Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 31, Issue 2, pp 129–148

Pain in the Act: The Meanings of Pain Among Professional Wrestlers


    • Department of SociologyStony Brook University

DOI: 10.1007/s11133-008-9098-9

Cite this article as:
Smith, R.T. Qual Sociol (2008) 31: 129. doi:10.1007/s11133-008-9098-9


This paper draws upon the relational turn in the study of pain to understand and explain the ways in which professional wrestlers manage and make sense of physical suffering. The paper focuses on how pain-laden interactions in the ring and the gym give form to the ways in which participants of wrestling think and feel about pain. The research is based on a long-term ethnography of professional wrestling. The article does two things: (a) explores the bodily skills that wrestlers cultivate to handle a context of ever-present pain, and (b) explains what the wrestlers’ interactions tell us about the meanings of pain that wrestlers come to share. Based on the reconstruction of participants’ lived experience of pro wrestling, I suggest that pain becomes attractive to wrestlers because it is given substantive meaning which encompasses denial, authenticity, solidarity, and dominance.


AthletesPainProfessional wrestlingSportsSymbolic interaction


Professional wrestling is a paradoxical world: it is predicated upon the public display, even celebration, of interpersonal violence, but its participants skillfully and relationally avoid pain and injury. This paper draws upon the relational turn in the study of pain to understand and explain the ways in which wrestlers manage and make sense of physical suffering.

Historically, understandings of pain have been governed by two institutions of knowledge. The realm of the body was studied by the field of medicine, while the realm of the mind and soul was studied by philosophers and theologians (Zborowski 1969). In Western discourse, the phenomenon of pain has been mainly identified with physiology, and understandings of pain and suffering are explained, almost exclusively, by the field of medicine (Morris 1991). Subsequently, pain is primarily considered a bodily reaction involving the transmission of nerve impulses. As the International Association for the Study of Pain defines it, pain is “an unpleasant sensory or emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage” (International Association for the Study of Pain 1979, p. 249–52).1 There are sometimes markers for the “sensory or emotional experience,” but pain is an unseen, subjective symptom. There are no objective tests for detecting pain or measuring its intensity (Osterweis et al. 1987).

Contemporary research highlights the shortcomings of a strict physiological perspective and examines pain and illness as a social phenomenon: interactions are crucial in the individual’s understanding of pain. Arthur Kleinman (1988) investigates how the meanings of illness are shared and negotiated and deeply embedded in the social world. Drew Leder’s work on the body explains how pain cannot be reduced to just sensory qualities, but rather, it is a “manner of being-in-the-world... [that] reorganizes our lived space and time, our relations with others and with ourselves” (1990, p. 73). David Morris (1991), in turn, finds that pain is a powerful force that is far from a strictly corporeal phenomenon. It is a varied experience endowed with assorted meanings and interpretations depending on the time, place and person(s). As he contends:

[W]e experience pain only and entirely as we interpret it. It seizes us as if with an unseen hand, sometimes stopping us in mid-sentence or mid-motion, but we too capture and reshape it.... [I]t is never simply an impersonal code of neural impulses, like changeless, computer-generated messages sent over an internal telephone line. Human pain is never timeless, just as it is never merely an affair of bodies (Morris 1991, p. 29).

Empirical studies have further illuminated the relationship between physiological pain and the social processes that rule its perception, experience and meaning (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987). Pain is not perceived in any universal manner, and pain stimuli are understood within a larger signification system. Pain is given different meanings depending on the time, place, and the person (or group of persons) involved. Social processes influence how the mind and emotions exaggerate or diminish the perception of pain (Morris 1991, p. 43).

Furthermore, research reveals how identity can be shaped by the experience of pain and injury—for pain presents the possibility of developing new meanings of the relationship between body and self (Good et al. 1994; Frank 1995; Charmaz 1999). Studies of boxers, dancers, and piano players show that their social worlds may assuage or exacerbate the likelihood of painful injuries and shape the lived experience of pain (Wacquant 1998; Alford and Szanto 1996; Wainwright et al. 2005). The specific social universes in which participants are embedded shape their bodily disposition towards and—crucially, for the case at hand—against pain.

An emergent field of research focuses on pain and injury as it relates to sports and male athletes (Messner 1996; Nixon 1992; Young et al. 1994; White et al. 1995; Howe 2001, 2004). Extensive research by Nixon has found that sports promote a “culture of risk” where injury is normalized (1992). Frey contends that risk is directly tied to the athletic performance’s overall meaning (1991). Howe’s research on pain among elite athletes shows how health and well-being are ultimately a personal responsibility (2004). When gender is taken into account, scholars find a strong connection between traditional norms of masculinity, such as stoicism in the face of pain, and the “sport ethic” (Messner 1990; Malcom 2006).

These research findings can be extended to the world of pro wrestling. However, pro wrestling’s enigmatic status as a hybrid performance of theater and sport, as well as its recreational and community-level status, distinguish it from traditional (competitive) sports, the subject of much investigation. Nevertheless, I take heed of these insights and critically translate them to analyze an under-examined empirical universe—professional wrestling. The paper focuses on how pain-laden interactions in the ring and the gym give form to the ways in which wrestlers think and feel about pain. The research is based on a long-term ethnography of professional wrestling.2 In this article I will do two things: (a) explore the bodily skills that wrestlers cultivate to handle a context of ever present pain, and (b) explain what the wrestlers’ interactions tell us about the meanings of pain that wrestlers come to share.

Data and methods

I conducted over three years of ethnographic research on both a school that trains men to be professional wrestlers and the school’s affiliated event promotion. I observed over 25 public wrestling events and attended over sixty 3- to 4-hour-long practices, amounting to over 350 hours of research in the field. My data are derived from the following: participant-observation of the interactions among the wrestlers at their practice site and public-event shows (both frontstage and backstage); fifteen in-depth interviews with wrestling participants; and three interviews with promoters (both indy and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE)).

