Pro wrestling, as with all mediums and forms of storytelling, lends itself to certain types of stories and characters. Big, dramatic, larger-than-life characters trying to overpower one another, overly dramatic relationships that fall apart with the drama of a reality show. One thing that often evades wrestling, however, is a sense of vulnerability and tenderness; some of the quieter emotions outside of anger and hatred. It’s a tragedy, because when done right, it can create incredible moments and characters.
What do I mean exactly? Simply put, I mean moments that feel legitimate and genuine. Moments that brush aside the inherent nature of the modern state of wrestling. Stories that explore emotions and parts of life that wrestling often doesn’t bother with.
So what are some examples of vulnerability and tenderness in wrestling?
Of course, one of the biggest most recent examples is Cody and Dustin Rhodes at Double or Nothing 2019. Granted, the match beforehand was far beyond a traditional wrestling match, an already extremely over-the-top production. The insane amount of blood during the match very much played directly into the stereotypical hypermasculinity of pro-wrestling.
However, that moment between the two brothers afterwards was something we don’t see in wrestling often — an honest and poignant display of brotherly love is not a common occurrence in pro wrestling. And because of that, it helped establish Cody right away for those who hadn’t watched him since he left WWE. It gave us something more human and relatable to latch onto rather than just super buff men yelling at each other.
Another of my favorite moments in AEW that perfectly encapsulates the idea of sincerity and tenderness is Luchasaurus’s return. Luchasaurus had been out on injury for a while with no word on when he would return. One night, we see the Dark Order try to recruit the other two members of the Jurassic Express, and when they try to force a mask on the two, Luchasaurus comes in just in the nick of time to save the two, ending in an extremely sweet reunion between the three.
On an episode of “Wrestlers on the Road Ordering Room Service,” Luchasaurus talks about this moment as well as just sort of how he sees the Jurassic Express. He discusses how a sense of innocence is lost a lot of the time in wrestling and how we need more of that. He mentions he wants to try to bring some of that into wrestling with Jurassic Express.
And that is exactly what is so great about this segment, that sense of innocence. The story itself on paper is not unique to wrestling — a friend coming to save his loved ones just in the nick of time. But the energy the group has, the characters involved, and the way the segment is blocked out captures a certain energy that you don’t normally get from most wrestling storylines.
Another great example of how exploring different themes can really help is one of AEW’s biggest storylines currently, that of “Hangman” Adam Page. We’ve certainly seen alcoholic gimmicks before, but it’s usually because of a wrestler’s personal history, not something that can be actually explored within the kayfabe of wrestling. Instead it is explored like… well… just look at WWE’s Jeff Hardy storyline this year.
But AEW has actually incorporated alcoholism into an overarching character’s development and portrayed Hangman at his emotionally weak moments. We have seen Hangman watch his old friends from the shadows, unsure of whether or not he wants to actually engage with them. We see him as he spirals into depression and deals with self hatred.
Of course, it’s still through the lens of wrestling, so there are times where not every beat of the plot is a thorough dissection of mental illness, but it’s something that we almost never see in any other wrestling promotion currently: a larger-than-life pro wrestler dealing with serious issues is one of the most honest and sincere things in wrestling right now.
All these plots and moments help so much to bring about something more to the characters. Sure, it can be exciting to see the supernatural Fiend go after everyone, but in the end the thing that helps us connect with characters and invest in them is relating to their problems. Those sincere moments that are part of the human experience but rarely seen in the world of wrestling. Whether they be closer to being a shoot, like the case of Dustin and Cody, or are all completely a work like Hangman, we need to see more moments like this in wrestling.
This takes time, planning, a level of writing that is not usually seen in wrestling, and a whole lot more. More so, it is a risk. Allowing moments of tenderness to punctuate through in a world shaped by WWE’s brash “Attitude” and “Ruthless Aggression” eras in the ’90s and ’00s is hard. However, that’s not to say that these moments have never happened in the past whatsoever — they just haven’t been as common and are often not the focal point of the segment, plot, or character.
But just like all mediums, wrestling grows. It transforms and evolves. Hopefully we see more moments that show us a different side of the characters in pro wrestling — that way, we can have even more reasons to cheer for them next time they win a long-running, heated feud.
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