I’m obsessed with pro wrestling, and anyone—and this is a lot of us—who get ensnared in creative fantasy narratives centered around conflicts can totally get this obsession. Game of Thrones is this for some people. Countless immersive video games fit the bill, too. Sports may even be this; we don’t personally know these players, but what they represent, and the narratives their actions on or off any given field string together are stories we find ourselves compelled by.
I’ve been a pro wrestling fan essentially my whole life, and I already feel like NXT’s performer The Velveteen Dream is one of the greatest of all time. But why? Why do I find myself wanting to shout it from the rooftops to my non-wrestling friends: you need to check this guy out. In the same way you can appreciate the high-octane silliness of a Macho Man Randy Savage, a Hulk Hogan, a "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, The Rock, or The Ultimate Warrior, the oft-anthologized representative vanguards of the art form--why should Velveteen Dream be in that conversation?
The reason is that he's a great in-ring wrestler, he fits all the criteria for success...and still he's different. And the reason is rooted in sociology, which I teach; sociology is the lens, and there is no better representation of WHY Velveteen Dream is so truly special than to point that lens at his match last night at NXT: Takeover Philly. He wrestled Kassius Ohno; if you’re not a die hard wrestling fan, these are two guys you may never have heard of. But the story they tell about entertainment and rhetoric itself is a narrative as old as the culture wallpapered around the structure of the historical human being.
Kassius Ohno is a longtime journeyman and wrestling fan's wrestler, a hard-hitting good guy who didn't appreciate The Velveteen Dream calling him "a guy" (as in, a nobody) when Dream was angling for a match against Johnny Gargano, a guy who BEAT "the guy" in question, Ohno. With less than a week before Takeover, a match was thrown together between Dream and Ohno. But before I get there, and drag you along, let's talk about how this was a deviance from the norm, sociologically speaking...
Behold: Merton's Strain Theory
Beloved Wikidepia unpacks this by explaining that "Strain theory is a sociology and criminology theory developed in 1938 by Robert K. Merton. The theory states that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (such as the American dream) though they lack the means, this leads to strain which may lead the individuals to commit crimes."
Essentially, it comes down to this: do you accept “culturally approved goals” and “culturally approved means of achieving those goals” Talking about this is fun for not just the classification of our own model figures and icons whose ideals we really admire (or not), but for our own pathologies and career, relationship, or other social tracks.
So what does all this mean for wrestling? That question is very interesting. By virtue of embracing "culturally approved goals," which might mean championships and fame, but rejecting the traditional roles of good guys playing by the rules and winning vs bad guys who are mean and cheat to win, but often lose, you'd think all wrestlers were conformists within their own universe. And yet they aren't. The culture moves and changes, evolves and is shaped by INNOVATOR figures.
So the question is this: if you're not a die hard wrestling fan, what wrestlers can you name? Those wrestlers are almost assuredly INNOVATOR figures. Most wrestlers, and there are thousands, come, have matches, maybe have some storylines, and grow older, retire, move on, etc. They are conformist figures who do not move the ebb and flow of the art form by redefining what it can be as a spectacle from which emergent representative figures emerge. "And that's the bottom line, cause Stone Cold said so!"
For wrestling, which is a form of art with a mythology rich and complex and whose culture is performative AND based around a reality of backstage news and storyline plans, and then theres a FURTHER layer of reality when you consider not the plans for the scripted stories, but the performers themselves, their lives and their health, their families, their longevity? Who they are as people? If the CULTURALLY APPROVED GOALS of pro wrestling, which is scripted and planned, are to win over fans and become a big star, seeing as the outcomes are pre-determined, being an innovator means finding unique ways to do that that don't simply involve the notion of traditional hard work qualifying success. You can work hard and lose all your matches because you're scripted to. But to become memorable and a success within the culture of pro wrestling, being an innovator means upending the show in a way where YOU outshine main event structures, where fans walk away talking about and thinking about you. Pathways to success here are MORE LIKE OUTCOMES than match victories are outcomes.
