The Heart is Raw: The Troph
I’ve had access to the WWE Network for a little over a week now, and I have a few quick things I’d like to touch on before getting to the meat of the article. The first thing you have to know about this thing is that there is no dearth of content here. There are several weeks’ worth of old shows to watch, and the “channel” that is constantly running is far more addictive than anticipated. I hope Netflix never finds out about this: society may fall. There’s a magic in clicking a bookmark and being fed with a constant supply. I don’t know any other over-the-top solution quite like it.
I’m also impressed with how well search works. Not only will it find the show you’re looking for, but a great number of them have been tagged with opening bell and “final move” points on the timeline, and these contain which performers were in any given match. Search works vaguely chronologically, and so typing, say, Kurt Angle and Steve Austin into the search together will give you every match they have together, as well as every show where they both appear. It’s not quite the boolean search I still hope eventually ships, but it’s much better than I figured we’d get.
More than anything, however, the thing you have to remember about the WWE Network is that it’s a time machine, and watching old TV can have an odd effect on the memory. You’ll remember things you haven’t thought of in years. You’ll replay internal monologues you had with yourself, and you’ll find yourself in long lost mental passages. Connected memories are strange that way. Don’t be surprised if you recall certain smells, or indescribable impulses. Nostalgia can be potent. I wanted to share three memories I had while browsing the network.
Stone Cold Steve Austin vs Kurt Angle, Summerslam 2001 (http://network.wwe.com/video/v31356267)
If you don’t have a car, Ontario is a nightmare. I’ve never been a car guy. I don’t even have a license. I like to ride a bike and take public transit, and the strange thing is I’ve always been like this. There was never a time when I wanted a car. Growing up in Calgary in the 90s, I was lucky to have such a good transit system. It’s not that I didn’t understand the freedom, flexibility, and sense of power that came from owning a car, but I never particularly wanted it. I didn’t like how people were when they drove, that net negative change in empathy and propensity for enjoying FM radio. I looked at cars as something one was expected to do, and I didn’t ever want to do what was expected.
In the summer of 2001 I was staying with my dad in Kleinburg, an incredibly small and remote town north of Toronto. Nobody didn’t have a car there, because that was the only real option for getting around. I lived a half an hour walk away from the nearest bus, which only showed up a couple of times a day. That summer was a strange time for me. I had one year of high school left to finish, and I had a future to plan out. Two months largely spent alone was exactly what I needed.
I hadn’t watched any pro wrestling since that spring. I’d largely tuned out post-Wrestlemania XVII — largely considered the best show of the era, a high-water mark where the entire thing peaked and broke, where “pro wrestling the popular soap opera for men” somehow became “pro wrestling, that thing you talk about using an avatar on the internet” overnight. At the time, I wasn’t much different than the average fan. The penultimate main event of Summerlam, featuring Stone Cold Steve Austin vs Kurt Angle was perhaps the first time I’d really wavered.
In the middle of August, I became dissatisfied with what I thought was my lot in life, and I attribute this feeling almost entirely to the seclusion, but also a good bit on Angle vs Austin at Summerslam. It was the piece of pop culture that helped me realize I needed to make some moves towards something better.
The journey began with a very long bus trip. Having watched Wrestlemania at a movie theatre, I knew Summerslam would be shown the same way. I checked the time by phone and gave myself several hours to get there (local being rudely relative way out in the middle of nowhere). I walked to the bus stop and waited an excruciating amount of time. I must have been sitting on the grass for two hours. I listened to the same CD from beginning to end three times. An hour later, the bus would drop me off roughly half an hour from the theatre, just off a highway, with no obvious way to walk there. At some point, the batteries on my CD player died, and I stood in silence with my destination off in the distance. I’m sure it was more a pain in the ass than I remember, because I encapsulate this experience as a good one, a strange moment where I was well and truly alone with not only my place in the world but how I understood it. On the way to this theatre, all my obstacles were of my own making. If only I’d learned to drive, my experience would have been very different.
My unhappiness, when it rears, is rudderless. I don’t know what to do with my thoughts, and am annoyed by other people’s cheerful disposition. I feel like people are against me. I feel the gas light. My unhappiness is paranoid, isolating, and small. That’s the word I use when I describe this feeling. I tell myself, and my friends, and my therapist that I am small. I get petty. Things matter that shouldn’t. My arguments become circular. I fear, truly fear, that I am a man of little talent and no real reason to ever pipe up. I do not — and likely never will — know a total cure.
