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This isn't going to be a hatchet piece going after Bloody Elbow Editor-in-Chief Luke Thomas. I'm not a zealous Pro Wrestling fan on some sort of crusade. Like Thomas I've not considered myself a Pro Wrestling fan for several years though probably for different reasons. For me the history and machinations of the industry is far more interesting then any current product out there.
And while I've singled out Luke Thomas it's only because of his recent conversation with Jordan Breen on Sherdog Radio's Jordan Breen Show and the fallout from the part of the conversation that ended up centring on Pro Wrestling, which was instigated by Breen.
This isn't going to change Luke Thomas' mind on Pro Wrestling, that's not the point. The point is to debate on some of the remarks Thomas made and to possibly clarify some issues I feel he missed the mark on. What I will say is, right off the bat, Luke Thomas makes some very astute observations that are hard to argue with in and of themselves but sometimes were not actually relevant to the main issue he's arguing against. In fact it wasn't until the end of the conversation between Thomas and Breen that Thomas made his most relevant and accurate point and one that I am in agreement with.
Now, on with the show ...
"I just feel sorry for people who think in those terms, that's all I really have to say about that. You really have to be ... intellectually lazy (to use those terms)"
"This whole nonsense (of) this guy's a heel, this guy's a baby-face, this is a turn-face, this farrago of absolute, inane ‘S' - shut the ‘F' up. There's a reason I don't watch Pro Wrestling, you know why? Because it sucks that's why; I don't like fiction I like sports, and I'm not alone"
"I mean listen, are there obvious, obvious familiar relationships between MMA and Pro Wrestling? Yes of course you have to be a buffoon to argue otherwise, from Japan and America and the way the UFC structures its business and the way in which they promote, of course there is no denying that and you'd have to be really dishonest in saying otherwise. But stop pretending you can distil MMA in Pro Wrestling's terms. You cannot; it's real as much as that may pain you to think."
In Thomas' opening gambit - egged on by Jordan Breen and possibly playing up his indignation for the sake of entertainment on a radio show - he asserts his disdain for Pro Wrestling more than the problems he has with the terminology that has been creeping into online coverage (in particular blogs) of MMA. As the conversation goes on we find it's not specifically the terminology he has a problem with but how it is being used. More on that later.
It's worth pointing out that the majority of Pro Wrestling fans who Thomas has generalised don't even think in these terms. The terms come from within the Pro Wrestling industry and the reason it has crept into MMA blogs and commentaries is because this jargon was introduced to a Pro Wrestling fan niche that would go online or sign up to newsletters to get an inside look at the industry, and these sources would go on to cover MMA more and eventually separately as the sport grew in North America, most notably since the TUF boom.
In particular this inside look came in the 1990's from freelance journalist Dave Meltzer (more known by the MMA industry as a writer for Yahoo! Sports and The LA Times) with his Wrestling Observer Newsletter that started off as a tangible printout sent in the mail to arrive in the mailbox of those who paid a subscription. The Wrestling Observer moved with the times and went online, and an offshoot in Figure 4 Weekly was launched a bit later, while other Pro Wrestling Insider sites started cropping up such as PW Torch (which spawned MMA Torch). Meltzer has covered MMA since Pancrase and the first UFC, has been a judge for early UFC events and even played a part in formulating / fixing a match in Pride, and this coverage was included in his early Pro Wrestling newsletters.
While the writers covered both Pro Wrestling and MMA there was a carry over of this terminology, and the Pro Wrestling fan niche - the self proclaimed 'Smart Marks' or 'Smarks' - would read this MMA coverage as well. Then some of these fans crossed over to MMA specific blogs taking these references with them and that should explain the Pro Wrestling jargon permeating a lot of modern day MMA blogs. These are fans who are well aware that Pro Wrestling is not 'real' and like to consider themselves as intelligent and having a grasp of how the industry works. Whether they're as intelligent or knowledgeable as they like to think they are is another issue.
Luke Thomas also clarifies that he's not completely ignorant of Pro Wrestling's influence on MMA, he just doesn't like these terms being used for MMA.
[Small note: Luke Thomas uses the term 'Baby Face' but Jordan Breen never specifically used that term when opening the discussion. He instead uses an abbreviated form of that term in 'Face'. This leads me to believe Luke Thomas is more aware of the terminology and its definitions then he wants to admit.]
