Nylons and Midriffs: There’s a Storm Coming (September 24, 2019)

Nylons and Midriffs, Reflections on AAW

Image credit: WWE’s YouTube

Although many associate the cliched film line “there’s a storm coming” as a bad omen, in the context of the wrestling world at the moment, the storm in question could be stirring positive changes for women’s competition.

The women’s matches at Clash of Champions were for the most part good, and NXT made its debut on the USA Network with an impressive women’s bout. We are so close to All Elite Wrestling’s TNT debut, as well as Smackdown’s move to a new network (FOX) and Friday nights. To top it all off, there is a draft looming for both WWE brands that will shake things up, no pun intended.

Everything is changing, and this critic is trying her best to keep up with it all! For now, I will unpack the most recent pay-per-view and WWE shows of the last two weeks. Starting with the next edition of Nylons, I’ll begin to incorporate the NXT women’s division into the mix.

But until then, let’s talk about things the way we always have; one last time before the storm hits.

The Good
Clash of Champions: Both women’s championship matches were great in their own respective ways. Bayley vs. Charlotte did what it needed to do: establish Bayley as a sneaky heel, and allow her to keep her title as she deserves to. Charlotte didn’t need the win here, and to see her lose so abruptly was refreshing to see, as Charlotte’s matches seem to always progress at her pace.

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And of course, Becky vs. Sasha was probably the match of the night. Despite how I feel about the booking (which we’ll discuss in the next section), the match was entertaining, particularly during the crowd brawl portion of the match. It especially fit Becky’s character, as a brawler who is ready for a fight no matter where the location. Ultimately, it seemed like this match was more of a preview for what these two women can (and likely will) do to each other in Hell in a Cell.

RAW and SD Live: Continuing with Four Horsewomen excellence, the tag match between Sasha/Bayley and Becky/Charlotte was as great as expected. I’ve already sung the praises of these women last week, but I will say that I hope the matches that the four of them have together continue to be treated as special for as long as all of them are in WWE. Because they deserve it.

Also, more generally, I am always glad to be seeing more women’s segments on weekly TV — at least for RAW. But, even still, on Smackdown last week we were treated to a nice surprise in Carmella seemingly returning to in-ring action. I would be very interested to see Bayley wrestle Carmella, as it is a different pairing with styles that I think will coalesce well. Hopefully with the upcoming draft, more women begin to pop up and make their intentions known.

Lastly, while I know I said I wouldn’t discuss NXT, I did want to mention briefly how wonderful that women’s four-way was last Wednesday! So good to see women really vying for victory and performing creative sequences of moves. I find it peculiar, however, that in a match with only one white competitor, that it was she who happened to win. Disappointed, but not surprised, I suppose.

The Bad
Clash of Champions: My main issue with Clash was the booking of the RAW women’s title match. Particularly, what they did with Sasha Banks. I know Sasha has returned and proven herself to be a nasty, chair-addicted heel. But, Sasha is and always has been a cunning heel, meaning that she uses her wits to create advantages for herself in the ring. It doesn’t make sense for Sasha to sneakily use a chair in a match, only to brazenly throw one into the ring just minutes later. Why would a heel throw a chair into a match in front of a referee’s face? The scenario is a lose-lose: if Sasha uses it, she is disqualified and Becky wins/keeps her title. If Becky uses it (which she did), Sasha wins by DQ, but does not win the title.

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Why would such a strategic, forward-thinking heel like Sasha endanger her chances of victory for a few moments of cathartic abuse toward Becky? Win the title first!

Not only this, but I felt that Sasha was booked pretty weak in this match. Outside of a few flurries of offense in the ring, Becky was fairly strong both in the ring and during the brawl in the crowd. Then, she beat down Sasha with the chair after the match was called off.

The two will wrestle again at Hell in a Cell, but Sasha must win this match to keep her credibility intact. That match will be the test of what, if anything, has changed with the way WWE sees The Boss.

RAW and SD Live: In the last two weeks, two things jump to mind for this section.

