrestling Alliance. The NWA recognized one "world champion", voted on by the members, but allowed member promoters to crown their own local champions in their territories. If a member poached wrestlers from another member, or held matches in another member's territory, that offender risked being ejected from the NWA, at which point his territory became fair game for anyone. The NWA would blacklist wrestlers who worked for independent promoters or who publicly criticized an NWA promoter or who did not throw a match on command. If an independent promoter tried to establish himself in a certain area, the NWA would send their star performers to perform for the local NWA promoter to draw the customers away from the independent. By 1956, the NWA controlled 38 promotions within the United States, with more in Canada, Mexico, and Australia and New Zealand. The NWA's monopolistic practices became so stifling that the independents appealed to the government for help. In October 1956 the US Attorney General's office filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NWA in an Iowa federal district court. The NWA settled with the government. The NWA pledged to stop allocating exclusive territories to its promoters, to stop blacklisting wrestlers who worked for outsider promoters, and to admit any promoter into the Alliance. The NWA would flout many of these promises, but its power was nonetheless weakened by the lawsuit.
Paul Bowser's American Wrestling Association joined the National Wrestling Alliance in 1949. The AWA withdrew from the Alliance in 1957 and renamed itself the Atlantic Athletic Corporation. The AAC shut down in 1960.
In 1958, an Omaha promoter and NWA member named Joe Dusek recognized a wrestler named Verne Gagne as the world champion without the approval of the NWA. Gagne asked for a match against the recognized NWA champion Pat O'Connor. The NWA refused to honor the request, so Gagne and a Minneapolis promoter named Wally Karbo established the American Wrestling Association in 1960. This AWA should not be confused with Paul Bowser's AWA, which ceased operations just two months prior. Gagne's AWA operated out of Minnesota. Unlike the NWA, which only allowed faces to be champions, Gagne occasionally allowed heels to win the AWA championship title so that they could serve as foils for him.
In August 1983, the World Wrestling Federation, a promotion in the north-east US, withdrew from the National Wrestling Alliance. Vince K. McMahon then took over as its boss. No longer bound by the territorial pact of the NWA, McMahon began expanding his promotion into the territories of his former NWA peers, now his rivals. By the end of the 1980s, the WWF would become the sole national wrestling promotion in America. This was in part made possible by the rapid spread of cable television in the 1980s. The national broadcast networks generally regarded professional wrestling as too niche an interest, and had not broadcast any national wrestling shows since the 1950s. Before cable TV, a typical American household only received four or so national channels by antenna, and perhaps ten or twelve local channels via UHF broadcasting. But cable television could carry a much larger selection of channels and therefore had room for niche interests. The WWF started with a show called All-American Wrestling on USA Network in September 1983. McMahon's TV shows made his wrestlers national celebrities, so when he held matches in a new city, attendance was high because there was a waiting fanbase cultivated in advance by the cable TV shows. The NWA's traditional anti-competitive tricks were no match for this. The NWA attempted to centralize and create their own national cable television shows to counter McMahon's rogue promotion, but it failed in part because the members of the NWA, ever protective of their territories, could not stomach submitting themselves to a central authority. Nor could any of them stomach the idea of leaving the NWA themselves to compete directly with McMahon, for that would mean their territories would become fair game for the other NWA members. McMahon also had a creative flair for TV that his rivals lacked. For instance, the American Wrestling Association's TV productions during the 1980s were amateurish, low-budget, and out-of-touch with contemporary culture, which lead to the AWA closing in 1991.
In the spring of 1984, the WWF purchased Georgia Championship Wrestling, which had been ailing for some time due to financial mismanagement and internal squabbles. In the deal, the WWF acquired the GCW's timeslot on the cable TV channel TBS. McMahon agreed to keep showing Georgia wrestling matches in that timeslot, but he was unable to get his staff to Atlanta every Saturday to fulfill this obligation, so he sold GCW and its TBS timeslot to Jim Crockett Promotions. JCP started informally calling itself World Championship Wrestling. In 1988, Ted Turner bought JCP and formally renamed it World Championship Wrestling. During the 1990s, the WCW became a credible rival to the WWF, but by end it suffered from a series of creative missteps that led to its failure and purchase by the WWF. One of its mistakes was that it diminished the glamor of the championship title. Between January 2000 and March 2001, the title changed hands eighteen times, which sapped fan enthusiasm, particularly for the climactic pay-per-view matches.
Show wrestling has become especially prominent in Central/North America, Japan and Europe (especially the United Kingdom). In Brazil, there was a very popular wrestling television program from the 1960s to the early 1980s called Telecatch. High-profile figures in the sport have become celebrities or cultural icons in their native or adopted home countries.
Although professional wrestling started out as small acts in sideshows, traveling circuses and carnivals, today it is a billion-dollar industry. Revenue is drawn from ticket sales, network television broadcasts, pay-per-view broadcasts, branded merchandise and home video. Pro wrestling was instrumental in making pay-per-view a viable method of content delivery. Annual shows such as WrestleMania, Bound for Glory, Wrestle Kingdom and formerly Starrcade are among the highest-selling pay-per-view programming each year. In modern day, internet programming has been utilized by a number of companies to air web shows, internet pay per views (IPPVs) or on-demand content, helping to generate internet-related revenue earnings from the evolving World Wide Web.
Home video sales dominate the Billboard charts Recreational Sports DVD sales, with wrestling holding anywhere from 3 to 9 of the top 10 spots every week.
Due to its persistent cultural presence and to its novelty within the performing arts, wrestling constitutes a recurring topic in both academia and the media. Several documentaries have been produced looking at professional wrestling, most notable of them being Beyond the Mat directed by Barry W. Blaustein, and Wrestling with Shadows featuring wrestler Bret Hart and directed by Paul Jay. There have also been many fictional depictions of wrestling; the 2008 film The Wrestler received several Oscar nominations and began a career revival for its star Mickey Rourke.
Currently, the largest professional wrestling company worldwide is the United States-based WWE, which bought out many smaller regional companies in the late 20th century, as well as primary competitors World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) in early 2001. Other major companies worldwide include All Elite Wrestling (AEW) in the United States, Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL), and Lucha Libre AAA Worldwide (AAA) in Mexico; and the Japanese New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW), All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW), and Pro Wrestling Noah promotions.
In professional wrestling, two factors decide the way of proceedings: the "in-show" happenings, presented through the shows; and real life happenings outside the work that have implications, such as performer contracts, legitimate injuries, etc. Because actual life events are often co-opted by writers for incorporation into storylines of performers, the lines between real life and fictional life are often blurred and become confused.
Special discern must be taken with people who perform under their own name (such as Kurt Angle and his fictional persona). The actions of the character in shows must be considered fictional, wholly separate from the life of the performer. This is similar to other entertainers who perform with a persona that shares their own name.
