The Surreal Reality of Professional Wrestling: A Wrestlemania Reflection

Audience Studies, NXT, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews, WWE
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The Undertaker’s WrestleMania entrance. [All media provided by the author unless otherwise noted.]

Any WrestleMania weekend experience is going to be marked by surreal moments. From the shear spectacle of the WWE’s collection of events and activities, to the overwhelming amount of professional wrestling occurring over seven days, and to the breathtaking risks and frequently draw-dropping storytelling of the performers on cards all across the weekend’s host city, it is certain that every fan attending these events will be able to take home a story of when they stood up in exclamation and awe. As an attendee of both of World Wrestling Entertainment’s major wrestling events over that weekend, Saturday night’s NXT Takeover: New Orleans and Sunday’s WrestleMania 34, I became privy to some of these moments experienced by those around me.

I attended the NXT show on my own since my WrestleMania companions were arriving late in that evening. On the way from the parking garage to the Smoothie King Center, my stride was overtaken by another man who appeared to also be on his own. He slowed down as he approached me and I was certain I was about to be asked if I wanted to buy an extra ticket or that he was going to try to engage me by telling me how nice my shoes were (this last part is a common line for grifters in New Orleans).

Instead, the man looked at me with a face full of amazement, arched his elbow and lifted his thumb in the direction he had just come from and told me “I just ran into the Miz back there!”

I, not being exactly the most socially skilled academic or wrestling fan on the planet, could only think to say, “Oh, yeah? That’s cool.” This did not deter my new sidewalk companion’s excitement. “Yeah,” he continued, “just walking around. Freaking awesome. I love WrestleMania weekend!”

From there this very excited Miz-bump-into-er sped up is gait and became part of the maddening crowd shuffling into the arena.

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My seat at the Smoothie King Center for NXT Takeover: New Orleans.

I encountered a number of other varying types of fandom once inside the arena. The WWE’s most important annual event draws people from all around the world, and I was genuinely surprised at the many different types of people who had come out for the NXT show. Once in my seat I found I would be spending the following four hours next to what I can most kindly describe as someone representative of the wrestling fan stereotype: a rather large and odorous young man draped in a Matt Hardy “Mower of Lawn” shirt, who insisted to his companions that he had the inside scoop on all things wrestling. He did not, by the way, have any scoop that could not be found on the average wrestling website.

On my other side was a family of four who had made the trip from eastern Europe to attend the weekend’s festivities. When not fully engaged in the show myself, I took note of the son, the youngest member of his family, and his wide-eyed excitement at the action – it was all fresh for him and he wanted to be a part of the crowd in spite of his father’s insistence on keeping a cool demeanor.

It was an interesting placement, being wedged between these two perspectives. On my right was an example of what is commonly conceived, derivatively, as a wrestling fan – loud, obsessed, judgmental, and borderline obnoxious. On my left was a child whose every impulse was to be pulled into the carnivalesque theater of professional wrestling and to engage with it innocently, as if the whole thing were a real competition that held immeasurable stakes. When it comes to professional wrestling, these personalities are equal parts contrastive and complimentary. They are both fully engaged with the products they consume, they are both lost in the moment of the thing, and they are both, willingly or subconsciously, suspending their sense of reality and biting on the narrative being presented to them.

Viewing these two differing ends of pro-wrestling fandom was one of my personal surreal moments from that weekend. Seated uncomfortably in the 300 level of the Smoothie King Center (perhaps the most uncomfortable seat I have ever been in, and I only fly coach), I was taken aback by two personalities I have been. Looking at the young boy, I remembered when I was about ten years old and my parents took me to a tiny armory in northern Maryland to watch a WWF house show, and I saw my favorite wrestlers at the time fight right in front of me, including a match between Bret and Owen Hart, an occurrence that now I wish like hell I could have appreciated more at the time. Looking at the young man on my right I thought about how I had attended yet another house show as a teenager and saw Brock Lesnar in the opening match, before he had debuted on television, and how, being a fledgling internet smart mark, I leaned over to my friends and said smugly, “I read about this guy.”

By contrast, I spent WrestleMania 34 wedged between some old friends whom I made during the ten years I spent as professional wrestler myself. I spent most of the event exchanging thoughts with my friend Greg, an accomplished and still very active performer in the northeast who works under the ring name Greg Excellent. Greg and the promotion he founded, Ground Breaking Wrestling, were the main reasons I was able to live out my own boyhood dream of being a wrestler, and I felt it particularly poignant that I was able to attend the biggest event in the industry with him. It is a rare moment for me to see Greg or any of my close friends from the business, having stepped away from wrestling to pursue my graduate degrees in Milwaukee and now Baton Rouge, and it was another surreal moment to walk into a sea of more than 70,000 people alongside a good friend with whom I share an extreme passion for the business.

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My view for WrestleMania.

Greg and I talked about everything wrestling and WrestleMania related. We discussed the sheer size and design of the event (the beautifully designed Carnivale-inspired stage was even more impressive and massive in person). We talked about the booking of the event and effective booking in general, something we have always clashed over.

We argued over the finish to Asuka versus Charlotte straight into the next morning – Greg is and will always be wrong in supporting the end of Asuka’s streak here, just to be clear. We shared our excitement for the mixed tag match with Ronda Rousey and the entirety of the John Cena/Elias/Undertaker segment, both segments which we agreed personified professional wrestling at its best with emotional storytelling and in-ring action that was exciting and intelligent. We each struggled to take in the main event of the show amongst a crowd in revolt. We even kept our conversation and debates going after the event, over burgers at an extremely busy Fuddruckers inside of a New Orleans casino (a surreal event in itself).

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MjWgOx1vuU&w=560&h=315]

Some shameless self-promotion: A match between myself and Greg Excellent.

Through all of this conversation, Greg and I were actively exemplifying the spectrum of wrestling fandom. In the middle of moments like the aforementioned mixed tag match and Undertaker segments, we were on our feet and giddy alongside the other 70,000 plus people around us, stepping back into the enthralled bodies of our younger selves, oblivious and ignorant of the unreal nature of wrestling (“It’s still real to me, damnit!”).

In other moments, such as our disagreement about the Smackdown Women’s title match (in which, let us not forget, Greg is wrong), we were alternating between being internet smarks, assuming we knew what was best, and being experienced professionals within the pro-wrestling world, albeit at a much smaller scale.

We oscillated between the perspectives of the wide-eyed European boy and the smarky twenty-something that I was crammed between the night before while wrestling with our own personas as performers and students of wrestling and storytelling, and all the while we were likely an irritant to the poor folks in front of us who just wanted to watch a wrestling show.

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Seriously the wrong moment here, no matter what Greg says. [Photo courtesy of WWE.com]

I suppose my point in sharing all of this is simply to express my own amazement in the ways that the most surreal of all entertainments attracts and literally brings together myriad perspectives. Often times, like with the young boy and the smart mark at NXT, these perspectives can seem contradictory – one innocent and the other cynical – but the fact is that they all come from an identical love for the spectacle of sports entertainment.

Walking out of the NXT show, I overheard a group of young men talking excitedly about their weekend. They had been shouting so much during the show that they had all strained their voices. The spoke in gasps about how incredible the show was, they wondered how they would be able to handle WrestleMania if NXT had taken their voices, and, most endearingly, one of the young men talked about how he had already been made speechless that weekend when he met Asuka at WrestleMania Axxess.

I had enjoyed the show myself, but my excitement was nothing compared to that of these young men, and in those moments where I eavesdropped on their conversation and heard their enthusiasm for professional wrestling, I could not have been prouder to be a part, as both fan and participant, of this strange and surreal thing we call professional wrestling.

WrestleMania 34 Rhetorical Recap: Golden Spotlights, Crimson Masks, and the (Unconscious) Race Politics of Smarks

Audience Studies, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews, Works-In-Process
maniatoday

Image credit: https://www.f4wonline.com/sites/www.f4wonline.com/files/maniatoday.jpg

Throughout the year, the Professional Wrestling Studies Association has offered a range of event coverage for WWE Pay Per Views as well as a host of vintage and indie shows and performers. Our goal is to cultivate an exclusive space for creative and scholarly writing, from close readings and fan perspectives. WrestleMania 34 offers the first WrestleMania since the official launch of PWSA, and with that, the goal for this Rhetorical Recap is to explore the final convergence of many years’ long narratives. Having covered each of WWE’s “Big Four” Pay Per Views starting with last year’s Summer Slam, the focus of this coverage will be to explore how long-form wrestling narratives come to a head—in success and failure—with some culminating stories years in the making and others impromptu due to unforeseen circumstances like injury, industry, or opportunity. Thus, with the cumulative event, this WrestleMania 34 rhetorical recap will emphasize arc over in-ring minutia, and aesthetic spectacle over a chronological review.

EDITOR’S NOTE: All unidentified images come from the WWE’s online gallery collection.

Preshow Highlights: The WrestleMania 34 preshow has evolved in recent years, stretching from a nominal hour to an hour and a half, only to extend well into a two-hour infomercial sprinkled with a couple of minor memorable moments. The majority of the preshow runs with Renee Young hosting a rotating roundtable of commentators, mostly to hype the main card events and provide bumpers to the video packages that have already aired on RAW, SmackDown, NXT: Takeover, and will air again prior to each key event. For this reason, it is highly recommendable that viewers skip or strategically skim the pre-show after it airs so as to fast-forward past the 75-80% of integrated marketing filler.

