Sunday, March 29, 2015

Chapter 114: In Which I Discuss Last Year's Wrestlemania

I've been a pro wrestling fan for a long time. Some of my fondest memories involve watching WWF Superstars with my little sister. It seemed like any Saturday morning show, with sneering villains and larger-than-life heroes. The All-American Lex Luger was going against the "Japanese" heel Yokozuna and I could not wait for Luger to slam him. It was like watching WMAC Masters, only with less reruns.

However, I was only getting half the story. Eventually, I discovered Monday Night Raw, which during the mid-90s was going through a strange transition. You had Bret Hart, a champion who was heel in America and face everywhere else. His main enemies were a trash-talking Texas redneck and a male stripper. The show felt gritty and adult and scrappy. It seemed like they scripted on the fly, two hours of chaos flying at the screen. I loved it.

The WWF's programming grew along with me, so I started high school right at the start of the Attitude Era. I had a pretty diverse group of friends, and it seemed the unifying factor was that EVERYBODY loved wrestling. The question was who was your favorite. Mine was Chris Benoit, who I respected for his technique and showmanship. He could get a good match out of anybody and knew counters to more moves than I could keep track of. I loved that floppy arm swinging he would do to get out of the Walls of Jericho. Anyways, I had a friend who loved Jericho, another who marked for Too Cool/Rikishi, another who loved American Badass-era Undertaker, and another who adored the Hardy Boyz like they were the Backstreet Boys.

In short, I've been a wrestling fan a long time, but the love is waning. Occasionally I'll watch Lucha Underground or a Ring of Honor match. The WWE is really bad now. Monday Night Raw hasn't been must-see TV in years, but I read the recaps, and their Road to Wrestlemania that started with the Royal Rumble has been a legendary bedshitting. So awful that it's actually entertaining to read about just to see how far they'll go to disappoint their fans. From Roman Reigns getting booed at the Royal Rumble to his laughable tug o' war with Brock Lesnar on Monday, the WWE has done everything to seemingly kill interest in the show. The only feud they haven't messed up is the Cena/Rusev Rocky IV retread, which will end with Cena winning, and Rusev getting shunted down the card until they eventually fire him. I can't get excited about somebody losing his job.

Wrestlemania is in the Bay this year and I wouldn't go if somebody gave me a free ticket. So I'll write about last year's Wrestlemania.

At the time, the WWE’s attempt to push Daniel Bryan from the main event was frustrating, maddening. And downright bizarre. A multi-million dollar company was actively trying to make the audience not cheer for its most popular performer. What other business punishes a guy for being too good at his job? The fans rebelled, hijacking multiple Monday Night Raws with "Dan-iel Bry-an" chants.

When Batista won the Royal Rumble, I was considering selling my ticket. They had no plans for Bryan and it looked like the main event was going to be a heel vs. heel trainwreck between Batista and Orton. Then the company followed the fan response, turned Batista heel, and put Bryan in the main event via a people power storyline taken straight out of the Occupy Movement.

In short, the WWE was ready to have an awful Wrestlemania, and the fans forced them to have a good one.

Bryan's twisting road to the championship had some truly great moments. For instance, they tried to de-push him by making him join the Wyatt Family. Making your most popular performer into a midcarder's henchman is, of course, a recipe for disaster. When the fans still cheered him, he turned on Wyatt, leading to this exhilarating cage confrontation and the electrifying crowd reaction.

Goosebumps. Then there was also the go-home show before 'Mania, which didn’t end in a preschool tug o' war, but an epic beatdown on his arch-nemesis Triple H.

Bryan Danielson had an organic rise to the top of the card that was exhilarating to watch. A lot of the time, the WWE insists on forcing things, and it ends up terrible. For instance, they tried to turn CM Punk heel when the audience wasn't ready. So you have him doing increasingly dastardly stuff trying to make people hate him, including insulting the dead, and he gets cheered like Hogan. All through his heel run, he looked uncomfortable, exhausted, and over it . . . which he was. Punk left the company within the year.

