It is a rainy evening in the autumn of 1993 and my nine year old eyes catch my first glimpse of professional wrestling.
Little do I know at the time that what I see is predetermined. What I do know is that I totally love it. Look at these weird masks! One guy walks around in a bodysuit depicting a skeleton! Another one is fully clad in glittery red and has horns on top of his mask! Alongside the zany outfits came the stunts these guys pulled off. Backflips! Kicks! Punches! Bouncing against the ropes! Corkscrews! To my young mind this was akin to watching an action movie with the dialogue cut out. Just cool stunts, weird outfits, and bad guys versus good guys. This first encounter with wrestling possessed all the ingrediënts for a long romance. So why did my fascination fade away in the years that followed?
The main reason is that wrestling just wasn’t around that much in my country. It has always has been a rarity on Dutch television, a foreign fringe object in the peripheries of our culture. Sure enough we recognized Hulk Hogan flipping over trucks with Mr.T in endless reruns of the A-Team, but that’s as far as wrestling seemed to reach. So I moved on, right back to obsessing over Ninja Turtles, Nintendo and dinosaurs. However, a seed was planted that would blossom eight years later. This time wrestling was briefly featured on prime time Dutch TV. Me and my friends were thrown right in what later came to be known as WWE’s (World Wrestling Entertainment) ‘Attitude Era‘, a boom period in which wrestling took elements of immensely popular sleazy reality tv-shows like The Jerry Springer Show. It was around the turn of the millenium and WWE’s tv ratings skyrocketed.
During my second romance with wrestling I quickly discovered that the whole spectacle was predetermined. Long a protected secret, the advent of the internet in the late nineties helped expose the underlying conventions of the wrestling business and made them public knowledge. Not that me and my friends cared, we were still engrossed with WWE’s larger than life characters, violent stunts and scantily dressed ladies. The brashness of it all appealed to us as teenagers. To make us even more involved we had quality games like No Mercy on the Nintendo 64 and Smackdown 4 on the Playstation 2 at our disposal. In these two years wrestling ruled my world.
But things were about to change. We left high school and our group of friends splintered. Interests evolved. A wild girlfriend appeared. One by one my friends stopped watching wrestling until I was the only one left. This made watching less fun. In this period villain Triple H held the World Championship belt for two years in a reign that bored me. Not too mention that I went to a personal change in which being me was less fun. To top it all off the wrestling world was shocked in 2005 and 2007 by a series of dramatic events that indefinitely destroyed wrestling’s appeal to me: the death of wrestler Eddie Guerrero and most notoriously the shocking family murders and suicide of wrestler Chris Benoit.
Is the third time a charm? In 2011 I caught wind of WWE wrestler CM Punk stirring up controversy. Always the anti-authority figure inside and outside the wrestling ring, he amplified his disgruntlement with WWE management and their posterboy John Cena in a series of scathing promos he called pipebombs that sent shockwaves throughout the wrestling world. What made CM Punk’s rants so compelling was that they were fueled by a genuine and heartfelt anger against the WWE. He regularly broke the fourth wall, made allegations of nepotism behind (and in front of) the scenes in and called out people by their names instead of their stagename. It was a radical change from the dull promos and predictable storylines that WWE fans had been getting accustomed to for years.
Many fans symphatized with CM Punk’s underdog story and his criticism of WWE’s top hierarchy. The man appeared to have a valid case to be enraged. To help explain this, you may view WWE as the Hollywood of wrestling. It has been the wealthiest wrestling federation for decades. It cranks out the biggest shows, houses the most talent, but also has been accused of being playing it safe to a fault, unless you count shaking hands with the Saudi Regime weeks after the Kashoggi murder in 2017 as ‘playing it safe’.
A widespread sentiment among ex-wwe wrestlers is that WWE curtails the creative freedom of it’s performers and tries to exert as much control over them as possible. A recent example of this is when WWE prohibited their performers to create revenue with their Twitch streams. Punk’s grievances resonated with a broader dissatisfaction many had with WWE for years.By openly criticizing WWE’s hiërarchy and backstage politics many fans wondered if CM Punk went off the script. It appeared Neo was stepping outside the Matrix. Or didn’t he? Was this all part of the show? Or something in between, a worked shootperhaps? Nobody knew at the time. Be that as it may, in a way CM Punk did nothing new. Being disrespected is a common leitmotief for a wrestler in a storyline. But because it is such a commonly portrayed motive, it’s portrayal can differ wildly. When done badly it feels clichéd, worn out and tiresome. When done well it can be utterly convincing and almost therapeutic for the performer and fans alike. Wrestlers live through the stories they portray, and Punk was living on the edge.
A sizable portion of WWE fans in 2011 were tired of the same old guys winning championships, and persistent rumours of backstage nepotism only fueled the desire to see the rebellious CM Punk win. He was still in a wrestling storyline, but his character seemed to transcend it. When he ultimately overcame John Cena to win the world title, fans were reminded that hard work makes dreams come true, that you can overcome all obstacles as long as you persevere, even if it is for one night only. The brief period in which this happened was arguably the watershed period of Punk’s career, and the breath of fresh air that brought me and many others back to wrestling.
