This past Sunday, I went to my first wrestling show. Only a couple days before, my dad and I had heard of the passing of professional wrestling legend Rowdy Roddy Piper, kicking off a discussion of how much we had both enjoyed They Live (“That movie has the greatest fight scene of all time,” according to my dad and I if you catch either of us on the right day) as well as my dad’s experiences when he was younger seeing the man perform. Although my dad currently isn’t much of a wrestling fan, he fondly remembers watching the WWF or seeing local shows when he was a kid. He heard the news about an upcoming show from a friend at work and immediately after, he bought me a ticket to go see a WWE show (part of the WWE Summerslam Heatwave Tour) in nearby Fresno.
I didn’t watch wrestling when I was younger. I was aware of it because I knew a kid named Victor in elementary school who I’m sure still lives by the motto “hustle, loyalty, respect” given his John Cena t-shirts and John Cena backpacks. I would catch an episode here and there when my family was visiting my Aunt Jo in Michigan because she only got so many channels. Like a lot of people that grew up thinking they were smart, I dismissed wrestling as something silly because, c’mon, it’s all fake. It wasn’t until I was about to head off to college in 2013 that I began to develop an interest in the sport(?) as an overwhelming number of comic book podcasts hosted by wrestling fans started to chip away at my resolve, educating me on what wrestling actually was.
It doesn’t matter that wrestling is “fake.” Game of Thrones is fake, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is fake, etc. Everything is fake. What wrestling is– and the WWE specifically– is a show in which the performers appear on your TV for a few hours a week to tell you an ongoing story about good guys and bad guys that ostensibly continues when the show isn’t on. The performers will more or less stay in character when they are in public and may possibly interact with fans. The majority of wrestling fans know that the show is scripted but pretend that it’s real because, while the performers are playing professional wrestlers on a show about professional wrestling, they are playing the audience of a wrestling show. It’s like LARPing except instead of hitting someone with a foam sword, the people in audience hit the wrestlers with cheers or jeers.
By hearing the unlikely story of his rise to the top and following that journey through a myriad of YouTube clips, I became a Daniel Bryan fan (I even got a t-shirt) but it wasn’t until the March of this year that I actually started to watch wrestling consistently. Friends of mine will know that my life shifted in an unexpected way at the end of February and I found myself with a lot more time on my hands. To fill that, I began watching Monday Night RAW in the build-up to Wrestlemania 31. Wrestling became a welcome relief in my life; I was now fairly invested after seeing all the excitement in the build-up and the explosion of Wrestlemania. I thought I knew what wrestling was about because I had seen it on my TV screen. I learned that I was absolutely wrong.
The show began at 7:00 P.M., the doors opening shortly before that. I arrived early, when the lines that were present were only in front of the various entrances to the Save Mart Center and in front of what I can only describe as a merchandise truck. Against my better judgment and almost entirely because of a skilled barker’s claim that the merchandise was in danger of selling out before the show, I got in line to buy a Kevin Owens t-shirt.
The line for merchandise was practically the entire show in a nutshell. You had people offering something they wanted to sell and a diverse audience made up of adults and children of varying age, race, creed, and gender looking to buy it. An older man in front of me dropped nearly $100 on T-shirts and toy championship belts for the young boys that I suspected were his grandsons, a father bought a Brie Mode t-shirt for his daughter… With the exception of myself, it seemed like everyone was buying something for someone else because they knew it would make them happy. Not to get too maudlin but I was glad that I was wearing my knock-off Ray-Bans as a father helped his son put on a championship belt.
After dropping off my purchase in the car I had driven to the event, I got in a line that offered a semblance of shade and looked around at other people as I waited for the doors to open. Again, I saw women and children, young and old, people whose only resemblance to each other was sometimes only as much as a Feed Me More t-shirt. I went to the most recent Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA and let me tell you that the crowd I saw at this wrestling show was easily more diverse in almost every regard. I counted more differently-abled people using wheelchairs in five minutes than I saw for the entirety of that game between FSU and Oregon.
