The Surreal Reality of Professional Wrestling: A Wrestlemania Reflection

Audience Studies, NXT, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews, WWE
Taker Entrance.jpg

The Undertaker’s WrestleMania entrance. [All media provided by the author unless otherwise noted.]

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

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

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

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

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

NXT Seat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mania seat

My view for WrestleMania.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marketplace of Champions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smarks and Convergent Wrestling

Audience Studies, Works-In-Process

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

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