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Ronda Rousey and the Problem With Keeping Things Too Real in Pro Wrestling

Fakin’ it is the best way to make it in the WWE’s world of sports entertainment

Ronda Rousey is, theoretically, a lifelong pro wrestling fan. One of her mentors is “Judo” Gene LeBell, a mid-century national level judo player turned pro wrestler whose roots in the business go back to his parents being longtime promoters in L.A. Also, out of character, Rousey talks like a longtime fan, and since becoming a pro wrestler a year ago, she’s taken to performing exactly as well as you’d hope an Olympic medalist grappler who had been a fan since childhood would. As a result, you’d expect her to have a basic understanding of the underlying logic that helps fans maintain basic suspension of disbelief.

You’d be wrong.

In the last couple weeks, Rousey has, inexplicably, made a habit of, while in character and forwarding her storyline rivalry with Becky Lynch, making comments that explicitly refer to pro wrestling being, for lack of a better term, scripted entertainment. This actually goes back to November, when Lynch suffered a broken nose and concussion from an accidental legitimate punch from Nia Jax, and Rousey posted on Instagram that “now everyone knows if someone hauls off and punches you for real, your face implodes.”

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@beckylynchwwe I’m really sorry to hear The Millennial Man will not be showing up for her legally arranged ass whooping on November 18th at the Staples Center. Unfortunately now everyone knows if someone hauls off and punches you for real, your face implodes. I suggest you keep practicing your tough guys faces in the mirror, should be very effective physical therapy. And have fun watching Korean soap operas on Netflix or whatever the hell the Millennial Man does with her free time. Don’t worry I’m not the back stabbing cheap shotting ambushing cowardly type, so you’re perfectly safe to take your time and heal up until your figurative balls have dropped and you’re finally ready for your comeuppance. I want you 100% healed up, prepared, and looking me in the eye when the bell rings. Lemmie know when you’re done healing your boo boos and ready for me to serve you your ass on a silver platter with your avocado toast. I do have to admit, The Millennial Man is stunningly conniving. She poked the bear and ran like a bat outta hell when the bear awoke – Feeding me her favorite frienemy and fellow #FAUXhorsewoman @charlottewwe is a new level of manipulative cowardice, even for The Millennial Man. @charlottewwe is a Superfight and I've always wanted to fight her – but she's just the stand in for the beating @beckylynchwwe has coming to her this Sunday. I’ll be sending The Champ a choice piece of Charlotte as a souvenir?? #RondaVsCharlotte #SurvivorSeries #Nov18 #4horsewomenVSfauxhorsewomen

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For a couple months, though, it seemed like someone had explained to Rousey that you can’t have it both ways and break the fourth wall like that, but it was short-lived, as she completely obliterated said wall starting at the end of last month. Let’s count the ways:

1) Lynch was arrested in storyline and tweeted the “mugshots,” with Rousey replying that “taking fake prison photos in the hallway isn’t helping.”

2) Rousey called Lynch’s “Disarmher” arm bar finishing hold “fake” and “nonsensical,” even though she’d sold it as debilitating in November.

3) Rousey tweeted, “Rebecca Quin [Lynch’s real name], I don’t care what the script says, I’m beating the living shit out of you the next time I see you.”

4) After Lynch glibly asked if, in light of the weird fourth-wall breaking, Rousey was doing okay, Rousey pledged to actually beat her up so badly she’ll need to file a lawsuit.

5) Rousey dropped a YouTube video where she signed off with, “Wrestling is scripted. It’s made up. It’s not real. None of those bitches can fucking touch me. The end.”