The two noteworthy moments of this year’s preshow included fan-favorite “Woken” Matt Hardy winning the “Fourth Annual Andre the Giant Memorial Rumble” with an assist from (Woken?) Bray Wyatt, as well as a predictable yet interesting showdown between Sasha Banks and Bailey in the first ever Women’s Battle Royale. The two best frenemies worked together on the final eliminations before Bailey pulled a fast one by chucking out Sasha from behind. However, this proved to be short-term glory, as Naomi happened to re-emerge still an eligible member. These curious conclusions marked the beginning of an interesting trend that continued in WrestleMania 34: dangling plot threads rather than the typical bowtie story-arc endings.

Show Open: The main card show kicks off a traditional combination of video package and national anthem. The national anthem is performed by a younger duo in arguably a quieter rendition than, say, the Super Bowls that cap with jets screeching overhead. But over the heads of the female duet rests a pagan tower of an entrance stage. The entrance stage and ramp over the last four years fit the definition of hyperreal. They are behemoths as if Greek and Roman titans will soon descend from behind the black curtain of smoke and pyrotechnics. The New Orleans Mardi gras color palette plays a central role, but the high definition LED lighting seemingly elevates these colors to the 4K-resolution era.

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First Match: The opening card aims to kick the show off in style with the Intercontinental Championship Triple Threat Match between “The Kingslayer” Seth Rollins, current IC champion The Miz, and the first WrestleMania appearance for Voodoo-esque Finn Balor (sans Voodoo-esque Demon persona). Rollins enters with what seems like a Game of Thrones combination of King of the North meets The Night King theme, complete with ice-tinged contact lenses. The Miz entered with a garish steampunk court jester wardrobe but soon shed his Miztourage atop the entrance ramp. With a newborn child part of his transmedia narrative that stretches across WWE kayfabe, E! Network’s Total Divas, and a new USA Network reality show, the breadcrumbs represent either continuous false finish babyface teases or an authentic turn (to coincide with the press run for the reality series) or the likely signal that his reign will end tonight. Finn Balor enters with yet another set of new tiny trunks; this time sporting an LGBTQ-friendly rainbow pattern for his Balor Club insignia. And in case anyone was to simply assume WWE is reappropriating the colors as part of its Mardi gras theme, Coach and Michael Cole point out that the stage full of Balor Club fans (in matching T-shirts) has branded his club “inclusive” as well as a celebration of “diversity”. Given how much praise Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi quickly received NJPW/ROH’s ambiguous Golden Lovers, this has all the shades of a James Dean-y feel.

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Oh, and there was a match too.

This bout actually progresses somewhere between 90 and 100 miles an hour. These three superstars obviously each have proverbial chips on their shoulder and clearly want to “steal the show” (it’s both already clear but also the announcers cannot help but use the same repeated phrasing to drive the point home). For each, the year has been one of rebound spikes and also roster regression. Miz became the reason to watch SmackDown week in and out, but then was quickly “traded” to RAW where he fell back down the deepest show roster hole in the company.

Meanwhile, Balor had to reestablish his WWE career after a 9-month shoulder surgery and injury that resulted in him relinquishing the Universal Championship and missing WrestleMania 33. WWE teased Balor in a number of high-profile RAW matches but “the Club” carries none of the Bullet Club buzz just as his lingering supernatural feud with Bray Wyatt felt like a placeholder gamble. Rollins also tumbled down the card due to RAW’s super heavyweight division featuring Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, Samoa Joe, and the 2017 rise of Braun Strowman. Then Rollins slipped into quasi-interim glory with a cut short The Shield reunion and Tag-Team Championship run with Dean Ambrose. A real-life virus to Reigns and then elbow injury to Ambrose left Rollins hovering in No Man’s Land with WrestleMania looming.

Collectively, all three are deserving of a spotlight match and yet none had anything of worth until mere weeks before WM34. Thus, their match goes off like a canon and sustains a comparable fireworks show from start to finish. A key downside might be that variations of this match have taken place on RAW for at least the last month. Thus, the only unknown was which man would walk away from the champion. After foreshadowing suggested Balor may finally get another belt on his shoulder, Rollins showed why the brass in the back has so much favor in him. WINNER: Seth Rollins.

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Charlotte’s Golden Entrance, courtesy of Daily Charlotte Flair@FlairDynasty. Original video imagery credit: WWE.

The Hedonic Titan theme continues in match #2.

Second Match: Charlotte Flair enters from a literal golden throne, accompanied by three men in full Spartan soldier armor. The gold lit intro is brought to life with Ric Flair’s vintage “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (aka, 2001: A Space Odyssey theme) before Charlotte’s techno-variation accompanies a blue-tinted set change. But audiences ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Suddenly a 3D projection of Geisha masks fills the stadium (and I’m still trying to figure this out) as Asuka enters with a sparkling mask replacing her traditional white mask with colored tears. These two competitors have been destined to clash since they each entered WWE. Bookers were smart to keep them apart this long, moving Charlotte to SmackDown just as Asuka came up to RAW from NXT. Charlotte has dominated both women’s rosters with multiple title runs, while Asuka has only held the NXT belt but still remains undefeated.

While much discussion has gone on about what match should go last, and which men’s bout will “steal the show,” my WrestleMania prediction (especially following this year’s Royal Rumble) is that this match is the dark horse of the entire card. I think it’s got the most in-match potential once the bell rings. And by just the mid-point of the match, this “pre-mon-EEE-tion” feels accurate. These two are lightning in a bottle, and for never having met previously, their chemistry is fluid and sensational.

The camera cuts to John Cena sitting nearby in a grey T-shirt, beer in hand, recur so frequently that the foreshadowing seems almost clumsy (WWE does know sober adults watch, right?). But hey, kids watch too and Cena is now the Billy Crystal of the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards.

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Courtesy of WWE.com: https://www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania/wrestlemania-34/gallery/john-cenas-wrestlemania-reactions-photos#fid-40214527

Back to the action: it’s phenomenal. It might be moving even faster than the IC Triple Threat, and already I feel like I’m having a hallucinatory CrossFit dream. By the end of this thing, Charlotte is bloodied and crying, while Asuka seems to be setting up her ultimate victory. But in the quick of things, somehow the momentum shifts just a bit back, and Charlotte inexplicably races a figure four into her patented figure eight, and even more ludicrously, Asuka, universally impervious to pain, taps. Everyone is stunned. Charlotte seems stunned. I’m stunned. Asuka followed red carpet all the way from NXT up but earned it strong-style. Then, she made history by being the Soul Survivor and first Women’s Royal Rumble winner. So naturally, on “the grandest stage of them all”…lose?

This feels like a last-minute booking swerve. The politically safe decision “for the brand.” But to be clear, both are deserving before the match, during the match, and in the months and perhaps years to come. And yet the match was definitely even, and Charlotte has earned her stripes. It was not the ideal finish to Asuka’s 2-plus year winning streak. Todd Phillips notes how Asuka’s streak sits at 914 days, which shows staggering patience by WWE. But then again, WWE messed up Charlotte’s PPV win streak over a year ago as well. WINNER: Charlotte Flair.

Third Match: In the United States Championship Fatal Fourway were Randy Orton vs. Bobby Roode vs. Jinder Mahal vs. Rusev. Smartly, WWE looks to push another triple threat out of the way early — er, excuse me, fatal four-way (Sheesh!) — for US Title (aka, the “Meh” second-tier belt on SmackDown). Matches like these showcase how too many belts deflate the prominence behind such storylines. This match is the SmackDown equivalent of RAW’s IC Triple Threat: three talented superstars with stutter-stop storytelling throughout 2017 and the Road to WrestleMania. Technically, Jinder Mahal had the best year of the three, becoming a first-time WWE Champion for the duration of summer 2017. He even feuded with Orton for a couple of initial PPVs.

The silver lining? Rusev, Jinder, and Roode each getting a decent mid-card match at WrestleMania 34. The downside is that this year’s card happens to be so magnificent that the hype might just overshadow matches that are simply “pretty good.” The other silver lining? The match is appropriately short (don’t let the audience get too tired). After a finishing move spot fest, Rusev gets a moment to bask in the “Rusev Day!” glory with the audience. The moment is his, just not the belt. Jinder ducks in last-minute and catches Rusev off guard, pinning him in the process. In hindsight, this was an interesting bout that demonstrated WWE’s talent-heavy issue in 2018. Namely, how to fit so many superstars into a PPV that, with pre-show, will have lasted an absolutely exhausting 7 hours and 10 minutes. Indeed, the brand split is looking smarter and smarter with each passing talent acquisition. WINNER: Jinder Mahal.

The Mid-Point (and Creative Peak) Main Event

In a bit of a surprise, for the fourth match, WrestleMania 34 pivots to one of WWE’s marquee mainstream attractions: the mixed tag match between Triple H and Stephanie McMahon against RAW GM Kurt Angle and Rowdy Ronda Rousey. The entrances were relatively vanilla. Triple H is known for his outlandish wish fulfillment entrances, including riffs on King Conan, the Terminator, even Sons of Anarchy. With out-of-control self-one-upmanship, the retread this year is a less impactful sister sequel to WrestlemMania 33’s oversized choppers revving down the entrance ramp. Meanwhile, Angle and Rousey’s reveals appear quite pedestrian.

