Despite creating rumors that would be far less scandalous in our modern landscape of tolerance and acceptance, we felt it necessary to share a bus seat. We had a lot to talk about Tuesday mornings- feelings of urgency met with glee, but our enthusiasm did not match the tone of our verbiage: hushed whispers, occasionally spoken in code when thought necessary. We were discussing professional wrestling- specifically, WCW’s Monday Nitro- and in 1996, as high school students, being outed as professional wrestling fans would have made implicit statements regarding our intelligence, social acuity, and sexual experience.
Looking back, all the secrecy seems a bit overblown- who would have even known the names Kevin Nash and Scott Hall? Who would care? To the average person, professional wrestling is nothing more than another show on TV- one of a million. Looking back, it was less about getting caught– outed as wrestling fans- and more about how we were trained to feel about ourselves as wrestling fans. Years spent hearing that wrestling fans are pathetic idiots– that, “don’t you know it’s fake?”
What do you do when your kid takes an interest in professional wrestling? Asked the 1980’s Baby Boomer parent- the generation who definitely stood against tradition. The first generation who questioned the choices made before them- who were convinced of their own lost potential- and swore that when they took on the mantle of parenthood, that they would do better. And, like anything else, this monkey’s paw was just that, more often than not, leading to helicopter parenting, gifted children who were anxious wrecks, and a generation who resented being reduced to success objects by status seekers.
But how is this type of parent- paying for the private pre-school, having Ivy League day-dreams during fundraiser bake sales, soccer practice and kung-foo classes- how is this type of parent supposed to react when their child takes an interest in watching adult men, in varying states of undress, pretend to fight?
Absolute horror, thinking this single choice of time spent in front of the television will negate all the planning and effort- negate future potential; thinking this single choice signals something much larger- that their beloved child, their hopes and dreams made flesh, is in fact, a pathetic idiot. And how does this feeling manifest itself?
“You know it’s fake, right?” The bane of any child’s existence. Had it only been once- a single heart-to-heart; a promise made that, YES, we know this shit is fake– perhaps then we could all walk away happy. But, when it becomes incessant- every time- the groaning about how it’s just a phase and they’ll grow out of it. The shame felt in front of relatives; “no, no, he’s actually very smart…” It adds up. It becomes a heavy-weight for the young fan to bear.
And then your friends start moving on- going outside more, on their bikes, filling cups of water to throw at girls in white tank tops and esoteric fire rituals in remote parts of the woods… but didn’t they know it was high noon? Time for the superstars of wrestling to do their thing; title defenses and critical interview time; anticipated debuts and beloved old friends ready to remind us that they still mattered. Hogan slamming King Kong Bundy. Demolition decapitating the Brain Busters. The Ultimate Warrior beating the absolute piss out of nameless jobbers. This was must see TV… but the reaction when you reminded them was only disdain: Oh, you still watch that fake shit?
What were they missing? What did they not understand? Do they not remember the live PPVs we watched together- cherished memories, burnt into my brain; cherished memories that I consider inseparably tied to that time period; that I consider an integral part of who I am today? They suddenly considered these moments with disdain- as if we had been watching a children’s cartoon show, or Barney, or pornography intended for a sexual orientation of which we didn’t identify- some lethal combination of madness and shame. And you decide, then and there, to keep the loyalty to your true friends- the drug addled carnies- a secret forever.
And yet still, you’ve been subconsciously compiling a list of the times that maybe your friends were right; that maybe this was a show for babies. Watching Zeus wreck havoc on Hulk Hogan- Zeus, an actor from a movie, suddenly existing in the universe of professional wrestling- which you believed serviced a different layer of reality than that of the cinematic world- even if you weren’t able to explain it in those terms exactly. Watching Hogan team with that goofball Tugboat Thomas, while taking on old man Sargent Slaughter at Wrestlemania VII- your friend’s dad looking like a bigger physical threat to the Hulkster. Moments of shame that add up until a tipping point is reached: watching the Ultimate Warrior, a supposed victim of voodoo magic, throwing up goo at ringside. Maybe your friends were right after all…
Walking away is easy the first time and there’s no looking back. Professional wrestling once again becomes just another TV show– one of a million. Your parents were right: it was just a phase. The negatives outweigh the positives; there were more frequent moments that made you feel embarrassed and fewer that made the heart race and the blood pulse. Like walking away from all things left to childhood, you gave away your wrestling toys; trashed your collection of WWF magazines. You burned the boats and pissed on the fire. Just another part of growing up.
The next step will happen in ways unique to the individual. Something that catches the eye when flipping channels; perhaps overhearing a bit of chatter in the cafeteria; a television commercial; a Coliseum Video mistakenly filed in the “New Release” section of the local mom and pop. For me, it was Bobby Heenan’s words, caught by chance when flipping channels, on a live episode of Nitro that reignited the spark and provided the impetus to surrender the remote control and give my old friends a second chance; that night, Bobby was irate over the betrayal of Hulk Hogan.