Now they're pushing Roman Reigns as the next big face before he's ready and he's getting boos. Getting force-pushed to the top of the card exposed all his flaws as a performer. They wanted a new Cena, and right it's looking like they'll get a new Orton or Batista. A self-entitled douchebag heel who can't play face, gets never-ending title shots, and doesn't draw.

I'm a fan of Bryan Danielson because he is the best wrestler. Keeping in mind that wrestling is not just about technical ability, but mic skills, in-ring psychology, and whatever intangible quality draws an audience. Danielson went to Japan and became the best shoot-style wrestler. In Ring of Honor he became the best indie wrestler. Then he went to WWE. Not every indie guy can succeed in that environment. AJ Styles is on Bryan's level but could never work under those restrictions. CM Punk was a main event guy but he never seemed comfortable with the company’s politics and PG style. Watching him try to do promos about how much he likes “crazy chicks” was just painful.

Danielson, on the other hand, proved to be the total package. They wanted him to work WWE style, and he narrowed his vast repertoire of moves to a few hard-hitting crowd-pleasers. They wanted him to do comedy, and he excelled in an odd couple tag team with Kane. They wanted a heel, and he gave them a detestable asshole who berated his nerdy girlfriend. They wanted a face and he gave them the ultimate underdog. They wanted catchphrases, so he gave them the most popular catchphrase of the modern era.

If Danielson went to Canada, he'd out-grapple everybody. If he put on a mask and went to Mexico, he'd out-flippydoodle the luchadores. If he wrestled bears like they did in the carny days, he'd grow his beard even more to be the hairiest person in the ring. The man set out to be the best wrestler in the world and he succeeded.

The fans respected him because he put his all into entertaining them. I had not seen that kind of organic growth of a superstar in a long time, nor somebody with that level of crowd connection. And Danielson's rise gave testament to what the WWE provides that no other wrestling company can: scale. Danielson's matches in Ring of Honor may be better than his current work on a technical level, but cannot contend with the electricity of a whole arena chatting "Yes!" And it’s made better by how unassuming he looks. The guy is a bearded vegan from Washington State. With a few turns in his life story, he would have ended up a barista at the Red and Black Cafe in Portland, instead of just looking like one. But this guy is the best on Earth.

At this time last year, I was living three hours from New Orleans. Not only was Wrestlemania in my backyard, but I had a ready crew of smarky fans to go with. I even contributed to a prediction article, which is embarrassing to read because of how smarky I was trying to be:

Could I have dropped any more obscure references? Fuck is wrong with me? The best part is that their picture for that smark-fest was Randy Orton putting Cena in a chinlock. Anyway, I bought my Wrestlemania ticket when Danielson was in the main event, though they were trying to push him down the card with regular ambush beatdowns from Orton and various Triple H cronies. This "evil authority figure" mess the WWE loves is so bollocks and kills my suspension of disbelief. Daniel Bryan is being bullied by his boss at work. The head booker is interfering in his matches. Why doesn't he report these people to the Athletic Commission? Problem solved. Ugh. So they got Bryan out of the main event entirely. My hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, proved our awesomeness by shitting all over the Royal Rumble. They put Danielson back in. For the first time in a long time, I was invested in a wrestling storyline. I told my students at UL-Lafayette not to come to class on Monday. I went to New Orleans.

Walking downtown from the Greyhound station, I started to feel the magic. They were people everywhere in their old Attitude-era shirts. I saw a fat guy with a beard cosplaying Bray Wyatt (which turned out to be the go-to costume for fat guys with beards that year). I passed a lady in a bar who was excited she saw Curtis Axel. It was the same feeling of going to a large anime convention. Wrestling fans had taken over the city, and I was among my people. I had plans to attend the indie shows around town.

A good friend of mine in New Orleans was French. Several people in our circle were going to 'Mania, leaving her in the unenviable position of being surrounded by wrestling fans talking esoteric stuff.

