An Autoethnography of AAW

Two men enter the ring — the “squared circle” — muscles tense, skin already glistening with sweat. They circle the ring, calling out to their fans in the crowd to let their admiration roar and shake the building. The room still reverberates with the booming baselines of their entrance music, leaving the audiences’ ears to ring for the next day or so. The crowd responds in a frenzy, engaging in dueling chants and trying  to outshout the other side as their wrestlers finally step into the middle of the ring to meet.

They size each other up, stare one another down, and give the sense that they do not like one another. Even if they show the sign of respect and shake hands, everything leading up to that handshake and following it is thick with tension and the desire and the drive to overcome the other and win. They may be friends outside of the ring — and that friendship may be completely legit and not just kayfabe (i.e. performance) — but it doesn’t matter. Each man enters the ring to win.

Thus began every single match at the AAW Windy City Classic XI.

This was my first live event. As I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, I am new to this whole professional wrestling phenomenon. In terms of time, I have only been interested in professional wrestling for two years. The 2015 Windy City Classic XI was my first live show experience.

I am sore, my throat is hoarse, my ear has been ringing — I woke up this morning feeling like I had been the one in the ring.

And I would totally do it all over again.

So I guess I need to describe myself as a fan-scholar at this point in relation to professional wrestling. And what I want to do here is a bit of an autoethnography relaying my experience, observations, and thoughts from this live event.

Doors opened at 6 p.m. at the Logan Square Auditorium in Chicago. The bell for the first match would not ring until about 7:15. Until then, the crowd filed in, bought their over-priced beer, and circled the ring to meet some of the wrestlers and buy the wares those wrestlers sold. With many indie wrestlers, one of the main ways they make money is through “hawking wares” like t-shirts or photos or DVDs. Wrestling does not make much money per match unless you are a WWE Superstar, which is why so many indie wrestlers hope to get called into WWE’s developmental program and show, NXT.

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Trevor Lee (left), Fenix (center) and Pentagon Jr. (right) hawking their wares.

This show was special because two AAA lucha libre stars, Fenix and Pentagon Jr., were scheduled to appear in matches against local favorites. My partner Chris and I know these wrestlers because of their appearance on the El Rey Network‘s wrestling show, Lucha Underground. Chris has become a huge mark (i.e. fan) for Pentagon Jr., so knowing he could meet the wrestler and see the luchador wrestle live was our main reason for attending. And he accomplished just that.

Chris and Pentagon Jr. throwing the
Chris and Pentagon Jr. throwing the “cero miedo” signs that are the luchador’s trademark.

We were seated in the third row, near the entrance from which all the wrestlers would emerge during the night. I sat there watching people file in, and thinking about this new type of cultural context in which I found myself. I didn’t know how to act. I have been watching live events for a while now, and I know how to talk about the matches, the wrestlers, the business and whatnot. I also know that there are memes for how crowds respond to matches. For example, when one wrestler slaps another wrestler’s chest, the crowd often yells out “Wooo!” in reference to the famous wrestler Ric Flair, who would often yell that out during his matches when doing such a “chop.” I also know that there are many times that the crowd will interact with the wrestlers and engage in a call-response, or just chant and clap in an attempt to embolden their wrestler in his/her match.

But I had never experienced it — sitting at home watching WWE/NXT live events, my partner and I do not do the chanting and clapping; we merely observe the live crowd doing them, and sometimes comment on the creativity or ill-timed nature of them. I wasn’t sure how to engage in such interactivity — does one start it, does one go with the flow, does one counter the flow? When was it appropriate to interact, when was it not, did it really matter? My friends on Facebook, upon seeing me comment on this question, told me it will just happen naturally, so I sat there, watching other fans, and waiting for the first match to begin.

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I was struck by the diversity of the crowd amassing around me. I’ve been to pop culture conventions and I’ve been to sporting events. Usually those two types of fan gatherings have very different types of people — or, at least, proportionally one type of person outnumbers another type: the outcasts vs. the cool people. At the AAW event, the proportions seemed pretty even, as different types of people and fans were in evidence throughout the auditorium. People that could be classified as outcasts, nerds, metalheads, hipsters, jocks, cool kids — everyone seemed welcomed and willing to take part in the festivities of the night.

