this will be the fifth (NXT counts as WWE, right?) promotion I’ve seen live
this will be the fifth (NXT counts as WWE, right?) promotion I’ve seen live
In June 2015, I discovered that Myke Hurley, a UK-based professional podcaster whose Relay FM Podcast network hosts a ton of great content and whose I’d followed for a bit, was a fan of WWE’s NXT brand. NXT was — and may still be, we’re not exactly sure — the developmental system for the WWE. What AAA Baseball is for the MLB, if that’s your cup of tea. After I brought our shared fandom up, he followed me back on Twitter, and we began to talk wrestling sporadically.
Every now and again the topic of him starting a pro wrestling podcast would come up, but the truth was that Pro Wrestling is a different kind of nerdy content that doesn’t quite fit the kind of tech nerdy subject matter that is discussed on his RelayFM podcast network.
But in December 2015, Myke started talking about pro wrestling on his Analog(ue) podcast, a show about feelings. In producing this episode, Myke admitted that this discussion would lead to more debate about him starting a pro wrestling podcast. Myke then went to see NXT Takeover: London, an event I’d be watching from my couch. As wrestling fans do, we text about the event until our thumbs were numb.
This April, Myke went public with the news that he had told me over Twitter DMs. That he would be starting a wrestling podcast on Jason Snell’s The Incomparable podcast network, and it would be called The Ring Post.
I tell this whole story because the first full episode of The Ring Post goes live tomorrow, and I’m a contributor! Myke and I talk about the WWE Draft that will take place on July 19, and Myke and Polygon’s Dave Tach talk NXT and more. Thank you for reading these posts and listen here!
During my year between full-time jobs, I managed to somehow meet a ton of people who also liked wrestling, always by accident. In 2015, I gathered with many of them at one of their apartments in Queens, NY to watch that year’s Wrestlemania, which built tension around a main event where many expected Brock Lesnar to drop the belt to the muscle-bound Roman Reigns, who many believed was Vince McMahon’s favorite.
WWE managed to ruin Reigns — a statuesque mass of Samoan manliness with a long-flowing mane — by hot-shotting* him into title contention the second he returned from an injury. Making matters worse, they had him deliver horribly written monologues. That time he said “sufferin succotash” is permanently etched into the minds of the #NeverRoman crowd.
Reigns’ impending win felt inevitable, and inevitability breeds contempt (ask, ask Hillary Clinton). Roman is still jeered to this date, a rare feat for someone marketed and booked as a good guy.
Well, that night Roman’s ascension was deferred as the WWE engaged one of its best deus ex machina’s of all time. As Lesnar and Reigns lay in the ring, both out of breath and tired, it appeared as if the match were winding down. Paul Heyman, Lesnar’s boisterous manager, yelled “COVER HIM, BROCK!” which could be read to suggest that by not covering Roman, Lesnar created an opportunity for his opponent. Reigns would likely land one of his doofy finishing manuevers (the Superman Punch is where Roman cocks his right forearm up and down as if it were a gun before performing a jumping punch, and it is as stupid as it sounds) on Lesnar, and the value Lesnar accrued by breaking the Undertaker’s streak would be moved to Reigns.
And then Seth Rollins’ entrance music blared, and the blonde-streaked-hair villain sprinted to the ring, golden Money in the Bank briefcase in hand. The Money in the Bank briefcase is a trophy of sorts that grants its holder — who gains it by winning a typically brutal ladder match — a championship title shot of their choice at the time of their choice. Rollins, ever the opportunist, decided to wedge his way into the title match and turn it into a three-way.
At this moment, I probably shrieked, and looked around the room. Despite the fact that a villainous moment was taking place, the room was filled with ear-to-ear smiles. Disaster was averted, Seth Rollins kicked Reigns out of the ring, performed his curb stomp finisher on Lesnar, then Lesnar reversed a second curb stomp into the start of his own F5 finisher, putting Rollins on his shoulders. Reigns stormed into the ring, speared Lesnar, and then Rollins hit Reigns with the curb stomp and pinned Reigns for a count of 3 and the championship, saving us from the boring outcome that most had resigned themselves to.
