Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: the WWE.
Professional wrestling and the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) occupy a strange space in our culture. Its flagship show, Monday Night Raw, is a ratings juggernaut every week, yet isn’t covered at pop culture websites the way a series like The Big Bang Theory is. Wrestling is often touted as a spectacle for children, yet the demographic of the WWE audience is huge; as the company’s corporate profile boasts, its TV shows reach 15 million weekly viewers in the United States. Wrestling is at once a form of low art, crafting stories in broad strokes with little nuance, and a complex morality tale that muses on many themes tackled by TVs best dramas: family, love, honesty, trust, betrayal, friendship. It’s sport, it’s entertainment, it’s business. And it’s a lot of fun.
Professional wrestling (the staged, performative type) has its roots in the carnival circuit, where amateur athletes competed in “fixed” matches. Since then, the sport has gone through many changes and historical “eras” that have altered the way wrestling shows operate and how the public views them. There was the “Territory Era” that ran from the ’50s until the early ’80s and consisted of numerous wrestling “promotions” (the word for wrestling companies such as the WWF and the NWA) operating locally. This era predated nationwide televised wrestling, so each territory had its own set of stars and its own set of championship belts.
The “Golden Era” represented a seismic shift in terms of wrestling invading the public consciousness. This era refers to the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the relative ubiquity of television allowed the WWE (then the WWF) and other wrestling companies to expand their operations through national broadcasts. Suddenly, fans didn’t have to go to a gym or community center to see local stars; Hulk Hogan was on television screens all across America. TV catapulted the popularity of wrestling, which WWE owner Vince McMahon would come to label as “sports entertainment,” making national and international cultural stars out of Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, the “Macho Man” Randy Savage, and the Ultimate Warrior. Then, in the late ’90s and early ’00s, there was the “Attitude Era,” one of the WWE’s most commercially successful periods. The name came from the more violent and sexually explicit content of the shows, and christened a new generation of stars such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Stone Cold Steve Austin, and even made a television star out of McMahon himself.
Currently, the WWE is in what’s often referred to as the “Reality Era,” coined because the Internet’s cultural pervasiveness allows many fans to be in touch with the behind-the-scenes operations of the WWE. It also refers to the fact that the WWE regularly intertwines real-life stories into fictional wrestling narratives.
Wrestling, like any other subculture, has its own set of terms used by fans and industry members alike. They act as both as an exclusionary aspect of WWE fandom—viewers need to know the secret words before they can join the club—and a necessary glossary for a very specific type of sport entertainment. Here are some of the most common terms in wrestling:
Kayfabe: The resounding philosophy of professional wrestling—the very notion that what is presented is real. “Keeping kayfabe” means that wrestlers are consistently in character, in the ring or otherwise, and uphold the secret that what they do is “fake.”
Babyface: The good guy. The wrestler that everybody is meant to cheer for; commonly shortened to “face.”
Heel: The bad guy.
Pop: A huge cheer from the crowd. (“Hulk Hogan got a huge pop when his entrance music came on tonight.”)
Sell: To act appropriately to an opponent’s attack. Used often as a term of respect from fans or wrestlers when discussing another wrestler’s performance. (“Shawn Michaels was really selling that ankle lock tonight.”)
Heat: A pronounced reaction from the crowd. Typically, it’s used to describe a heel getting booed (“man, The Miz really drew some heat tonight”), but can also be used to describe a match that the crowd is positively reacting to. (“The Reigns vs. Orton match on Raw really had some heat.”)
Bump: A wrestler taking a hard fall in the ring after an opponent’s move, or generally selling pain. (“Dolph Ziggler took a huge bump off the ladder at the pay-per-view last night.”)
Angle: A storyline or narrative arc.
Card: The show’s lineup of matches. (“What match on the card are you most excited about at Wrestlemania?”)
Finisher: A wrestler’s designated final move. Most of the finishers have names, and most of them are bad puns or grade school-level attempts at being clever.
Gimmick: The persona or character a wrestler adopts. Not meant to be nearly as negative as the word suggests.
Over: “Getting over” is used to describe a wrestler who is gaining popularity with the fans. Wrestler “go over” when they cement their popularity, usually by winning a big match.
Promo: Typically, a monologue delivered live or previously taped. Saying that Stone Cold Steve Austin “cuts a great promo” is saying that he’s a great talker with good mic skills.
Turn: The act of switching from a good guy to a bad guy, or vice versa. (“Hulk Hogan had one of the all-time great heel turns.”)
Shoot: A moment of reality in the otherwise fictitious world of wrestling.
