Philosophy Smackdown by Douglas Edwards

April 13, 2020

This is that rarest of beasts: an academic book about wrestling from which wrestling fans might actually learn something.

With most philosophy essays and books on wrestling there’s a familiar pattern: start by citing Roland Barthes, raise the revolutionary point that pro wrestlers are performers rather than athletes competing to win a match, then discuss how the whole thing is a cipher for morality/ethnography/society/homoeroticism, making sure at no point to acknowledge that pro wrestlers and promoters are attempting to turn a profit.

Fortunately Philosophy Smackdown takes a different approach, even leaving Barthes until page 121. Where most such books attempt to use philosophy to analyze and explain pro wrestling, this title — whether intentionally or not — uses wrestling to explain philosophy.

If like me you are unfamiliar with concepts such as Plato’s Cave or Aristotle’s Virtues, you’ll get a clear explanation in relatable terms through the medium of pro wrestling, learning more about both wrestling and philosophy.

For example, you might assume that face and heel wrestlers displayed binary good and evil characteristics until fans began turning against the traditional white meat babyface. Instead you’ll learn here that virtues and vices instead work on a spectrum with the hero character in the middle and villain’s defined by their extreme position in either direction. You’ll also read Edwards’ argument that the change in fan culture has only meant some hero/villain characteristics no longer seem to matter to fans, while other virtues are still a must to earn the crowd’s applause.

The book also covers thought-provoking explorations of the extent to which a wrestler has freedom in portraying the instructions of a booker or match agent, and the genuine headscratcher of what was and wasn’t the same or real character in the Scott Hall/Razor Ramon/Rick Bogner saga.

Frankly I was always going to appreciate a book that cites Escape To Victory as an example of sports entertainment, but this was still an extremely pleasant surprise, showing it is indeed possible to relate wrestling to philosophy without missing the point of either.

[Philosophy Smackdown is scheduled for UK release in May 2020 and US release in July 2020. The publisher provided a review copy.]

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