Rollins celebrated his victory on the stage, swinging the WWE Championship around like a 5 year old with a plastic guitar. This massive surprise moment was wrestling at it’s best, both engaging and surprising, and I was surrounded by friends. It was a good day.
Next: The Ring Post
* In response to a message left by an anonymous reader that disputes my chronology on this, I’ll quote Reigns’ wikipedia entry:
After the dissolution of The Shield in June 2014, Reigns (now a singles wrestler) was quickly inserted into world title contention that month, and he headlined the next two pay-per-views; the first when, two weeks after Rollins’ betrayal, Reigns won a battle royal on the June 16, 2014, episode of Raw to gain a spot in the vacant WWE World Heavyweight Championship ladder match at Money in the Bank, but failed to win the title during the main event match.
You claim that Roman spent time in a long feud with The Big Show before his title contention, but that feud took place in 2015, long after the aforementioned stint at the top of the card.
When I say “wrestling contains multitudes,” that’s not just a cue for you to roll your eyes, it’s my way of saying there are more than a few kinds of pro wrestling.
If you’re familiar with any one kind, it’s likely what WWE does, which is boringly called WWE-style. There are some outliers (flippy high-fliers such as Kalisto and Neville and ) but WWE ‘superstars’ (they’re not called ‘wrestlers’) tend to be large, buff alpha-male looking dudes who you’d guess spend their whole lives downing protein shakes and lifting weights.
And those WWE stars tend to have very similar matches that mix striking attacks, rest-holds, submission locks and bodyslams. WWE may sign ‘hybrid’ athletes that can perform death-defying flips like Seth Rollins or have a wider build like Kevin Owens, but the style is kept somewhat similar to make a reliable show that fans can tune in for and get what they expect. Like how McDonalds Big Macs are the same in California and Kentucky.
As of July 19, the company’s main broadcast programs: Raw (Mondays, 8 to 11 pm, USA), SmackDown (8 to 10pm, USA) will both air live, each with their own separate rosters.
But once you get outside of WWE, you see that there’s a variance of what wrestling can be. Chikara is the most glaringly different promotion, as its characters are far more cartoonish. Some talent wrestle under Ant personas (i.e. Fire Ant), wearing antennaed masks.
One of their recent champions is Princess KimberLee, whose appearance resembles a generic Disney Princess costume, and Hallowicked, a man who wrestles in a costume that bears resemblance to a pumpkin, recent won the title from KimberLee. I’ve seen one Chikara show live, it was in a recreation center in the Bronx, possibly the smallest venue I’ve seen wrestling performed at.
New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) is the most successful promotion in the east, and many of its talents fight using a technique called Strong Style. It emphasizes strikes that often look (and sometimes are) extremely painful. NJPW wrestlers are broken down into two divisions, Juniors and Heavyweights.
I’ve never seen NJPW live, but I have seen some of its athletes perform live, thanks in part to a working relationship with the Ring of Honor (RoH) promotion. Not only did I see RoH’s Supercard of Honor (its event that takes place during the same weekend and in the same city as WWE’s Wrestlemania), but I also attended some of its TV tapings at Terminal 5, a concert venue in New York City.
Possibly my favorite wrestling on TV is the non-traditional Lucha Underground. While other companies I’ve referenced are year-long touring promotions, Lucha tapes its episodes in the same location, a dilapidated-looking warehouse in the working-class neighborhood of Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. Its episodes are presented in seasons, and unlike all other wrestling, there are off-seasons where it doesn’t air new episodes.
Whereas WWE is helmed by insane manic millionaire Vince McMahon who is also an on-screen performer, Lucha Underground does things a little differently. LU lists film-maker Robert Rodriguez and reality tv show mastermind Mark Burnett as an executive producers, but its on-screen ringmaster is the bloodthirsty Dario Cueto, who is portrayed by actor Luis Fernandez-Gil.
Cueto is a great amalgamation of every trope of a wrestling promoter (shamelessness, greasy hair, greed and loves of violence and manipulating his performers), and his long-term storyline of his caged little brother made for excellent television.
