I can tell you, with exact certainty as to where I was and what I was doing, when the business of professional wrestling first actually crossed my radar. I was sitting in my cousin's living room, watching ESPNews. The date was June 25, 2007.
The first day of the dawning of a new reality for WWE.
I had no idea who Chris Benoit was, and I had no idea what his relevance to the business itself was either. All I saw was that a former pro wrestler had murdered his wife and kid, and then killed himself. I knew nothing about WrestleMania 20 and this photo:
would've meant absolutely nothing to me. If anything, it would've sent me entirely the wrong message. Instead of seeing a photo that is now heartbreaking in one regard (Eddie) and chilling in another (Chris), I would've seen that the man who had committed such a heinous crime was ostensibly the face of the company. (As far as I knew, that belt meant that he was Hulk Hogan) So, hearing about Benoit's pater familicide made me think one thing and one thing only.
"Wow. Wrestling is fucked up."
And for six years, I neither paid attention nor cared about this industry again.
College is an interesting place, because it is the only situation I can think of in the world where usually rational people, the exact kind of person you'd think would scorn wrestling as "fake" and "stupid", will proceed to commit antics (under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol) that would make even D-Generation X step back and go "Hey, now!" It's also a place of self-discovery, where we learn who we are, what we wanna do in our life, what the meaning to our life is…blah, blah, blaaaah.
I'll cut to the chase: College is where I learned who Mick Foley is.
I was digging through old episodes of The Daily Show, and came across the now-legendary segment where Jon Stewart decided that a child who refused to say the pledge of allegiance until gay people were treated better was in need of protection. Cue Stewart barking "FOLEY!" at the top of his lungs, the camera pans to the left…and I see one of the largest guys I've ever seen before in my life lumbering in front of a cheering audience. Now granted, I now know that wrestling is a business that lends itself to superhero physiques (especially in the past), but I guess the juxtaposition of big ol' Mick cutting a Cane Dewey-esque promo about defending the kid from bullies whilst shrimpy little Stewart pranced around like the love child of Brother Love and Paul Bearer (don't spend any more time thinking about that image than I did, which is to say, no time at all). The segment ends, and the first thing on my mind is "who IS that guy?"
Cue Googling…and googling…and googling…and the next thing I know, I'm getting myself slowly sucked into the same industry I would've mocked relentlessly as a little kid.
I suppose it was beneficial for me to start following the WWE tentatively while I was in college, because I'm able to look at it in a mindset that better appreciates the strange "Reality Era" we are officially in than I would if I were a nine-year-old wearing a "RESPECT THE BEARD" t-shirt. The worst-kept secret in the world that wrestling matches are scripted is common knowledge these days, so if you're going to derive any sort of entertainment from the business you have to completely remove that issue from your mind. Instead, I started looking at it from a (gasp) intellectual mindset.
That was partially helped by discovering The Masked Man on Grantland (his archive on Deadspin is even more impressive), a guy whose writing style is waaayyy overqualified to be writing about a business like this, and then digging through the years and years of footage and material on the internet. The greatest strength of the WWE as it consolidates its hold as the only real game in town in the western hemisphere lies in its absolutely massive video/tape library, a talking point (rightfully) played up relentlessly with the launch of the WWE Network. For skeptics like me, who have only cared about "real" sports their entire lives (Baseball, football, and basketball for me in that order of importance), this is the best thing possible. Because, instead of having to put up with a middle-of-the-year RAW where Michael Cole desperately tries to sell us on a match beyond saving as my "entry" into seeing what the big deal about pro wrestling is, I can just watch clips like this...
And wonder "Why is this such a big deal? What are the greater themes surrounding it? Who are the main characters? Why should I derive meaning from this on a personal level?"
If those sound like the kind of questions an overly-educated guy would be asking about the business, you're totally within your right (and are right) to say so. But by asking myself these questions, I am not focussing on the fact that Vince McMahon is holding Shane back from going after Austin (who, y'know, has been feuding with McMahon for an extremely long time at this point) instead of going in there and stopping Austin like any (in)sane person would, or that Billy Gunn's attempt at full mount is gawdawful at best and downright laughable when you realize he's doing it to Ken Shamrock, or that getting hit in the head with a steel folding chair like The Rock did would in reality literally fucking kill you. Instead, I can just focus on the fact that Mick Foley is gonna win the title in a moment that seems like it is scripted out of a movie.
