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.