I socialized informally with the wrestlers in restaurants, bars and gyms, and in cars while traveling. I also observed other regional wrestling schools and different regional public wrestling shows. While the main focus was on the same group of about 20 wrestlers, I also spoke with pro wrestlers who have moved up to the next level and are now performing in the WWE or one of its feeder federations.3 I not only observed and conversed with “wrestlers in their places,” to echo Zussman’s phrase in his evaluation of qualitative research (Zussman 2004), I also collected data on their behavior while they performed at public shows, recreated, worked out, and attended other performances.4 Additionally, I have seen these processes over time because I was in the field with this same group for over two full years. I documented all of this with hand-written notes, photographs, email, web-site message boards, audio recordings and video.

This article examines the paradoxical world of professional wrestlers. The investigation asks how participants conduct a dangerous, high risk performance where violence and pain are valued, while their likely outcome, injury, is systematically avoided. From seeing “how” this action is accomplished through rich, thick descriptions, we learn “why” the action is conducted (Katz 2001, 2002; Tilly 2006). Based on the reconstruction of participants’ lived experience of pro wrestling, I suggest that pain becomes attractive to wrestlers because it is given substantive meaning that encompasses denial, authenticity, solidarity, and dominance.

Research site and the participants

Pro wrestling is best known for the highly stylized, televised programs produced by the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) corporation. Beyond the purview of these popular shows, however, is a thriving independent professional wrestling scene known as “the indies.” The indies are comprised of schools, federations, community venues, and websites. These entertainment promotions are low-budget, community-based entertainment lacking affiliation with the well-financed WWE.5 Unlike WWE stars such as “The Rock” and “Hulk Hogan,” a well-respected veteran performer in the indies attracts relatively little recognition outside of this reference group (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

The indy show at the local community center. Photograph taken by Mark Stehle

Training typically begins at a school owned and/or managed by a former pro wrestling star.6 It is an informal organization without active recruiting, and nearly all participants find the school through social networks or via the Internet. Dropping out comes with little to no social penalties since the school is a voluntary association. Because the training cannot easily be found elsewhere—e.g., there is no “little league pro wrestling” or Police Athletic Wrestling League—wrestling trainers exert a considerable amount of influence. After students have paid for their first year of training, no regular dues are collected, though certain duties and obligations are expected (such as moving and setting up the ring or selling tickets and helping to publicize shows).7 Most participants begin with the dream of making it into the higher level WWE but recognize after two to three years of participation how unlikely this is.8

In the federation researched herein, the lineup of matches for each show is largely drawn from the same pool of performers who practice together in the training space. When new “talent” (as wrestlers refer to other seasoned pro wrestlers) performs, the individual usually has an established name within the indies. Many matches feature men who are acquainted, though they may not have previously performed together. The booker and promoter manage the shows and control the storylines—the dramatic scripts creating the rivalry between “opponents.” These stories typically carry over to the next show, and most storylines play on American cultural tropes (patriotism, chivalry, heroism, honor), as well as their villainous opposites (rebellion, defiance, rudeness).

Indy wrestlers work day jobs since performers have no labor contract from the promoters. If there is compensation for performing, it depends on the given promoter—and the size of the house attendance.9 Some promotions provide a small stipend for that night’s performers ($25–75), but it is very common to receive no pay at all. Less experienced wrestlers are rarely compensated and they are satisfied simply to be featured in the show. For a successful veteran performer, the money earned from wrestling in the indies might supplement another job, but it is not nearly enough to be one’s primary source of income. After factoring in costs for meals and travel (and occasional lodging), a mid-level indy performer comes out about even, if not at a loss.

Within the group there is an established hierarchy based on experience and public exposure. Those with higher status are veterans; “vets” have typically been in the indy scene for at least five years, and several have received some television coverage. In the middle stratum are those wrestlers who have at least a couple of years experience and have performed in at least one public show. At the bottom are “green” wrestlers, who are in training and have not yet participated in a public performance.

Since the 1990s, indy promotions have had a reputation for “extreme” performances that are more violent and spectacle-like than the “family friendly” entertainment of earlier eras. “Extreme” wrestling promotions incorporate more high-risk stunts, “high spots,” and props that add to the risk of pain and injury like tables, ladders, chairs, trash cans, barbed wire, and cages.10 The extreme-themed shows target a young male audience and emphasize “exciting, risky, action-packed sports that are culturally coded sites of individual rebellion and creativity” (Messner 2002, p. 82; Fig. 2).
Fig. 2

“Extreme”: A fighter being thrown on a table outside of the ring

Because of pro wrestling’s nebulous status as hybrid entertainment between sport and theater, the entertainment manages to escape wider scrutiny in terms of health and safety. Promoters have little regard for the wrestlers’ long-term healthcare. There is no provision for health insurance, sports-medicine, or medical trainers despite the fact that access to sports medicine care is essential to how an athlete deals with pain (Howe 2001).11 When an injury occurs, performers are on their own to sort out treatment and rehabilitation. Needless to say, there is neither a preventive health treatment nor a precautionary intervention; a nagging strain often goes unattended and becomes worse. While there is a doctor backstage—as mandated by the state regulatory agency—he only verifies the vitals (of pulse, blood pressure and obvious signs of distress) and he does not attend training (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

A doctor, mandated by state regulations to check wrestler’s vitals, reads while backstage in the lockeroom amidst props for the show

Adding to the health threat is the participants’ reluctance to seek treatment from medical professionals on their own volition. This is due to a variety of concerns, be it mistrust of the health profession, concern for their status at their paid occupation, or financial. Tony explained:

Right now I’m in a lot of pain all the time. I don’t know, it takes it out of you, you know. It’s definitely, my back, my neck, my knee, just everything. I’m always on vicodins.... Yeah, vicodins and percocets, you know. I don’t believe in doctors. I try to stay away from them as much as possible because if I went to them every time I had a little pain or something, I’d be broke.

