Two men compete in a wrestling match

Beaten into submission for being a fake-tanned, sexist pig that was stuck in the past, professional wrestling has emerged victorious from the jaws of defeat. The Royals’ Content Tag Team Champions, Dan Michael Jones and Dave Rood, get in the ring to find out why.

“It’s like watching professional wrestling,” US Congressman Tim Ryan tweeted after President Trump’s State of the Union speech in early February. And he was right.

Trump orated with the subtlety of a hyped-up ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage cutting a promo. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tore up a copy of the speech as soon as she was sure her gesture would be picked up by the bank of cameras at the back of the room. It was exactly like watching professional wrestling — as it should be. Theatre, spectacle, competing plot lines. And against all odds, wrestling is back in the zeitgeist. The world is ready to rumble. But why?

Two golden ages, then a gap

In the late 80s, over 90,000 people packed into the Pontiac Silverdome to watch Hulk Hogan take on Andre The Giant for the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) championship at Wrestlemania III. During the ‘Attitude Era’ of the late 90s and early 2000s, close to 10 million Americans would tune in to each week to watch The Rock, The Undertaker and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin battle it out live on cable TV.

Nostalgia for times like these has meaning because it’s our way of finding meaning in our memories of them. Here’s what growing up in these golden ages means to our authors:

The 1980s: Dave ‘The Rood Awakening’

I have two vivid sporting memories of 1987. Sobbing when Jim Stynes ran over the mark. And pure elation when Hogan body slammed The Giant in Wrestlemania III. The Giant — billed as the 8th Wonder of the World — had turned on Hogan during the lead up. Good became evil. The build-up was epic. 1:55 mins in and that commentary line comes: “The irresistible force meeting the immovable object”.

(Turns out Andre the Giant, who was on his last wrestling legs, was calling out ‘slam, slam’ as an instruction to Hogan). If you haven’t watched it already check out the HBO documentary Andre The Giant).

I grew up on the cartoon, WWF wrestling of that time. It was all glam and fake tan and well trodden story tropes — babyface versus villain, the fall and redemption. Pile drivers and clotheslines and ‘King Kong Bundy off the top rope’. The injustice of referees turning their heads at precisely the wrong/right time was real. The plot lines stay with me: Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan slapping The Giant. The break-up of Hogan and ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage. ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan winning the first Royal Rumble. Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, mullet in full sweaty flow with his snake Damien curled in a bag in the corner of the ring waiting to be thrown theatrically over Roberts’ victim. It was pure vaudeville and pure escapism.

The 1990s: Dan Michael ‘Jone$town’

I was blessed enough to come of age during the Attitude Era. Announced on-screen by WWF chairman Vince McMahon in December ’97, the era eschewed much of the G-rated glitter and spandex of the 80s WWF, and replaced it with more realistic and violent combat, heavy metal music and four-letter words.

At the time, my grandparents had a subscription to this thing called Optus Vision. It was a cable TV station — Netflix for the ’90s — and each week, my grandma would tape both WWF Monday Night Raw and the rival WCW Monday Nitro for me.

The best thing about it all? ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin — a bald, goateed Texan — who strode to the ring accompanied by the sounds of breaking glass, threw up middle fingers at his opponents, and double-fisted cans of cheap beer anytime he won.

I was always way more into all the extraneous bullshit surrounding the matches — backstage promos, intro songs, dramatic interludes, fireworks, pyro and personalities — than the wrestling itself. That hasn’t changed.

But something had changed outside of wrestling during the Attitude Era. The world got consumed by ‘realness’. 9/11 snapped the western world out of its bubble. It was the era of street press and Vice Magazine. The internet had made it so we could all be famous at once. Anyone could be a superstar. The WWF — which had rebranded as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) following a lawsuit in 2002 — was failing to catch up. Not even a Wrestlemania’s 23 in-ring appearance from Trump himself could help.

Mixed martial arts — a freeform combat sport with only a few rules — was ‘real’. The outcomes weren’t planned in advance. There weren’t dramatic, scripted scenes bookending the fights. WWE was soap opera on steroids. MMA was televised violence that often left competitors in hospital. It got bigger and bigger, and wrestling lost its relevance. Some of the WWE’s biggest stars crossed over to MMA. ‘Real’ had a firm grip on the championship belt.

Socialism at the smackdown

It’s no secret the WWF/WWE has always been a dictatorship. Nothing is approved for live events or TV broadcasts without the express permission of the chairman, Vince McMahon. He and his family run the show behind the scenes, and have all “gotten over” — industry slang for being given airtime and heavily marketed — on screen, time and time again.

“His stories constantly revolve around authority figures having more power than wrestlers, with the McMahons and the WWE brand itself being framed as the real stars of the show,” Todd Martin wrote in the LA Times in October last year.

“McMahon makes up his mind on wrestlers, undermining wrestlers fans react well to but that he doesn’t like as much while going strong with wrestlers fans reject. And wrestlers up and down the cards are put in comedy sketches built around McMahon’s unique and often childish sense of humor.”

But new leagues like All Elite Wrestling (AEW) — which is proving to be the first real threat to WWE market share since the early 2000s — pride themselves on giving creative control back to the wrestlers. In 2019, AEW signed a cable TV deal with TNT.

