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Fighting for Recognition: Identity, Masculinity, and the Act of Violence in Professional Wrestling

Fighting for Recognition: Identity, Masculinity, and the Act of Violence in Professional Wrestling

by R. Tyson Smith

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In Fighting for Recognition, R. Tyson Smith enters the world of independent professional wrestling, a community-based entertainment staged in community centers, high school gyms, and other modest venues. Like the big-name, televised pro wrestlers who originally inspired them, indie wrestlers engage in choreographed fights in character. Smith details the


In Fighting for Recognition, R. Tyson Smith enters the world of independent professional wrestling, a community-based entertainment staged in community centers, high school gyms, and other modest venues. Like the big-name, televised pro wrestlers who originally inspired them, indie wrestlers engage in choreographed fights in character. Smith details the experiences, meanings, and motivations of the young men who wrestle as "Lethal" or "Southern Bad Boy," despite receiving little to no pay and risking the possibility of serious and sometimes permanent injury. Exploring intertwined issues of gender, class, violence, and the body, he sheds new light on the changing sources of identity in a postindustrial society that increasingly features low wages, insecure employment, and fragmented social support. Smith uncovers the tensions between strength and vulnerability, pain and solidarity, and homophobia and homoeroticism that play out both backstage and in the ring as the wrestlers seek recognition from fellow performers and devoted fans.

Editorial Reviews

Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era - Michael Kimmel

"To know only the flamboyantly hypermasculine spectacle of WWE is like believing that a Broadway musical represents America's love of theater. R. Tyson Smith's carefully rendered empathic ethnography reveals the oft-hidden world of everyday guys who do it all—the exacting choreographed routines, the grandiose costumes—because they love it. Yet underneath the artifice of fake combat lie real dangers and constant injury. These guys are, as Smith says, 'fighting for recognition,' yes, but they are also playing for real."
Choice - E. J. Staurowsky

“Immensely readable and as vibrant in its energy as the subjects it seeks to present and understand, Fighting for Recognition focuses on young men who make their living in professional wrestling. . . . Highly recommended. All readers.”
Gender & Society - Brian Fair

“[A]n entertaining read that can be used in a sport or masculinities course, or any other context that explores the paradoxical aspects of identity construction.”
Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory - Randall Collins

"Behind the hypermacho performance of pro wrestling, R. Tyson Smith reveals a backstage where hard aggressive bodies are actually soft and yielding, hypersensitive as lovers so that they don't cripple each other. It is more akin to ballet than battle, except that all the effort goes into giving the opposite impression. This is one of the great ethnographies of the backstage of occupations, of athletes, of show business, of the bodily self—and of social performance itself."
Men and Masculinities - Kyle Green

"Smith demonstrates the value of taking this subculture seriously; for a place where white, working-class men must always battle the fear of being seen as fake or soft offers us a truly powerful starting point for unpacking the tensions and internal contradictions of masculinity."
Theatre Journal
"Smith has produced a highly readable and useful ethnography on the performance of independent professional wrestling. The book is invaluable to those working on performance and wrestling and develops theories of masculinity, physicality, and the labor of performance, which should find an audience even among those who might be less familiar with professional wrestling and its performance."
American Journal of Sociology - Heather Levi

"This theoretically sophisticated, fine-grained study of the quotidian practices of the Indy wrestling circuit will be of interest to scholars of gender, sports, and U.S. culture. It is also accessibly written and an ideal length for use in undergraduate courses."
Gender & History - Alex Channon

"By examining the bizarre and paradoxical world of this marginalised, quasi-sporting subculture, Smith produces an insightful account of contemporary, working class masculinity as a complex construct.... Fighting for Recognition is therefore sure to rank highly on the reading lists of scholars interested in men, combat sports and masculinity, and also fans of wrestling with an interest in what takes place behind the spectacular veneer of on-stage ‘sports entertainment’."
Theatre Journal - Eero Laine

