The roaring crowd, their eyes fixated on the centre of a theatre, a ring (so-called even though it is quite square), a cage, a pit, all waiting with bated breath to see their favourite fighters, their favourite personalities, come out and put their bodies on the line for glory, victory and entertainment.
I am, of course, talking about pro-wrestling. No, it’s not ‘all fake’, the only way to fake doing a back-flip off of a fifteen foot ladder is with a lot of CGI but I don’t think The Hardy Boyz were doing that back in the year 2000.
The fact is it is a phenomenon, the largest wrestling company, WWE, has a net worth in the billions of dollars. Wrestling itself is as old as people. Sweaty oily dudes love rubbing up against each other in a masculine display of potential latent homosexuality, to prove dominance over one another or possibly just to rub up against other oily dudes, no judgement, you do you. Greeks wrestled, Romans wrestled, the art of grappling is as old as the freeing of human hand from having to assist us in walking or swinging through trees. The roots of pro-wrestling as we know it are ancient, but the form we know it in likely dates back to the 19th century, at least, and it was often a circus or carnival sideshow.
It is easy to see why pro-wrestling became popular. Big burly men, screeching glamorous women, pomp, ceremony, story. There was often a clear goody (babyface) or baddy (heel) to root for and boo respectively. There’s a simplicity of form – the basics being human hand-to-hand combat, with acrobatics mixed in – and a simplicity of narrative – this person good, this person bad – that just tickles the cortices (brain parts) with dopamine (brain chemical make feel nice).
Then television started happening. Suddenly these local heroes could become national or even international stars. Wrestlers and wrestling exploded across the world. Now people in the UK can enjoy action from WWE (USA), AEW (USA), Impact (USA), New Japan (Not USA, Japan, obviously), Triple A (Mexico) and here in the UK there was a booming market. We have had companies like WCPW, World of Sport, 5* Wrestling, NXT UK, Progress Wrestling …
…Well, we used to, most of them are now defunct or else were addled in abuse, sexual assault and rape scandals and disappeared off the face of the planet. Turns out they were all heels…
The point is promotions big and small are making a tonne of money off of dressing up athletes, stunt persons and acrobats as ‘fighters’, pitting them against each other in pre-determined, story driven ‘fights’ and everyone knows it’s all a lie but we love it anyway. I can’t say why. All I can say is I tune to AEW every week.
“What’s the point of this article, though, Karl!” I hear you ask.
Fake fighting as a show was not invented in the 19th century. The marketing of fighters, the travelling around the known world with your fighters was not invented in the 20th century, nor was production and sale of branded merchandise.
The Romans already did it.
“Hang on a second, weren’t Roman gladiatorial fights real? And done by criminals and slaves?” Nope. Not always.
Major gladiatorial events were generally done as a munus. Roughly translated it’s a gift, but it was usually given as a wake, a funereal display. Except instead of a shit buffet in a pub that stinks of decay it was a massive festival of violence in an arena that, admittedly probably did still stink of decay. For a high ranking Roman not to offer munera would be a gross violation of pietas, of piety, which to Romans was as obviously real a duty as caring for a sick parent.
Early on most of the gladiators would have been slaves, dressed up for their own executions and basically pitted against each other to see who was desperate enough to save their own life. It is easy to see how this happened when you consider that Rome went from a self-sufficient city-state to a small empire of military dominance in a couple of hundred years.
There was an influx of slave capital, a lot of them burly men who had been captured in Rome’s various wars. Those slaves who weren’t used as gladiators were put to work on farms, helping the Patricians (posho) class build up their latifundia (massive farming estates) but obviously causing a displacement of the peasant farmers, many of whom would have made their way to Rome because, well, that’s what Romans do.
What you’ve got is a situation where you’ve got too many men and not enough to do with them. So make ‘em fuck each other up for entertainment! It’s perfect! Hey, while you’re at it add condemned criminals (displacement and disenfranchisement of the peasant class will lead to an increase in criminal activity) and let them get fucked up too, then you can have an execution and entertainment! It’s win-win-win, bay-bay!
A century and a half of development later and what you have is massive ludi, training centres, with signees from slaves to patricians desperate for the roar of the crowd. The domini (the heads of the training centres) of these ludi would invest a lot in training, feeding, growing, marketing and aiding their fighters.
You see by this point a gladiator was an asset, and a good gladiator was an asset you had a lot invested in. Like fighters and wrestlers today, you don’t send your good gladiators to the Colosseum for their first outing, otherwise who gives a shit? You don’t put a new wrestler in the main event of Wrestlemania and you don’t put a new gladiator in the main event at the big games at the Colosseum.
So, for one thing, not every major fight was to the death. Even if they were fighting as if to the death, two gladiators could put on a fantastic show, causing little more than superficial injury to one another, and could leave to a crowd’s adoring ovation. It’s a trope that gladiators fought to the death. They didn’t always do so.
For example what about minor events? Sideshows in provincial towns? Gladiators would appear there from time to time. How else can you drum up reputation and business? You’d want your prize assets on show, sure, but you wouldn’t want them getting hurt! When you know the big games are coming up in Rome, what gladiator wants to die in an amphitheatre in Deva (modern day Chester, North Wales)? So fights were staged a little. I mean, they weren’t ‘fake’, they struck each other, probably with dull blades or in choreographed sequences where they knew what they were doing. Sound familiar? Pro-Wrestlers do actually hit each other, just in ways that do less damage and protect each other from harm.
What’s more, women went nuts for these dudes. Gladiator blood and sweat was sold as an aphrodisiac, it is likely gladiators themselves would have run side-jobs as paid fuckbois, and little kids would play with gladiator dolls. Certain gladiators would become so famous they would be painted or mosaicked (I’m verbing it, it’s a verb now), their likeness on a wall, or statues made in their honour, their names preserved for us to find thousands of years later.
How is that not John Cena…minus the paid fuckboi part. I hope…
Another thing, unlike today’s superstars, the Roman gladiators found a way to unionise. Collegia were essentially self-interest groups who came together to look after their own interests. Many collegia, from professions, religious groups or even neighbourhoods, existed and at some point gladiators had a collegium. One of the key responsibilities of these collegia was to ensure all members could have a proper burial and, because of this, we have graves of celebrated gladiators, not all of whom died in gladiatorial combat.
Modern day pro-wrestling may have its roots planted in 19th century showbusiness. The carnivals, circuses and vaudeville shows, though, did not invent the seed from which those roots grew. People were doing choreographed fighting of paid superstars long before Vince McMahon betrayed the business, bought out the territories and created the WWF (now WWE) from his father’s WWWF promotion. That is all, itself, an interesting drama – watch Dark Side of the Ring (available via Vice.tv in the US but elsewhere…just google it), or go to Cultaholic or Wrestletalk for more information on the tangled web of modern wrestling.
Fact is, Roman gladiatorial combat and pro-wrestling share many aspects with each other. The Romans would have fucking loved wrestling and MMA being broadcast on TV. They’d have cheered, booed, laughed and jumped up elated when their favourite wrestler or fighter won. Pro wrestling is one piece of modern bullshit the Romans would have absolutely adored and yet it is still only number 2.