Under The Bleachers: Professional Wrestling’s Renaissance Is Real

Above: WrestleMania 31 is set to be one of the biggest nights in WWE history

Call it fake. Call it stupid. Call it a soap opera for grown men. Call it whatever you like.

The truth of the matter is that professional wrestling is in the midst of a renaissance and that renewed interest in what WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon calls “Sports Entertainment” doesn’t appear to be waning.

Want proof?

Over the last several months, one of the biggest question marks in WWE has been the future of heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar. With his contract set to expire following WrestleMania 31 on Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, the question on everyone’s mind was whether Lesnar would re-sign with the WWE or leave professional wrestling for a second time in order to return to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and take one more stab at competing inside the Octagon after his first run was cut short due to health issues.

A couple weeks back, reports of a backstage blowout with McMahon that led to the former NCAA Div. I National Champion wrestler no-showing Monday Night Raw become even more intriguing when Lesnar showed up at UFC 184 in Los Angeles five days later at Staples Center. Though insider reports suggested Lesnar was learning towards staying in the WWE, no one knew for sure and the expectation was that everyone would have to wait until after WrestleMania 31 to find out what he was doing.

On Tuesday afternoon, Lesnar announced on ESPN that he had extended his contract with the WWE, while acknowledging that he had been preparing for a possible return to the UFC. “The World Wide Leader” then brought in Jonathan Coachman, a former WWE personality and current ESPN broadcaster, to speak with the massive heavyweight about his decision:

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This is the kind of thing that is traditionally reserved for major announcements in legitimate sports. As Grantland’s David Shoemaker (a.k.a. The Masked Man) said in his column on Thursday, this was “ESPN taking pro wrestling seriously enough to use a former WWE performer the same way they’d pull Marcellus Wiley in from the hallway if some big NFL news broke.”

Whether you like professional wrestling or not, you have to acknowledge that is big and something that wouldn’t have happened even as recently as five years ago. So what has changed?

For starters, the curtain has been pulled back on professional wrestling.

Gone are the days of trying to convince everyone that what they’re seeing in the ring is the genuine article – that Wrestler A has a legitimate hatred for Wrestler B or that the guy under all that face paint really is some kind of lunatic. There are still characters that head into the ring each night, but there are also the real people behind the pumped up personalities. The WWE is current in what is being called “The Reality Era” because we know so much about the wrestler’s both inside and outside of the ring and for a lot of fans, that’s part of what draws them in.

Additionally, the athletes themselves have evolved over the years. There is a different mix of talent taking to the ring these days than there was in the past. Not that there weren’t legitimate athletes that transitioned to professional wrestling back in the day, but just like how the hockey players of today are bigger, faster, stronger than the men that came before them, so too are the men and women that step inside the squared circle and it makes for a much more entertaining product than the days of pudgy jobbers getting beaten down by guys that looked like the bad ass from the local watering hole that you didn’t want to mess with on a Friday night or the clearly unathletic dude that the company just wanted to push as a star.

What’s cool about this renaissance is that it’s not exclusively a WWE thing.

Ring of Honor (ROH) remains the best of the indies and a landing area for talent on the way to and from the WWE, as well as a bunch of quality performers that have been standouts outside of the biggest organization in pro wrestling for a long time, while a ticket to a Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG) show in Reseda, California (mostly) is difficult to come by.

On top of that, there is a renewed interest in the Japanese wrestling scene amongst North American fans as well, as shows like Wrestle Kingdom 9 from New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) was a must-see event. Former promotional stars Prince Devitt and Kenta have been signed to WWE developmental deals – they now compete on NXT as Finn Balor and Hideo Itami respectively – and there are a ton of talents on the roster that could make successful transitions to WWE alongside of them if given the opportunity.

Still don’t want to accept this renaissance is real?

Jump on Twitter on Sunday evening and check out what’s trending. Don’t be surprised if you see WWE and #WrestleMania at the top of the list.

Oh it’s true. It’s damn true.

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