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Let me start by saying that I know nothing about the big wresting leagues I see on American TV, I've seen them on a couple of times. A couple of things strike me:

  • Some of the "moves" they do are potentially very dangerous, this implies that the wrestlers have at least some understanding of the moves which are coming and how they can avoid becoming seriously injured.
  • There is certainly amateur wrestling around which is a serious competitive sport therefore there must be some improvisation/competition.

When we watch a big wrestling match on the television with the top wrestlers how choreographed is the fight (for safety and entertainment reasons) and how much is genuine competition (like boxing)?

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  • There is a wrestling term "potato" or "potatoing" used to describe when a wrestler actually hurts another wrestler with a blow. This is often accidental... and plenty of the accidents have caused career-shortening injuries. There are also bad decisions, done on purpose, which harm the wrestler. Mabel (~500lbs) deliberately jumping onto Kevin Nash's back comes to mind. – JacobIRR Oct 8 '19 at 22:54
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There is a really good documentary on it called Beyond The Mat (1999) which I highly recommend you watch. Not just to learn what happens 'beyond the mat' but because it is just a great documentary.

Everything is scripted, or there is a general outline of what will happen and a winner is agreed before the match begins. Sometimes something can go wrong during the match, like someone takes a particularly nasty fall and can't continue so things may need to switch up. It's live after all, anything can happen.

Now, during the match, there are a few things that happen:

  • Firstly, the wrestlers will whisper to eachother during grapples what they plan on doing. It's quick and code like... e.g. "off rope, counter, off rope, ddt"
  • The Referee, depending on how the crowd 'feels' will decide to extend the match, or wrap it up. If he feels like the crowd is losing interest, he will whisper, tap or something to let the performers know - time to wrap it.

The moves are choreographed to a certain degree, but just like tight rope walking, balancing, trampolining... a fall will hurt and things go wrong.

Wrestlers take a beating and it's unfair to pass off what they do as all being staged... because wrestlers have died in that ring in the past, things go wrong.

Will update with more sources eventually.

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    Also - see the Mickey Rourke movie - The Wrestler; it supports my theory that it is all theatre. – wbogacz May 14 '15 at 12:42
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    Citing people dying as proof of it not being staged is wrong. People die filming movies, through accidents all the time. Accidents happen in the workplace, staged or not. – TankorSmash May 14 '15 at 18:19
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    @TankorSmash I think you misread. People dying in the ring is cited as evidence that it's not ALL staged. In particular, the parts where people get injured or die are not staged: they're accidents, just like they are when people in any profession get injured or die. – David Richerby May 15 '15 at 8:56
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    Just like live theatre isn't all staged, since sometimes an actor flubs a line? Obviously the consequences of the mistakes are worse for wrestlers, I think the unfairness in saying "oh, it's all just staged" is the unstated implication that because it's staged they aren't really working hard, and aren't really being flung about the place. The same could be said of a Jackie Chan movie, the outtakes in the end credits show you that staging a fight is a serious business. Also the fact that wrestling is improvised to a plan, not fully scripted. – Steve Jessop May 15 '15 at 9:03

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