Pro Wrestling Today Is a Microcosm of Corporate Entertainment

Professional wrestling remains tremendously popular media today because it encapsulates our collective obsession with justice. The recent WWE-UFC merger shows that the story of American professional wrestling is also one of ruthless profit maximization.

Jey Uso in action with Finn Balor during Monday Night RAW at the Bell Centre on April 15, 2024 in Montreal, Canada. (WWE / Getty Images)

This past fall, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) merged with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) to form TKO Group Holdings, which means that an entertainment company showcasing theatrical, staged fights has joined the same company televising “real” fighting in the form of mixed martial arts.

While WWE viewership has declined in recent years, it’s far from dead. Millions across every age group still watch RAW weekly on the USA Network. And what began as a televised phenomenon has fared equally well online — WWE is consistently one of the top-ten most subscribed YouTube channels in the world.

A few months later, the merger raises questions about how the new company will influence what constitutes “popular” American media — and the degree to which corporate control influences that. The endurance of WWE and its seamless transition into the internet ecosystem are a reminder that corporate media is as strong as ever, despite the promise that independent or democratized media could prevail with more platforms, new technology, and savvier, younger audiences.

Professional Wrestling in the Internet Era

To appraise corporatized media in 2024 is to assess how transferable a company’s bits and clips are, and the degree to which they circulate and stick. TikTok continues to grow in popularity at a moment when television and movie studios threaten to use artificial intelligence to replace human writers, and the work of artists is stolen by large language models from big tech companies. Media production is at a turning point, while younger audiences are as entertained as ever with 24-7 access to algorithmically attuned media.

The decline of cable viewership is old news, but in 2023 a Nielsen report detailed a dramatic low: broadcast and cable television accounted for less than 50 percent of all American television usage. Streaming and internet-based media now dominate, and, especially for young people, these figures fill a TV-shaped gap in media consumption across the country.

By numerous measures, professional wrestling ranks as tremendously popular media. While WWE programs don’t top the charts (that position is consistently granted to Fox News shows), they do top YouTube and Reddit. The subreddit “r/SquaredCircle,” which describes itself as Reddit’s largest professional wrestling community, is in the top 1 percent of Reddit communities by size. SquaredCircle features discussion groups like “Kayfabe Sunday,” which requires strict adherence to kayfabe: treating the fictional world of wrestling as real while discussing the microdramas and relative athletic merits of the wrestlers. The primary rules? No smarks (someone who acknowledges that it is a scripted show), and no shoot (real-life-based) comments.

The mode of kayfabe is a stark contrast to the gritty realness of many UFC programs that now fall under one umbrella with WWE, including the boundlessly violent “Power Slap.” In this arena, violence is not only within the bounds of the arrangement, as it is in wrestling (alongside sexual dialogue and pure theater), it is demanded. The centrality of violence on both networks, whether it’s scripted or “real,” underscores its utility as a business model. And to house this authentic violence alongside programs featuring controlled slapstick reflects back to us the demands, and perhaps the task, of entertainment today. We want the gross, the real, and we want it now, but we also want the experience of choosing to believe in something real. As reality TV continues to grow in popularity, the latent desire for drama to escalate to the point of physical fighting has reached its logical end point. The newest entertainment megacorporation provides a home for these exercises in wish fulfillment, absorbing and giving form to the most unsavory aspects of American culture as fun and games.

Wrestling Becomes Spectacle

The WWE-UFC merger follows a long history of the business of wrestling largely dictating the format and direction of the sport itself. In the book Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America, author Scott Beekman details how wrestling promoters gained and hoarded control after World War I, in particular by adopting “fake (or ‘worked’) matches at the expense of legitimate contests.” In doing so, fans were granted an increasingly theatrical thrill, and wrestlers lost power: their skill no longer determined their success, and what sportsmanship had been required evaporated.

As wrestling became a televised spectacle, promoters began to orient match style and character personas beyond the arenas, which were formerly their chief concern. An in-arena crowd, which gives immediate and emphatic feedback, is an altogether different audience than viewers at home, who might flip to the next channel at the slightest moment of boredom or annoyance. In the ascendant age of cable TV wrestling, villains, or “heels,” were also transformed. Identifiable location-specific characteristics — often drawing on racial prejudices — gave way to overt rule-breaking and gauche or flamboyant dress.

The heels now needed to be nationally recognizable, and therefore they had to draw on broader national attitudes and sentiment. This often included overtly political characters, as Beekman details in his book: “Television brought the threat of Communism directly into America’s homes. . . . The connection of Communism to ‘un-American’ rule-breaking tactics proved so strong that it eventually spread to include alleged Cuban villains as well.” Russian characters like Ivan Koloff (aka the Russian Bear) and Vladimir Kozlov (aka the Moscow Mauler) fomented Cold War stereotyping and anxieties.