Everyone appeared excited and I noticed that the ratio of excitement between parent and child appeared equal unlike, to compare it to another event I recently attended, what I could see between parent and child groups at WonderCon. WWE has easily done a better job of appealing to parents and children alike as the company seems to acknowledge that they need to build a new audience in order to ensure that they can have an older one later on down the line.
I took my seat while the rest of the audience was still filing into the building, stood in line for food and drinks, or simply hadn’t arrived yet. My seat was about mid-height and positioned so that I’d be looking at the ring from the southwest corner. There were better seats to be had but mine was pretty damn good so you’ll hear no complaints from me about it. The only thing resembling a complaint that I could muster was a muttering that, “The ring sure does look bigger on TV.”
The rest of the audience eventually made their way and found their seats but a fair amount of seats were still empty and would remain as such for the rest of the evening. Before the event started, a couple of promo videos aired recapping Wrestlemania, last week’s RAW, and how one could get the most out of their WWE Network subscriptions. There was a nice little video detailing the very real injuries that many professional wrestlers have experienced that encouraged the many children in the audience not to try any of the things they were about to see at home and things got going after that with Byron Saxton coming out to host the event. There was a genuinely touching moment when Byron brought up the elephant in the room, the recent death of Rowdy Roddy Piper, and asked for a moment of silence while his memory was honored with a ten bell salute. The audience flared up in a massive surge once the last bell had rung and it served as a snapshot as to what the rest of the night would hold.
The audience didn’t really come to life for Byron but they certainly sprang to life when Kevin Owens appeared to interrupt him mid-explanation about John Cena’s absence that night (John Cena had originally been on the card but was forced to bow out of his rematch with Owens after breaking his nose on the previous episode of RAW). Swiping the microphone from Byron’s hand, Owens proceeded to work the crowd as he insulted the manhood of the beloved (primarily by the children in attendance) John Cena, took boos after calling the people of Fresno stupid because they “made the choice to live here,” and attempting to bully Byron and the referees into declaring him the new United States Champion by forfeit. He knew how to make the crowd hate him but his effectiveness relied on the crowd wanting to be pulled in a direction where they could boldly express either love or hate. This was my first real experience seeing the agreement between performer and audience in action, it recalled my theatre days in high school where we and the audience would agree for a couple hours that a bare stage was really a Greek forest.
Then Chris Jericho came out and the place seemed to explode into cacophonous cheers of “Y2J!” and “Jer-icho!” that still managed to convey a shared enthusiasm despite the mild discrepancy. Owens is a consummate professional but Jericho has been working in the WWE for much longer (Owens only recently made his debut as a member of the WWE roster this year after a 15 year career that began on his 16th birthday) and has had almost two decades to establish and refine his persona into its most crowd-pleasing form. Plus, he gets to be the straight talking good guy to Kevin Owen’s cowardly and temperamental villain so he rides off and builds on the energy that Owens accrues with a crowd.
When Jericho steals the microphone out of Owens’ hand to cut him off and challenge him to a steel cage match, the audience cheers. So when Owens’ gets another microphone that Jericho also swipes, they cheer even louder. I cheer even louder. You’d be forgiven for thinking a miracle had taken place when Jericho conks Owens in the head with both microphones and a short brawl takes place because a story in no less than three, maybe even five, acts has just reached its climax. Owens retreats and Jericho works the crowd on his way out, a sure sign that these people are in fact professionals that know how to put on a show.
The energy and goodwill that has been established is immediately put to good use as the Bella Twins make their way out for a Divas match. The women’s division of WWE has frequently been used as a punching bag, referred to as the perfect excuse to go to the restroom or grab a drink, but WWE has recently invested heavily in legitimizing this division in the eyes of the fans so placing them immediately after such an explosive kick-off was a good way to ensure that some of that energy transfers over to them. It’s a good move but it needn’t have happened because it turns out that Fresno absolutely loves the Bella Twins. In their tag team match against Sasha Banks and Naomi, the crowd cheers for every reversal, boos at any outside interference, and shouts with both excitement and disappointment at a kick-out until Nikki Bella eventually pins Naomi following the completion of a successful Rack Attack.
