The end of the year isn’t just a time to rate your favorite matches, but a time to reflect on improvements. But not all new year’s resolutions need to be focused on shedding pounds or finding true love, as I think now is as good a time as any to reconsider our role as fans in pro wrestling.
I use the second person, saying our, intentionally, as I’ve got room to grow too. It’s probably a part of why I wanted to talk to so many people about this topic, as I’ve corresponded with some of my favorite minds in this industry, including Progress co-owner Jim Smallman to podcasters Kath Barbodoro and Stella Cheeks to two of my favorite referees in the game today.
Before we get to the advice, please know that I dreamed this up with the intent to make things better. I’m not here to name names, or shame people, but more trying to be extremely earnest.
As we enter what could be a banner year for wrestling (SmackDown on FOX, All Elite Wrestling incoming and who knows what else), I thought we’d want to think about what we bring to the wrestling we attend live and in person.
“IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.” or “‘shouting stuff to demonstrate that you know things about wrestling isn’t interaction.”
This story doesn’t exist without the episode of the Wrestlesplania podcast where co-host Kath Barbadoro talked about how fans need to spend less time trying to get themselves over. The above quote, “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU” was her answer when I asked how a fictional TED Talk slide deck, given to wrestling fans who attend the same local shows they do, would begin. To try and suss out ideas, I asked that same question to each person I talked to, to see what they’d say.
Barbadoro explained, “You attend a wrestling show to witness a performance, and while part of the fun of wrestling is that the audience is permitted and often encouraged to interact with that performance,” but, and here’s the big twist for some: “the audience reaction and interaction should still be about serving the experience as a whole, not about serving your ego as an individual.”
Her advice? Barbadoro, a comedian in real life, says “If you want people to laugh at your jokes, try an open mic (where they probably still won’t laugh at your jokes because they suck, but at least that’s the appropriate venue for them).”
Oh, and the long-form version of this — “shouting stuff to demonstrate that you know things about wrestling isn’t interaction” — comes from Josh Bevan, the founder of Riptide Wrestling in UK. And it’s a message I want to drop-ship to every single person who shouted “Husky Harris” at Bray Wyatt.
Further, Bevan notes that some fans need to know when not to shout: “One thing I hate is when a performer has crafted silence to deliver their own dialogue or a finger break spot or whatever and someone uses that airspace to shout something. That is an awful and needless disruption to what people are meant to be paying their money to come see.”
I’ve seen a lot of that behavior, but the worst case of it actually happened at a WWE Hall of Fame ceremony. When Jake “The Snake” Roberts was giving a highly emotional speech, audience members kept yelling inane shit throughout the venue. I cringed so hard I think I broke some of my own teeth.
”Wrestling is meant to be fun” or “Go with it and you’ll have more fun.”
The first of those two sentiments comes from Jim Smallman, the co-owner of the UK’s Progress Wrestling, and the latter comes from Rob Blatt, who works as a referee on the indie scene (and just appeared as a ref at Evolve 118, where Eddie Kingston laid him out with a chop) and the “House of Glory Management Representative,” which makes him the general manager of that New York-based indie promotion.
Smallman found that worth shouting out because “I really don’t enjoy a certain section of wrestling fans [who are] hating everything that happens in wrestling.” Unwittingly, Smallman began to remind me of a moment of my own year: “I’m fine if someone doesn’t like me or my company, or didn’t enjoy one show more than another, that’s fine. But it’s the constant breaking down of everything to a point where some fans don’t seem to enjoy anything in wrestling.”
A brief aside: after TLC 2018 was over, I was griping in a Slack I run for The Ring Post (a podcast I co-host), about how the booking just handed Asuka the belt, which prompted my co-host Myke Hurley to reply “YOU’RE NEVER HAPPY!” as I had plenty of reason to celebrate, considering how the win gave me another point in our pick’em league.
Smallman continued, saying “Makes me wonder why they bother! For me, wrestling is the most fun form of entertainment there is, which is why I try to be as positive about it.” Which brings me to my resolution: I know I can be a bit too critical sometimes (though I don’t know if I’m the kind of fan he’s talking about) and I will stop being so damn negative all the time.
