When I was 16, I was catfished by someone pretending to be Mick Foley.
He told me he was going to train me to be a professional wrestler and gave me the name Hardcore Don Lee.
I’m at the age now where I look back and wonder aloud how I wasn’t murdered or kidnapped as a teenager.
Even when you know wrestling is fake, it isn’t. It seeps into real life. The characters aren’t real but the people behind the masks are. They are so real in fact that you would literally almost give your life to be trained by one of them after meeting them on AOL Instant Messenger… and probably would have ended up having your skin taken off and molded into a little professional wrestling action figure of Dude Love.
When I interviewed Robbie Fox of Barstool on The Jamie Kilstein Podcast last week we talked about wrestling. We gushed about wrestling. We were two strangers talking on top of each other like 15-year-old girls. But instead of boy talk, it was about a man in suspenders that headlined Pay-Per-Views in the 90s lecturing people about their taxes before body slamming them in arenas filled with jeers.
“Wrestling is like a Chinese finger trap. The more ingrained…the more you know…the more locked in you are,” Robbie told me.
He was right. Last night something incredible happened. AEW, All Elite Wrestling, a rogue faction of independent wrestlers sold out the MGM Grand in four minutes, scored a TV deal, and had their first Pay-Per-View met with rave reviews and deafening cheers.
AEW is being looked at as a fuck you to the WWE, the corporate monopoly of pro-wrestling. The only place you could go to be considered successful. It has chewed up and spit out some of the greatest talents. It is Mecca for wrestlers, if Mecca sold merch. It is the Walmart to the mom-and-pop shop, the gun show to the military industrial complex, the Macklemore to rap battlers.
But I don’t look at AEW as a fuck you to the WWE. Sure, the person who presented the championship belt was Bret Hart, the man who was publically screwed over the most by the WWE, and sure the MGM was almost taken down by screams when Cody Rhodes took a sledgehammer (used by a head of the WWE) to a throne (that looked awfully a lot like a throne used by one of the heads of the WWE) and smashed it to pieces. SURE, MAYBE THERE WAS A NOT SO SUBTLE METAPHOR, MESSAGE, AND MEANING BEHIND THAT DESTRUCTION AND THAT MEANING WAS FUCK YOU. THAT MESSAGE WAS — WE WILL NOT BE BULLIED. YOU DON’T SCARE US. Once again, FUCK YOU.
But I also see it as hope. And hope is real even when wrestling is not.
Last night we saw hope, and pain, and love. So last night, last night wrestling was real.
The faces of AEW are Nick & Matt Jackson, Kenny Omega, and Cody Rhodes.
Nick & Matt Jackson are The Young Bucks. They started out wrestling in backyards and parking lots. They got good. People got pissed. They were told they weren’t real wrestlers. We have all been there. We have dealt with jealousy, with people with less talent and more power holding us back. When they walked out to that arena, after a video played of them fucking up moves in a parking lot, they looked up to the rafters taking in what they built, and smiled.
Kenny Omega is everyone’s favorite band that his/her friends have never heard of. We know he’s the best, but really is just “big overseas and you have to see him live to get it and, oh, have you stopped paying attention to me? Ok, sorry, I’ll let you get back to what you were doing.” You wouldn’t get it.
Then there is Cody. Cody Rhodes is the son of a legend. The brother of a superstar. He has been living in shadows his whole life and now acts as the sun.
He walks into the arena with his wife and sometimes his dog. When they look at each other in a match it is real. When they save each other from danger it is real. When they hold each other after it is realer than most relationships I see in LA.
You can scoff all you want about wrestling, about it being a soap opera, not real fighting, about it being fucking weird. And you would be right. But you would be ignorant and kind of a dick.
What these men and women went through to get to last night is real. So when the crowd cheers a 50-year-old flipping off the ring and into his opponent we aren’t cheering the flip. We are cheering that he is still putting his body on the line for us.
When we cheer The Young Bucks moonsaulting onto two masked men, we are not just cheering the acrobatics that would put Broadway performers to shame, we are cheering the kids they used to be and the men they have become.