Work: Generally used to refer to the actual wrestling. Wrestlers are often talked about in terms of how well they “work” in the ring, or their “workrate.” It’s also used as an antonym for shoot; “work” is often used to describe a scripted moment.
With the advent of the WWE Network—the company’s Netflix-like subscription service that gives users access to all of the company’s pay-per-view events, past and present, and original content—it can be a little overwhelming for a beginner to find an entry point into wrestling fandom. There’s a benefit to wanting to get into the WWE, though: It’s a blend of serialized and episodic entertainment. Unlike strictly serialized shows, wrestling and the WWE is relatively easy for someone to jump into. There are storylines that carry over from show to show, sometimes for months on end, but for a wrestling newbie, this is relatively inconsequential. It wouldn’t take long for a beginner to pick up on who are heels or faces, and who is feuding with whom. When people ask, “What’s the best time to get into wrestling?” the answer is usually “right now.” Going back into the vault and watching old episodes of Raw or WCW Monday Nitro is great for an avid fan, but a beginner is best served by seeing the WWE’s 2014 offerings. That way, a new viewer will be invested in the current crop of WWE superstars and can follow along with the current storylines. There will be plenty of time to dive into the back catalog once fandom is established. With that in mind, here are five WWE cards from the past few years, available on the WWE Network right now, to introduce new viewers to the current WWE product.
1. Wrestlemania XXX: The WWE’s greatest yearly spectacle delivered one of its most memorable pay-per-views ever in 2014. The card had everything fans could want: The Undertaker putting his Wrestlemania undefeated streak on the line against UFC fighter and occasional WWE wrestler Brock Lesnar; John Cena, the modern era’s Hulk Hogan, taking on the creepy, backwoods-dweller Bray Wyatt; and the rousing finale, which sees fan favorite and underdog Daniel Bryan fight for the WWE Championship against Dave Batista (whom new viewers will recognize from Guardians Of The Galaxy) and Randy Orton.
2. Money In The Bank 2014: The crux of every Money In The Bank pay-per-view is this: Several wrestlers compete in a ladder match, where a winner is declared when one wrestler climbs a ladder in the middle of the ring and grabs a briefcase from high above. Inside the briefcase is a contract that guarantees him a title shot that year, and the holder can cash that title shot in whenever he wants. In 2014, there were two ladder matches: one for the contract and one for the WWE championship. Both are breathtaking spectacles, but for a newbie, the contract ladder match will be the biggest surprise, as the athleticism and bravery on display—and the physical harm the wrestlers put themselves through in a ladder match—is staggering.
3. Money In The Bank 2011: CM Punk was the WWE’s biggest star at the time, and his story in the ring and behind the scenes is one of the Reality Era’s most compelling. The nuts and bolts: Punk was the anti-authority figure in the WWE. He was a technical wrestler who cut his chops in the indies (the minor leagues of wrestling) before getting his shot on the big show. For fans who thought John Cena was too much of a cartoon character, an indestructible superhero, Punk was the antidote. The Money In The Bank 2011 main event features Punk challenging Cena for his WWE Championship. There’s too much to love about the match to describe it in a few sentences: the Chicago crowd loudly backing the hometown Punk; the infringing real-life story of Punk’s WWE contract being up for renewal, and his refusal to sign because of the way he thought he was unfairly treated by the company; the ebb and flow of momentum throughout the match. This is the main event of the past few years.
4. Monday Night Raw: May 20, 2013, The Shield vs. Team Hell No and Kofi Kingston: Every now and then, the WWE’s flagship show provides a match that would fit on a pay-per-view; this was one of them. It’s the perfect introduction to many aspects of the current WWE product, showcasing the high-flying skills of Kofi Kingston, the charisma of Daniel Bryan, and providing an early look into the dominating power of the members of The Shield, of which each member is a legitimate superstar in the WWE in 2014.
5. Summerslam 2014: Coming off the heels of a hot Wrestlemania, the WWE had a lot of expectation to live up to with its next big pay-per-view. And while this show can’t hold a candle to the spectacle that was Wrestlemania XXX, Summerslam 2014 was still one of the best pay-per-views in recent years. Bray Wyatt faced off against ring veteran Chris Jericho. Up-and-coming babyface/handsome dude Roman Reigns faced off against Randy Orton. Then, there was one of the defining matches of the current WWE product: Brock Lesnar vs. John Cena for the WWE Championship. It was a vicious and perfectly executed wrestling match, the reverberations of which are still being felt throughout the WWE now.