"Smith has produced a highly readable and useful ethnography on the performance of independent professional wrestling. The book is invaluable to those working on performance and wrestling and develops theories of masculinity, physicality, and the labor of performance, which should find an audience even among those who might be less familiar with professional wrestling and its performance."
Canadian Journal of Sociology - Stacy L. Lorenz

"In Fighting for Recognition, R. Tyson Smith crafts a sophisticated and readable ethnographic analysis of the experiences of the young men involved in independent ('indie') professional wrestling. . . . Researchers and instructors in sport studies, cultural studies, and performance studies will find significant value in Smith's analysis."
Contemporary Sociology - Bryan Snyder

"Fighting for Recognition will be of particular interest for gender scholars and cultural sociologists. Intellectually challenging yet extremely accessible, this book would be a great option for both undergraduate and graduate courses."
International Review for the Sociology of Sport - Bruce Lee Hazelwood

"Smith does an excellent job articulating the draw of pro wrestling to young men and why, through all the pain and sacrifice, they continue. Smith is superb at describing and setting up a scene. The book transports a reader into the ring, eliciting the sights, sounds and smells of the world of wrestling. . . . Fighting for Recognition is accessible, offering palatable and engaging discussion of wrestling. As pro wrestling and other combat sports lack critical study, this book represents a needed contribution to the literature of sport sociology."

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Duke University Press Books
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Fighting for Recognition

Identity, Masculinity, and the Act of Violence in Professional Wrestling

By R. Tyson Smith

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7640-8



The World Wrestling Entertainment Corporation (WWE) brings pro wrestling into millions of homes in the United States and, increasingly, the world. These highly stylized live productions, which assure the publicly traded company annual revenue in the hundreds of millions, have made professional wrestling one of the most-watched "sporting events."

Indie wrestling, on the other hand, consists of regional wrestling promotions with no central organization and little to no television exposure. These scattered promotions operate in the background of the major league (i.e., WWE) and stay officially un-affiliated with it. Indie promotions can be found in nearly all US states but vary widely in terms of longevity, popularity, and profitability. Despite their independence of each other, the two levels overlap considerably in terms of styles, people, and histories. Modeled on competitive sport, both feature a referee, two or more fighters, a ring, and a declared winner after each match. To excite the crowd, indie wrestlers and WWE performers alike largely draw upon tried-and-true narratives, gimmicks, and stunts from professional wrestling's past.

The shows are outrageous by design. Loud, in-your-face performers turn to bashing each other's heads with steel chairs after a verbal argument. Bikini-clad women escort a wrestler to the ring and then cry when he loses his match. Blaring music, smoke, and nearly naked massive protagonists are part and parcel of the spectacle. There is bashing, bruising, and little subtlety; indeed, pro wrestling has been described by scholars as a "land of mask and monstrosity" (Henricks 1974, 178), "non-ambiguous" (Mazer 1998), and "masculine melodrama" (Jenkins 1997). Widely known is Roland Barthes's early, albeit farseeing, comment on pro wrestling: a "spectacle of excess" (1957).

The entertainment is defined by the live, immediate, unfiltered interaction between fans and performers. Without the spectators there could be no such thing as professional wrestling. Henry Jenkins IV, a cultural critic and avid pro wrestling fan, articulates how crucial this dialog is: "When I buy a ticket to a live show, I'm actually buying a ticket to have a tiny speaking part.... Wrestling is not a one-way monologue between the producers and the fans; it's a dialogue" (2005, 326).

The emotional exchange epitomizes what Elias and Dunning see as the function of contemporary sports: a ritual where we can discard self-restraint and revel in the show of strong feelings (1986). Central to the appeal is "collective effervescence"—Emile Durkheim's term (1995) for the energy experienced by individuals when an event creates a feeling of shared identity, emotion, and solidarity. With the story lines' "engaging fantasy," the creativity of the staging and props, the hyperphysicality of the performers, and the predictable yet (usually) fair outcomes, pro wrestling has all the ingredients that make violent entertainment appealing (Goldstein 1998, 223).

