Luke Harper, Heavy Hearts and Pro Wrestling as Necessary, Welcome Escapism

Illustration by umunhum

“The real world is tuff…sometimes too tuff…but pro wrestling lets u forget about it.”-Rip Rogers

My youngest daughter spent the first week of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit.

Tubes snaked from her nose to a beeping, blinking machine. Drugs dripped into her tiny veins. She slept under a warming light, surrounded by sneeze guard-like barriers as a team of nurses diligently monitored her.

To hold her in my arms, I had to unravel a mess of wires around her and be sure not to step more than a foot or two from the medical equipment that she was attached to.

In comparison to many of the children in that dark corner of the hospital, our little one was well off. Her issues were all fixable—a treatable infection, fluid in her lungs and low blood counts. Everyone assured us it would all be fine in a matter of days, but sound medical rationale is no match for a parent’s paranoia.

Those hours spent in the hospital dragged. A somberness clung to the air. My wife crumpled in her chair and cried. I tried not to worry, to put on a brave face and be the steady one, but my stomach turned from uneasiness and I felt as I was walking a sheet of ice that was cracking under my feet.

On the third night, my wife slept in her hospital room, still recovering from childbirth and I took our oldest daughter home. As our spunky four-year-old stared at the animated figures fluttering on our Ipad and shoveled rice and beans into her mouth, I watched WWE SmackDown.

Breezango, a saucy pair of toned men dressed in sailor-like outfits, handed out tickets for fashion violations before their match with the SmackDown tag team champs American Alpha.

When the two squads collided, the white-clad villains with “Fashion Po-Po” stitched on the ass of their pants gained the early advantage by attacking the good guys before the match. The short contest was a blur of white frills, speckled spandex, dives and throws, theatrical punches and the sound of wrestling boots darting across the canvas.

The minutes melted away.

The show closed with a Battle Royal to decide who would next face the WWE champion, Bray Wyatt. 10 warriors filled the ring with their taped wrists and broad shoulders.

My eyes tended to focus on Luke Harper amid the chaos.

Luke Harper on his way to the ring (Credit: WWE.com)

A former member of Wyatt’s backwoods cult, Harper is a 6'5" braying madman. He reminds me of something you might see prowling around in lost-in-the-woods horror movies. He’s a nasty bruiser in the vein of one of my favorite wrestlers of all time — Bruiser Brody.

Sweat darkened his muscle shirt this night. Harper grunted. He charged. He fought with abandon for a chance at gold. The bearded man-bear swung his arms at his foes like a lumberjack wielding an ax in a forest ripe with oaks.

Eventually Harper and AJ Styles both tumbled to the floor at the same time, a pair of battered bodies adorning the ringside area, making the match a draw.

And in those moments, I was allowed some reprieve from worry. I eased up. I traveled to another world, one where the pursuit of a championship was paramount. Rooting for Harper and laughing at Breezango allowed my swirling thoughts of what might happen to my daughter to quiet down. At least for two hours.

Whether Harper or Styles eventually got to take on Wyatt didn’t really matter. If Breezango stole a victory over American Alpha, chances are, the young, patriotic suplex savants would make them pay eventually. The consequences of what unfolds in the squared circle can be compelling, but they aren’t real.

It is all story and spectacle, art and athletics. And that’s exactly what I needed after days of staring at my newborn girl’s fluctuating respiratory rate.

Our daughter recovered as expected and left the NICU, growing to be a chubby, giggling presence in our home. But of course, my need for escapism didn’t end when that scare was over.

Life never remains easy for long.

On a Tuesday night, minutes before I was set to cover and recap SmackDown for work, I found out via Facebook that an old friend from college was dead. I hurriedly pulled up the news story and sat stunned and numb to find out Raf had been shot and killed in his apartment. Raf was one of the most endearing, most genuine and sweetest people I’ve ever met. His radiant smile seemed to be his at-rest expression.

I hadn’t talked to him in months and was never all that close to him, but the news left me hollowed.

I struggled to string together the words required to explain the situation to my wife. I began to cry. My throat tightened. I suddenly felt adrift.

And I looked up at the wall clock to realize I had to start watching and writing about SmackDown in mere minutes.

My editor would have understood if I had to pull out of doing the recap. I could have taken a personal day and stepped away to grieve. But I chose instead to push ahead for the moment and go through with my normal routine.

When SmackDown came on, there was something powerfully comforting by how familiar everything was.

Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens still hated each other. Breezango still despised what everyone else was wearing. Charlotte Flair proved that the announcers’ table is still never safe as she powerbombed Natalya through it. Luke Harper was still one of SmackDown’s most underutilized talents, a monster awaiting a chance to bring havoc.

It didn’t matter how broken I felt. The WWE machine whirred on.

Wrestling didn’t heal the wound of a fallen friend’s unjust exit. It didn’t make the way Raf left us less tragic, but it gave me a place to walk away from the darkness for two hours.

The violent medium has been a godsend in a trying political time where watching the news can feel like getting punched in the face by boxing’s entire middleweight division. It’s a refreshing break from reading about wars and learning just how perverse politicians’ moral codes are. I will never shut out real-world issues, but one has to step away for a moment at times for mental health’s sake.

Other forms of entertainment have offered escapist alternatives, too. My wife and I got hooked on The Great British Bake-Off for a stretch. I love few things as much as I do a well-crafted, taut and unsettling horror movie. But movies end and you have to wait years for the sequel. Sitcoms take breaks at the close of the season. Series climax. “Real” sports all have finite seasons. It all ends eventually.

Not wrestling.

Wrestling is forever. It’s on constantly. WWE alone has at least seven hours of new programming every week. Then there’s Impact Wrestling and Lucha Underground. One can start following the British independent scene or one of the Japanese promotions. There’s everything from five-star matches to a housecat winning a heavyweight title waiting for you on the internet.

There’s plenty to get lost in.

And I’m grateful for it, for all the men and women who essentially put their bodies through a succession of car wrecks for the sake of quality theater. I’m deeply appreciative of the world which they create, one that allows me to wander away from my own when needed.

Wrestling is its own absurd and beautiful reality. It’s a hell of a place to take a long stroll when stress and sorrow are seeping in through one’s skin.

As former Ring of Honor wrestler Donovan Dijak said, “Thank God we have Pro Wrestling to help distract us from the real world.”

Illustration courtesy of umunhum.