And yet…unlike some weeks, the audience seems primed to play nice and root for Ronda. This match had all of the pomp and circumstance theatrics of a hokie celebrity tie-in. But the longer the match went on, the more the crowd got behind Ronda and Kurt (but Ronda especially).

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For all of the gimmick match pieces in place—a McMahon family member, the outsider non-wrestler participation, semi-retired GM and legacy member back-in-action—there was a lot to suggest this match could easily fall into parody. The early uses of Ronda showed potential as well as a woman’s wrestler work-in-progress. Even the strategic placement across ESPN’s programming was hit-and-miss. With so much at stake, this foursome went all in on a gambit match every bit full of stakes, symbolism, danger, and all of the high drama that makes pro wrestling an addictive bit of cathartic theatrical athleticism.

The net results? The mixed tag program turned out to make a case for match of the night. While Angle and Trips were always in play to protect Ronda’s inexperience and Stephanie’s non-competitor corporate role, both women turned in superior performances. Ronda stepped up to the mat while Stephanie arguably played the best version of herself that she’s ever put on. The peak moment occurs when Rousey becomes stirred into attacking Hunter with such ferocious quick strikes that he oversells cowardice falling back into the corner. He is comically emasculated but also putting WWE’s new star over in front of a raucous crowd. The four performers span the emotional spectrum of sports entertainment without the pressure of going last. WINNERS: Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle.

Match Five: The New Day then comes out in a State Fair-themed lowbrow performance complete with dancing little people dressed as pancakes. I can’t even with this kind of sideshow attraction appeal. In the 2.5 sitting’s that it took me to take down the five hours of programming, I fast-forwarded through this “happy” bit both times (it’s probably my aversion to pancakes, but whatever). Truth be told, the New Day bit, which some scholars have compared to a contemporary minstrel show, was the “get excited!” start to the SmackDown Tag-Team Championship triple…*YAAAAWN!* threat match. For what it’s worth, The Usos are pretty slick performers. But this was always projected to be a transitional squash match finally awarding the Bludgeon Brothers (Rowan and Harper of Wyatt family fame) a tag title reward. WINNERS: The Bludgeon Brothers

Tensions between Stockholder Expectations and Fan Service with “Dream Match” Booking

I don’t know if I would feel this way if I didn’t sample SiriusXM’s Busted Open Radio, but the yearlong hype, discussion, and speculation concerning the Undertaker’s (alleged) retirement pushed this inevitable match into predictive overhype. The fans circle virtually shaped the WrestleMania 34 narrative as one that would welcome back the mid-career “American Badass” persona. And all of the ingredients supported this direction: Undertaker retiring his hat and gloves last year, Roman’s need to keep the claim that he “retired the Dead Man,” the induction of Taker’s biker anthem singer Kid Rock into the WWE Hall of Fame, and even the symmetry of the American Badass persona as the first backstager (and champion) to greet Cena after his inaugural WWE TV match. It made perfect sense. At least on paper and out loud and in my head it did.

Greatest Hits, Part I: Liminal Icons (Match Six). But for whatever reason, none of these events unfolded in the way that the teasers suggested. And this is WWE trolling its own “smart” fans for overthinking the simplicity of their narrative structure in the current era.

Cena buried Elias once more, in at least the third such squash since the Royal Rumble. The encounter appeared to be a ruse that took Cena out of the audience and into wrestling gear. The audience was meant to feel duped by Elias, and as Cena solemnly and effortlessly walked back up the elongated ramp mixed with celebration and disappointment, the lights cut to black. The Undertaker returns, traditional Dead Man wardrobe, his patented slow walk as slow as ever.

And yet…wow. The match was less a “greatest hits” between the two mega-stars and more of a complete Cena squash. At most the match went 3:30 minutes in-ring. It was a shocker, and for my money, not in a good way. Not after everything that came before, and arguably everything that would come after. The only gift the match offers fans is another year or more to speculate as to just why this happened in the first place.

At the same time, the layout is entirely understandable. The Undertaker is in indecisive retirement stasis and Cena’s Hollywood schedule is starting to stack up as heavily as The Rock’s. Perhaps neither could fully commit to the appearances, the booking, the rehearsal, and so on. And no one can say they haven’t earned that right, because dollars and cents and longevity on the roster vindicates how things played out. In an information economy, perhaps WWE sees the digital discourse as more valuable than the final product. And given Cena and Taker’s diverse schedule, it is pretty clear this is all they could arrange with limited coordination. There you have it, a clear picture of what impromptu execution looks like.

For the record, as there are competing narratives online: at 2:29:14 the bell rings. Then, the pinfall occurs at 3:32:00. That’s right, the actual match comes in under 2 minutes, 45 seconds.

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Here is the match in a snapshot, courtesy of WWE.com https://www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania/wrestlemania-34/gallery/daniel-bryan-shane-mcmahon-kevin-owens-sami-zayn-photos#fid-40214263

Greatest Hits, Part II: Vendetta Tag Match (Match Seven). One match that carries all the hype but perhaps came off just a little bit flat was the Kevin Owens/Sami Zayn tag match against the SmackDown brass of Shane McMahon and the headline-grabbing return of Daniel Bryan. Bryan’s situation, not unlike Undertaker’s, suffers from a bit of hype fatigue in that anything short of a 1-hour 5-Star match would underwhelm obsessive fan audiences. WWE actually executed smart booking by having Shane take a pummeling for the majority of the bout. This narrative approach gave the match a meta-reflection of the 2-3 year Bryan gap, played out over the course of the match. This projects the real-life Brian Danielson (who would likely have some ring rust) and then allows him to play his “greatest hits” move set for a quick pin once he enters. It’s a doppelganger to Undertaker, a fan service match with all the ingredients (Uber-babyface Shane-O-Mac, indie-love for Owens, NXT nostalgia for Zayn). WINNERS: Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon

How To Book a Narrative Payoff (Match Eight).

The WWE RAW Women’s Championship match reached an appropriate cathartic conclusion that feels like it has been building longer than it really has. Throughout most of the last year, Alexa Bliss manipulated Nia Jax into a kind of one-way friendship as a method of diversion. This kept Nia from fully committing to challenge for the RAW Women’s Championship while occasionally protecting Bliss and providing a partner in tag matches. This made sense with both characters embodying distinct shades of heel (the hard-talking coward and the monster, respectively).

This succeeds as a long-form narrative arc because it allows characters to develop patterns while still leaving WWE booking options. Asuka was a player in the fold and could have easily overcome Bliss for her belt. And yet after winning the Women’s Royal Rumble, Asuka chose the noblest option possible by going after the strongest competition in Charlotte. Meanwhile, the insertion of Ronda Rousey into the Women’s Division equation created immediate possibilities in all directions, with the most logical decision to gain favor by taking out the boss (Stephanie). Thus, the Alexa/Nia angle came into focus at just the right time.

Mickey James transitioned from opponent to frenemy to mean girls accomplice, which put Alexa in position to accidentally and carelessly expose her low opinion of Nia. In a storyline that featured bullying, body shaming, smack talking, and gaslighting, these two performers tapped into some of the most authentic reflections of toxic masculinity/femininity in digital culture today. Their match is excellent and encapsulates the year’s worth of ups and downs with appealing choreography. Real-world incidents, unfortunately, end far too often in tragedy, but this match concluded with the appropriate level of triumphant, cathartic pathos. WINNER: Nia Jax.

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Nia vs. Bliss, courtesy of WWE.com http://www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania/wrestlemania-34#full-detail-40040893

Match Nine: WrestleMania 34 was insane in just how few times there was room for filler or letdown matches. Arguably, the sheer volume of content is what led some matches to appear more valley than peak (U.S. Championship) and the adrenaline crash of week-long festivities will always give way to audience impatience in the final acts. The WWE Championship is a different verse to the same song that haunted parts of the WrestleMania 34 macro narrative.

To clarify, the A.J. Styles versus Nakamura is a story that doesn’t need a heavy narrative setup (good thing too, because SmackDown mostly ignored it), but these strong styles (double pun?) do need temporal room to breathe. And yet a double bind emerges within this win-win setting. The performers will always already be compared to their previous, less restrictive New Japan Pro Wrestling main event at the Tokyo Dome. And while a large portion of WWE’s audience has never and will never see this match, the Nakamura character got further lost in translation moving from NXT to the main roster.

This sounds like a bit of armchair bellyaching and fan wallowing. Truth be told, this is another terrific match that had the relief of a Style victory (deserved) and the refreshing surprise of a Nakamura heel turn (which should fix some of his weekly character issues). Instead of the over-labeling of a “Dream Match” payoff, the post-match low blow to A.J. perhaps signals a new beginning (no end in sight!) that suggests this rivalry is just hitting its appropriate stride. WINNER: A.J. Styles

All TV Finales Suffer If You Binge-Watch the Entire Show in one Long Sitting

There is a danger in over-thinking pro wrestling, but one wonders if the proverbial transitional gimmick match between championship main events doesn’t serve as a “pallet cleanser” so much as a potential scapegoat for any time the final match doesn’t execute perfectly for either the performers or the fans.

That said, while the match was perfectly entertaining and serviceable, the fan reaction shifted into neutral during the A.J./Nakamura match and may have only popped hard one other time when Braun Strowman tagged in a young teenage kid that he “randomly selected from the crowd” to serve as RAW Championship tag-team partner. Other than that, the RAW Tag-Team bit was excruciating to watch primarily because WrestleMania 34 was at this point past the four-hour threshold. And six hours if one counts the pre-show. And nine and a quarter hours if one counts NXT: Takeover New Orleans. And fourteen plus hours if one considers how mind-numbering excess of a five-hour Hall of Fame ceremony Friday evening (I can never watch another Hillbilly Jim match ever).

