In a recent episode of the excellent We Watch Wrestling podcast, comedian and co-host Matt McCarthy suggested that fans of pro wrestling might in fact be the last “true” nerds, as the growing popularity of comics and success of superhero films suggest. The fact that the most popular movie of last summer included Ronan the Accuser certainly might prove that the geek have, in fact, inherited the earth. However, pro wrestling still has the stigma of being “fake” or simply for kids. Of course, there are times when the public has been captivated by the action in the squared circle, such as when Hulkamania swept the nation in the mid 1980s and in the late 1990s when every kid in junior high had either a “Austin 3:16” or “nWo” t-shirt. That might be about to change: as a greater variety of wrestling is available via the internet and cable, the art form appears to be on the cusp of a resurgence of popularity.

The elephant in the room so to speak is pro wrestling’s “fakeness”. A full refutation and explanation of this probably best saved for another article, but suffice to say, wrestling is different from athletic sports in that it is scripted and the outcomes are predetermined. That means the actual physical performances are designed to tell a story, just like a film or theatrical play, but no one dismisses a performance of Romeo and Juliet by pointing out that the actors aren’t really in love and don’t die at the end. Like superhero stories, the grand narrative usually revolves around larger-than-life characters fighting for justice: the bad guys (or “heels” in wrestling parlance) are vile cheaters and the good guys (“babyfaces”) are standing up for what’s right. There’s usually little nuance to the stories, but if you can suspend your disbelief for a bit, get caught up in the story, and marvel at the feats of athleticism, wrestling can be just as emotionally engaging and entertaining as any movie or comic book.

So, do you want to see what all the fuss is about? Or maybe you’re a lapsed fan who’s interested in diving back in? Well, this is a small sampling of the variety of wrestling out there right now, as well as some resources for further investigation. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but merely a sort of “Gateway to Grappling”so to speak.

WWE, RAW, SmackDown…

Obviously the best way to understand pro wrestling is to watch it. Luckily, there’s really never been a better time to start thanks to the sheer volume of wrestling content available via the internet and on cable TV. The biggest and most accessible promotion is obviously WWE, the company that re-branded wrestling as “sports entertainment” in the 1980s and has been essentially the only major wrestling company in the US since 2001. When you think of pro wrestling, you think –for better or worse– of WWE. Their flagship program is Monday Night RAW, which airs live, obviously, on Monday nights from 8 to 11pm EST on the USA network. Three hours is, honestly, far too long for a wrestling show, especially when most of the time is spent with long-winded promos and “dad joke” comedy bits. (There is a mercifully edited 90 minute version available on Hulu Plus). That said, there is still usually enough entertaining matches on each episode to at least give it a look.

WWE is in sort of a weird spot right now, as they try to transition from the established stars of the past decade –such as the kid-friendly 15-time world champion John Cena, third-generation pro wrestler (and viral video sensation) Randy Orton, and the current WWE World Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar— to the new generation of young talents. This transition has been awkward at times as younger stars like Dolph Ziggler, Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns vie for spots in the main event picture. There are also a slew of other incredibly talented wrestlers on the roster who never seem to find a stable storyline, including the “Swiss Superman” Cesaro, Tyson Kidd, and Damien Sandow. Unfortunately, women’s wrestling is treated as a second thought at best and an excuse for sexist jokes at worst (luckily though, there are fans and pros speaking out about this). It can be hard to watch sometimes, especially since a number of these performers —Paige, AJ Lee, and Natalya Neidhart to name a few– are capable of putting on great matches.

Cesaro, Tyson Kidd, and Dolph Ziggler battle for the Intercontinental Title on SmackDown!

All of these problems makes watching RAW, and its sister show SmackDown (Thursday nights at 8 on the SyFy channel), feel like a chore at times since you spend as much time critically analyzing the stories as you do enjoying them. However, this is the best time to tune in since the stretch from January to March is traditionally when the company sets in motion the storylines that will pay off at their annual WrestleMania event. And, when they are on their game, WWE can produce some amazing moments. Last year, eternal underdog and fan-favorite Daniel Bryan had two incredible matches at WrestleMania and won the championship, which was one of the most emotionally gratifying moments I’ve witnessed.