And I think that all points to the convergent nature of “sports entertainment” — professional wrestling can offer something to a polyvalent audience because it is a polysemous text. For example, professional wrestling blends genres, such as fantasy, science fiction, horror, action-adventure, Westerns, musical, and more through the different characters, i.e. wrestlers, that fight one another. At the AAW event, we saw wrestlers appropriating heavy metal, apocalyptic and comic book tropes to represent horror characters. We saw wrestlers appropriating martial arts and video game tropes to represent action-adventure characters. We saw wrestlers appropriating hillbilly and redneck tropes to represent comedy characters. And so on and so forth across all of sports entertainment. The ability to represent this vast array of genre tropes through its characters makes professional wrestling a polysemous text: there are a lot of different, sometimes competing, messages being offered through it.

And because it is polysemous, that means it has more to offer to a wider array of people. People who are fans of heavy metal can find their wrestler to support. People who are fans of comedy can find wrestlers to get behind. People who are not fans of musicals or fantasy or Westerns know which characters to jeer. A polyvalent audience is basically just another way of saying that any audience is made of individuals who have different tastes and preferences, and thus will seek and see different things in any given text. Thus, the more things in the text, then the more it can appeal to this variety that exists within any audience.

Ciammpa, local star and hero, drawing his support from the crowd.
Tommaso Ciampa, local star and hero, drawing his support from the crowd.
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AAA and Lucha Underground star Fenix drawing support from the crowd.

So, really, I should not be surprised at the distribution of demographics or socioeconomic statuses or personalities within the AAW crowd. They have all found something different within sports entertainment to latch on to, that speaks to them and their interests. And they can all come together and share their passions without those passions causing a problem — at least, not any that I saw at the event. And there was definitely potential for problems. Some of the fans seemed very adamant about supporting competitors, with a man behind us swearing and yelling profusely, even with small children sitting next to him. While this man swore and cheered for someone no one else appeared to be supporting, I saw others near him just laughing at his activities. I do not know if this man was aware of how others were responding to him, and perhaps he didn’t care. But throughout the night we saw more jovial joshing than antagonistic rivalry. And that is heartening to know that even within the conditions that create fractured fandom, the fractures might have added to the experience.

Watch the following clip of the beginning of the match featuring Chris Hero (indie favorite) and Pentagon Jr. (AAA/Lucha Underground star). You can hear how each wrestler has his part of the audience cheering for him, quite raucously and passionately. This clip shows before the fight begins, and some of the first moves after it begins. You can hear how into the match the crowd is just through their chanting and clapping, through their performance of the call-response that vocally indicates to which side of this match they belong.

This type of interactivity occurred throughout the night, and this is perhaps the lowest form of it — simply showing the wrestlers which one you are behind. Other forms of interactivity are more involved, more of a back-and-forth between the wrestler and the fans. Oftentimes in their matches, the interaction between the fans and the wrestlers was meant to help or hinder a particular wrestler. When the crowd’s favorite is on the mat and tired, the fans will clap enthusiastically, starting slow and speeding up to encourage the wrestler to get back to his feet and take down his opponent. One wrestler, ACH, even referenced the anime DragonBall Z and Captain Falcon from the F-Zero and Super Smash Bros. video game series in calling for the audience to give him this “power” to finish off his opponent.

Perhaps the highest form of this interactivity and call-and-response activity comes when a fan will shout something at the wrestler, and the wrestler will address that fan — with a look, with a gesture (often flipping them off or mimicking masturbation at this event), with their own verbal response, or by doing something in the ring that relates to what the person had just said. This latter is the least common, but it can result in some rather spontaneous activity, such as when Ethan Page responded to a fan’s comments about his butt by pulling down his shorts, mooning everyone in the crowd, and then proceeding to perform a wrestling attack with his bare bottom (seriously, watch it here.)