Some wrestlers also incorporate elements of their real-life personalities into their characters, even if they and their in-ring persona have different names.
Kayfabe is the practice of pretending that professional wrestling is a true sport. Wrestlers would at all time flatly deny allegations that they fixed their matches, and they often remained in-character in public even when not performing. When in public, wrestlers would sometimes say the word kayfabe to each other as a coded signal that there were fans present and they needed to be in character. Professional wrestlers in the past strongly believed that if they admitted the truth, their audiences would desert them.
Today's performers don't "protect" the industry like we did, but that's primarily because they've already exposed it by relying on silly or downright ludicrous characters and gimmicks to gain popularity with the fans. It was different in my day, when our product was presented as an authentic, competitive sport. We protected it because we believed it would collapse if we ever so much as implied publicly that it was something other than what it appeared to be. I'm not sure now the fear was ever justified given the fact that the industry is still in existence today, but the point is no one questioned the need then. "Protecting the business" in the face of criticism and skepticism was the first and most important rule a pro wrestler learned. No matter how aggressive or informed the questioner, you never admitted the industry was anything but a competitive sport.— Lou Thesz, Hooker
The first wrestling promoter to publicly admit to routinely fixing matches was Jack Pfefer. In 1933, he started talking about the industry's inner workings to the New York Daily Mirror, resulting in a huge exposé. The exposé neither surprised nor alienated most wrestling fans, though some promoters like Jack Curley were furious and tried to restore the facade of kayfabe as best as they could. In 1989, Vince McMahon testified before the New Jersey government that professional wrestling was not a true sport and therefore should be exempted from sports-related taxes. Many wrestlers and fans resented McMahon for this, but Lou Thesz accepted it as the smart move as it gave the industry more freedom to do as it pleased, and because by that point professional wrestling no longer attempted to appear realistic.
The demise of WCW in 2001 provided some evidence that kayfabe still mattered to a degree. Vince Russo, the boss of WCW in 2000, completely disregarded kayfabe by routinely discussing business matters and office politics in public, which alienated fans.
I watch championship wrestling from Florida with wrestling commentator Gordon Solie. Is this all "fake"? If so, they deserve an Oscar.
Professional wrestling shows can be considered a form of theater in the round, with the ring, ringside area, and entryway comprising a stage. There is less of a fourth wall than in most theatric performances, similar to pantomime involving audience participation. The audience is recognized and acknowledged by the performers as spectators to the sporting event being portrayed, and are encouraged to interact as such. This leads to a high level of audience participation; in fact, their reactions can dictate how the performance unfolds. Often, individual matches will be part of a longer story line conflict between "babyfaces" (often shortened to just "faces") and "heels". "Faces" (the "good guys") are those whose actions are intended to encourage the audience to cheer, while "heels" (the "bad guys") act to draw the spectators' ire.
In pro wrestling matches, performers often execute a series of pre-planned moves and attacks, ranging from grappling and throws found in some traditional forms of wrestling, to more spectacular stunts, sometimes involving props and special effects. The attacks in these matches are designed to appear dramatic whilst reducing the risk of serious injury as much as possible. Overall, the performers aim to minimize the actual injurious impact of their moves while maximizing their entertainment value. Shows produced by the largest professional wrestling promotions like WWE are traditionally performed in indoor venues, flagship events in this profession like WrestleMania are sometimes staged at outdoor venues; these shows are generally video recorded for live or delayed broadcasting for an audience all over the world. Additionally filmed footage known as “segments” or “promos” are usually used to accompany the drama in these shows.
Prior experience in legitimate wrestling is not a requirement for aspiring professional wrestlers, but is seen as an advantageous background. Despite its scripted format, there have been quite a number of performers throughout the history of pro wrestling who have had prior experience in legitimate wrestling, before transitioning to its theatrical form. A popular performer, Kurt Angle, is the first Olympic gold medalist in professional wrestling history, having won his gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in freestyle wrestling. Another prominent performer is Brock Lesnar, a former NCAA Wrestler who won the NCAA Division I National Championship in 2000.
There is no governing authority for professional wrestling rules, although there is a general standard which has developed. Each promotion has its own variation, but all are similar enough to avoid confusion most of the time. Any rule described here is simply a standard, and may or may not correspond exactly with any given promotion's ruleset.
Due to the staged nature of wrestling, these are not actual rules in the sense of actual sports like freestyle wrestling. Instead, the "rules" in this article are implemented and supposedly enforced for the sake of suspension of disbelief (known as kayfabe in the jargon of the business).
Matches are held between two or more sides ("corners"). Each corner may consist of one wrestler, or a team of two or more. Most team matches are governed by tag team rules (see below). Other matches are free-for-alls, with multiple combatants but no teams. In all variants, there can be only one winning team or wrestler.
Matches are held within a wrestling ring, an elevated square canvas mat with posts on each corner. A cloth apron hangs over the edges of the ring. Three horizontal ropes or cables surround the ring, suspended with turnbuckles which are connected to the posts. For safety, the ropes are padded at the turnbuckles and cushioned mats surround the floor outside the ring. Guardrails or a similar barrier enclose this area from the audience. Wrestlers are generally expected to stay within the confines of the ring, though matches sometimes end up outside the ring, and even in the audience, to add excitement.
The standard method of scoring is the "fall", which is accomplished by:
These are each explained in greater detail below. Pinfalls and submissions must occur within the ring unless stipulated otherwise.
Most wrestling matches last for a set number of falls, with the first side to achieve the majority number of pinfalls, submissions, or countouts being the winner. Historically, matches were wrestled to 3 falls ("best 2 out of 3") or 5 falls ("best 3 out of 5"). The standard for modern matches is one fall. These matches have a time limit; if not enough falls are scored by the end of the time limit, the match is declared a draw. Modern matches are generally given a 10- to 30-minute time limit for standard matches; title matches can go for up to one hour. British wrestling matches held under Admiral-Lord Mountevans rules consist of six three minute rounds, with a thirty-second break between each round and can either be 2-Out-of-3 Falls or the wrestler with the most falls wins at the end of the final round.
An alternative is a match set for a prescribed length of time, with a running tally of falls. The entrant with the most falls at the end of the time limit is declared the winner. This is usually for 20, 30 or 60 minutes, and is commonly called an Iron Man match. This type of match can be modified so that fewer types of falls are allowed.
In matches with multiple competitors, an elimination system may be used. Any wrestler who has a fall scored against them is forced out of the match, and the match continues until only one remains. It is much more common when more than two wrestlers are involved to simply go one fall, with the one scoring the fall, regardless of who they scored it against, being the winner. In championship matches, this means that, unlike one-on-one matches (where the champion can simply disqualify himself or get himself counted out to retain the title via the Champion's Advantage), the champion does not have to be pinned or involved in the decision to lose the championship. Heel champions often find advantages, not in Champion's Advantage, but in the use of weapons and outside interference, as these poly-sided matches tend to involve no holds barred rules.