The pro wrestling body

Participants regularly experience pain and injury even though the final outcomes of matches are fixed and wrestlers can choreograph movements with one another before the match. While fatal consequences are rare, serious, long-term injuries are common; spinal and neck trauma, concussions, bruises, broken noses, and damage to the knees and other joints are prevalent. Fishman, a 28-year-old performer with four years of experience, gave an account of his pain and injuries during the last four years:

Pinched nerve in my neck, several broken fingers, broken wrist. I have never seen the doctor about injuries in my knees but they’re wearing down. I use to wear just pads, then went to knee pads, knee braces, and now it’s knee pads and knee braces with the springs in the sides. Eventually I’ll be moving up to hinges, I can foresee it already. I limp to work a lot of days. When it rains, it’s hard to get up. And for a young guy, that’s not something you hear. I have arthritis, torn rotator cuffs.

Mikey, a more veteran wrestler who is 33 years old, gave an account of his body:

I broke my ankle. I broke both my knees. I have no ACL12 in this knee. This knee has an ACL, but it’s just kind of on the verge of being gone. They can’t even find this one; they don’t know where it is. I have bone chips in my knees. I have a tendon that’s displaced; it actually goes over my kneecaps. So if I go on my knees at all, it kills. I have two herniated discs in my back. There’s now something wrong with my neck. Don’t know what the hell is wrong with it. I had a hairline fracture in my wrist for about three years that wouldn’t go away. I’ve dislocated this elbow. I’ve broke this shoulder. Fourteen concussions.

As these accounts reveal, the health consequences of pro wrestling participation are severe. This is evident to spectators who witness a performance. But the great extent of bodily damage is hidden because it is the cumulative effect of this battering that is most grave. Indeed, the average career of a performer in the indies, like the brief but more enchanting careers of amateur models (Mears and Finley 2005), ends before the age of 35 even though their performance skills could sustain them for a decade or so longer. In addition to early retirement, pro wrestlers can expect a shortened life expectancy, a fact recently brought to light by United States Congressman Cliff Stearns (R-FL): “[B]etween 1985 and 2006, 89 [professional] wrestlers have died before the age of 50... [T]his abnormally high number of deaths of young, fit athletes should raise congressional alarms” (Barker 2007). Moreover, these injuries, like those in other physically demanding performances (such as dance) hinder or eliminate an actor’s opportunity to perform, which is especially crippling for participants because the performance and body are so central to the participants’ identity (Wainwright et al. 2005).

Relational injuries

Since professional wrestling differs from competitive, “Olympic wrestling,” the training is subject to a different set of rules than conventional sport. Instead of the traditional sports credo—“higher, faster, stronger”—pro wrestling’s credo could be, “tell a story, sell your move, get a pop from the crowd.” To receive a “pop”—a strong reaction, positive or negative, from the audience—wrestlers must establish who their character is, what they represent (“babyface” or “heel”), and then tell a story through their interaction with their opponent.13 As Roland Barthes presciently argued, “[W]hat wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral concept: that of justice. The idea of ‘paying’ is essential to wrestling, and the crowd’s ‘Give it to him’ means above all else ‘Make him pay’” (Barthes 1972, p. 21).

Performers follow a set of interactional rules similar to those governing magicians: make your “move” appear as real as possible, without it actually being real. Participants refer to this illusion of realness as “kayfabe.” To wrestle with kayfabe, a new pro wrestler must develop three fundamental qualities. Wrestlers refer to these as charisma, psychology, and physicality. Charisma refers to the spirit and dramaturgical skills of the wrestling character. Psychology describes the interaction with the spectators. Physicality refers to the kinesthetic moves and motions conducted while interacting with your opponent.

The performers’ bodies convey the meaning of the duels to the audience. Unlike other moments of athletic perfection, such as baseball’s homerun or golf’s “hole in one,” excellence in professional wrestling can only come from the interaction with your opponent. Each movement is part of a dialog signifying the struggle between the performers. This “fight” requires high levels of close, physical interaction.

Paradoxically, despite their reliance on one another, fellow performers are almost always the cause of participants’ pain and injuries. The main causes are miscommunication and/or misunderstanding with each other. For example, jumping off the top ropes when the opponent is not in the proper place to break the fall can result in an injury. Tony, a regular performer, described just such an incident during a tag-team match with three other performers:

I did a diamond closeline to the outside, and Vinny didn’t catch me. So I landed on my knee. If you watch the tape you’ll see me limp. I get up and I limp because I’m like, ‘I have to catch Terror.’ And once Terror did that, I just laid down. Oh, that was the worst pain. My girlfriend and I went home that night. She said in my sleep I was moaning and groaning. She said it was so bad for awhile she had to sleep on the floor.

Another performer cracked a rib when he did a flip from the corner and landed on his own chest with no opponent underneath. Inversely, jumping and landing on the opponent when he is mistakenly there can be cause for injury as well.

Misunderstandings can easily result in a painful knee to the face or crushing bruise to the sternum if the jump is off by a split-second. Johnny articulated this when he recounts a match at another federation:

I shattered my nose in a Battle Royal.14 I mean, miscommunication with one of the guys. Turned around and he clocked me right in the nose, completely shattered my nose. I had to get reconstructive nose surgery.... Yeah, the bone’s sticking into my eyeball....It was supposed to be a forearm. He was supposed to wait till I turned around. I had turned around and he wasn’t in the ring yet, so I figure I turn [back] around for a little bit longer. And I turn around again later, for the second time, [but] he didn’t think I was turning around again. So [the blow was supposed to] hit me on the back of the head and I turned around and it hit me right in the face.

Nose surgery was required because their timing was slightly off. Since these sorts of accidents are, as we will see shortly, normalized, blame is not allocated even when the painful injury comes from a direct blow to the head.

