Mainly, my argument is that kayfabe aligns professional wrestling with other forms of fictional storytelling, meaning that how people react to those narratives would have some similarity to have people react to pro-wrestling narratives. And, if there is a script, then there is an encoding occurring in those narratives that reflect specific ideological perspectives. NXT creates stories with actors like any other entertainment producer, and those stories contain certain ideas about the world as embodied through actors’ performances.
Since ideas are being encoded into those storylines, that means pro-wrestling fans — like any other type of fan — will decode what they see in those narratives and react to them in different ways (depending on their interpretive baggage). Some fans will also engage in transformative work to recode elements of those narratives to create their own stories, ones that may be more emotionally or cognitively fulfilling than the original canon. Such fanon, then, can contain depictions that are quite different from what was originally encoded, such as slash stories that turning canonical homosocial or antagonist relationships into homosexual relationships.
Gargano and Ciampa joined NXT starting in 2015. After a slow start where they were positioned as strangers teamed up to compete in the inaugural Dusty Rhodes Classic, their underdog, emotional story really took off during the Cruiserweight Challenge. Since then, the stories have had their emotional highs and lows, as the storyline responded to actual injuries suffered by Ciampa, who went from face to heel in his relationship with Gargano.
Whether they were friends or foes, Gargano and Ciampa’s performances inside the ring involved a level and type of physicality less common in WWE matches. Other than just the technical skill of their movesets or their willingness to risk their bodies, the men embraced one another repeatedly in emotional displays of solidarity, joy, and pain.
Brandon Stroud and other commentators have highlighted their emotional in-ring performances, remaking on their ability to tell stories almost completely through expression and gesture. And the men’s social media accounts, especially when they were #DIY and when Ciampa turned, furthered this storyline, creating a transmedia experience that added to the kayfabe that these two men were more than friends.
It is not surprising, then, that the fans reacted to these men in very emotional ways, such as intense cheers and boos, depending on the point in the storyline. More interestingly, however, are how the slash fanfics reflect the emotional nature of their performances and the storyline.
For this presentation, I focused on Archive of Our Own (AO3), which had the most such stories. Their decoding could be seen in how they commented on each other’s stories, making direct references to the matches, wrestlers, and storyline — all reflecting their decoding.
On AO3, I have identified 43 such stories so far, 13 with a Mature rating for sexually explicit material. These slash stories tended to portray Gargano as sweet, innocent, emotional, feminine, and submissive — and Ciampa as stoic, bitter, pained, aggressive, lonely, and dominant. Furthermore, the stories appear to do two main things:
What appears to be happening is that NXT encoded into their storyline a level and type of homosocial relationship that challenges gender stereotypes in professional wrestling. The fans, then, have emotional decoding reactions to the emotional story cues. What they recode through their slash fanfic are homosexual relationships that serve two purposes: first, to explain the nonstereotypical homosocial relationship; second, to repair the bonds of the broken relationship between Gargano and Ciampa. In this way, their recording operates as a form of relationship maintenance that helps establish why these two men — originally positioned as strangers to each other — acted as they did and also helps the wrestlers — and their fans — work through the tensions to hopefully reunite the wrestlers and thereby give them a happy ending.
Again, all of this is preliminary, and needs work done to relate what was found to what has been written about professional wrestling fans and slash fan fiction. And I look forward to doing the research to finalize this project — especially as it means reading more slash!
One night while working on the Ciampa/Gargano slash project i.e. reading fanfic and luvin it), I realized how all these fanfics are not attempts to recode the Ciampa/Gargano (CG) NXT story (e.g. characters, plot points, facts) but to recode the emotions of the stories as those emotions play a role in how fans decode the stories.
For these fans, their emotional reactions to wrestlers are important, and Ciampa and Gargano have encoded some pretty powerful emotional beats into their NXT story. Even before their break-up, fans had a lot to decode about their bond, and the fanfic pre-break-up explores those emotions. The fanfic post-break-up explores different emotions, but also tries to reconcile the negative feelings between the duo to reunite the pair. Being faithful to the story’s facts doesn’t matter as much as exploring the emotional text and subtext of these wrestlers.
To understand how the fans are decoding and recoding the emotional beats encoded into the story, I decided to go back and chart Ciampa and Gargano’s matches across NXT. I wanted to plot the emotionality of their matches, both as a tag team and as singles, to understand what the fans are reacting to with their stories.* And, as a fan myself, it has been fascinating to go back and watch these matches. Especially for their first matches, I didn’t have the emotional investment in them then that I do now (like, seriously, I haven’t loved a “fictional” character this much since David Tennant’s run as The Doctor). This means I am rewatching matches I only vaguely remember with my complete love for them.
While I do not remember the beats, I do remember the results. And knowing what happened does make it easier to pay attention to peripheral aspects of the match, like how they act on the apron or their facial expressions. Those moments are what I focused on to chart the emotional beats — and boy am I finding out some interesting things, like how much of a hugger Ciampa was!
Because there are so many matches to cover since their debut, I am breaking this timeline over several posts. This first one focuses on their work leading up to their tag team win against the Revival in 2016. Basically these are all the matches to build up the duo and the fans’ love for them.
2015: In the Beginning…
Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano are introduced in backstage segment on September 2, 2015. They appear with GM William Regal to set them up as participants in inaugural Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, and to set up the comedy-team of Tyler Breeze and Bull Dempsey. In this segment, neither man displays any real emotions other than intensity — even when Regal mispronounces Ciampa’s last name.