"I think at the end of the day for a lot of Pro Wrestling fans what MMA means to them is a final (validation) for all the ostracism and strangeness that being a Pro Wrestling fan brings. It's like finally we're afforded some reality because this really is Pro Wrestling, it's just real at the end ... and no one can mock them for it."
[This is going off point with regards to Luke Thomas' actual gripe, but it's worth responding to none the less. There are other points Thomas makes that are a slight tangent too which I'll also cover because I think it's of interest.]
This is an interesting theory, and true for some Pro Wrestling fans. But I think on a larger scale for fans that have completely graduated from watching Pro Wrestling in their youth to watching MMA now, MMA allows them to disown Pro Wrestling because of that ostracism and possibly the embarrassment they felt while a Pro Wrestling fan. I think it is these MMA fans that will be the first to voice their distaste and contempt for Pro Wrestling now that they have MMA as a valid form of combative entertainment; one they won't be ostracised for watching or feel embarrassed discussing in wider social circles. Once fans get to their late teens and early 20's Pro Wrestling fandom can become a more closeted affair especially as it's an age range where young men and women are arguably at their most self-conscious and insecure. I think it's only a few who are secure enough in themselves to continue being fans of both as long as both remain entertaining or interesting in some way. I myself can say I was a Pro Wrestling fan without the need to completely bury it since I've been an MMA fan, and MMA never justified my like for Pro Wrestling when I liked both in the early 2000's.
"I think it's fascinating too ... we bemoan the fact that people attempt to view MMA as this distillation of Pro Wrestling but when you talk about some of these markets being trained to look out for characters, and you don't mean that in a Pro Wrestling way, it reinforces the fact that Pro Wrestling is just a distillation of life. The idea that there are characters ... in MMA, if someone has a real gregarious personality, people will look at that and think Oh they're really working at being a Face or a Heel, and they have a real over the top Pro Wrestling Persona - as though over-the-top, boisterous, gregarious people don't actually exist outside of a wrestling ring. Like you could never meet someone in a day to day situation who has a really bombastic personality, those people just don't exist unless Vince McMahon has written them into being?"
"Yeah the question is What is Pro Wrestling doing with its theatrics? And do they work? Absolutely they work, I won't deny Pro Wrestling fans that I mean clearly the WWE's success is a testament to the theatrics of their product, that they would work. But I mean what are they doing?
Well what they're doing is, basically what they have developed in some ways for certain audiences are best practices for evoking a certain kind of response, but that's just tapping into who we are as people and manipulating that. They didn't invent the ways in which to tap into human beings and to get them interested, those ways always kind of existed they just formulated a kind of method and popularised it. But those methods existed long before Pro Wrestling was ever around.
I think while both Breen and Thomas make the point Pro Wrestling doesn't have any exclusive rights on theatricality, Breen in particular makes the argument to completely discount any impact Pro Wrestling has had on other sports and the North American conscience. Since we're specifically talking about Sports vs Pro Wrestling, Breen's comment "you could never meet someone in a day to day situation who has a really bombastic personality, those people just don't exist unless Vince McMahon has written them into being?" is a non-point for this particular argument.
We should bear in mind that Pro Wrestling has gone through cycles of being mainstream entertainment throughout the 20th Century, beginning to end, when we look at extroverted sports personalities. I say this because I don't believe personality is something you are born with, but something you form based on your environment and what you are exposed to, and that at several points in the 20th Century Pro Wrestling permeated society as much as other well known celebrity filled sports or arts.
With that in mind how likely is it that a lot of today's flamboyant North American and even Western European sports personalities were influenced by watching something like Vaudeville or camp British theatre? Saturday morning cartoons? Going to the Circus or the Cinema? Or could it be that dreaded Pro Wrestling?
You could argue all extroverted Boxers take their cue from Mohammed Ali even when he was Cassius Clay, The Louisville Lip. As most should know by now, Ali studied the Pro Wrestler Gorgeous George for how to present himself and promote himself. Interestingly the man behind Gorgeous George - a camp, flamboyant character that intentionally played on people's prejudices - was a licensed psychologist. Ali is also credited as an influence to urban culture, Hip Hop and Rap with the fight hype rhymes and poems he came out with even being directly referenced in various songs. And we know how Hip Hop culture has ties with and influenced mainstream sports like Football and Basketball.