Blatt’s advice, “Go with it and you’ll have more fun,” speaks to the responsibility of the audience, who have a certain amount of power to make sure they themselves have a good time. Elaborating, Blatt says “Don’t annoy your neighbors, but don’t sit on your hands either. Everyone is there to have fun and the more you allow yourself to relax and get into it, the more fun you’ll have.”
The only negative stories that independent wrestler Razerhawk shared with me stem from a similar issue, regarding fans who are “purposefully disengaged,” which sounds like how Randy Orton’s been operating his while career. These people, Razer said, “paid to come see wrestling—part of that experience is interaction. If you’re gonna show up to a wrestling event and act ‘too cool for school,’ you may as well just stay home and watch it on your couch. You’re not impressing anyone.”
Also “if you can get a few friends together,” Rob’s got a great idea for making indie shows more enjoyable. “Find the wrestler who obviously has the least amount of experience on the show and either cheer or boo them the same as you would a main event name.” As long as you do this with a full heart and wholesome intent, you’ll be OK: “I know this sounds like an Improv Everywhere prank, but seriously, give this a try some day. Chant their name, pop for their moves, no matter how good they might be. Watch the rest of the crowd come alive when you do that. Create something special and your enjoyment will increase tenfold.”
Define “Don’t be a dick!”
I also asked Smallman for a little more definition of The One Rule of Progress — “don’t be a dick,” — which the crowd shouts in unison at the start of every show. “I’m not a religious man,” he told me, “but I’m all for the business of treating other people how you’d want to be treated, and being considerate of everyone around you.”
Further, Smallman elaborated “That’s the most concise way I can pass on that statement and make it as secular as possible. Just don’t be a dick. It’s a pretty easy rule for all life, not just wrestling.”
”In fact, people have used the Progress rule as a I’d have to see the context that something like that occurs in,” Smallman told me. And as I typed that out, I was reminded of one time I was attending a wrestling show at a swelteringly hot Brooklyn gymnasium, and heard some guy in the crowd make some catcall-esque shout about one of the women in the ring. Out of instinct, I piped up, yelling “DON’T BE A DICK!” and there was a slight laugh in the crowd and we moved on. I probably would have forgotten that even happened, were it not for a friend reminding me later that weekend.
But there’s a risk for self-policing to go wrong, “veering into bullying or a pack mentality,” as Smallman says. He’s proud to say he’s never seen that happen at his shows, but he once “saw one guy at WrestleMania booing a little kid because the kid loved Roman Reigns, and if you do something like that you really need to have a long, hard look in the mirror at yourself.”
”SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL INDIE WRESTLER” — D, a fan
While I know plenty of people fully satisfied with just going to top tier promotions, this advice from my friend D, a long, long time fan, rings true. They went on to say “Indie wrestling is where the bones of feds like WWE are created, and by supporting shows, wrestlers, and companies, that’s a way to ensure you see people you like on a larger stage someday, if that’s what they choose to do.” As in, it’s up to the fans to provide encouragement and positive feedback to talent they want to see thrive and succeed, as the response from the fans can help propel a talent upwards.
But that advice is also about the hard truths. Breaking down the expenses of your average talent and promotion, D said “Wrestling is an expensive business - training, traveling, gear, merch and booking fees are costly both monetarily and time-wise. Spending 15 bucks on a show and buying a 20 dollar shirt, if you like someone, is a small price to pay for what you’re contributing to down the road.”
Personally, I’ve only been into the indie scene for about two years, but I have to agree with D’s message. Consider the blind item that spread a while ago that concerned a wrestler asked to work a show for a fee that was a fraction of the gas money it would take to get there. At the end of the day, fans declared they thought wrestlers should definitely make more money (which I agree with), but nobody seemed to offer a solution, rather than just yell at promoters online. So, at the end of the day, buying that shirt isn’t just a way to treat yourself, it’s the best way we have to directly support those we want to see succeed.
”Wrestling is for everyone.” — Stella Cheeks or “Pro wrestling is here for you” — Bryce Remsburg
This shouldn’t be a rocket science, but certain older fans need to be a bit more accepting of the younger audience. This is pro wrestling, not Game of Thrones or some gritty R-rated movie: we’re invading their territory.