Their emotional bonding starts during the Classic. In their round 1 match on September 9, where they win to advance. There is emotional intensity from Gargano on apron trying to get Ciampa to give him the tag, which interestingly sets up a recurring theme of a hot tag from Ciampa to Gargano — like Ciampa needs to be saved by Gargano. More importantly, they hug after win and keep their arms around each other when facing the hardcam during their post-match celebration. They also get down on their knees on the ramp before exiting, with commentators saying how they cannot believe their luck. There, Gargano hugs Ciampa again, basically cradling Ciampa’s head to his chest. This motif would be a recurring aspect of their hugging, with one (usually Ciampa) cradling the other’s head to his chest (see the example below).
Their next match is in the second round on September 16. In their first promo, they respond to Baron Corbin/Rhyno, again bringing intensity. They receive a decent pop with their entrance, given how new they are, and during the match start to show more teamwork. Both men are definitely playing to the crowd and getting crowd behind them. The commentary positions them as faces and underdogs from the beginning. This match also has their first knee/kick move, which would come to be called the Meet in the Middle, but not as a finisher. Importantly, the commentators talk about their chemistry. The crowd is really into match, hoping CG would win. After losing, Ciampa goes to check on Gargano, who got the End of Days from Corbin, and stays at his side, checking on him until the end of the clip. This show of care and concern would become a motif in their matches.
After losing the tournament, they started doing singles matches. The next time they are on NXT together is October 30, only to be defeated by Chad Gable/Jason Jordan. Once again, CG have loads of crowd support, especially for how Gargano interacts with the crowd and his expressions. The match got “This is Wrestling” and “This is Awesome” (x3) chants. CG show teamwork, but perhaps are also the heels in the match given the types of tandem attacks they performed — as well as the intensity of their expressions. This character works suggests NXT was still trying to figure out who CG were in their roster. After loss, Ciampa rolls in pain in ring, with no sign of Gargano. Then the clip shows Ciampa outside the ring next to Gargano, both in pain. No real sign of emotional bonding between them in the match — which, if the goal was to position them as heels, makes sense.
This feeling them out also explains the singles work they did, that were pretty unspectacular, which is why I am not interested in discussing them here. The goal here is to understand how these two men interacted with each other on NXT, and their evolution as a tag team demonstrated that their strength was going to be through their relationship in and out of the ring. Once NXT realized that as well, CG would light up the arena.
2016: Becoming Official…
Ciampa and Gargano signed their Tier 2 WWE contracts on April 2nd, 2016, meaning that they could still go on indie dates. And they did so through summer 2016, which was great for me, as I got to see them a couple more times at AAW.
On April 13, 2016 they take on the Vaudevillains, and the commentators said they are reunited. By then the Vaudevillains had already appeared on SmackDown, so of course they were leaving. While waiting in the ring to start, Ciampa pats Gargano’s back, which is a move he does a lot over the year. The commentators said Ciampa had seemed out of his mind but seems relaxed now, and that they both seem relaxed together, being more confident and comfortable. Gargano demonstrates how very skilled he is at showing pain, and got a power-up chant from the crowd. Otherwise the crowd is so quiet I can hear Ciampa trying to encourage Gargano. Hot tag to Ciampa. CG wins, but they just do their cornerpost poses, with no other interaction in the clip.
On May 25 they faced TM-61. When they pose together in corner, Ciampa pats Gargano’s back. Commentators in this match describe how TM-61 are people who really know each other because of wrestling together for so long. This positioning helps establish the relationship for CG: if they can defeat established teams after recently reuniting, then it means they are great. Ciampa calls for crowd support for Gargano. Miscommunication leads to CG collision in ring — they are still new to this, after all. First time they use their finisher as the finisher for a win. High-five after win, then sign of respect to opponents, clapping for them.
Their June 1 is their first match against The Revival. The Revival starts the episode by cutting a promo in-ring against Gable/Jordan (aka American Alpha), the current tag-team champions, but CG come out to support American Alpha and push themselves. Ciampa and Gargano show their mic and burn skills. CG kick Revival out of ring, leading to a match. CG poses together in corner when they come out in a show of unity. The crowd is behind CG, who often call for support, with Revival as the clear heels. A hot tag to Gargano and a quick cover by Gargano to win. Then Revival attacks both separately, with Ciampa attacked more, but saved by American Alpha. No sight of CG after the champions arrives.
At this point it is clear that CG are very good technical wrestlers and able to create matches that are unlike anything seen on Raw or SmackDown, especially for tag-team matches. Their emotional relationship is really just starting, and it would take the next two big matches featuring them both to cement their relationship as central to their NXT story.
CWC and TakeOver II…
In 2016, the WWE produced the Cruiserweight Classic (CWC), which led to reinvigorating the cruiserweight division on the main roster. On June 23, during the first round of the CWC, Ciampa and Gargano created an instant classic.
Now, leading up to it, the WWE produced a package for the match that questioned if their friendship survive. Gargano talks about being thrust into the tag team with Ciampa, but how something clicked instantly. Commentators say CG has chemistry. Ciampa talks about the past year of traveling and rooming together and depending on each other, which has led to their bond growing. He even mentions being in Gargano’s upcoming wedding party, saying “we’re as good of friends as you can get at this point.” The package shows them hugging on the ramp from their first win. Gargano confesses how he perhaps talks to Ciampa more than his fiance. Ciampa discusses how sometimes you hit family harder than others. Overall, the package does a great job summing up the relationship CG has been building and really foregrounds that aspect of the duo to create tension for the match: will they still be friends after one loses to the other?