The density of all this WWE content highlights their industry attempt to suffocate the competition, which is the typical corporate consumers buy into with Disney, Wal-Mart, the NFL, Netflix, etc. In reality, market saturation has led independent organizations to fight even harder. Every legit indie product now shadows WWE at the annual host site for WrestleMania. The entire week becomes a pro-wrestling mecca, and anyone who’s anyone makes appearances at multiple venues. The WWE may harness an unstoppable corporate hegemony, but the pro-wrestling community thrives as always from the success of warehouse outlets and passion-fueled communal productions.

To return to the final main events, it makes logical human sense that fans would face exhaustion de la spectacle after a full week of festivities (and thousands of dollars). If the adrenaline crashes for performers that “blow up” if not properly fit and fueled, imagine the average fan that is expected to sustain emotional investment from the antsy pre-gate moments in route to the stadium, up through the 7-hour card. The elongation of WrestleMania thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for impossible odds at show’s close. The bigger question is, why wouldn’t audiences be flat?

Match Ten: The interim tag-team championship was, apparently, entertaining. Braun went ultra babyface by picking a virtual child partner from the audience, in the process maintaining his strength cred by then beating Cesaro and Shamus (no slouches) to single-handedly gain the RAW tag titles. This much was telegraphed weeks in advance. WINNER: Braun Strowman (and Nicholas)

Match Eleven: Speaking of telegraphing, Brock Lesner versus Roman Reigns for the WWE Universal Championship. Industry insiders were talking about this match regularly as far back as spring. There were times throughout 2017 where I thought this made no sense. So many fresh foes emerged from Samoa Joe to Braun Strowman. The four mentioned superstars even shared a fatal four-way main event at Summer Slam 2017, so the idea of reteaming only two of them felt soft and repetitive. But there I was overthinking WWE’s booking again.

Regardless, I thought Reigns was aces in his weekly mic promos. The “suspension” storyline also made sense, and the UFC tease of Brock “skipping” this year’s Elimination Chamber to dine with Dana White brought back classic levels of kayfabe in mainstream media. As much as we all love to suspend disbelief, sometimes President Trump is accurate with this alternative definition regarding “fake news”. But I’m talking about Kardashian levels of gossip rag publications and websites, not scientific journals.

Days after WrestleMania 34, I am still perplexed by the main event. It was terrific and also a supersized rerun sequel. It closed with two shocking surprises, but only one of them felt (looked) organic. These two absolutely pummeled one another, but jaded fans that paid probably thousands of dollars on their ticket seemed disinterested. And for fans that still chant “C-M-Punk!” after all these years, I don’t feel like it’s a false equivalency to compare this act to constituents voting against their own interests. There is a certain Idiocracy Effect to paying thousands to go wait around an entire day just to sneak in and blow up a beach ball.

Is “safe booking” always fun? No. But neither is going to a murder mystery dinner theater and then refusing to eat or engage others or put your phone away when the theme is set to Victorian England. Dear smart mark fans: get over yourselves instead of trying to get yourself over.

Fans aside, the showdown between Reigns and Lesner was crazy weird. Braun and Samoa Joe each fell to a single F-5, but Reigns needed to take six. The false finishes piled up so high that each shoulder burst moved the match into Frank Miller Dark Knight Strikes Again/All-Star Batman & Robin territory. The surprising non-comeback and eventual win by Lesner recall the early seasons of Game of Thrones, where everything tells you the story is heading toward a noble mythological victory only for the hero to die. And how about that crimson mask on Roman? Along with Ronda emasculating Hunter and Charlotte’s golden-tinted entrance, this trio of images cultivates my visual memory of WrestleMania 34. LOSER: Roman Reigns

With Reigns losing, there was a sadness to letting the air out of his longstanding chase for the title. WWE and others constantly remind audiences that Roman is now in “Hulk Hogan” territory with four WrestleMania closing matches. But the angry mob wins in not letting him enjoy a legitimate title run, despite all of the clear work he puts in.

I have several working thoughts and critiques as to why fans fawn over Daniel Bryan but reject Roman Reigns, and cheer for Brock Lesnar despite a handful of yearly appearances. There is something toxic to this type of fandom. When it’s aimed at the company, at the corporation, there is a working class catharsis to such frustration. But when the angst seems to be aimed at a superstar that does everything fans “respect” from names like John and Mark and Daniel and Terry…I have to rhetorically question what that missing ingredient might be.

WrestleMania 34 Honors

Wrestling Match of the Night: Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka

Wrestling Story of the Night: Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle vs. Stephanie McMahon and Triple H

Wrestling Story Arc of the Year (fulfilled): Nia Jax defeating Alexa Bliss for the RAW Women’s Title

Best Entrance of the Night: Charlotte Flair

Best Heel Turn: Nakamura

Fan Service Award: Daniel Bryan comeback victory

Scarlett Letter Award: The Roman Reigns Crimson Mask

Marketplace of Champions

Audience Studies, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews
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Photo credit: http://shop.wwe.com/john-cena-cenation-respect-baseball-hat/07554.html?dwvar_07554_color=No%20Color#curr=USD&start=6

The people sitting near me in cheap(ish) seats in Boston’s TD Garden Sunday night for the 2017 Clash of Champions represented a cross-section of northeast WWE fans.

I am a middle-aged academic who has been a wrestling fan on and off since childhood. I’ve been coming to the Garden to see wrestling since long before it was named after a bank. I popped for Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan as a kid in the Garden (which was really a different building in the same location as the current Garden). I was the true wrestling geek in the micro-community that formed in the environs of our seats. My date was my partner, just a bit younger than me and a woman, not an enthusiastic wrestling fan but game for a strange night out.

To our left sat two young men who told me they had driven down to Boston from New Hampshire, maybe an hour and a half. Over the course of the show, one of them held out his phone to me so I could see a photo he’d taken with AJ Styles during a fan event earlier in the day. He and his buddy sang Bobby Roode’s song, celebrated Rusev Day heartily, joined with my partner in chanting for Zayn against my chants for Nakamura, and generally showed themselves to be enthusiastic and unironic fans.

To our right was a family group: two adult men whose relation was not clear to me and two boys of about ten years of age. Both boys were fully decked out in John Cena merchandise, from their “U Can’t C Me” hats to their orange wristbands and rally towels. They must have been wearing $400 in John Cena merch between them. Directly in front of us was a straight hipster couple, about the same age as the guys on our left, who joked together throughout the show. They made an intimate little audience of their own. Directly behind us were some particularly loud (and not altogether unfunny) members of that ineradicable species, the facetious wrestling fan.

A note: all these people (including us) were white, but the crowd was relatively diverse. We took the subway to the show from our home in an ethnically diverse section of the city (Boston is deeply segregated) and on the train with us were several African-American and Latinx kids holding toy belts, plus one African-American man with an impressive replica of the Universal Championship belt.

The only crowd reaction in which this cohort unanimously and enthusiastically participated was Bryan’s “Yes!” chant. Otherwise, our reactions were remarkably fragmented. I don’t like Roode’s schtick or the Rusev Day stuff that appealed to our neighbors on the left, and the only reaction I shared with the kids on the right was an enthusiasm for The New Day (who were otherwise less over in that building than Rusev, incredibly). The lovers in front may have shared some attitudes with the facetious guys, but they were quiet about it.

Reflecting on this diversity of enthusiasms with an eye toward writing this post, I experienced a feeling as unwelcome as it was unusual, a spasm of sympathy for Vince McMahon. Booking wrestling for a crowd like this is a different thing from the booking Vince Sr. was doing when I was just becoming a fan. Young boys and smart alecks are permanent, of course, but the dense web of interests on display in our group, with its subtle crosscurrents and nodes of attraction and repulsion, was the product of a long period of diversification. McMahon is the most important architect of this process, but it must frighten him now. He maintains a delicate econo-demographic balance, giving each of us in our little section just enough to keep us sitting in the cheap seats, covering ourselves in John Cena-branded stuff, and subscribing to the WWE Network. If any one of us walks away, we will be accompanied by our thousands of counterparts in similar arenas across the country and beyond. And if that happens enough times over the next twelve months, what will happen to rights fees, or the stock price, or network subs?

And in the main event, sure enough, there was something for Vince McMahon to be afraid of. This time it wasn’t anybody walking away, but an even worse nightmare under conditions of capitalist market struggle: people not showing up to begin with. Jinder Mahal may have been taking his title back from AJ Styles on this show if a few more hipsters, Cena-enveloped kids, and facetious fans in New Dehli had been willing to lay down their money for the chance to add their own unique hopes, tastes, and desires to this complex mélange. Yet they demurred, so us Boston fans watched Styles drag a mediocre and irrelevant match out of a Mahal who is probably headed back down the card in the coming weeks. But the crowds will be great for Smackdown’s next visit to Gainesville.

The Squared Circle and the Magic Circle

Audience Studies, Reflections on AAW, Works-In-Process

As part of the Works-In-Process aspect for the Professional Wrestling Studies Association (which you can read more about in Submissions and Contributions), I am submitting a piece I am writing on the co-construction of kayfabe between the wrestlers and their fans (which I have written about elsewhere on this blog, here and here), and how this co-construction aligns with a concept from game studies, the magic circle. The goal is to discuss this co-construction as a way to converge the producer/consumer identities, as well as reality/fiction and wrestling/game studies. I would love any feedback on how to frame this piece, as this was my first attempt to really bring all my ideas together. 

