When I was about 8 years old, I was in my bedroom watching a tiny television – USA Network, to be specific – and the product was WWF Monday Night Raw. I was bouncing all over the place, watching with great interest as Razor Ramon, oozing machismo, took on the oft-defeated weakling, the 1-2-3 Kid.
Ramon, a hirsute brawler styled after Scarface’s Tony Montana, was colorful, brash, and popular. The 1-2-3 Kid had never won a match in his short WWF career.
So when 1-2-3 Kid’s moonsault toppled Ramon down to the mat and the referee counted to three, I lost my mind. The crowd inside the cozy Grand Ballroom in Manhattan City Studios was themselves aghast at the upset at which they’d borne witness.
Between the shouts of enthusiasm and leaping from the floor to the bed, my dad made his way upstairs to my bedroom to see what all the noise was about. When dad, not a wrestling fan himself, asked what the deal was, I explained in breathless detail the match & the exciting nature of the outcome.
Sitting next to me on my bed, he told me something I’ll never forget:
“Andy, you know it’s all bullshit, right?”
He explained that the winners and losers of matches are already known ahead of time, and that on the whole professional wrestling is “fake.”
I remember feeling confused, a little hurt, and indifferent to the words. How could something that entertained me so much be counterfeit? Why would my dad casually dismiss something that so obviously stirred my emotions?
It didn’t stop me from getting hooked. When accompanying my mom to the grocery store, I’d usually snag a copy of WWF Magazine, eventually getting my own subscription. Every Monday night after Murder She Wrote I’d be glued to Raw, sometimes staying up late afterward to watch Duckman or In Living Color.
My solidification as a fan was on the Monday Night Raw following the 1994 Royal Rumble. “All-American” Lex Luger, a blonde musclehead whose entrance music was “Stars & Stripes Forever,” was coming off of a year-long mega push. His character, having no basis in fact, simply was, and patriotic audience members often rewarded his star spangled gimmick with lukewarm-to-middling fanfare.
Meanwhile, Canadian-born wrestling legacy Bret “The Hitman” Hart had channeled a decorated tag-team career into a very successful singles career. The Excellence of Execution’s signature wrap-around shades and leather jacket were the epitome of cool, and to an 8 year old 90’s kid, he WAS the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever would be.
The two were participants in the over-the-top-rope “Royal Rumble” match, a signature event where the last remaining wrestler earned their way into the Wrestlemania main event, fighting for the prestigious WWF championship. The battle royal ended in controversial fashion, as both Hart & Luger’s feet touched the ground at the same time, resulting in the only “double-winner” in Royal Rumble history.
Between that and WrestleMania X, I completely gave in: I was a professional wrestling fan, and watched the product religiously until around 2002.
The thing about being a fan of pro wrestling is that you don’t necessarily want to advertise that you are one. There is a very real stigma associated with wrestling that is simultaneously confusing, unfair, yet merited. It is often treated as a substandard & brainless form of sports that is only enjoyed by the uneducated, unwashed, & lowborn. It’s viewed as something people grow out of, graduating to “real sports.”
The industry has deep roots in the south, and even further back pulls much of its insider vocabulary from circus “carnies” and sideshows. Portraying itself as a legitimate combat sport for years, the validity of wrestling decayed throughout the 20th century as it became more widely known that winners and losers are scripted. Vince McMahon himself divulged wrestling’s predetermined nature during a late 1980’s court case.
So I got it, and I still do. It’s hard to even write about the subject without feeling the slightest tinge of embarrassment, but I digress.
I gave up on watching WWF in 2002 when the product was in the final years of the “Attitude Era,” where megastars like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock transcended wrestling into the sphere of pop culture. The product’s storylines focused more on sex appeal and violent spectacle than wrestling acumen & athleticism. In short, WWF had become “trashy,” in the Reality TV sense of the word.
To a hormone-fueled teenager, this was totally my jam, but I hit my limit when Triple H (a ne’er-do-well renegade snob) feigned necrophilia in a tasteless angle with Kane (a deranged demonic character who is now funnily enough running for mayor of Knox County, TN). My little brother was about 10 years old at the time, and I was ashamed that he was in the room when that aired. I gradually phased out of WWF to focus more on my new obsession: The NFL.
In the subsequent years I would go on to read several books written by professional wrestlers, none more impactful than “Have a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood & Sweatsocks” by Mick Foley. Foley, more famously known as Mankind (or Cactus Jack, or Dude Love…), regales the reader with an autobiographical journey from childhood into winning his first WWF championship in 1999.
I read all 544 pages in a single sitting, and have read it multiple times since. What I discovered is that what happens in “the business” behind the scenes is infinitely more fascinating than the stories told on television. Politics, personalities, money, greed, creative struggles, and the VERY real injuries sustained during a career in the squared circle humanized these performers and exposed the reality within this odd, odd world.
Reading through the autobiographies of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Bret Hart, and Chris Jericho only further added nourishment to my interest. I still had no real desire to watch the product again, but it was incredible to read about the pro wrestling industry’s past and present as told by the men who lived it.
Fast forward to 2013.
After reading some stories in social media about now-WWE, I decided to throw on a stream of Raw. It wasn’t an easy decision. By this point I was 28 years old and hadn’t watched a full wrestling broadcast in over a decade. The show ended with Daniel Bryan, a smallish performer with long hair and a shaggy beard, joining the evil group known as The Wyatt Family.
I wasn’t completely blown away, but I then turned to the online community to see what people were saying. To my surprise, most of the wrestling fans I observed online were between 18-36 and were more inclined to discuss creative decisions with the characters, possible political realities related to the on-screen matches, and lauding/ridiculing the athleticism of the performers.
Nowhere in sight was there any illusion whatsoever of the industry’s illegitimacy or negativity about fandom. It was very much like a huge group of people discussing an episode of Lost, all while having an incredible depth of knowledge regarding the actors and the show’s production.
I resumed being a regular viewer, all while having my fingers now on the pulse of the backstage “insider” news, and the experience lasted a couple years before I resumed abstaining from watching. During that time I can honestly say I had a blast being a fan again, and it was refreshing to view the matches & storytelling from the unromantic perspective of an adult.
It’s a lot easier to keep up with the product irregularly now thanks to Twitter, Reddit, and occasionally dabbling in a month or two of WWE Network.
That said, I now remember why I became a fan and why people continue to be fans of WWE and professional wrestling. It’s a completely unique form of performance art that is rooted in our base desires for live entertainment, athletic excellence, and observing human melodrama.
It’s breathtaking to marvel at some of the incredible work of these men and women as entertainers, using their charm & charisma to swoon entire arenas into repeating catchphrases and slogans to the letter. Others dazzle with feats of sheer acrobatic prowess, twisting their bodies in daredevil leaps from the top turnbuckle or amazing with inhuman shows of strength.
The days of intentional bloodletting are more or less finished, but it’s no less awe-inspiring to behold the real and often grueling pain these athletes endure for the sake of telling a story.
Wrestling is storytelling, at its core, and while it may not be for everybody, it is infinitely more than what most portray it as. At least sometimes…
So no, Dad. Wrestling isn’t bullshit.
Well…maybe not total bullshit. Maybe like half bullshit, but the best kind. The kind that makes me feel like a kid again for flashes of microseconds, and there’s not enough of that in the world anymore.
There is, however, too much Roman Reigns, but that’s for another entry.