One other thing: Innovators, according to Merton, can be criminals, worst case scenario, because they will do whatever it takes to get to the goal. In this case, Dream is an innovator who steals. He steals the show. He steals hearts and minds.
How did Velveteen Dream get so nuclear over so quickly? He may have Prince oozing from his countenance, but he’s anything but an impression. The ambiguous sexuality, The distinct persona. The clearly Prince-inspired name and, often, fashion (down to those three-eye glasses the legendary musician would rock) are not entirely new to wrestling, but the TAKE on this character, the OWNERSHIP and multidimensionality of the gimmick? Those are.
In the early 2000's, Prince Iukea inhabited what is arguably the worst area of the strain theory matrix: ritualism.
RITUALISM, according to Merton, means REJECTING a culturally approved goal, in this case wrestling superstardom, but ACCEPTING the means of getting there, mechanically working through the pre-scripted routing of a career. Wearing a costume, doing the mannerisms, performing for the paycheck, enacting routines without moving toward some greater notion in your field (or life).
One who understood the notion of getting over and being a star (character, look) but went though the motions, of facsimile. A tribute artist. An impression.
The Artist in question was Prince Iaukea, a Hawaiian wrestler whose name, Prince, prompted (hackneyed, extremely obnoxious, timestamp of the late 90s) World Championship Wrestling writer Vince Russo to "repackage" him as The Artist Formally Known as Prince Iaukea. Dressed like Prince and performing some of the icon's signature mannerisms, he was the portrait Ritual, not lasting very long because--surprise, surprise--his heart wasn't in it. There was no direction for this character, no depth. He wasn't connecting, and you could feel how little he cared for it. It was a one-dimensional casting.
So why isn't it this way with The Velveteen Dream?
This is what makes Dream an innovator. Patrick Clark, the man behind The Velveteen Dream, rose out of WWE's televised Tough Enough competition, a backroom-region-upended showcase of wannabe wrestlers (most have at least some training, some have years on the independent circuit) trying to work their way to superstardom by competing in silly reality-based competition challenges by earning a roster spot. Clark did NOT win Tough Enough, but his nontraditional entrance into the company's purview is unique within the field. Dream is an innovator working to make his matches matter...and to steal the show, regardless of where he appears on the card. To be an innovator in pro wrestling means to make your matches matter and to subvert, or rebuild, or reimagine the continuity of a successful card, and that it’s not about the order of first to last, but the energy of any given spot for a match.
The cocky, self-centered, outlandish Velveteen Dream is cast from the mold of a great pro wrestler in a sense of a great pro wrestler owning a room, a ring, an arena, because of their workrate and personality striking chords with choruses of fans. Many succeed via being cast into roles and enacting those rolls on a momentum-directed path, but Dream? He's making his own in a starkly original way, and it's difficult to compare him to other wrestlers. There's ownership, agency, and claiming of this as if it's something to--drum roll--INNOVATE.
And for the record, The Velveteen Dream DID defeat Kassius Ohno.
Merton’s strain theory would identify a problem of WWE being conformity-driven. But dream is an innovator, and he’s over because fans feel it. And that speaks to another major point: The Velveteen Dream's character rhetoric is ideal for pro wrestling because it is the polarizing rhetoric of entertainment.
Hours before Dream's match with Kassius Ohno, the outspoken and flamboyant wrestler claimed he would "easily knock out Ohno within 30 seconds." First of all, this actually shows respect and deference to Ohno's character, a "knockout artist." This is a kind of future-calling rhetoric and posturing that adds extra urgency and demand to his matches, and it's one that's been employed by iconic fighting figures, like Mohammed Ali, Conor McGregor, Floyd Mayweather...and Donald Trump.
And this is nothing new to Patrick Clark, whose run in Tough Enough was well documented, but whose brief turn (untelevised) as a Trump supporter showed a kind of attention to the power of controversy, shock, and cultural mirroring whose organic challenges make for powerful art showcases. It's likely a gimmick that the brass would have killed, had it made TV; Vince McMahon himself, a Trump supporter whose wife serves in the 45th President's cabinet, recently said that he wants to keep politics as far from entertainment as possible. And that's not always what happens, but the WWE actively does try to keep lightning rod current events from too deeply driving charge through their product.