Their pre-match interview adds to the package when the interviewer asks how being partners affects the match. Gargano says it matter if Ciampa is his partner or like a brother, and Ciampa is upset on how all he ever hears is people talking about “Johnny Wrestling.” They both posture about who is going to win, with Ciampa saying he will hurt the other, to which Gargano says “You do what you gotta do.” This exchange basically foreshadows Ciampa’s heel turn in 2017.
The match itself — is simply amazing. It is their first time fighting each other in the WWE, and is the main event of the episode. Being the main event also foreshadows the one-on-one matches they would have in 2018. Interestingly they are wearing the same colors: black, white, yellow. At the start, Ciampa is reluctant to shake hands and is intense, according to commentators, who call his attacks on Gargano vicious. Tommaso mockingly chants Johnny Wrestling to the crowd (again, foreshadowing his heel turn). The commentators play up Ciampa’s Psycho Killer history and position Johnny as the underdog, under assault, weaker, less intense. The commentators are worried about Gargano getting so many shots to the head, and are surprised he is taking so much violent punishment from the brutal Ciampa.
Ciampa routinely performs violent moves on Gargano, who keeps kicking out, making Ciampa frustrated. Commentator worried about the glassiness of Gargano’s eyes while Ciampa takes down knee pad to knee the other in head. But Ciampa pauses as commentator says these two are a tag team. Gargano looks back just in time to see Ciampa hesitate and question what he is doing, potentially to his friend, allowing Gargano to rest and then superkick him.
Ciampa comes back with vicious lungblower, but Gargano again kicks out of pin, making Ciampa scramble away with shocked look and leaving Gargano completely dazed. This leads to a “This is Awesome” chant as Gargano struggles to get up and an annoyed Ciampa questions what to do. Gargano legit looks like a wounded deer as he reaches out for Ciampa as both men lay on the mat — and Ciampa looks like a mountain lion. Commentator says how much it means to win this CWC if two friends are willing to beat each other up. They are also getting a “Fight Forever” chant.
Ciampa chops Gargano, spits in his hand to chop the other again. Gargano gets angry. Ciampa grabs Gargano’s jaw to force him to stand, as Gargano just stares at Ciampa. Ciampa shakes his head in disappointment, giving Gargano the opening to slap his face. Then Gargano has the opening for the pin.
Immediately after the match, Ciampa is visibly upset in the middle of the ring, while Gargano has retreated to corner. Ciampa still upset when referee raises Gargano’s arm in victory. After the referee leaves, both men are still in the ring, with Gargano kneeling and Ciampa standing. Gargano gets up, looks at the other, who doesn’t make eye contact with him. Gargano extends his hand for a handshake of respect, looking at the other who still won’t make eye contact. Ciampa walks away, shaking his head, and goes to leave the ring as Gargano sits on the mat.
Ciampa stands on ring, hits his own head, then goes back in. All the while the crowd is chanting to try to get him to go back to Gargano. Ciampa sits next to Gargano, grabs the other’s head and pulls Gargano to his chest in a hug as the crowd cheers. Ciampa then raises Gargano’s hand, and it is then that he makes eye contact with Gargano as they nod at each other. Then Gargano hugs Ciampa, who is visibly still upset about his loss. They shake hands as they get up, and then they hug again. Gargano then raises Ciampa’s hand.
In their official post-match interview, Gargano is asked what his victory means for their partnership. Ciampa comes into the interview when Gargano starts talking about him as a best friend. They just make eye contact. Gargano asks if he had to hit so hard, to which Ciampa responds with just “Johnny Wrestling” and walks off, to which Gargano laughs and says “that means he loves me” and says he considers Ciampa like a brother. Fraternal love cannot be easily broken.
Then, on August 20, the duo would make their first NXT TakeOver appearance at TakeOver: Brooklyn II versus The Revival for the tag-team championship. This match would go on to be voted as one of the best matches of the year.
Before the match, backstage, Ciampa gives Gargano the #DIY shirt, says its because they do things their way. This announces them as being finalized as a tag team, and sets up their relationship as being foundational to their story and success. In a pre-match package, when they meet with Regal after the CWC, he says he hopes the CWC match won’t prevent them from acting as a team. Ciampa said that most teams don’t get to chose, but they do, and that he chooses Gargano every day. Saying this just drives home the point they are not brothers, but are not just friends. They seem to be something more, and they are going to tell their NXT story their way.
They come out in their new shirts and Ciampa puts his arm around Gargano, pulling him in, as they take in the scope of where they are and what they are about to do. Throughout the match, the crowd is loudly behind them, chanting “Let’s go Ciampa” and “Johnny Wrestling.” At one point in the match, both Revival guys are chasing after Gargano but Ciampa jumps into the ring to stand by his side and face down the Revival. The commentators say CG are long time friends who know each other very well, billing CG as they have done for past tag teams, thereby cementing them as officially working together as partners.
And then it seems like Johnny has pinned Dash Wilder after a Meet in the Middle, but Dawson puts Wilder’s foot on the rope and the referee calls it a two-count. Meanwhile Ciampa hugs Gargano to celebrate, so before they are made aware, CG are hugging in the middle of the ring as the crowd goes crazy over the supposed win. CG are holding each other in celebration when the referee informs them they didn’t win.
The Revival goes on to hurt Gargano’s knee, which was injured from the CWC. The Crowd tells him not to tap to Dawson’s figure four submission hold, but Johnny, in agony, does. As the Revival celebrates, CG sit in the middle of the ring, heartbroken. Ciampa gets up as Gargano’s hands are over his eyes, despondent. Ciampa then leans down and hugs Gargano, helps the other up, and keeps his hand on Gargano’s back as they thank the crowd. He then helps Gargano walk out of the ring. Outside the ring, Gargano says I’m sorry, and Ciampa pulls him back in for another hug, with his head to Ciampa’s chest. Ciampa keeps his hand on Gargano as he leads the other up the ramp.