As Cageside’s own Stella Cheeks (who also hosts Not Your Demographic) explained to me, “One time at a Rise show they were doing a bit in ring honoring a little girl who beat cancer (Dancer beating cancer). Taya was in the ring with her and they were doing some ballet because the little girl was a dancer.” Sounds pure and wholesome and great, right?
Of course, it all started to go wrong, as “Three jerks in front of me kept making jokes about Taya being a man and then started making fun of the little girl. I called them out on it, telling them that it was NOT COOL to make fun of a little girl with cancer,” which should have been it, right? Well “one of them told me he beat cancer so it was ok.” Stella tried to explain that wasn’t enough, and they continued to argue online, but let’s think about this, with an interest in saving people time and energy and being better people.
Maybe, if people kept their more tasteless jokes to themselves, we would all be a little happier and spend time watching the content we’re here for. I know nobody actually enjoys WWE’s Komen for the Cure segments, because wow that organization isn’t as noble as it claims, but you’re not going to make fun of the women they interview who beat breast cancer, right? I follow some cynical tweeters, but I’ve never seen someone stoop that low.
I wanted to speak to Bryce specifically, because of his length experience at Chikara. “When a newbie fan yells a curse at CHIKARA, the rest of the crowd often polices for us, and lets them know that isn’t cool.” And yes, that might be the antithesis of cool for some, but Bryce explained the Chikara experience by saying “Bottom line, we want everyone to feel welcome. Don’t be a jerk, and respect the parameters of a PG movie.”
There’s even a rhyme, Bryce says: “I’d tell the fans the same thing we tell all of our talent - “when in doubt, leave it out,” he told me. And when Remsburg said “Respect everyone’s beliefs. Respect everyone’s space,” I was reminded about how certain audience members can make others feel uncomfortable. If you’ve ever seen or heard (or been) the shouter at a show, you know what I mean.
Yes, I’m sure the folks at GCW and such are blanching at the thought of a G-rated wrestling experience, so I’ll make the advice here as clear as possible. Read the room. If you’re watching a death match, I’m sure foul language is acceptable. The performers you’re enjoying can educate you on what your responsibility is. When I was at an MLW taping, hearing Sami Callihan’s rage-filled monologues, for example, I knew that an acceptable response would not be polite either.
And as for how to create a good environment?
I asked Stella about ZELO Pro, a new promotion in her area, that manages to put on a good time. “Honestly,” she told me, “the best thing is that the shows are short. That sounds shitty, but some indie promotions have shows that are like 5 hours long.”
I’d never actively thought about that corollary, but come to think of it, I’ve always seen the most annoying fan behavior at shows that were insanely long.
Stella continued, “Zelo puts on 4-5 matches, they are all really fun and I never feel like I’m trapped. Plus their focus on women’s wrestling has drawn a pretty positive crowd. Quality over quantity man. Don’t give your audience time to be dicks, entertain them and get them outta there!”
And that reminded me a lot of the best Evolve shows I’ve seen at La Boom, where the company tends to put on 2-3 hour programs, with an all killer no filler mentality.
Policing promotions for who they book
Throughout the last years, we’ve all learned a lot about the personal lives of pro wrestlers, often times peeling back hideous personalities and actions. But as these wrestlers continue to get booked, it often falls to fans to raise a stink.
Barbadoro sees this as different from fans being full of themselves at shows: “I want to make clear that I’m not talking about fans criticizing wrestlers or promotions for doing things that are ignorant, bigoted, or unethical. I think that kind of criticism can be really positive and necessary.”
”It’s really hard to be a fan of wrestling and not end up inadvertently supporting some pretty shady characters,” Barbadoro explained, “I’m not saying everyone in wrestling has to be a great person in order for me to enjoy their work, but it’s pretty staggering how hard it is to avoid people who’ve been accused of rape, domestic violence, or associating with nazis on wrestling shows.”
When I asked D about companies that book talent that fans don’t feel comfortable around, they explained the issues at hand. “My personal feeling is that if I am uncomfortable with a talent I won’t spend money on that show,” which is a good way to vote with your wallet, much like supporting the talent you want to see.