Many modern specialty matches have been devised, with unique winning conditions. The most common of these is the ladder match. In the basic ladder match, the wrestlers or teams of wrestlers must climb a ladder to obtain a prize that is hoisted above the ring. The key to winning this match is that the wrestler or team of wrestlers must try to incapacitate each other long enough for one wrestler to climb the ladder and secure that prize for their team. As a result, the ladder can be used as a weapon. The prizes include, but are not limited to, any given championship belt (the traditional prize), a document granting the winner the right to a future title shot, or any document that matters to the wrestlers involved in the match (such as one granting the winner a cash prize). Another common specialty match is known as the battle royal. In a battle royal, all the wrestlers enter the ring to the point that there are 20–30 wrestlers in the ring at one time. When the match begins, the simple objective is to throw the opponent over the top rope and out of the ring with both feet on the floor to eliminate that opponent. The last wrestler standing is declared the winner. A variant on this type of match is the WWE's Royal Rumble where two wrestlers enter the ring to start the match and other wrestlers follow in 90 second intervals (previously 2 minutes) until 30–40 wrestlers have entered the ring. All other rules stay the same. For more match types, see Professional wrestling match types.
Every match must be assigned a rule keeper known as a referee, who is the final arbitrator. In multi-man lucha libre matches, two referees are used, one inside the ring and one outside.
Due to the legitimate role that referees play in wrestling of serving as liaison between the bookers backstage and the wrestlers in the ring (the role of being a final arbitrator is merely kayfabe), the referee is present, even in matches that do not at first glance appear to require a referee (such as a ladder match, as it is no holds barred, and the criteria for victory could theoretically be assessed from afar). Although their actions are also frequently scripted for dramatic effect, referees are subject to certain general rules and requirements to maintain the theatrical appearance of unbiased authority. The most basic rule is that an action must be seen by a referee to be declared for a fall or disqualification. This allows for heel characters to gain a scripted advantage by distracting or disabling the referee to perform some ostensibly illegal maneuver on their opponent. Most referees are unnamed and essentially anonymous, though some wrestling promotions, most notably in the present All Elite Wrestling, have made officials known by their names (and there are some cases where fans have called their name during matches).
Special guest referees may be used from time to time; by virtue of their celebrity status, they are often scripted to dispense with the appearance of neutrality and use their influence to unfairly influence the outcome of the match for added dramatic impact. Face special referees will often fight back against hostile heel wrestlers, particularly if the special referee is either a wrestler himself or a famous martial artist (such as Tito Ortiz at the main event at Hard Justice 2005).
For heel special referees, common ways of assisting the heel wrestler to obtain victory include, but are not limited to, the following:
Main article: Tag team
In some team matches, only one entrant from each team may be designated as the "legal" or "active" wrestler at any given moment. Two wrestlers must make physical contact in the corner (typically palm-to-palm) to transfer this legal status. This is known as a "tag", with the participants "tagging out" and "tagging in". Typically the wrestler who is tagging out has a five count to leave the ring, whereas the one tagging in can enter the ring at any time, resulting in heels legally double-teaming a face.
The non-legal wrestlers must remain outside the ring or other legal area at all times (and avoid purposeful contact with the opposing wrestlers) or face reprimand from the referee. In most promotions, the wrestler to be tagged in must be touching the turnbuckle on his corner, or a cloth strap attached to the turnbuckle.
Some multi-wrestler matches allow for a set number of legal wrestlers; this rule is commonplace in four-way tag team matches, where only two wrestlers are legal in the match, meaning two teams will have both members on the outside at any given time. In these matches, tags can be made between any two teams regardless if they are on the same team or not. As a result of this stipulation, tags between different teams are not usually mutual effort; a non-legal wrestler will usually tag themselves in against the legal wrestler's will. A legal wrestler will only voluntarily tag themselves out to another team if their own partner is incapacitated, or are being held in a submission hold and are closer to another tag team than their own.
Sometimes, poly-sided matches that pit every man for himself will incorporate tagging rules. Outside of kayfabe, this is done to give wrestlers a break from the action (as these matches tend to go on for long periods of time), and to make the action in the ring easier to choreograph. One of the most mainstream examples of this is the Four-Corner match, the most common type of match in the WWE before it was replaced with its equivalent Fatal Four-Way; four wrestlers, each for himself, fight in a match, but only two wrestlers can be in the match at any given time. The other two are positioned in the corner, and tags can be made between any two wrestlers.
In a Texas Tornado Tag Team match, all the competitors are legal in the match, and tagging in and out is not necessary. All matches fought under hardcore rules (such as no disqualification, no holds barred, ladder match, etc.) are all contested under de facto Texas Tornado rules, since the lack of ability of a referee to issue a disqualification renders any tagging requirements moot.
Regardless of rules of tagging, a wrestler cannot pin his or her own tag team partner, even if it is technically possible from the rules of the match (e.g. Texas Tornado rules, or a three-way tag team match). This is called the "Outlaw Rule" because the first team to attempt to use that (in an attempt to unfairly retain their tag team titles) was the New Age Outlaws.
Main article: Pin (professional wrestling)
To score by pinfall, a wrestler must pin both his opponent's shoulders against the mat while the referee slaps the mat three times (referred to as a "three count"). This is the most common form of defeat. The pinned wrestler must also be on his back and, if they're lying on his stomach, it usually does not count. A count may be started at any time that a wrestler's shoulders are down (both shoulders touching the mat), back-first and any part of the opponent's body is lying over the wrestler. This often results in pins that can easily be kicked out of, if the defensive wrestler is even slightly conscious. For example, an attacking wrestler who is half-conscious may simply drape an arm over an opponent, or a cocky wrestler may place his foot gently on the opponent's body, prompting a three-count from the referee.
Illegal pinning methods include using the ropes for leverage and hooking the opponent's clothing, which are therefore popular cheating methods for heels, unless certain stipulations make such an advantage legal. Pins such as these are rarely seen by the referee and are subsequently often used by heels and on occasion by cheating faces to win matches. Even if it is noticed, it is rare for such an attempt to result in a disqualification (see below) and instead it simply results in nullification of the pin attempt, so the heel wrestler rarely has anything to lose for trying it anyway.
Occasionally, there are instances where a pinfall is made where both wrestlers' shoulders were on the mat for the three-count. This situation will most likely lead to a draw, and in some cases a continuation of the match or a future match to determine the winner.
To score by submission, the wrestler must make his opponent give up, usually, but not necessarily, by putting him in a submission hold (e.g. figure four leg-lock, arm-lock, sleeper-hold).