We also know from sports like Football and Basketball there are fans of Pro Wrestling by their own admission, and some of them are notoriously flamboyant and controversial such as Dennis Rodman.
Luke Thomas recognises that Pro Wrestling formulated a method of evoking a response by tapping into its audience's psyche, but doesn't think sports or at least certain personalities in sports have adopted or adapted this method from Pro Wrestling. He instead suggests that because it has always existed - this method of promotion through manipulation in some form - that Sports or sports personalities stumbled upon this notion outside of Pro Wrestling's influence and in spite of its existence (when earlier acknowledging its influence on MMA, at the least). Stating this method existed before Pro Wrestling as evidence that Pro Wrestling couldn't have influenced sports promotion, especially fight promotion is a stretch of the imagination at best. It's like saying Blues existed first, so Hip Hop directly took from Blues and ignored Funk's utilisation of Blues, because the person making the argument has a distaste for Funk even though Funk was clearly sampled a lot among other Blues spawned genres in the development of Hip Hop.
I agree Pro Wrestling can't lay claim to every extroverted personality out there, and that it doesn't take a Pro Wrestling influence to exaggerate your own ‘natural' personality, but when it comes to Sports and theatrics in sports - and by its very nature theatrics are forced and not organic - dismissing any possible influence from Pro Wrestling in favour of something else that's likely to be less influential but more palatable than Pro Wrestling just shows a flawed argument with a clear bias.
When it comes to MMA and the comments made about X fighter acting like a Heel or Y Fighter acting like a Face it's usually because that fighter has done something out of character, but more importantly something that feels contrived for the purpose of promoting themselves or the fight.
I mean, people didn't like controversy in the 17th Century? Of course they did, theatrics always mattered then and controversy will always matter to human beings; Pro Wrestling just found a certain dynamic and a way of delivering that ... and I don't deny that it works but let's not pretend that you have some sort of purchase on it or that you have a copyright on it; that is a human dynamic and again that happens across all ... you don't think with Ovechkin and Crosby, Who's the heel there?,Who's the hero there? - whatever the opposite of a heel is, I don't even know - that's just human nature. They (Pro Wrestling) just found a way to package it into tight, little compartmentalised identities and the reality is a sport is so much more complex then that; trying to fit them into those compartments does not actually work."
"There's a human complexity that is actually far more genuine and as a result far more robust and nuanced then anything a script writer for WWE would ever write and that's true for MMA; as much as we'd like to believe that there are good guys and bad guys - and while by and large in the broad strokes there are - even MMA's most sympathetic figures have dark and shadowy and ugly parts of them and even MMA's most horrible and heinous people have interesting and sympathetic parts to them and I think you need only look at that in this case of Randy Couture who is always constantly and positively Captain America, this is a guy who's on his 800th wife and by all accounts - and he'll be the first guy to admit this - makes a lot of mistakes in his life and doesn't always do the best thing on a personal level (and yet) he's supposed to be the personification of all that is hetero-normative and masculine and American. That's not a Pro Wrestling character that is a Human character and that's a thousand times better than (Pro Wrestling)"
We're starting to get towards what is in my opinion Thomas' most valid and important point, but we're not quite there yet.
What we have here is the issue of labelling and putting a person into a convenient box. In this case it's Luke Thomas and Jordan Breen venting over how the wrestling terminology is being used by fans (and some media) to define a fighter when it's not that clear cut or simple. However not only is this in and of itself a simplified though fundamentally accurate view of how Pro Wrestling orchestrates itself - Good Guys and Bad Guys - but it's not a problem exclusively caused by Pro Wrestling.
It happens in all walks of life. For example you can label someone a liberal or a conservative but the reality of finding someone that is 100% one or the other right down to their core is probably nil. Pretty much all people will have a balance of liberal and conservative outlooks and in some cases a liberal outlook you have will contradict a conservative outlook you have, on at least some level.
There is no perfect category that people can slip snugly into, whether it comes from Pro Wrestling terminology, Political terminology or Moralistic terminology. Similarly with all forms of Art and Literature there is not a base genre that can clearly define a work which is why there are so many sub-genres and mixing of genres and sub-genres to more accurately categorise a work, and even then in a lot of cases it will not 100% define that work.
