For decades, professional wrestling has been a popular and profitable force in mainstream culture. But how exactly would you classify wrestling? Is it a sport? Theater? Farce? Art? In his new book “The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling,” author and journalist David Shoemaker attempts to answer that question while digging deep into the history of pro wrestling and the fans who have made it a pop cultural juggernaut.
Call it what you will, but one undeniable fact about professional wrestling is that what the audience sees is fake, at some level. But it wasn’t always that way.
“In reality, it was never totally on the level,” Shoemaker says. “Its origins was back in the carnival days, where sideshows would come to town and there would be wrestling exhibitions. But there was a period where wrestling as a national sport was legitimate — it was just really boring. So the promoters made the really smart decision to liven things up by faking it.”
Professional wrestling’s popularity comes in no small part from its ubiquity on American television for the last half-century. Shoemaker says that because it’s relatively cheap and easy to produce, wrestling has been the choice of networks working in new formats — whether it be broadcast television, cable, or streaming online content.
“When national television first took off in the 50s, wrestling was the first sport — it was so much easier to film and television than baseball, say,” Shoemaker says. “The same thing happened when national cable companies like USA and TBS started up. They needed content, and wrestling was there to give them the content. And now, we see the same thing happening… with Netflix and Hulu — it’s wonderful content for them to have on the air and get a kind of little niche market in there.”
While pro wrestling hit its peak in the early 2000s, it remains popular — and profitable. “I talked to a stock researcher, and he pointed out that they’re going to renegotiate their television contract — and it might be two times, three times, four times the size it is now, which would make an incredible difference to their bottom line,” Shoemaker says.