My last article that focused on professional wrestling explained the similarities between that genre and comic books. My primary reason for doing so is that comic book superheroes have become a mainstream, “acceptable” form of entertainment in the last fifteen years. Costumed superheroes are more popular than ever and most people are familiar with the basic tropes and character archetypes they will be seeing when they pick up a comic book or go to the theater to see a superhero movie. This means that I can use the language of comic books to explain the language of professional wrestling for someone who has never watched a professional wrestling match.
I discussed how wrestling is based on the idea of heroes going up against villains. It’s not just a war of punches and throws and stretch holds; it’s a bigger story about conflicting values and ethics. Today I want to take a look at the various kinds of wrestling heroes and how they compare to some common comic book tropes.
The Juggernaut: The Unstoppable Champion of Good
Okay, so in comics the term “Juggernaut” is generally associated with the X-Men character Cain Marko, who is usually a villain. But I like to use the term as shorthand for heroic characters blessed with great strength and resiliency, a champion of good who is able to stop the forces of evil that are too strong for normal men to defeat. I’m talking mythical heroes like Hercules and Achilles and Gilgamesh, and of course the Norse god Thor and his comic book interpretation. Other comic book heroes that fit into this archetype include Superman, Shazam and Colossus from the X-Men.
This has been a very common trope in wrestling, particularly in the WWE. Back in the days when the promotion was called the World Wide Wrestling Federation in the 1960’s and ’70’s their most popular star was Italian strongman Bruno Sammartino, who held the promotions World Championship for the better part of twelve years and was rarely ever defeated. When the promotion began it’s national expansion it was with Hulk Hogan as the face of the company, who was probably the closest thing to a real life superhero we’ve ever seen. The idea of this type of character is to show that the forces of good are stronger than the forces of evil and to provide an idealized hero that children and adults can aspire to be more like.
The formula even proved successful in World Championship Wrestling, who were able to create top stars like Lex Luger and Sting in an effort to appeal to that segment of the audience. And for the last ten years the WWE has stuck to their guns by promoting John Cena as the kid-friendly invincible superhero that always triumphs over the bad guys. The usage of this trope is probably the strongest connecting link between comic books and professional wrestling. It’s also an important aspect of the genre because seeing these wrestlers absorb more punishment than seems possible only to overcome and wow the audience with incredible feats of strength is a way to quickly understand the fictional nature of wrestling. When someone is able to recognize the themes of classic fiction they are able to appreciate wrestling for what it is.
Of course, these supermen aren’t always the most compelling characters for many fans. While Superman and Hulk Hogan have inspired many with their squeaky clean boyscout personas, they fall flat for others who wish for characters to be flawed and vulnerable. And much like how comic books wouldn’t be successful if they only used one type of story, wrestling has another major archetypal hero that I want to discuss.
The Underdog: The Hero Who Never Quits
Fans of Marvel’s Daredevil have quickly learned that not every Marvel comic book character is gifted with immense strength and the ability to shrug off bodily harm. One of the main reasons the show stands out is that Matt Murdock takes numerous severe beatings, feels pain and loses a fight or two. But he never quits. He licks his wounds and gets back up again, now a little smarter and a little tougher. This vulnerability helps to create an emotional bond between the character and the viewer by channeling our empathy. We identify with his suffering and wish to see him overcome and persevere.
There are many who would argue that this is the only way to make a compelling hero, and while I don’t fully agree with that, it is certainly the easiest way to make a character sympathetic. It also helps to emphasize a character’s other strengths beyond simple physical strength; intelligence, resourcefulness and the ability to overcome adversity. It’s easy to see examples of this in other media: Homer’s Odysseus, the Arabian legend Aladdin, super sleuth Sherlock Holmes, and even modern literature heroes like Harry Potter. These are people who aren’t blessed with any extraordinary physical gifts but their conviction and ability to endure suffering makes them heroes. Comic book examples include Daredevil, Captain America and Batman among others.
In professional wrestling, the vast majority of “babyfaces” (the good guys) who are not the top face of a promotion fit into this trope. The 1980’s had heroes like Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat who had his throat crushed when “Macho Man” Randy Savage attacked him with a steel ring bell, but came back from injury to get his vengeance. Villains would work crowds when they wrestled popular team The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, ruthlessly beating Ricky Morton for minutes at a time before Morton was able to tag his partner Robert Gibson into the match. The 1990’s saw smaller underdog heroes like Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels assume the role that Hulk Hogan had dominated for over a decade.
Today’s wrestling scene is perhaps the golden age for the underdog hero. After roughly thirty years of seeing the top stars be unstoppable juggernauts, many fans prefer to see smaller wrestlers as WWE Champion. The most universally cheered wrestler is Daniel Bryan, pictured above. Shorter than six feet and weighing less than two hundred pounds, Bryan is a small man in a business where giants have had the most success. But because of Bryan’s athleticism, intelligence, intensity and refusal to stay down, he is a larger than life star embraced by the audience. We empathize with him; our hearts sink when he fails and we leap for joy at his successes.
And this is why professional wrestling should not be looked down upon or considered less than other forms of entertainment. The heroes in wrestling have the same ability to connect with an audience and make them relate to what they are going through and cheer for them. Professional wrestling is not a sport; it is art.