Sunday, March 30, 2014

Wrestlemania XXX: Confessions of a wrestling fan

Posted By on Sun, Mar 30, 2014 at 10:35 AM

click to enlarge COURTESY WWE
  • COURTESY WWE


It's a conversation I have with everyone I date, once it starts to look like there's longer-term potential: what are things you flat-out could not accept in a romantic partner? Usually the first items on the table are certain kinds of drug addiction, deceitfulness or political views; we only gradually work our way into pop culture.

It’s then I tell them I'm super, super into pro wrestling.

And they say: Pro wrestling? You mean like Hulk Hogan?

Yep, like Hulk Hogan, who on April 6 is hosting WrestleMania XXX here in New Orleans.

WrestleMania XXX, like Super Bowl XLVII, is in the Superdome. Since a wrestling ring takes up less space than a football field, its live audience will be bigger than the Super Bowl’s. WrestleMania brings in more fans, from more foreign countries. There will be about 100,000 wrestling freaks joining me here in New Orleans over the first week of April.

Unlike a given bowl game, where you're limited to two teams' worth of players, all the biggest and most controversial names in pro wrestling will compete at 'Mania. Every one of the league's most beloved heroes and reviled villains are paired up in high-stakes dream matches. Imagine not just having the Super Bowl here, but having the Super Bowl here with the Saints playing the Falcons. Football-wise, that's an impossible scenario, but in pro wrestling anything can happen. WWE, the company which produces WrestleMania, throws out its own rules as necessary. Whatever matchups are most exciting, whatever rivalries prove the most gripping and whatever the fans most want to see end up on WrestleMania's card.

Also like the Super Bowl, WrestleMania is more than its namesake event. It's a long, extended weekend of goings-on. On both sides of the Mississippi and from St. Bernard Parish to Tulane University, Thursday through Monday there are fan conventions, Q&As, symposia, panels, trivia games, concerts, comedy, film premieres, regional reunions and a full range of independent wrestling promotions, all of whom book their biggest shows of the year on WrestleMania weekend. Just about every flavor of pro wrestling is here, from the austere and technically focused Ring of Honor to the cartoony fun of Kaiju Big Battel and the superior female athletic competition of SHIMMER.

People love the personalities and quirks of their favorite athletes, actors and musicians. Pro wrestlers are 100% personality, quirks revved to redline. Their outfits, their mannerisms and the special maneuvers they use in the ring all reflect who they are. Like characters in a Street-Fighter-type video game, wrestlers are each a unique package of strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. Some are amusing, some are earnest, some are scary. Some dance, some shout provocations at the audience, some just march to the ring and kick ass.

When I tell people — whether or not I'm sleeping with them — that I love pro wrestling, they sometimes think I'm joking, or that my interest is ironic, or academic, or something other than the pure, burning passion of a fan. But I love pro wrestling. I love watching it, talking about it, thinking about it, reading about it, listening to podcasts about it and going as often as possible to live pro wrestling shows, where I shout myself hoarse insulting the wrestlers I don't like and rooting for those I do.

Some lost souls still think pro wrestling is for dummies; a lot of that scorn is class prejudice. Of the thirteen friends joining me for WrestleMania XXX, many of whom are driving or flying in from far corners of the continent, none are dummies. One's a civil rights lawyer, one's a physician assistant, one's a decorated newspaper journalist, two are college professors. Pro wrestling attracts a diverse audience, which is part of the fun. It's a populist art form; at times low-brow, at times sophisticated, often both at once. You can enjoy a no-nonsense tough guy facing down a fearful supernatural monster without noticing the monster’s quoting H.P. Lovecraft. You can enjoy catcalling a pretentious snob without knowing the snob's quoting John Kennedy Toole, and you can enjoy the wrestler Dolph Ziggler's flamboyant, Energizer-Bunny physical dynamism without caring which all-time great wrestlers each move in his arsenal pays tribute to.


In Western theatre's Elizabethan heyday, the great playwrights wrote dramas that worked on multiple levels, entertaining both the wealthy, more educated attendees whose patronage a playwright relied on and the lower-class, penny-entry groundlings gathered around the stage's base. Heading into WrestleMania, WWE has walked a razor's edge with its central storyline: is the overwhelming crowd favorite, Daniel Bryan, really being kept out of the main event by WWE management, who don't deem him a suitable champion?

For the vocal minority of so-called "smart" fans, an embittered constituency whose opinions are deafeningly predominant on wrestling-related websites, WWE, a corporation producing staged and scripted entertainments, is too set in its ways. They believe WWE’s executive leadership, including its real-world Chief Operating Officer, a semi-retired wrestler named Triple H, invent excuses to keep anyone who doesn't look like a bodybuilder out of the main event. This meta-narrative, bolstered by behind-the-scenes gossip "leaked" to hit-hungry internet sites, has dovetailed with a televised storyline in which Daniel Bryan has been repeatedly stripped of the title by Triple H, who demeans him on-air as being too small to serve as the face of WWE.

