Pro-wrestling, having developed from carnie culture, has its fair share of bizarre traditions and superstitions, from the ubiquity of handshakes to the sacredness of kayfabe. These eccentricities range from harmlessly bemusing to questionably egregious. One yearly occurrence that should probably be done away with entirely is the hullabaloo that develops around the PWI 500 list, a power-ranking of pro-wrestlers created by Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine. An arbitrary and capricious roundup of performers, the list is still somewhat-ironically hailed as an important marker in a pro-wrestler’s career—despite biases, flaws, and the very conceit of the list itself being quite obviously disqualifying as a metric of importance.
Why the PWI 500 Is the Most Controversial Status Symbol in Wrestling
An outdated ranking has catalyzed a giant conversation around wrestling. Why?
The biggest non-starter here is that pro-wrestling, despite protestations even from within the industry, is a kind of performance art—meaning that without any concrete rubric based on provable statistics, a list that claims to organize pro-wrestlers by quality is purely subjective. Because of that, it’s easy to see where the editors’ predispositions and favoritisms shine through. This is simply a list of people who the writers of the list like, not the rational and objective collection of statistics as some in the industry treat it.
The criteria for making the list, as per PWI, are:
Influence on the sport
Success against the highest grade of competition
Success against the most diverse competition
It’s clear that aside from win-loss records (which, of course, are based on predetermined storylines and have no relation to ability, skill, influence, or quality), every category here is entirely informed by personal taste. Any veneer of neutrality here is a sham.
The second-to-last category is particularly absurd, considering the list only features men. As the wrestling industry attempts to make up for decades of misogyny and sexism by modernizing its treatment of female athletes, thus garnering both increased respect and viewership for women’s wrestling, it seems flagrantly wrongheaded to have a ranking of the best wrestlers featuring only one gender. When female wrestlers are main-eventing some of the largest pro-wrestling events of the year, including WrestleMania, it seems patently chauvinistic to continue to ignore the accomplishments of certain fighters simply because of their sex or gender.
Beyond that, fewer than 40 of the 500 people listed are black—and fewer than 10 of the 500 people listed in the 2019 roundup identify as openly LGBTQ. Sonny Kiss, a groundbreaking and charismatic wrestler signed to AEW who happens to be both gay and black, ranks at 358. That’s far below several wrestlers who may be signed to WWE but are otherwise largely unremarkable, despite Kiss having generated important conversations about inclusivity in the industry.
So much for “influence on the sport.” While LGBTQ owned and operated independent wrestling leagues are popping up around the United States, it seems a pronounced downplaying of the athletes within the queer community’s accomplishments to have only approximately 1% of the “best” wrestlers listed coming from that group. Beyond being incapable of addressing the complexities of gender identity (would a trans man even qualify for consideration here or do only AMAB performers count?), it seems particularly concerning that PWI appears more wary of including sexual minorities than of including men previously accused of domestic abuse and other hideous sex crimes.
The good news is that this year seems like a turning point in the list’s worth in the industry. Wrestlers have joked openly for years about their place on the ranking and the sort of expected backlash felt by PWI for including this person and not that person.
But the conversations seem to have shifted from general dissatisfaction to real, thorough critique of both the content and concept of the list itself. One notable response was from the Black Wrecellence podcast, which created its own gender-inclusive counter list of notable black performers.
Amidst a much larger conversation about the dismal state of wrestling journalism and its lack of diversity, the PWI list has yet again proved itself to be a relic of an art form that is evolving at a speed faster than many of the industry oldheads can keep up with. The truth of the matter is that the wrestling industry isn’t the racist and hetero-sexist business it once was, and people who don’t want to change with the times will simply be left in the dust.
their place on the ranking and the sort of expected backlash felt by PWI for including this person and not that person.
But the conversations seem to have shifted from general dissatisfaction to real, thorough critique of both the content and concept of the list itself. One notable response was from the Black Wrecellence podcast, who created their own gender-inclusive, counter-list of notable black performers.
Amidst a much larger conversation about the dismal state of wrestling journalism and it’s lack of diversity, the PWI list has yet again proven itself to be a relic of an art form that is evolving at a speed faster than many of the industry oldheads can keep up with. The truth of the matter is that the wrestling industry isn’t the racist and hetero-sexist business it once was, and people who don’t want to change with the times will simply be left in the dust.
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