When learning to write fiction, I imagine most people heard the mantra, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s a useful, if overly simple, way to keep the consumer interested in the story you are telling. In wrestling, “showing” takes place mainly in the ring. If two wrestlers are involved in a blood feud, the most effective way to show that they hate each other is for them to go all out with aggressiveness in the ring. If two wrestlers are seeing who is best, the in-ring work becomes a game of one upping each other. If they are fighting over a girl, she will be at ringside, no doubt to give her favorite an edge.
The WWE is by far the worst at this among the promotions I watch. Every single episode of Raw opens with someone standing in the ring and literally telling us the stories. WWE assumes that its viewers are so dumb, they must be handed the story in the simplest, most easily accessible manner. WWE patterns itself a family company, and no doubt doesn’t want children to be confused. But kids are not as dumb as WWE seems to believe. There are dozens of recent children’s cartoons filled with depth and subtlety that both kids and adults can enjoy. WWE though, caters to what it believes to be the lowest common denominator, so they will continue to explicitly tell the viewer what is happening and how we should feel about it.
New Japan does the best at this mode of storytelling. They have to be, in order to appeal to a global audience of wrestling fans. I don’t speak a lick of Japanese, but I am able to follow along with the stories. When Okada lost the main event at Wrestlekingdom last year, he didn’t need to tell us how unhappy he was, we could see it on his face as he cried out of the ring. Shibata doesn’t need to spend 20 minutes telling us why he is feuding with Naito. From watching them in the ring we know Shibata is an intense man and Naito is a lazy dick. Speaking of Naito, he has his in ring character tuned to perfection. The way he lounges against the ropes in tag matches and takes every opportunity to troll his opponent is fantastic. He is a masterclass in showing us his character, not telling.
NXT does a decent job of not going the full WWE. Their promo’s are kept short and sweet, and are followed up by appropriate in ring action. The recent debut of Asuka is a good example. Instead of just telling us, “Asuka is great” (though they did plenty of that too), we got a build to seeing how good she could be. It was her menacing smile, the reaction of Emma and Dana Brooke after watching her training video, and her vignettes, that built her up. But the most important part of her debuting story was her in ring dismantling of Brooke. NXT has reached an ideal middle ground of telling us the story through short promos, and showing us the story with in ring action.
Finally, there is Lucha Underground, which is almost on whole different level when it comes to showing us and not just telling us. We are told Drago is a dragon wrestler, and then we are shown Drago sprouting wings, breathing fire, and flying off. LU will run counter to my desire to see storytelling happen in the ring, though there is plenty of that as well. The difference between LU and WWE though, is that Lucha Underground knows how to tell a story through promos. They are able to take people without acting chops and make them look like a stars, all while telling us the story. In WWE, people like Roman Reigns are put in the middle of the ring for 10 minutes, made to stumble through awkward promo after awkward promo, telling us for the 20th time why is doesn’t like Bray Wyatt.
It’s ineffective and cringe-worthy how often the WWE falls on this trope. It’s especially prevalent in the mid-card, when wrestlers are not given the time to tell a story through the match. So guys like Neville, Wade Barrett, Sheamus, and Cesaro are brought out for us every week to have the same five minute match they had last week, and Michael Cole tells us why they are fighting this week while JBL makes jokes.