With the CWC and TakeOver II matches, CG cement their abilities as in-ring storytellers, able to create emotional moments as they react to their opponents — even when those opponents are each other. In moments of loss, they are able to show their love for each other by being concerned for how each other is doing. Ciampa, in particular, demonstrates a level of tenderness that seems contradictory to his Psycho Killer persona. Ciampa seems to legit care for Gargano, so much so that he is willing to risk not winning the CWC match, and he is not going to hold Gargano responsible for losing the titles. The relationship between the men is becoming more important than winning.
Dusty Rhodes Redux…
The last couple matches to note in this post are not terribly noteworthy as they do not do much to build the emotionality of their story. In the 2016 Dusty Rhodes Classic, CG have a first round match versus Tian Bing/Ho-Ho Lun on October 26, which is really only important for noting it as the first time they came out to #DIY entrance theme. After winning, they moved on to the second round on November 2 versus the Revival; but the match never happens as Dawson came out on crutches, claiming a severe knee injury, and the Revival forfeited so they don’t have to face DIY in the match. The third round on November 9 was against the Authors of Pain. In one interesting moment, as both AOP are about to attack Gargano, Ciampa comes in to stop that double teaming, just like he did in TakeOver II. At the end, DIY has AOP beaten when The Revival shows up from underneath the ring and attack Johnny, but the referee didn’t see it, leaving Tommaso to be pinned.
Essentially this string of matches was just meant to further the rivalry between The Revival and #DIY, which led to the championship match between them at NXT TakeOver: Toronto. That match began #DIY’s championship reign, which would then lead to their breaking up, and the darkness that followed. Those matches will be covered next, in part two of this series.
*One thing I also need to chart is the transmedia nature of this story, as both Ciampa and Gargano did a lot on Twitter to build up their characters and relationship. They posted about living together, for example, and their work with Bobby Roode and the Glorious Bombs created a meme that still plays out today. What I have in these posts are just the NXT tapings, but these online appearances are definitely a part of this emotionality timeline.
When I first got into professional wrestling — way back in 2014! — my first favorite wrestler was The Miz. I was watching WWE Main Event, which aired Wednesday nights on our Ion TV channel. This was before the WWE Network was launched, and before I had any access to higher level cable channels like the USA Network, so Main Event become my entry into professional wrestling and the WWE. Then we got the Network and cable, bringing to use NXT, Lucha Underground, and more. And I started going to the live events put on by AAW here in Chicagoland. So since in the years since, I have had other favorites to add to my own fangirl roster, with Sami Zayn earning perhaps the biggest place in my heart — for his wrestling and his political activism.
Sami, unfortunately, keeps getting injured, and I no longer have cable, so I cannot follow him on the WWE main roster (which underutilized him anyway). And while I also no longer subscribe to the Network for political reasons (seriously, Crown Jewel was just an idiotic event to do), I still watch NXT through next-day airings on Hulu. And I need to keep doing that, because I need by Ciampa/Gargano fix.
I remember first seeing Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano in the Dusty Rhodes tournament and wondering who they were. Needing to know who they were, I found a video of them wrestling in AAW. And at that time, they were not signed to NXT, so they were still wrestling in AAW. In fact, the first AAW show I went to had Ciampa there, busting open his nose right in front of me.
Ciampa at AAW Windy City Classic XI in 2015.
Unlike Sami, here I had the opportunity to meet Ciampa and Gargano — and I did! The fangirl in me was so excited to be able to buy their t-shirts directly from them! I got to meet each of the them, and nervously (remember, I’m like a grown adult woman) gush about how much I like their work. Their last match at AAW after being signed to NXT was something I wrote about for a chapter in a book I co-edited. Unlike with Sami, I had actual interactions with them in a physical setting that could help fuel my interest in them. I wasn’t just watching them through television or following them through Twitter. I had met them. I knew how much taller I was than them. I breathed the same air as them. I touched them!
Gargano at AAW United We Stand in 2016.
I am such a huge fangirl for them. I have been since their beginning in NXT. So I have followed their storyline with intense interest. I have had actual tears in my eyes watching their Cruiserweight match, or when they finally won the tag-team belts as DIY. I have felt actual shock and fear when Ciampa turned on Gargano. I was shaken by their TakeOver: New Orleans match for how brutal and emotional it was. I was there at TakeOver: Chicago, cheering for Ciampa, when he tore Gargano’s wedding ring off the hand of the man whose wedding he attended. I know every twist and turn of their story, and am legit concerned about the darkness consuming Gargano while also hoping it means he may soon get back with Ciampa.
Gargano’s jump on Ciampa, my vantage point at NXT TakeOver: Chicago in 2018.
I have even been writing a slash story in my head to bring them back together.
If you don’t know what slash is, here is a quick primer: it is a fan activity involving taking two characters who in canon (i.e. the original television show, book, movie, etc.) may be friends or enemies and putting them into a homosexual relationship. The classic examples include Kirk/Spock, Harry/Draco, and Sherlock/Watson. Fans may create such slash for a variety of reasons, and the relationships can be anything from angsty and emotional to brutal and hardcore.
When Ciampa came back after his injury as Blackheart and began torturing Gargano’s mind, body, and soul, my mind started to slash them. For me, it was a way to handle how two friends who seemed so close suddenly became such bitter enemies. I wanted them to reconcile and become friends again. I wanted them to kiss and make up.
