Professional Wrestling’s Inside Joke

On Wednesday October 12, Hulk Hogan visited ESPN. He made the rounds: an interview on SportsCenter, fielding questions in a SportsNation chat, and an appearance on The Herd with Colin Cowherd. His spot on The Michelle Beadle podcast was the most revealing and got me thinking about the general perception of professional wrestling.

Hogan caught me off guard with his honesty and candor. On SportsCenter and on Beadle’s show, the Hulkster was open about the last few years of his life being difficult. What struck me was how he elaborated on that difficulty. I’ve grown accustomed to actors and professional athletes giving the canned, rehearsed responses that go far enough to stop the questioning, but don’t really provide any insight.

Hogan was one of the most gracious guests I’ve ever seen or heard on ESPN programming. He joked about his age, his thinning hair, his remaining wrestling ability, and was forthcoming about rumors and accusations made about him. The fact that he can still go from zero to “Hulk mode” in half a second on command will never cease to be entertaining.

It seems that ESPN has extended the olive branch toward professional wrestling as of late. In years past, wrestling was largely dismissed, and its only place on the network was in the form of a throw-away line from a pop culture friendly SportsCenter anchor. Things have changed recently. In August, Michelle Beadle hosted an all-WWE Summerslam podcast, with Robert Flores and other journalists taking part in a round-table WWE discussion. This was ESPN employees talking about just pro wrestling on ESPN programming, something I had never seen or heard.

A good one to have on our side

ESPN’s Bill Simmons launched a few months ago, and as a sports/pop culture website, Simmons wanted to offer pro wrestling-related content. I had the chance to interview David Shoemaker (AKA The Masked Man), the writer Simmons hired to be Grantland’s resident wrestling authority. We spoke a little bit about how the public’s perception of wrestling had evolved. You can check out the full interview podcast here.

With mainstream appreciation of professional wrestling at an all-time high, Hogan’s appearance at ESPN was well-timed. He was promoting his upcoming match with Sting at TNA’s Bound for Glory Pay-Per-View. While Hogan did not carry on entire conversations and interviews as the “hulked-up” version of Hulk Hogan, he did stay in character, which was what made me finally realize something.

How many times have you heard an exchange similar to this one:

“I love wrestling.”

What? You do? I didn’t know you were a fan of professional wrestling!”

“Absolutely, I’ve loved it since I was a kid!”

You know it’s fake, right?

Being a wrestling fan for 30 years, I (like many) have come up with a plethora of sarcastic responses to that question. (“NO way! It is?”) That’s because the question is ridiculous to us. Of course we know it’s fake. But Hogan made a great point on Michelle Beadle’s show – he said that it depends on how we define ‘fake’. Yes, the outcomes are predetermined, but the physicality, the moves, and the injuries are very real, and he has the scars to prove it.

Here’s where it gets tricky: So here is Hulk Hogan, moments after hyping his match with Sting at Bound for Glory, expounding on all of the stipulations, explaining to us that if he loses he has to quit the company. He’s staying “in character” the whole time, appearing as Hulk Hogan, not Terry Bollea. But that means it’s Hulk Hogan copping to the outcomes being predetermined. Hulk Hogan explains his beef with Sting, but then tells us that they already know who’s going to win and how its going to go down. As the lines of work and shoot, real and kayfabe continue to blur, life-long wrestling fans seem to be able to navigate these waters, but this is where we lose the general public. Non-fans just can’t grasp this nuance that is unique to professional wrestling.

Here is an example to illustrate the point:

Jim Parsons appears on Conan O’Brien to promote his show, The Big Bang Theory. Parsons appears as himself, and answers questions as Jim Parsons. When he discusses the show, he refers to his character, Sheldon Cooper, as a fictional character that he portrays. If he is asked about a storyline, he replies with things like “Sheldon enjoys time with his colleagues, but his work as a theoretical physicist is his true passion.” Seems like a standard late-night talk show circuit appearance, correct?

Now imagine this scenario:

Jim Parsons appears on Conan O’Brien to promote his show, The Big Bang Theory. Parsons is wearing a Green Lantern t-shirt, which causes us viewers to think “Oh, hey look – Jim Parsons is a geek in real life like his character on the show is. How cool.” But just wait. When Conan asks the same questions about the show, Parsons responds with “I enjoy time with my colleagues: Leonard, Penny, Howard & Raj, but my passion is theoretical physics.” WTF? Is Jim Parsons crazy? Does he think he is Sheldon Cooper? Is he confused about the format of this show? Why is he doing that? It’s freaking me out!

This is what separates pro wrestling from any other type of performance acting. They always appear in character. Unless you catch CM Punk at a Denny’s at 3AM, you’re only ever going to see him as CM Punk. He’s not going to go on a talk show as Phil Brooks and discuss his long friendship with the guy he’s defending his title against next Sunday. He’ll openly admit the fact that it’s all a performance with no true winner or loser, but he’ll always be that character, even outside of the context of the storyline.

"What are you gonna order, Rey? I'm gonna crush some Moons Over My Hammy."

The fact that wrestlers always appear as their character is what makes non-fans think we fans are not in on the joke. Since they always appear in character, it suggests that we are to believe that they don’t have a real name, and what we see them going through on shows like TNA Impact and WWE Smackdown is what is really going on in their lives.

Pro wrestling is the only industry in which the performers become the character. Hulk Hogan was the star of a REALITY show named “Hogan Knows Best”. HOGAN knows best, not Bollea knows best. A reality show. Before you crush me in the comments, I know he has legally changed his name to Terry “Hulk” Hogan or whatever is on his driver’s license, I’m just making a point – he is always The Hulkster.

Are wrestlers afraid they will lose their credibility as performers if they reveal their real names and personalities? Are they forbidden to appear as themselves? If they did, would CM Punk’s “pipe bomb” moments where he uses wrestler’s real names in his on-air promos be less effective?

Why can’t Phil Brooks appear on Conan O’Brien? And if somebody asks, ‘who is that guy?”, we’d respond, “oh, he plays CM Punk on WWE Raw.” On second thought, part of me enjoys being in on a joke that not everybody gets.

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