Professional wrestling — or wrastlin’, as it’s known in the South — has gotten a bad rap for decades. Indeed, it’s easy to roll your eyes at the black-and-white, good-or-evil characters and simplistic story lines. But while today’s wrastlin’ might not be for everyone, there’s a deep beauty to the quasi-sport that may not be apparent at first.
Professional wrestling differs from traditional sports not only in that it’s predetermined, but also because while other sports were designed by humans, wrestling emerged naturally. Pro wrestling, in short, is what libertarian economist F.A. Hayek termed a “spontaneous order” — i.e., order that emerges from human action but not human design. The best example of a spontaneous order is human language. While textbooks articulate the rules of grammar, those rules weren’t created by design; they evolved over thousands of years between countless people, and are simply formalized in books.
Like language, pro wrestling evolved through the interactions of countless people. Its roots can be traced at least as far back as the gladiators of Ancient Rome. In gladiator fights, the crowd would often determine whether the loser would live or die. If the loser put up a valiant effort, the crowd would let him live.
Knowing this, the gladiators colluded before the fights and agreed to act out dramatic clashes in order to leave the crowd happy and ensure that both of them would live. From then on, the most successful gladiators weren’t necessarily the best fighters, but the ones that could put on the best show of simulated combat. Sound familiar?
Notice that nobody invented the sport/show — it emerged naturally as a consequence of the gladiators responding to external incentives.
Contrast this with baseball, basketball, soccer, and even the ancient Greek track and field events. Sure, those sports are doubtlessly combinations of other, older sports; and sure, those sports have developed spontaneous orders within themselves (for example, the “unwritten rules” of baseball) — so in those way they’ve evolved. (They also operate within a spontaneous order: the market.) But they still originated from the explicit design of an individual or group of people.
Professional wrestling is still a spontaneous order today, too. This much became apparent in the 1980s, when journalists such as John Stossel and Geraldo Rivera started exposing the business as “fake”, and governments started making threats to wrestling promoters: Either admit your product is a show or become regulated the same as other professional sports. Since one of the foremost jobs of athletic commissions is making sure sporting contests are impartial, there was obviously no way for promoters to comply with the state.
With the gig up, pro wrestling was forced to embrace itself for what it was: scripted, physical acting. Gone were the Bruno Sanmartinos who posed as real sports competitors — replaced with colorful characters like Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker. Chin locks and arm drags gave way to leg drops and top-rope splashes.
Again, these changes didn’t happen as a result of human design. Rather, with the audience finally aware that what they were watching was an act (at least some of them) the most successful performers became not the most believable fighters, but the most bombastic and charismatic personalities. It was market incentives that transformed pro wrestling into an almost entirely different type of spectacle.
So do yourself a favor: Next time you’re flipping through the channels and come across professional wrestling, at least stop for a second and consider the fact that you’re watching an organic product that evolved over thousands of years.
Ken Silva is a writer from Ohio. Wrestling image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.