Lucha is also the oddest bird of the flock because of some things it borrows from Lucha Libre wrestling. Instead of a tag team division where wrestlers compete in 2 on 2 matches, Lucha Underground has a Trios division comprised of teams of three wrestlers. LU is also completely OK with inter-gender wrestling, something that is understandably not everyone’s cup of tea. Once you realize that these are all performers and nobody wants to harm each other, it’s easier to watch.
This practice is partially a result of the show not giving women their own separate championship title for women to fight for, so they challenge for all of the company’s titles. One of the best matches of the year so far was an NO MAS! match featuring Lucha Underground’s Sexy Star and Mariposa, a bloody grudge match that was set up over a number of months, and referenced Mariposa torturing a captive Sexy Star, a moment we never actually saw.
And at the very bottom of this list is the last thing I would recommend to a new viewer: TNA, also known as Total Nonstop Action. TNA presents a weekly program called Impact, which is taped in a location called The Impact Zone, a soundstage in Orlando’s Universal Studios theme park. Some defend TNA, but most malign it for the years of sloppy booking, overpaying too-old WWE talents and poor production quality.
While the first of those charges no longer stands, the show’s current announcers are arguably the worst on modern wrestling television and the crowds that attend Impact tapings always detract from the product because TNA can’t even sell tickets to tapings. Its roster is filled with talents who deserve better, including former WWE talents Drew Galloway, Ethan Carter, and Bobby Lashley, who are all shining here more than they did in WWE.
Next: Surprises Abound
At the end of the 2014 Royal Rumble, I was dejected that Daniel Bryan wasn’t the surprise thirtieth entrant, and that the most obvious ending happened, with the boring adonis of a wrestler Batista (you know him as Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy) going over.
This was yet another WWE live event I watched from a bar, a bar that also included David Shoemaker, arguably the most prolific wrestling writer in the world. I talked to Shoemaker a couple of times throughout the night, and even offered to sell him my tickets to Wrestlemania 30, as the currently scheduled headline match of Randy Orton vs Batista already bored me into submission. It made no sense, as audiences hated both wrestlers, and a battle of heels (villains) made no sense as the headlining fight for what should be the biggest event in WWE history.
Shoemaker didn’t take my offer, and why would he? the guy would get floor tickets for free through his job at Bill Simmons’ Grantland. The next night, though, I got more reason to sell my tickets as reports broke that CM Punk left the WWE. I bought the ticket to Wrestlemania because I’d never been to one, nor had I ever been to its host-city, New Orleans. “Punk could still return,” I said multiple times over the months leading up to Wrestlemania. “It could all be a work,” I would plea, hoping that Punk’s disappearance was planned.
But during the months between January’s Royal Rumble and April’s Wrestlemania, plans changed. Chants of “Dan! iel! Bry! an!” and his “YES!” from the audience became so loud and unstoppable that the WWE reportedly removed Bryan from a scheduled rematch with Sheamus (who beat him in a record time in 2012) and placed him in a “win and you’re in the main event” match against WWE’s real life Executive Vice-president of Talent, Live Events and Creative, Paul Levesque, better known as Triple H.
But I had another reason to go to Wrestlemania: meeting internet friends. Some of them I met online through a podcast, and I’d wind up meeting two of that show’s hosts and a few of its fans, and have more than few drinks with them all. I’d also wind up walking around Bourbon street with another wrestling friend I made on Twitter.
That was all secondary to the wrestling, though, and did I see a lot of wrestling. It all started with Supercard of Honor VIII, an event put on by Ring of Honor, an indie wrestling promotion. It took place in Louisiana’s John A. Alario Sr. Event Center, a high school gymnasium that didn’t exactly fit a fight card that included a Ladder War match. And then came Wrestlemania, where I sat in a decent seat in the Superdome, next to a young kid and his mother who didn’t have a damn to give.
Over the next four hours, he and I sat amazed by events including Daniel Bryan winning the WWE title, Cesaro winning the first ever Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal and the biggest shocker of them all, Brock Lesnar beating the Undertaker and breaking The Dead Man’s undefeated streak. Strangers who saw Lesnar on a plane asked me what this giant viking of a man was doing here, and I said “oh he’s a part time wrestler who is definitely going to lose.