Had Heenan misspoke? Betrayal and Hulk Hogan were opposing forces– impossible to be coupled together with Hogan cast as perpetrator- conceptually, the idea was akin to breaking a law of nature; defying gravity; dessert before dinner; dogs and cats living together. Not that betrayal was something foriegn to Hogan- every friend he’s ever had has turned on him (ironically, also in real life)- became deserving of his scorn, and got finished off with a big boot and atomic leg drop. Hulk Hogan- the asexual American hero- is not the catylist for betrayal; he’s the recipient of it.
There was something in the early summer air that night in June- the tide had changed; interest piqued. You put down the remote, closed your bedroom door, and set the TV volume to nothing more than a whisper; no one could know that your old friends were back- you had relapsed- and you were a wrestling fan once more.
This was about the time you began to learn that professional wrestling, at its very best, can be an art form– it is more than just play-fighting. Not just anyone can do it, as you assumed as a child; it takes skill and experience. You understand the genre as a canvas, and the canvas as a platform, for different styles and interpretations. Your appreciation for the craft grew as you were exposed to wrestlers who pushed the limits of what was possible beyond those who came before- wrestlers like Owen Hart and Chris Benoit; Eddie Guerrero and Brian Pillman. And you learned the toll that professional wrestling can take on the individual; all of these guys are dead.
But even if your newly discovered reverence for professional wrestling was as passionate as it was accurate; wrestling as part athletic performance, like figure skating or gymnastics; part emotional rollercoaster, storytelling comparable to television or film; and part carnival, bad guys antagonizing a crowd to the point of combustion- even if the nay-sayers, your parents and friends, weren’t seeing the genius behind professional wrestling at its very best- you learned, rather quickly, that no matter what you said, no matter how you explained it, you’re still the pathetic idiot– more so now that you’re taking the clown show seriously. Sorry, bucko, it’s still naked men play-fighting- it’s still fucking fake.
There are moments in life, however brief, that an unspoken sentiment is shared by so many that it becomes an energy unto itself- the kind of energy that’s propelled nations to fight wars and outsider candidates to win elections. At the end of the decade, professional wrestling- fans, wrestlers, and promoters- had something to prove. It wasn’t enough to kindly explain to the uninitiated that despite the predetermined nature of match finishes that this shit- the battering taken on the bodies of performers- was, actually, far more real than anyone knew. To chase the respect of those who will never care, violence needed to be amplified.
The rise of Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) may have been the direct result of this coalescence of energy. The convergence of two deeply felt sentiments: that a) professional wrestling was embarrassing because it was fake and the wrestling fan was an idiot for not understanding this, despite gladly acknowledging it any chance they had, and b) all those working in professional wrestling were performing on a show for children. The idea behind ECW was that they would explicitly define their show as one for adults, with a hard-R rating, and use profanity, sex, and violence as a means to achieve this end.
If Hogan’s transcendent moment of betrayal was enough to secretly engage the lapsed teenager, ECW became something they could proudly identify with: Sabu smashing tables, Rob Van Dam diving into the fifth row, Balls Mahoney destroying chairs on unprotected skulls; barb-wired and thumbtacks. Even their thirty-second commercial spots for mail-order VHS tapes screamed with sinister brutality, and was always sure to cut-out seconds before an act of horrifying violence was committed- tantalizing and enticing the blood-thirsty teenager- who’d dare his friends to sit through a “taipai death match,” giddily pointing to the explicit gore- what’s fake now, motherfucker?
The violence was what offset the shame. The violence was what made wrestling cool. The violence became addictive.
Two years later, there was a silent understanding that John should be the one taking Eric to the hospital- after all, he was the promoter of our very first JBW show; “John’s Basement Wrestling”- use of the basement meant to differentiate from every other idiot who thought they’d play wrestling by throwing terrible punches and denting cookie sheets. The basement, not such a bad idea; something that could be used year-round, with walls acting as pretend guard railing, miscellaneous items around for foreign objects- board game boxes as faux steel chairs, TV remotes for microphone headshots- a couch for high spots. We even had two older kids- local wrestling school trainees- who could be featured in our main event.
Like comparing the old monster movies- the Mummy, wrapped in toilet paper and Frankenstein with bolts in his neck- to the bloody slashers that came after, the contrast between our goofy headlocks and Earthquake splashes became jarring when Eric and Joe took the stage; jaws agape watching snap-suplexes on the concrete, powerslams and powerbombs- moves that men with more experience, more pay, and more motivation wouldn’t take in front of twenty-thousand people, happening ten feet away, in front of a dozen horrified on-lookers. Guided by adrenaline in calls that must have been made on the spot, heavy-weight steel chairs were dented over skulls… which is when Eric, as slyly as he could, produced a pair of scissors.
The blood was real, I excitedly told the girls we invited- the premise was a party in John’s lavish upper-middle class home; his parents on vacation; booze and beers to be had in the absence of supervision. The girls, single and ready to mingle, and now you’re the kid eating worms- and just as dopily unaware.
What was rightfully horrifying in retrospect only produced a sense of misguided pride. We had done it- we had put on a wrestling show- we had a match that rivaled anything on TV, even if only in brutality. The girls left us to it that night- to sweep thumbtacks and mop up puddles of blood- high on what we accomplished, high on professional wrestling. Their seats, empty at our next show.