Importantly, the WWE dominates the entire American professional wrestling industry. While having one smaller domestic competitor that also televises shows, the WWE has remained the indisputable leader for roughly two decades. Because of this dominance, almost all pro wrestlers who move up to televised productions are at the WWE's mercy. Aside from international venues and the one domestic competitor, the WWE is, for all intents and purposes, the platform for professional wrestlers. Yet despite its prominence, the company has only 160 wrestlers under contract (USA Today 2007).

In most respects, members of the indie scene—be they fans, wrestlers, or promoters—take some pride in their disaffiliation. While they are undoubtedly envious of the WWE's power and influence, many wrestlers and fans maintain, almost as a moral distinction, that indie wrestling is a superior form of entertainment, one that is more community-based and authentic. Tod Gordon, founder of the indie federation Extreme Championship Wrestling, captured the antagonism for the WWE when he described his federation as "the Little Engine that Could" and noted that the "WWE [has] billions of dollars. We not only have no money, we're constantly in debt. But we've taken off because we deliver what we promise, without marketing and merchandising and pyrotechnics and all that other bullshit" (quoted in Hackett 2006, 23–24).

Indie promotions have come to have a reputation for "extreme" performances, with more violence and spectacle than the "family friendly" entertainment of earlier eras. The extreme-themed shows target a young male audience and emphasize "exciting, risky, action-packed sports that are culturally coded sites of individual rebellion and creativity" (Messner 2002, 82). Indie promotions commonly incorporate high-risk, dangerous stunts that use barbed wire, tables, ladders, chairs, trash cans, and steel cages as props. It is at least arguable that if such entertainment were exhibited under any other classification (aside from war), it would be perceived as criminal. As Klein found with body building, pro wrestling "combines a variety of cultural forms into something that purists have difficulty categorizing.... [It offers] an alternative to traditional athletic events by fusing physical development through training with artistic expression, eroticism, and spectacle" (1993, 44).

Story lines and characters are often derivative, exploiting well-worn, degenerate stereotypes of gender and class (e.g., the effete "pretty boy") and of course race and ethnicity (the southern redneck, the urban black thug). While this book's focus is not on how these portrayals are read and understood by audience members, racialized depictions are undoubtedly harmful in their replication of stereotypes. Nevertheless, I suggest that the depictions are no more harmful than the ordinary fare of the mainstream media that litters the airwaves.

With regard to the behavior of indie wrestlers backstage (during practice and training, in the locker room, etc.), racism exists, but it is a far cry from what certain commentators on working-class, poorly educated white men have characterized as racist. I heard outright, overt racial epithets fewer than a dozen times; in half of the cases, the comment was countered by one from a higher-status white person who addressed the impropriety and sometimes even dressed down the speaker. Furthermore, wrestlers of color are no dupes; they actively draw upon, even exploit, racial stereotypes at times. In the core group of Rage wrestlers was one who was Latino. (Two African American men were participants in the larger promotion, but they more peripheral, not core members.) While none of these men had raced-based characters, there were, for example, two African American brothers, frequent performers at Rage shows, who played demonic pariahs. One of these "outlaws" always wore a T-shirt that stated, "Don't make me break my probation." In his right eye he sported a contact lens that occluded part of his iris, furthering his menacing look. Curious enough, he also wore a beaded necklace (with white, green, and red beads) that bore a small black piece in the shape of the continent of Africa, pointing to his pride in his African heritage. So despite the fact that his character exploits a racial stereotype of criminal black men, he appears to take some pride in his racial heritage. It is my contention that indie wrestlers are no more racist than people found in most other majority-white spaces in the United States. Whatever racism there is resembles that in other communities in which there is "racism without racists" (Bonilla Silva 2010).

The indies' central institutions are training schools and wrestling promotions. The two are often interwoven, resulting in a single organization with overlapping personnel. Principal players are the training school operator, who typically is a former pro wrestling star; the promoter, an entrepreneur in charge of the business end; and the booker, who is responsible for creating the story lines wrestlers enact in the ring. In most cases, the booker and promoter, working together, jointly oversee everything leading up to and on the night of a show. The promoter usually has the ultimate say, as the production is dependent upon his sponsoring of finances, space, license, and insurance. An extended series of promotions involving the same set of wrestlers, promoters, and bookers is called a federation.

