On June 4th, Royal Farms Arena hosts Extreme Rules, Baltimore's first major World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) pay-per-view event in seven years. For wrestling fans like me, this is as significant as an NFL playoff game: Many of my favorite wrestlers will face-off in rivalries that are months or years (sometimes decades) in the making.
But even if you're not a fan, you should go see it—because pro-wrestling is the sport for right now in America. For a country drenched in propaganda, here is a show that uses propaganda to create something noble and exciting. It has to be said upfront: The techniques used by WWE to create a mythology surrounding each wrestler are the same ones our strongman-in-chief uses to surround himself with an alternate reality. Pro-wrestling was one of the main balms that soothed my broken heart after his election: When you wake up every day to a fresh set of outlandish lies, it feels great to follow a large-scale human activity that tells such lies for fun, entertaining us instead of preying on us. Outside the ring, the world gets more cynical every day. Inside the ring, innocence reigns.
You probably know that the outcome of each professional wrestling match is predetermined—that's what makes it "sports entertainment," instead of just "sports." But there's no attempt to deceive you or any of the millions of fans worldwide. Instead, wrestling beckons you to join a communal narrative universe where humanity's eternal conflicts are enacted by actor-combatants on the grandest stages. It's a mythical reality so epic that the philosopher Roland Barthes once compared pro-wrestling to "...the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve."
I had been hearing my well-heeled buddy Brian talk about pro-wrestling for years, but resisted watching because I imagined it as having remained the schlocky, Hogan-esque affair I remember from my youth, nothing for a serious culture lover such as myself to trifle with. My attitude changed one day when I watched a pay-per-view event at Brian's house, similar to the one we'll see on June 4th. A couple of knuckleheads named Enzo and Cass strutted into London's SSE Arena reciting a goofy liturgy of their own greatness, with the crowd chanting along. Their shtick is a hard-to-geolocate pastiche of Brooklyn-and-New-Jersey tough guy braggadocio, and all of it was being recited in unison by a crowd of enthralled Europeans. As Enzo and Cass proclaimed themselves to be the "realest guys in the room," I felt a pang of jealousy, like I was getting left out of a really great inside joke.
The revelation occurred during the main event, when Finn Bálor defended the NXT Championship against his former best friend and betrayer, Samoa Joe. I had not seen a performer like Bálor before, quick and acrobatic, accurately described as "James Dean cool, John Wayne tough." For big matches, Bálor enters the ring body-painted as a "Demon King" from Irish lore. His character is masculine, noble, brave, a man you want to root for. So I began to root for him against Joe, a formidable brawler who personifies malevolent entitlement, a character willing to sacrifice 10 years of friendship in order to seize a title opportunity. It was a hell of a fight. Wrestling can be balletic, as when you have two skilled improvisers who know each other well, taking turns making each other look good, combining each other's best moves into stunning reversals, knowing for sure only what the final conclusion of their match must be.
Bálor was able to get the three-count on Joe only after delivering his signature aerial finisher, an awesome turnbuckle leap known as the Coup de Grâce. Seeing Bálor hold his title aloft, I identified with him. So I started to follow Bálor’s career, the same way you would keep up with a mixed-martial arts fighter, one who also happened to be a new recurring character on "Game of Thrones." To my extreme excitement, Bálor is booked on June 4 to compete in a "fatal five way" match against Joe ("the submission specialist") and three veterans: Roman Reigns (something of a noir superhuman), Bray Wyatt (a cult leader in the "True Detective" mode), and Seth Rollins (known as The Kingslayer, for having beaten Triple-H at Wrestlemania 33.)
I also found myself caring about other wrestlers, among them a Punky Brewster-esque character named Bayley, the woman who will challenge Alexa Bliss on Sunday in a rematch for the RAW Women's Championship. Bliss is a dynamo former bodybuilder, a Red Queen who backs her evil boasting with a stylish, acrobatic offense. For weeks she has been taunting the squeaky-clean Bayley, ultimately provoking Bayley to prove that she still belongs in the WWE by agreeing to a special "Extreme Rules" stipulation that allows the fighters use of a martial arts weapon.
To get a fictional sense of the height of these stakes, imagine watching Luke Skywalker deciding whether or not to kill Darth Vader, except there's only a single lightsaber between them, and it starts out suspended by a pole from the ceiling of the carbon freezing chamber, and instead of a lightsaber, it's actually a bamboo Kendo sword. In order to recapture the championship, Bayley may have to shatter that sword, along with her innocence, over the back of Bliss. (The fact that WWE built a pay-per-view stipulation match around these two talented, vibrant athletes vividly demonstrates what success awaits major corporations that dare to invest equal resources in developing the talents of both women and men.)
In its transparent blending of true facts with preferred fictions, pro-wrestling holds up a funhouse mirror to American culture, thrilling the crowd with techniques devised more than a hundred years ago in carnival sideshows. Those techniques sustain a hyperreality fans can believe in, want to believe in, as an escape from a deeply unjust world: The vain and cowardly get their comeuppance, while heroes and antiheroes rise to punish the venal. Wrestlers underwrite the enterprise with pure human courage, risking their lives to perform death-defying stunts on a weekly basis.
At Extreme Rules, Royal Farms Arena will transform into a 14,000-person pit of Globe Theater groundlings applauding and denouncing archetypes of Good and Evil. Every seat will be a 50-yard line view of Shakespearean performances that dramatize quintessential human themes of Justice, Vengeance, Sacrifice, Loss, Suffering. Inside the arena, you will know who to cheer, who to boo. Outside of the ring, cheaters retain their laurels for life, seemingly unopposed. Inside the ring, cheaters may win, but their title reigns won't last forever.
This is what pro-wrestling means to me, an American fan in 2017. Roland Barthes wasn't overstating the case when he wrote, "In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a justice which is at last intelligible."
In a world where so little is intelligible, professional wrestling offers just the refuge we need.