On Loving Pro Wrestling the Kindness of Wrestling Fans
1. It is April 6, 2014, the day of Wrestlemania 30, and I am at MoMA in New York on some “Treat Yourself” trip for my 28th birthday. Me and Graham are hanging out in the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit, because he’s an architect and is looking at building models somewhere between 1/3 tumescent and coming his jeans. I am bored because I don’t care about buildings except for that they don’t fall on me, and I walk by the security guard who is leaned against the wall, probably praying for a slow death. He looks up at me, and gives me the Daniel Bryan “YES!” taunt.
“You think he’s gonna win at Wrestlemania?”
It takes me a second to realize I am wearing my Daniel Bryan shirt and the security guard doesn’t have access to my brainwaves.
“Fuck yeah, he will.”
Then me and the security guard, Rich from Staten Island, spend 15 minutes talking about wrestling. He stops occasionally to tell patrons not to touch the displays, and he stops himself from saying “fuck” about 12 times. Graham finishes looking at the exhibit, and is visibly puzzled.
“You just talked to a security guard at MoMA about wrestling for 15 minutes. In a Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit. Wrestling fans are weird.”
2. It is January 24, 2015, and I am in Philadelphia in line to see the Liberty Bell. I’m there because Matt and I are living out a teenage dream to see a WWE pay-per-view, and because we both have jobs with paid vacation and decent wages, we can afford to drive to Philly to see WWE’s Royal Rumble under the auspices of celebrating his bachelor party (it’s pretty clear to us at the end of the trip that we needed to do that, regardless of whether or not he was gonna marry his girlfriend). We’re in line at the Liberty Bell because that’s one of the cheapest things to do in Philly that you sorta have to do if you’re there. Matt opens his sweatshirt about 10 people from the front of the security line, and the guard quickly sees his Stardust T-shirt, and instead of really paying attention to the people in line in front of me and Matt, he starts a conversation with us about how he wished the WWE would “let him be Cody again. He’s great as Cody!” Me and Matt stop, and despite the impending closing time in 10 minutes, we argue about the relative merits of Stardust before the security guard tells us we need to get moving.
“Wrestling fans are weird,” Graham, who lives in Philly and who is hosting us that weekend, says.
3. It is July 18, 2014, and I am drunk off free beer and high off free weed at an afterparty for Pitchfork Festival, and I am standing off to the side as someone whose name I no longer care to remember is DJing. Two guys come out of the crowd and freak out at my T-shirt. I’m wearing my Shield T-shirt this time, and they make me pose with them doing the Shield pose they’d do after they triple power bombed someone. We take photos and they ask for my Facebook name to tag me. I tell them I don’t have Facebook, and ask them to tag my dad instead. I’m pretty sure they spelled our last name wrong, because he never got tagged. Either that or I’m out there on someone’s Facebook feed looking high doing the Shield taunt. Anyway, me and these guys hang out for a while and talk about how none of us saw the Shield break up happening. We drink beers and laugh and talk about Roman Reigns’ long term prospects, and how we can’t believe it was Seth who turned heel.
When they walk away, I think, “Man, wrestling fans are weird.”
I’ve watched wrestling for the better part of 25 years. I caught Hulkamania as a 4 year-old from one of the other kids at day care, and promptly got all the action figures and T-shirts and wrestling buddies my folks would buy me. I probably never missed an opportunity to watch wrestling until I was about 7-years-old, when Star Wars fandom became the driving force of my ostracization from the fairer sex.
I got back into wrestling in middle school, along with every other guy my age, as we traded Rock Bottoms and People’s Elbows and Stunners and Mandible Claws and 3Ds and Pedigrees and Frog Splashes and Crippler Crossfaces (R.I.P) at school and on each other’s full-sized beds and into Chris Hert’s kiddie pool. But unlike a lot of our classmates, me and Matt kept watching until high school was over; we only bailed when the Attitude Era guys started retiring and started starring in Mummy spin-offs and when the WCW Invasion turned out to be a big waste of time.
Like the rest of pop culture, I got back into wrestling in 2011, during the Summer of Punk, those halcyon days when it seemed like WWE was going to blur the reality we all know now—potential pushes for young guys, contract disputes, injury problems, comebacks—with the specific unreality of wrestling. They've backed off that a lot now, with the exception of Total Divas, more or less. Still, I haven’t missed a single episode of RAW in almost four years. I just paid $500 for a ticket to see the Royal Rumble, and I booed for about a 1/3 of it. I am a wrestling fan, and I am weird.
As any adult person who watches wrestling can tell you, the worst part of being a wrestling fan isn’t having to watch 3 hour episodes of RAW centered around characters and storylines that often insult your intelligence and frustrate you weekly; it’s having to explain to other adults why you like wrestling. They always ask if you know it’s fake, they always ask if you like it because it’s a “soap opera for men,” and they always ask why you aren’t devoting your time to something else. It’s infuriating. It’s not like someone who watches The Walking Dead every week has someone ask “YOU KNOW IT’S FAKE, RIGHT?” when they say they like that show.
But you can’t go through life on the defensive about liking wrestling; you need to go on the offensive. You have to have an answer about why you like it ready, in case someone asks you why you spent all weekend watching old episodes of Nitro. I usually lead with, “Well, you know it’s the most high pressure improv theater there is, right? They know who’s going to win, but they have to keep the TV audience and the live audience invested for 4, 6, 8, 10, or even 60 minutes.” And follow with, “It’s also the only artform in pop culture where live audience reaction legitimately changes storylines. If the crowd relentlessly boos someone the WWE wants to be a “good guy” they often have to repackage the character. Daniel Bryan, my favorite wrestler, only got into the main event at Wrestlemania after the fans cheered him so loudly at every event WWE had no choice but to make him their champion.”
That’s usually all it takes for people to at least lay off the “it’s fake!” stuff, but the more I think about it, one of the biggest reasons I love wrestling is that of every subculture fandom I’ve been involved in, it has the nicest people. Liking wrestling is so marginalized by high brow pop culture, that when you find someone you can talk to about wrestling, you’re excited and you overlook any personal differences you have with that person. I’ve talked wrestling drunk at a bar in Madison, I’ve talked wrestling with someone on an airplane to Austin, TX, I’ve talked wrestling with a gay couple on a train in Philadelphia, I’ve talked wrestling with someone I thought was going to mug me, I’ve talked wrestling with kids, people my age, and my girlfriend’s dad.
Going to Royal Rumble cemented this for me. I’ve been to something like 150 concerts in my life, and I’ve never felt like more of a part of something than I was at a WWE show. I’ve been to concerts and never talked to another human, because everyone there was working hard to maintain a personal brand. In the crowd at Royal Rumble, our personal brand was “wrestling fan” so we didn’t have to act like we were cool, or whatever, so we just talked to each other. We talked with people in line, at the merch booth, and in our section. It was like going to church.
So the next time someone asks me why I devote at least 6 hours of my week to wrestling every week, I’m going to tell them: because wrestling fans are the nicest people on earth. And the weirdest.