"All I Care about Is Me: I'm 'The Nature Boy": The Permeable Boundaries of Pro Wrestling's Fictional World

Curator's Note

Professional wrestling builds an immersive narrative world, but one with a unique twist when compared to other entertainment properties: it’s fictional world is set, in fact, in the "real world," and its cast enacts its dramas in live events multiple times per week which—in purporting to be legitimate sporting events, invite the fans in as performers in their own right, playing the role of a sports crowd. This precarious balance between "real" and "scripted" means that the pro wrestling narrative is directly linked to the lives of the performers playing a character. Injuries to performers routinely have to be written into the script of the show, and tragedies or controversies in the lives of the wrestlers immediately affect their on-screen characters.

Take, for instance, the 2005 arrest of then-WWE performer Richard Fliehr for road rage. Like many wrestlers, Fliehr plays a character not far removed from his "real" identity—"The Nature Boy" Ric Flair. Thus, as news broke in a variety of online and traditional outlets about Fliehr’s arrest, wrestling fans became well aware of the incident. By the time WWE Monday Night RAW rolled around, WWE decided to address the incident head-on, with Flair’s on-screen foe Edge showing Fliehr’s mug shot, mocking Flair for his arrest, and then showing the above parody of the road-rage incident.

In the process, a real-life event for the performer instantly became a narrative point for the on-screen character in a way that seldom occurs in other fictional storytelling formats. Wrestling has long thrived on this process, requiring its performers to maintain "kayfabe," referring to the upholding of the illusion that wrestling is "real." For instance, face (protagonist) and heel (antagonist) wrestlers were not allowed to travel together, and wrestlers were often rewarded for getting into bar fights or other incidents that reinforced their “on-stage” character. Certainly, the carnival roots of pro wrestling shapes the way wrestling continues to incorporate events from "real life" into the fictional world of "the WWE universe," with the idea that an event in the personal life of a wrestler which becomes public will, in most cases, be expected to be addressed within the narrative as well.

Comments

Ari Berenstein's picture

Using Shoots in the Work

I’m pleasantly surprised to see how closely related my column is to yours Sam. As I discuss tomorrow, the Madison Square Garden incident was an acknowledgment of a real life situation, played out to the public who watched the events unfold onstage, where the "play" was usually expected to happen, not reality.

"Shoots", or the intrusion / inclusion / adaptation  of real life into the "fake life" of professional wrestling are no longer taboo. They do not happen on an every week basis, but were far more likely to occur in the past fifteen years of professional wrestling than any other previous decade or era.

Of course, for the "shoot" to be effective, a wrestling fan has to have specific knowledge or understanding about its referent. Fans may have been aware of the incident involving Ric Flair that Edge and the WWE writers openly mocked in this video due to the publicity surrounding the arrest of someone with Flair’s celebrity. However, the a "Vince Russo Shoot" used towards the tail end of WCW’s run (such as Goldberg refusing to "lie down" on a Pay Per View and it being portrayed as something that "wasn’t supposed to happen") often fell flat on its face because it required very specific knowledge about backstage politics that not many in the audience would know.

Michael Leveton's picture

Violence and comedy

Nice post! It is quite interesting how the WWE often folds real-life events into it’s story lines, and it would be interesting to see when this became a common practice for national promotions, such as the WWE or the now defunct ECW or WCW.

It seems to me that doing this operates on two levels. For starters, wrestling fans tend to be a savvy bunch, and because of the personal information available about the wrestlers, the incorporation of publicly-known events heightens the sense of "realism" within the storylines. It also appears to function on a sort of public relations level via hyperbolic renactment. Through the act of hyperbolic representation Flair’s outburst becomes comedic, thus seemingly making it "part of the performance" by association with the ongoing kayfabe narrative. Not to say that wrestling viewers are unaware of the reality of what happens outside of the performance, but it does serve to sweep such events under the rug, so to speak. This of course, is of particular importance for an industry—such as professional wrestling—that is continually under scrutiny by the media.

It would be interesting to look at the relationship between the type of event that is appropriated into the kayfabe narrative (in Ford’s example, a violent one) and the WWE’s treatment of the event within the narrative.