Up to that point, I didn’t think anyone else was creating slash for these wrestlers (characters? real people?). Slash tends to be created by fangirls, and professional wrestling still tends to be dominated by fanboys. So I didn’t think to go look to see if there was a community out there engaging in this practices for this canon.
I was wrong. I found Ciampa/Gargano slash. Such as at a large fanfiction online site, Archive of Our Own. And then I found more at my old stomping grounds, FanFiction.net.
I found fans using slash and alternate universe (AU) stories to resolve the tensions between the characters/people of Ciampa and Gargano — tensions constructed through the kayfabe transmedia storytelling of their DIY rise and fallout. One author even called their fanfic “therapy” to help them cope with Ciampa’s heel turn.
And this AU story finds them attempting a Glorious Bomb, only to have their first kiss.
In this AU story, Gargano is once again the tender one taking care of the rough Ciampa.
In this AU story, the heel turn never takes breaks up the partnership, which is definitely more than just professional.
In this AU, Gargano tracks down Ciampa after the heel turn to confess his love.
And another AU reference to Chuck Taylor claiming Ciampa/Gargano were a couple. Did he actually make such a comment?
Here Ciampa helps Gargano deal with a trauma from his past.
This time Gargano helps Ciampa reveal his true feelings.
Then in this AU story, their D&D characters have to fall in love for them to realize their true feelings for each other. And here as well.
For this story, their tenderness for each other comes through after a loss for the tag-team titles.
And in this story, even before the heel turn, their relationship was more personal than professional.
Then in this AU, they are X-Men, and teenagers find their first loves.
For this one, another angsty one for Ciampa needing to realize his feelings for Gargano.
In these connected stories, multiple wrestlers come together, but again, Ciampa is rough with Gargano: part 1 and part 2.
While this one starts out rough, Gargano manages to bring out Ciampa’s tender side (which he does in other stories as well).
Like in this one, the younger Gargano manages to save Ciampa from a life of crime.
In total so far, 25 stories that in some way put these two into a romantic relationship. Stories that come from early in DIY to after the break-up to the current era of the darkness between them. And all of them fantastic in some way because of how they are either directly relating to an event from the story told by these wrestlers or are referencing the overall arc and angst of the story.
Another aspect of these stories that is fascinating is how many are from Ciampa’s perspective, as if he is tortured with these longings for Gargano and that perhaps those longings, unfulfilled, can explain his heel turn. And there are the stories were Gargano is taking care of Ciampa, putting him in a more feminine position to the gruff Ciampa. So a lot of interesting character interpretation and supposition happening to fill in the gaps created in the story about who these people are and why they have done what they have done to each other.
Finding these stories can help me conduct an analysis of the transformative fandom among pro-wrestling fans not commonly studied: women. And such an analysis could show the overlaps with different fandoms through the common practices of fanfiction, in general, and slash, in particular. Overall, the works show fans seeking for the two men to make up, to become friends again. The emotional work done by the wrestlers to tell their transmedia story is being reflected in how fans use their fics to transform the negative relationship back to a positive one.
I hope to use this example to do more research on my encoding-decoding-recoding model. I think I can argue that the transmedia storytelling serves as encoding kayfabe, that the fans’ decoding consists of emotional reactions to the kayfabe, and their fanfic acts as recoding to deal with those emotional reactions. The fact that so many of the stories directly reference events as depicted in NXT helps to show the relationships between the storytelling (encoding) and how fans reacted to the storytelling (decoding and recoding). Even the timecode stamps on the fanfics can help show what the fans reacted to. Plus there are the comments to the fanfics, which could further help show the decoding through the fan discourses embedded in these fanfics.
So right now, this idea represents a work-in-progress here, but one I am very excited about — and not just because I get to read Ciampa/Gargano fanfic.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Nia vs. Bliss, courtesy of WWE.com http://www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania/wrestlemania-34#full-detail-40040893
Match Nine: WrestleMania34 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: TakeoverNew 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 IdiocracyEffect 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
In recent years, WrestleMania weekend has become an opportunity for numerous domestic and international wrestling promotions to converge on the host city in order to capitalize on the presence of tens of thousands of wrestling fans from around the world. I have attended three previous WrestleManias (XXV in Houston, 2009, XXVII in Atlanta, 2011, and XXX in New Orleans, 2014), but limited myself, with the exception of a Ring of Honor (ROH) television taping in 2014, to WWE events, particularly the Hall of Fame ceremony and WrestleMania itself. This year, however, I resolved to take full advantage of the presence of numerous independent promotions in New Orleans, resulting in one of the most tiring and enjoyable experiences in my long history of attending wrestling events. In total, I attended ten events in four days, from April 5-8, culminating with WrestleMania 34. With so many events, a match-by-match evaluation would be infeasible, so instead, I will offer an event-by-event travelogue, with my (admittedly subjective) summaries and observations.