Generally speaking, training schools are bare-bones operations with limited resources. Beyond the purchase of a ring (a $4000–$5000 expenditure) and rental of a space, there are relatively few operating expenses. Even when schools and promotions are not merged into a single operation, they are usually closely affiliated because of their symbiotic relationship: shows allow trainers and school owners to showcase their students, and promoters need the wrestlers' talent. Aside from state athletic commissions, which set basic licensing standards for various forms of entertainment, there is no governing body that oversees and regulates the indies. Wrestlers learn of schools through word of mouth, via the Internet, or from information found while attending a local show.

Despite the exposure provided by the 2009 Academy Award–nominated film The Wrestler, most of the public remains unaware of the existence of the indies. Unlike WWE stars such as The Rock and Hulk Hogan, a well-respected indie veteran attracts little recognition outside his reference group (detailed in chapter 2). It is not uncommon for neighbors and coworkers of an indie pro, whether veteran or novice, to have no knowledge that their acquaintance moonlights as a wrestler.

The ephemeral, fly-by-night nature of indie wrestling makes the scene's size and scope particularly difficult to determine. Even knowledgeable insiders do not know the exact number of its schools, federations, wrestlers, and promoters. Noting that it was "almost ... impossible" to make accurate estimates, Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and the foremost authority on professional wrestling in the United States, offered a "guess" of "upward of 1,000 to 1,500 [indie] wrestlers and maybe 150–200 promotions" (Meltzer 2008).

While the Rage Wrestling School and its attendant promotion are relatively stable relative to other indie promotions, its financial health has not been consistently secure. Costs—rent for the space, pay for the trainers, and general liability insurance premiums—sometimes run ahead of income from tuition and ticket sales. Many indie promotions prove themselves "shady" businesses—schools suddenly shut down, promoters skip town, and performers receive pay (if any) only after the door proceeds have been counted. Several Rage participants described their experiences with other sketchy training schools. For example, the instructors asked them to pay for training in advance (from a month's to a year's worth, in some cases) and then made the first few days of training excruciatingly bruising—using arduous cardio work and aggressive, painful maneuvers ("stiffs"). Students were quickly intimidated and quit, leaving the instructors to pocket the prepaid tuition. Additional factors that make an estimate of the indies' scope difficult are that a high turnover is endemic to the scene because wrestlers get injured (they also have day jobs) and that promoters sometimes mount only one show with no follow up due to lack of financial success. A number of indie promoters are known for producing only a one-time show and intentionally moving on—a reminder of the entertainment's carnival roots.


Aspiring indie wrestlers typically begin with the misconception that they can make significant money from performing. Most, though, quickly become reconciled to the reality that the activity provides little, if any, compensation and involves several costs: transportation, food, equipment, medical expenses, and occasionally lodging. Cuss, the primary owner of the Rage Wrestling School, recalls his own entry into indie wrestling:

I had met some guy who said he was a wrestler, wrestled shows here and there, did matches on WCW. Said he got paid like $300 a match or something. I was telling this to Taz [the big-name star Cuss originally trained with], and he said, "Well, you're not going to make nearly that much money. And if you're doing it for the money, don't even bother." So I pretty much knew there, you had to [already] have money. Most indie wrestlers don't make much at all. Maybe enough to cover expenses.... [But] most of us do it for free. We'd do it for free anyway. So anything is nice.

As Cuss notes, younger, less experienced wrestlers are usually satisfied to simply be included in a show, and financial compensation is rarely expected. Some shows extend a small stipend for the night's performers ($25–$75 each), but it is very common for them to receive no pay at all. Compensation occurs at the promoter's discretion, and he is likely to base it on the size of the crowd, the number of performers on the card, and the status of the performer.

