Beyond all the smack talk and pyrotechnics, professional wrestling has always been fertile ground for storytelling. In the early 1970s when I first became a fan, matches still contained quite a bit of performance art. The wrestlers knew how the matches needed to end, but it was up to them how to get there. They adapted what they were doing in the ring based on the crowd reaction. As the industry evolved, the influence of television forced a reduction in the amount of in-ring spontaneity.
For much of the first decade of the 2000’s, I worked on the fringe of the wrestling industry. I was a partner in a video production company that served corporate clients as well as doing some projects of our own. Our biggest project was producing and marketing a documentary about pro wrestling in the midwest from the 1950’s through the end of the 1980’s.
We were fortunate enough to work with a group of wrestlers and announcers from that era that included Harley Race. Race is a member of several pro wrestling halls of fame, who also became involved in ownership of the territorial wrestling promotions in both Kansas City and St. Louis. Our production company established and operated harleyrace.com as Race’s official website and to serve as our platform to market our documentary online. I acted as webmaster for the site until we closed down our company and turned the site over to Harley Race.
As you can imagine, I watched a lot of wrestling during that time. I was surprised to find that in spite of all the changes that occurred from the 1950’s up to the 2000’s that the storytelling aspect of wrestling had changed very little. Most of the motivations behind the story lines could fit neatly into just a few general categories. Below are the groupings I came up with.
1. Jealousy. Pretty simple, right? Somebody has something, somebody else wants it. It could be money, a title belt, prestige, a woman, a car or any of several other things. I’d estimate that the jealousy motive accounts for well over half of all wrestling story lines.
2. Revenge. Somebody did something to somebody else. The person who was wronged wants retribution. Many times the original conflict began because of jealousy but as things begin to escalate, revenge becomes the driving motive.
3. Insanity. I would also lump Evil into this category. Someone comes along to wreak havoc who is beyond reason, either because they are supposed to be truly crazy or because they are so evil that they don’t care what they have to do to get what they want.
4. Defense against external aggression. After World War II and well into the 1970’s, many of the heel characters (bad guys) were Germans, Japanese or Russians. Patriotic heroes would stand their ground and defend their country. In the early 1980’s after the Iran hostage crisis, Middle Eastern heels like the Iron Sheik began to appear as well. I would lump promotional takeover story lines (i.e. the NWO invasion) into this category as well.
5. Stick it to the man. The best example of this would be the story line in the late 1990’s that saw Stone Cold Steve Austin stand against his employer Vince McMahon and all the resources the WWE owner mustered against him. In the real world, CEOs were just beginning to be seen as villains and regular Joes across the country were able to live out their fantasies week after week as Stone Cold got the best of his boss. It was a very successful story motivation that is still used pretty often today.
That’s my list. I think these broad categories probably account for over 99% of all wrestling story lines. If there’s anything I missed, feel free to comment.