HER: I don't know anything about wrestling.

ME: You're from France.

HER: Oui.

ME: Andre the Giant?

HER: Who is that?

I was aghast. They don’t teach Andre in schools over there? He’s the most important French person since Jeanne D’Arc. Being with her made the weekend more interesting, serving as a foreigner's guide to this incredibly American art form. I explained to her the histories behind the various wrestlers. She said it sounded like a soap opera, which was funny because we weren't even talking about the storylines, but the wrestlers' real lives.

ME: So, you see, Bret wouldn't give up the title because he didn't want to lose to Shawn in Canada. 'Cause Shawn was a diva who faked injuries so he wouldn't have to lose to Bret. So Shawn put him in the Sharpshooter . . .

HER: What?

ME: It's a submission move. And Vince had them ring the bell so Bret had to give up the belt before he left for WCW and he should have been the top guy in WCW but Hulk Hogan used politics to keep him down. And Bret might have patched things up with the WWF earlier but then they kinda killed his brother.

HER: Wait? How do you kill somebody in wrestling? I thought it was fake.

ME: No, he really died. They tried to lower him from the ceiling and the harness broke and he died.

HER: . . .

Of the myriad wrestling shows that weekend, we saw Kaiju Big Battle, which was great, and Shimmer Women's Wresting, which was AMAZING. Anybody whose only seen the mediocre women's division on WWE owes it to themselves to check out Shimmer. Here's a review of the weekend and all the shows that were going on.

Both events took place at Tulane University, in a ring on the edge of the stage. When one of the women wrestlers almost got knocked to the outside apron, people in the audience started shouting at her to be careful, because there was a good chance of falling to the theatre floor. I think both shows had the same announcer, a hard-working guy named Reese or Royce, something like that. 

The unsung hero of that weekend was Diamond Dallas Page. His yoga practice is credited with saving Scott Hall and Jake Roberts, both of whom were inducted to the Hall of Fame that year. A friend of mine went to DDP Yoga and said it was inspiring. It sounded to me like the aggro-yoga that’s popular in the Bay, but with a wrestler shouting motivational bon mots at you. Page is living proof that a wrestler can go gracefully into retirement, and build something for himself along the way.

We watched the Hall of Fame inductions before we went to Wrestlemania. Seeing Jake the Snake accept the induction was a moment no rambling Mister T monologue could diminish. The last time I saw Jake was when I was a boy watching Beyond the Mat with my dad and little sister. He was a wreck, an absentee father, a drug addict. Beyond the Mat was my introduction to the dark side of pro wrestling; Jake’s tragedy, Terry Funk’s addiction to the spotlight, juxtaposed with the limelight of the WWF. And even as I thrilled to see Stone Cold or Road Dogg or The Rock in a movie, I cringed as Mick Foley took all those chair shots to the head. Now, here was Jake, one of the survivors, getting a well-deserved accolade for all he brought to the business.   

I went with a crew of fans to the show. In our group was a Sensational Sherrie cosplayer, a Million Dollar Man, Vickie Guerrero, Jeff Hardy, and Jake the Snake. I had been watching a lot of 1980s Jim Crockett Promotions shows and wanted to do a Four Horseman-era Ric Flair costume, complete with feathered wig, but didn’t have the time or money. Maybe for Halloween, since I don’t see myself going to another Wrestlemania any time soon.

The show itself? Amazing. After all the twists and turns, the crowd was ready to see Daniel Bryan win the championship. But with it came uncertainty. They tried to bury him in real life. Would this insane company and its senile owner stick it to the fans one last time and destroy their own show just to prove they were in charge? This was edge-of-your-seat theatre and I loved it.