Other types of injuries stem from a presumed synchronicity with your opponent when in fact it is non-existent, or not fully developed. After witnessing Fishman, a mid-level wrestler, injure Tyler, another veteran, during a roll-up maneuver, I asked Fishman what happened.

He didn’t know what move I was doing, or thought I was doing something else. And he didn’t know how to take the bump I wanted him to take. And so there was a miscommunication between the two of us that resulted in him getting hurt. As far as I’m concerned that was a mutual miscommunication. Because when he said, ‘Use your finish on me,’ I don’t think he’d ever seen me do it...and that resulted in an injury.

This ‘mutual miscommunication’ sent Tyler to the hospital. His painful injury could have been avoided had the performers worked out their synchronicity.

Miscommunications or misunderstandings that involve device failures can also cause or exacerbate injuries. For example, if the soft padding on the turnbuckle in the corner of the ring slips off, a performer’s head is exposed to the hard metal underneath. When ordinary “weapons” like baseball bats, chairs and broomsticks are used, the stakes are raised by providing a more spectacular violence as well as a greater likelihood of pain and injury. Take, for example, a broomstick gimmick gone awry that Bobby explains.

I told him I had a broom under the ring. I had sawed it down about half way, thinking, ‘Oh, this thing is going to break real easy,’...but I pulled him over the apron and instead of just hitting him in that one area [of the broom], I hit him with the whole broom and all you heard was smack! And I looked down and the broom didn’t break! I was like ‘Oh, shit.’ So I took the broom and broke it over my knee. It was broken, it just didn’t break. It was at the maximum breaking point. So I must have looked like a He-Man...But from the top of his shoulder here, diagonally down across his back, it looked like he was caned.

Bobby was lucky in this instance because while the pain was conveyed to the audience (and certainly felt by the performer), no one suffered any serious injury. This sort of mistake is forgivable only if it rarely occurs. Any wrestler who regularly commits such errors quickly becomes a pariah because, despite the normalization of pain, a primary goal is to avoid injuries.

Debilitating injuries are undoubtedly a physical and emotional setback for the individual, and they disrupt the collective performance by removing talent from the show. The injuries do, nevertheless, have a latent function because real injuries blur the line between real and fake, for both audience and participants.15 This function likely benefits the business of pro wrestling since spectators always experience a potential for real violence. However, like the high-speed, fiery crashes in a Nascar race, these accidents are ideally avoided.16

Given the frequency of injuries and the public celebration of pain, it is significant that wrestlers spend most of their training on avoiding injuries. As Fishman, the four-year veteran, states: “Nobody gets hurt. That’s the end-all, be-all, of a wrestling match. First, at least as far as I’m concerned, before psychology, before getting the crowd behind you, it’s making sure you and the guy you’re with can both drive home.” The lead booker corroborated this collective goal after I asked what constituted a bad match. “I consider a failed match [to be] when somebody gets hurt. That’s when I think somebody fails. Whether it’s a good match or not is a matter of opinion.”

Thus, how do performers “make sure you and the guy you’re with can both drive home” at the end of the night? The following section explains the basic physical skills necessary to be a successful pro wrestler.

Avoiding pain together

Wrestlers must negotiate a confusing, sometimes contradictory landscape where the infliction of pain is publicly valued, but injuries are skillfully avoided. The following section shows how wrestlers manage routine pain and avoid injuries while also performing with charisma, psychology, and physicality.

First and foremost, wrestlers adjust the body to routine pain. As Damon explained:

If any wrestler tells you they feel fine, they’re lying.... There’s a certain instinct you fight when you learn to wrestle because you’re throwing yourself at the ground on purpose. No one falls down on purpose except pro wrestlers. And so, it’s something you need to train your body not to react to. And it’s something you need to psych yourself up to do. It’s probably something you shouldn’t be doing.17

If newer participants are slow to adopt the collective orientation towards pain, veteran members are quick to administer admonishments such as the following.

JR rubs the back of his right knee and says “My knee is fucked up,” and that this was why he had difficulty with a particular move. Mikey says, “You’re only twenty! It couldn’t be that fucked up! Just you wait...” (Fieldnotes 10/10/04)

This conditioning is akin to the adaptation in boxing where practitioners must “harden oneself to pain, to get one’s organism used to taking blows: to get hit regularly and progressively adjust to it” (Wacquant 1992, p. 246).

Initially, students make this conversion by learning a “bump,” the most fundamental pro wrestling move. Numerous bumps occur during an average match. The action is strictly a relationship between the wrestler and the mat; no other people are involved. A basic bump entails falling backwards onto the upper half of your back from a standing position in the ring. Mastering the bump is a litmus test for one’s long-term potential because a wrestler who cannot adjust the deeply ingrained relationship to his own body has no future in pro wrestling.

Secondly, in the process of learning to interact with one another, wrestlers become more flexible, malleable, and loose. This praxis is difficult to acquire because, among other things, it is not instinctual to remain calm and relaxed when a person runs at you with an outstretched arm, or while a man jumps down directly on (and/or next) to you. Some can more easily release their inhibitions and “submit” than others. Damon, a quick learner, referred to himself as a “meat puppet”:

You get to be what I nicknamed a ‘meat puppet’... I was extremely flexible because of all my natural physical experience and the years of martial arts. So I was easy to put into submission moves. I went up light, I came down fine, no matter what people did. So if somebody wanted to try and create a move or invent a move, or see if they could do something on someone my size, [they’d] drag me into the ring and see what happened.

An extension of becoming loose and malleable is learning new bodily techniques like “light touches.” Light touches are soft grasps of the opponent which allow performers to lead and manipulate their opponents. The looseness helps performers to push or pull their opponent’s limbs in the necessary direction and to move in synchronized tandem. Bobby explained a light touch when describing another wrestler with excellent skills.

