by David Beard, Associate Professor of Rhetoric, University of Minnesota Duluth
Nostalgia is a powerful dimension of brand management, and FortuneBaynia, a regional professional wrestling show held in Tower, Minnesota, July 29, 2018, about three hours north of Minneapolis and most of the way to the Canadian border, demonstrates this power.
On the surface, the autograph sessions and the card seem to function to serve multiple audiences. The presence of Baron Raschke [who wrestled beginning in 1966, retiring in 1995] appeals to a fan of wrestling in the era of multiple regional promotions, when Minnesota was center of the AWA. The presence of “Mean Gene” Okerlund, Lanny Poffo, and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat appeals to a fan of the “Hulk Hogan” era, in which the WWE rose to prominence as the first “national” brand of wrestling. The presence of NWO, appealing to fans of wrestling in the nineties, alongside contemporary wrestlers [like Minnesota’s King Leonidas] may give the event the overall feel of a buffet. The promoter pulls fans from multiple generations together, and together, they accumulate ticket sales adequate to their costs.
That may, in fact, be the principle behind the autograph sessions. Some fans would not have thought, at all, to move from the signing line for Mean Gene to the line for King Leonidas. Each wrestler has their audience.
However, once the bell rings, Heavy on Wrestling infuses the card with the power of nostalgia. Below, I will trace ways that in-ring matchups at FortuneBaynia reflect the principles of nostalgia in marketing.
“Nostalgia” is a word that is used in a diversity of academic and nonacademic communities without a great deal of consensus in meaning — so before I begin, I’ll try to nail it down. According to Clay Routledge, Tim Wildschut, Constantine Sedikides, Jacob Juhl, and Jamie Arndt, “Nostalgia was originally viewed as a ‘cerebral disease’ specific to Swiss mercenaries who were separated from their homeland, and later it was considered a psychiatric condition or ‘immigrant psychosis.’ The view of nostalgia as a psychological problem did not change for some time” [“The Power of the Past: Nostalgia as a Meaning-Making Resource”]. In looking at FortuneBaynia, I’m not looking at nostalgia as a pathology; I’m looking at nostalgia as a resource, as “a positive psychological force” [“The Power of the Past: Nostalgia as a Meaning-Making Resource”].
Research has divided nostalgia into three forms, and all three are active in the professional wrestling community:
personal nostalgia (i.e., nostalgia generated by reflecting upon times from one’s own experienced past)
historical nostalgia, which is generated by reflecting upon a time before one’s birth
vicarious nostalgia, which may be evoked when consumers attempt to reconstruct or relive an event from a bygone era [Darrel D. Muehling, David E. Sprott, and Abdullah J. Sultan, “Exploring the Boundaries of Nostalgic Advertising Effects”].
At the national scale, the WWE Hall of Fame attempts to sew these three kinds of nostalgia together fluidly, inducting older figures [often as “Legacy” inductees] as well as more contemporary wrestlers, often wrestlers with little or no affiliation with the WWE. The WWE deploys actual nostalgia for the wrestlers of one’s past alongside a vicarious nostalgia for wrestlers whom most members of the audience could never have seen. [Some of these older wrestlers simply retired before younger fans began watching; some of these older wrestler wrestled before wrestling was available to a national audience, and so geography would have kept them from being seen by the younger fans.]
It’s no surprise, then, that regional wrestling follows the lead of the WWE. Regional wrestling shows deploy the diversity of forms of nostalgia — from the personal nostalgia for someone who grew up watching a wrestler as a kid to the vicarious nostalgia for wrestlers of an age before.
In that sense, nostalgia, as deployed by promoters like Heavy on Wrestling at FortuneBaynia, is “psychologically advantageous as it increases positive mood, self-esteem, and social connectedness.” Because people who experience nostalgia also experience positive mood, self-esteem, and social connectedness, “nostalgia, in turn, render[s] people more tolerant of the threatening [experiences]” [“The Power of the Past: Nostalgia as a Meaning-Making Resource”]. Putting it simply, nostalgia can be deployed to make a threatening experience for the audience of professional wrestling — watching the aging and deterioration of one’s childhood idols as they are replaced by younger wrestlers you’ve never heard of — into a positive one.
To demonstrate this, we will look at two moments when nostalgia was an essential element in the FortuneBaynia:
- at a tag-team match when X-Pac of NWO wrestled alongside Minnesota indy wrestler Arik Cannon,
- at a King’s Corner match.
