In July 1996, my 11-year-old world was rocked. Hulk Hogan, my childhood icon, unexpectedly came to the ring and leg dropped Macho Man Randy Savage during the World Championship Wrestling pay-per-view event Bash at the Beach, turning into a villain and joining the likes of the New World Order, a rival group determined to take over the wrestling industry. As a little Hulkamaniac, my spirit was crushed. The startling turn of events made me question everything I knew: “How could Hulk Hogan do this? Who can stop him?”
Wrestling is about a story
Perhaps I should have seen this coming. As an avid sports entertainment fan since age three when Hulk Hogan slammed Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania 3, I knew that professional wrestling was more than just big muscled-up guys with long luscious mullets and tight pants who knew how to properly apply a headlock. Often touted as a “soap opera for men,” it turns out, professional wrestling (like all stories) points to something deeper.
Professional wrestling is one of the longest-running episodic forms of entertainment in our culture, and many people either watch the current product or recognize big names from the past. Billions of people follow the largest sports entertainment company, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) on its various social media platforms. Wrestling tells a story.
As Christians, we know there is a story we instinctively long for because God has created us to know the one true story of the whole world. Every storyteller comprehends some element of that true story and expresses it in their own stories.
The storytellers in the sports entertainment genre do not want you to think about the story. They want you to suspend your disbelief, to feel instead of think. But a subtle narrative emerges between the sleeper holds and body slams. But as Christians, when we approach any form of entertainment – television, movies or even professional wrestling — with a biblical worldview, we see echoes of a better story.
Creation, Fall and Redemption
The biblical story starts in Genesis where Adam communed with God in the garden. In the garden God gave man room to work by keeping and developing creation. He charged our first parents to fill the earth on God’s behalf. While the garden is far from a wrestling ring, it was here that Adam was called to be creative and enjoy all of the abilities that God had given him as he managed God’s earth, and now we take up Adam’s mantle as cultural stewards of creation.
Following the Bible’s creation account, the story transitions to tragedy. In the fall, we see a conflict between God and man — the woman’s seed and the deceiver. This conflict spills over into every relationship: husbands and wives, parents and children, neighbor and neighbor.
Professional wrestling typically picks up the story here with conflict that leads to violence. Some of wrestling’s legendary rivalries, pitting man against man, depict different aspects of our fallenness. Sometimes the conflict is rooted in jealousy (Macho Man Randy Savage vs. Hulk Hogan), power (Vince McMahon vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin), money (Ric Flair vs. Dusty Rhodes) or pride (Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart).
Amidst the tension, a hero arises. In the biblical narrative, that hero is Jesus Christ who arrives to conquer the effects of sin and bring redemption and restoration.
Professional wrestling echoes this notion of a hero. In wrestling, the good guy rises above all obstacles to win the prize: the championship. This ascent to victory does not immediately happen, but after a series of events. Referred to in wrestle-speak as “the payoff,” the good guy might get knocked down two or three times before he eventually accomplishes his goal. When he or she wins, usually something has been redeemed: a personal character flaw, a wrong done to a friend, or a personal injustice committed by his opponent. When the hero gets his moment, the crowd erupts because something emotional inside of them has been satisfied. If each fan stopped and thought about it, they could probably predict the outcome – but again, the story dictates that you feel, not think.
Creation. Fall. Redemption. Restoration. These aspects of the one true story find echoes in all of our stories — including in that of professional wrestling.
Case Study: Hulk Hogan vs. Sting
While Hulk Hogan is a name that will always resonate with wrestling fans, the Hulk Hogan character became a household name during the 1980s. But by 1996, he was considered one of wrestling’s “bad guys.” Crowds jeered him. Hulk Hogan turned to cheating to gain victories in the ring, eventually winning the World Heavyweight Championship by unfair means. Enter the hero, Sting.
Sting was a stalwart of World Championship Wrestling who had main-evented wrestling cards against foes like Ric Flair, Vader and Lex Luger. Often called a “white meat baby face” in the wrestling industry, Sting always displayed a high moral character by standing for virtue. When his persona grew tired during the summer of 1996, the storytellers reinvented Sting into an inauspicious character who would be a formidable foe for Hulk Hogan and his faction of bad guys. For 18 months, Sting was written off of television, sporadically appearing just to arouse interest in the story and confront Hulk Hogan. These were some of the most tantalizing moments of television for sports entertainment fans, and the small snapshots of conflict led to one of the most anticipated matches of all time.
The 18-month build up culminated at Starrcade in December 1997 when Sting opposed Hulk Hogan for the first time in a title bout for the World Heavyweight Championship. Sting would defeat Hulk Hogan in one of the most viewed pay-per-view events in history. Other wrestlers would come to the ring and lift the hero on their shoulders as confetti fell. Sting held the title belt high in the air for the world to see that he had redeemed the most prized possession in wrestling and that the enemy had been defeated.
A Glimpse of the Gospel
In this story, we see a glimpse of the gospel. The hero conquers the enemy. He restores his kingdom by overthrowing the adversary. This is a direct reflection of the biblical story, where by His work on the cross, Jesus defeats Satan and overthrows sin and death at the resurrection in order to redeem and save His people.
At its core, wrestling is about a story. And it, like other forms of narrative, it echoes the ultimate framework of the gospel: creation, fall, redemption and restoration.