Event 1: Matt Riddle’s Bloodsport (Pontchartrain Center, 3pm CT, 4/5/18)
I drove to New Orleans Thursday morning, in time to attend my first event, Matt Riddle’s Bloodsport. Matt Riddle (“King of the Bros”) is a former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter who wrestles primarily for the New Jersey-based EVOLVE promotion, and this event was based around a rare, if not unique, premise in modern pro wrestling: realistic, Mixed Martial Art (MMA)-style matches that could only end in knockouts or submissions. As an MMA fan since the early days of the sport, I was curious not only to see how these matches would be worked, but also how fans would react to a very different presentation of pro wrestling. For the event, the ropes had been removed from the ring, evidently to emphasize that, as in MMA, there would be no rope breaks to escape submissions. As one might expect, these matches featured extensive mat-based grappling sequences and mostly-believable stiff strikes, and, to my surprise, fans did not appear at any time to be bored with this style, reacting to and cheering even the most minor transitions from one hold or position to another. To be fair, it’s safe to assume that most of the fans present were of the “smart” variety, and therefore more likely to appreciate mat-based technical wrestling than mainstream fans accustomed to near-constant action. With the exception of hardcore wrestler Nick Gage, who attempted to use a table against his opponent in their bout, practically every match featured entirely plausible, realistic action, akin to what one might have seen in early twentieth-century matches featuring Frank Gotch or Ed “Strangler” Lewis. Upon arrival, I was especially thrilled to learn that Riddle’s original main event opponent, indie legend Low Ki, had been replaced by Minoru Suzuki, the current IWGP Intercontinental Champion in New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) and a legit MMA pioneer from the Japanese Pancrase promotion. As in Japan, fans belted out the climactic “Kaze ni Nare” from Suzuki’s entrance theme, and he received the biggest pop of the show. After the show, Riddle announced that he planned to organize another Bloodsport event for next year’s WrestleMania weekend, and I would certainly not hesitate to attend another one. This style is not for everyone, but the fans in attendance largely enjoyed this unique and unusual presentation of pro wrestling.
Event 2: EVOLVE 102 (Pontchartrain Center, 8pm CT, 4/5/18)
Although held in the same venue, the crowd for this event was smaller than for the earlier Bloodsport show. I’m fairly certain that this show’s attendance was greatly affected by the WrestleCon Supershow, held at 9:30pm at the Sugar Mill in downtown New Orleans, featuring the “Golden Lovers” tag team of Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushii. This was a solid show overall, and featured an excellent EVOLVE championship match between recent New Japan Cup winner Zack Sabre Jr., champion for over 400 days, and Matt Riddle. The two had a fantastic, largely mat-based match that saw Riddle wrest the title from Sabre, who recently signed a new contract with NJPW. This show featured plenty of solid action, but the diminished crowd meant that there wasn’t quite as much heat as in many of the other events I attended.
The following day, I headed downtown for a couple of events at the Sugar Mill, which is directly across from the convention center where WWE’s WrestleMania Axxess events were being held, beginning with The Crash, a Tijuana-based lucha libre promotion, at noon. This show featured many recognizable indie and lucha stars, including Joey Ryan, known largely for performing spots involving using his penis to flip opponents, as well as a fun main event featuring Austin Aries versus Penta El Zero M. LA Park (formerly La Parka), Psicosis, and Damián 666 received a huge nostalgia pop when they entered to Eddie Guerrero’s old World Championship Wrestling (WCW) theme, clad in LWO (Latino World Order, from a brief WCW angle) shirts. Throughout the show, the mostly Anglo-American fans chanted “uno mas” (one more) when encouraging various luchadors to repeat a strike or move, Penta’s catchphrase “cero miedo” (zero fear), and counted turnbuckle punches in Spanish. This minor, though not insignificant, embrace of Spanish, if only in the context of a Mexican lucha event, was a welcome reminder of the increasingly global character of pro wrestling. As we move further and further from the days of oversimplified national stereotypes in wrestling, American fans seem more willing than ever to embrace international stars, from Shinsuke Nakamura and Rusev in WWE to LA Park and Penta 0M at The Crash. Attendance for this show was decent, though a bit underwhelming.
Event 4: Revolution Pro Wrestling (Sugar Mill, 4pm CT, 4/6/18)
It was fortunate that I was already present for The Crash, as this Revolution Pro show was absolutely packed, undoubtedly due to the presence of various NJPW stars on the show. As soon as the doors opened, I wisely planted my proverbial flag at a good vantage point in the general admission bleachers; by the time the show began, there was absolutely no space to be had. Once again, the fans eagerly belted out “Kaze ni Nare” for Suzuki’s entrance, and cheered wildly for Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kota Ibushii, Tomohiro Ishii, and Zack Sabre Jr. Of the four shows I’d attended so far, this one’s fans were the most energetic and animated. The main event saw Sabre lose the RevPro championship to Ishii, making him 0-for-2 in title defenses at this weekend’s events.
This show was much better attended than the previous evening’s EVOLVE 102 at the same venue. This show featured Daisuke Sekimoto and Munenori Sawa, a pair of stars from Big Japan Pro Wrestling, a promotion that used to feature mostly hardcore matches with crazy weapons such as fluorescent light tubes and scorpion-filled tanks. Sekimoto had an excellent, hard-hitting match with Keith Lee, while Sawa faced Zack Sabre Jr. This show’s main event, between Matt Riddle and IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion Will Ospreay, featured the scariest bump I have ever seen live. With Riddle on his back in a rear-naked choke position, Ospreay did a backflip off the top rope, landing both of them on the back of their necks. Ospreay appeared legitimately injured, as several referees and officials rushed to the ring to attend to him. A hushed silence came over the crowd, as we collectively realized the potential gravity of the situation. After a couple of minutes, the match resumed, and at the time I assumed this was merely an elaborate attempt to work fans into believing Ospreay had been severely hurt. At the next day’s PROGRESS event, Ospreay told fans that he had indeed been injured, and had proceeded directly to the hospital for x-rays following the match. He then proceeded to wrestle in a mixed-tag match that saw him take only a handful of safe bumps. Many fans around me were making comments about how they wished Ospreay, known for his high-flying and extremely dangerous style (taking neck bumps on the ring apron, for example), would wrestle more safely, lest he end up like “Dynamite Kid” Tom Billington, whose reckless (albeit entertaining) style eventually made him wheelchair-bound, and I couldn’t agree more. There is an inherent risk of injury in pro wrestling, but taking numerous bumps to one’s neck in every match is a recipe for disaster. I’m certain that most fans would prefer Ospreay and others perform fewer dangerous moves in the interest of their long-term health.