The first is the tired cliche of the female bully. Mandy Rose is back to her old tricks, insulting her opponents’ attractiveness based on subjective standards of beauty. She recently called Nikki Cross “ugly,” and in addition to that simply not being true, it further proves that WWE’s writers (or executives, ahem Vince) believe that calling a woman ugly is the most heinous thing you can do to ruin her self esteem. And further, that a woman’s inherent value rests on her beauty.

And while they are unfortunately correct (as women largely still feel societal pressure to be pretty), that does not make Mandy’s heel persona any more palatable. If we’re to believe that the competitors of WWE, in kayfabe, believe that they are competing in a legitimate sport, why would a woman’s attractiveness have any bearing on her self-worth? Maria Sharapova could call Serena Williams ugly until the cows come home — but that won’t stop Serena from whooping her anytime they compete against one another.

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I am glad that Nikki got the one-up on Mandy so hopefully this “feud” can end. In short, I just want the women to be less petty to one another. Honestly, who cares how you look when the name of the game is beating the crap out of your opponent?

The second item is the tag team match between the members of the 4HW. Now, I know what you’re thinking: That match was fine!

I know it was. It was more than fine. It was great.

Why then, was it not the main event?

This match was the only one truly hyped prior to the week’s RAW. We were convinced to tune in because of it. ESPN published a beautiful interview with all four women ahead of this marquee match at Madison Square Garden. All four women have the talent and charisma to carry a main event, as all of them at various points in their respective careers have.

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But their match was stuck in the middle of the show. Why? Because the men in the back decided that an MSG show needed to end with Stone Cold cracking open a few cold ones with the boys. A masculine end to a show in WWE’s “spiritual home.” I’m yawning.

As much as any child of the Attitude Era loves Stone Cold, I found myself disappointed that WWE slighted their four biggest female stars that deserved a main event for a giant men’s tag match assembled on the actual show itself. It would have been subversive to finish a show in such a historic setting to WWE’s history with women. I think it would have been symbolic to how far the company has come. But even when the stars can’t shine any brighter for the women, the men will still more often than not get the last word.

The most annoying part of all is that by pimping this tag match so far in advance of the show, and actually pulling mainstream media into the mix, WWE proved that the women often times are useful only insofar as they give the company cheap PR. They were good enough to hook viewers in, but not to reward with a main event spot.

I hope that one day the Horsewomen get the main event spot they all deserve, together.

The Thorny
What I want to talk about in this section is something I’ve been trying my best to avoid week on week, hoping maybe it would disappear if I ignored it just hard enough.

There has been an ongoing storyline between Maria Kanellis (Bennett) and her real-life husband, Mike Kanellis (his actual surname being Bennett). Over the last several months, Maria has been written to essentially degrade her husband by “emasculating” him. I put emasculate in quotes because I personally do not believe a man can be emasculated — the word implies that masculinity is taken away, presumably when someone does not allow a man to dominate in any type of relationship. A man being knocked down a few pegs metaphorically is something that many men in life should embrace more, as doing so is something that women are asked to do everyday, often multiple times, by men themselves. Women are expected to exercise daily the traits of humility and vulnerability, things that society have coded as somehow inherently feminine, and in turn emasculating if men should be forced to practice them by someone else.

As fans, we are supposed to interpret this dynamic as Mike being pathetic, weak, and emasculated. Conversely, we are supposed to read Maria as a praying mantis, a Medusa who gets off on asserting dominance over men. Sometimes, this portrayal can be interesting, as long as it doesn’t go too far.

But as Maria berates Mike in the ring, tells him he isn’t a man, and generally embarrasses him in front of thousands of people, I’ve finally decided what we are watching is not entertainment. We are watching abuse. That is what Maria is doing to Mike.

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Maria is emotionally and verbally abusing Mike in every interaction with him. She dangles love and affection in his face only to snatch it away if he does not meet her expectations. She talks down to him for seemingly no reason. And we’re supposed to be laughing at Mike, but I have yet to see any person “get” the joke.

Especially for a man who has battled addiction with such vulnerability outside of the ring, it seems like a sick joke by WWE to subtly weaponize his real-life vulnerability against him in a storyline.