A wrestler may voluntarily submit by verbally informing the referee (usually used in moves such as the Mexican Surfboard, where all four limbs are incapacitated, making tapping impossible). Also, since Ken Shamrock popularized it in 1997, a wrestler can indicate a voluntary submission by "tapping out", that is, tapping a free hand against the mat or against an opponent. Occasionally, a wrestler will reach for a rope (see rope breaks below), only to put his hand back on the mat so he can crawl towards the rope some more; this is not a submission, and the referee decides what his intent is. Submission was initially a large factor in professional wrestling, but following the decline of the submission-oriented catch-as-catch-can style from mainstream professional wrestling, the submission largely faded. Despite this, some wrestlers, such as Chris Jericho, Ric Flair, Bret Hart, Kurt Angle, Ken Shamrock, Dean Malenko, Chris Benoit, and Tazz, became famous for winning matches via submission. A wrestler with a signature submission technique is portrayed as better at applying the hold, making it more painful or more difficult to get out of than others who use it, or can be falsely credited as inventing the hold (such as when Tazz popularized the kata ha jime judo choke in pro wrestling as the "Tazzmission").
Since all contact between the wrestlers must cease if any part of the body is touching, or underneath, the ropes, many wrestlers will attempt to break submission holds by deliberately grabbing the bottom ropes. This is called a "rope break", and it is one of the most common ways to break a submission hold. Most holds leave an arm or leg free, so that the person can tap out if he wants. Instead, he uses these free limbs to either grab one of the ring ropes (the bottom one is the most common, as it is nearest the wrestlers, though other ropes sometimes are used for standing holds such as Chris Masters's Master Lock) or drape his foot across, or underneath one. Once this has been accomplished, and witnessed by the referee, the referee will demand that the offending wrestler break the hold, and start counting to five if the wrestler does not. If the referee reaches the count of five, and the wrestler still does not break the hold, he is disqualified.
If a manager decides that his client wrestler should tap out, but cannot convince the wrestler himself to do so, he may "throw in the towel" (by literally taking a gym towel and hurling it into the ring where the referee can see it). This is the same as a submission, as in kayfabe the manager is considered the wrestlers agent and therefore authorized to make formal decisions (such as forfeiting a match) on the client's behalf.
Passing out in a submission hold constitutes a loss by technical knockout or technical submission. To determine if a wrestler has passed out in WWE, the referee usually picks up and drops his hand. If it drops to the mat or floor one or three consecutive times without the wrestler having the strength to hold it up, the wrestler is considered to have passed out.
A wrestler can also win by technical knockout even if he does not resort to submission holds, but still beats the opponent to the point of unconsciousness or to the impossibility to defend himself. To check for a technical knockout in this manner a referee would wave his hand in front of the wrestler's face and, if this produces no reaction of any kind, the referee would award the victory to the other wrestler.
A wrestler can also request a ten-count from the referee when they think an opponent is sufficiently incapacitated to not be able to stand before the count of ten. These knockouts are rarely used or mentioned as logically it makes more sense for a wrestler to actively pin an opponent for three seconds rather than leaving an opponent the chance to stand up before ten.
A countout (alternatively "count-out" or "count out") happens when a wrestler is out of the ring long enough for the referee to count to ten (twenty in some promotions) and thus disqualified. The count is broken and restarted when a wrestler in the ring exits the ring. Playing into this, some wrestlers "milk" the count by sliding in the ring and immediately sliding back out. As he was technically inside the ring for a split second before exiting again, it is sufficient to restart the count. This is often referred to by commentators as "breaking the count". Heels often use this tactic in order to buy themselves more time to catch their breath, or to attempt to frustrate their babyface opponents.
If all the active wrestlers in a match are down inside the ring at the same time, the referee begins a count (usually ten seconds, twenty in Japan). If nobody rises to their feet by the end of the count, the match is ruled a draw. Any participant who stands up in time ends the count for everyone else, while in a Last Man Standing match this form of a countout is the only way that the match can end, so the referee counts when one or more wrestlers are down and one wrestler standing up before the 10-count does not stop the count for another wrestler who is still down.
In some promotions (and most major modern ones), Championships cannot change hands via a countout, unless the on-screen authority declares it for at least one match, although in others, championships may change hands via countout. Heels are known to take advantage of this and will intentionally get counted out when facing difficult opponents, especially when defending championships.
Disqualification (sometimes abbreviated as "DQ") occurs when a wrestler violates the match's rules, thus losing automatically. Although a countout can technically be considered a disqualification (as it is, for all intents and purposes, an automatic loss suffered as a result of violating a match rule), the two concepts are often distinct in wrestling. A no disqualification match can still end by countout (although this is rare). Typically, a match must be declared a "no holds barred" match, a "street fight" or some other term, in order for both disqualifications and countouts to be waived.
Disqualification from a match is called for a number of reasons:
In practice, not all rule violations will result in a disqualification as the referee may use his own judgement and is not obligated to stop the match. Usually, the only offenses that the referee will see and immediately disqualify a wrestler for (as opposed to having multiple offenses) are low blows, weapon usage, interference, or assaulting the referee. In WWE, a referee must see the violation with his own eyes to rule that the match end in a disqualification (simply watching the video tape is usually not enough) and the referee's ruling is almost always final, although "Dusty finishes" (named after, and made famous by, Dusty Rhodes) will often result in the referee's decision being overturned. It is not uncommon for the referees themselves to get knocked out during a match, which is commonly referred to by the term "ref bump". While the referee remains "unconscious", wrestlers are free to violate rules until he is revived or replaced. In some cases, a referee might disqualify a person under the presumption that it was that wrestler who knocked him out; most referee knockouts are arranged to allow a wrestler, usually a heel, to gain an advantage. For example, a wrestler may get whipped into a referee at a slower speed, knocking the ref down for short amount of time; during that interim period, one wrestler may pin his opponent for a three-count and would have won the match but for the referee being down (sometimes, another referee will sprint to the ring from backstage to attempt to make the count, but by then, the other wrestler has had enough time to kick out on his own accord). In most promotions, a championship title cannot normally change hands via disqualification; this rule is explicitly enforced in a title match under special circumstances.
If all participants in a match continue to breach the referee's instructions, the match may end in a double disqualification, where both wrestlers or teams (in a tag team match) have been disqualified. The match is essentially nullified, and called a draw or in some cases a restart or the same match being held at a pay-per-view or next night's show. Sometimes, in a match to determine the challenger for a heel champion's title, the champion is forced to face both opponents simultaneously for the title. Usually, the double disqualification is caused by the heel wrestler's associates in a match between two face wrestlers to determine his opponent.
Although extremely rare, a match can end in a forfeit if the opponent either does not show up for the match, or shows up but refuses to compete. Although a championship usually cannot change hands except by pinfall or submission, a forfeit victory is enough to crown a new champion. A famous example of this happened on the December 8, 1997, episode of Raw is War, when Stone Cold Steve Austin handed the WWE Intercontinental Championship to The Rock after refusing to defend the title.