For a successful veteran performer, the money earned from indie wrestling might supplement another job, but it is not nearly enough to be a primary source of income. After accounting for expenses, a midlevel indie performer may count himself lucky if he comes out about even. There is no provision for health insurance or compensation for sports medicine support or medical trainers; they often prove quite costly given that injuries are so common. Not surprisingly, all indie wrestlers hold down day jobs.

Almost universally, indie wrestlers entering the scene dream of being offered a contract by the WWE. As they come to understand the subordinate position of the indies vis-à-vis the WWE and the steep uphill road, they adjust their dreams. After a year or two of performing, most wrestlers realize that the indies are where they will remain. Fishman, one of the Rage School wrestlers quoted at the start of this book, captures the realigned dreams of many midlevel indie performers:

Honestly, I take a look in the mirror and I don't think Vince [McMahon, CEO of the WWE] is going to be calling me up anytime soon. So five years from now, I'd like to be somewhere in wherever the upper arm of indie wrestling is ... [Wrestlers like me should] take a good long hard look at themselves and say, "I'm not pretty enough. I'm not tall enough. If I'm not in good enough shape, I'm only going to make it this far." Then shoot just past that.

Wrestlers usually accept the reality of never attaining big-time, WWE fame as a function of their own deficiencies. Nonetheless, they take a certain pride in remaining distinct from the almighty WWE and prize the indies as a more authentic, noncorporate production.

Family members ordinarily offer only limited support. Donny, who has been part of the Rage School for three years, sums up the typical concerns of those who are close to pro wrestlers: "A lot of people who come into wrestling say their parents don't support their idea of wanting to become a wrestler because they can get hurt, there's really no money, there's no insurance. You know, no nothing." Several other participants conveyed the outright contempt expressed by their family members. Mike, whose remarks about his father's hatred of pro wrestling are quoted at the beginning of this book, says that although his dad has known for years that his son wanted to be a pro wrestler, this awareness has not lessened his hatred of the activity. His father still "can't stand it."

Tony (a veteran of three-plus years) is more specific about the reasoning behind his father's disapproval. While he was initially supportive of Tony's participation, the more his father learned about the risks and health consequences, the more he disliked his son's choice.

Ever since we were at the show where Droz [former WWE star Darren Drozdov] got paralyzed, at Nassau Coliseum back in '99 ... that's when my Dad was like, "Are you sure this is the kind of business you want to get involved in? The guy's in a wheelchair now." Yeah. Big mind-changing thing for him. [Before that accident] he was like, "Oh yeah, my son's going to become a pro wrestler." Now he is kind of like, "He's crazy. I don't understand why he wants to do it." And then my Dad's also, "You don't want to have a normal life? You don't want to have kids, you don't want to see their first steps, or hear their first words?"

Besides highlighting how indie wrestling threatens a "normal" life (and the fatherly expectations that Tony's father holds for his son), the account shows how pro wrestling's inherent dangers are a primary source of the contempt friends and family often feel for what indies see as their calling. Wrestlers try to avoid injuries, but despite the scripted outcomes they happen all the time. Many of the injuries—to head, neck, joints, and spinal cord—have debilitating long-term cumulative effects. Paralysis and even death are possibilities. Moreover, as recent health research on professional football players has exposed, repercussions of repeated trauma to the head can be catastrophic, albeit invisible. Not surprisingly, it is difficult for those who are close to indie wrestlers to accept, let alone appreciate, the appeal of a lifestyle that involves such high risks and takes such an extensive toll on their loved ones' bodies.

For some family members and partners, one way of coping with the men's neglect of their bodies and health is a withdrawal of social support. Timmy is a veteran and senior trainer at the Rage School. His wife takes a dim view of his pro wrestling career: "Her first experience with pro wrestling I split my lip from here to here [pointing to a half-inch scar below the right side of his lip]. And I could stick my tongue through the hole. So she's wanted nothing to do with it since—and doesn't care." As with many other participants, Timmy now pursues this activity without spousal support.


Excerpted from Fighting for Recognition by R. Tyson Smith. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

R. Tyson Smith is Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at Brown University.

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