Hulk Hogan came out and thought he was in the Silverdome. No amount of nostalgia can make me cheer for Hogan. A few months before, he’d finished flushing TNA Wrestling down the toilet like he did WCW. That man is the boil on the ass of professional wrestling. However, I did sing along to “Real American,” which is catchy as hell. Anyway, Hogan said he was in the Silverdome, twice. Then Stone Cold came out, and The Rock, and it was a fun segment for us “old school” fans. Austin hardly ever does events anymore, so seeing him was a treat. When I heard that Hogan was going to be host for Wrestlemania 30, I was afraid they’d have him involved, but they actually played it smart and kept his bullshit to a minimum.

Bryan beat Triple H in the first match to earn his spot in the title match. Triple H is an egotistical prick but he has a good mind for wrestling, playing up his reputation of burying other wrestlers. He even said that, if he won, he’d put himself in the title match. In other words, he did his best to create uncertainty based on his real life antics. Do you, dear reader, know who Triple H is? All you need to know is he’s a douchebag second-tier guy who has a lot of backstage power and uses it to make himself look good. The match was really tense. Afterward was the obligatory beatdown to “injure” Bryan’s shoulder and create tension for the final match.

I loved seeing the Shield squash the New Age Outlaws in the time it took to take a piss. Good booking. If you're going to have the Outlaws in a match at all, don't even pretend they can hang with the younger guys. The Andre the Giant Battle Royal was the big surprise of the night. I’d always respected Antonio Cesaro for his strength and charisma, but didn't expect to see him get such a big win. Watching him body slam the Big Show out the ring LIVE was an unforgettable moment. I asked the person next to me when we were going to see Dolph Ziggler oversell, to which she pointed out that he'd been lying on his back, dramatically clinging to the bottom rope for, like, ten minutes. Gotta love Ziggler. I also liked how they let Kofi bring his Royal Rumble “do some acrobatic thing to stay in the ring” spot to Wrestlemania. He earned it.

The Wyatt Family was popular in New Orleans, as Louisiana is the center of all things swampy/supernatural/bearded. Seeing his song played live was awesome and the crowd clapped along. This match was the one stumble of ‘Mania. Windham Rotunda put a ton of effort into reinventing himself from his Husky Harris days. He remade the way he talked, how he moved in the ring, and made a truly compelling character in Bray Wyatt. And there was even great psychology in the match, with Wyatt trying to bring out Cena’s inner monster. Jesus vs. Satan stuff, but Satan should have won. John Cena is more famous for resting on his laurels than any wrestler who ever lived. So the stalest guy beats the freshest guy. A guy in his late 30s goes over a guy in his 20s. It sucked.

Undertaker. The first thing I noticed was how, when the camera was going over the “caskets” of people Undertaker had beat, they skipped CM Punk’s. Burn. Not much to say about the match that hasn't already been said. The people I came with were PISSED about Undertaker's loss. I didn't mind, as the streak was never realistic and he should have retired years ago. If he was going to keep coming back, eventually he’d have to lose. The reason they were mad was because he lost it to Lesnar. Somebody who has stated repeatedly he's in it for the money, the quintessential overpaid part-timer with no respect for the art form. Real life antipathy is legit. I dislike Randy Orton more for him calling Kofi Kingston “stupid” on live TV than for anything he does in his boring matches.

Yes, Lesnar’s mystique from breaking the streak is about to be wasted on Reigns. But I think it was a cool "Your childhood is over" moment. Undertaker doesn’t actually have magical powers. And it was strangely positioned the night after Paul Bearer was inducted posthumously into the HOF, and two days before Ultimate Warrior died. To see Undertaker lose in a match where he looked so obviously old, and his younger opponent was going easy on him, was a nice closing chapter for the zombie sorcerer of the early 90s "New Generation." And if everybody in the Superdome looked speechless on TV, believe me, that’s how it really went down.

