The punches are fake. (Oops! Shouldn’t say that.)
The outcomes are scripted.
The characters are screaming, grunting, eye-poppingly amplified caricatures.
So why, then, is professional wrestling so incredibly popular?
We asked a pair of close observers to chime in with their thoughts.
It’s your big, fat Greek (or Roman) mystique. A pair of half-naked warriors squaring off in front of a frenzied crowd of thousands. Pro wrestling is today’s incarnation of that ancient athletic imagery.
“It’s the oldest sport in the world, from the Olympics all the way through,” said Dennis DiPaolo, whose late father Ilio DiPaolo was a start wrestler in the 1950s and ‘60s.
The matches have a story arc. Have you ever watched “Titanic” and hoped this ship wouldn’t sink? Great wrestlers have an instinct for drawing out a performance – a hard punch here, a guttural wince there – and making us question what might happen … even when our logical brains know who’s going to win. “Dad, you could have beat that guy in 10 minutes!” Dennis DiPaolo used to say to Ilio after a 20-minute match.
“What good will that do?” his father would reply.
The feuds have momentum. Boxing is a lot like wrestling, until you consider the key difference: Combatants can’t rematch anytime soon. The real-life blows are just too damaging. “In wrestling,” DiPaolo said, “we’ll get to them next week.”
Wresting creates a bond. Thanks to the WWE Network and YouTube, kids can watch the legendary matches their parents grew up on. “There’s a generational thing, big time,” said Kip Doyle, a promoter who has run events around Western New York with old-time wrestling figures including Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Honky Tonk Man and manager Jimmy Hart. “When I had Jimmy Hart, there were a lot of fathers and sons.”
It may not be real, but it’s impressive. Here’s the dumbest thing to say to a wrestler: “Don’t tell a professional wrestler it’s fake,” DiPaolo said. “You can’t fake a body slam. You can’t fake being jumped on from the top rope.’”
That awareness triggers a sense of raw intrigue. “With a little tweak here, they could dislocate your elbow,” DiPaolo said. “They don’t really want to do that, but you know when you’re watching, ‘Oh boy, if they really wanted to hurt somebody, they really could.’ ”
Wrestlers can be heroes. DiPaolo’s 4-year-old grandson is a fan of John Cena. A generation ago, kids were mesmerized by Hulk Hogan. “Look back in the days when Hulk Hogan was saying, ‘Hey kids, get your sleep. Take your vitamins, drink your milk,’ ” DiPaolo said. “Every kid was going, ‘Yeah, let’s do that.’ Every parent was going, ‘Thank you Hulk.’ ”
“Evil” has a lighter side. Are wrestling’s villains (called “heels”) really that bad? Nope. Wrestlers on the lighter and darker sides of WWE storylines are active in the community, especially through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Long-retired heels, too, excel at creating smiles.
Doyle recalls a 90-year-old woman who traveled to rural Cuba, N.Y. to meet the Honky Tonk Man, a well-known ‘80s heel with an Elvis shtick. Her mouth dropped a she said, “Oh my God, I’ve watched you for years.”
“Thank you, thank you, baby,” the Honky Tonk Man drawled.
“It was awesome, seeing her transfixed on this guy,” Doyle said. “He appreciated it, too.”
The impressions are lasting. Today, DiPaolo runs the Blasdell restaurant, Ilio DiPaolo’s, that his father opened after retiring from the ring. Ilio died two decads ago, but customers still talk to Dennis about his father — especially Ilio’s famously meaty handshake. “Just now in the hallways, a guy grabbed my hand and said, ‘Oh, it’s not as big as your father’s,’ ” DiPaolo said. “Dad’s been gone 21 years now and people still remember him like it was yesterday.”