What Professional Wrestling Is
At its simplest, professional wrestling is a scripted direct physical competition between two or more competitors. A match begins with the ringing of a bell and ends when a certain winning condition is met, most frequently a pinfall or a submission, though a wide variety of gimmick matches exist. This definition may seem unsatisfyingly vague, but the fact is that professional wrestling encompasses a wide variety of spectacles, from matches that look like little more than a public bloodletting to high-flying matches that seem more like a gymnastics competition than wrestling.
Historically, professional wrestling has taken its cues for what a match should look like from amateur wrestling, and some of that style can still be seen in more technical wrestlers such as Chris Benoit and Kurt Angle. However, professional wrestling has, as any observer can see, grown to display a style very different from amateur wrestling. Moves such as the piledriver, powerbomb and atomic drop, though popular in Cantonese cuisine, are not often to be found in amateur wrestling. Similarly, the striking moves used in professional wrestling such as punches, kicks, the knife edge chop and the clothesline are illegal in amateur wrestling.
In recent years (from 1980 onward), the content of wrestling shows has changed and gone in two very different directions. On the one hand, you have "sports entertainment", Vince McMahon's vision of a stronger emphasis on storylines, acting, and character development, with diminished time in the ring. On the other, you have the attempt to make the in-ring product more entertaining, such as the innovative high flying and fast pace of Tiger Mask, Dynamite Kid, Jushin Liger, Rey Misterio, Jr. and Chris Benoit, or the gory brutality of the Japanese death match, popularized by Atsushi Onita, Terry Funk, and Mick Foley. In recent year, McMahon's style in the WWE has drifted away from the "crash tv" concept used in the late 1990's, which saw racier, more adult-oriented angles and ultra-short, over-booked matches populating the show. Ironically, with what seems to be a dry spell of creativity in the booking of the WWE of late, the good wrestlers have been given more time in which to work, and matches have been better as a result.
A Brief History of Professional Wrestling
Professional wrestling as we know it today started out on the carnival circuit over a hundred years ago. While production value has gone up considerably, it's remarkable how much of the carny mentality still permeates the business. A number of terms used behind the scenes are directly descended from carny terminology, such as kayfabe, work, shoot, angle and mark. Even in this day and age where the secret is out and wrestlers aren't required to kayfabe when outside the ring, many people inside the wrestling business think in terms of working an angle on others, whether those people are the fans or other wrestlers.
Wrestling contests at carnivals first showed up in the post-Civil War period, brought over by Irish and German immigrants. The carnivals would usually have a few wrestlers who would wrestle each other or issue open challenges for money. Generally, these matches had a 15 minute time limit, and the challenger could win either by pinning the star or by simply lasting the whole time limit. Avoiding the pinfall was generally an easy task for any accomplished wrestler, but there was a possibility of a particularly wily or tough local being able to survive for 15 minutes. Usually, the wrestler would have some unusual hold, illegal in competition, to neutralize the local, but the carnival workers were not above simpler kinds of treachery: sometimes the wrestler would maneuver the local near the curtain at the back of the ring and a carnival worker would whack him on the head with a 2 by 4 or a baseball bat.
Throughout the 1890's and into the 1900's, wrestling waxed in popularity, up to the point in 1908 when Frank Gotch, pioneer and expert at "catch-as-catch-can" wrestling, faced "The Russian Lion", George Hackenschmidt, to determine the world's champion. Hackenschmidt, with his incredible physique and powerful upper body, was strongly favored to win. Prior to that bout, he had been undefeated and won most of his matches in 10 minutes or less. Imagine his surprise, as well as that of the audience, when the match had lasted over 2 hours without a single fall. After 2 hours and 3 minutes, Hackenschmidt submitted to Gotch's famous toehold, and during the break between falls forfeited the match. Stories vary as to the hows and whys, with many people, including Hackenschmidt himself, claiming that Gotch was fighting dirty, oiling up his body to evade Hackenschmidt's grasp and using illegal tactics. Most sources conflict on this, with few of them having any more significant evidence than any others. If it was indeed a competition, and not a work, I think it most plausible that both competitors were a little rough with each other, but that neither of them violated the rules any more egregiously than the other.
Gotch and Hackenschmidt had a rematch on September 4, 1911, three years after their original bout. The match was heavily promoted, but as the date drew nearer, Hackenschmidt reported having troubles with his knee, which had bothered him previously in his career. According to reports that came out many years after the match took place, Hackenschmidt approached the event organizers about calling off the bout, but they feared the backlash if they cancelled the event. As a result, they got Gotch and Hackenschmidt to agree to work the match, with Gotch letting Hackenschmidt win one of the three falls to save face, but winning the match. During the actual match, however, Gotch supposedly doublecrossed Hackenschmidt, winning the match in two straight falls. Gotch held onto the title until the day he retired, two years later. Hackenschmidt never wrestled again.