[Hammer’s] a great worker. When I wrestled him at a practice, I wasn’t sure when to sell because he was so light. But if you look at him, he looks like he’s wrenching and wrenching and wrenching, but he had me in an arm lock and I didn’t feel anything. That’s the kind of worker for the WWE. They want you to be as light as you possibly can be.

Hammer, the wrestler being referred to above, supported this important (but rarely stated rule) when asked about his experience in the WWE. He stated the following about “the touch”:

Because they’re on the road four or five days a week with each other, they’re not going to kill each other. There’s a difference if I grab your arm and flex my muscles and it looks like I’m squeezing you. It’s a trick. As opposed to doing this [as he yanks my forearm forcefully behind my back]. So yes, I would think ‘the touch,’ as you put it, is certainly more advanced...Without a doubt.

Wrestlers must acquire other fundamental techniques.18 In summary form: Students must learn proper footwork because balance and positioning of the body begin with footwork. Participants are expected to move towards the center of the ring because this avoids getting tangled in the ropes—and his opponent will know where to find him (often not having the opportunity to see clearly). Jumping up at the right moment is an important skill because when an opponent needs to be lifted into the air, his partner can assist him. So instead of heaving a 200-pound man up in the air unaided, a performer lifts a much lighter person because the opponent is simultaneously jumping upwards. Fans cannot see that one wrestler is assisting the other with the heavy lifting, and if done well, there is no trace of the collusion. Since wrestlers must “sell” the moves; when one of them handles the opponent’s body, the latter must make a convincing facial expression which conveys sheer agony, pain and torture.

Wrestlers also use brief directives during the match itself. Subtle whispers are exchanged while performing in the ring. While closely embraced in a corner of the ring (or positioned in a submission move on the mat), wrestlers give one another instructions about where to go or what body part to move. Another technique is developing an intuitive “sense” of one another. Very experienced wrestlers can anticipate their opponent’s positions without any information being stated. Like professional dancers, this type of synchronicity can only develop with two wrestlers who already know each other well and have previously wrestled together. Lastly, veterans become highly skilled at reducing hard impact on their bodies and safeguarding the body. The shared, implicit truth is that convincing portrayals of pain and agony, aided by quality charisma and psychology, matter as much, if not more, than hard contact with the mat, ropes, and bodies.19

The manifold meanings of pain

Despite the aforementioned interactional skills that seek to minimize pain and injury, these are routine parts of the pro wrestling experience. How do wrestlers make sense of these sensations (and potential sensations)? The experiences of pain are governed by shared understandings about the meaning of pain that can be categorized as denial, authenticity, solidarity, and dominance.


In the world of pro wrestling, stoicism in the face of pain is promoted despite the performers’ need for exuberant emotive displays. Participants are discouraged from expressing any distress or vulnerability derived from a painful sensation. Pain is “just part of the business” and not a collective concern. When a wrestler with less status does express any agony, it is usually met with a veteran’s harsh dismissal such as, “You still bitchin’ about your neck?” or “He doesn’t need his ACL anyway! I don’t have one in either knee” (Fieldnote 1/12/04).

Like Morris’ description of patients in Zborowski’s study of pain (1969), “[T]aking pain is an action, not passive suffering, and the ability to absorb punishment becomes a semiheroic sign of courage and endurance” (Morris 1991, p. 54). Wrestlers who have less status are quickly stigmatized, and this functions to silence future confessions. Members with more power have greater say about the intensity of distress and need for resources.

Cuss, the head of the school and now a veteran wrestler, recalled his ambivalence about speaking up after his very first injury eight years ago:

The first injury in training, I fractured two ribs. So I was out for like four or five weeks. I had two fractured ribs, [but] you know, you don’t know what happened, what it is at the time, and you don’t want to look like a sissy, so you know, you do more. Then it happened, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m okay, I’m okay.’ Then you get thrown around again, and I’m like ‘Ah... maybe I’m not okay.’

Cuss concealed the pain for as long as possible because of the interest in denying pain and his lower status (at the time). Yet, ultimately, Cuss could no longer suppress it and he had to speak up. This demonstrates learning to deny “unwelcome pain”—pain that is understood to be poorly received by teammates, trainers and others (Young 2004). Much like professional piano players, wrestling participants are in a double bind: they are continually exposed to risk, but they do not want to abandon a lifelong dream; they are subject to routine pain and injury, but they cannot openly acknowledge it nor seek help for it without negative consequences (Alford and Szanto 1996).

Overall, there is a public display of suffering coupled with a neglect for one’s own afflicted body. If the benefits of health maintenance are acknowledged, it is conveyed as a private aside. The group’s pride in enduring pain reveals their “romantic image of pain” (Alford and Szanto 1996, p.30). Pain is understood as central to a wrestler’s development, so when a wrestler experiences it, he should deny, overcome, and control any response.


Participants understand non-debilitating pain as a testament to authenticity and realness. Performers frequently flaunt their painful marks and bruises in a sado-masochistic fashion. Visible indications of pain like limping, bruises, bleeding, scars, and red marks are commonly flaunted, legitimating the realness of hurt, sacrifice, and professional wrestling itself for the participants. For example, a bright red hand print from a hard slap on the back, known as a “hot hand,” is understood as a tangible badge of punishment and pain; in such cases of visible damage, there is no denial going on—that simply hurts (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4

Red mark from a “hot hand” delivered to the chest

Since pro wrestling is always subject to questions of “fakery,” pain authenticates the consequences of the performance for fans and participants alike. The experience provokes “sensory intensification” where “a region of the body that may have previously given forth little in the way of sensory stimuli suddenly speaks up” (Leder 1990, p. 71).