Sam Ford's picture

Responses

Ari, when I heard you were covering the MSG  incident, I was excited to think about the parallels between the two examples. As you point out, yours is a bit different still, because it happened inside the ring itself. At the time the incident happened, moments referring to inside issues at the WWE were relatively rare. We saw WWE start to play with blurring the line much more heavily throughout 1996, so perhaps we could argue that this moment might have helped push Vince in that direction…Only a bit later was the night Diesel threatened McMahon, alluding to the fact everyone knew he was on his way out. And, of course, the nWo angle relied on a fascination with the backstage politics of pro wrestling in many ways.

But, as you point out, the shoot only makes sense if the "insider knowledge" that is the referent is known by enough people to make the angle fun or exciting. That’s why there are two types of "shoot" moments, I believe: small references that will reward the dedicated fan while not getting in the way of casual fans, and big moments that rely on a backstage situation being fairly widely known. The return of Daniel Bryan, for instance, in some ways relied on a good portion of the fans knowing the real reason he was let go. Because, if you just followed the narrative without the backstage goings-on, Bryan’s being fired by Nexus fairly summarily and anti-climactically would have made for a strange story for his returning in the Summerslam main event…Russo’s problem was that he elevated his insider references too high and confused everyone in the process.

 

And, Michael, you have a really interesting point about how incorporating a situation into the text might help contextualize and control it. Turning Flair’s road rage into semi-comedy might change the way fans look at the moment. We’ve seen WWE do the same with other situations—think about how they attempted to bring the Denver arena situation back into the narrative (although the anger Vince displayed in that example didn’t lead to very good comedy, just as the mean-spiritedness of the mockery of J.R.’s surgery wasn’t well received).

Shane Toepfer's picture

Real Life and Wrestling

 

Normal 0 0 1 304 1738 14 3 2134 11.1287 Normal 0 0 1 304 1738 14 3 2134 11.1287 0 0 0 0 0 0

@Ari – I agree there are some powerful similarities in both posts, which should make this conversation really cohesive.  In fact, the thread of “realism” and “authenticity” carries through all of the posts that have been presented thus far, which is quite revealing in a week devoted to pro wrestling.  It seems that these are themes that wrestling is expertly suited to explore, or that structure our consumption of these texts.

@Sam – This is a tremendous example for a number of reasons.  I can’t help but notice the buzz of the crowd as I watch the clip.  They provide a really interesting feedback circuit for wrestling when it takes place in the ring, becoming part of the spectacle.  Here, they are the absent “studio-audience” that helps cue television/internet viewers as to how to read this clip.  Coupled with the fact that this clip takes wrestling personalities and maneuvers and places them in a real-world context instead of within the space of the wrestling ring – where the actions and iconography makes sense for wrestling audience – and we have a really interesting take on the wrestling genre.  I am amazed at how this clip takes wrestling and places it inside these real-world contexts while simultaneously making it absurd, a comedy piece that borrows from the real world, sets it in the real world, but comes off as completely artificial – almost like a studio production.

@ Michael – I agree with Sam that WWE consistently demonstrates the desire to control the message, and this example is an excellent attempt at taking an embarrassing situation and making it their own – stripping it of much of its scandalous properties.  Yet again we have an example of wrestling seeming to downplay the impact of “real” life and “real” violence in its narratives, which seems counterintuitive to a genre that depends on the suspension of disbelief of its audience in order for them to become invested in the characters and narratives.  I am curious how this tension between real and fiction, expertly illustrated in this example, has changed over time for wrestling audiences and producers.

 

Bryce McNeil's picture

"When you shake the hand of Ric Flair..."

One of the great takeaway quotes from A&E’s "Unreal World of Professional Wrestling" special from 1998 is Gerald Morton’s assertion (paraphrased slightly) "When you’re shaking Tom Cruise’s hand, you’re not shaking Jerry MacGuire’s hand.  When you shake Ric Flair’s hand, you’re shaking the same hand of the person who’s T-shirt you’re buying, whom you will see in the ring, the character and the actor are the same."

One wonders if the quote holds as much water in 2010 as it did then, but the attached video shows the WWE assuming that the the character and worker ARE the same.  It essentially tries to use some of its articifice not to *obscure* the real, but to reshape it.

It is interesting as to how this varies by generation and by example.  I remember when the Iron Sheik and Jim Duggan were arrested in 1987 thus showing that onscreen rivals were actually driving together.  In this case, the WWE obscured the real completely by suspending both and bringing them both back later (although the Sheik’s return was essentially  one match).  This was a case where the WWE saw no real advantage to trying to incorporate the reality into the artifice so they passed.