The fun continues when Bo Dallas makes his triumphant entrance only to have his faux-inspirational speaker routine booed in favor of the high-flying antics of his opponent Neville. The kids in the audience cheer for Neville, they like him for his acrobatic moves and his action figure physique (and I along with plenty of other adults like him for those things too in spite of his somewhat dry character). There are cheers and claps at every backflip Neville does and the kids behind me chant for Neville to get up when Bo Dallas has him on both the proverbial and literal ropes. I’m still chuckling a bit at this point over the way Neville threw his purple loincloth over to an excited fan in the front row during his entrance like he was Elvis tossing a scarf. The kids get to see this real life superhero win as he pins Dallas after the use of his signature move, the Red Arrow, appears to knock him out cold and the rest of the crowd struggles to match their enthusiasm for that moment.
Up next is the British King Barrett going up against the Swiss Superman Cesaro. Barrett gets a lot of heat from the crowd as he had called them peasants and demanded an oath of fealty upon his entrance but he’s getting a healthy amount of cheers in addition to boos as the audience is won over by his exceptional work in the ring. Cesaro gets plenty of cheers too as the crowd enthusiastically counts the number of European Uppercuts he delivers to Barrett. The match between these two features a lot of reversals in terms of who is currently dominating the other and the crowd is happy to go back and forth before Cesaro eventually submits Barrett with a sharpshooter.
The matches have been steadily building up in both length and physicality up to this point and would reach a pinnacle with the tag team match between Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods of the three-man team The New Day and the Prime Time Players themselves, tag team champions Titus O’Neil and Darren Young. This was absolutely the best match of the night in terms of crowd reaction and performance in the ring.
The New Day are really something to see live as their antics rile up a crowd into shouting “NEW DAY SUCKS” (a sentiment that doesn’t so much display a dislike of the performers but a respect for the great work they do in their roles as the guys we’re supposed to hate) in response to them. There was a memorable bit before the match started in which Kingston and Woods did a sort of mocking striptease in which they removed their shirts, acted as if they would throw them into the crowd, and then threw them towards their partner Big E so he could react as if he was a member of the audience that had just gotten the perfect souvenir from his trip. The Prime Time Players build an energy all their own, though, as they display a strong sense that they’re actually having a really good time. When Titus slaps Kofi Kingston across the chest with a hand that’s roughly the size of that man’s chest, he takes a moment to play to the crowd and ask them if they think he should give the guy one more. The answer is unanimously “yes” and the cheers grow even louder as Titus poses for us following his strike.
The New Day are allowed to dominate a large portion of the match as they unfairly team up against Titus and prevent him from tagging out with the help of interference from Big E. The crowd shouts in disgust with a sense of injustice as they continue to pound on Titus so there’s an even bigger release when he tags out so Young can start wrecking shop in a way that eventually leads to a victory for the Prime Time Players by way of pin. I honestly don’t remember who pinned who but I do remember the celebratory dancing of the Prime Time Players and the way they seems to interact with every fan they could on their way out after The New Day had quite literally dragged themselves back to the locker room.
After a short intermission, it was time for one of my least favorite wrestlers to compete against Rusev. The wrestler was R-Truth and I may have gone into the Save Mart Center not liking him but I came out loving him. It’s not just the way he put on a good physical performance in his eventual loss to Rusev, it was the way the young black kids a couple rows in front of me came alive when they saw him. When he gave his call of “what’s up?” they answered eagerly in a way that I could tell indicated that this guy meant a lot to them. Even the somewhat xenophobic chants of “USA!” that broke out with the Bulgarian Rusev in the ring couldn’t sour the match after that. Maybe R-Truth as a performer wasn’t for me but I’ll be damned if I ever say a thing against him again.
