I know real wrestling when I see it. Some friends and readers of this blog are sometimes dubious about my word choice when I claim that some forms of pro wrestling are more "real" than others. In the context of pro wrestling real is a word that often has to be put in quotation marks. It invites a kind of solipsism in that my idea of real wrestling may differ from yours. The debate often boils down to how we define our terms--for instance, is it a real picnic if everybody's dining outside but all the food was prepared in advance? It depends on what you mean by "picnic," apparently. Or is a protest march less real because it's the result of months of planning and organization? In my mind, pro wrestling is "real" so long as it involves substance and competition at some point, even if enhanced and embellished with elements of theatrical performance. Or put more simply, "real wrestling for me" means I can't tell who's going to win the match just two minutes into it--perhaps not the most objective standard, but I can't remember when I last saw a WWE match that I did not know without a doubt who the winner was going to be even before the match began.
Reading up on the history of catch wrestling (and I find pro wrestling's history as fascinating as most other aspects of it), I learned that "kayfabe" used to refer just to the fact that most fights involved a certain level of theater and sideshow hype, that the wrestlers seldom despised each other as much as they pretended to, that at some point--before or during the match, in advance of the ultimate and spectacular finish--the outcome would be decided. It was not all choreography. It involved a knowledge of moves, dancelike but freeform like expressionistic dancing. In most early matches, the wrestlers first wrestled in earnest. When it became apparent that one wrestler was dominating the other, the rest of the match played out as a spectacle of conquest and suffering, largely but not entirely play-acting, an amplification of what had already transpired. Sometimes the real contest occurred in private, before the shows, to decide who would be the victor--and then the official match reenacted and dramatized that previous contest. When WWE and other promotions let the kayfabe-ness of pro wrestling out of the closet, so to speak, they mostly abandoned the iffier (riskier and potentially less crowd-pleasing) aspect of competition in the ring, preferring to script whole matches (and whole storylines that linked individual matches), with attention to the entertainment aspects of wrestling, pretty much chucking its competitiveness altogether.
In Beyond Wrestling's Coin-Op Co-Op, shot last September but not yet available on DVD, we see Julian Starr, 5'10", 205#, and Mark Angel, 5'10", 205#, engage in what looks like a real wrestling match. (You can watch this match in its entirety here, for free, on YouTube.) Both men draw on techniques of mat wrestling, embellished with less sporting flourishes like the use of ring ropes and body slams. I can't tell whether the outcome was prearranged, but the fact that "I can't tell" is one marker of "real" for me (as it is for everybody, I guess). At some point--I have not pinpointed it--the action becomes more theatrical and studied, indicating movement towards an inescapable (but still largely unguessable) conclusion. But up to that point and in instances after that point, the two men's heated competitiveness seems undeniable--and, yeah, real.
Look, even if you don't buy my reasoning about "real wrestling" (cautionary quote marks in place), Angel-vs-Starr is one fantastic match, fulfilling everything that draws me to wrestling. Check out those height and weight stats above: these guys are evenly matched down to blood type, apparently. Two aggressive guys willing to pull out the stops. This is theater! This is primal! This is red hot! The exhibition of American-style machismo may not be pointedly homoerotic, but it is porn enough for this queer mark. The wrestlers' aggressiveness and use of mat techniques and identifiable wrestling holds make the bout ten times better than anything I saw at WWE this past weekend. This fight reminds me of the days of Jack Brisco, when wrestling first captivated me. The in-the-moment-ness of this match from beginning to end is startling and satisfying. Both men are built the way I think wrestlers ought to be built--tough, thick, and yet graceful. The wrestlers' roles are discovered in how they wrestle--not so much in what they have to say or what their backstory is. If this match is not real, it most definitely is getting real. It transcends whatever simulation may have been involved in its performance to become a "reality unto itself," or what Umberto Eco might call "an authentic fake." A myth you can sink your teeth into.