When a pay-per-view match is booked and one wrestler is unable to make it for one reason or another, it is usually customary to insert a last-minute replacement rather than award a wrestler a victory by forfeit. Forfeit victories are almost always reserved for when the story the promotion is telling specifically requires such an ending.
Despite being, statistically, an extremely rare occurrence, Charles Wright is one wrestler who is famous for turning forfeit victories into his own gimmick. During the late 1990s, Wright called himself "The Godfather" and portrayed the gimmick of a pimp. He often brought multiple women, whom he referred to as "hos", to the ring with him, and offered them to his opponents in exchange for their forfeit.
A professional wrestling match can end in a draw. A draw occurs if both opponents are simultaneously disqualified (as via countout or if the referee loses complete control of the match and both opponents attack each other with no regard to being in a match, like Brock Lesnar vs. Undertaker at 2002 Unforgiven), neither opponent is able to answer a ten-count, or both opponents simultaneously win the match. The latter can occur if, for example, one opponent's shoulders touch the mat while maintaining a submission hold against another opponent. If the opponent in the hold submits at the same time a referee counts to three for pinning the opponent delivering the hold, both opponents have legally achieved scoring conditions simultaneously. Traditionally, a championship may not change hands in the event of a draw (though it may become vacant), though some promotions such as Impact Wrestling (formally Total Nonstop Action (TNA) Wrestling) have endorsed rules where the champion may lose a title by disqualification. A variant of the draw is the time-limit draw, where the match does not have a winner by a specified time period (a one-hour draw, which was once common, is known in wrestling circles as a "Broadway").
Also if two wrestlers have been given a disqualification by either the referee or the chairman, this is a no contest and if there is a title on the line the champion keeps the championship.
A wrestling match may be declared a no contest if the winning conditions are unable to occur. This can be due to excessive interference, loss of referee's control over the match, one or more participants sustaining debilitating injury not caused by the opponent, or the inability of a scheduled match to even begin. A no contest is a state separate and distinct from a draw — a draw indicates winning conditions were met. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably in practice, this usage is technically incorrect.
While each wrestling match is ostensibly a competition of athletics and strategy, the goal from a business standpoint is to excite and entertain the audience. Although the competition is staged, dramatic emphasis draws out the most intense reaction. Heightened interest results in higher attendance, increased ticket sales, higher ratings on television broadcasts (greater ad revenue), higher pay-per-view buyrates, and sales of branded merchandise and recorded video footage. All of these contribute to the profit of the promotion company.
Main article: Gimmick (professional wrestling)
In Latin America and English-speaking countries, most wrestlers (and other on-stage performers) portray character roles, sometimes with personalities wildly different from their own. These personalities are a gimmick intended to heighten interest in a wrestler without regard to athletic ability. Some can be unrealistic and cartoon-like (such as Doink the Clown), while others carry more verisimilitude (such as Chris Jericho, The Rock, John Cena, Steve Austin, and CM Punk). In lucha libre, many characters wear masks, adopting a secret identity akin to a superhero or a supervillain, a near-sacred tradition.
An individual wrestler may use their real name, or a minor variation of it, for much of their career, such as Bret Hart, John Cena and Randy Orton. Others can keep one ring name for their entire career (Shawn Michaels, CM Punk and Ricky Steamboat), or may change from time to time to better suit the demands of the audience or company. Sometimes a character is owned and trademarked by the company, forcing the wrestler to find a new one when he leaves (although a simple typeset change, such as changing Rhyno to Rhino, can get around this), and sometimes a character is owned by the wrestler. Sometimes, a wrestler may change their legal name to obtain ownership of their ring name (Andrew Martin and Warrior). Many wrestlers (such as The Rock and The Undertaker) are strongly identified with their character, even responding to the name in public or between friends. Proper decorum is for wrestlers to refer to each other by their stage names/characters rather than their birth/legal names, unless otherwise introduced. A character can become so popular that it appears in other media (Hulk Hogan and El Santo) or even gives the performer enough visibility to enter politics (Antonio Inoki and Jesse Ventura).
Typically, matches are staged between a protagonist (historically an audience favorite, known as a babyface, or "the good guy") and an antagonist (historically a villain with arrogance, a tendency to break rules, or other unlikable qualities, called a heel, or "the bad guy"). In recent years, antiheroes have also become prominent in professional wrestling. There is also a less common role of a "tweener", who is neither fully face nor fully heel yet able to play either role effectively (case in point, Samoa Joe during his first run in Impact Wrestling from June 2005 to November 2006).
At times, a character may "turn", altering their face/heel alignment. This may be an abrupt, surprising event, or it may slowly build over time. It is almost always accomplished with a markable change in behavior. Some turns become defining points in a career, as when Hulk Hogan turned heel after being a top face for over a decade. Others may have no noticeable effect on the character's status. If a character repeatedly switches between face and heel, this lessens the effect of such turns, and may result in apathy from the audience. Big Show is a good example of having more heel and face turns than anyone in WWE history. Sometimes a character's heel turn will become so popular that eventually the audience response will alter the character's heel-face cycle to the point where the heel persona will, in practice, become a face persona, and what was previously the face persona, will turn into the heel persona, such as when Dwayne Johnson first began using "The Rock" persona as a heel character, as opposed to his original "Rocky Maivia" babyface persona. Another legendary example is Stone Cold Steve Austin, who was originally booked as a heel, with such mannerisms as drinking on the job, using profanity, breaking company property, and even breaking into people's private homes. The fans' response to Austin was so positive that he effectively became one of the most popular antiheroes in professional wrestling. Austin, along with the stable of D-Generation X, Bret Hart and his Hart Foundation, is generally credited with ushering the Attitude Era of WWF programming.
While real exhibition matches are now not uncommon, most matches tell a story analogous to an episode of a serial drama: the face will from time to time win (triumph) or from time to time lose (tragedy), and longer story arcs can result from a couple of matches. Since most promotions have a championship title, opposition for the championship is a frequent impetus for stories. For added stakes, anything from a character's own hair to their job can be wagered in a match.
Some matches are designed to further the story of only one participant. It could be intended to portray an unstoppable force, a lucky underdog, a sore loser, or any other characterization. Sometimes non-wrestling vignettes are shown to enhance a character's image without the need for matches.
Other stories result from a natural rivalry. Outside of performance, these are referred to as feuds. A feud can exist between any number of participants and can last from a few days to decades. The feud between Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat lasted from the late 1970s into the early 1990s and allegedly spanned over two thousand matches (although most of those matches were mere dark matches). The career-spanning history between characters Mike Awesome and Masato Tanaka is another example of a long-running feud, as is the case of Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon, one of the most lucrative feuds in the World Wrestling Federation during 1998 and 1999.
In theory, the longer a feud is built up, the more audience interest (aka heat) lasts. The main event of a wrestling show is generally the most heated. Commonly, a heel will hold the upper hand over a face until a final showdown, heightening dramatic tension as the face's fans desire to see them win.
