The hardest thing about being a wrestling fan is admitting to someone that I'm a wrestling fan. Even after 37 years, it's the conversation I dread having the most because, without fail, the initial reply is often the same: "You know that stuff's fake, right?"
The condescending nature of the question is annoying enough, as if, being an adult living in the modern world, I've somehow not been tipped off to that fact.
But what's most aggravating is the hypocrisy involved, as pro wrestling is no different than other forms of entertainment such as reality TV, Game of Thrones, or the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Sports fans are harder to win over, though, since their bold claim is that what they're watching is legitimate competition. While there's merit to their argument, that doesn't mean that the fix isn't in.
I recently watched the Netflix documentary, Untold: Operation Flagrant Foul. It's the story of former NBA referee Tim Donaghy who got booted from the league and sent to federal prison for 15 months for his role in fixing games. It's an eye-opening film that focuses on Donaghy's gambling scandal while shedding light on the integrity, or lack thereof, within the NBA itself.
During the doc, Donaghy denies fixing games he was involved in, saying he was merely supplying insider information to gamblers. Some of that information included player injuries, which teams were deliberately tanking games, and which referees had grudges with coaches and athletes, all of which affected the outcome of contests.
There's also the revelation by Donaghy that league rules don't apply to all players. Donaghy recalls a time when he called a traveling violation against basketball god Michael Jordan. Officially, Donaghy made the right call. But it was later implied by his officiating peers that it wasn't in the league's best interest to jeopardize putting its brightest star on the bench due to foul calls.
All of which impact the credibility of the sport. It even makes one wonder just how fair the officiating was for the 1998 NBA Finals.
Of course, there are other ways for an athletic contest to be tainted that doesn't require the services of a shady ref.
In combat sports, there's the time-honored tradition of using tomato cans or what's known as job guys in pro wrestling vernacular. Tomato cans range from subpar to washed-up pugilists and warriors; their mission, unofficially, is to put over up-and-coming fighters. Though the fights are legitimate, the outcome is rarely in question.
All of this brings me back to my appreciation for pro wrestling because, if nothing else, it's honest.
Please, don't let that last line or my intense love affair for this crazy genre fool you, dear reader. In no way do I think this is a pious or noble industry. But at least the people running the show have the decency to say, "Hey, this is all bullshit."
Despite that acknowledgment, I can't bring myself to use the word fake to describe what these athletes and entertainers do. Fake implies that it's all make-believe, that they're all just friends, and that no one gets hurt. And that's simply not true.
Not everybody gets along. Pro wrestling is a business like any other, filled with professionals competing in some form to reach the top of their industry, and sometimes, they truly fight over it.
And then there's the pain.
Kurt Angle, an Olympic wrestler and gold medalist who became a sports entertainer, injured his neck several times throughout both careers and recently underwent double knee-replacement surgery this year.
And then there's Hulk Hogan. Arguably the biggest name in the sport's history, Hogan worked a relatively safe style in the ring. Despite that, Hogan has gone under the knife more than 20 times for injuries he sustained during his pro wrasslin' days. That includes at least ten back surgeries in addition to having his hips and knees replaced.
Clearly, this stuff isn't as fake as most would believe.
Pro wrestling may never be on par with major sports in terms of legitimacy, and many may continue to mock it for its campy nature. Unlike some genres, though, at least pro wrestling isn't trying to convince you that it's entirely on the up and up.
In that respect, pro wrestling is definitely real.