Pro wrestling is, of course, a unique genre of entertainment. It’s performed almost entirely in front of live audiences, including its weekly TV shows, which air new episodes 52 weeks a year. Because of that, as well as its history as a completely closed-off business built on a con, not to mention its unique relationship with the fans and their desire for behind-the-scenes information, breaking the fourth wall in some form or fashion to generate more interest makes sense. But if you do what Rousey did — which, thankfully doesn’t really happen for the most part — reality collapses unto itself because you’re saying that the entire universe is a sham… except for you at the moment you’re talking. So unless you’re doing a pro wrestling version of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which neither WWE nor any other major promotion has ever been, it doesn’t come close to working.

The past is particularly damning in this regard. That is, similar wall-breaking in wrestling history has been a complete disaster. Case in point: In 2000, World Championship Wrestling, the now-defunct WWE competitor that was owned by Turner Broadcasting, built a major storyline around reality collapsing that stemmed from a match at the New Blood Rising event between Bill Goldberg, Scott Steiner and Kevin Nash. Basically, Nash set Goldberg up for his Jackknife Powerbomb finishing move, only for Goldberg to shove him away, mouth off awkwardly and walk out. Vince Russo, the ex-WWE television writer who had taken on the same role in WCW and also made himself a top villain, quickly appeared in the aisle to argue with Goldberg, who yelled, “What are you gonna do about it?” at him, amidst a seven-second delay dumping out part of the exchange. At this point it’s weird, but not particularly egregious — until color commentator Mark Madden tries to explain the proceedings.

“Hey, maybe Goldberg was supposed to do something that wouldn’t have made him look good, but this doesn’t make him look good, either, does it?” asks the Pittsburgh-based sportswriter and talk show host.

“What it is, I’m thinking Goldberg was supposed to go up for the Jackknife, and wouldn’t do it, he swerved Kevin Nash right there and [Nash] tried to talk him back into it, and he said no,” posited fellow announcer Scott Hudson in response.

“You see the facial reaction of Nash?” asks Tony Schiavone, the lead play-by-play announcer. “He didn’t expect that to happen at all!”

It gets even dumber from there, with Madden going off about what a professional Nash is and Schiavone dropping possibly the most mind-numbing line ever uttered by announcer on a wrestling broadcast. “If, in fact, this Jackknife Powerbomb was part of this design, what’re they gonna do now, improvise?” asked Schiavone, who sounded like his hate for his job had become all-consuming. After a few more minutes, Nash beat Steiner, who earned praise from the announcers for his own “professionalism” despite a decidedly recent real life record of anything but.

Not that there’s any way for something like this to make sense in the first place, but it’s never explained why anyone watching should be invested in the rest of the show if everyone is admitting that it’s a performance without “real” stakes. Yet the Goldberg storyline continued nonetheless, leading to a match with Steiner that was specifically advertised as having “no script.” Shenanigans aside, those two managed to have a violent, compelling match, one of the few highlights of WCW programming that year. The “everything you’re watching is fake, except for this, which is real” method of storytelling didn’t exactly lead to box office success, though: Fall Brawl 2000, the show with the Goldberg-Steiner match, was bought by a little more than half as many homes as bought the 1999 version. WCW’s assets were sold to WWE at a fire-sale price just six months later.

None of this is to say that there aren’t ways to break the fourth wall in pro wrestling. But that deconstruction needs to be both careful and competent. In particular, you have to reference IRL events that give an air of credibility and an element of danger, as if something that wasn’t supposed to be happening is happening (that reference, though, shouldn’t be reliant on pro wrestling actually being “fake” or “scripted”). The famous 2011 CM Punk “pipe bomb” promo is a perfect example, with everything he says being plausible within the established reality of WWE programming. On top of that, everything that the average viewer might not be aware of is established via contextual clues, so it should never be too difficult to keep up. Throw in good execution and just how rebellious it came off, and Punk — who legitimately had every intention of leaving WWE when his contract expired a few weeks later — became such a breakout star that he had to re-sign with the company and reap his rewards.

In other words, you don’t really need to overthink pro wrestling to make it work. Because if you do, it starts to fall apart. The same for when things get a little too real. And that’s the true reality Rousey now finds herself in.