On Sunday in Atlanta, I attended Survivor Series along with my two radio co-hosts, as we knew we were guaranteed to see history. In the run-up to the event, the tournament underwhelmed, then provided three very entertaining semifinal matches, but the surprise factor had dissipated. You see, we thought the quarters, semis, and final should have formed the Survivor Series card along with the Undertaker showcase match with the Wyatt family. We wanted to see it happen our way, and when it didn't, we were critical.
But, after entering past the metal detectors and the extra layers of security and finally taking a seat, two people made our night, and neither was somebody we actually came to see.
What is your first lasting memory as a pro wrestling fan? Think back to that time, maybe that moment where you recognized that this concept was really for you, or when you watched it with your father, or when you first saw Hogan, or Andre, or Austin, or Rock, or Thesz, or Bockwinkel, or Dusty, or Cena, or whoever it might have been. The one thing to which we can all agree is that we weren't worried about congruency, decimal points, or the long term ramifications on the promotions we loved.
At that minute, we didn't realize that those companies might not be around forever. It never dawned on me that Jim Crockett Promotions wouldn't be there for me until my dying days. Perhaps for you it was ECW, or maybe you were a WWE guy or gal, through and through.
As we sat inside Philips Arena, we discussed the various scenarios for WWE Champion and what the best and worst business options were for Vince McMahon. We talked about what a mistake it would be to overthink it and get it wrong, and we shared our hopes for a Roman Reigns turn, but the potential likelihood of a Dean Ambrose turn.
All the while, a father sat next to us with his two sons. But first, before we talk about them, let me tell you about another father we met that night.
CNN Center was jammed most of the afternoon, full of WWE fans, mixing with dejected Atlanta Falcons fans after the home team lost a tough one to Matt Hasselbeck and the Indianapolis Colts. When the line was unthinkably long and prior to the doors being opened, we were finishing a quick dinner in the food court. Seats were at a premium, so we ended up welcoming a young father and his son to our table. We talked a bit about the terrorist threat, about the weather, and as we did so, the boy wielded a mile-wide smile.
At one point, the father asked us how long these shows usually last. We told him the show would be ending at 11, and the look on his face was priceless. We immediately knew who the fan was in the family, and who hated to be missing the Sunday Night Football matchup between the Bengals and the Cardinals.
But, I remembered being that kid. I remembered my father taking me to a WCW house show in Winston-Salem in 1990, then asking five heels (Sid Vicious, Dutch Mantel, the Nasty Boys, and the Iron Sheik) for their autographs as I was too nervous the next day when we encountered them at the Shoney's breakfast buffet.
*Plus, I was wearing my new Sting "Fatal Encounter" shirt, and he had worked Sid the night before. I was terrified. But Sid was generous, asking me to come over and say hello after my father went the extra mile.*
I also remembered my mom tagging along with me in 1996, just for the fun of it, and cheering the heels at Fall Brawl, particularly for some reason Diamond Dallas Page, because he was the biggest jerk.
Now in my late 30s, I respect and appreciate what my parents were always willing to do to support whatever nonsense I was a fan of, particularly pro wrestling. When I was a super-mark, they were there. When I started writing about it, they were there. When I became a part of the industry, they were there.
Flashing back to our original story, the lights went out and the Undertaker made his five minute entrance in Atlanta. Next to us, the two boys, as their father just sat back and watched, said the following, which, as the journalist that I am, I transcribe exactly as it happened:
"Ohhhhhhhhhh God. Ohhhhh my God. Yessssssss. Ohhhhhhhhhh. I can't believe ohhhhhhhh my God!"
Eloquence aside, these two children were in heaven, ironically while watching someone who always talked of sending his enemies straight to hell. The term "marking out" may never have been more accurate. They were blown away, because this was the Undertaker. I started to think "Wait a second, they've never seen the Phenom before in person." This was probably the one and only time these two boys would get to see him live, as his retirement appears imminent. Their reaction was at first loud and irritating, but quickly became endearing and hopeful, because they cared. They cared a lot.
Then to the main event, as Roman Reigns won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. The two kids went crazy, screaming at the top of their lungs, jumping on their chairs, hugging each other and their dad, who celebrated right along with them. Their favorite pro wrestler, their hero, he finally DID IT! Pure elation.
As the party continued next to us, we knew what was coming. For, as the pessimistic, often jaded fans many of us are, we looked at the clock.
It was 10:37.
The show wasn't over.
These two innocent kids had no idea what 10:37 might mean or what was about to happen to Roman Reigns. Then, Triple H came out. When Roman speared him, you'd have thought it was Christmas morning in seats 8-10 in 301. Not only had Roman won, he also laid out that dastardly mean bad guy.
Cue Brogue One. Stunned. Reigns kicks out, and the boys were excited.
Here comes the spear...no.
Brogue Two. 1-2...3.
The older son, who was likely ten years old, first sat up straight, mouth agape, motionless. His little brother had already begun to cry a bit. Then, the eldest broke down, as his arms clutched the sides of his head like the saddest pair of Beats by Dre in history, and he doubled over in agony. His head in his hands and bent over to his waist in a seated position. The two boys were devastated. Their father sat silently, checking on them, but letting them work through the emotions of the moment.
At the same time, we were firing out tweets decrying the logic behind putting Sheamus in that role. We were less than thrilled, because we had no interest in any match Sheamus could have as WWE Champion. We wanted the RTs, the likes, and the agreement of the opinion community, which was out in force.
But, as we left, we had to step back to the row behind us to exit, because these two kids were still suffering and weren't able to stand up and climb steps. When we walked into the concourse, we noticed one final thing. Another young boy, sobbing uncontrollably as his dad hugged him and told him "It's going to be okay. I promise."
The point of all this is simple. While we always look for the worst, anticipate the mistakes, laugh at 2.16, make fun of false promises in Orlando and Nashville, these kids believed. They believed all of it.
While we were forced to look at Hogan's unfortunate past, or Jimmy Snuka, or deaths of legends seemingly left and right, these kids believed. They believed all of it.
As we rolled our eyes at Sheamus, because "Ugh, what a stupid decision that was," these kids cried, because their hero lost the WWE Championship he so desperately deserved.
Once again, close your eyes and think back to that first moment you fell in love with professional wrestling. As video games have taken over, as DVRs and Netflix subscriptions and so many other a la carte options are out there, fewer and fewer kids are experiencing those things. The fan base is aging, and the optimism often feels fleeting and in a state of rapid disappearance.
But that seven year old in 1985, that young chap that watched in awe of Ricky and Robert, Hawk and Animal, Ric, Arn, Tully, Dusty, Magnum, and the flashier guys from up north that competed with them, I don't want to fully lose that part of myself. We saw a bad finish to a pay per view event. Those kids saw their favorite wrestler lose. And, he was cheated.
If only we could go back and be our younger selves again. We can't (at least not for long), but it's helpful and cathartic to keep in mind that through all of what you may deem garbage, even if with good reason...
Three boys are out there somewhere living and dying based on every match, every word, every entrance, and every move.
That's a nice thought.