Wrestlers must walk a fine line because pain can be flaunted, but it must not be construed as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. Blood or bruising is shown off only when the person has control of the pain. The limp, scar or red mark represents a bold and simple proclamation: I bleed, I suffer, I am alive. As Fishman puts it: “It’s just pain. Pain is God’s way of letting you know you’re not dead.”

Even though the infliction of pain is the currency of meaning during the performance, training is devoted to bodily techniques that rely on coordination and the avoidance of injury. Regardless—perhaps consequently—training is shrouded in a necessity to be tough and endure pain. An example of this is the training ritual called “shark bait.” Shark bait is competitive mat wrestling with real, stiff, aggressive physicality. It is an Olympic-style wrestling match—you try to pin your opponent and truly win. The drill improves cardio-vascular conditioning and determines who is the strongest, most capable Olympic wrestler. Younger wrestlers are forced to participate, while vets partake at their own volition. I asked Slaughter, a lead trainer, about its function.

S: We call it shark bait. It’s very good cardio. And it gets the guys used to being roughed around a little bit, should they ever be in the ring with someone like Perry Saturn.20[It’s] so they can really take it to him and be a little tougher in the ring. It just...toughens them up a little.

T: How often do you need to do this?

S: Yeah, if I see they need to turn it up a notch or two. I don’t like to do it too often. It doesn’t really help at all. It’s good cardio. But you don’t really learn anything.

Ironically, shark bait reinforces a code of hard, tough self-reliance even though this is not an essential ingredient for becoming a great performer. The top pro wrestling performer needs only to appear tough and violent, not necessarily be tough and violent.


One of the main burdens of training is maintaining the safety of other wrestlers. Protecting one another from the pain and injury of this inherent danger presents a latent form of social connection.

As Damon conveys below, the training is far more than simply learning the physical performance of entertainment; the most difficult aspect of the training and performance is the responsibility of protecting his opponent from pain and injury.

So I mean, let’s say I go in there and I have a bad spot in the match or I fuck up royally, or I do something to hurt someone else... You know, it turns your great day into a shit day. 21 So that’s why a lot of people don’t realize when we say, ‘work,’ there’s actually work involved. It’s working, you’re not actually having as much fun as people think out there. So you can actually see someone’s attitude change and one guy can be ‘Oh wrestling is great, I can’t see my life without it.’ By the end of the night, he could be looking at it as, ‘I don’t know why the fuck I’m doing this shit, ‘cause all I’m doing is fucking up.’

These words illustrate a central, albeit unmentioned, tenet of performing pro wrestling—participants are responsible for their opponents (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5

Positioning for the opponent’s landing

More frightening than pain and injury to oneself is the possibility of injuring someone else. The following excerpt is from my fieldnotes.

Rich and Lou are in the ring wrestling. They attempt a ‘hip-toss’ and Rich was the giver and Lou the taker. Lou was flipped and landed, but Rich immediately stood up and looked spooked. He could not see Lou behind him. His eyes were wide open and he had raised eyebrows and he was looking straight ahead with a ghost-white face. Fishman and one other vet knew exactly why Rich looked frightened. Lou had not properly executed the move and it was not clear to Rich that Lou was going to be okay when he turned back around. Lou was fine. In fact he was smiling. Rich was immensely relieved. Lou was then sharply criticized by three vets for his mistakes. I went over to Fishman and asked, “What was it that he did wrong?” Fishman spoke with disgust, “It?!... He did everything wrong!... He didn’t jump, he didn’t tuck his head under, he didn’t put his hand on Rich’s back...” (Fieldnotes 12/7/2003).

Wrestlers take their craft seriously, thus incompetence in any form is frowned upon. A big mistake such as Lou’s is usually met with disgust. The anger reveals the emotional burden carried by performers, who are responsible for one another at all times while in the ring. When minor mistakes happen, such as a foot being slightly out of position, performers tacitly acknowledge it and move on. But individuals who are repeatedly reckless do not last long; they are not respected if they are persistently unaware of the inherent danger and the threat they create (Donnelly 2004, p. 44).

The code of responsibility is explicitly stated only rarely. An exception was the following admonishment by Tyler (posted on the school’s web message board) the day after I witnessed him being injured.

Subject: Injury Update. “I want to say thanks to those who called and emailed me about my injuries sustained Thursday night at the school. Doctors told me I have severe spinal and neck wear- ‘n’ -tear for my age, and that it’s time to hang up the boots. It’s not something any wrestler wants to hear, but it’s something that time will decide. I will be out for the next 2–3 weeks and hope that I will be in good condition by the next show. I am grateful because things could be much worse, with that said I leave all of you with one thought: This is a serious business and we all MUST look out for each other, and PROTECT each other. Accidents happen yes, but if you are not comfortable taking a move, giving a move, and/or don’t know what a move is, you don’t have to take it, and you shouldn’t give it. I will be bored as hell these next few weeks SO SOMEBODY PLEASE BRING ME SOME [wrestling video] TAPES!!!!!!” (emphasis in original)

Tyler, age 28, took a couple of weeks off but never did “hang up the boots” as his doctor suggested. However, few wrestlers have enough status or seniority to make the choice to minimize such risk (Howe 2004, p. 184).


The experience of pain and the threat of potential pain work to build solidarity within the group. However, pain also functions to assert dominance and respect. Therefore the infliction of real pain also regulates the group’s rigid hierarchy by vanquishing any perceived threats to status.

In any given match, either in the training or performance space, there is the ever-present possibility of a “shoot.” A shoot is a true fight where painful “stiffs” are exchanged and the implicit trust is broken. There are two types of shoots. One is premeditated (from before the match begins), the other is accidental, when someone stiffs an opponent during the match which may then trigger an escalation of stiffs exchanged with one another. The premeditated is very rare, whereas the unintentional kind “happens all the time” because it is easy to accidentally stiff an opponent.