The Squared Circle and the Magic Circle: The moment-to-moment co-construction of kayfabe at AAW live events

Introduction

Two men enter the ring (a.k.a. the “squared circle”), muscles tense, skin already glistening with sweat. The men move about the ring, calling out to the 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 ringing for the next few days. The crowd responds in a frenzy, engaging in dueling chants as each side tries to outshout the other while the wrestlers finally step into the middle of the ring to meet. The competitors size each other up, stare one another down, and give the sense that they do not like one another. Even if they show one another respect and shake hands, everything leading up to that handshake and everything after remains thick with tension and the desire and drive to defeat the other man and win. They may be friends outside of the ring—and that friendship may be completely legitimate and not just kayfabe—but it does not matter; each man enters the ring to win.

Thus began every single match at the All American Wrestling (AAW) Windy City Classic XI. Thus began my experience with live professional wrestling matches. Thus began my chance to observe firsthand how kayfabe is created and maintained.

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In this essay, I present an autoethnography I conducted of events that led me to theorize that the nature of kayfabe results from the interaction of the promoters, the wrestlers, and their fans. As an autoethnography (Jones, Adams & Ellis, 2013), I focus on my own lived experiences at live wrestling shows to test, interrogate, and expand my understanding of and ideas for the convergent nature of professional wrestling. Overall, I came to understand kayfabe as Sharon Mazer (1998) had previously done: as a convergence of reality and fiction that produces a simulation of reality, or a hyperreality. However, I came to see that this hyperreality relies on the convergence of the three triadic elements listed above—the promoters, the wrestlers, and the fans—which all work together to generate kayfabe. If one part of this triad breaks kayfabe and acknowledges that wrestling is indeed scripted and predetermined, then professional wrestling’s hyperreality does not operate in the same way.

For kayfabe to work, this triad must agree on certain rules of conduct and roles to play, all of which maintain the illusion of “reality.” To accomplish this, the members of this triad must work together to co-construct kayfabe during the moments of a live event—i.e., before, during, and after the wrestlers enter the squared circle. This co-construction aligns with the magic circle concept, in which players enter into an agreement (often times implicitly) to act in a different way when playing a game and thereby maintain the artificial reality of the game. In a similar way, the members of the triad maintain kayfabe through moment-by-moment co-construction as they negotiate and agree upon the hyperreality of the wrestling match and promotion. Using my experiences at AAW live events, I will argue that this co-constructed theory of kayfabe represents a fundamental aspect of the nature and experience of professional wrestling.

First Experience: Windy City Classic XI

I am new to this professional wrestling phenomenon. In terms of time, I only became interested in professional wrestling in early 2014. The Windy City Classic XI on November 28, 2015, was my first live show experience. At this point I need to describe myself as a fan-scholar in relation to professional wrestling. I have an interest in the phenomenon as a fan, including an intense emotional investment in the product, but I am also curious about the construction of professional wrestling as a critical scholar.

Doors opened at 6:00 p.m. at the Logan Square Auditorium in Chicago, though 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 their wares. For many indie wrestlers, one of the main ways they make money is through “hawking wares” like t-shirts, photos, or DVDs. Wrestling does not pay much money per match unless you are a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Superstar, which is why so many indie wrestlers hope to get called up to WWE’s developmental brand, NXT, with an eye toward earning a spot on the main roster.

My partner and I sat 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 had been watching live events for a while, and I know how to talk about the matches, the wrestlers, the business, and so forth. I also know that memes develop based on how crowds respond to matches. For example, when one wrestler slaps another wrestler’s chest, the crowd often yells out “Wooo!” in reference to famous wrestler Ric Flair, who would often yell that during his matches when doing such a “chop.” I also know that there are many times when the crowd interacts with the wrestlers and engage in a call-response, or just chants and claps in an attempt to embolden their wrestler during his/her match.

However, I had never experienced it firsthand. Sitting at home watching WWE or NXT live events, my partner and I do not chant or clap; we merely observe the live crowd engaging in these behaviors, and sometimes comment on the creativity or ill-timed nature of them. I wasn’t sure how to engage in such interactivity in person—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, and did it really matter? Upon seeing me pose these questions in real-time, my Facebook friends told me it will just happen naturally, so I sat there, watching other fans as I waited for the first match to begin.

At a live event, such interaction between the wrestlers and the fans is not only expected, it is required to complete the experience and even the narratives of the matches. At the beginning of the match featuring indie favorite Chris Hero and El Rey Network’s Lucha Underground star Pentagon Jr., fans in the audience cheered raucously and passionately for each wrestler. The intensity of these dueling chants made it clear just how invested the crowd was in the match; their chanting and clapping and thus performance of the call-response vocally indicated their allegiance during this match.

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This type of interactivity occurred throughout the night, and how fans simply demonstrate their support for one particular wrestler represents perhaps the lowest form of it. Other forms of interactivity involve more of a back-and-forth between the wrestler and the fans. Oftentimes during their matches, the interaction between the fans and the wrestlers was meant to help or hinder a particular wrestler. When the crowd’s favorite competitor grows tired and collapses onto the mat, the fans will clap enthusiastically, slowly at first but steadily 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 help him “power up” so he could finish off his opponent. Right there did I see convergence between texts occurring, as this interactivity gained an intertexual aspect, linking this wrestler with his fans who recognized the reference.

Perhaps the highest form of this call-and-response interactivity occurs when a fan shouts something at the wrestler, and the wrestler addresses that fan—with a look, a gesture (often flipping people off or mimicking masturbation, in the case of this event), a verbal response, or by performing an activity in the ring that relates to what the person just said. This latter occurs least often, but it can result in some rather spontaneous activity; for instance, wrestler Ethan Page responded to a comment about his cardiovascular conditioning by pulling down his trunks and mooning the crowd before performing a series of jumping jacks and burpees, and then attacking his opponent with his bare bottom.

Such interactivity helps the crowd feel more involved in the matches. One of the biggest known “secrets” about professional wrestling is that matches are predetermined; the outcomes are most often decided before the match begins to further some narrative. Thus, fans often find other things in the text to keep them entertained, such as the narratives or the athleticism of the wrestlers. In part, this multifaceted nature of matches demonstrates the text’s polysemous nature (Fiske, 1986), as one match can contain different elements that offer different interpretations for different people. Additionally, matches can still feel “real” because of the narratives, the athleticism, fan’s interaction(s) with the wrestlers, and the very real physical damage wrestlers take; for instance, Tommaso Ciampa’s nose became lacerated when his face collided with a guardrail, and Christian Faith wore the “crimson mask” after suffering a Piledriver onto a steel chair courtesy of Ryan Boz. When a fan can feel—or see—that their actions have an impact on what happens in the ring, then it can feel real. These observations bring me to my first attempt at developing a theory that explains what I experienced while attending this show: the co-constructive nature of professional wrestling.

Theory: Kayfabe as Co-Construction

When looked at through the lens of convergence, kayfabe conforms to Jean Baudrillard’s (1994) notion of hyperreality. A postmodernist concept, hyperreality involves the blending of reality and fiction to the point that reality becomes indistinguishable from a simulation of reality. As Mazer (1998) observed, professional wrestling “presents audiences simultaneously with the image of the real and with an idea of the fake…” (p. 20) through the creation and maintenance of kayfabe. This appreciation of professional wrestling as simulation, however, tends to focus on how it is situated within a larger social and cultural context, and how it can provide for “Bakhtinian carnivalesque sensibilities” (Leverette, 2003, p. 69) that upset traditional, oppressive power dynamics within that context. In other words, from this perspective, professional wrestling’s kayfabe allows people to break out of restrictions on their daily lives. This perspective on kayfabe is different from how I am approaching it; instead of a macro-level analysis, I am interested in a micro-level analysis that considers the moment-to-moment engagement with professional wrestling.

From this perspective, kayfabe becomes hyperreal when it seems real to fans, and it can become real to the fans through the co-construction that requires the interaction of text and audience. For any wrestling match to feel real, fans must first suspend their disbelief. Coined by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1817), suspension of disbelief conceptualizes how people can become emotionally and cognitively involved in a piece of fantasy. Suspension of disbelief allows people to feel immersed in fictional experiences like television shows and movies. For example, if a reader senses enough “human interest and a semblance of truth” in a fantastic tale, then they suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative. So, suspension of disbelief suggests that wrestling fans accept kayfabe when its presentation includes some emotional component and makes logical sense with regard to how the person knows and experiences reality.

Yet, kayfabe is more than just a willing suspension of disbelief. It also involves a co-constructive element present in most forms of fictional entertainment. This argument reflects a social constructivist philosophy that understands how aspects of reality are developed through the collaborative actions of agents (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). When someone engages with a narrative – whether through film, television, video games, or professional wrestling – they work with, or against, the narrative to create its reality or diegesis (Reinhard, 2016). It is the person’s willingness to accept this simulation or hyperreality that allows it to become real for them, but the narrative must promote this willingness through containing well-constructed elements, such as characters, plots, and emotions, that the person cares about. As such, kayfabe exists not simply through a person’s willingness to ignore the fictional, but through their active participation and willingness to agree upon the fiction’s reality. When fans watch a professional wrestling match, they can accept the unreality of the text and go along with it, thereby working with the text to create this alternate reality from which they ultimately disengage when the narrative ends.