Why was I so sure? The Undertaker’s streak was important and valuable to the company, so why give that win to someone who isn’t a true employee? It’s not a great investment.” So when Lesnar did the unthinkable and ripped the streak out of the company, the shock was palpable, and reported in mainstream media.
But my favorite moment of the night happened during the Vickie Guerrero Divas Championship Invitational, a bout that was fought by 14 women wrestlers, who were fighting for what many, derisively, called The Butterfly Belt. And how could anyone not laugh at the lower-back-tattoo-looking pink, purple and sparkling championship belt. It was rightfully seen as a symbol of all that was wrong with how WWE handled female talent, and has thankfully since been replaced.
But that kid I was sitting next to, he hated AJ Lee, the then Divas Champion. A diminutive superstar who was better at giving promos than being a convincing fighter, AJ Lee was hated by every single opponent in the match, and didn’t even need to submit or be pinned to lose her title. So the kid next to me says he hates her, and that he’ll kill himself if she wins. I warn him, “that’s serious language, man. I think she has a pretty damn good shot at winning, you might want to think before making this kind of promise.
Why was I sure about AJ? Just like with Lesnar, I had a logical argument. None of her opponents had any storyline momentum going into this event, and I had a hunch that meant Ms. Lee would win, and that the following night, Paige (the women’s champion from WWE’s developmental program) would be called up and start a feud. The latter in fact came true, and Paige won the title the same night.
And I was right about AJ winning as well, as she applied her signature Black Widow submission hold on Naomi (one of the more athletic competitors) and then moved Naomi’s own arm, slapping her hand down to deceive the referee into thinking that Naomi had submitted. It was a deliciously concocted finish, and I had a good laugh because my new friend was so angry that I was right. I told him it was OK, though, that he didn’t have to keep his promise.
I don’t recall this story because I saw what a child couldn’t, but because he was a more pure fan than I. He cheered for the heroes and booed the villains.
At its best, wrestling can enable these moments to be created. Just like any sport, drama or comedy can. Just like how people debate how Breaking Bad should end, or if the Warriors deserve to lose following their showing of poor sportsmanship in game six of the 2016 NBA Finals. Which is why I don’t begrudge Vince McMahon for eschewing the term Pro Wrestling in exchange for the Sports Entertainment label he created.
I recently marked the fifth anniversary of being a regular viewer of WWE’s Monday Night Raw. I didn’t talk publicly about being a pro wrestling fan until about half-way through my current run, but on Monday, June 27, 2011, it pulled me back in.
I was lucky enough to channel surf upon one of the most interesting moments this business saw in years. My days as a wrestling fan began in high school, and lay dormant until that night. I kept up with the company by checking results online, but never saw anything that intriguing.
And then CM Punk, a wrestler covered in tattoos and visibly not on steroids, sat cross-legged at the top of Monday Night Raw’s entrance ramp and delivered a monologue that’s now known as “The Pipe Bomb.”
He performed this speech at a man lying ‘unconscious’ in the ring, who had just been put through a wooden table. That man was no ordinary wrestler, but John Cena, the one current WWE employee that regular civilians might recognize.
This was before Cena’s turns in Trainwreck and Sisters, when the guy was simply the jorts-clad hulking Ken doll of a man that sat comfortably on top of the ranks of WWE wrestlers.
Why was this CM Punk monlogue so important? How did it turn me from an interested party to a regular viewer? It’s because Punk broke the fourth wall into a billion splinters, as he declared:
I don’t hate you, John. I don’t even dislike you. I do like you. I like you a hell of a lot more than I like most people in the back.
I hate this idea that you’re the best. Because you’re not. I’m the best. I’m the best in the world. There’s one thing you’re better at than I am and that’s kissing Vince McMahon’s ass.
Up until this moment, many wrestlers had opposed Cena, and all told him they were better than Cena. Not only were they always proven wrong in the end, but none outted Cena’s success as a byproduct of Vince McMahon, the aging and insane decision-maker CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment. By admitting this, Punk declared what most already knew: that the industry is not a sport, but a performance.
This speech is such a milestone in the history of pro wrestling that it’s annotated on Genius. Punk’s words were so beloved because of the heaps of fans who had grown bored with Cena, who was then a rather vanilla, stale character that won so often that a LOLCENAWINS meme evolved.