It would be one thing if WWE were critical of this in-storyline. If they used the word “abuse” and named Maria as an abuser, there would be a point to this. WWE is not doing this though, and are fairly uncritical of how Maria treats Mike as part of a larger behavioral pattern. Instead, it seems like the storyline is meant to make both husband and wife unlikable: Mike playing the role of “cuck,” and Maria playing seemingly a power-hungry feminist who we are supposed to see as masculine herself.

And ultimately, I just…feel sorry. For all involved. Both of them deserve better than what they are being given. You have to wonder the price that WWE paid to keep them, and if the Bennetts see that price paid as worth it in the end.

Abuse is abuse. Let’s not normalize or minimize it because a woman is the perpetrator.

***

The storm watch is now on! I have to re-wire my entire brain to accept four different weekly wrestling shows into my TV viewing schedule. Double the wrestling to work with, and hopefully double the rewards.

Stay legit bossy,
AC

AAW Windy City Classic XIII

Reflections on AAW, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

Before the dawn of 2018, AAW Pro Wrestling had one more show to put on.

Every year, the Windy City Classic (WCC) is AAW’s crowning show. It is meant to be their WrestleMania. Their Wrestle Kingdom. Their top notch show with big matches. The first AAW show I ever went to was Windy City Classic XI — heck, that was the first live wrestling show I ever went to! I haven’t been to too many AAW shows this year after moving away from their Berwyn home, but the sentimental value the WCC holds for me was too much to let me pass up this show.

So, on a freezing Chicago night on December 30th, 2017, Chris Olson and I trekked to 115 Bourbon Street, the larger venue that AAW uses for its big Chicago shows. We were excited for the show — not just because it had been six months since our last one, or because we were seeing some of our favorites like Dezmond Xavier and Penta el Zero Miedo. WCC13 would also be the AAW debut for WWE Legend X-Pac, aka Sean Waltman. Another stellar night of indie wrestling seemed guaranteed.

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However, things got off to a rocky start before the night began, and they remained tense throughout the show.

When WCC13 was announced, Michael Elgin was slated to take on Rey Fenix for the AAW Heavyweight Championship. Elgin had won the Jim Lynam Memorial Tournament, which meant he had earned the championship title shot. However, the story broke in early December that Elgin was involved in a sexual harassment scandal. Because of this scandal, AAW withdrew the title shot for Elgin:

The opportunity was then offered to Jeff Cobb:

Thus, even before the night began, tension existed between AAW and Elgin fans, who felt cheated out of a chance to see their favorite possibly win the title. Additionally, the story the promoters had wanted to tell suddenly went away — which may explain some of the weird booking for the night.

WCC started out great with a non-championship tag-team match between Keith Lee (who had just been named one of the top 10 pro wrestlers for 2017, along with Matt Riddle) and Shane Strickland taking on Zachary Wentz and Dezmond Xavier.

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The match was a great showing for all four wrestlers, who landed great spots throughout but, more importantly, interacted really well with the crowd. Xavier in particular did a great job as a heel against the crowd favorite Lee. Lee demonstrated why he deserved to be SI’s #10 pro wrestler, pulling off moves not expected for a man of his size. The crowd was hot for the match, and the energy of Bourbon Street was buzzing by the time they were done, with Strickland and Lee, naturally, victorious — and showing respect for their smaller competitors.

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The buzz kept going with the introduction of Riddle to take on ACH for a chance to be the number one contender for the Heavyweight Championship. The crowd began chanting “Bro!” as Riddle’s entrance music began. Clearly Riddle was the fan favorite, and ACH cemented himself as the heel by refusing to hug Riddle before the match began. The match began slow, with Riddle going after ACH’s injuries, clearly marked with the tape on his chest. However, around the 15-minute mark, the wrestlers were clearly energized, and their energy sparked the audience to come alive. A series of near pins furthered the frenzy, between the wrestlers and the fans — and then the bell rang.

Yes, that is correct: the match had been given a 20-minute time limit, and the time had run out.

Now, AAW prides itself on being different — especially different from the WWE. Their tagline has been “Professional wrestling, redefined,” which usually translates into no DQs and no count-outs. And this match was for a title shot, meaning it was supposedly an important match.