Transportation theory (Green, Brock & Kaufman, 2004) helps to explain how suspension of disbelief works in relation to narratives, because it focuses on how people lose themselves in a story. According to the theory, people may feel as though they have become transported into the fictional world via their empathy for the characters and the use of their imagination as evoked by the story. In writing about entanglement and detachment with films (Reinhard, 2016), I’ve also thought about this topic in terms of how people can get into (entanglement) or out of (detachment) a story. For example, if the story demands the audience question what happens in the text (say in a mystery story), then this results in entanglement. Meanwhile, if the story does not require such questioning (say when the story relies on faulty or fuzzy logic), then the audience becomes detached. Therefore, if a fan does not question what happens in the wrestling story, then they would not reject what is presented, and kayfabe is maintained.

Thus, kayfabe requires wrestling fans to agree on the reality of what they see and thereby become entangled in character struggles, match stories, narrative arcs, and so forth. Conversely, kayfabe discourages questioning that could detach fans from the reality created by the performers and their actions. When fans perceive reality and fiction seamlessly converging, they maintain kayfabe and allow the fictional to become real. Additionally, the more the text requires fans to use all of their senses, or the more their bodies or emotions get involved in the text, then they will become more immersed in the experience of engaging with the text and thus more involved in this co-construction. The more physically, interpretively, or emotionally interactive the experience of engaging with the text, then more eager fans will be to build this sense of hyperreality and, ultimately, suspend disbelief so they can feel as though this hyperreality is real.

In other words, to build and maintain kayfabe, wrestling fans must agree that what they see is “real.” Kayfabe requires fans to become entangled in a character’s struggle, a match’s story, and the overarching narrative arc of the feuds. Fans may recognize the artifice of “sports entertainment” but they can still buy into the kayfabe, partly because of the “real” moments that blur the line between reality and fiction. Kayfabe discourages fans from constantly questioning what they see and thereby detach from kayfabe. In becoming entangled, fans co-construct the hyperreality along with the professional wrestling text. Any ability to suspend disbelief about kayfabe stems from a fan’s desire to become immersed within the hyperreality based on their emotional and cognitive investment in the events presented.

Thus, fans help co-construct this sense of reality—even when they understand it is not real—through their interactivity with the “text” of professional wrestling. Fans help the wrestlers create the hyperreality of sports entertainment through the call-and-responses, the emotional investment, and the bodily involvement with the characters, narratives, and matches. At the Windy City Classic XI, the clapping, cheering, chanting, getting to my feet, getting out of the way when Fenix attacked Pentagon Jr. down the row from me – all of these physical interactions increased my emotional investment, and thereby aided in the co-construction of the event’s “reality.” Hearing the slaps and punches, watching the blood and grimaces, feeling the entrance music vibrate my body, witnessing the body slams that made the mat bounce all contributed to this co-construction. Things felt more real the more my body was engaged in this experience. The emotional level of the live audience really does impact how passionate and involved wrestlers become in storytelling during matches. I’ve watched WWE’s Raw, Smackdown, Main Event, NXT shows, and PPVs—and none have felt as real as the AAW live events (except for maybe Sami Zayn’s and Bayley’s title wins, and that was because of the emotional weight of those wins). Being surrounded by the experience and witnessing first-hand and up-close what happened to the wrestlers’ bodies made everything feel much more real. Televised matches remove that bodily experience, and must therefore rely more on storytelling and emotional interactivity to get fans to suspend disbelief and thus co-construct kayfabe.

This type of embodied experience helps the match feel real, but the embodied experience also helps to create the personal and emotional heft of these real moments, which leads fans to have an investment in the wrestlers. Fans can believe in the hyperreality in the ring if the storytelling is good and creates emotional investment. This perception of realness often results from the fans’ emotional and cognitive investment in these wrestlers and their stories. As with any other type of identification or parasocial relationship, fans may see something in the wrestlers’ and their stories—and thus in professional wrestling itself—that they recognize and love from elsewhere in their lives. With Sami Zayn and Bayley, I saw in them a passion for their work and their struggle to be taken seriously, and in these characterizations I recognized my own drives. My identification with these wrestling characters helped me to care about their struggles, which were told through the classic underdog narrative that heightened the emotional impact of their finally winning the major belts. My interpretive interactivity with these characters and their stories afflicted by emotional connection to them.

Such an intensely emotional connection can also be created through getting to know the real person behind the kayfabe performance. Knowing something about the reason person can help maintain entanglement through the creation of personal and emotional heft. The fans can become concerned and supportive of the supposedly real person, which can promote their willingness to participate in the co-construction of hyperreality. The fans start to root for the real wrestler as they see and experience them. Of course, it is hard to know just how real is the “real wrestler” when promoters control and promote certain narratives for their wrestlers (e.g. WWE’s Breaking Ground and historical documentaries) or when even the wrestlers themselves can use social media to brand themselves. Yet, for fans, getting even a glimpse of the real person putting their lives on the line to entertain while in the ring can help cement the emotional bond and parasocial relationship that allows the fan to buy into the kayfabe. I think that is what ultimately hooked me. So far, my favorite wrestlers became so through this emotional interactivity, such as Sami Zayn, Finn Balor, Bayley, Tomasso Ciampa, and Johnny Gargano. It all began with Mick Foley, and learning about the real person who supports liberal causes and works to fight domestic abuse. Once I saw a glimpse of the real person behind the wrestler, then I was more willing to accept what the wrestler performed as, because I was supporting the person and everything that person was trying to do.

Kayfabe can become real to fans because of the emotional aspect of engaging with professional wrestling as well as how the fans make sense of it. If they have an emotional connection to the wrestlers and their stories, and if they can find something “real” in it—that is, real to them—then the fan(s) can become entangled and transported in the kayfabe and suspend their disbelief that the kayfabe is not real. The more the lines between real and kayfabe blur, the easier it is to co-construct the hyperreality of sports entertainment. There are many ways for fans to create these emotional and cognitive connections to professional wrestling, including and buying into kayfabe storylines, making personal connections with wrestlers, and recognizing something in the wrestling something that they love. When this happens—even if the moments are fleeting and few—the fan perceives reality and fiction converging and thus kayfabe is maintained as the fictional becomes the real.

Applying Theory: AAW at Bourbon Street

After the Windy City Classic XI, I attended an NXT Live show on January 16, 2016, and I presented this idea about the co-construction of kayfabe at the Popular Culture Association’s conference in Seattle. However, it was not until May that I applied my theory to understand the experience of live professional wrestling events and how kayfabe was constructed during those events. As I attended these live events, I saw how I could expand on the ideas outlined above. In this section, I reflect on four AAW shows to explain how those experiences related to this theory.

May 6, 2016: AAW Take No Prisoners. During this show, I had several observations about my and other fans’ emotional connections and interactions with the matches. First, I had an emotional connection to a number of the wrestlers. I had become invested in the career of Tommaso Ciampa, and hearing his entrance music before the show, while waiting for everything to begin, was enough to give me an emotional charge and sustain an enthusiasm for his match that would not occur for another five hours. A similar thrill came from seeing two wrestlers my partner and I have come to know through Lucha Underground. Fenix and Pentagon Jr. have become integral characters for that show. This was my second time seeing them together—the first time being my first live event ever—and their presence was my main reason for attending the show. The term “pumped” does not seem to adequately describe the level of excitement I had awaiting their arrival and throughout their stellar match.

Second, despite that emotional connection, I still noticed the botched moves. The authenticity of the match comes through the wrestlers’ performance: when they do things right, and when they don’t. A botched move can often elicit the audience chant “you fucked up,” but that seems to occur more when the audience is not emotionally invested in what happens in the ring. A couple failed moves—or obvious fake moves—occurred during these matches, but they did not really provoke the audience to criticize the wrestlers, but we were all emotionally invested in the matches. We could see that something went wrong, but we didn’t feel the need to break kayfabe to call them on it. More likely than not, we were more worried about the wrestler being harmed, particularly during those few times when it looked as though a botched move might result in a dangerous injury.

Third, the emotional connection becomes intensified when the real world of the wrestler spills through their persona’s characterization. For example, this was my first time seeing Colt Cabana wrestle after becoming familiar with him via his podcast, The Art of Wrestling, and Marc Maron’s IFC show. I knew him as a celebrity first, and then as a wrestler. Seeing him live helped me see the wrestler character that established his current celebrity identity, but at the same time the reality of his true lived experience came through. When he was first introduced for his match, the announcer declared that Cabana was celebrating his birthday, and the crowd broke out into song for him. Here was a wrestler, who I knew more as a celebrity than a wrestler, and before I could get to know him as a wrestler, the reality of his life became part of how I knew him. Now, how Cabana presents himself via his podcast is an attempt to break kayfabe and reveal exactly who he is behind any wrestling character he has developed and performed. So having his birthday announced as part of his character’s introduction that night did not necessarily break kayfabe. Yet, by knowing it was his birthday, and by participating in the celebration of it, I felt as though I was more emotionally connected to Colt Cabana. Whether or not that connection was to the real person or a character did not matter; all that mattered was that I felt connected. As such, it was easier to be transported into the rather comical story he and his partners told that night in the ring.

