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    Monday, May 4, 2020

    The Word on the Rings: Something New (Normal) This Way Comes


    Editor's note: Five years ago, Smark Henry was founded in the hopes of being a watering hole for wrestling fans to engage in critical discourse about our favorite sport or form of entertainment. We're celebrating our fifth anniversary this week through these feature articles to bring back that spirit, even through these troubling times. 

    When a bunch of us started Smark Henry in 2015, we've never thought that wrestling would come to this: the wonderful world of wrestling without a crowd.

    Five years ago, none of us would have even imagined how wrestling is presented today. All these years of sharing with you what we think of the goings-on in wrestling—from RAW segments to AEW Dynamite matches to pay-per-views to live blow-by-blow coverage of PWR shows—were all predicated on wrestling being a show for a live audience. That's what wrestling is, from its roots in traveling carnivals to the multi-billion dollar industry that it is today: a play to the crowd. 

    And here we are, celebrating five years of Smark Henry... wondering where we go from here.

    More precisely: where does wrestling go in a "new normal" world, where the crowd as we know it is a thing of the past?

    ***

    Different countries will have their own ways of dealing with crowds, but one thing is for certain: for the foreseeable future, live events won't be happening at the same scale as they used to. The general consensus is that live events as we know it would be put on hold for the foreseeable future, which spells disaster for independent promotions and smaller wrestling organizations that do not have the financial or production scale as, say, WWE or NJPW or AEW. Even then, quarantines and lockdowns have an effect on talent, thus forcing promotions' hands for interim titles and introducing new talent who otherwise won't make it just yet to the main roster. The worst happened just around the time the WWE was declared an essential business: when over two dozen Superstars, talent, and other employees were let go or furloughed, in what was considered a "morally heartless and economically unnecessary" move by the more eloquent and knowledgeable. So much so that a podcast was spun off by two of them.

    It's a messy affair: say what you will about how every cloud has a silver lining, but that doesn't deny the existence of the cloud.

    Declaring the WWE as an "essential service" that won't be locked down or shut down in the state of Florida is one thing, but delivering the "essential" of sports entertainment has not really worked all that well for the WWE. The crowd-less AEW may be an alternative, but the appeal of the performance doesn't sit too well without crowd presence. NJPW has canceled its shows through May 4: but with news of an extended state of emergency looming for Japan, it's still a wait-and-see scenario.

    This brings us to a painfully obvious reality: as much as wrestling promotions try their best to entertain the quarantined public by delivering live events without a crowd, wrestling without a crowd simply does not work. The past five years have revealed a dynamic in wrestling where the live audience is as much of a performer in the spectacle of wrestling as the wrestlers themselves. They give life to the presentation, shroud it in a sense of legitimacy, and their responses are the arbiters of an outcome.

    It's the crowd that legitimized Daniel Bryan as an A+ player worthy of the most prestigious prize in wrestling. It is the crowd that helped define the path of gold for Kofi Kingston. The crowd put a place in its table for Orange Cassidy. The crowd rallied behind Kazuchika Okada for him to stake a claim as one of the premier wrestlers of all time. Without the crowd, everything seems off with how professional wrestling is presented, and how those stories are told.

    But that's the thing: we can't have a crowd just yet. Not with this crisis in place.

    ***

    And here's where things cease to be about wrestling, and more about the crisis itself. We can talk about the "new normal" all we want, and perhaps chalk up social and physical distancing as one of the many inconveniences that we have to deal with in the name of public safety. Whatever the case may be, the "new normal" isn't normal. We are social creatures, and a lot of interactions that bind society together are done up close and personal. Like wrestling, society thrives when there are crowds and gatherings and audiences, never mind what we feel about them at times. But there's the irony of the times that we're living in: in order for society to exist, for the most part, we all have to do our part and be distant from each other physically. To stay at home. But wrestling just isn't wrestling when we all stay at home, instead of being out there watching it.

    And the same idea can be held true for a lot of things that have made society work in the past: be it restaurants, concerts, conferences, religious gatherings, and so on.

    If anything, COVID-19 efforts at this point—especially now that we have quarantined people for an entire month (and then some)—shouldn't be about something as short-sighted as a "new normal" scenario. At this point, our plans should now be about how we, as people, can get over the hurdle of the "new normal" and bring back a genuine feeling of normalcy into our social lives, far from face masks in offices and physical barriers in airplanes. The road to getting there should be as much a part of the plan and the conversation as much as amelioration, or the endless streams of "pasaway" news that seem to get a lot of mileage these days. Without plans like that, the abnormality of the "new normal" is magnified.

    The expectation is that quarantines and "new normals" are temporary inconveniences that would shield us from the brunt of the coronavirus, not semi-permanent solutions that will completely define our way moving forward. But it seems like it, if only because some leadership doesn't look further into the future. The "new normal" shouldn't be that sweeping step that should define the rest of our lives, as much as it is the opportunity for us to start making those positive adjustments and decisions that make our previously normal lives even better.

    But this is, after all, a wrestling site... so I digress.

    ***

    Surely we'll all walk out of this with a lot of our thoughts about wrestling changed. Maybe a few years from now, WrestleMania won't fill stadiums, but be pockets of smaller scattered events over the world. Maybe the vision of an "Internet Championship" may be a reality, as more shows are broadcast online. Maybe wrestling psychology will change as a result of distance: the chant-inducing spotfests may be done away in favor of "cinematic wrestling." Who knows?

    But then again, it's been five years of Smark Henry and all. And if it proves anything, it's that wrestling endures. Even in the throes of these unprecedented times—rightly or wrongly—wrestling has endured. Wrestling may be many things to people: an escape, its own fictions, the global representation of Americana... and whatever it is, come the new normal. 

    And for all the eulogies and occasional think pieces I've personally written here over the years, my hope is that Smark Henry endures, too.

    Header image from WWE
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    Item Reviewed: The Word on the Rings: Something New (Normal) This Way Comes Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Marck Rimorin
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