Event 6: Joey Janela’s Spring Break 2 (Pontchartrain Center, 11:55pm CT, 4/6/18)
This event was both unusual and extremely fun. I have very eclectic tastes in pro wrestling; on the one hand, I love extremely realistic, hard-hitting “old school” matches, and on the other end of the spectrum, I enjoy wacky absurdity as featured in Japan’s Hustle and DDT promotions. Joey Janela’s Spring Break most definitely fell into the second category. The crowd for this was massive (for the venue), with roughly 1,500 fans in attendance. There was a party/club/rave atmosphere, with lots of drinking and chanting throughout the show, even as we passed the 3:00 am mark. Having already bought tickets for three other shows on this day, I was primarily drawn to this show because I wanted to see The Great Sasuke in the main event against Joey Janela. Sasuke, a masked wrestler who helped, along with Ultimo Dragon, popularize the so-called “lucharesu” blend of Mexican and Japanese styles in Japan, was also the founder and top star of the Michinoku Pro promotion from 1993 to 2003. The crowd was hot for their match, which began around 3:00 am, and saw the 48-year-old Sasuke take several crazy bumps onto tables, ladders, and chairs. The card also featured a random, mostly-incoherent promo from Virgil, former bodyguard to Ted DiBiase and a staple at seemingly all wrestling and comic conventions, a Clusterfuck Battle Royal won by an invisible man, a great match between 50-year-old Pierre Carl Oulette (who wrestled for the WWF and WCW in the mid-to-late ’90s) and Austrian giant WALTER, and a squash match in which Matt Riddle quickly defeated former WWE talent James Ellsworth. More than anything I attended during this trip, this event reminded me of the old Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) arena crowd, with their constant (and occasionally obscene) chants and energy. Some of the matches on this card were not what I would call “good” in a technical sense, but the fans’ constant engagement with the wrestlers created a wild and enjoyable atmosphere for those willing, like myself, to sacrifice sleep for the show.
Event 7: PROGRESS Wrestling (Pontchartrain Center, 12pm CT, 4/7/18)
PROGRESS is, arguably, the hottest wrestling promotion in Britain at the moment, and this show did not disappoint. Several fans around me said that this show’s crowd was smaller than the previous day’s show (also held at noon), due at least in part to hangovers and fatigue from the previous night/morning’s Spring Break event. This show featured solid wrestling up and down the card, including the aforementioned mixed-tag match featuring Will Ospreay and Kay Lee Ray (a Mae Young Classic participant) versus Austin Theory and Jinny. The match was originally a singles bout between Ospreay and Theory, but was changed due to the former’s injury against Matt Riddle at the WWN Supershow.
Event 8: SHIMMER 100 (Pontchartrain Center, 4pm CT, 4/7/18)
SHIMMER is a women’s wrestling promotion whose alums include numerous current WWE women’s stars, including Becky Lynch, Bayley, and Paige. The crowd was smaller than for PROGRESS, but enthusiastic. The match that stole the show for me, and for many others, saw 6’1″ Madison Eagles win a back-and-forth grappling contest with Deonna Purrazzo. As with Bloodsport, I was a bit surprised that a match featuring mostly mat wrestling had engaged fans so thoroughly. All things being equal, I would expect to see Eagles in an NXT ring in the near future, given her imposing stature and solid technical skills, provided she is interested and willing to sign with WWE.
Event 9: Ring of Honor Supercard of Honor XII (UNO Lakefront Arena, 7:30pm CT, 4/7/18)
This was probably my most-anticipated show of the trip. This event was attended by nearly 6,000 fans, making it the largest crowd in ROH history, due largely to the featured main event of Cody (Rhodes) vs. Kenny Omega. By the time I arrived, the parking lots were already filling up, and I missed the first “pre-show” match, a Women of Honor Championship semifinal between Kelly Klein and Mayu Iwutani. The crowd was hot for most of the show, and the ladder match for the six-man tag titles between the Young Bucks, SoCal Uncensored, and The Kingdom was an epic spotfest from start to finish. Kenny Omega received the biggest pop I’d heard on the entire trip for his entrance, and the crowd was extremely engaged in his match with Cody, which saw the latter prevail after he ducked a pair of Young Bucks superkicks that hit Omega instead. Unfortunately, this show suffered from a glaring pacing issue, as would WrestleMania the following day. The Cody-Omega match had featured prominently in the promotion for this event, including on the main jumbotron graphic for the show, and therefore should have gone on last. The emotional peak of the Cody-Omega contest was instead followed by the ROH world title match between Dalton Castle and “The Villain” Marty Scurll, a match that was technically sound, but couldn’t manage to elicit much interest from the exhausted crowd, who had already sat through nearly five hours of wrestling. I was baffled about this choice of match order, as were many around me, and some people began leaving right after the Cody-Omega match. Like WrestleMania, this show would have benefited from being shorter, as its length and match placement led to a championship match that felt flat despite featuring solid in-ring performances from Castle and Scurll. The match that drew the fans should always go on last, building fans’ anticipation and excitement to a crescendo. As it happened, there was simply no way that Castle and Scurll could have engaged the fans after the emotionally-draining experience of the previous match.