When we cheer Chris Jericho we are cheering him and the children we used to be when he was our Superman and, in a way, still is.
We are cheering for love, and bravery, and perseverance. We are cheering cause it’s fucking awesome.
For a few, who have been discounted in the past, the main event was The Young Bucks. For others, it was the women who delivered two incredible, technical and violent matches demanding “This is Awesome” chants from the crowd. And for some was the actual main event. The unknown (yet known) Kenny Omega VS the biggest name on the card Chris Jericho. A literal rock star.
Kenny fought the entire match injured and Chris did things no one expected him to do after decades of ring beatings. It was a classic wrestling match with Jericho taking the victory. But it was after the match when Jericho took the mic and, even out of breath, delivered a monologue with the charisma of a standup comic.
He was a huge star in the WWE so he takes credit for these young indie scrubs being successful. He says they owe him a thank you. This is all because of him — not from their sweat, tears, and blood that still stains the mat that Jericho stands on as he delivers his proclamation.
“This is not a company for the fans, this is a company for me.“
It’s the perfect angle, delivered by the perfect wrestler. The main bad guy VS the little-indie-org-that-could, and we can’t wait to see what happens next. It is a metaphor of the highest caliber.
Even when wrestling isn’t real it is.
But even with all of this raw storytelling and talent, or a wrestler with no legs flipping onto his opponent, or the head kicks and the suicide dives… for me the highlight, for me the main event, was two brothers.
Two brothers standing in a ring full of blood. Cody the baby, and Dustin the vet. A crowd on their feet. A chant for their father whose memory is still with us even when his soul is not. An old dog that didn’t want to be put to sleep. A prodigal son. A feud that we never knew how real it actually was.
There weren’t a lot of high-flying moves in this match. But there were glances that shook a room. There were moments of silence that defied gravity. There was a bloodied legend desperately trying to crawl to his feet for one last go. It was storytelling to the level of a Coen Brothers movie. It was emotion that couldn’t be faked or replicated.
Wrestling is real.
It had a room full of people who were there to watch wrestling cry their eyes out and clap themselves numb over two brothers doing what brothers do best — beat the holy hell out of each other than hug it out and mutter, “I love you,” under offbeat breaths.
Years before AEW was even a concept, I went to meet the real Mick Foley and tell him that I, Hardcore Don Lee, was here to start my training. And my little brother was by my side. My little brother was also there when the real Mick Foley looked terrified and said, “That isn’t me, stop talking to that man on the Internet.”
My little brother had long hair because I did, was an unhealthy vegetarian because I was, and got into a stranger’s van with me on an Allentown freeway to be driven to a mall to meet hardcore wrestling icon Mick Foley after our car broke down and we had to hitchhike because I asked, and we both loved wrestling. It’s shocking we aren’t both dead.
Years later, he is at Yale Law. I dropped out of high school. He is married. I am divorced. He’s my younger brother but when I call him on the phone I always feel like I need to defend my life. The roles of older and younger brother feel reversed. I don’t know if he feels that way. And I don’t know if Dustin did either.
When Cody went back into his ring. His older brother who was covered in blood jumped from fear. It was one of the most heartbreaking and real things I have ever seen. Cody took the mic and told his 50-year-old brother that this wasn’t his last match. That he didn’t need a tag team partner. He didn’t need a friend either. He needed a big brother.
The place went ape-shit. I choked up and cheered in my living room.
As Cody helped his older brother up I thought of how many times my brother helped me up. I thought of how many times I fucked up, but he was still there for me. I felt so much in that moment, just like everyone else there did for different reasons.
Last night is why I love wrestling. Last night was punk rock. It was built in bingo halls, and parking garages, sustained by cheaply printed tee shirts and chants. It’s a room full of adults letting all of their emotions out, giving it to the performers, trusting them with our most vulnerable memories and strongest desires.
This is wrestling.
This is wrestling.
This is wrestling.
Jamie Kilstein is a writer and comedian. He hosts The Jamie Kilstein Podcast — a short, political, comedy podcast that also talks about nerd stuff and mental health. Subscribe for free and follow his socials at https://jamiekilsteinpodcast.com