Premeditated shoots are frightening because the typical need for a “loose” and “light” disposition makes the wrestler virtually defenseless. If a wrestler anticipates a softer, looser grip or contact, but a firm arm is instead thrust at him, he is extremely vulnerable. There is likely more vulnerability here than there is in many other violent situations (such as a car crash) because one cannot even tense up and flinch in preparation for the strike. Tony, a participant who was fortunate enough to have a split second of anticipation, explained such a threat:

I knew it was coming. You can kind of tell by somebody’s demeanor. Like, the way they grab you...when somebody grabs you in a different way. I guess when he flipped me over, I was like, here it comes. So just brace yourself and take it. But I wasn’t expecting it at the level in which he nailed me.

Premeditated, intentional shoots function to maintain respect for pro wrestling etiquette and respect for the established hierarchy within the group. Participants justify shoots if a participant is “not liked” or is getting “too big-headed.” When a participant is not liked by the group (especially, by one of the veterans of the group), wrestling participation can be very dangerous. The target of a premeditated shoot usually has no warning, so compounding the formidable challenge of defending oneself is that it is not until the split second before receiving a stiff that he finds out what he is in for. Tony described initiating a premeditated shoot.

If I don’t like you, or you’ve done something to piss me off, I will just rip you in the corner and I’ll do it. And you’ll usually catch it pretty bad. But if I like you, I’ll grab you by the wrist before I whip you and kind of talk to you and be like, you know, ‘turn your face to the right.’ So that way when I hit the corner, boom! As I’m about to come up with my foot, they can turn their face and I plant my heel on your chest and my toes will glance off your chin and I’ll just slide off. So it really doesn’t hurt. But if I don’t like you, you’re catching that shit.

The second type of shoot—the accidental stiff that triggers an escalated exchange of stiffs—is far more common. An “opponent” may not intend to inflict any harm but since they are simulating a real fight, each performer comes extremely close to slamming his opponent’s cheek or choking his opponent’s neck. As Slaughter states, “Sometimes you accidentally stiff someone. Sometimes you just can’t help it...But if somebody’s going to blatantly stiff me, then they’re getting it back. You know what I mean?”

For a seasoned wrestler, the standard response in such instances is to send a firm shot back, known as a “receipt.” Below is an excerpt from my interview with Mikey.

M: Yeah, it happens all the time. [If] the mistake happens repeatedly, yeah, you receipt the guy, give it back to him.

T: Doesn’t that escalate?

M.: A lot of guys get it. ‘Oooh, sorry’. [But] I mean, you only say you’re sorry so many times before a guy’s like, ‘Look dude, you’re killing me here.’ Then you give it back to him. [Some guys] will work as stiff as they can until you give it back to them. See how far they can push you. See if you’re a pansy or not.

T: So you get respect from pushing back?

M: Otherwise they’ll just walk all over you. Like the first time I worked with Gary. He was killing me with his kicks. He hit me right in the back of the hamstrings and I punched him right in the face. And everything was fine after that.

The rules of this interaction are not verbalized but rather negotiated with one’s body. Fueling the precariousness of this negotiation is the fact that at public shows the crowd is cheering, adrenaline is flowing, and wrestlers are embodying their characters.

Matt described his experience with an intentional shoot, when he had been considered too “big-headed.” He gave an account of being a younger, less experienced wrestler who needed to be “broken in”:

The things that I did were deemed disrespectful. Not because I was meaning to be disrespectful, but because no one told me [they were disrespectful to do]. So a guy got in the ring with me and was very rough with me.... So after it was over I went up to the guy.... ‘Is there something you were trying to show me?’ Apparently, he heard that I was out doing shows and thought I was the big king of the ring. I was like ‘With all due respect, I think you can tell by my character right now that what you heard was probably untrue, probably from someone who just wanted to see me get mine.’ And he says, ‘Well, if that’s the case, that’s fine. Because you took whatever I gave you like a champ and you came over and asked me [about it].’

This reveals how the sensation of pain enables veterans and others with status to maintain dominance and shore up any perceived threats to the group’s hierarchy.22


Based on a long-term ethnography of professional wrestlers, the first part of this paper has documented how participants use physical performance skills to, on the one hand, produce an illusion of combat, pain, and agony and, on the other hand, interactively avoid physical distress and injury. Stemming from mistakes, lack of coordination, and misunderstandings, pain and injury remain, skills and techniques notwithstanding, a routine part of the professional wrestlers’ experience. The second part of this paper has described the meanings that participants attribute to this recurring pain and injury.

The sensation of pain certainly has real, corporeal outcomes like damaged tissue. However, the consequences of these “natural processes...must be interpreted to be made meaningful” (Fine 1998, p. 248). In this case, the participants’ experiences of pain are made meaningful through their interactions with one another. A close look at pro wrestling interactions reveals that pain is experienced as functional and meaningful. In contrast to the popular notion of pain as harmful or adverse, pro wrestlers come to understand pain as, at worst, benign, and at best, desirable. Pain and injury are sometimes denied, other times understood as a sign of authentic performance. Physical suffering is experienced as a way of bonding and, at the same time, a way of reinforcing existing native hierarchies.

In Asylums, Goffman states that “any group of persons—prisoners, primitives, pilots, patients—develop a life of their own that becomes meaningful, reasonable and normal once you get close to it” (1961, p. ix). An in-depth look at the world of wrestlers shows that pain (both its display and its avoidance) makes sense to participants. It is, in fact, one compelling motivation for participants’ sustained engagement in a dangerous social practice despite frequent, often debilitating, injuries and significant sacrifices to other social spheres like career, education, and family. Further research will investigate the many other material and symbolic components of this meaningful social universe in order to understand, and then explain, how and why wrestlers engage in this enigmatic, widely misunderstood, social practice.