Near the end of that match or maybe even right after that, something magical happened. The crowd actually summoned a person to appear. First, some background: Rusev is currently accompanied to the ring by Summer Rae, a performer with the WWE that is acting as Rusev’s girlfriend. Summer Rae has been used by Rusev as a replacement for his ex Lana and has even gone so far as to dress Summer Rae in the same style of skirt suits that Lana wears. What you really need to know is that the WWE audience loves Lana and they’ve loved her whether she was a good or bad guy at the time so they were pretty glad to see her split from Rusev but not so glad at the prospect of seeing Rusev appear without Lana. Eventually a chant of “we want Lana!” started and, hell, I wanted her too so I joined in. And just like that, she appeared making her way up into the ring to throw down with Summer Rae over the way she’s been Single White Female-ing her these past weeks.
To say that it got loud would be an understatement. There was hooting and hollering. We actually did it! We wanted her to show up, we said as much, and then she did. This was a central ingredient of the wrestling show experience that I had been missing on TV. Being a part of the audience and making these chants that somehow get real responses is a true sense of interacting with the entertainment that you are experiencing. Sure, Lana was going to come out no matter what but we got to feel like we made it happen. You can’t do that with a movie, a TV show, or even a play (without being thrown out on your ass, that is). It was an intoxicating feeling to see our calls answered. We had crowdsourced magic.
From there, the show went to a comedy bit where self-obsessed “movie star” The Miz came out for a segment of MizTV where his character embraced a genuine moment of humility in calling his the very best wrestling show second to Piper’s Pit, hosted by the late Rowdy Roddy Piper. It was somewhat startling to hear The Miz shout-out that “the Hot Rod is one of the greatest” but he was able to quickly swing from that moment back to his boisterous yet cowardly shtick in time to get knocked unconscious by the Big Show. It’s a routine that WWE fans have seen played out multiple times on air but what was old seemed new again to the crowd (it may have relied on affection for the Big Show, something that I lack since I didn’t grow up on WWE).
The final match of the night that was hinted at in the opening altercation between Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens now got underway inside of a 14 foot high steel cage and it was… pretty good? Kevin Owens was doing nothing less than his best but I couldn’t help but feel that Jericho was lacking. The man’s in his forties and, as my friend Raf has said, comfortably in the “cool dad” phase of his career. He performed quite well and his control of the crowd was never less than exceptional but there were a few moments where it seemed to be that he couldn’t physically pull off some of the things he attempted to do which left Owens to cover for him. I was willing to forgive those missteps as Jericho was finally able to execute his signature Walls of Jericho move on Owens after several unsuccessful attempts. The momentum from that move carried over into the end where Jericho slammed Owens head first into a steel chair that was wedged between the turnbuckles and pinned him for the win. A good finish can make up for a lot of things.
The audience quickly began to dissipate out the doors, to maybe see about buying a t-shirt and head home. I sat as the people around me left, trying to come down from the high that I had just experienced. This was live entertainment like I had never experienced and, even if the big dudes flanking me with their B.O. didn’t want to acknowledge it, we had all been a part of shaping this experience for the better. I was buzzing with energy as I drove home, denying how late at night it was as if the presence of both the moon and the stars were irrelevant after the show I had seen. Though the time of day and how fast I should be driving were up for debate, there was one thing I knew for sure: I would have to go to another wrestling show.
Even as a King Baby of criticism, Mark Stack knows that he loves comics more than anything. Heck, all of his English teachers have known it too whether it was from him writing an analysis of dystopian themes in media using V for Vendetta or drawing a comparison in class from the serialized works of Charles Dickens to the comic book. Mark, taking a cue from one of his idols, is currently studying Journalism at San Diego State University while working part-time in a comic shop and moonlighting as a writer online. You can read his work at Comics Bulletin, Eat.Geek.Play and more. He’s on Twitter at @MarkOStack