It's a heel gimmick that would likely see support from a great swath of audience members, but hit too close to home, for many...too close that they may turn the product off, the doomsday prophecy of any episodic TV show. We'll never know what might have happened with MAGA Patrick Clark, but we DID see ingenuity to elicit boos and to take risks with a character.
It's the rhetoric of polarization. "Make America Great Again" is a simple statement that demands emotional response and, probably, action. "Wait a minute, America is already great?" "Wait a minute, you're painting with a wide brush and you're corrupt and evil. You're a liar!" "Wait a minute, you're speaking the truth--I'm with you! I am emotionally moved to be your supporter." The strength is in what's implied, and it has to be unpacked, and doing that just a little reveals how springloaded it is.
MAGA is the rhetoric of divisive defiance, and Velveteen Dream is defiant within pro wrestling, using outlandishness and bravado in spectacular ways to redefine what a boundary-pushing, star-stealing entertainer can be. When it's Trump, the logic works to break the mold of entertainment and to actively divide the American people. It seems to be something that works more effectively in entertainment because the stakes aren't as high, and that leaves room for more cultural mirroring, less white-supremacy-horrorshow to wake up to every day.
But the fact that a hard line MAGA gimmick and a flamboyant, highly-intimated bisexual character would be cut from the same performer speaks to the talent of said performer, an evolution-driven Bowie (or, duh, Prince)-like flair central to their talent.
In wrestling, and any combat-centric character conflict, this automatically elevates everyone. The implicit logic of, of course he can’t knock out Kassius Ohno in 30 seconds. Kassius Ohno is tough. It’s that logic that’s “high tide raises all ships” wrestling overness/character strengthening/leveling up. So Dream's win ends up being stronger, and Ohno ends up NOT getting smoked in 30 seconds and proving he's no slouch, and a win over him matters.
The Velveteen Dream makes things matter, and this makes the Velveteen Dream matter more.
That’s what innovation is. Wrestling and (extremely general) American culture are exceptionally quick to embrace and canonize the individual who rocks the system and becomes a figurehead associated with change, like a marriage of a Christ-figure and rugged individualist who blazes trails that are memorable and instills long-lasting values. For wrestling, this is the loud, the overconfident, the unique, but also those who ride the crowd in ways that feel both made by them as equivocally as they move them. Dream is heading that way.
I also want to point out that the "fight feel" here was front and center, as The Dream had a man--and woman--servant standing by as he sauntered to the ring in boxing trunks adorned with the phrase "DREAM OVER" and was fed his mouthguard like a eucharist. Again, it wasn't good vs. bad. It wasn't virtuous wrestler vs. sneaky heel. It was the story of the match, distinct, unique; it was the energy BETWEEN the two forces as much--or more--than those forces.
Not just a match, but a match that only, uncannily, could be between these two wrestlers.
The Velveteen Dream's posturing around himself creates an opponent's validity and burnishes strengths regardless of wins or losses.
One of the things that makes me most obsessed with wrestling as an adult is the creation of stars. It's the journey of watching stars become formed, rise, explode, and become fixtures, legends of the art. That's easy for me to pinpoint because that particular glow in the night sky, so to speak, is very bright. What's harder to pinpoint is the way we fans are always waiting to see what stars become so big their gravity changes the direction and narrative structure of the art itself. This was the unrelenting charisma of Hulkamania's wild energy; this was the anti-authority spirit of the times in Stone Cold Steve Austin's ass-kicking, take-no-prisoners anti-hero. In the charismatic story crafter of the Velveteen Dream's expansive and magnetic ego, do we have a future star?
It is in this spirit I write this to you.
In the awkward tender dust of something new evolving into the shape of something you love, because you trust it, because you believe.