Why WWE Smackdown Is Like a Night at the Orchestra

McQuade: People pretended to fight in South Philly last night, and it was just lovely.

Photo | Dan McQuade

Photo | Dan McQuade

Randy Orton is slagging Philadelphia, and I’m smiling while I boo.

Orton is the WWE World Heavyweight Champion, a title that is so important he gets to carry around two belts at once. He was scheduled to face John Cena in the main event of Tuesday night’s taping of WWE Smackdown, but Orton doesn’t want to wrestle. He actually leaves the ring and heads for the back, wanting to “get out of this crap town.”

(Previously,  Cena asked the crowd if it wanted to see a fight, mentioning that Philadelphia has a football team so tough there was a jail in the old stadium. It wasn’t the players who were being arrested! The toughness of the team had no bearing on the founding of Eagles Court; it was more about that dude who fired a flare gun on Monday Night Football.)

Cena runs down Orton, sends him back to the ring and suddenly we have a match. Yes, the two are about to pretend to fight. Or, rather: They’re going to have a wrestling match where the outcome is predetermined, the actual believability of which is laughable.

We don’t care. And neither do the other thousands of people at the Wells Fargo Center, who are all in on the gag, too. (WWE didn’t announce the attendance; the building was crowded but not full, though parts of the mezzanine were tarped off. Two WWE shows drew 15,000 last year at the Wells Fargo Center, though.) I’m sure many are scoffing at the stupidness of it all: Two men, one in what are essentially Speedos (Orton) and another in what are absolutely jorts (Cena), pretending to fight.

But wrestling is a thing that Philadelphians absolutely love, and I think its allure is fascinating. The Spectrum was always a stop-over for the then-World Wrestling Federation, and in the 1990s Philly was home to Extreme Championship Wrestling, an innovative wrestling promotion that featured people going through tables, dangerous chair shots to the head and some of the more clever storylines in wrestling history. (Okay, “innovative for wrestling.”) Since ECW’s demise (and purchase by WWE), several independent promotions still run cards in the Philadelphia area.

I can’t speak for everyone, but when I attend wrestling it’s to make fun of it. This has always been the allure! Pro wrestling was first introduced to me when I was 6; it came with a disclaimer of “these guys pretend to fight and it’s really cool.” (It was the late 1980s, we may have used “radical” or even “tubular.”) I can’t speak for everyone in the ’80s and ’90s, but this is how my friends and I watched wrestling as kids.

When I watch wrestling to make fun of it, I’m not usually making fun of the wrestlers. (I mean, I can’t stand a couple of the guys.) I actually respect them quite a bit; wrestling is a hard job — the pay isn’t great for most guys, the trauma it does to your body is unimaginable, the schedule is year-round — and I respect them. There’s no shame in dressing up in tights and flopping around a ring for a living.

But wrestling is a live art form. And, since it’s dudes — and occasionally women — flying into each other to simulate violence, it can only be choreographed so well. Sometimes things go wrong: People slip, moves are executed poorly. Sometimes in-ring interviews are ill-conceived or just plain stupid. Sometimes wrestlers just aren’t very good! But it’s more than that: It’s sort of watching the wrestling to make fun of wrestling in general. It’s an art form that invites mockery. You see the same things over and over again — the same moves, the same story lines — and when it’s actually performed well it’s the pinnacle of soap opera.

I compare it to going to see the Philadelphia Orchestra or the Philly Pops. Many of these shows involve music the crowd already knows. They have heard, say, a Beethoven symphony a thousand times. But they want to see it again; perhaps the conductor does something different with his magic wand and — okay, I don’t really know much about appreciating classical music. But I do know that it’s very similar to wrestling, only Yannick Nézet-Séguin sells fewer T-shirts than Daniel Bryan. There’s beauty in the repetition.

Take Tuesday night. My friend David actually called the finish of the Orton-Cena match before it even started. While WWE was taping for Smackdown, its secondary weekly program, Tuesday night, not everything would be shown on TV. The Orton-Cena bout was a “dark match,” which means it was just done to send the home crowd happy. This means Orton wasn’t losing his title(s) and neither man was going to lose clean. (C’mon, the fun is playing along with the fictional sport; winning by pinfall is more impressive than winning by disqualification or count out.)

And, what do you know, David’s exact prediction came true: The ref was knocked out, and Cena got his patented submission hold. (Wrestlers have an arsenal of patented moves, including set-up moves and a “finisher” that is much stronger than your regular moves. See, aren’t the rules fun? Admit it, this is a way better fantasy setting than Lord of the Rings.) Randy Orton gave up with the ref knocked out — new champion! — but there was no referee to rule on it. Later, with the ref conscious again, Orton hit a low-blow on Cena and was disqualified, retaining his title(s) — an ending my group of friends also called. We had seen variations on this stupid finish hundreds of times before. On a card that was relatively sloppy and uneven, it was the best thing all night.

The audience — which, let’s be clear, is still mostly kids and their parents (though the parents are occasionally into it more than the kids) — went home happy. I did, too, with more appreciation of Another Stupid Thing That Is Popular in Philadelphia. My favorite type of Stupid Thing!

Follow @dhm on Twitter.