[Another small side-note: Thomas says "whatever the opposite of a heel is, I don't even know" despite earlier mentioning the term Baby Face. From listening to him say this on the radio and the intonation behind it, it would seem Thomas is playing ignorant because it better suits his argument, which is a shame as it seems he does know the terminology.]
"How much more interesting is human success and fallibility and the contradiction between them? And trying to make sense of it all? That to me - trying to unpack that and make sense of it and roll with it and have fun with it - that to me is so ... it's why Sport will always beat Pro Wrestling. Not to say Pro Wrestling hasn't been hugely popular at times, obviously the 80's were the hay-day but I mean listen: Who is The Rock? Who is that guy? Dwayne Jonson is Dwayne Jonson. The Rock is a character, and Dwayne Jonson is an actor; it is a human caricature played by a human being you know, but to me Dwayne Jonson - as entertaining as some of The Rock's rants may have been when I was 18 years old or whenever - Dwayne Jonson's life is vastly more interesting.
Even locally, let's take John McCain - and I don't care whether you like John McCain or hate him - here's a guy who was a war hero (but) also left his first wife for his second, for really no good reason. This is a guy who has served America for many years, fought for America and was tortured in prison, I mean my god one of the best Americans ever but, you know, kind of just left his family hanging. And to me that is the essence of who we are; (what's the saying) ‘I am Many, I contain Multitudes' - to me that is why I enjoy Sports so much more. Chael Sonnen for all his inanity I bet he's a much more interesting guy then this sort of person he portrayed himself to be and I think if Pro Wrestling fans lose (sight of) that, then you lose part of the reason why sports and the athletes who participate in our sport and why it's so much more interesting."
Coupled with the previous quote that includes Jordan Breen's take on Randy Couture, Thomas shows what he finds interesting: the multi-faceted and multi-dimensional elements that make up human beings and their story such as the many elements of Randy Couture, John McCain or Dwayne Jonson, compared to the relatively one dimensional character of The Rock or the persona Chael Sonnen put on for selling his fight with Anderson Silva. And I think the key here is in the last part of the previous sentence: selling.
I find the metaphorical man behind the mask probably just as interesting as Luke Thomas does but I recognise that as interesting as the evolving biography of a person is - in this case a Sports Athlete or more specifically an MMA Fighter - a lot of the information may be of no use in selling a fight unless the information helps answer the three key questions of fight promotion as outlined by Paul Heyman:
Who are these two fighters?
Why are they fighting?
Why should I care?
Now, from a Sports purist point of view you may feel it's enough to have a brief background on the fighters and state they are fighting towards or for a championship and to be recognised as the best and that should be enough. But it's not, and it's not why a Brock Lesnar fight or the Rampage vs Evans fight did ‘gangbuster' numbers in PPV buys. To do as well as UFC 117 did it wasn't enough for Chael Sonnen to just say he plans to beat Anderson Silva, and that he wants the title to honour the memory of and the promise made to his late father. Chael Sonnen had to provoke Silva but also provoke the audience to the point of being controversial and outrageous.
You can dislike a lot of what he said and label it inane, but that's really a matter of personal taste and not a fair look at its effectiveness. I've already addressed in another article what I believe may have resulted in the difference between the estimated buys from the pre-fight trends and the actual post-fight results but in short it came from a resentment Anderson Silva had created to the point where people would no longer pay to see him fight in the hope of an opponent kicking his ass. A lot of people were angered by Silva vs Maia to the point of boycotting the next event Silva fought on no matter how well Chael Sonnen talked the fight up beforehand. As Dana White mentioned, people aren't paying for Sonnen's talk and can enjoy it freely and while it helped sway a few hundred thousand more into watching the fight, it wasn't enough to sway the significant number of people with a deep seated hatred formed from Anderson's last three, consecutive title defences.
As mentioned it comes down to personal taste, and the one-dimensional approach of Chael Sonnen or The Rock is what seemingly works for the mainstream. WWE today is mainstream and has a relatively one-dimensional approach. Hollywood Blockbusters tend to be one-dimensional and appeal to the mainstream compared to the more complex, deeper independent or art house films that has a smaller, more specific audience. I know I generally prefer something with substance that will make me think, but I'm also aware that's not what sells to the masses. The Expendables sells big. It's WWE in terms of movies.