But my third romance with wrestling had it’s hiccups too. I had to come to grips with that a decade had passed. Most of the wrestlers that I had idolized as a teenager were either retired, dead, or had crossed over to acting in movies. Some of the buzz seemed gone too. WWE’s target audience had changed. Where in 2001 the crowd would consist mainly out of raucous teenagers, in 2011 it was families and kids filling the seats. Wrestling being more family friendly had been a conscious choice of WWE, but it often made the product rather tame. Then CM Punk left in 2014, after another bitter dispute with the company. So why the hell did I keep watching? It’s often hard to explain this to others. Not that I lack any enthusiasm in bringing my arguments across, but there often seems to occur a disconnect in peoples’ receptiveness to them a priori. As if people reaaaaally struggle to imagine why in the hell you would watch wrestling. In the archetypical version of this discussion people will also throw the f-word around:
I wish I could say I am exempt from fatigue when someone frowns upon when hearing I love wrestling, but I am not. The usage of the word ‘fake’ in this context clearly implies a derogatory view on wrestling being predetermined. To explore this a bit further: this use of the word ‘fake’ might also refer to wrestling being ‘campy’, which it undoubtably can be, as there certainly is no shortage of wrestlers with fake hair. I’ll be the first to admit it is an acquired taste.
So, to rephrase my question, why did I continue watching something many people feel is fake? Well, to me wrestling in essence is not any less fake or real than any series or movie. Sure, there are varying degrees to how well a story is acted but at the end of the day it’s still entertainment, a plateau to enact human stories on, in this case through choreographed combat. Admittedly there are times wrestling does feel fake, even to a fan like me. Because when it is bad, boy oh boy is it BAD. I’ve sat through a whole lot of mediocrity during my last eight years of watching WWE, where dull storylines, casual misogyny, bad acting and generic characters seriously made me consider dropping out again.
But I stuck with it. Because when wrestling is good it’s damn GOOD, and may even suspend your disbelief. When it’s good you will feel sorry for the person who gets betrayed by his best friend. When it’s good you will root for the good guy to overcome his demons. When it’s good you will be in awe by the athleticism of a perfectly executed Spanish Fly from the turnbuckle. When it’s good you’ll feel shivers to your spine from hearing 20.000 fans sing along with the themesong of Shinsuke Nakamura. The best recent trend in WWE has been the company’s initially reluctant but now firmly established embrace of women’s wrestling. It has has given many talented ladies a stage to shine and brought forth some of WWE’s best feuds and matches. And to put the bad stuff in perspective, you know what’s funny? Even these lowlights have their own specific appeal that have spawned a lively subculture within the subculture of wrestling.
Wrestling is still a worldwide phenomenon. Stars like Dwyane Johnson, John Cena, Dave Bautista and Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado have crossed over to serious movie careers. Although wrestling might be flying just below the radar of mainstream popculture, it has a devoted fanbase. One favourite passtime of wrestling fans is to discuss the product they watch. There’s a lively internet community where fans daily talk about all things wrestling, from the quality of a storyline to whether that wrestlers’ new haircut was such a good idea. Social media has made wrestling accessible to a degree that was unfathomable 25 years ago. Granted, this has taken away some of wrestling’s mysterious appeal but it has also allowed for wrestlers to express themselves as human beings (bah gawd), beyond the confines of their wrestling persona.
For those who do not like WWE’s brand of wrestling there are plenty of alternatives, like the Mexican AAA, New Japan Pro Wrestling and Ring of Honor, to name a few. The most notable contender to WWE’s hegemony over the American market has been the recently founded AEW (All Elite Wrestling). It’s Wednesday Night Dynamite shows have quickly become my favourite. AEW embodies a few of my favorite aspects of wrestling: that it should be fun above all and a safe space for everybody, A space where you don’t necessarily need to have a bodybuilders’ physique to be succesful, a space where you don’t have to define yourself as man or woman and still can be accepted, and celebrated even. And you know what? Let me pinch my arm again before i write this: I somehow have found a girlfriend who actually loves wrestling. My prayers have been heard! She actually is one of the reasons that I still watch wrestling. When I asked her what she likes the most about the wrestling she gave me the following answer:
‘I like how wrestling tells stories that touch you, stories about being human, about growing and letting go, about disappointment and returning stronger after going through a crisis. AEW feels like a stage for everyone, where regardless of who you are, you become a star if you enter that stage. I like the glamour, men in flashy glitter colberts, and how this bothers absolutely no one. Watching wrestling is looking at beautiful people, beautiful in their humanity. It is enjoying archetypes without embarrassment and immersing yourself in the fantastic aspect of wrestling logic: ‘I am your friend untill I am not, from then on we are enemies and trade punches. This simplification and magnification of reality is a delicious break from reality itself.’
It has been a treat to share my love for wrestling with my loved one. It’s a ton of fun to review the matches and wrestlers together, and to rise from the couch in order to dance along with the theme songs of Shawn Spears and John Moxley. She also showed me that there is a female lense to watch wrestling through and has pointed my attention to things I would normally take for granted. Above all she reminded me that wrestling can be fun, spectacular and doesn’t always have to take itself too serious. In the strain that has befallen us all in 2020 wrestling has been the perfect diversion. In the years to come I’ll probably will feel like I have to justify my love for wrestling time and time again. But it helps that I have one person less to justify it to. It makes my fandom a whole lot more enjoyable.
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