So when the bell rang and the match was announced a draw, the audience turned. They started booing ferociously. A “let them fight!” chant broke out. When the ring announcer said that both men would be getting title shots, the boos came back even louder, joined by a chant of “bull-shit bull-shit.” The wrestlers themselves were also visibly upset by what was happening.

And nothing seemed to go right after that.

Right after this match, the only woman to set foot in the ring that night, Scarlett Bordeaux (a manager cum wrestler), said she wanted a shot at the new women’s championship title. She was clearly not wearing a shirt (or bra) under her jacket, making me wonder if she was intended to pacify the male fans after what had just transpired with the Riddle/ACH match. And then — in an era of intense focus on sexual harassment, and with the Elgin situation having changed the night’s main event — she said “Who do I have to do to get a championship match?”

It’s almost as if the AAW promoters decided they would be the biggest heels during the night.

Now, the “joke” was that after she said that, Davey Vega’s music hit, and he emerged. As I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, Vega is a heel the AAW fans love to hate. Rather than suggest anything sexual to her, he wants to take her on as a manager to help his career, thereby perhaps undercutting the sexual tone of Scarlett’s question and turning it into a business proposition based on her successful managerial skills. Perhaps that helped undercut the problematic portrayal, but overall the optics and messaging just didn’t feel right for the situation.

Furthermore, it brought out the challengers for the Tag Team Championship without a proper introduction for their match against the Besties in the World.

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Seriously, I had no idea who the challengers were, why they were mad with Vega, and why they were demanding a chance for the championship. I know I haven’t kept up with the shows since this past summer, but usually AAW does video promos to help explain all of it. The “skit” with Scarlett did nothing to help me understand what was happening. And after what happened with Riddle/ACH, the crowd was not having any of this match. The crowd was barely paying attention, often only voicing displeasure with Brubaker (I never knew which one he was during the match), and it was the shortest of the three opening matches. For a championship match, the challengers were little more than jobbers, and the match didn’t seem to have the respect (from promoters or fans) it deserved.

The return of the ring announcer brought back the boos — every time he stepped into the ring, he was booed, as if it was his fault that Riddle/ACH ended in a draw. He weathered it well, even making a joke of it later in the night, but at this point in time he was there to announce the street fight between David Starr and Eddie Kingston, reminding the crowd that the match could very well spill out into the crowd. When Kingston fights at AAW, the chance is pretty high he will take it past the barriers — he particularly likes the bar at Bourbon Street.

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The match had a couple good spots involving thumb tacks and a barb wire-festooned chair, but they never did leave the safety of the barriers and turn it into a real street fight. At one point Starr teased it, and then took it away as the heel he was. The ending itself was weak. Jeff Cobb came out to help Starr and held a weakened Kingston in a submission hold. Starr then brandished a metal bat and monologued about how he was going to end Kingston’s life — only to barely touch him with the bat’s handle. We were expecting him to try to hit a home run on Kingston’s head, and we got a somewhat whiffed handle shot to the jaw.

Add to that a fan behind me shouting anti-Semitic taunts at Starr throughout the match. Things like “circumcise him!” and “send him to the concentration camp!” and “get him to the gas chamber!” and shrugging off when another fan and I tried to get him to stop, saying that the Holocaust was 70 years ago and he was “just joking.”

Yeah. It was one of those nights.

The crowd really wanted Kingston/Starr to spill out on the floor. While not the main event of the night, that hasn’t stopped previous shows from such a brawl earlier in the show. Well, perhaps not this early — this match should’ve come later in the night, so that it could have been more extension, more brutal, more unconstrained. As with the Riddle/ACH match, it seemed like the promoters were bent on not giving the fans what they wanted. Which is completely fine, and is an angle that the promoters can play up by making themselves part of the problem — think the Authority or Vince McMahon’s entire persona at WWE.

But, again, AAW has tried to position itself as different.

The next match was a fatal fourway that again had the potential for some amazing spots.