Now, sports don't need a background story to get people to watch, although if there is one it's a bonus and can add more to it. The sports that are mainstream are so because they're not controversial by nature and are socially acceptable, and because they are so ingrained in our lives through multiple decades of tradition. Combat sports, or combative entertainment in Pro Wrestling, don't have that luxury. Pro Wrestling is Trashy. And as Luke Thomas will point out himself MMA is Ghetto. Boxing may have the tradition, but it's missing the social acceptance other sports have. Some other sports aren't without controversy but the tradition and social acceptance covers for that.
Combat sports will not get mainstream attention on their own merits as a sport and it often takes something outlandish and theatrical to get noticed. But that's better then not being noticed at all which would be the case without this type of promotion.
Saying you prefer the real life complexities of people in sports to the fictional portrayal of Pro Wrestling is fine, as well as disliking any contrived promotion in MMA, but the true mainstream sports don't need these human complexities to drive them or make real money. In their cases the competition is enough. MMA however needs conflict; real or not it doesn't matter come fight time.
And now, finally, here is what I believe to be Luke Thomas' real gripe with Pro Wrestling terminology in MMA, and one that I am in agreement with. Emphasis mine:
"I don't want to bring up any of the beefs my site has had with Shane Carwin, but some people have said Shane Carwin is acting like a heel ... but Shane Carwin despite all the problems that our site have had with him still has a rabid fan-base and while he's not the most media savvy guy, your calling of him a ‘heel' is trying to understand him on one aspect of a very complex identity. Why are you doing that? Why would you classify him in such a way? I really think it's them trying to to navigate the sport on a road map that's a little too easy and a little too lazy for them, or it's a consequence of lazy-ness, but they're trying to use an old road map for a new reality and I would just caution them - as much ‘S' as I have talked, and I'm sure I'm going to get a boatload of ... hate-mail for months - I would just say you're only cheating yourself, you're only hurting yourself, you're only giving yourself a very narrow window into a world that I would ask you to believe me is significantly more complicated and significantly more interesting because of that complication. You don't have to have a final resolution about somebody, like somebody is either Black or they're White as a moralistic thing, they're Evil or they're Good or they're Strong or they're Weak.
They're much more then that and you don't have to have such a satisfying feeling about them being predominantly one or the other. You can just say I don't really know who they are, and I say that all the time about people and that's ok, that's still to me vastly more interesting then anything else. And people change over the course of their career; BJ Penn isn't the same guy he was earlier and that's human development that has changed him. He's a father now, he's got lots of money now, he's been a two division champion. He's a much different human being then he was before, why lose sight of that?"
Now this is my interpretation of Luke Thomas' comments, nothing more.
It goes back to what I was saying about when a fighter is acting in a contrived manner to sell a fight. That is when I think it is acceptable to use terms like Face or Heel, or if you prefer Hero or Villain. The problem Luke Thomas illustrates here is these terms are being used to pigeon-hole the real side of a fighter, and not the promotional side. When people misappropriate these terms or use them in the wrong instances, it is then that they are being lazy and doing a disservice to themselves in comprehending what is actually transpiring. Luke Thomas may not like the terminology in particular but by far his biggest gripe - and it's a gripe I have and many others should have - is incorrectly using categorical terminology and thereby no longer separating the promotional side form the real side, or the man from the mask.
When a fighter is acting in a deliberate manner to sell a fight there is far less issue with labelling that deliberate manner because it is so apparent and contrived. But in the case of Shane Carwin, to start labelling him because of how he actually felt he was being treated by MMA Media the same way as you would label him when he was hyping a fight (by saying he's going to knock someone's jaw off or he's going to retire someone, for example) is incredibly lazy, and it is incredibly stupid. It shows a lack of comprehension and an inability to read between the lines. What does a complaint about his portrayal in the media do to promote a fight? Nothing. If you're not sure what is being said is real or fictional, don't simply blend the two together because it's easier for you. Have that internal dialogue and ask yourself "How is this promoting the fight?".
Whether you use Pro Wrestling terminology or more conventional terminology I'd like to think fans - Pro Wrestling or otherwise - who make comments are smart enough to know the correct circumstances when such terminology can be used. As I said earlier this is not a problem exclusively caused by Pro Wrestling or its fans, but fans in general - by people in general. And it's actually down to the complex human nature Luke Thomas is interested in, and its flawed need to label and box everything.
"I don't know Pro Wrestling terminology and I think I'm probably a lot more informed because of it"
It's OK Luke. We 'believe' you. :)