Around nine months ago, listlessly scrolling Twitter and feeling generally caught up on all of the TV shows, comic books, and video games I would normally prioritize over *checks notes* sports, I noticed that most — if not all — of the people I follow were tweeting about WWE. I had seen the likes of #RoyalRumble, #WrestleMania and others trend before, but these tweets seemed…different. They were, primarily, about how WWE fans were explicitly not going to be watching the newest pay-per-view, Super ShowDown, because it was held in Saudi Arabia (we’ll get to that later). Out of admittedly very nerdy interest in the politics of media consumption, as well as out of wanting to check my biases about WWE and the promotion’s fans in general, I watched the next Monday Night Raw.
It was laughably bad television. My wife and were awestruck by the combination of UFC, The Bachelor, and Broadway plays the show was trying to conjoin into “sports entertainment”, not really nailing the tone of any. Admittedly, I was mildly interested in Seth Rollins and Becky Lynch’s budding feud with Baron Corbin and Lacey Evans — largely because the latter were so legitimately detestable — and Ricochet and AJ Styles had an energetic, high-flying match that entertained out of pure physical prowess. Nevertheless, none of it looked “real”, I didn’t understand the characters, the supposed athleticism, or the deep, impractical dialogue that seemed common to everyone involved.
Then, inexplicably, as the episode wound down and almost autonomously with little regard for how my brain was feeling about the content I had just consumed, I found myself thinking, “that was stupid…I do kind of want to see what happens next week, though”.
We watched the next Raw, and the next SmackDown almost out of sheer disbelief that this is what had enraptured so many of my friends for dozens of years. And then we watched the next, and the next, and the next. We slowly filtered NXT and the budding AEW into our schedules. We were approaching almost 15 hours of wrestling content a week at this point — it had permeated our conversations, vacation planning, and weekends almost benignly. I started reading wrestlers’ Wikipedia pages in my downtime at work, seeking out New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) events online, consuming the last handful of year’s PPVs on the WWE Network, and chatting with my friends and co-workers about wrestling’s weird hold on me. I found that I kind of…loved wrestling? For all its weird eccentricities, frustrations, and circuitous nature, it was entertaining, somewhat unpredictable, and gleefully lacking self-awareness.
Solidified when my wife and I attended back-to-back WWE house shows and Raw in the last month, I had become, with little intention or complaint, a wrestling superfan. I have favorite wrestlers, angles, promotions, PPVs, and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the industry terminology that initially seemed so foreign. And, unlike so many hyper-fixations I’ve had in the past (ask me about Warhammer 40K!), I feel genuinely indebted, committed, and loving to the wrestling world and its strange community that I hope to see grow, hope to share with my friends and family.
So what if this happens to you? What should you expect becoming a wrestling fan in 2020? It’s a rewarding, exciting and equally exhausting experience that — with the caveat that I am by no means an expert — we’re going to dive into right now in the off-chance that you want to become at least somewhat conversant before WrestleMania 36.
The community is the most important aspect of getting invested in any hobby and for better and worse, the wrestling community is one of the most active, invested, and endearing I’ve ever seen. Sure, like all communities with access to Twitter, some of it is toxic, aggressive, and manipulative. But, to my initial surprise and now celebration, a lot of people invested in wrestling are enthusiastic, eager, and welcoming. I talked with more kind, passionate and knowledgeable fans in the lines for Raw than I had at any concert I’ve been two in almost two decades. Kids with Roman Reigns vests on, moms with Edge tattoos, a very kind gentleman who has been to every WWE event in Washington State since 1999, someone with “SmackDown” tattooed on their forehead.
I met dozens of fans and, like interacting with people in the real world instead of on Twitter almost is, I found them nuanced, fun, and welcoming. I felt at home and comfortable with them as we shared wrestling memes we saved on our phones, talked about our favorite matches and wrestlers, how the industry has changed but still captures a lot of what they loved from when they got invested, more. The WWE marketing machine — and even John Cena himself — refers to these people as the branded “WWE Universe”, which sounds asinine, but is true to its word. Wrestling touches people of all walks of life and interests, a unifying common ground and awareness that says, “when Randy Orton comes out, we all scream ‘RKO OUTTA NOWHERE!’ and that’s just the way it is”.
The Diversity of Content
Wrestling is one of the most expansive sports industries on the planet. WWE alone produces three weekly shows: Raw, NXT, and SmackDown, and various other programs including their surprisingly fantastic documentary series, and has done so for decades. AEW, their televised competition and recent fan-favorite (with good reason), produces two: Dynamite and Dark. Then, there’s the likes of the immaculate, exciting, and impressive NJPW, the myriad independent and regional promotions available on Independentwrestling.tv, and dozens of others. This is to say nothing of other media like podcasts, reality TV shows, and digital series.