We’ll close with an anecdote from an earlier Heavy on Wrestling event, the naming of Baron Von Raschke as Heavy on Wrestling Commissioner [an event which included his surprise appearance in a match]. All told, strategies for the deployment of nostalgia at Heavy on Wrestling events can be explained by reference to the psychological and marketing literature on nostalgia.
The Nostalgic Power of NWO
Heavy on Wrestling was excited to confirm the appearance of multiple members of wrestling team NWO at FortuneBaynia for signings and, in particular, the appearance of X-Pac as part of a tag team match.
From the Press Release: Ever since October 29th, 2017 when it was announced that X-Pac was the first official signee for FortuneBaynia, the bar for the show was immediately set high. X-Pac himself announced that he would be competing in a match at Baynia, leaving fans to wonder who the legend would face in his first Heavy on Wrestling match since 2014. While who he faces will be scoped out by Heavy on Wrestling officials over the next two weeks, we can confirm who X-Pac will team with. We are proud to reveal that professional wrestling legend Sean “X-Pac” Waltman will team with Midwest Wrestling Legend Arik Cannon at the biggest event in Heavy on Wrestling history.
There were local reasons to celebrate X-Pac’s appearance. He announced, after the match, that his family was from the Iron Range. There is value to the “local boy” angle in X-Pac as a draw for FortuneBaynia.
It’s also true that his presence at the event generated nostalgia as a force that validated his partner, Arik Cannon, and that validated the regional promotion. Heavy on Wrestling. Serving as the venue for a match with the wrestler who held championships with WWE and WCW at the same time in 2001 only added to Heavy on Wrestling’s legitimacy. But the theater of the match worked by triggering nostalgia in the audience, too: the opposing team lost when X-Pac’s former team-mates, Kevin Nash & Scott Hall, approached the ring. Their very presence spooked Rob Justice & Darin Corbin with the same goose pimples that audience members probably experienced when the two giant men approached the ring.
When, as the match ended, X-Pac extended to Arik Cannon a t-shirt signifying his symbolic membership in the NWO, he made manifest the rhetorical force of the match: to help audiences seeing Cannon for the first time move past their discomfort with a new face into acceptance. Following the insights of Routledge, et al, “nostalgia, in turn, rendered [the audience] more tolerant” of Cannon, and hopefully, from Heavy on Wrestling’s perspective, converted NWO fans into Cannon fans for the next event.
King’s Corner, Nostalgia Takes All
While the objects of nostalgia in the NWO match were intimidating, powerful, in the King’s Court match, the nostalgia was generated by two wrestlers who usually took the second string, and they played that role again.
The team of “The Genius” Lanny Poffo, Nick “U-Gene” Dinsmore, King Leonidas, Super Thunder Frog, and Wild Cat faced off against Chainsaw King, Copperhead, Lore, John Johnson, and Red Wing in an elimination match. U-Gene and Lanny were the first eliminated from Leonidas’ team.
Perhaps their quick elimination had something to do with their age. As Poffo left, he mouthed “I’m too old” and left without hi-fiving the fans he passed.” Or perhaps, admittedly, even in their prime, these would have been wrestlers who were quickly eliminated.
Nonetheless, the match was even deeper in nostalgia, as Poffo opened with a poem in honor of his deceased brother, fellow professional wrestler Randy “Macho Man” Savage. Poffo was the “Genius” in his wrestling persona because of the poetry. Poffo connected the fans to his persona, to his popular brother. Even as the wrestlers of the 1980s left the ring, one could feel the torch being passed to their teammates. Fans of the earlier generations of wrestlers experienced nostalgia in watching Poffo and U-Gene, which became acceptance of King Leonidas, Super Thunder Frog, and Wild Cat.
Coda: The Power of Nostalgia in the Power of the Claw
Nostalgia has been part of marketing regional professional wrestling for years. In 2016, Baron von Raschke was named the commissioner of Heavy on Wrestling, and in one of the matches, he intervened by applying “the claw,” his finishing move. The claw involves gripping the top of the head of the opponent with one hand and squeezing the fingers into the opponent’s skull, as a submission hold, like a sleeper hold. The claw immobilizes a wrestler probably a third of Raschke’s age.
As physics and biology, it’s complete fiction. That fiction, though, allows the audience to ignore the realities of aging. The Baron’s power is in the theater of the ring and in the willingness of the audience to accept that power. As he conjures the power of the claw in his fingers, he fills the audience with “positive mood, self-esteem, and social connectedness,” as his fans — regardless of whether they ever saw the Baron in action. That energy passes from the Baron’s fingers into the young turks, crackling into acceptance from the audience of the next generation of wrestlers.