I follow Howe’s research to distinguish between pain and injury. “Injury can be understood as a breakdown in the structure of the body, a breakdown that may affect its function. Pain is the marker of an injury and is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue [and skeletal] damage” (2004, p. 74). Acute pain is distinguished from chronic pain. Acute pain is typically characterized by a “short, sharp sensation” located at the point where the injury occurs and lasts for a limited period; whereas, “chronic pain is often associated with a pathological process that causes continuous pain...sometimes years after injury” (Ibid).


This is one of the few ethnographic studies of pro wrestling. The recent exceptions are Mazer’s (1998) dramaturgically oriented study of indy pro wrestling culture and Thomas Hackett’s Slap Happy (2006), a journalistic profile of several independent performers.


Of the twenty participants, most are white, working-class men who range in age from eighteen to thirty-five, have a high school education, and work part-time in low-level service jobs in a metropolitan area. Five have attained a B.A. at a local college. Contrary to the stereotype of pro wrestlers as massive strongmen, most are of average body size, weighing between 160–200 pounds and standing between 5′8″ and 6′2″ in height. One female, and two men of color, are in the group.


It is qualitative research which “addresses institutions, ongoing concerns, and tells us something about where they come from, what they do, and how the people who live and work within them make sense of their own activities” (Zussman 2004, p. 356).


WWE is a publicly traded corporation with yearly profits in the hundreds of millions of dollars.


In this study, the wrestling school and the show promotion are affiliated with one another so most of the school’s students and trainers are also performing in the same shows held at the local community center. The school’s owners are also the promoters (owners) of the public event shows.


Students paid either $200/month or paid in full at $1,800/year.


During the three years time, two participants in this group moved up to the WWE incubator federation in Ohio. From there they will likely receive some TV exposure; however, by no means does this ensure a future contract from the WWE.


Pro wrestling is widely considered to be a “shady business” where promoters skip town, schools suddenly shut down, and performers receive pay (if any) only after the door proceeds have been counted. The business is much like pro boxing, a “commerce run on manipulation, chicanery, and deceit” (Wacquant 1998, p. 1). For example, interviewees informed me of training schools where the instructors asked them to pay for training “up front” (either a month’s or year’s worth, in some cases) and then made the first few days of training extremely tough and bruising—using arduous cardio work and painful “stiffs.” This initial training scares students off, and instructors can then walk away with the cash.


A spot is a preplanned move designed to get a strong reaction from the audience. A high spot is done from a greater height with use of the top ropes or a ladder.


The only exception is “event insurance,” which covers the overall production and the doctor who checks participants before they take the stage at the public shows. The doctor, as mandated by the state, checks blood pressure, pulse, and briefly inspects the performers for any obvious physical signs that would preclude their wrestling that night.


Anterior Cruciate Ligament: one of the four main ligaments in the knee.


Babyface, often shortened to “face,” is the good guy. A heel, of course, is the villain.


In a “Battle Royal” multiple wrestlers all duel at the same time. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to anticipate and choreograph each move in such a large scale “battle.”


A popular WWE T-shirt demonstrates the function of injuries. Below the bloodied face of the mega-star Mick Foley (aka “Mankind”) on the front of the T-shirt is the phrase, “Fake wrestler.” On the back of the shirt is the word “Injuries” and, below it, a list of nearly twenty different matches and the exact injury sustained (with date and place).


Evidence suggests, however, that if these injuries regularly resulted in severe consequences (such as paralysis or death), pro wrestling (and Nascar for that matter) would quickly lose its appeal. According to Jeffrey Goldstein’s research on the appeal of violent entertainment, pro wrestling attracts millions of fans because: it contains clues to its unreality (staging and setting); it portrays an engaging fantasy; it is exaggerated and distorted; it has a predictable outcome; and it usually contains a just resolution (Goldstein 1998, p. 223). Research on pro wrestling also found that fans do not enjoy real injury (Kotarba 2004, p. 112).


As Jimmy said, “In professional wrestling you learn how to fall, [but] I’ll tell you right now, there’s no way to learn how to fake a fall on concrete. You hit concrete, you know, how are you gonna fake that? You know, you take a steel chair and smash it in your face with it, you know, it hurts.” Likewise, the lead trainer Cuss stated this: “Guys get hurt all the time. Hitting the ring hurts. Hits on the mat hurt. Getting punched in the face hurts, even though you try not to do this.”


For a complete, detailed, account see Smith (2008).


If we take the format of the WWE wrestling production as an indicator of successful performance techniques, we can infer that better charisma and psychology result in less physicality. The WWE format is reliant on well-written and acted scripts taking place outside the ring—in hallways, interviews, and the locker room. In two hours of WWE programming, viewers likely see no more than 36 minutes of in-ring physical wrestling, the rest being an “elaborate, soap-opera-style story line detailing a host of feuds, rivalries, grudges and byzantine subplots” (Rosellini 1999, p.1).


Perry Saturn is a former big name star known for being rough with “opponents.”


“Spot” is synonymous with a “move.”


Fishman sets himself apart from the conventional means of asserting dominance through pain. In doing so, he nevertheless makes clear that pain is a valuable instrument in maintaining the hierarchy.“And I’ve had other instances where guys have shown me very roughly that you do this way and that way. I don’t have that streak in me. It takes a lot for me to purposefully inflict a great deal of pain on somebody. I mean, I’ll put a move on tight and let it go. But I’m more of a talker. You know, ‘hey listen, do you know why I did that?’ Or ‘hey, listen, I just wanted to let you know, you’re doing this wrong.’...But I was shown one way, and that’s the whole thing. You give me something, it’s my job to give it to him, and three years from now he gives it to him. So you keep the wheel going.”



Some of the photographs were taken by Mark Stehle, whose generosity and skill as a photographer is greatly appreciated. I would also like to thank Lisa Traxler, Bernard F. Stehle. Anna Sher and Austin Kelley for close readings. Lastly, I am very grateful for the helpful suggestions from Javier Auyero, editor of Qualitative Sociology.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008