For most fans, Bryan is just a great, unconventional-looking wrestler who's exciting to watch in the ring, and they want to see him beat up bullies. But by building a soap opera plot around the perception that WWE's upper management finds Bryan an unpalatable star, WWE has created a WrestleMania environment in which even those contrarian superfans who follow "insider" news will be cheering for the designated hero, whose success or failure serves as proxy for their frustrated desire to see fresh faces atop the WWE.

Mercifully, once the bell rings, none of that bullshit matters. Once the blows land and one wrestler lays hold of the other, even the most jaded audience member is swept up in the moment. When we watch a well-made television drama and our favorite character is imperilled, we're upset despite it being a fictional program. Likewise, awareness that aspects of a pro wrestling program's outcome are predetermined doesn't keep us from being drawn in by quality wrestling. Each match has a carefully concealed storytelling structure within which participants ad-lib the particulars, a performance akin to improvisational jazz or dance. The wrestlers react to the audience's reactions, working together to control the pacing and unfolding of the match, changing things up as necessary to keep the crowd's attention and elicit specific responses en route to the match’s climax and denouement.

Wrestlers in the ring bring to bear an intensity and athleticism compelling enough on their own merits to captivate even casual viewers. How did he do that? How did he survive that? Pro wrestling is dazzling feats of strength and apparently impossible gymnastics, archetypes performing allegory. It's spontaneous collaborative narrative psychology, enacted in front of a live audience by gorgeous, charismatic characters in the intrinsically thrilling crucible of combat and competition. It's an emotional roller coaster.


Even if you don't know it — maybe because you're out of touch with your own psyche — you want to see these wild, dangerous outlaws go at it. You want to see a hard fight, and you want to see who wins. Honor that very real part of yourself. Feed it, and see where it leads you. As entertaining as pro wrestling can be on-screen, especially with the WWE's billion-dollar production values, joining a live audience is how you get that old-time religion.

Though today's WWE events are entirely family-friendly, wrestling crowds are vocal and boisterous. If you've been conditioned into passivity by a culture where most media’s consumed in a slumped, zombie-like trance, you might feel self-conscious cheering for the wrestlers you like or booing the ones you don't. That kind of destructive self-consciousness is what keeps people from dancing when there's music playing. Don't be like that. Surrender to the profound, populist roots of performance, the deep, cheap-seats appeal of passion play and pantomime, ancient forms in which audience give-and-take is integral to the experience.

Like a fun hookup, a good night of live pro wrestling includes some silliness, both of you a little giggly, maybe bumping noses when you go for the kiss. Pro wrestling has a sense of humor about itself. Then, carried past superficial awkwardness by an intensifying desire, you fumble into something that starts to feel serious and — if you're lucky — reach a moment that takes your breath away.

They say smiling makes you happier. Not sure if that's true, but I can assure you first-hand that shouting for one wrestler to maim another makes you feel acutely, personally invested in the outcome. When your whole seating section is chanting the name of a beaten-down underdog and he begins rallying in response, shaking off the blows of his assailant, struggling back to his feet, visibly spurred by your support, feeding off crowd enthusiasm as the tempo of your collective encouragement accelerates and then, when your foot-stomping becomes thunder, the beleaguered hero explodes into a flurry of retaliatory offense and the chants generalize into a roar, you will feel it in your marrow. The hair on the back of your neck will rise. It's primordially powerful; few other experiences can compare.

Pro wrestling as a narrative art form has persisted for over a century and a half, growing in global popularity even as many other traditions of stage performance or storytelling have waned and receded to niche markets. Pro wrestling has outlived e.g. the radio serial; I’m betting it will outlive the novel. So even if you don't consider yourself a wrestling fan, it's worth checking out one of the independent shows, where a relatively low entry fee gets you access to the youngest and hungriest of the minor leagues, all striving to steal the show on pro wrestling's biggest weekend. It'll give you something new to talk about.

Or you could join director Werner Herzog, who denies he's a fan, yet can't resist WrestleMania's compelling storylines and ontological gamesmanship. To quote Herzog from a 2010 interview, "I'm not a fan, but I do watch WrestleMania... Of course everything is staged, and we have to question what constitutes reality... WrestleMania is [a] staged reality, but at the same time there seems to be a weird-looking drama emerging, and I find it interesting."

I find it interesting too, Werner. See you in the Dome!

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