Deep in the core of pro wrestling storytelling, beneath the tales of violence, vengeance, and betrayal, is a softer, more relatable hypothesis. It’s that friendship matters. Friendship might lead to those betrayals and it might always be tied to violence, but it also buoys and supports the drama in surprisingly earnest fashion.
The power of friendship is as old as everything else is in pro wrestling, and as simple. The Mega Powers don’t explode unless Macho Man Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan don’t first form a friendship. The sting of Hogan’s betrayal of Savage (he absolutely betrayed Macho Man and I won’t hear otherwise) and the latter’s subsequent maniacal focus on vengeance doesn’t work unless the initial friendship is there.
Or take the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express’s break up. Eternal babyfaces Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson had been friends for the better part of a decade and they were as pure as good guys come. Young, athletic, and quick, they were unimaginable as heels or even tweeners; they perfected the idea of a small babyface being beaten on by a larger heel, only to escape and deliver a hot tag to raucous cheers.
When Morton joined the York Foundation, a corporate heel group modeled on the foreboding (and, as it turns out, true) sense that soulless data was about to drive all of our interactions and decisions, it was a shock. Changing his name to Richard Morton, the team broke up after a savage attack on Gibson. Morton’s words “I’ve been waiting ten years to do this” don’t shock without the ten years of close as brothers friendship.
Even heels get in on the act. Underpinning the Four Horsemen’s 1980s successes was the idea that they were pals. They were pals whose storyline relationship was built on womanizing, booze, and excess, but it was there and tangibly felt in the promos and general sense of loyalty they had for one another. When someone was booted out, it always felt like something more than an asshole being ostracized from a group of other assholes, largely because there was a sense that these guys truly bonded over their shared character flaws. And, because of that, the audience both cheered the newly minted babyface for breaking free in order to find friendship elsewhere and booed the Horsemen ever more lustily for being assholes to their friend on top of their general greasiness.
All of this still holds true today, with one sly twist: kayfabe is dead and we can be in on the story in a way we couldn’t when we all still thought it was real, to the extent that we ever did. We can engage in the purity of friendship storylines while also holding onto our ironic attachment. It doesn’t have to be tragedy or comedy anymore, but both.
The best of the postmodern friendship storylines was Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho in their extended run as best friends. It was Jericho’s best work in ages, culminating in the Festival of Friendship. Jericho’s promo, about how his run with Owens was one of the best years in his career, seemed legitimately heartfelt, going beyond the demands of the story. But it was also delivered in front of a ridiculous painting of The Creation of Adam with the two men’s faces pasted on. It was a comedy angle at heart, especially when the ironic nonsense of Jericho’s List is added into the mix. When the inevitable double cross by Owens happens, the crowd loses its mind, with a strange mix of genuine hurt and amused bewilderment on the people’s faces.
Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi’s recent reunion stands to be the next great friendship story in wrestling, in large part because it’s based on (again) a very earnest and real friendship. An exhaustive history of the Golden Lovers was written in the aftermath of New Beginning by Emily Pratt and it’s worth reading in full, but the very general gist is that these two men met in the quasi-comedy/high weirdness of Japan’s DDT promotion, formed a remarkable tag team, and then went their separate ways, Ibushi to a sort of traveling free agent pro wrestling dilettante, Omega to headlining NJPW shows.
When Ibushi saved Omega from a double-crossing attack by fellow Bullet Club member Cody Rhodes, they embraced and confetti actually fell from the rafters. The crowd went nuts. All of that is fairly standard, if extremely heartfelt due to just how beloved both men are in Japan. But the statements afterwards ratcheted up the raw emotion.
“If we aren’t together, there’s no point. I want us to change the world together,” Omega told Tokyo Sports.
If you’re catching a hint of romance between the two on even a cursory reading, that’s natural. What’s fascinating about the story is that it exists at the intersection of a close male friendship which is expressed physically and a star-crossed queer relationship which isn’t, in any way, being played for laughs by the bookers or wrestlers. Both of those things are verboten, but in a strange way it’s the first which is even less tolerated by the broader American culture (I can’t comment on Japanese notions of male friendship). Gay people? Not as accepted as they should be, but certainly visible. Men having friendships where they hug and hold hands, but aren’t gay? As they say at the gym, no homo, bro.
Layers of unreality and reality crash into each other in the reunion of the Golden Lovers. Ibushi and Omega are best friends, and Omega has embraced the mystery of his own sexuality (“I don’t know what the hell I am” he tweeted at a fan who asked if he was gay or bi). This doesn’t matter other than that his relationship with Ibushi, whatever it is, is supposed to make us realize that perhaps the line between the deepest of friendships and being lovers isn’t as clearly marked as we pretend. Their work together, in other words, is masterful. And their second run together has only just begun.
What gives with the pro wrestling fan’s obsession with friendship, especially today, beyond the obvious fact that it makes for an important foundation for a story? My hunch is that the rise in mainstream interest in pro wrestling—even as ratings are admittedly down compared to past peaks—owes something, perhaps only a little something, to how loosely we hold our friendships in 2018. Because we do hold them loosely. We’re hopelessly atomized, urged on to leave our friends and family behind every few years to get a little extra money for a little extra house and a little extra car. We don’t go out (and that’s not to scold anyone, because I don’t go out like I used to), we’re glued to screens, and we never touch. We are achingly lonely, a truth which crosses continents.
I write about games of all stripes alongside my wrestling writing, and it’s been striking to me how many people I know who have, slowly but surely, moved from video games to board games and roleplaying games. Games which create a shared experience, not on a computer screen or series of texts, but real life flesh and blood space.
The thrill of friendship in pro wrestling is of a piece with this. Pro wrestling is best experienced live, with friends, and when you get there you jostle and hi-five your pals. All while Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho are being best friends, or Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi are embracing while confetti rains down. We need this particular genre of wrestling story, even more than when all of this tearing at the fabric of our social lives began in earnest and we turned to Flair, Hogan, and Savage.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.