I’m a somewhat sporadic wrestling fan, but whenever I admit to knowing even a little bit more than the average wrestling novice (i.e. someone who knows who the Rock is), I am almost invariably hit with this question:
“You know that stuff’s fake, right?”
Yeah, and I also know The Avengers isn’t a documentary. Pro wrestling has, for decades, thrived on the notion of a heightened reality. It’s practically live theater with superheroes, deliberately over-the-top and melodramatic. Fans eat it up, but every once in a while a moment of real heart comes through, and we’re reminded that behind the swagger and the entrance music and the Faces (heroes) and Heels (villains), there are real people who really suffer for their craft.
Here is WWE superstar Daniel Bryan, last night, announcing with tears in his eyes that, due to brain damage caused by repeated concussions, he can no longer wrestle.
Bryan’s farewell, after months of injury issues, is a reminder that, despite the scripted storytlines and rehearsed moves, pro wrestling takes a toll on its stars. It’s hard, and we often don’t remember that because the best wrestlers know how to make it look easy. If you watch a WWE match with a careful eye, you can sometimes see the participants whisper moves to each other before performing them, or notice that the victim of a suplex is actually giving a little jump at the start of the move to help his partner perform it. It’s all about selling the story, but behind that are years and years of practicing moves that, performed poorly, could break your neck.
And while the contact of the sport is cushioned by padded mats and telegraphed punches, it’s still contact. If you don’t believe it hurts to wrestle, have someone take a pillow (yes, a pillow) and hit you in the back of the head really hard. You’ll see stars. Your temples will burn. Now imagine it’s the Undertaker driving you to the mat with a giant boot to your face. Over and over again.
Daniel Bryan knows this all too well because he was never supposed to be here. He’s 5’ 8" and weighs less than 200 pounds. He was supposed to be an undercard wrestler, entertaining and scrappy; never a champ alongside hulks like John Cena and Roman Reigns. He doesn’t have the size or the strength to sell Cena’s Attitude Adjustment, or Reigns’ punishing Spear, or the Undertaker’s Chokeslam. So he found a different way. He became the guy who did thrilling, showstopping things like this:
You can cry “Wrestling is fake” all you want, but there’s nothing fake about a man essentially risking every bone in his body every single time he does a suicide dive.
Bryan’s early retirement, and the moving speech that accompanied it, wasn’t about the price of his business, though. He could’ve raged, he could’ve bemoaned the stresses of the business that maybe made him push too hard for too long. Instead, he made it about gratitude. He scraped and clawed his way up the mountain, fans embraced him and he made it to the pinnacle of his favorite thing in the world. Daniel Bryan might be an Icarus who flew too close to the sun with his determined, acrobatic wrestling style, but what mattered in the end was his heart.
That’s what we’ll remember, because — as all the wrestling fans who wept with him last night know — that’s definitely not fake.