This feeling of unhappiness used to coat me like a disease with no name. I didn’t know what to do with it. There was no application. I felt it, and it eventually went away when the soap of normal life took over. It was at Summerslam 2001 when I found a partial cure for a part of this problem. If that sounds anti-climatic, unhappiness is far-reaching, kids. It’s the kind of thing you have to battle in stages, fighting over inches. You can’t take out your entire internal strife with one whack of the bat. And it would be a lot to ask one pro wrestling match to cure it all. But Angle vs Austin taught me the difference between unhappiness and dissatisfaction, and that would take me a long way.
Kurt Angle was a joke. A few weeks before this match, he wore a children’s cowboy hat and played a ukulele. He was hugging the boss in order to make Austin jealous (wrestlers have a very complicated relationship with hugging). He’d won and lost the WCW Championship for no reason. Austin had defected to WCW because he was going crazy. He started talking to his watch. He started saying “what?” to nobody in particular. It had been almost a year since Austin returned from what should have been career-ending surgery. It had almost been a year since Angle’s pro wrestling debut, and almost five since his Olympic gold medal win.
The WCW story was dissatisfying. Few would argue it was executed well. And Summerslam was dissatisfying. It felt like a retread of the previous month’s Invasion show. It felt like more of the same. It felt like churn. This is a common problem with wrestling, as it never has an off-season and airs too many performances. The main event of Summerslam, featuring the Rock winning the WCW Championship, fell flat for its predictability. But Austin vs Angle was different. It wasn’t a great match in the way one thinks of it. It didn’t have a single iconic moment you can pinpoint. Angle vs Austin wasn’t about a championship (even though it was there) or even the story being told leading up to the show. The match was about not being considered good enough, and getting mad as hell about it until the cracks begin to show.
Dissatisfaction can be positive. It can be fuel. One of the things we agree that work is — you know, that thing you generally spend your time doing — is taking a thing that was worse and making that thing better. The kernel of work is that this thing is not good enough.
When Austin left the company less than a year later, he would cite creative differences. WWE had more or less chosen the Rock as the face of the company. Summerslam wasn’t the first time WWE had chosen The Rock over Austin to headline a show (this happened throughout the fall and spring of 2000–01), but one could always argue that the other times had to do with having the WWE Championship in the main event. At Summerslam, the choice became clear: the company wanted The Rock on top. As Austin slams his hands against the mat in this match, bemoaning Angle’s grit, he is a man who knows he deserves more.
When Nick Patrick disqualifies Austin for beating up three other referees (they kept stopping his attempts to cheat) Angle is in charge. Angle is robbed of the championship — and more importantly, a clean victory — and there’s so much emotion on his face you forget that they’re fighting over something that has nothing to do with you. You find yourself looking at Angle’s face and realizing that that’s the emotion you’ve been missing. Hell, the entire match has felt like this, one big middle finger to the people who just want you to do your job and not make much of a fuss. Every kick was harder, every scream louder, blood flowing harder, with only the artist themselves making these decisions, out of a desire to say, this is what I’m made of. This is what I can do, even if you’ll never properly appreciate it.
Sting vs Cactus Jack, Beach Blast 92 (http://network.wwe.com/video/v31312961/milestone/31343709)
I had this friend when I was nine. He was two years older, but lived across the street, and we had different video game systems. He watched wrestling and understood it on a different level. By that I mean he had conspiracy theories. He believed half the matches were not scripted, to throw off the accusations of fakery. He hated the Ultimate Warrior, but not the “real” one. He hated the “fake” Warrior, who debuted at Wrestlemania VIII after the real one “died.” And he believed all the blood was ketchup, except for Cactus Jack’s.
He introduced me to Cactus Jack, and by extension WCW, the NWA, NJPW, and the idea that there was wrestling outside WWE. It was like that moment in Final Fantasy VII when you’re dumped out of the city of Midgar and the game grows an entire world in a moment. This friend of mine was probably an asshole, and only hung out with me because I made him seem smart and maybe like a big brother, but I never got the chance to thank him for this introduction. Cactus Jack vs Sting was the first non-WWE match I ever watched.
There’s nothing like the entrance of a grand grudge match. WWE rarely accomplished this vibrancy right from the start. Epic WWE matches build from the basics: WCW grudge matches often began halfway to the stage, with the performers dropping one another on scaffolding. WCW should have never gotten rid of the elevated ramp — it’s my favorite of the old set pieces, and it immediately set WCW apart in my mind. The crowd noise also set them apart — more blood-thirsty, crazier. These weren’t people like I’d seen before.