June 17, 2016: AAW Killers Among Us. Professional wrestling combines the need to suspend disbelief regarding wrestling’s unreality and a concurrent need to suspend one’s belief in the reality of the performers and their actions. At certain times, the fan is asked to accept the kayfabe that is presented, while at other times the fan has to look past something that really, objectively happened, or to put aside something they know about the wrestler to accept the his or her performance. Both interact within moments of engaging with a wrestling match and thereby ensure that fans become involved in the matches. Throughout that night, seeing wrestlers with whom I had developed emotional connections helped me overlook the fake moves and the botches. I did not linger long to consider when a move did not seem to work out, or when a wrestler took a hit that seemed just a bit too real, or when the wrestler was obviously hamming things up for comical effect. I had no way of knowing if those hits that seemed just a little too stiff were real or if they were just sold as such. I think not being able to tell the difference is the essence of kayfabe’s co-constructed nature.

Entanglement needs a balance involving constant co-construction between the audience, wrestlers’ actions, and the story being told. A move that becomes too real or involves too much overselling of a hit (which highlights wrestling’s contrived nature) can cause detachment. To me, the lack of complete detachment illustrates the co-constructed nature of kayfabe. I felt entangled throughout the night. Of course, there were fleeting moments when I detached because I perceived the fake moves or the possibility of real injury made me question why I was supporting this. Yet, my emotional connection to the wrestlers kept pulling me back in, and the overall text of the event was designed to create this delicate balance that promotes the co-construction of kayfabe. That is a hard feat to accomplish. The text needs the proper combination of real and fake, of logic and emotion, to create more entanglement than detachment. It is the same type of balancing act that any piece of fiction must build and maintain. Sports entertainment has a more difficult balancing act given the “liveness: of its text and the possibility for anything to become too real or too fake at any moment. It is a credit to those wrestlers who have honed their craft for such a long time that the balancing act has become as natural to them as any move they have to authentically and fictionally pull off.

July 23, 2016: AAW United We Stand. In looking at professional wrestling as a co-construction between wrestlers, promoters, and fans, I realized an important aspect in its construction while attending this event. In a sense, this co-construction recalls Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s (2004) assertion that playing a game results in the development of a “magic circle.” When people play games, they agree to abide by the game’s rules, and in doing so create an artificial reality wherein those rules dictate that reality’s boundaries; to play the game and exist in that artificial reality, players must agree to play by the rules. For kayfabe to work—for any single match to work—wrestlers, promoters and fans have to “play by the rules” and perform certain behaviors to maintain this hyperreality. If any one part of that triadic relationship breaks the rules, kayfabe is broken because the magic circle cannot hold.

What I find interesting is how knowing that we are in a magic circle allows for the creation of unique wrestling moments that actually demonstrate this co-construction. For example, during the Cedric Alexander versus Zack Sabre Jr. match, Alexander hits Sabre with a knife edge chop, earning the “Woo!” from the audience. However, one audience member badmouthed Flair, and thereby broke the magic circle. The audience immediately turned on that one fan, but more importantly, Alexander changed the match in the moment to respond to the fan’s disrespect. He pointedly did the same move, then performed the “Ric Flair strut” and the Degeneration X groin chop—all three actions pointedly directed at that fan—much to the delight of the rest of the crowd. Thus, in this instance, the magic circle was broken, but by drawing on the memes of professional wrestling, Alexander was able to reconstitute the magic circle and pull the audience back into it the hyperreality.

Another example from that night demonstrates what wrestlers can do in the magic circle when they know they have the audience with them. In what would be their last match together before officially joining NXT, Ciampa and Gargano participated in a tag team match against Trevor Lee and Andrew Everett of TNA Impact Wrestling. During that match, Ciampa announced to the crowd that he wished that they could stay in AAW forever. This announcement led to Ciampa and Lee wrestling in slow motion. They perform every move and every reaction this way, and at first the audience just laughs at their dedication to the gimmick. Very quickly, however, the audience begins to follow suit, as do the two announcers and the referee, and their reactions to and chanting for the match engage in the same type of exaggerated performance. By existing within the magic circle, and acknowledging their different roles and the rules by which they had to abide, the wrestlers and the fans co-constructed a heightened kayfabe flow. Within the artificial reality of the squared circle, the magic circle allowed for an even more artificial reality, in which time slowed down thanks to the collaboration between performers and fans.

August 19, 2016: AAW Showdown. At the last event of the summer, I thought more about how this co-construction occurs through a moment-by-moment process. Indeed, I thought about how all these concepts tie together to create the magic circle in which kayfabe exists. There was no match that night in which I was emotionally invested, which led me to think more about how it is not just wrestlers who have a role to play at these live events. At live shows like AAW, the fans have a role to play as well.

Wrestlers have to perform wrestling. Match outcomes are predetermined, so wrestlers do not perform these moves to win but to tell a story and play a character (such as heel, babyface, hoss, high flyer, etc.). Their moment-to-moment experience is to make it through matches and complete the prescribed narrative without a botch or doing serious damage to their opponent(s). That is their role within the magic circle as dictated by the rules of professional wrestling. Fans, on the other hand, experience the moment-to-moment of the match through their embodiment of “being a wrestling fan.” Fans are expected to respond to the matches—to the moments of the narrative—through the call-response. This call-response heightens and confirms the narrative’s emotional nature, and helps create that interaction between the wrestlers and the fans that maintains kayfabe.

The wrestlers and fans interacting with one another within the magic circle works to produce and maintain kayfabe. Indeed, indie wrestling matches like these AAW live events live or die based on fan participation—more so than impersonal big stadium WWE matches, where wrestlers play more to TV cameras than the house audience. The lack of physical distance between AAW wrestlers and fans requires a lack of emotional or narrative distance as well; if the fans are not involved an AAW match, the experience feels like a waste of time. An example of this occurred during a match between Michael Elgin and Juice Robinson at the Take No Prisoners show. Despite the wrestlers’ best efforts, many people in the audience ignored the match outright, eliciting an angry response from Elgin afterwards.

I experienced several of these types of matches at the AAW shows I attended, as I would look around at the fans and wonder why they were not paying attention to every match with equal enthusiasm. Why they, as fans, seemingly abandoned their positions and discontinued the magic circle that made the kayfabe work. I have no answer to that, as I did not talk to those fans around me. However, I do think part of the answer lies in who was wrestling, and how the fans just did not care for that wrestler, which indicates a lack of emotional connection and/or parasocial relationship that happens even in the more polished WWE. Without an emotional connection, the moment-to-moment co-construction of any match’s kayfabe cannot occur because while the wrestlers’ are doing their jobs, the fans are not doing theirs. When the fans refuse to co-construct a match moment-to-moment, the magic circle and artificial reality of the squared circle dissipates, leaving just two sweaty wrestlers going through the motions.

Conclusion

Chicago’s AAW is a small federation, even in comparison to other indie promotions around the world. Yet, the federation has some loyal fans who attend every live event, and the promotion’s ability to bring in bigger name wrestlers from other federations means AAW can draw more fans to these live events. In other words, many people attend AAW shows because of some emotional connection, either to the federation or the wrestlers it brings in. The communal nature of AAW shows helps to co-construct kayfabe not because the fans disbelieve it but because they fully embrace it through having in situ ownership. At the live events, in the moments of a match, the wrestlers and the fans share an ownership of the stories the promoters and wrestlers seek to tell because of this emotional connection. By sharing an ownership for the stories, each part of this triadic relationship has agreed to play by the rules of professional wrestling—to create the stories, to perform the stories, and to respond to the stories. Playing by these rules allows a magic circle to develop around the match, which only furthers the moment-to-moment co-construction of this artificial space and hyperreality of the “squared circle.”

Of course, as an autoethnography, what I recount here reflects my own personal experience. To better test his theory of the co-construction of kayfabe requires an understanding of how other fans see their role within this proposed magic circle, and how promoters and wrestlers see their own roles as well as those of the fans. I think minutia reception studies, which I have used previously to understand how people engage with films (see Reinhard, 2016), could provide insight into the flow and co-construction of kayfabe while watching live wrestling matches. To test just how much the emotionality of the moment-to-moment reception of live wrestling allows fans to suspend disbelief requires more empirical work. Additionally, a focus on the minutia of a match could also provide insight into how important wrestlers and promoters thank fans are in the construction and maintenance of kayfabe.

While more work needs to be done on this theory, it provides a potential understanding of how to view professional wrestling through the lens of convergence that does not reduce the concept of convergence simply to technological use. The use of social media can add in this co-construction by allowing fans to glimpse the real person who exists behind the wrestling persona. In this analysis, my focus was more on live events, where the interaction between wrestlers and fans was completely face-to-face and not mediated. In this instance, convergence defines the blurring between reality and artifice that occurs with the co-construction of kayfabe. As the rise of Web 2.0 and social media have led to the blurring of the producer and consumer identities, so does professional wrestling require the blurring between reality and artifice. In a sense, I argue that the very nature of professional wrestling relies on this convergence, which in turn leads to the creation and maintenance of the magic circle, kayfabe, and hyperrreality. Because of this convergence, professional wrestling—aka “sports entertainment”—represents a unique experience that seems perfectly suited for this era of convergence.

References

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. (S. F. Glaser, Trans.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. (Original work published in 1981)

Berger, P. L. & Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Coleridge, S. T. (1817). Biographia Literaria. Retrieved on August 31, 2016 from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6081/6081-h/6081-h.htm.