By the time Punk ended his promo — his mic was cut off by a backstage producer — I was back in, and unbeknownst to even me, I was all in. Wrestling adapted to meet me mid-way. Through CM Punk, wrestling was finally ready to give viewers some credit and treat us like adults (though it wavers on the latter).
Over the next five years, CM Punk won and lost the WWE Championship twice, and left the company. He’s booked to debut in the UFC later this year, and a heavy underdog that I want to succeed even though he left.
In slightly less surprising news, John Cena would evolve into a remarkably more interesting wrestler.
I even got comfortable telling my existing friends that I watch pro wrestling.
What a fantastic weird week.
I remember January 29, 2012 in two ways. As a gravely sad night for my family and yet another crazy night for pro wrestling.
At the time, the only way I could watch a PPV special event was to find an illegal and choppy stream online, as these monthly specials ran upwards of $45 and rarely delivered on their promises. So on that fateful evening, I planned to go to see the Royal Rumble PPV at a bar, a practice I’d only just heard of. Watch wrestling in a packed room with other fans? Sounded delightful.
And then we got the phone call with the news of my dad’s twin brother Pat passing away. It was gutting. Pat meant the damn world to me, and after getting that news, I certainly didn’t feel like going out. Staying at home with my parents felt damn more appropriate. My parents actually knew better, and encouraged me to go out to watch wrestling.
The only viewing party I could find took place at Highland Park, a bar on 34th and 3rd avenue that is no longer in business. I arrived late, the place was packed, not a single seat available, and that brought me down another level. As each match — and I don’t remember any except the Rumble itself — passed, I slowly calmed down.
And then the Rumble happened, and it’s the kind of match that necessitates an explanation. It starts with two wrestlers in the ring, and every 90 (or so) seconds, another enters the arena until 30 (except that time it was 40) have joined the match. Each wrestler’s theme music plays, they run to the ring and entrants are only eliminated by getting thrown over the top rope and having both feet touch the ground.
The Rumble’s rules lead to comedy (see Kofi Kingston’s inventive ways to avoid having his feet hit the ground), chaos (30 wrestlers in a single match?!), drama (the winner goes on to challenge for a championship in a main event at Wrestlemania) and often disappointment. Why disappointment? Because wrestling fans love to predict surprise entrants and winners, and that creates expectations that aren’t met.
In 2012, I and other fans at Highland Park were disappointed that the match was won by Sheamus, the pasty-as-fuck Irish brawler that many fans are bored with. We expected the returning Chris Jericho would win the match, which would then setup a dream match between the Jericho (an all-time great known for top-notch technical wrestling and a brilliance on the microphone) and CM Punk, the then-WWE Champ. When Jericho returned a few months prior, he worked a smiling and speechless gimmick until one Monday Night Raw when he said “This Sunday at the Royal Rumble, it is going to be the end of the world as you know it,” which everyone saw as a sign he would be challenging CM Punk, who called himself “The Best In The World.”
WWE, possibly aware that so-called “smart fans” believed Jericho would win, placed him in the finish of the Rumble against Sheamus. After a series of near-eliminations that found Sheamus repeatedly clinging to the ring’s ropes to stay in, the match ended with Jericho getting kicked off of the ring apron and onto the floor. The smoke from the celebratory was still clearing as those of us who thought we knew everything were scratching our heads wondering “Why did that happen?” (for many it wasn’t the first or last time).
As a competitor and a performer, Sheamus’ stock wasn’t so low that fans shouldn’t have thought he had a chance, but the whispers of a storyline pointed the other way. And by this point, I had fallen into the mess of it all.
A bar filled with like-minded wrestling fans screaming at the top of their lungs at each and every turn was unlike anything I’d ever enjoyed. Reactions to all 30 of the Rumble’s entrants and its 29 eliminations leave no room for focus. I didn’t have a seat to my name, but the whole of the 2012 Royal Rumble defined escapist media for me. My thoughts turned back to the reality of my uncle’s passing during the subway train ride home. But I knew that watching wrestling with others was an experience I needed more of.