Throughout the history of professional wrestling, many other elements of media have been utilized in professional wrestling storytelling: pre- and post-match interviews, "backstage" skits, positions of authority and worked behind-the-scenes feuds, division rankings (typically the #1-contendership spot), contracts, lotteries, news stories on websites, and in recent years social media.
Anything that can be used as an element of drama can exist in professional wrestling stories: romantic relationships (including love triangles and marriage), racism, classism, nepotism, favoritism, corporate corruption, family bonds, personal histories, grudges, theft, cheating, assault, betrayal, bribery, seduction, stalking, confidence tricks, extortion, blackmail, substance abuse, self-doubt, self-sacrifice; even kidnapping, sexual fetishism, necrophilia, misogyny, rape and death have been portrayed in wrestling. Some promotions have included supernatural elements such as magic, curses, the undead and Satanic imagery (most notably the Undertaker and his Ministry of Darkness, a stable that regularly performed evil rituals and human sacrifice in Satanic-like worship of a hidden power figure).
Commentators have become important in communicating the relevance of the characters' actions to the story at hand, filling in past details and pointing out subtle actions that may otherwise go unnoticed.
Main article: Glossary of professional wrestling terms § Promo
A main part of the story-telling part of wrestling is a promo, short for promotional interview. Promos are performed, or "cut" in wrestling jargon, for a variety of reasons, including to heighten interest in a wrestler, or to hype an upcoming match.
Since the crowd is often too loud or the venue too large for promos to be heard naturally, wrestlers will use amplification when speaking in the ring. Unlike most Hollywood acting, large and highly visible handheld microphones are typically used and wrestlers often speak directly to the audience.
Main article: Professional wrestling championship
Professional wrestling mimics the structure of title match combat sports. Participants compete for a championship and must defend it after winning it. These titles are represented physically by a title belt that can be worn by the champion. In the case of team wrestling, there is a title belt for each member of the team.
Almost all professional wrestling promotions have one major title, and some have more. Championships are designated by divisions of weight, height, gender, wrestling style and other qualifications.
Typically, each promotion only recognizes the "legitimacy" of their own titles, although cross-promotion does happen. When one promotion absorbs or purchases another, the titles from the defunct promotion may continue to be defended in the new promotion or be decommissioned. Behind the scenes, the bookers in a company will place the title on the most accomplished performer, or those the bookers believe will generate fan interest in terms of event attendance and television viewership. Historically, a world champion was typically a legit shooter/hooker who had the skills to prevent double crosses by shooters who would deviate from the planned finish for personal glory. Lower ranked titles may also be used on the performers who show potential, thus allowing them greater exposure to the audience. Other circumstances may also determine the use of a championship. A combination of a championship's lineage, the caliber of performers as champion, and the frequency and manner of title changes, dictates the audience's perception of the title's quality, significance and reputation.
A wrestler's championship accomplishments can be central to their career, becoming a measure of their performance ability and drawing power. In general, a wrestler with multiple title reigns or an extended title reign is indicative of a wrestler's ability to maintain audience interest or a wrestler's ability to perform in the ring. As such, the most accomplished or decorated wrestlers tend to be revered as legends due to the amount of title reigns they hold. American wrestler Ric Flair has had multiple world heavyweight championship reigns spanning over three decades. Japanese wrestler Último Dragón once held and defended a record ten titles simultaneously.
Main article: Professional wrestling match types
Often a match will take place under additional rules, usually serving as a special attraction or a climactic point in a feud or storyline. Sometimes this will be the culmination of an entire feud, ending it for the immediate future (known as a blowoff match).
Perhaps the most well-known non-standard match is the cage match, in which the ring is surrounded by a fence or similar metal structure, with the express intention of preventing escape or outside interference—and with the added bonus of the cage being a potentially brutal weapon or platform for launching attacks. The WWE has another provision where a standard cage match can end with one wrestler or wrestling team escaping the cage through the door or over the top.
Another example is the WWE's Royal Rumble match, which involves thirty participants in a random and unknown order. The Rumble match is itself a spectacle in that it is a once-yearly event with multiple participants, including individuals who might not interact otherwise. It also serves as a catalyst for the company's ongoing feuds, as well as a springboard for new storylines. The WWE has made many other match types such as the Inferno Match and the First Blood match.
While the wrestling matches themselves are the primary focus of professional wrestling, a key dramatic element of the business can be entrances of the wrestlers to the arena and ring. It is typical for a wrestler to get their biggest crowd reaction (or "pop") for their ring entrance, rather than for anything they do in the wrestling match itself, especially if former main event stars are returning to a promotion after a long absence.
All notable wrestlers now enter the ring accompanied by music, and regularly add other elements to their entrance. The music played during the ring entrance will usually mirror the wrestler's personality. Many wrestlers, particularly in America, have music and lyrics specially written for their ring entrance. While invented long before, the practice of including music with the entrance gained rapid popularity during the 1980s, largely as a result of the huge success of Hulk Hogan and the WWF, and their Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection. When a match is won, the victor's theme music is usually also played in celebration.
Because wrestling is predetermined, a wrestler's entrance music will play as they enter the arena, even if they are, in kayfabe, not supposed to be there. For example, in 2012 through 2014, The Shield was a trio of wrestlers who were (in kayfabe) not at the time under contract with WWE (hence their gimmick of entering the ring through the crowd), but they still had entrance music which was played whenever they entered the arena, despite the fact that they were kayfabe invaders.
With the introduction of the Titantron entrance screen in 1997, WWF wrestlers also had entrance videos play along with their music.
Other dramatic elements of a ring entrance can include:
Special ring entrances are also developed for big occasions, most notably the WrestleMania event. For example, WrestleMania III and VI both saw all wrestlers enter the arena on motorized miniature wrestling rings. Live bands are sometimes hired to perform live entrance music at special events. John Cena and Triple H are particularly notable in recent years for their highly theatrical entrances at WrestleMania.
Main article: Women's professional wrestling
The women's division of professional wrestling has maintained a recognized world champion since 1937, when Mildred Burke won the original World Women's title. She then formed the World Women's Wrestling Association in the early 1950s and recognized herself as the first champion, although the championship was vacated upon her retirement in 1956. The NWA ceased to acknowledge Burke as the Women's World champion in 1954, and instead acknowledged June Byers as champion after a controversial finish to a high-profile match between Burke and Byers that year. Upon Byers's retirement in 1964, The Fabulous Moolah, who won a junior heavyweight version of the NWA World Women's Championship (the predecessor to the WWE Women's Championship) in a tournament back in 1958, was recognized by most NWA promoters as champion by default.
Main article: Intergender wrestling
For most of its history, men and women rarely worked against each other in professional wrestling, as it was deemed to be unfair and unchivalrous. Andy Kaufman used this to gain notoriety when he created an Intergender Championship and declared it open to any female challenger. This led to a long (worked) feud with Jerry Lawler.
