The art of the handshake: Wrestling’s most important unwritten rule
Respect is an important value in the wrestling business. Though Superstars brutalize each other inside the squared circle, the locker room is a sacred place. Most of the time, no blows are traded, only respect. It begins from the second a wrestler enters the arena, starting a time-honored tradition.
“Guests at a WWE event might notice that everybody shakes hands gratuitously,” Cody Rhodes told WWE.com.
“It seems a little strange when people from outside [the industry] see it,” WWE commentator JBL said.
The handshake’s place in wrestling isn’t something that just became commonplace in WWE. JBL explained how the grip began as a secret shake during the sport’s early carnival days, done to weed out anyone who didn’t belong.
“It looked like you were gripping them real hard, but it was very loose, which showed that you were one of the boys,” the former WWE Champion said.
Over time, though, wrestlers began a game of one-upmanship, seeing who could give the loosest handshake.
“Some people take it to extremes, [using only] two fingers,” Antonio Cesaro said. “It’s weird.”
“It became a very limp-fish handshake,” JBL said, “which is not how it was actually intended.”
How it devolved from a secret variation on the regular shake to a two-fingered tap isn’t quite clear, though Cesaro has his own ideas about how that happened.
“Back in the day, you didn’t know if a guy was good or not,” he said. “I have this theory that they set out a rumor that the really good wrestlers shook hands lightly. That’s how they would recognize all the crappy wrestlers, by their dead fish handshake.”
Rhodes, the son of WWE Hall of Famer Dusty Rhodes, grew up in the business. He told WWE.com that his father taught him the right way to shake hands in all situations.
“A firm handshake,” he explained. “Not a double-tendon, break-your-hand handshake. Firm and look them in the eye, even if that’s the only contact you have. It brings an element of respect to the table.”
Even though a light grip may have been the norm in wrestling’s early days, it’s not as widely accepted anymore.
“The loose handshake, to me, has lost all meaning and relevance,” JBL said. “I’m almost offended when someone gives me a light handshake. In fact, I’ll tell someone if they don’t give me a firm handshake that they need to shake hands like an adult.”
“I don’t want to shake hands with a fish,” he said. “Just shake my hand normally.”
That feeling resonates throughout the locker room, from the newest Superstars to 13-time World Champions.
“I learned something from John Cena that I really liked,” Rhodes explained. “He will not accept anything other than a handshake. Not a fist pound, not a secret shake, he only accepts a handshake. I admire that.”
Despite the depths wrestlers have gone to keep the handshake a sacred part of the industry, the meaning of it is still lost on some.
Brock Lesnar’s never been out to make friends. He made it quite clear that he was out to cause mayhem in the ring and collect the paycheck that comes after. The Anomaly simply doesn’t care about associating with anyone outside of his closest associates.
Lesnar addressed the handshaking tradition in his book “Death Clutch: My Story of Determination, Domination and Survival.”
“Once I got to the arena, I had to shake everyone’s hand,” he wrote. “That’s the unwritten law… I hadn’t seen the boys since we all stood around the baggage claim at the airport a few hours before, hoping our bags would come around quickly so we could beat everyone else to the rental car line. But we would always shake hands, and everyone would smile like they were glad to see each other. It was all so insincere and phony, it made me sick.”
While Lesnar may have been turned off by shaking every Superstar’s hand, most wrestlers would say that it’s an important part of business, in that it recognizes the sacrifice Superstars make every night.
“Respect is certainly included,” Rhodes said. “But it has more to do with the fact that, yes, this is individual, it’s competitive, but we need one another to survive. The WWE ship doesn’t survive on the name of John Cena, it doesn’t survive on the name of anybody. It survives on the Superstars coming together, culminating in a team effort.”