Jon Moxley, one of AEW’s breakout stars who had an eight-year career at the top of the WWE talent pool, left McMahon’s stable after becoming fed up with the things he was being forced to do on TV — like getting fake vaccinations for rabies before a match, or making fun of a fellow wrestler’s real-life cancer battle as part of a promo video.

“The first time I sat down to talk with them, it was like, ‘Okay, this is what I want to do. Does that match up with your goals and what you’re gonna do?’ and it does. So, we’re off to the races,” he told Fightful at the end of January.

“I pop up awake in the middle of the night going “Oooh!” with ideas and stuff, and I like to just go to the ring sometimes with no ideas and just see what happens on the fly… every day is a fucking vacation.”

Suplexing the glass ceiling

When Hulk Hogan held the WWF championship belt during the late 80s, women in the industry were relegated to being love interests and ‘valets’ who’d carry the blokes’ belts to the ring. During the sexed-up Attitude Era, females had a bigger part to play, but their representation was just as misogynist — if not more.

Female performers during this period were marketed as ‘divas’, mostly used as props to enhance the male wrestlers’ masculinity, and often competing in ‘lingerie’ and ‘bikini’ matches where clothes were designed to come off.

Thankfully, things have changed. Female wrestlers have literally fought for equal representation for years. And it’s working. GLOW, the 2017 Netflix series based on the 1980s wrestling league of the same name is a huge hit. While Shimmer Women Athletes — a female-only league founded in 2005 — has seen several of it’s stars go on to much, much bigger things.

Take Becky Lynch as an example. Born Rebecca Quin in Limerick, Ireland the year Hogan took on The Giant at Wrestlmania, Lynch spent much of her teens and young adult life working towards a career as a professional wrestler. After nearly a decade in indie leagues in the UK and US, Lynch got a spot with the WWE’s development network, NXT.

Becoming part of a group of equally tough-as-nails female wrestling that included Charlotte Flair (daughter of 80s legend ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair), Lynch spearheaded the rise of women in wrestling — from the minor leagues to a headline victory against former MMA fighter Rhonda Rousey at 2019’s Wrestlemania 34.

“We’ve been constantly breaking through glass ceilings. We’ve been burning down the house, building up new ones, tearing them down … building up a whole new planet,” she told Sports Illustrated in January.

“Now the possibilities are endless.”

Treating fans like tag partners, not cash cows

Wrestling is like Santa Claus. It’s a collective hallucination that makes life way more fun if you close your eyes a little, open your mind a lot, and just roll with the fact that in some bizarro universe it’s totally not fake.

The big leagues, like WWE, call their die hard fans “marks” — the same term con artists and hustlers call their victims. And it’s long been a case of ‘you’ll watch whatever we broadcast, and you’ll like it.’

But more and more, independent leagues and breakout promotions are letting fans have a say in the direction that characters and plotlines take — listening in to the discussions on popular wrestling forums like Reddit’s SquaredCircle.

“Last week, I put out a statement on my social media channel saying ‘Give me the feedback’. If anyone can take it, I can take it. The good, the bad, the why, everything,” AEW Wrestler and Vice President Cody Rhodes told IHeartRadio in October.

“I want to know because we’re not going to pretend we have all the answers. I got a great education for wrestling and I’m excited about these shows we have ready, but I’m ready to hear what the people think too.”

And they’re making changes, and dropping references to show that Rhodes isn’t all talk, either. In a recent match, Jon Moxley had his eye gouged by another wrestler (not really, of course) and has been wearing an eye patch in the ring since.

Online fans noticed the resemblance between the wrestler and another eyepatched character — paramilitary leader Big Boss from the video game franchise Metal Gear — and started making memes of the two side by side.

Cue Moxley’s entrance during the February 5 episode of AEW. He’s striding to the ring like he owns the place, dressed in military fatigues. “It’s Big Boss Moxley,” the commentator says, while half-a-million SquaredCircle subscribers struggle to decide between cheering and laughing.

Two women compete in a wrestling match
Photo: Digital Beard, Melbourne City Wrestling

Shouting real talk off the top rope

In 2020, it seems to be perfectly acceptable to be fake. Just like wrestling’s always been. Fake news. Botnets. Deepfaked films. Filtered images that show cartoon versions of ourselves.

There’s a chance that’s why the cheers and jeers and beers of the rag-tag crowd could be heard from the street, when we headed to a heritage-listed theatre in Melbourne’s inner north — to witness Melbourne City Wrestling’s recent Clash of the Titans event.

After the action was over, MCW co-owner and promoter Michael Jozis told us that — since he started hosting MCW events at a Chinese restaurant near their airport a decade ago — the wrestling game has changed from targeting families with colourful production to holding a mirror up to society.

“There is outrage culture, and people can come and let off steam at a wrestling event,” he says.

“Then, you’ve got wrestlers who are kind of giving it back to them, making them believe what they are saying and telling them ‘no, you’re wrong’. You can get people to question what they are looking at.”

And if the audience isn’t reacting, Jozis reckons he’s not doing his job properly.

At Clash of the Titans, a wrestler known as Avary beat Steph De Lander for the Womens’ Championship. Jozis says her story represents a lot of people who have been maligned. He would know, he’s the promoter.

“She kind of tells people be whatever you want to be, go out and do whatever the fuck you want and she is kind of the embodiment of that in how she carries herself,” Jozis says.

“And I think people can look at that and respect it and get behind it.”

– Dan Michael Jones and Dave Rood