If you’re a lapsed fan feeling nostalgic, then the WWE Network is worth investigating. For merely $9.99 a month, you get access to all of the WWE, WCW, and ECW pay-per-view events, historical and biographical documentaries about performers, and old episodes of RAWSmackDown, and WCW Monday Nitro. As a resource for wrestling fans, it’s sort of invaluable since there’s a mind-boggling amount of content there, and they are always adding more stuff from their archives. If you are curious about the network, WWE are actually offering the month of February free for new subscribers, so you can try it risk-free right now.

Hideo Itami battles Finn Bálor on NXT

That $9.99 subscription also gets you access to all of their big “pay-per-view” specials and NXT, which is honestly the best show WWE produces (Wednesdays at 9 pm. It is also available on Hulu Plus). Essentially a “developmental” program to help train young wrestlers on how to perform on TV, NXT has been outshining the main WWE shows for a while now. While RAW is usually mired in recycled storylines where the matches sometimes feel secondary, NXT is a concise, well produced show with compelling, logical stories and amazing matches. In the past the show has focused on “home grown” talents trained by WWE, but over the past year they have signed some well-established wrestlers from other countries and promotions, such as the Japanese superstar KENTA (now wrestling as Hideo Itami), Canadian wrestlers Kevin Steen and “El Generico” (now dubbed Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, respectively), Irish grapplers Fergal Devitt (Finn Bálor) and Rebecca Knox (Becky Lynch). The fact that these wrestlers are now being leveraged to appear on US TV is pretty exciting, and their work on NXT has been amazing. For both new and lapsed fans, I cannot recommend NXT highly enough: there are complex and nuanced characters, thrilling matches, and engaging storylines, all in an hour-long weekly show. The current feud between NXT champion Sami Zayn and his former best friend Kevin Owens is an example of a simple, but expertly told pro wrestling story. Plus, the women’s division is treated just as importantly as the men’s, with Charlotte, Bayley, and Sasha Banks all turning in some of the best matches on the show. In short, NXT does right everything that RAW does wrong.

Sasha Banks vs Charlotte for the NXT Women’s Championship

NJPW

New Japan Pro Wrestling

The second largest wrestling promotion in the world is New Japan Pro Wrestling, and this is shaping up to be one of the best years ever for the company. Established in 1972 by legendary Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki, NJPW has slowly gained a following in the United States thanks to it’s more serious approach to pro wrestling. The matches are still pre-determined, but the performers work in a hybrid of American style grappling and mixed martial arts dubbed “Strong Style”, and anyone who dismisses pro wrestling as “fake” might take it back after seeing some of these matches. Last year, they launched their own streaming video service, NJPWWorld, which rivals the WWE Network in both price (999 Yen, which is only $8.50 per month) and content (there are matches going back to the mid 1970s). Obviously there is a slight language barrier to overcome, but the wrestling itself is incredibly compelling and entertaining. Like WWE, NJPW is offering the moth of February free to new subscribers, so this is the best time to give it a look.

In an attempt to reach more American viewers, NJPW has been working with other promotions to bring English language versions of its product to US TV. Earlier this month, they broadcast their annual Wrestle Kingdom event on American cable TV for the first time with commentary by the legendary announcer Jim Ross. It was honestly one of the best wrestling shows I’ve ever watched, and the two main event matches —Shinsuke Nakamura vs Kota Ibushi and Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada– are both early “Match of the Year” nominees. In addition to that, the cable channel AXS began airing a weekly NJPW show Friday nights that features matches from the past two years with new, English language commentary. Interestingly, this show is designed to lead into AXS’s “TV Fights” programming, which makes sense since the presentation and physicality of NJPW wrestling makes it more appealing to fans of “real” fighting like UFC.

This 2010 match between Kota Ibushi and Prince Devitt is a good example of what NJPW is all about.

Of the NJPW wrestlers, Shinsuke Nakamura seems like the best positioned for international super-stardom. In his current persona as “THE KING OF STRONG STYLE“, Nakamura somehow combines the swagger and style of Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson with a vicious in-ring wrestling style. He’s basically the coolest person on the planet and seems equally at ease kneeing his opponents in the head as he does appearing in a music video for a J-Pop kids group. He’s the current Intercontinental Champion for NJPW, and was recently voted best wrestler of 2014 by the venerable Pro Wrestling Observer. If his match at Wrestle Kingdom this year was any indication, 2015 might be an even bigger year for THE KING OF STRONG STYLE.