Sam Ford's picture

Wrestling with Reality

Shane, agreed that audience noise provides an interesting "guide" to this clip. And, while it wasn’t the point of this piece, it shows just how many ways the live audience’s own performance shapes the reception of wrestling content. WWE’s choice to have this video segment play out in the context of a live segment between Flair and Edge was crucial to its positioning. Keep in mind that this entire clip was played out while Flair was standing in the ring, as Edge mocked him. Thus, we watch the clip thinking about how it affects Flair, in the ring in front of a full arena and a national television audience. The mockery thus takes on greater resonance when we consider its contextualization in the narrative.

Regarding Sheik/Duggan, you’re absolutely right that it’s the kind of publicity WWE didn’t want to touch and, thus, they got the wrestlers off TV. Often, as we’ve seen, the type of activity from a performer that warrants punishment today can skirt around an on-screen mention because they will be instantly taken off-screen through suspension or termination. Obviously, we don’t see WWE making overt mention of wellness policy violations in *most* cases, etc. An interesting caveat to this discussion is that, in situations like JBL’s firing as a financial analyst, they worked that into the text. But, when Vince is accused of sexual harassment at a tanning salon, we don’t see that mocked in any way…

 

Shane Toepfer's picture

Screens and Filters = Emotional Attachment?

Normal 0 0 1 292 1668 13 3 2048 11.1287 Normal 0 0 1 292 1668 13 3 2048 11.1287 0 0 0 0 0 0

I keep thinking about this clip and how it communicates aspects of “reality” to wrestling audiences.  What I find so fascinating are the use of screens to act as theoretical filters – sort of diluting glimpses of this reality just enough to make it intelligible.  If the man Richard Fliehr, as Sam points out, is the version of reality that is being glimpsed here, then the Ric Flair character is a filter himself – as wrestling fans often say the best characters in wrestling are their real selves turned up a bit.  We then have the character of Ric Flair, and the actions of Richard Fliehr, filtered through the mocking actions of the antagonist, Edge.   We have the presence of the television screen, with the audience as guides.  And we have the presentation of wrestling characters outside of the diegetic universe of wrestling.  Most of the absurdity of the clip is in the way that Edge plays Ric Flair doing normal things in life, like driving down the road, while completely in-character.  The culmination of his using wrestling maneuvers on the other driver serves as the ultimate screen here, demonstrating the ridiculousness of the actions outside of their diegetic arenas.

I wonder if any one else has any thoughts on the impact of this mode of address.  With Cory’s post we talked about the potential of using social media to make wrestling narratives appear more real.  But what about these sort of filtering processes – ways to glimpse the real lives of characters that help to make us more emotionally invested in these characters and narratives.  I don’t feel as though I am more attached to the feud between Flair and Edge in this example due to the presentation in this clip, despite its fascinating properties.  It is almost as if the glimpse into real life, at least in this mode of address, doesn’t draw the viewer in to the wrestling narratives.   Instead, one could argue that it made it entertaining, but not necessarily the type of emotional investment that wrestling has historically demanded.

 

Sam Ford's picture

 I agree that this doesn’t

 I agree that this doesn’t create deeper emotional investment. It’s done as a humiliation process…subtly, it’s an attack by Edge on the fact that perhaps Ric can’t separate himself from his character. He takes the fact that Ric has been accused of displaying aggression away from the wrestling ring and parodies it, suggesting in the tone of the clip, in his version of Flair’s dialogue, etc., that perhaps there is no Richard Fliehr…only "The Nature Boy." 

I’ve heard it said and have used the line myself that pro wrestling is a carnival mirror, extending and distorting real life, but always based on a kernel of truth. That’s what is uncomfortable about this clip: its extremes are also its message, a mockery of Fliehr’s inability to control his character. It’s used for comedy, but it’s also intended to humiliate Flair, and—by extension—Fliehr. After all, keep in mind that it’s been a public part of Flair’s story that his in-ring persona has wrecked his personal life in many ways, that the guy you see on screen is who he is in real life, in ways that has seen him spend what he makes, not be attentive to his family in the ways he should have been and so on.

Feedback

No one has reviewed this post… but you need to login to submit feedback