My friend doesn’t remember me, but I remember what he thought of this match. He didn’t like it, but not because of any of the actions. He didn’t like Sting because he wore pink. He called him what you might imagine one might in 1992, and scoffed at the very idea of such a person in a real fight. He said, “I know it’s fake because Cactus would have killed him.” I didn’t mind the pink. My hero — who shared a signature maneuver with Sting — wore pink. I didn’t argue with my friend, but in my head I repeated the old Neidhart mantra: tough guys wore pink. No doubt about that.
This sense that our memories were handed to us by others, not really our own. You watch a match with a friend and his opinion is stronger than yours, and so his opinion is implanted on that memory, and it becomes yours, like stealing a move from another competitor, a stamp that you’ve been places, interacted with others, and have been changed. But you still struggle, and no new weapon helps for long. And you watch that same match years later, those memories fresh again with visual cues. You remember how you sat in your friends’ room, next to his Super Nintendo controllers, wrapped loosely and unplugged. I have no great idea what my friend looked like. I can’t paint his face in my mind, but I can remember the smell of cigarettes and pop, plastic video game cartridges stacked high next to recorded VHS’s, stained carpet, and the exit off the side of his house, with the tiny step that never made any sense.
Elimination Chamber 2010: Chris Jericho vs The Undertaker (http://network.wwe.com/video/v31274225/milestone/31339729)
Okay, fine, there were four other guys. But not only did I not remember who they were, I skipped right past them. With 20 minutes remaining in the show, Chris Jericho and the Undertaker faced off for the World Heavyweight Championship and had a good match inside two tons of steel that didn’t need to be there (and never need to be there).
This Elimination Chamber match was a plot device. It moved the pieces around the board so the right people were in the right matches for Wrestlemania. In hindsight, it was completely telegraphed and made all the sense in the world. In the lead-up, and in the moment, it seemed insane to suggest that Jericho would pin the Undertaker. Chris Jericho held the undisputed championship for the first time in 2001, but his run was faulty. He hadn’t held a major championship since. It seemed like he’d been permanently relegated to second-tier status.
It’s unfortunate that Jericho and the Undertaker only wrestled a few times (all during this period), because they have excellent chemistry. Both men had been worn out fighting off the other four ham n’ eggers, but still went nearly fifteen minutes, hitting big moves, organically creating exciting counters, and making it seem, just for a few moments, like they were actually equals. Still, Jericho couldn’t win. He wasn’t in the Undertaker’s league.
I’ll skip to the end: Chris Jericho pins the Undertaker and wins the World Heavyweight Championship. He goes on to Wrestlemania and defends it against the Royal Rumble winner Edge, another match nobody thought would end with a Jericho victory. But it seemed unlikely that Jericho could win not because he wasn’t great, but because he was just wasn’t a star. One of the last vestiges of WCW, Jericho was constantly painted in WCW as a “great hand,” a terrific utility player, a good way to blow twenty minutes on Raw. But he was never considered all that big a deal.
This is where the match gets personal for me. The fact is, sometimes you win. Sometimes you fight for something all your life and you get it. You get everything you want. Your list is complete. You fucking did it, man. You made it. You arrived. But along the way, you changed. Maybe your old goals aren’t what you want now. And maybe you’re projecting your wants and goals onto someone on TV who has never met you and has no actual connection to you whatsoever. I guess what I’m saying is Chris Jericho winning the World Title from someone like the Undertaker would have had measurable effect on my life in 2002, but in 2010 it barely registered. I was happy for the guy, but I felt nostalgia for when my sense of well-being was tied to something as easy as pro wrestling. It’s too complicated now. Everything is.
In early 2010, I was unemployed. I was in between giving up on one career and starting another, and I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do. I was watching wrestling more than I had in years. The only thing that made me happy in any creative way was pretending to be Vince McMahon on Tumblr. Through that, I found some great friends. I found this community I cherish. And eventually, I found what I could do with my life. Fake Vince helped, but not in the way you’d think a parody blog would. I didn’t get much notoriety, fame, or money. What I got was getting a whole whack of insecurities about the world out of my system.
Chris Jericho didn’t win the World Heavyweight Championship because he deserved it, or because he was about to be the main character in a riveting narrative. Jericho won the title because Shawn Michaels wanted to challenge the Undertaker. Michaels performed the last move in the match. In 2003, Jericho fought and lost against Shawn Michaels in an attempt to step out of his shadow. Only four months previous to Jericho winning the title in 2010, he fought Michaels in one of the bloodiest and cathartic grudge matches of the last five years. Here, Shawn inadvertently helps him win. Your enemies are your enemies until they get bigger problems. Your goals are your goals until you don’t see the point anymore. Jericho deserved to win, but he deserved to win for better reasons that he’d never fully be recognized. That’s how I feel about wrestling as it pertains to my life. It will probably never get the right kind of credit.