It may seem daunting at first, but it is freeing. The average person simply has no time to watch and listen to all of these things weekly — trust me, I’ve tried. Instead, you get to define what’s important to you, follow the writing and wrestlers you like, and engage on your own terms. You can’t skip over a bad episode of Game of Thrones and still feel caught up, but you can miss Raw every week and still feel plugged into the larger wrestling universe because it’s so expansive and accessible. There is no demand to know or see everything, simply the invitation to tune in when, how, and for what you want, whether that’s the reality TV aspects, the violent and Broadway-esque NXT and AEW, or the videogame-y New Day podcast and UpUpDownDown. I see you, Total Bellas only fans, and I appreciate you.
Now, while pro wrestling doesn’t require as deep as an investment in its in- and out-of-ring storytelling and characters as other mediums might, you will inevitably get invested anyways. You’ll experience the highs of a fan-favorite like Becky Lynch delivering a superb promo or an unexpectedly cool broken nose, and the lows like SmackDown’s continued misuse of the legendary Shinsuke Nakamura, and you will feel for not only these characters, but the people portraying them. This is by design both purposeful and accidental, but it works. You’ll follow the Instagrams and Twitters of these wrestlers and see how devoted they are to entertaining you through emotional and physical pain, you’ll discover how impressive and dynamic their athletic prowess and acting ability is, and you’ll care about their success and losses even if it’s pre-determined — Kofi Kingston would gladly attest to just how real that part is. Then, when you see someone like Drew McIntyre finally and deservedly get “made” after years, decades of hard work and determination, you’ll cheer with them, lift your replica title with them, and feel like you, too, won something. There’s nothing quite like it.
This one is for the hyper-fixators like me. Wrestling has, over its dozens of years of development, amassed an impressive array of visual, written, and spoken slang and nuance. There’s industry lingo, like “promos,” “botches,” “squashes,” “marks” and “smarks.” There are move names like the 619, the Claymore Kick, the LeBell Lock. There are character names and heel and face turns like The Planet’s Champion, The Empress of Tomorrow, The Devil’s Favorite Demon, and so, so much more. It’s massive, dense, and daunting but it’s also rewarding to learn. Soon it becomes a second, natural language that allows you to converse with decades-old fans on a neutral playground, understand the realities and fictions of the wrestling industry — that wrestling is much more like a play or coordinated swimming than it is a legitimate fight, but that takes just as much ability and prowess as actually fighting if not more — and express your opinions in a uniquely bespoke manner. If you liked learning about the Adeptus Astartes or the Lantern Corps, I promise you’ll like learning about Suplex City and nuclear heat just as much.
As I mentioned above in regard to Saudi Arabia, WWE in particular has a political stance that is at best at odds with its largely (and surprisingly!) progressive community. Vince McMahon’s family is personally close with the Trump family — hell, Donald Trump is in the WWE Hall of Fame. They recently extended their deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to produce more shows there despite political unrest and personal endangerment (wrestlers signed to the promotion were stranded in Saudi Arabia for almost an entire day). Dolph Ziggler, Kane, and Jake Hager ally themselves with the extreme right and Chris Jericho platforms conspiracy theorists on his massively popular podcast. Can you still enjoy pro wrestling knowing all of this? It’s a difficult, personal decision and one I don’t recommend making lightly. Many fans ignore the KSA mega-shows, others support only their independent and regional scenes — good alternatives. There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, and pro wrestling is among the worst of offenders, lightened only by how relatable and caring individual wrestlers and community members are in the wake of bad business and creative practices.
The Creative Control
This, too, is a largely WWE-specific problem. Where AEW prides itself on allowing wrestlers to draft their own angles and develop their own promos, most other promotions do not. Especially, WWE, where a small handful of creatives — namely Paul Heyman, Paul “Triple H” Levesque, and Vince McMahon have total control. It’s a practice that frustratingly puts cuckhold storylines on your TV for weeks at a time, buries legitimately good and interesting performs like Ricochet, and generally prefers large white men over most other opportunities. McMahon and company make decisions that deflate legitimate fan hype for characters like The Fiend and Kofi Kingston in favor of stable, but boring storytelling. It has stifled the likes of creative and eager entertainers like Jon Moxley, Matt Hardy, and Cody Rhodes. When the pay-off is there, like mentioned above, it feels amazing, but some weeks, or months, that’s few and far between. At least if you watch on Hulu you can fast forward through Randy Orton demurring for 20 minutes and get to the wrestling.