Pro wrestling hit a dry spell in the 1910's, partially due to bad press over Gotch's wins. Things picked up once the 1920's came around, however, with the rise to power of Ed "Strangler" Lewis. Lewis used the devastating (at the time) headlock, and his mean look and his intensely contested feud with Joe Stecher helped enhance his popularity. Though his appearance and skills got him to the table, it was his alliance with Toots Mondt (future father of the WWF) and Billy Sandow that cemented his place in wrestling history. They were known as The Gold Dust Trio, and they controlled the two dominant organizations at the time. It was the Trio's work, booked primarily by Toots Mondt, that really began to see the potential of worked matches, focusing on the finish as an important part of the match. It's important to understand, though, that at this time wrestling was still seen as legitimate. Ed Lewis was viewed as the premier star of wrestling in the same way that Babe Ruth, Red Grange, and Jack Dempsey were perceived as the stars of baseball, football, and boxing.
While the 1920's were a very profitable time for the Gold Dust Trio and the wrestling business, the Great Depression hit wrestling hard, as entertainment was one of the first expenses families would cut out with their limited budgets. Professional wrestling's downturn continued up through World War II, not long after which the National Wrestling Alliance was formed.
For further history from that time up to more present days, consult the fine writeups at the WWF, NWA, WCW, and puroresu nodes. I also recommend consulting the URLs I list at the bottom of the page, as this really was an overview of wrestling's history, and by no means complete.
Why Professional Wrestling Matters
I must admit, this is extremely difficult to write. Being a professional wrestling fan can make one awfully defensive, particularly in a relatively intellectual forum. I've written and deleted about three or four different approaches in my scratchpad; all of them ended up being bitter rants, and I don't want you to think that the good in pro wrestling is defined by exclusion of the bad. There's something actively good here, the kind of fundamental goodness that you can look at, hold up, and say, "Dammit, this is what it is to be human." The kind of goodness that makes culture.
There's a lot of creativity and innovation to be had in wrestling, but the best professional wrestling is a reflection of the society in which it occurs, a representation of the moral compass of the local culture and a larger than life exposition of their world view. Sometimes that world view is one where the bad guy accosts the good guy, challenges him, and subsequently loses, such as in the WWF in the 1980's with Hulk Hogan. Other times, that world view is one where the good guy is someone who gets beaten down repeatedly by the bad guy and only gets a win in the end, such as in ECW with Tommy Dreamer or in Memphis with Jerry Lawler. Still other times (more interesting times, if you ask me), the fans are still working out for themselves how they feel.
Take, for example, the feud pitting Ric Flair against Ricky Steamboat in the NWA in 1989. Steamboat was a family man, the archetypical face. Ric Flair was, well, Ric Flair: kiss stealin', wheelin', dealin', jet-flyin', limousine ridin', stylin' and profilin' son of a gun. The story here was that Steamboat defeated Flair for the title at Chi-Town Rumble, and faced Flair in a two out of three falls rematch at Clash of the Champions VI. However, the real story and conflict here is not between the wrestlers, but is internal to the crowd. Each man sitting in that audience had the same dilemma: root for the staid, responsible, and ultimately good Ricky Steamboat, or the morally-questionable womanizer Ric Flair, whose talent was matched only by his willingness to cut a corner or bend a rule to win. Ricky Steamboat was the man the fans knew they should be: the family man who does right by his fellow man. But Ric Flair was the man they wanted to be, the glamourous playboy strutting down the aisle surrounded by beautiful women, restrained by no one. The women had no less difficult a decision. Ricky Steamboat was a good guy, a man who deeply loved his wife and took care of her and their children. But Ric Flair was the bad boy, the strong, handsome rebel who did what he pleased, the kind of man that these women had fantasized about ever since they first saw a Camaro. While Flair and Steamboat were putting on what is possibly the greatest professional wrestling match ever in that ring, an equally profound battle was taking place in the hearts and minds of all in attendance.
That match ended in a tie, and Flair and Steamboat went on to have yet another rematch at WrestleWar '89, which Flair won, which was what the fans really wanted. They wanted Flair, because he was their aspirations, their cliche'd hopes and dreams; he was their diary entry that hubby wasn't allowed to see; or he was their private fantasy that they thought about every time they readied that quarter on their scratch-off lottery ticket. Personally, I feel sorry for Ricky Steamboat. He didn't do anything wrong. In fact, he did everything right. But in a society where it's better to burn out than to fade away, and in a society where the most sought-after freedom is to be as free as a bird, responsibility and maturity always come in second.
The Sandow Museum: George Hackenschmidt. http://www.sandowmuseum.com/page28.html
This Day in History: 9-4-11, Hackenschmidt vs Gotch II *detailed description of events*. http://www.neowrestling.com/posts/33.shtml
The History of Pro Wrestling. http://www.angelfire.com/hi/homeofwrestling/pwhistory.html
Neo Wrestling Presents: Ed Lewis. http://www.neowrestling.com/bios/edlewis.shtml
The WAWLI Papers. http://www.twc-online.com/wawli