I love AJ Lee but went to the bathroom during her match. Next was the title match, where Bryan won in a victory straight out of a Rocky movie. Orton and Batista were in the best form I've seen them, Orton the ruthless heel, Batista the crybaby heel, playing their roles perfectly. The moment Triple H went down to ringside, I pretty much expected a screwjob ending with the whole Kliq swarming in to ensure Bryan lost. But that is what wrestling should do. It should leave you uncertain, on the edge of your seat, like a real sport. And when he won and got the confetti shower, it demonstrated the best of pro wrestling. Bryan Danielson won in the story, but he also won in real life, working his way up to the grandest stage. My crew was a group of 30 to 40-year-old jaded smarks with far better things to do with our lives than watch guys pretend to fight. But we were on our feet chanting “Yes!” if you give people something to believe in, they will believe.

I’m glad I spent my money on a good Wrestlemania. ‘Mania has been bad these last few years, but ‘Mania 30 was a tightly scripted, no frills wrestling show with a clear, well-told story. The Monday Night Raw afterwards was pretty good too. It was long. I can see why nobody watches Raw, which is three hours of commercials. Really wore me down.

The Raw after Wrestlemania has become famous for fans hijacking the show and doing chants that distract from the matches and storylines. What was different this year was the overall vibe. Wrestlemania 28 was a bad show with a bad Raw afterwards. The fans were mad about the company seemingly trying to bury Daniel Bryan so they took over the show. ‘Mania 28 was even worse, with Cena beating The Rock in a match nobody cared about, and a Raw filled with boring and pointless matches. The fans came up with random chants and cheered for Fandango to keep themselves entertained.

‘Mania 30, however, was a good ‘Mania followed by a good Raw. The WWE booked aggressively. They used internet fave Zack Ryder and Wade Barrett for the British fans. Gosh, making your audience happy? Whoda thunk it? They had a long Cena match to tire the fans out from booing. They kept the Orton/Batista/HHH crew limited to short bursts so the fans wouldn't hijack. There were markout moments like Paige winning the championship off of AJ. And they ended with a Shield face turn and Daniel Bryan triumphant.

I decided that would be the WWE “series finale” for me. Freeze frame it on these images. The Shield standing strong as good guys. Daniel Bryan with the crowd behind him. AJ screaming in the middle of the ring, having finally lost the title to a woman just as good as herself. Antonio Cesaro smiling as the crowd hummed his theme song. A happy ending. The WWE could feel free to drop the ball on these wrestlers (as they did), but I wouldn’t spend my time or money witnessing it.

Which doesn't make it any less sad that they de-pushed Bryan upon his return. Right now, he is in the Chris Jericho role: the guy who the fans love, who can be used to build up the next big guy, and plugged into the main event whenever there’s a hole. It’s a lucrative position that will make him a lot of money and security.

But he was meant for greater things. Ironically, even Chris Jericho never deserved the Jericho role. They should have built the company around him at the turn of the century. For political reasons, they built it around the boring Triple H. Viewers tuned out by the millions and the WWE never got them back.

It has been years since I’ve seen a wrestler connect with the crowd like Daniel Bryan. Not since Austin. Benoit was a small, technically gifted guy like him, but he never had Bryan's charisma and mass appeal. I watch wrestling because of performers like him, people who can create the spectacle. Despite his being a draw, the WWE decided to leave all that money on the table because he didn't fit their mold of what a champion looks like. And that's sad. I don't watch wrestling to hear the audience boo supposed faces, or hijack the show with chants about how they are awesome. I watch it to see Austin spray the Corporation with beer. To see The Rock battle Hogan in a clash of titans. The WWE hasn't had a true mega-face since The Rock. Cena hasn't been a face in years. He gets booed in his hometown. After years of mediocrity, they finally had a superstar who everybody could believe in. Old, young, aficionados, and casual viewers. Everybody loves him.

Bryan will be fine. He can do the Jericho role until he retires, with a Bella twin on his arm. If he gets bored, it will be New Japan or UFC. But as a wrestling fan, I will miss the chance to cheer on a megastar in his battle against evil. Witnessing a wrestler who is so good he transcends wrestling. No one in the last 15 years has risen to that level. No one on the horizon will do it. The opportunity was wasted.