Brock Lesnar and Goldberg were your world champions in 2003, and they are now in 2020, too. In fact, it seems like both wrestling promoters and far too many fans are actively yearning for a bygone era while ignoring all the good of the present. It’s amazing and cathartic when someone like Edge works hard for almost a decade to come back to the thing they love, but that organic moment doesn’t demand a WWE playlist of all the times Triple H rode around in a tank just cause Edge is in one video. Even when more recent Superstars like Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, and Bayley are performing almost weekly for the company, fans and commentators harken back to the Four Horsewomen and wax poetic on their time in NXT. It’s dismissive of new effort and energy — affecting even Chris Jericho’s new title run in AEW and their reluctance to give an opportunity to an unproven athlete — and it makes beats predictable. If you want to live in the past, the WWE Network and dozens of on-demand programs are there for you.
The Toxic Masculinity
Last but not least is a problem that has been substantially improved upon and recognized since even the early 2010s but is still present and palatable. Industry wide, men, even more narrowly white men, are given the main events, the press opportunities, the more interesting storylines, the spotlight. Look at AEW’s lackluster women’s championship belt in comparison to the men’s. Look at WWE’s reluctance to act on a queer story that Sonya Deville, a lesbian, and her tag team partner Mandy Rose put forward, instead favoring a poorly developed shock-value-inciting one between Liv Morgan and Lana. Or, the fact that while there are three men’s tag team titles in WWE, there is only one for women. OR, recent angles for Velveteen Dream — a queer wrestler — based around questioning the masculinity of his foe. Events like Evolution and a women’s main event at WrestleMania, and Nyla Rose holding the AEW title are improvements, but there is still work to do, especially in the eyes of a queer wrestling fan like myself.
Finally, there are some things in wrestling that are just weird. Weirder still, is that nobody addresses them. Weeks ago, wrestlers stopped emerging from the center of the LCD screen on Raw and I still don’t know why. Buddy Murphy’s name changed between events to just “Murphy” probably because Vince McMahon thinks someone named Buddy can’t be a heel, and that’s still better than whatever’s going on with Mustafa Ali’s name. Fan favorites like the IIconics have been off TV for 100+ days, Brandi Rhodes is in a cult but not really, Vince McMahon hates people talking about him so the New Day have to call him “He Who Shall Not Be Named” and more. Sure, some of this is answered on the dirt sheets or off-TV in series like Being the Elite where fans as invested as myself or you (soon!) can find relief, but some of it just happens and you’ll never know why. It’s not bad, it’s not good, it’s just there to think about during the especially boring Miz TV segments.
Some wrestlers are demons! Some are aliens! Some might be Jesus! Others are in cults! Some are…hanging out in vaguely threatening rooms (cough, Aleister Black, cough). The most extremes of kayfabe demand that this is all taken in stride and it can be as fun as it is confusing and frustrating when creative ends or introduces turns with no reason or rationale. Matt Hardy has an intense, deep personal lore behind his Broken and Woken characters that will finally be fully explored with The Dark Order, The Fiend shares some dark connection to Bray Wyatt only briefly explored in promos, and Asuka and Kairi Sane have access to poison. It’s exciting and dumb. But hey, at least it makes all of this slightly more accessible to anyone deeply invested in comics or anime, where most of this stuff is aped from anyways.
Similar to above, in-ring wrestling has a kind of internal mythology that can be very difficult to parse. Does it look like Brock Lesnar is just slamming people on their backs and that Drew McIntyre is just kicking them? That’s because they are, but within fiction those moves mean a lot more. When it hits like Orange Cassidy committing to his gimmick, it really hits. When it misses, it’s coupled with overreactions from commentary and creative that confound. What’s important is that you recognize the relationship between athlete and character, and that commitment to communal storytelling that means sometimes a kick to the d*ck really really hurts a 300+ lb man more than it should. When you can see these things coming or expect them, you learn to appreciate them for what they are — turning points in a narrative no different than One-Punch Man appearing.
The above is a lot of information and pontification, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg in regard to my personal experience of professional wrestling (see more of my articles and opinions later this WrestleMonth!) to say nothing of the communal experience of millions of people that have been watching since its inception. Nevertheless, I hope it gives you insight into exactly how the industry captured my affection, and how it has kept it. A relationship with the sports entertainment industry is rewarding, nuanced, and ever-changing. It is exciting, frustrating, and demanding. But, it’s uniquely yours and open to interpretation in ways watching the Miami Heat sweep the Lakers simply isn’t. I legitimately love wrestling, its community, and its highs and lows for what they are, and I hope you find a way to, too.
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