Lucha Underground

LUCHA

The other recent alternative to WWE to appear on cable recently is Lucha Underground. I’ve written about the show previously, so I’ll be brief here. In short, Lucha Underground is a show executive produced by veteran TV producer Mark Burnett and director Robert Rodriquez. The style of the show combines fast paced lucha libre style wrestling with the melodrama of a telenovella. Since debuting, Lucha has been incorporating more traditional pro wrestling elements, such as a championship title belt and “battle royal” matches (dubbed “Aztec Warfare” to keep with the show’s theme). It airs Wednesdays at 8 pm on the El Rey Network, which might be hard to find, but it’s well worth tracking down if you want a well produced wrestling show with some incredible action. If you don’t get El Rey, Lucha Underground does have some full length matches posted on their YouTube page so you can get a feel for what they’re like. Here’s a recent title match between the champion Prince Puma and Fénix:

But there’s more…

This is just the tip of the iceberg for great pro wrestling, and there are plenty of smaller promotions that don’t have the same cable TV exposure. There are far too many to list here, but some notable ones include Ring of Honor, which served as a “proving ground” of sorts for the likes of Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, and Cesaro in the early 2000’s, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla in California, and the Texas-based Inspire Pro Wrestling. There are also a few promotions that might appeal directly to comic fans in particular, such as Chikara Pro and SHIMMER. Chikara is known as an all ages friendly promotion that features an elaborate continuity and brightly costumed characters. It seems like the closest thing to a live action comic book as your likely to find. Shimmer is an all female promotion, and many of the performers there incorporate cosplay into their characters. Leva Bates, for example, has wrestled as Gamora, Groot, Green Arrow, and Frank Grimes to name a few (she’s also appeared on NXT as “Blue Pants”, named as such due to her Kitty Pryde costume). What these independent promotions lack in TV exposure they make up for in passion, both from the wrestlers and the dedicated fans. You can usually find DVDs or VOD content on their sites, and chances are they might be having live shows near you. (As with any other sport, wrestling makes more sense live. Indie shows are usually affordable, and even WWE tickets run around $20. If you have the chance, go cheer for the faces, boo the heels, and have a good time.) Like any other independent artists, these wrestlers are doing it for the love of the art form, not for a big payday, so if you dig what they’re doing let them know and at least buy their t-shirts.

Given the variety of different styles and promotions out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Luckily, like any other niche entertainment, there are plenty of informative and entertaining resources out there for discerning fans. Some of the best resources include Cage Side Seats, the appropriately named The Wrestling Blog, and With Spandex, which all offer critical, and often humorous, analysis of wrestling shows of all sizes. David “The Masked Man” Shoemaker’s column on Grantland is also worth checking out, especially his “Pro Wrestling Dictionary” which is a good spot for new fans to start. (Shoemaker’s book The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling is one of the best wrestling books I’ve read, and highly recommended for fans new and old.)

There are also a huge number of podcasts dedicated to the art form. A few of note are the aforementioned We Watch Wrestling, which is a celebration of pro wrestling fandom in general, Grantland’s Cheap Heat, and Straight Shoot, which offers rotating guests recapping RAW each week. There are also an endless number of podcasts hosted by wrestling personalities like Colt Cabana, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Chris Jericho, and Jim Ross. These usually feature interviews with other wrestlers and can offer a unique “behind the curtains” look at the business. Like wrestling promotions themselves, there’s probably a blog or podcast out there that appeals to your specific taste.

Whew.

Like I said, this is just a sampling of what’s out there. Although the variety may seem daunting, it’s what makes this such a great time to be a wrestling fan. Whether you used to watch as a kid or have never been interested, chances are there is some show or performer out there you can connect with. Like any other art form, wrestling thrives when there are more styles available to more people. Hopefully this intro piqued your interest and gave you an idea of where to start watching. See you at ringside.

About The Author

Paul R Jaissle is a philosopher, collage artist, and musician. In his free time, he enjoys reading comics (especially ones with Batman in them), listening to power pop, and watching wrestling.

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