Cathy Davis sued the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) in 1977 because she was denied a boxing license because she was a woman, and the case was decided in her favor later that year, with the judge invalidating New York State rule number 205.15, which stated, "No woman may be licensed as a boxer or second or licensed to compete in any wrestling exhibition with men." In his opinion the judge cited the precedent set by Garrett v. New York State Athletic Commission (1975), which "found the regulation invalid under the equal protection clauses of the State and Federal Constitutions". The NYSAC filed an appeal of the ruling, but later dropped it.
In the 1980s, mixed tag team matches began to take place, with a male and female on each team and a rule stating that each wrestler could only attack the opponent of the same gender. If a tag was made, the other team had to automatically switch their legal wrestler as well. Despite these restrictions, many mixed tag matches do feature some physical interaction between participants of different genders. For example, a heel may take a cheap shot at the female wrestler of the opposing team to draw a negative crowd reaction. In lucha libre, cheap shots and male-female attacks are not uncommon.
Intergender singles bouts were first fought on a national level in the 1990s. This began with Luna Vachon, who faced men in ECW and WWF. Later, Chyna became the first female to hold a belt that was not exclusive to women when she won the WWF Intercontinental Championship. Intergender wrestling was uncommon in Impact Wrestling. ODB, had participated in intergender matches and once held the Impact Knockouts Tag Team Championship with Eric Young for a record 478 days. Other notable Impact Knockouts that competed in intergender matches include Scarlett Bordeaux; Tessa Blanchard, who became the first woman to win the Impact World Championship; and Jordynne Grace, who became the inaugural Impact Digital Media Championship.
Further information: Midget wrestling
Midget wrestling can be traced to professional wrestling's carnival and vaudeville origins. In recent years, the popularity and prevalence of midgets in wrestling has greatly decreased due to wrestling companies depriving midget divisions of storyline or feud. WWE has made a few attempts to enter this market with their "minis" in the 1990s and the "junior's league" as recent as 2006. It is still a popular form of entertainment in Mexican wrestling, mostly as a "sideshow".
Some wrestlers may have their own specific "mini me", like Mascarita Sagrada, Alebrije has Quije, etc. There are also cases in which midgets can become valets for a wrestler, and even get physically involved in matches, like Alushe, who often accompanies Tinieblas, or KeMonito, who is portrayed as Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre's mascot and is also a valet for Mistico. Dave Finlay was often aided in his matches by a midget known mainly as Hornswoggle while in WWE, who hid under the ring and gave a shillelagh to Finlay to use on his opponent. Finlay also occasionally threw him at his opponents. Hornswoggle was given a run with the WWE Cruiserweight Championship and feuded with D-X in 2009.
The U.S., Japan and Mexico are the three countries where there is a huge market and high popularity for professional wrestling, but the wrestling styles of each region are different, given their independent development for a long period.
Professional wrestling in the U.S. tends to have a heavy focus on story building and the establishment of characters (and their personalities). There is a story for each match, and even a longer story for successive matches. The stories usually contain characters like faces, heels, and - less often - "tweeners" (antiheroes). It is a "triumph" if the face wins, while it is a "tragedy" if the heel wins. The characters usually have strong and sharp personalities. The opposition between faces and heels is very intense in the story, and the heels may even attack the faces during TV interviews. The relationship between different characters can also be very complex.
Although professional wrestling in Mexico (Lucha libre) also has stories and characters, they are less emphasized. Mexican professional wrestling tradition repeats very usually brutal tactics, specially more aerial holds than professional wrestlers in the U.S. who, more often, rely on power moves and strikes to subdue their opponents. The difference in styles is due to the independent evolution of the sport in Mexico beginning in the 1930s and the fact that wrestlers in the cruiserweight division (Spanish: peso semicompleto) are often the most popular wrestlers in Mexican lucha libre. Wrestlers often execute high flying moves characteristic of lucha libre by utilizing the wrestling ring's ropes to catapult themselves towards their opponents, using intricate combinations in rapid-fire succession, and applying complex submission holds. Lucha libre is also known for its tag team wrestling matches, in which the teams are often made up of three members, instead of two as is common in the U.S.
The style of Japanese professional wrestling (puroresu) is also different. With its origins in traditional American style of wrestling and still being under the same genre, it has become an entity in itself. Despite the similarity to its American counterpart, in that the outcome of the matches remains predetermined, the phenomena are different in the form of the psychology and presentation of the sport. In most of the largest promotions, such as New Japan Pro-Wrestling, All Japan Pro Wrestling and Pro Wrestling Noah, it is treated as a full contact combat sport as it mixes hard hitting martial arts strikes with shoot style submission holds, while in the U.S. it is rather more regarded as an entertainment show. Wrestlers incorporate kicks and strikes from martial arts disciplines, and a strong emphasis is placed on submission wrestling, and unlike the use of involved storylines in the U.S., they are not as intricate in Japan; more emphasis is placed on the concept of "fighting spirit", meaning the wrestlers' display of physical and mental stamina are valued a lot more than theatrics. Many of Japan's wrestlers including top stars such as Shinya Hashimoto, Riki Chōshū and Keiji Mutoh came from a legitimate martial arts background and many Japanese wrestlers in the 1990s began to pursue careers in mixed martial arts organizations such as Pancrase and Shooto which at the time retained the original look of puroresu but were actual competitions. Other companies, such as Michinoku Pro Wrestling and Dragon Gate, wrestle in a style similar to Mexican companies like AAA and CMLL. This is known as "Lucharesu".
Professional wrestling has developed its own unique culture.
Those involved in producing professional wrestling have developed a kind of global fraternity, with familial bonds, shared language and passed-down traditions. New performers are expected to "pay their dues" for a few years by working in lower-profile promotions and working as ring crew before working their way upward. The permanent rosters of most promotions develop a backstage pecking order, with veterans mediating conflicts and mentoring younger wrestlers. For many decades (and still to a lesser extent today) performers were expected to keep the illusions of wrestling's legitimacy alive even while not performing, essentially acting in character any time they were in public. Some veterans speak of a "sickness" among wrestling performers, an inexplicable pull to remain active in the wrestling world despite the devastating effects the job can have on one's life and health.
Fans of professional wrestling have their own subculture, comparable to those of science fiction, video games, or comic books. Those who are interested in the backstage occurrences, future storylines and reasonings behind company decisions read newsletters written by journalists with inside ties to the wrestling industry. These "rags" or "dirt sheets" have expanded into the Internet, where their information can be dispensed on an up-to-the-minute basis. Some have expanded into radio shows.
Some fans enjoy a pastime of collecting recordings of wrestling shows from specific companies, of certain wrestlers, or of specific genres. The internet has given fans exposure to worldwide variations of wrestling they are unable to otherwise see. Since the 1990s, many companies have been founded which deal primarily in wrestling footage. When the WWE purchased both WCW and ECW in 2001, they also obtained the entire past video libraries of both productions and have released many past matches online and on home video.