Such interactivity helps the crowd feel more involved in the matches. One of the biggest known “secrets” about professional wrestling is that the matches are predetermined; the outcomes are most often decided before the match begins so as to add to some narrative that is being told about the wrestlers. At this point, only kids probably still believe that the matches are real, but fans who do know the reality find other things in the text to keep them entertained, such as the narratives or the athleticism of the wrestlers (remember, polysemous text). Matches can still feel “real” because of the narratives, the athleticism, the very real physical damage wrestlers take (Tommaso Ciampa’s nose got bloodied last night, and Christian Faith wore the “crimson mask” aka lots of blood on his face by the end of his match), and by the interaction that they can have with the wrestlers. When you as a fan can feel — or can see — that something you are doing has an impact on what is happening in the ring, then it definitely can feel very real.

And this brings me to my last point — the constructive nature of professional wrestling, and of any fictional experience.

For a wrestling match to feel real, we can talk about the need to suspend disbelief, which is often raised as what helps people feel immersed in fictional experiences like television shows and movies. Suspension of disbelief is the idea that people willingly stop thinking about how what they are seeing is not real in order to get swept away, emotionally and cognitively, by it. But I don’t think it’s just this idea of willingly suspending disbelief. I think there is a co-constructive nature in fictional entertainment. We work along with the text to co-construct this sense of hyperreality — this sense that what we are seeing is just a simulation or representation of some reality that may or may not exist. We know when we are watching a movie that the people and places we are seeing are not real to some extent, but we accept this unreality, this hyperreality, and we go along with it, thereby creating with the text this alternate reality that we will disengage with once the movie is done.

Additionally, the more the text requires us to use all of our senses, or the more our bodies get involved in the text, or the more our emotions get involved, then the more involved we will be in this co-construction, because the more immersed we will be in the experience of engaging with the text. The more physically or interpretively or emotionally interactive the experience of engaging with the text is, then the more we will want to build this sense of hyperreality and, ultimately, suspend of disbelief to feel like this hyperreality is real.

Okay, basically, what I mean is that fans help to co-construct this sense of the reality of professional wrestling — even when they are aware it is not real — through their interactivity with the “text” of it. Through the call-responses, the emotional investment, the bodily involvement with the characters, the narratives and the matches, the fans help the wrestlers create the hyperreality of sports entertainment. At this event, clapping, cheering, chanting, getting to my feet, getting out of the way when Fenix attacked Pentagon Jr. down the row from me — all of this emotional and physical investment was my contribution to the co-construction of the “reality” of the matches. Hearing their slaps and punches, watching the blood and grimaces, feeling their entrance music vibrate my body, witnessing the body slams that made the mat bounce — all of this performance was their contribution to this co-construction. Things felt more real the more my entire body and their entire body were engaged in this experience.

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Like, I knew Buck Nasty getting put through the same table twice probably didn’t severely hurt him, but in seeing it, and how he responded to it, it was easy to think that.

I’ve watched Raw, Smackdown, Main Event, NXT shows, and PPVs — and none have felt as real as last night (except for maybe Sami Zayn‘s and Bayley‘s title wins, and that was because of the emotional weight of those wins). Having my body being surrounded by the experience, and witnessing first-hand and up-close what was happening to their bodies, made everything feel that much more real. Televised matches remove that bodily experience, and need to rely more on storytelling and the emotional interactivity to get fans to buy-in, to co-construct and suspend disbelief. At this event, surrounded by a sold out crowd of a couple hundred people, all cheering and clapping and stomping and scrambling, it was a lot easier to get immersed in what was happening, to believe in what I was seeing.

And I think that is what ultimately hooked me. So far, the wrestlers that have hooked me have done so through the emotional interactivity — such as Zayn and Bayley and Mick Foley. But these live events, I could see them becoming very addictive because of how immersive they are. It’s like a drug; I just want more — we even have been watching AAW videos on YouTube to try to recapture that feeling from the live event. However, nothing will be able to satisfy as well as just being a part of another live event — being so deeply and with such investment a part of another hyperreality.

I think, after going to my first live event, that I better understand the fandom of professional wrestling, and I feel better at considering myself a part of it.

2 thoughts on “An Autoethnography of AAW”

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