why do grown men watch wrestling

My first memory of pro-wrestling was watching it on TV with my Dad, as Hulk Hogan slammed André the Giant at Wrestlemania III. My Dad has reminded me many times over the years how into it I was at the time. It was something he enjoyed as well, so, pro-wrestling provided us a common interest—something we could engage in together. From that very young age, I watch wrestling every week—up until I was about 15, when more mainstream sports, music, and girls became my primary focus of attention. For about 20 years, I didn’t think much about wrestling, though when I did, it was with a fond nostalgia. Then, COVID-19 hit.

Coping With Pandemic Lockdown

Apart from actually contracting the virus, there were many negative effects of COVID-19, including mental well-being concerns associated with various lockdown protocols. I know people who coped in a wide variety of ways—some adaptive and some maladaptive. I surprised myself by finding comfort in engaging nostalgic activities I enjoyed as a kid—watching wrestling being one of them.

Sure, pro-wrestling has predetermined outcomes, but it’s definitely not fake. I’ve seen men get injured, break their necks, become paralysed, and even lose their lives in the ring. What professional wrestlers put their bodies through is astounding, and, perhaps, that is part of the allure. OK, it’s not fake, but if it’s a fictionalised account of a combat sport, why not just watch the real thing, like boxing or MMA? In fairness, I enjoy both of those, but, for me, there’s something lacking in both. When I think of pro-wrestling—particularly in comparison with other sports, the word “pageantry” immediately comes to mind. So, I considered it further.

It was during lockdown, less than a year ago, that I saw Jordan Peterson (discussed on this blog from time to time) suggest that pro-wrestling’s popularity may be down to it simply being a drama, such as one “for people who did not want to go to movies.” There is certainly truth in this perspective. Wrestling is full of storylines that are designed to get their good guy (i.e., the face) “over with the fans” and generate “heat” for their bad guys (i.e., heels). In a way, pro-wrestling creates a kind of “super-masculine soap opera.” Yes, men like drama, too (whether or not some of them will admit to it), and this is also apparent even in unscripted, “real” sports.

For example, the BBC’s weekly Match of the Day provides a rundown of that week’s soccer highlights. But, in addition to action from the matches, they present interviews, analysis, and discussion of what manager will get sacked next, what teams will get relegated, and which will get promoted. In a way, it’s much like gossip, and attempts are made to increase the drama and, likewise, the excitement associated with it. Peterson goes a step further to present wrestling as a kind of mythological drama, wherein good (i.e., the face) battles evil (i.e., the heel).

Jungian Archetypes

Travis Langley, who also writes a blog for Psychology Today, has a similar take on the fascination with pro-wrestling. Based on his review of a very limited pool of psychology-based research (e.g., Newman, 1993; Polizzi, 1989), Langley likewise accounts for the athleticism, the theatricality, and the dramatic storytelling. He considers the storytelling aspect from a psychoanalytic perspective. Now, as many readers of this blog know, I often take psychoanalytic perspectives with a pinch of salt, in light of the extant evidence base; however, I think it would be remiss to not consider Jungian archetypes in considering many of the “gimmicks” used to either get “over” or “heat” for the heroes and villains, respectively. For example, consider Doink the Clown (i.e., the Joker), “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels (i.e., the Lover), The Warlord (i.e., the Ruler), “Cactus Jack” Mick Foley (i.e., the Outlaw), Dusty Rhodes (i.e., the Everyman), not to mention Hulk Hogan or Bret Hart (i.e., the Hero).

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