And having removed those cynical thoughts from my head, I can do what I'm supposed to do: mark the hell out.
All of this is retroactive, because I never cared about wrestling until a year ago. And, like the people who have been following this business much longer than I, I groaned at the "Once in a Lifetime" mess, the reign of The Miz as WWE champion, every single joke out of John Cena's mouth…and more recently, grew increasingly annoyed at the perpetual screwing over of Daniel Bryan at every turn leading up to WrestleMania 30. Again, everything I say must be taken with the grain of salt knowledge that I am an unabashed outsider to the mystique of pro wrestling, but even I could see the gripe the fans had with what was happening: Here was Triple H sticking the title on a well-established (and incredibly boring) Randy Orton whilst remaining in the picture himself for ostensibly no other reason than a love of the spotlight, while stunting the growth of new wrestlers like Bryan. (Cue every Ziggler smark in the world nodding in unison) Then, they give Big Show Bryan's spot as the leader of the Yes! Movement, followed by an abortive heel turn to the Wyatt Family (which I still think was broken when WWE caught wind of Michigan State using the Yes! Chant), as well as a really bad feud between Randy Orton and a returning Batista for the title.
I can totally see long-time fans' complaints when they say that the company doesn't listen. I get it, I really do. But I'm starting to think that maybe they do listen, if in a rather confusing and obtuse way. Because to an outsider like me…all this crap flying around is really, really good television. "Does the WWE *really* hate their fans, or are so far removed from them that they don't understand what they want anymore? Or is this just a really complicated storyline? Either way…I…I think I wanna see where this goes!"
And that final blurring of the line between what is real and what is "real" convinced me to watch WrestleMania 30.
Of course, I had to spend some time catching up on the background to the various feuds going on beforehand, but that didn't take too long. But when it all began, it was unbelievable from start to finish. Because everything worked.
Triple H and Daniel Bryan put on a technically proficient wrestling match, which stunned me because I didn't think Trips was capable of something like that. A cynic can say that Bryan pulled that out of him, but moments like this...
…require highly talented performers on both ends of the move. That was a hell of a way to start off the main course. And most importantly, Bryan won. And that set the tone for the whole night. Because just like that, everything changed.
Did you expect to see The Shield crush Kane and the New Age Outlaws that quickly?
How about Cesaro doing, well, this?
Cena beat Bray Wyatt sure, but that was never the point was it? It was all about proving that Wyatt was incredibly dangerous. And for a man that gets as much flak as Cena does for no-selling his opponent's gimmicks/abilities, this was pretty impressive.
Brock Lesnar breaking the streak is an issue for millions (and millions) of other articles to write about, but looking at it from a slightly different angle, I see it as the culmination of a long process over the past year or so of the WWE doing what it can to level the playing field in keeping the willing suspension of disbelief alive. After all, it was only a few months ago thatWWE quite possibly fed Dave Meltzer false information to seriously damage his credibility as a "dirt sheet" guy. So if the one mainstay of WrestleMania has been broken, and the one guy we normally turn to in order to get spoilers is now unreliable, where does that leave us?
...In a world where (almost) everyone from the old guard of pro wrestling did the job to the rising new guard, from Daniel Bryan taking back the title he deserved, to John Cena's win inadvertently making the Wyatts even more dangerous, to Paige grabbing the Divas title off of AJ, to Alexander Rusev squashing poor Zack Ryder, to videos hyping Bo Dallas and Adam Rose...
Somehow, inexplicably, professional wrestling has managed to regain footing in the minds of its fans if not in terms of unpredictability, then certainly in the *potential* for unpredictability. And WrestleMania 30 will probably be considered "the turn" where we all realized that moment.
One final thought: there is no better example of this than the finale of the Orton-Batista-Bryan match. With Bryan, the internet-darling, indie-grinding, small, technically-proficient *wrestler* snapping the Yes! Lock onto Batista, the intenet-hated, alleged-politicker, traditionally large, ham-fisted *WWE Superstar,* followed by the latter tapping out, the WWE seemed to send the message "things are gonna be a little bit different around here in the future. We think you're gonna like the things you see." And I'll be there with all you guys cheering it on.
So, uh…heh heh...sorry I took so long to come around.