Wrestling fans are used to hearing people tell them “you know it’s fake, right?” My rebuttal to this is to point out that all TV shows are fake. It’s like asking a fan of Game of Thrones if they know that the dragons in the show are CGI. If anything, wrestling is much more real than other things on TV, including heavily edited “reality” shows. It has predetermined outcomes, but the physicality is more real than most people assume and the storytelling is often tethered to reality in a way that other scripted shows aren’t.
I think wrestling is at its best when it has that connection to reality and gets viewers to forget that they’re watching characters. But these days, with social media and WWE’s branding of itself as a “sports entertainment” company, wrestling is probably the least immersive it’s ever been. The talented wrestlers are often stuck delivering overly scripted, inauthentic promos and too many matches feel like choreographed ballet routines instead of a fight. While the show has moved away from larger-than-life characters like The Undertaker (a dead guy), it is still hard to get emotionally invested in what’s going on because a lot of the wrestlers aren’t allowed to truly show what they can do.
This all ties into why the last few months of Becky Lynch have been so satisfying. I already wrote about her feud with Charlotte Flair, which culminated in Becky keeping her title at Evolution, WWE’s first all-women’s pay-per-view, in an epic last woman standing match that was my favorite in WWE this year. Since then, Becky’s star has continued to rise: I don’t know if she is literally the most popular performer in the company, but nobody is getting the reactions she does, and her character is connecting with the audience in a way that few ever have. And much of it is due to how her character feels real, how it intertwines with her actual self, and how she tells stories in a way that creates maximum immersion. It’s to the point that when Becky is on TV, I actually do think wrestling is real for a brief moment. I want her to win, I feel happy when she gets cheered, and I hate her opponents. I’ve always tried to keep an ironic distance from wrestling because it’s “cooler” to watch that way, but I’m all the way in this and there’s no getting out. I’m a “mark,” as they say, and it feels great.
After dispensing with Charlotte Flair, whose father once famously said “to be the man, you gotta beat the man,” Becky has christened herself The Man in a clever post-gender angle. It’s her character showing confidence while also acknowledging the reality that she’s on top and is genuinely the most exciting thing in wrestling. WWE tried to portray this new-found confidence as villainous, but it resonates too much with people who feel like they’re not getting what they deserve and lack Becky’s ability to do something about it. While most people are stuck without real options in scenarios where they feel undervalued, Becky’s character lives in the wrestling reality where you can beat the crap out of your co-workers and show you’re better than them. It’s very cathartic, and I think fans are living vicariously through Becky as they witness someone who they perceive as being underrated by the company climb all the way to the top while taking no prisoners.
Becky has created this unique connection to the audience in part by showing a deep understanding of her character and staying true to it in publicity appearances and on social media. When she explains why she calls herself The Man, it’s part Becky Lynch, part Rebecca Quin, and the line between the two is blurred in a way that only happens with wrestlers. Observe how she toes the line in this interview for an LGBT news outlet, touting her accolades from the wrestling world while also making real-world points she actually believes about gender/sexuality equality.
Now established as The Man, Becky entered a feud with Ronda Rousey, WWE’s current biggest star in terms of mainstream appeal who has proven to be a natural at professional wrestling. They exchanged barbs for a couple of weeks, with Rousey notably mocking Becky for taking odd jobs and retiring from wrestling for awhile while she was dominating in UFC. Lynch’s response to this was up there as one of the best babyface promos I’ve ever seen, as she described her real-life upbringing and struggles as an independent wrestler as a contrast to Rousey, who she perceived as being bred for greatness. It was character-defining in establishing Becky as someone who worked her way to the top, never got handed anything, and developed an authentic connection with the fans in spite of how she was often portrayed. Wrestlers are rarely thought of as artists by the general public, but there is real artistry here in her choice of words, the delivery, and the way she connects her real-life self to her on-screen character.
But, as has happened a weird amount of times in this storyline, reality intervened. On the Monday before her big match with Rousey was scheduled, Lynch led an “invasion” of her show, Smackdown, on Raw. They do this every year and usually I find it to be contrived nonsense. But this became a prime example of how the real world and the wrestling world can merge to create unmatched serendipitous drama.
While the wrestlers were randomly brawling, Becky took a legitimate punch to the face from Nia Jax, the giant of the women’s division. Now, I’ve never been in the ring (surprising, I know), but my understanding is that a lot of the strikes, while not being completely fake, are done in a way to protect the opponent and cause no real damage. The top goal in this choreographed play-fighting is to make sure no one gets hurt while still putting on a show that appears realistic. So what Jax did was an egregious blunder: nobody is supposed to just land a full punch to someone’s face or it creates what happened here — a serious injury and a lot of blood.
Becky went down briefly, and had what is later described by WWE as “a severe concussion and a broken face.” But then she got back up and finished out the show with blood all over her face and hands. She hit Rousey with a chair and then taunted her from the crowd, completely owning the entire scene while bleeding profusely and I’m sure being in a tremendous amount of pain (not to mention being concussed). She looked like the coolest person who ever lived and I knew I was witnessing an iconic wrestling moment.
If there was any doubt, this cemented Becky as a legend and a character unlike anything wrestling fans have seen. It was also when I realized that the women’s division in WWE genuinely feels like the most important and coolest thing on the show, which was always her goal. The downside to the moment is that, well, she had a severe concussion and a broken face. And that meant she wasn’t able to actually have the match with Rousey, which was likely going to be main event the show and be a huge moment for women’s wrestling in WWE.
One of the narratives running through Becky’s story has been the idea that the company has “held her down,” which was basically true as she was booked to lose a lot for multiple years. But somewhere during this push, I think she has opened the eyes of people backstage and it feels like the machinery is totally behind her now. A good piece of evidence was this mini-documentary they did on her finding out that she wouldn’t be able to wrestle Rousey.
Out of all of the reality/fiction-blending things involving Becky recently, this is the most impactful. It’s mundane in how it shows her going through a fairly bland real-life routine of calling her mom, checking her phone, and eating. But then she receives the gutting news and there’s this moment where she is simultaneously Becky Lynch and Rebecca Quin. She wants to have this match to kick Ronda Rousey’s ass, but she also wants this match because as a performer, she’s spent years working up to this point, building all this momentum, and now she feels it could slip away because of a co-worker’s careless mistake. It’s heartbreaking to watch and as real as it gets.
The silver lining to all of this is that if Lynch recovers (which isn’t trivial given a concussion), she could be in line to main event WrestleMania, the biggest show of the year, against Rousey, which seemed unthinkable a few months ago. Women have never main evented that show and I honestly never thought they would — not because they weren’t capable, but because I never felt like the company would get behind it. But Lynch has given the company little choice with the artistry of her performances and the way she has rallied fans behind her organically. As a performer and character, she is making wrestling feel real, and it should lead to her finally getting what she deserves: the biggest match of the year, on the biggest stage, with thousands of people chanting her name.