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And, overall, it did. The talent in the ring was top notch, but the crowd was still slow to get into it. The energy was there in the ring, but the fans were just not having it. Except for one spot, where Joey Janela seemingly attempted suicide with a dive off the balcony onto all the other competitors on the floor. Those who saw him ascending the balcony either called you for him to stop, or they cheered him on. After his dive, the crowd broke into a “holy shit” chant and called out his name, until he popped up to say “I’m okay!”. Then the match ended, perhaps too quickly, given what had happened — and Janela didn’t even win.

More confusingly, however, was what happened after the match. Teddy Hart, of the Hart family, got on the mic and gave a rambling promo, in which he praised all the fans for being there, saying “Your money, your time, our bodies.” All of which was very nice. What was more nice was how he praised Penta, who remained in the ring, and said he really wanted to wrestle the luchador. Penta, for his part, praised Hart, and said he really wanted to wrestle the Canadian. The fans all wanted the match to happen. And then it seemed like it was going to happen, right there and then, as Hart and Penta made the moves to start the match — all of which the fans were really in to.

And then a ref and the ring announcer came out and put the kibosh on the whole idea, prompting boos from the audience. So, now, the crowd didn’t have a definitive first contender, didn’t see a real street fight, and were robbed of a Penta/Hart match.

The night really never recovered after that.

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Fan favorites the Killer Kult were next, but the crowd was essentially dead throughout it. Wrestlers kept trying to call on the audience for a call-and-response participation, but it was either weak or nonexistent. Which was a shame, because the talent in the ring was great, and Sami Callihan continued to show how wonderful of a heel he has become.

After intermission, the ring announcer came back to introduce the Waltman match, again to a chorus of boos when he stepped in the ring.

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The match itself served more of a nostalgia purpose than anything else. Waltman got in some of his signature offense, and after words gave the crowd the chance to yell “suck it!” in a crotch-chop call-and-response move. But that was about it. At one point, after tagging out, Waltman nearly collapsed in his team’s corner, clearly winded after the exertion. The match itself was short, and saw Braxton/Something winning — which brought the boos back from the crowd. The horrible fan behind me spent the match shouting “We want Chyna!” and “One more night in Chyna!”, referencing the Degeneration X team member Chyna, who died in 2016. That didn’t help matters.

Then it was the final match, the main event for the Heavyweight Championship that had to be changed because of controversy.

downloadI had wondered how the fans would respond when Cobb came out instead of Elgin. For the most part, there didn’t seem to be any Elgin supporters there: I heard no chanting in support of him take hold. I did hear a brief “Fuck Big Mike” chant. The match itself was fine, with Starr coming out to heel it up and try to help Cobb win. The big surprise came after Fenix won, when Cobb and Starr started beating up on Fenix. That brought out the Killer Kult, who defended Fenix.

This twist is weird because Callihan dropped the title to Fenix, and had spent basically a year tormenting the luchador, even having stolen Fenix’s mask. Callihan’s reasoning was that after what they went through, Fenix was family, and he wasn’t going to let Cobb and Starr hurt his family. Twisted logic, but Callihan has been a twisted heel in AAW. More than that, he has always been a fan favorite, so this sorta face move makes sense in aligning him with the fans’ adoration.

But it was definitely the capper to a weird show. Which overall was perhaps exactly what it needed to be, given how downright bizarre 2017 proved to be as a year.

Aside from the altercation with the anti-Semite drunk fan behind me, I loved it. It was fascinating to see how the whole thing unfolded in ways designed not to please the fans, and how the fans responded when they did not get the matches they wanted. Sometimes you have to upset your fans, and not give them what they think they want, so that you can give them something better down the line. Now AAW fans have more Riddle and ACH to look forward to — and perhaps even a Riddle/ACH championship match where they have more time and can really let lose. And they have a Killer Kult vs. Cobb/Starr match to witness — that could be very bloody given the natures of the wrestlers involved.

So maybe to prepare them for a great 2018, AAW had to give the fans one more night of 2017’s aggravation.

Besides, Tetsuya Naito is coming to take on Callihan as part of his February tour. 2018 is gonna be great for indie wrestling.

Interacting with AAW Heels

Reflections on AAW, Works-In-Process

In this blog post, I explore the question: How much of the heel’s identity and success is dependent on the wrestler’s performance, and how much on the audience’s (re)actions?