While politics inform storylines within WWE, so too do real-life politics inform the business of wrestling. In 2020, Florida governor Ron DeSantis declared professional wrestling an essential service during a COVID-19 lockdown in order to allow WWE to continue filming. And I’d be remiss to omit former president Donald Trump’s WWE days, which included hosting WWE matches at his buildings, regular appearances on-screen, and a longtime friendship with WWE cofounder Vince McMahon. In receiving favorable treatment from politicians, WWE functions like any other major corporation.

Wrestling as Justice

Another reason for the enduring popularity of WWE is that the plots and characters continue to respond to the political climate. In Roland Barthes’s “The World of Wrestling” from his book Mythologies, he argues that, beyond spectacle, wrestling is “above all meant to portray a purely moral concept: that of justice.” As social media forces its users to consider what is real, spectators have become part-time adjudicators of fights big and small. Comment sections and tweet threads now house rousing debates about the serious, the banal, and the absurd. Some of these squabbles contain pressing matters worth speaking up about, and others are expressions of excess energy and frustration under conditions that make us feel powerless.

WWE’s version of wrestling exemplifies this collective obsession with justice, where the form approaches farce. The matches are at once unmoored from reality — they are, of course, “fixed” — and reflect the bogeyman du jour, whether that’s communism, immigrants, or elite snobbery in the form of reading Shakespeare. In a 2000 YouTube clip titled “Stone Cold doesn’t like William Regal’s reading of Hamlet,” Steve Austin’s antiestablishment character interrupts English wrestler Regal, who was preparing the audience for his reading of Hamlet in full. When Stone Cold enters, the announcer proclaims, “That ain’t Shakespeare! That’s a Texas rattlesnake!” Stone Cold swiftly pummels him, then walks away valiantly, demonstrating that violence can provide a swift and efficient solution to snobbery.

In his book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges details how these bouts present refracted mirror images of reality, which succeed for their representative qualities but also for their unfailing ability to showcase the ultimate American obsession — a winner and a loser:

Established truths, mores, rules and authenticity mean nothing. Good and evil mean nothing. The idea of permanent personalities and permanent values, as in the culture at large, has evaporated. It is all about winning. It is all about personal pain, vendettas, hedonism, and fantasies of revenge, while inflicting pain on others.

In 2023, there is a style of narrativization that presents reality — and all the sociopolitical dimensions it contains — as a foregone conclusion. There is comfort in the opposition of winners and losers; the conspiracy-addled brains against the bright, fully intact ones, those who deserve sympathy against those who should suffer.

Labor and Wrestling

As Beekman describes in his book, wrestlers themselves have always had precarious power — both financially and over their schedules and labor rights. Wrestlers are similar to American professional athletes in this regard, who, despite being highly paid, lack control over their labor and often face serious risks to their health as a result of their work. Historically, promoters and show organizers have held near-absolute control, and today, wrestlers are classified as independent contractors, leaving them to pay for their own health insurance and traveling expenses. In 2022, Jacobin reported that the path to unionization remains difficult despite awareness of persistent and pervasive exploitation.

The evolution of US professional wrestling from the “grappling arts” to what’s shown on WWE today is a story of companies and promoters cooperating, feuding, and splintering to serve their financial interests, making the rules up as they go. Unsurprisingly, business interests and growth at all costs supersedes regard for the health and safety of individual wrestlers. In Ringside, Beekman notes that “a frighteningly high percentage of wrestlers die before the age 40 because of hardcore matches and outrageous stunts and gimmicks” and that former CEO and executive chairman of TKO Group Vince McMahon has demonstrated a consistent and pervasive lack of concern for talent safety. The focus on the bottom line has allowed the company to churn out content and grow its profits.

As a storyline and thematic underpinning — the brutes versus the suits — the surface-level plots conceal a darker underbelly. In the offices of WWE, McMahon was forced to resign as a result of sexual misconduct. As of January, McMahon is also under federal investigation for sex trafficking by a former employee who alleges that he offered her to a prominent wrestler for sex. Following the news, he stepped down as chairman of TKO Group. Further, the merger itself is now subject to a lawsuit with McMahon at the center. The lawsuit alleges that McMahon coerced company leadership to push the deal with UFC through at a lower price to avoid further investigations and maintain control of the company.

Issues surrounding labor persist postmerger: more than one hundred employees were laid off at the time of the deal. Hedges characterized the corporate themes of wrestling in his book like this: “The burden of real problems is turned into fodder for a high-energy pantomime. And the most potent story tonight, the most potent story across North America, is one of financial ruin, desperation, and enslavement of a frightened and abused working class to a heartless, tyrannical, corporate employer.” The triumph of WWE in the internet era demonstrates that maximalism fares well in all arenas, and that business integration and the ruthless pursuit of profit remain a recipe for success in American entertainment.