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Except for Mexico and Japan there are not many nations where professional (fake) wrestling is so successful. Where did this come from? Why did it become so popular?

Here in Europe we don't have people wearing masks and pretending to fight each other.

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This question appears to be off-topic because it is about entertainment and pop culture rather than about martial arts. I'm not convinced that this question would be a good fit for this site for other expert martial artists. –  Matt Chan Jul 16 '13 at 11:19
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The history of fake wrestling is intertwined with real wrestling and challenge matches, both of which are quite a part of martial arts. –  Dave Liepmann Jul 16 '13 at 13:33
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When the WWE and WCW started with their big advertising campaigns. –  Juann Strauss Jul 17 '13 at 9:09
    
It used to be big in europe, the expansion of the wwf destroyed territories worldwide. Japan and Mexico hung onto theirs. –  Kristian82 Jul 17 '13 at 10:09
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The NWA (National Wrestling Alliance) was founded in 1948. During the early years it was the de facto governing body for professional wrestling. –  JohnP Jul 18 '13 at 18:31
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1 Answer

Fake professional wrestling grew out of one of the oldest martial arts tradition: the challenge match.

Chinese martial artists sometimes fought on the lei tai to establish dominance over teach martial arts in an area:

Colored version of an older drawing of two fighters on the lei tai.

...and it was common in feudal Japan for students of one school to invade another school and demand a match. Fighting is at the heart of martial arts, and so determining the best fighter has long been a crucial component.

Fixed wrestling matches grew organically out of economic pressures applied to real challenge matches in the American post-Civil War period:

Wrestling exhibits during the late 19th century were...shown across the United States in countless "athletic shows"...where experienced wrestlers offered open challenges to the audience. It was at these shows, often done for high-stakes gambling purposes, that the nature of the sport changed...

Carnies, who traveled and wrestled at these events, used tricks to protect their money and reputations during competitions, devising little-known and often dangerous wrestling moves, called "hooks." Hooks are illegal in conventional amateur wrestling, but have high rates of success against even the most athletic and experienced of competitors, essentially removing rules from professional wrestling. In addition, some spectators capable of beating the carnies roamed the country to compete in open challenges, setting side bets to make money. The barnstormers competed as traveling wrestlers did and often cooperated with the carnies to stage the matches, providing enormous profits for both sides in betting. Through the interest in money-making among the three groups, wrestling became a business-oriented entertainment venue, distinguishing itself further and further from its authentic amateur wrestling background.

Later, it became popular due to commercialization and television.

The transition from real wrestling to faked matches was not clear nor was it one-way. Japanese shootfighters would transition back and forth from worked matches to real ones, and more recently, pro wrestlers like Brock Lesnar have become legitimate MMA fighters, and MMA fighters like Ken Shamrock and Quenton Jackson have switched over to pro wrestling to make money.

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Early MMA fighters Tank Abott and Dan Severn both also transitioned to WCW wrestling to chase the money Shamrock was making. Furthermore, one of the BEST MMA guys of the last decade was a pro-wrestler first: Kasushi Sakuraba. –  Graham Jul 25 '13 at 20:47
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