This question relates to the work I am doing on the co-constructon of kayfabe through the moment-to-moment interactions between wrestlers and fans. For this particular blog post, I reflect on my observations from the AAW show Killers Among Us on June 17, 2017.

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And we started with Garza Jr and ACH, who both play at being overconfident and obnoxious and this kinda makes them both heels but ones we love for comedy. During the course of the match, however, Garza Jr. proved to be the bigger heel in his interactions with crowd and bringing out the chair to attack ACH with. Given his history with the AAW and his previous interactions with the fans, ACH remained more a WWE-style babyface, perhaps: he’s the kind of heel we love.

Eddie Kingston came out right away playing dirty pool by trying to sneak a huge nail into his match with Jeff Cobb. On top of this attempt at smuggling in a foreign object, he also went for Cobb’s eyes and bit his finger to break hold. Kingston then won and got tremendously booed even though the win was clean — to which he responds by flipping off the booers. Kingston’s antics in this match made him the heel, which was reaffirmed by the audience’s response to his winning. This position is interesting, however, given how often he has been seen as the face when matched with Sami Callihan. However, here the fans let Kingston know that he had crossed the line, and that such antics are only tolerated in very specific situations — like taking down the “hated” Callihan.

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Davey Vega was in a fatal four-way match vs. Jake Crist vs. Chuck Taylor vs. PACO. Now, this match should have had two heels and two faces…except that Chuckie T. borders between face and heel, often for comical effect.

Vega was more the classic obnoxious-but-cowardly heel. His appearance was immediately met with chants of “fuck you, Vega,” indicating a vast history with the fans. Even before he did anything, his mere presence elicited such a negative reaction — or was it a negative reaction? At this point, given how often he elicits these chants regardless of his actions, the fans may be just performing an expected reaction to his presence. When it is less about what the wrestler does and just who the wrestler is, then the fans appear to draw on their history and memory of that wrestler, and as long as the wrestler never does anything to counter this perception, then the fans will continue to perform a specific call-response action; thus, Fuck You Vega becomes a standard chant that transcends matches.

The historical baggage of Vega became evident throughout the match when a mockingly supportive chant of “Davey Vega” was met with the response “Sucks” — usually this split-crowd call-response is meant to show support from some fans for a wrestler, while other fans show their displeasure with said wrestler. However, in this case, the crowd subverted this meaning, and overall they further pronounced their displeasure with Vega, causing Vega to pause in disbelief and then flip off the crowd. And thus the history of “Fuck You Vega” continues as heel and fans maintain their performances.

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Zack Sabre Jr seems like a heel in the ring given the pain he is willing to inflict on his opponent through his earnest and unrelenting application of submission holds that contort his opponent into a pretzel. But is he a heel or just determined? Sabre Jr. seemingly does not care how much pain he inflicts in his match with Mat Fitchett, which earns him a “You Sick Fuck” chant for his seeming lack of human empathy in the ring. But Sabre Jr. never changes how he wrestles, as every match contains the same masochistic moves — and the fans never completely turn on him. So while the fans may whince, their chanting of “You Sick Fuck” is more a part of the performance, as Sabre Jr. wants to cause such a reaction in the fans, and their chanting reaffirms his actions.

An interesting case study came in the Abyss vs. Low-Ki match. Abyss had appeared several times before at AAW, and his performances left much to be desired. His immensely apparent whiffs, botches, and no sells never sat well with the crows. So, is Abyss a heel just because of how poorly he performs in the ring? Was he booed not for character performance but actual performance? Now, Abyss was positioned as part of the heel faction at AAW, as he was on the side of Callihan and OI4K. But that animosity toward Abyss never seemed to be based on his OI4K allegiance.

When the OI4K manager tried getting the O-I-4-K chant going, the crowd used that cadence to chant “Fuck You Abyss.” For other OI4K members, it would have been easy to get their chant going — although they are the heels, they are well-liked heels, and the audience will demonstrate their affection for the heels through that chant. But not for Abyss. Apparently a wrestler can produce so much audience apathy and even anger through bad in-ring performances that they can not get the type of character-based interaction desired for the match. When the wrestler is a known botcher, it doesn’t matter if they are a face or a heel (see Sin Cara of the WWE for another example of this phenomenon).

