The Pro Wrestling Fan, A Most Misunderstood Species
No one chuckles if you admit to faithfully following the NBA. You don't receive a look of concern should you reveal your love of Breaking Bad. Confessing that you are a fan of all things pro wrestling, however, earns you both reactions.
It's no wonder there are so many closeted wrestling fans. I don't blame you if you hide your Kenta Kobashi Burning Spirit DVD collection when a prosective love interest comes over. I understand if you choose to only wear your New Day "Booty-Os" T-shirt in front of fellow WWE enthusiasts. I've been there. As much as folks scoff at the (awesome) ridiculousness that goes on in the squared circle, many of us decide it better to keep our wrestling love under wraps.
I so often receive the same look when I tell someone about my wrestling fandom: There is a slight raise of the eyebrows, a touch of dumbfoundedness, a sliver of pity. Their mouth opens slightly, preparing to ask the questions the brain is still trying to funnel into something minimally insulting. Inevitably, they settle on the same phrase: You know that stuff is fake, right?
I once watched Bray Wyatt summon lightning from the heavens and command fire inside a closed arena. The bearded cult leader now possessed these powers thanks to harvesting the souls of his enemies Undertaker and Kane.
Papa Shango once put a curse on the Ultimate Warrior, leaving him vomiting backstage. Kota Ibushi has twice wrestled a blow-up doll named Yoshihiko in a pair of hard-fought battles.
Yeah, I know wrestling is not on the up and up.
People who let themselves become entranced by fictional worlds housing brain-eating zombies, dragons, mutants, telepaths and flying heroes in spandex somehow find it hard to understand that one could enjoy wrestling despite its scripted nature. Othello, Captain America, Jackie Chan movies. Some of the best things in life are "fake."
That element is a major part of why wrestling is so powerful. It is allowed to strive for the most dramatic, most thrilling contest every time out. Sports delivers great drama by chance; sports entertainment does so by choice.
Folks often dismiss wrestling because they view it through a sport lens.
There are highly trained athletes performing feats of strength and agility, but it doesn't pass the sports smell test. The lack of true competition, the fact that the outcomes are predetermined is what keeps it out of the "real" sports club. You know, the same one that curling belongs to. We don't look at wrestling as a fake sport, though, but as a different beast altogether.
Pro wrestling is a mishmash of worlds, a collection of art forms fused together. It is an athletic endeavor and a theatrical art, a vaudevillian performance and a rock concert. It's that blend of components that appeal to many. Fireworks shoot from an entrance ramp as a masked man flips over the ring ropes. A musclebound gladiator delivers a diatribe about his rival fresh off kicking a man in the jaw. Narcissists, back-alley brawlers, swindlers, tyrannical executives, monsters and princesses all populate the same world. And it's beautiful. To be a fan of that isn't juvenile, it's wanting a visual, visceral feast. It's savoring a unique art form. Some people like spectacle with their violence, moonsaults with their underdog stories, sports with their entertainment.
Wrestling is decidedly and emphatically a low-culture entity, but it is just as much a stirring brand of storytelling. It delves into themes of betrayal and justice, rebellion and patriotism.
It's hard to see that right away. It's filled with testicle-centric jokes and food fights. Its gladiators are oiled up with drenched hair and bear names that sound like they belong in porn: Dolph Ziggler, Tyler Breeze, Summer Rae, Zack Ryder.
Moments after I raved about wrestling's theatrical nature to my wife, comparing the medium to Shakespeare and Greek tragedies, she walked in on a giant wrestler charming a snake puppet that stretched over another wrestler's arm. The airy song floating from the wooden flute inspired the snake and the grappler to overcome his opponent.
Wrestling, I had to add, is also flat-out stupid sometimes.
We squared-circle enthusiasts know that, and accept it. It's part of the package. Some bouts are comic relief; some are savage slugfests. The same art form that produced the moving story of Shawn Michaels forcing his mentor into retirement, telling him he loved him just before knocking him out, is the same one that featured "God" as Michaels' tag team partner at Backlash 2006.
Fans embrace wrestling's disjointed nature.
And contrary to what many believe, its demographic isn't largely comprised of white trash. Wrestling fans aren't simpletons or booger-eaters, as Colin Cowherd would have you believe. The industry boasts a diverse, global fanbase.
Jon Stewart is a vocal appreciator of the medium. Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan loves wrestling so much that he took a front-office job for the Total Nonstop Action promotion. After watching The War to Settle the Score in 1985, Andy Warhol famously said, "It's the best I've ever seen in my whole life. The most exciting thing." Pro athletes, from Aaron Rodgers to LeBron James, have proudly sported WWE replica championship belts.
After their NBA championship in 2013, Lebron James bought the Heat WWE style championshp belts.
Yet, I keep hearing about how niche the fanbase is. Never mind that three million people watch Monday Night Raw every week, that WWE plays to packed arenas in anywhere from London to Brooklyn, Pasay to Las Cruces, that 101,763 fans attended WrestleMania 32 this year.
If you imagine the typical wrestling fan as a Coors-drinking, toothless redneck, you're drawing from a stereotype, not the truth. If you think WWE is something one stops watching once childhood is over, your adult self is missing out. There's an entrancing, diverse, nutty carnival world awaiting your eyes. Those who are intimate with that world may never tell you as much. There is scorn and mockery awaiting them.
But no matter. There's no sense in feeling guilty about one's guilty pleasure. I let people who binge-watch The Bachelor tell me how dumb wrestling is and let the irony just hang in the air. Even if we don't fit in among the roaring NFL fans or impassioned sci-fi nerds, there is always the sanctuary of ringside, where we can flaunt our love of Sasha Banks or marvel at a picture-perfect Phoenix Splash together or chant "This is awesome!" until our throats are sore.