Last Friday night, my partner and I embarked on a rare excursion outside of our inner west bubble. After boarding an uncharacteristically punctual westbound train, we travelled to Olympic Park via Lidcombe. Arriving at Allphones Arena, we showed our tickets and weaved through the popcorn-gobbling, coke-swilling crowd to find our seats. Then we settled in to watch a bunch of ridiculously large men and muscular women pummel each other as part of the Sydney WWE Live show.
Yes, WWE as in World Wrestling Entertainment. Yes, that is the one where people hit each other with chairs. Yes, I know that it’s fake. Yes, I can explain.
I work as a captioner for live TV, providing subtitles for programs that cannot be pre-captioned, such as live news or sport. While some captioners rapidly tap out text on a phonetic keyboard known as a stenotype, the majority of TV captioners these days are ‘respeakers’. As we watch a live program, we repeat everything that is said into a microphone, as close to verbatim as possible, and speech-recognition software turns it into text.
When I caption a sport with lots of distinctive names and events – for instance, the WWE, which I caption at least once a week – it’s necessary to learn the vocabulary of that sport, or else unique names, phrases and events will not be accurately converted from speech to text. So when working with WWE, I watch it, I repeat everything they say – adding punctuation, which in WWE is usually just exclamation marks – and I have to know all the characters and their backgrounds so I can follow the show properly.
In short, I am literally paid to not only watch the WWE, but also to know everything about the WWE. That’s how I ended up in Allphones Arena last Friday night. And it’s also why I was disappointed with the live show that I saw there.
You see, it’s not until I started to watch the WWE on something of a regular basis that I discovered the true appeal of the show. Most outsiders condemn it as stupidly violent, operating under the misconception that the appeal to the masses lies merely in the hundreds of fake punches, tackles and head slams that occur every show.
But they’re wrong. Any regular watcher of the WWE knows the true genius of the show lies not in the ridiculous fake fights, but in the behind-the-scenes drama that is constantly brewing between Superstars (male wrestlers), Divas (female wrestlers) and The Authority (Wrestler Triple H and his wife Stephanie McMahon, the faux owners of the WWE). The WWE bills itself as a clash of strength, but in reality, it is a clash of personalities, a series of dramatic interactions that rivals the most lurid of Big Brother Up Late episodes (minus the sex).
For instance, one of the most closely followed storylines of 2014 was the ascension of the bearded Daniel Bryan to the title of WWE World Heavyweight Champion. Although The Authority attempted to manipulate Bryan’s matches to exclude him from the title, Bryan started the WWE “Yes!” movement, got the fans behind him, and, in David and Goliath fashion, stuck it to the man. But Bryan paid a price for his success – he came down with a shoulder injury, Stephanie McMahon threatened to sack his Diva wife Brie Bella, and then, as part of their ongoing feud, Bryan was revealed to be having an affair shortly after he was stripped of the title.
The ascension of cultish creep Bray Wyatt is another fascinating storyline, with his delusional ravings and masked cronies much more interesting than his fighting techniques. The WWE knows it, too – every time Wyatt appears to fight, the lights are blacked out and he enters, flanked by his followers, complete with creepy music and lantern – a process that usually takes longer than his fights do. Wyatt’s strange breed of nihilism has gained him more fans than his infamous wrestling move ‘Sister Abigail’ could ever do.
The WWE engages in a strange type of political commentary too, harking back to the tensions of the Cold War whenever Russian fighter Alexander Rusev comes to the ring. In particular, a recent fight between Rusev and Jack Swagger – part of a tag-team dubbed ‘The Real Americans’ – seemed much less about their relative strength and more about the type of American nationalism displayed circa the McCarthy era.
All of these characters are more defined by their storyline than by their fighting style. Yes, everything is fake – the fighting, the feuds, the whole thing. But the WWE is an entertainment program, and the stars do a damn good job of entertaining as actors and athletes alike. The genuine physical prowess of WWE Superstars and Divas should not be ignored either – for instance, the phenomenally square-headed Brock Lesnar is a former UFC Heavyweight Champion, and has a college wrestling career record of 106 wins to five losses.
The live show was disappointing because it contained far too few of these character storylines, and far too many men pretending to punch each other. When watching the WWE on TV, it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the plot. But when you’re in the second-to-last row of Allphones Arena, squinting to see wrestlers going at it, it all seems a little small, a little stupid.
Although the tendency of WWE stars to hit each other with chairs is reasonably indefensible – though I will point out this only occurs in certain matches – the WWE contains all the hallmarks of a great show. Bizarre feuds, over-the-top characters, stupid struggles for power, aggressive confrontations, questionable decisions, car park ambushes, shocking affairs, projectile vomiting, celebrity cameos – it’s all there. The fighting might be all non-fans know about, but real fans know it’s beside the point.
Illustration: Samuel McEwen.