Then came two huge crowd favorites: Trevor Lee and PENTA EL 0M (formerly Pentagon Jr.). Throughout the past dozen or so shows with AAW, Lee made fans with his dancing antics; whenever he would dance, or he would get the other wrestlers to dance, it became an automatic hit with the audience. Naturally, then, he turned heel when he refused to dance. Starting at this AAW show, he came out to different music and refused to give the crowd what they both expected and wanted.

This seeming lack of gratification led the crowd to chant “Fuck TNA,” as a reference to Impact Wrestling and Lee’s affiliation with that organization. Lee responded by calling the fans dumbasses and correcting them about name of the wrestling company for which he said he’s a superstar. A little kid standing at the guard rail yelled to Lee: “Your mom wants her hair back!” You know you have pissed off your fans when you are getting a sick burn from a kid.

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In the John Morrison versus Brian Cage match, Morrison was trying to be a face in his interactions with crowd; he kept trying to give away his shirt — but the crowd kept throwing it back at him. Normally a crowd is supposed to cheer the idea of getting a soiled shirt from their favorite face, but the continual refusal of the shirt illustrated just how much the crowd saw Morrison as the obnoxious heel character.

Cage, then, did a tremendously heel act by dragging Morrison’s shirt thru his wrestling shorts. He then threw the soiled shirt in Morrison’s face. So who is the heel: the obnoxious Morrison or the “you sick fuck” Cage, as appointed by the crowd’s chant? Cage’s move is more disgusting than anything currently seen by a WWE babyface, given their PG Era sensibilities. But then Morrison won by using the referee as a shield and doing a low blow on Cage. So both men are heels?

reDRagon vs. War Machine also had no clear faces or heels. War Machine were more the heels based on their size and gimmick, but reDRagon was not exactly playing clean. So, as with the Morrison vs. Cage match, the audience didn’t have a clear face-heel dynamic to cheer for and against.

In the final match of the night, Sami Callihan vs. Michael Elgin clearly positioned Callihan as the heel, as he went for chairs immediately to use against Elgin, thereby furthering his history as a heel at AAW. However, Callihan comes off as somewhat of a cowardly heel given the look of fear he had when facing Elgin, despite his posturing in promos as righteous and brave. The crowd was firmly behind both wrestlers, as they performed their respective roles.

Overall, the wrestlers would enact a certain character-based performance that elicited specific and expected reactions from the audience. The only one who deviated from this relationship between wrestler’s actions and fans’ reactions was Abyss, who’s history of botches at AAW matches set him up to be jeered no matter what character-based actions he performed. The fans’ actions didn’t turn a wrestler heel, either in that match or in general, as the wrestler’s decision to be a heel then generated fans’ actions. However, fans’ actions could reaffirm a wrestler’s position as a heel, such as with Vega and Morrison.

Thus, the fans had to buy-in to the idea of the wrestler being a heel for the storyline told within the match to work — as it did in all cases except with Abyss.

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)

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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.

The Communities of AAW

Audience Studies, Reflections on AAW

It takes a community to build a wrestling promotion.

We have been going to AAW shows now for over a year. We have been to see them in the various venues they use in Chicago — Logan Square Auditorium, 115 Bourbon Street, the Berwyn Eagles Club, and Joe’s Live at Rosemont. We have watched some video clips of matches that go back throughout the 13 year history of the promotion.

What amazes me is how often I see the same faces across these different venues and spanning that stretch of time.

As part of my ongoing series reflecting on my time with professional wrestling, seeing the loyalty and dedication of some AAW fans got me thinking about the role of community in this promotion. With any fandom, community is immensely important. One of the reasons people self-identify as fans is because they want to bond with like-minded individuals over the passions that they have. Seeing your passion reflected back by another helps to validate your passion and worldview. And knowing that you share the same passion helps you to geek out or squee (pick your term) over just how worthy that this is to geek out or squee over.