Like some other sports, fantasy leagues have developed around professional wrestling. Some take this concept further by creating E-feds (electronic federations), where a user can create their own fictional wrestling character, and role-playing storylines with other users, leading to scheduled "shows" where match results are determined by the organizers, usually based on a combination of the characters' statistics and the players' roleplaying aptitude, sometimes with audience voting.
From the first established world championship, the top professional wrestlers have garnered fame within mainstream society. Each successive generation has produced a number of wrestlers who extend their careers into the realms of music, acting, writing, business, politics or public speaking, and are known to those who are unfamiliar with wrestling in general. Conversely, celebrities from other sports or general pop culture also become involved with wrestling for brief periods of time. A prime example of this is The Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection of the 1980s, which combined wrestling with MTV.
Professional wrestling is often portrayed within other works using parody, and its general elements have become familiar tropes and memes in American culture.
Some terminology originating in professional wrestling has found its way into the common vernacular. Phrases such as "body slam", "sleeper hold" and "tag team" are used by those who do not follow professional wrestling. The term "smackdown", popularized by The Rock and SmackDown! in the 1990s, has been included in Merriam-Webster dictionaries since 2007.
Many television shows and films have been produced which portray in-character professional wrestlers as protagonists, such as Ready to Rumble, ¡Mucha Lucha!, Nacho Libre, and the Santo film series. At least two stage plays set in the world of pro wrestling have been produced: The Baron is a comedy that retells the life of an actual performer known as Baron von Raschke. From Parts Unknown... is an award-nominated Canadian drama about the rise and fall of a fictional wrestler. The 2009 South Park episode "W.T.F." played on the soap operatic elements of professional wrestling. One of the lead characters on the Disney Channel series Kim Possible was a huge fan of pro wrestling and actually featured it on an episode (with two former WWE wrestlers voicing the two fictitious wrestlers featured in the episode). The 2008 film The Wrestler, about a washed-up professional wrestler, garnered several Oscar nominations. The 2017 TV series GLOW, based on the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling promotion, gained critical acclaim, including a nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series at the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards.
The 1950 film noir Night and the City, directed by Jules Dassin and starring Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney, told the story of a promoter in London trying to make it big, and featured a match involving real professional wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko.
Wrestling has also gained a major following on YouTube, with WWE being the most subscribed wrestling channel and sixth most subscribed channel in the world. Other promotions, such as All Elite Wrestling, Major League Wrestling, Impact Wrestling and the National Wrestling Alliance have distributed their own weekly programming on the platform.
With its growing popularity, professional wrestling has attracted attention as a subject of serious academic study and journalistic criticism. Many courses, theses, essays and dissertations have analyzed wrestling's conventions, content, and its role in modern society. It is often included as part of studies on theater, sociology, performance, and media. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a course of study on the cultural significance of professional wrestling, and anthropologist Heather Levi has written an ethnography about the culture of lucha libre in Mexico.
In the early 20th century, once it became apparent that the "sport" was worked, pro wrestling was looked down on as a cheap entertainment for the uneducated working class, an attitude that still exists to varying degrees today. The French theorist Roland Barthes was among the first to propose that wrestling was worthy of deeper analysis, in his essay "The World of Wrestling" from his book Mythologies, first published in 1957. Barthes argued that it should be looked at not as a scamming of the ignorant, but as spectacle; a mode of theatric performance for a willing, if bloodthirsty, audience. Wrestling is described as performed art which demands an immediate reading of the juxtaposed meanings. The logical conclusion is given least importance over the theatrical performers of the wrestlers and the referee. According to Barthes, the function of a wrestler is not to win: it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him and to give the audience a theatrical spectacle. This work is considered a foundation of all later study.
While pro wrestling is often described simplistically as a "soap opera for males", it has also been cited as filling the role of past forms of literature and theater; a synthesis of classical heroics, commedia dell'arte, revenge tragedies, morality plays, and burlesque. The characters and storylines portrayed by a successful promotion are seen to reflect the current mood, attitudes, and concerns of that promotion's society and can in turn influence those same things. Wrestling's high levels of violence and masculinity make it a vicarious outlet for aggression during peacetime.
Documentary filmmakers have studied the lives of wrestlers and the effects the profession has on them and their families. The 1999 theatrical documentary Beyond the Mat focused on Terry Funk, a wrestler nearing retirement; Mick Foley, a wrestler within his prime; Jake Roberts, a former star fallen from grace; and a school of wrestling students trying to break into the business. The 2005 release Lipstick and Dynamite, Piss and Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling chronicled the development of women's wrestling throughout the 20th century. Pro wrestling has been featured several times on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. MTV's documentary series True Life featured two episodes titled "I'm a Professional Wrestler" and "I Want to Be a Professional Wrestler". Other documentaries have been produced by The Learning Channel (The Secret World of Professional Wrestling) and A&E (Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows). Bloodstained Memoirs explored the careers of several pro wrestlers, including Chris Jericho, Rob Van Dam and Roddy Piper.
Although professional wrestling is choreographed, there is a high chance of injury, and even death. Strikes are often stiff, especially in Japan, and in independent wrestling promotions such as Combat Zone Wrestling. The ring is often made out of 2-by-8-inch (5 by 20 cm) timber planks. There have been many brutal accidents, hits and injuries. Many of the injuries that occur in pro wrestling are shoulders, knee, back, neck, and rib injuries. Professional wrestler Davey Richards said in 2015, "We train to take damage, we know we are going to take damage and we accept that."
As of February 2023, 31 years after the 1990 WrestleMania VI, 17 of the 38 competitors had died, including André the Giant and main event winner The Ultimate Warrior, with only two of the deceased having reached the age of 64 (Dusty Rhodes at 69 and "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka at 73).
Specifically, professional wrestling's mandate is to excite audiences via contrived and hyper-violent athletic competition.
Indeed, professional wrestling is art and sport, athletics and theatre, graceful and brutal, entertainment and business.
The small television screen, better suited for the close-up than the panorama, could effectively convey wresting's athleticism, drama, and personalities in the ring
While pro wrestling is a hugely athletic form, wrestling itself does not produce the sculpted bodies of wrestling's most famous body guys
Dragon Gate is a unique promotion as they still follow many of wrestling's biggest traditions, one being that veterans get theirs first because rookies need to "pay their dues" like they did.
There is a sense in which wrestling resembles nothing if not a kind of postmodern commedia dell'arte
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We train to take damage, we know we are going to take damage and we accept that," he says, adopting the air of a very muscular guru. "We know we are going to be slammed and we're going to be hit and we're going to be fallen on. We know we're going to dive onto concrete floors. We are tempting fate every time and it is a very tough sport. It is only for tough people who are brave enough and who can accept that pain.