After Monday Night Raw in New Orleans, I sat in a ramshackle house in midtown New Orleans, telling my friend about my feelings.

ME: I think I’m finally over wrestling.

HER: I’ve been watching you all weekend. You’re not.

That weekend, there was a sense of the passage of time. Pro wrestling is a sleazy business. It was designed by carnies to scam people, to make money from the self-destruction of young men. And women, as the Fabulous Moolah’s forced prostitution ring shows. My boyhood hero Chris Benoit didn't survive the industry. He was a man who cared little about his well-being, and found promoters who cared even less. The rest is history.

But I saw the best of independent wrestling at Shimmer, women giving their all to entertain in a wrestling ring on a stage at Tulane. I saw the best of the new breed, Bryan Danielson, rise to the top of the heap. And Antonio Cesaro, another indie guy, was right alongside him. These young guys have learned from the mistakes of their 1980s elders and hopefully keep a clear head through their hardships.

A friend of mine went to Jim Ross’ talk at the House of Blues and had to endure his “entertaining” story about Dick Murdoch punching a transsexual in the face because he was insecure about his masculinity. I can’t say I’m upset the WWE fired JR. His time is done. But for every anachronistic redneck like him reflecting on the “good old” territory days, there’s an old guy like Diamond Dallas Page doing something positive. There’s Scott Hall and Jake the Snake overcoming their demons. There’s the Undertaker passing the torch to the next phenom, Brock Lesnar.

A few days after ‘Mania, everybody started with insincere memorials for that fascist the Ultimate Warrior. When the guy was alive, he was an unprofessional egomaniac who was impossible to work with. He wished death upon the city of New Orleans because of homosexuality, which is ironic, as he was the gayest wrestler of all time. But the moment he dies, the rose-tinted glasses come on. The man was a politician who made life miserable for those who had to work with him.

I've never been ashamed of watching a “fake” sport, no more than for watching “fake” action star Harrison Ford run from a fake boulder. What shames me as a wrestling fan is financially supporting the horrible people who populate the business. I honestly believe that pro wrestling will only improve when everybody from the territory days is dead. That includes Triple H, heir-apparent to the WWE. Once all the sexual predators, steroid pushers, bullies, racists, egomaniacs, and guys with raging masculinity issues are gone . . . things won’t be perfect. Nothing is. But maybe the culture of death and exploitation will make way for something better. And if wrestlers like Bryan Danielson are an indication, it will.

Recently, I found a ticket stub in the bathroom at my dad’s house. It said, “Super Soaker Presents: WWF King of the Ring 1998. Civic Arena. June 28, 1998.”

I saw Owen Hart wrestle. I saw The Rock. I saw Vader. I saw Taka Michinoku. I saw Ken Shamrock and Jim Cornette. I saw Kane beat Stone Cold for the championship and I was PISSED. That was the show where Undertaker threw Mick Foley of the cage. I remember watching it from the cheap seats, that moment of terror, excitement, followed by . . . disappointment. I came to see a match and now they were wheeling out Mankind on the stretcher while Undertaker stood on top of the cage like some malevolent god. At that age, I couldn't comprehend what Mick Foley just did to entertain me. Then Mankind fought his way off the gurney, and the match continued, and from then on it was pure awe.

The Civic Arena is now the Melon Arena. Super Soaker, I hear, is back. The WWF is gone. They no longer produce the King of the Ring pay-per-view. I asked my dad if he remembered the show.

“That’s where Mankind went off the cage,” he said. "WWF was the only thing you and your sister could agree on. Glad you had a good time.”

It’s been years since I've spoken to my sister. But watching Wrestlemania live with friends was much like seeing King of the Ring with her. The awe, the spectacle, the storytelling. And hopefully in this boondoggle of a ‘Mania they’ve set up for 2015, there will be something to put a smile on somebody’s face. The best of wresting does that.  

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