Roland Barthes visits the Tokyo Dome
Whilst Barthes' idea of pro wrestling as a 'discrete event' seems to be at odds with the more modern form of pro wrestling being that of an ongoing serial, more often than not, a wrestling show has to be both at once - one show for the live audience and one for those watching at home. To further discuss this, I'm going to look at the opening bout of the 1993 NJPW/WCW Supershow, in which Ultimo Dragon defends his IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title against Jushin Liger.
Neither man is actively wrestling for WCW at the time this match airs (Liger has wrestled a few matches for the promotion in '91 and '92, and Dragon is yet to wrestle for the company). The match is a 'discrete event' in terms of WCW TV, and as such looking at the way the match is presented to that audience can further illustrate some of the ideas that Barthes discusses.
Key to this is Barthes' suggestion that 'each sign in wrestling is therefore endowed with an absolute clarity, since one must always understand everything on the spot' (p. 24), which is a good summing up of the immediacy that is prerequisite of a pro wrestling character - when time in front of the audience is at a premium, your character has to immediately strike some sort of a chord with the crowd. This match may not be an all-time classic in of itself, but it manages to roll out a narrative that is easily understandable to a viewer who is not familiar with either competitor.
In lieu of build via WCW weekly programming, as part of an introduction to the show as a whole, Eric Bischoff tells fans that Dragon vs. Liger is a 'dream match [that] the Japanese have been waiting for for over three years' . Immediately we are given some idea of the scale of this match, and the crowd reaction as the wrestlers make their entrance serves to back this up. Both wrestlers are masked and dressed in very colourful attire.
The two gifs above show how some of the basic facets of the two men and their relationship as competitors is imparted to an unknowing audience. Their appearance tells us that these two wrestlers have a similar style, as masks and colourful body-suits being immediate signifiers of a fast-paced, high-flying style thanks to their association with lucha libre. Furthermore, it suggests that they are both fan-favourites, which is backed up by the fact that both of them interact with the crowd as they make their entrance. As the match itself gets going, an initial exchange of arm-drags and dropkicks tell us that they are very well-matched - something which is crucial to the match as both men wrestle for different promotions, so even Japanese fans in attendance may not be familiar with the Mexico-based Dragon.
This may all seem fairly basic, but in five minutes using nothing more than a few words from Bischoff, some commentary, and the beginning of the match itself, there's a narrative forming for a match between two wrestlers that the TV audience may have not known anything about five minutes prior. The reason that 'one must always understand everything on the spot' is that characters and their motivations are distracting when you're trying to establish them, as well as do something with them, in a twenty minute match. It's like a superhero movie getting bogged down in origin stories: no-one gives a fuck. Once the groundwork is laid, Liger and Dragon can start to extend themselves, first exchanging some submission holds.
Whilst the submission holds display each wrestlers technical skill, they also serve to further build anticipation for the top-rope action that the audience knows is coming from what they have inferred about the two competitors. The way that both men use submission holds to try and cancel out the other's ability to leap and jump and so on further emphasises the importance of these big high flying moves in the eyes of the audience - and when these big spots come, they carry some weight with the audience.
An back-and-forth between both wrestlers has already been established, so as the big moves start being used, it feels less like them taking turns to do something and more like a natural ebb and flow of oneupmanship. Eventually, Liger gets the upper hand and is able to string a few power moves together (including a mean looking Liger Bomb) and manages to do enough to subdue Dragon for the three count, the title and, since they're both fan favourites, a handshake.
So, two wrestlers had a match in Japan that someone in Atlanta could understand, big deal right? Any wrestling match, just like any book or any movie, is at some form a coded message. A body slam out of context can mean nothing, but with the proper background - whether that be over the course of the match or over the course of several weeks of programming - it can be used to infer something greater to an audience than simply a man picking up and dropping another man.
One of the key elements of the wrestling match according to Barthes is immediate intelligibility, and as we can see based on this example, this facet is in no way unique to French wrestlers of the 1950s. WCW chose to add their own commentary to this show, but it didn't particularly need it. In fact, you could look at the eight gifs above, each one only about five seconds long, and you'd have a pretty good idea of how the match went, and all that without the commentary and crowd noise that affects your reading of any wrestling match. This super-intelligible physical language makes up the inner workings of a pro wrestling match, and considering how it works in a vacuum such as a one-off Japanese cross over show with no storyline baggage is as good a first step as any towards looking at matches as texts, and studying them more fruitfully.