As this was my fourth time attending WrestleMania, including XXX at the Superdome, I knew I was in for a long and exhausting show. The card was, on paper at least, potentially one of the best WrestleMania events of all time, but in the event, it fell short of expectations. The early matches featured solid action that mostly held fans’ interest, but the surprise of the night was Ronda Rousey’s debut, tagging with Kurt Angle against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. This match could not have been more perfectly booked to protect Rousey in her debut and to minimize the performers’ limitations (Angle’s due to a career’s worth of injuries, Stephanie’s as a non-wrestler). The match, built largely around Rousey’s attempts to ensnare Stephanie, and the latter’s infuriating escapes, held the fans’ attention and excitement from start to finish. Rousey played her part well, including a fun sequence in which she pummeled Triple H when the two were left alone together in the ring. When she finally forced Stephanie to tap to an armbar, fans erupted in what was arguably the biggest pop of the night. In retrospect, the match probably should have gone on last, because it represented an emotional peak for fans that later matches would fail to reach.
As for other matches, I loved Charlotte Flair’s entrance, which reversed her father Ric’s habit of entering arenas accompanied by a seeming “harem” of women when she entered surrounded by scantily-clad men in gladiator costumes. Perhaps more significantly, it also served as a nice inversion of Triple H’s “King of Kings” entrance from four years earlier at WrestleMania XXX, which featured a pre-stardom Charlotte as one of three scantily-clad fantasy slave women (the other two being Alexa Bliss and Sasha Banks). Her match with Asuka was fantastic, possibly the best of the entire show from a technical perspective, but I was baffled by the booking decision to have Asuka lose the match, as the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble winner. When Nakamura, the men’s winner, lost to AJ Styles, I was even more perplexed. After watching the Rumble in January, I came away impressed that two Japanese wrestlers not only won the Rumbles, but would potentially win major titles at WrestleMania. I can understand one or the other losing, but it was quite disappointing that both lost their matches.
Daniel Bryan’s return garnered a massive pop, though the booking was, yet again, confusing. He was attacked before the match, and spent the first ten minutes or so laying outside the ring, an element that completely drained the match of its heat until he managed to “revive” in time to save partner Shane McMahon from Kevin Owens’ and Sami Zayn’s assault. I suppose the idea was to play upon the possibility of him being re-injured immediately, but the crowd was completely dead for the first part of this match as a result.
The Braun Strowman match, which saw him choose a seemingly random child from the audience as his tag partner, was fun for what it was, and at least it was kept short. The main event, however, was another story. For the fourth year in a row, Roman Reigns was featured in WrestleMania’s main event, in Vince McMahon’s seemingly unwavering resolve to make him the company’s next top star. As in the previous three years, Reigns was heavily booed during his entrance, as fans continue to refuse to accept him as a top babyface. Reigns’ opponent Brock Lesnar received modest cheers, but a fair share of boos as well. The pervasive feeling that this was little more than a long-planned coronation for Reigns meant that, from the opening bell, fans were determined to defy McMahon’s intended narrative and sabotage the match. Throughout the contest, fans ignored the match in favor of various chants, including “CM Punk,” “this is awful,” “we want Nicholas (the kid from the Strowman match),” “you both suck,” and the classic standby, “boring.” Numerous beach balls were passed around, with fans booing security guards as they confiscated them. Absurdly, Reigns kicked out of five F5s from Lesnar, after the move had been built over the past year as the definitive end for any wrestler. Rather than cheering Reigns for his perseverance, fans booed every time he kicked out, and numerous people began heading for the exits during the match. Not even a nasty blade job by Reigns could elicit sympathy from the unforgiving (and mostly disinterested) crowd, though there was a decent pop when Lesnar surprisingly won the match.
This bizarre match is, unfortunately, part of a recurring trend at WWE’s biggest show of the year. Fans largely were disinterested in Reigns’ other main events, from WrestleManias 31-33, which should have been a clear signs for Vince McMahon and the creative team to go in a different direction, and yet, for the fourth year in a row, a Reigns who has largely failed to connect with fans was shoehorned into the main event. When there is a pervasive feeling among fans that they are being “told” who to like, there often is a tendency to do the exact opposite, or, worse yet, simply to stop caring. As I filed out of the Superdome alongside thousands of other departing fans, I heard several variations of “that was awful.” I would compare the mood among fans leaving the Superdome with the depressed emotional atmosphere after a home team’s (such as the New Orleans Saints) loss in team sports. As with the ROH show, fans’ engagement peaked with an earlier match (the Rousey tag), and later bouts failed to reach those emotional heights.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this trip, though I would not want to do it (at least not to this extent) every year. Probably the most fun show for me was Joey Janela’s Spring Break, as the insanely hot crowd kept the energy and excitement going until 3:30 am, and I saw one of my all-time Japanese favorites, The Great Sasuke, live for the first time. In general, it was great to see several Mexican, European, Japanese, and other international wrestlers in person, especially since many of them make few, if any, other appearances in the United States. I strongly suspect that some of them, including WALTER, Madison Eagles, and Zack Sabre Jr., will likely end up in WWE at some point or another. Ring of Honor wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped, but that was mostly due to their decision to have the world title match go on after Cody and Omega. Until the final match, the crowd was consistently lively, but simply couldn’t maintain their enthusiasm after the emotional heights of the show’s “true” main event. As usual, WrestleMania had its positives and negatives, the latter of which could probably have been mitigated by a different match order.
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.
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.
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.