D knows, though, it’s not that simple: “I’ve been approached by other fans who want to see another wrestler on the card. I realize that seeing your favorites is sometimes a rare opportunity, and it’s hard to pass that up; at the end of the day, I think we all have to choose what we can live with.”
I myself have had to handle this issue lately, and I’ve decided to avoid those shows that feature talent who make me uncomfortable (for a variety of reasons) as a fan. If there was a surprise booking, though, like that time a very much unwanted Michael Elgin was booked on a mystery card show at AAW. The background, if you’re unfamiliar: Elgin’s spent the year in a near exile from US promotions, after being accused of covering up a sexual assault of one of his students, and then suing one of his accusers.
@MichaelElgin25 just showed up at #AAWShowdown and the reception is not warm pic.twitter.com/cfPMqFKA4F— Russell’s Pro Wrestling Treaties (@PPPpodTweets) February 18, 2018
Stella Cheeks also mentioned this incident, saying, “If they show up unannounced (ehm ehm AAW) then I think turning your back or sitting down, leaving the room, etc, are all appropriate. It’s also within your right to complain to management.”
Speaking of complaining, that incident at AAW led to a volatile reaction, as the crowd turned hard, chanting “FUCK BIG MIKE!” repeatedly, and one fan stood and turned their back to Elgin’s match. A piece of advice, though: don’t turn your back on a performer unless you’re out of arm’s reach from the performers. You don’t know the mental stability of these people.
But Blatt knows it’s not as easy as that sounds. When it comes time for a fan to voice their mind to a company, he’s got somewhat surprising advice: “Be polite at first. Send a Facebook message, an email, whatever it is, but say it in private first. When you make a big deal in public, you’re more likely not going to be listened to.” From personal experience, I can attest to this being true. When you’re a loud fan at a show, promoters can either not hear your words because you’re in a big crowd, or they’re too busy to take notes.
Not that it should be on the fans to do this kind of work. Stella Cheeks explained that promotions should be held accountable, saying “As a producer it is your responsibility to make the environment pleasant for you audience and your performers. I’ve had to ban people at my burlesque shows before or move our show because a venue was treating us poorly.”
And while that might sound like more work than the people in charge have time for already (if I could tell you about the weary look I got when I brought a legit gripe to management), it’s ultimately to the benefit of those in charge. As Stella told me, “It’s hard and really sucks to be put in that position but you chose to be a producer. It’s part of the deal. If your audience doesn’t feel safe, they won’t have a good time and they wont come back. That’s literally money from your pocket. You should do it because it’s the right thing, but if that’s not enough do it because it’s your money on the line.”
Fans aren’t the only ones who raise grievances, as Blatt told me “I’ve walked out of three different wrestling companies because I felt uncomfortable with how the company handled something, be it how they treated the wrestlers, how they treated accusations of sexual assault in their locker room, or just how they operated.” He’s also got a no-fly list: “There are also some people who I won’t perform with and I’ve let promoters know that if it comes up. Whenever I do that, I know that I have to be at peace with not being on those shows.”
”There are several individuals on the “do not fly” list at CHIKARA for this very reason,” Remsburg told me. “The fans should ABSOLUTELY hold the wrestler accountable, for better or worse, everyone is responsible for their own actions.”
What’s the point of all of this?
I don’t want to come across as someone trying to ruin wrestling, I just want wrestling to be better in 2019 than it was in 2018. And sure, not all of that is in the hands of us, the fans. Nobody, it seems can stop WWE from getting that Saudi blood money, and neither can we stop the impending return of Good Try Terry, or as you might know him, Hulk Hogan.
But what we can do, is help improve the mood at wrestling shows. As Razerhawk told me “We want our fans to be able to enjoy the event regardless of their race or gender. We strive to craft a product that you’d feel safe bringing your children to, and one that you wouldn’t feel embarrassed to bring your grandmother to as well.”
If you have friends who don’t watch wrestling, and I’m sure you have at least 1, think about the prospect of bringing them to shows where the environment is less toxic, and less embarassing. The more, the merrier, as they say. Oh and as for promotions that don’t seem to care about the fan experience, they’re following the Late Era WCW example, and they’ll take care of themselves.
Credit for all images to Henry T. Casey, except where otherwise noted.