Fiske, J. (1986). Television: Polysemy and popularity. Critical Studies in Mass Communcation, 3(4), p. 391-408.

Green, M. C., Brock, T. C. & Kaufman, G. F. (2004). Understanding media enjoyment: The role of transportation into narrative worlds. Communication Theory, 14(4), p. 311-327.

Jones, S. H., Adams,T. E. & Ellis, C. (2013). Handbook of Autoethnography. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc.

Leverette, M. (2003). Professional Wrestling, the Myth, the Mat, and American Popular Culture. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press.

Mazer, S. (1998). Professional Wrestling: Sport and spectacle. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Reinhard, C. D. (2016). Making sense of the American superhero film: Engagement and entanglement (pp. 211-234). In C. D. Reinhard & C. J. Olson (Eds.) (2016). Making Sense of Cinema: Empirical studies into film spectators and spectatorship. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of Play: Game design fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Tom Phillips on Netflix’s GLOW

Audience Studies

Britain’s real female wrestler activists are better and badder than GLOW’s could ever be.

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Tom Phillips, University of East Anglia

Professional wrestling is a man’s game – or at least that’s what you may be led to believe, thanks to popular favourites such as former WWE wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who made an easy transition from wrestling to super-stardom after appearing in a number of blockbuster films.

The “masculine melodrama” presented by modern professional wrestling programmes such as WWE represents the epitome of masculinity, fighting in epic showdowns for a mostly male audience. Of course, there are female wrestlers – as there are female viewers – but WWE has in the past been criticised for its poor portrayal of women. There are those who say WWE aims its coverage at “15-year-old boys who will cheer for any woman so long as she looks sexy”.

Against this backdrop, Netflix’s new hit series GLOW has entered the ring. The show gives a fictional account of the real-life 1980s wrestling television series “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling”, which featured exclusively female performers. Starring Alison Brie as Ruth, a struggling actress who needs a new role in order to make a living, GLOW follows a group of women from Los Angeles who, with no prior experience, get involved in a new televised wrestling venture.

GLOW’s feminism is made explicit from the outset. Despite the proposed show ostensibly being about “gorgeous ladies”, the women are literally fighting the male gaze. The nuances of feminism within the show can be seen at first by the replacement of the white male trainer with Cherry Bang, a black woman. With Cherry in charge, the women find their way together, relying only on themselves to figure out how to wrestle.

As the series progresses, the female wrestlers become more confident in using their bodies as part of their performance, ultimately triumphing in the ring and winning over fans with their physical prowess rather than their looks. As Cherry says to her fellow wrestlers: “We’re empowered, we’re the heroes”.

Sydelle Noel as Cherry Bang.
Erica Parise/Netflix

At first glance, GLOW’s strong portrayal overtakes even the newer ideals of WWE, which has recently made small steps to embrace more explicit feminist politics. It has rebranded its “Divas” division as the “Women’s Revolution”, for example, now showcasing female performers who have historically been marginalised at the expense of their male counterparts.

Yet academics have observed that, despite lauding a catalogue of “powerful” women in their promotional materials, WWE still have not outright addressed issues such as “sexism” or “feminism”. Instead, researchers say, they fall back on the fact that “although feminism may be fashionable in many areas of popular culture, it is still too risky to be named outright by a company with legions of male fans”.

Girl gang

So is there any room in the ring for female wrestlers, outside a fictional context? Definitely. London-based Pro-Wrestling:EVE sells itself as “a secret underground feminist, political, socialist, humanist, punk rock wrestling promotion, for those who identify as women and non-binary folk”.

Though it is aimed at fans of all genders, EVE uses wrestling to help women feel empowered. Its founder Emily Read has noted that: “It’s so conditioned in women to be quiet and small, it’s a real hindrance when it comes to wrestling. And I see women learn to be big and loud and take up space”. EVE gives women a place to enjoy being physical: promotional material shows images of bloodied faces and hard-hitting manoeuvres, adorned with slogans such as “fight like a girl”, “support your local girl gang”, and “follow your fucking dreams”.

 

EVE goes further than the scripts of GLOW and political restraints of WWE could ever allow. It encourages taking the feminist physicality outside the ring and into the real world, explicitly endorsing and encouraging political activism. Not only do the official social media feeds for EVE promote their wrestling brand, merchandise and events – but they are also used as a means for political communication.

The company posted material firmly in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign during the June 2017 general election, for example. And when Donald Trump recently used his involvement in wrestling to hint at his own brand of masculinity, EVE printed a Donald Trump-a-like figure on their “piledrive a fascist” t-shirt design.

For EVE and its supporters, women’s wrestling acts as a training ground for feminist practice and a way to build confidence to take political activism into the public arena.

The ConversationWith GLOW being such a big hit, WWE taking small but progressive steps in the right direction and EVE smashing through with a thoroughly empowered ideal, it’s about time that wrestling’s masculine image was redressed. After all, there’s no shame in fighting for your rights like a girl.

Tom Phillips, Lecturer in Humanities, University of East Anglia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Online Relationships with Wrestlers

Audience Studies, Works-In-Process

This piece goes to the work I am doing on convergent wrestling.

Writing back in 2006, Henry Jenkins discussed how convergence culture was allowing more fans to have more power. Basically, in this context, convergence culture is this idea that digital technologies like smartphones and the internet have blurred the lines between audiences and producers.

In the past, television and movies would separate out those who produce the media and those who consume the media; in other words, audiences would simply have to take what they were given, and they did not have much say over production. Since the rise of the internet, and especially social media, audiences do have more say: they can talk to producers before, during, and after a television show, or movie, or game, or whatever is produced. As Jenkins (2006) said, “Shows which attract strong fan interests have a somewhat stronger chance of surviving.” That means, if the producers listen to what the fans want, then their productions will do better. Or, at least, that is the idea.

Ten years later, Kresnicka’s (2016) writing reiterates this power of fans by relating it to the “digital empowerment” that has been happening in various areas of life since Web 2.0 and the emergence of social media. With social media, people can connect to one another, control what they consume, create their own content (and thus have their own voices heard), collaborate with others, and curate the information that is out there (dictating what is good and bad in the process). These 5 Cs (Pavlik & McIntosh, 2011) represent some pretty amazing powers given to “ordinary” people, taking away some of the power that had before just been in the hands of producers, politicians, librarians, teachers, and so forth. And this fundamental shift that has led to digital empowerment has been impacting the relationship between media producers, celebrities, and athletes, and their fans.

Let’s look at this in terms of sports – well, sports entertainment, or professional wrestling.

Breaking the Fourth Wall in Reverse

Audience Studies, Works-In-Process, Wrestler Studies

Mr_CanadaWithout a doubt, one of the proudest moments of my life occurred on January 29, 2013, when I made my professional wrestling debut in a tag-team match in a show co-hosted by American Pro Wrestling, an upstate South Carolina based promotion, and Wofford College, the institution that made me a tenured professor the year before. I wrestled that night as Mr. Canada, a masked, French-Canadian heel; my partner was Ben Wright, whom APW had named its 2012 “Heel of the Year.” We lost our match in fantastic fashion: after I “accidentally” broke my hockey stick across my partner’s chest, he was then demolished through a ringside table, while I was shamefully de-masked – and then powerslammed, superfly splashed, and pinned.

Mr Canada1I was 39 when Mr. Canada made his debut – not exactly in the springtime of my youth – and I often get asked how in the world I ended up in the wrestling ring and why I thought it would be a good idea to do so. After all, the career trajectory of graduate school to tenure track job to tenure to professional wrestler is not exactly the most common one in the world of academia.

I’ll begin this blog entry answering these how and why questions, and then I’ll move to the questions I pondered for months after my 2013 wrestling debut: what new lessons about pro wrestling did I learn when I moved from careful observer of professional wrestling to actual professional wrestler – when I broke the fourth wall in reverse (so to speak)? Did this experience give me new insights into a cultural form that I previously appreciated only as a fan and a scholar?

An Autoethnography of AAW

Audience Studies, Reflections on 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.

Smarks and Convergent Wrestling

Audience Studies, Works-In-Process

As part of the project on understanding professional wrestling through the theoretical lens of convergence (i.e. convergent wrestling), I recently wrote out an explanation for how Christopher Olson (Seems Obvious to Me) and I see this concept of convergence being able to describe various aspects of professional wrestling.

Now, being that we are academics, one way we advance our scholarship and our knowledge is by attending and presenting at academic conferences. In order to test out this idea of “convergent wrestling,” we organized two panels that would bring together different researchers whose work on professional wrestling could be considered as using this theoretical lens. We presented the first such panel at the 2015 Central States Communication Association conference. At this panel, I presented this argument for seeing professional wrestling as an example of various convergences, as presented earlier on this blog. Along with my introduction to the idea, several researchers presented their analyses of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), its fans, and its business practices. With their permission, here are these presentations.

The Co-Construction of Kayfabe

Audience Studies, Works-In-Process

This blog post expands on the ideas of the co-construction of kayfabe, an idea I presented at the Popular Culture Association 2016 conference in Seattle. For this post, I reflect on a live wrestling event I attended in an attempt to define what my partner, Christopher Olson, and I mean by “convergent wrestling.”

The entire presentation can be heard on Soundcloud, but I will sum up the idea here to address a recent experience with a live wrestling event: AAW‘s “Take No Prisoners” on May 6th, 2016.

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