When I was 15, a few mates and I used to backyard wrestle.
Like most kids who grew up through the nineties, we were obsessed with every iteration of wrestling – WWF, WCW, ECW and even the small hall UK stuff. We even joined an online forum where you would “role-play” as a wrestler by writing essays, the quality of which determined how successful your wrestler was. That’s how deep we were.
But flying in the face of the “please, don’t try this at home” warnings that accompanied every Raw, Smackdown and pay-per-view event, we decided to go all in and try it ‘for real’. The venue was a friend’s big west London garden, the ring his trampoline. He had some steel chairs in the basement and his mum provided the cordial and Kit Kats; always left us to it, Debbie, never wanting to be privy to this nonsense.
We hit B&Q to buy plywood to make tables, cheap tube lights to smash over our backs and even thumbtacks for that authentic Mick Foley experience. There were baking trays which accounted for most of the concussions to Ben, our own New Jack wannabe, and a stereo system for entrance music. We even had a commentary table and – yep – I helmed the coverage and, in true wrestling fashion, it would never last the show.
We’d film the whole two hours and watch it back later over some underage beers. The hilarity of it all was not lost on us given the expected amateurism, off-key American accents in promos and comical production values, even if we did have our own “pyros” which amounted to a few Catherine Wheels.
But there was always something intangible missing that meant it always felt flat, even though we were proud of creating this tacky replica of something we loved. And it only became evident to me what it was while watching the WWE host two of its flagships shows behind closed doors. Crowd noise.
Friday night Smackdown and Monday night Raw went ahead as the rest of American sports shut down their operations amid the coronavirus pandemic. Both took place at the WWE training facility in Orlando, Florida, rather than their originally scheduled venues of Detroit and Pittsburgh.
The WWE made a note of specifying only “essential” personnel would be in attendance. And yet, as the shows went on, bulked up by the presence of Triple H, John Cena, Roman Reigns, The Undertaker and Stone Cold Steve Austin, it became clear those most essential to what was taking place were sat at home.
Professional wrestling has always worn the tag of “sports entertainment” with pride. But when a product that relies more on the mechanics of a soap opera than the unpredictability of sport, you need fans to take up the mantle. And while it still aims to satisfy both, perhaps for the first time it was unable to justify the “entertainment” part.
Unlike other sports, which lack intensity without a crowd, wrestling’s issue is that it’s more of an “audience”. A knowledgeable entity well-versed in the rhythms of what is occurring in front of them; those who know what to chant and when to crescendo. Aware of the difference between a definitive finisher and how to execute the perfect “OOOOOH” at the end of a pin-fall count they know is never going to make it to three.
The wrestling fan is a unique blend of believer and non-believer. They know the blows don’t hurt but appreciate the toil of wrestling can be life-altering and, sometimes, worse. The accept results are pre-ordained but feed off the plentiful drama. And so they understand the onus is on them to sell it as much as those in the ring. Participation comes from everyone in the arena, not just those in the squared circle.
Try this as an exercise. Think back to the most memorable moments in wrestling.
Hulk Hogan body-slamming Andre the Giant. The Undertaker throwing Mankind off the top of the cell. HBK clinging onto the top rope to stay in the ring and flipping The British Bulldog over the turnbuckle to win the 1995 Royal Rumble. The first time Rocky Maivia makes his way down the runway at Survivor Series. Goldberg going nuts in the Elimination Chamber. Mae Young giving birth to a hand.
Our memories of those are scored as much by Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler’s gasps and “BAHGAWDS” as the pop from an audience who consistently bring us the most authentic experience of being there when we are not.
As such, Friday’s and Monday’s shows were emotional husks. Occasions without the usual deafening buzz or appreciative cheers. Devoid of heart and love. What played out before us was a painful reminder of the am-dram nature of pro-wrestling.
The Undertaker’s appearance behind The OC after the lights cut felt tired. Cena’s ring walk quicker with no pop to hold and no fans to high-five. Triple H’s traps looked like they had the air let out of them. The women’s bouts, the most consistent for high-flying action, were uncharacteristically bland having developed a greater reliance on audience appreciation over the last five years. Even knowing there would be no “BOTCHAMANIA” sign popping up following a mistake hammered home the understandably sterile nature of these shows.
Nothing made the point clearer than Steve Austin’s 3:16 Day celebration. At another time, this would have a been a seminal moment in modern-day WWE: a high-profile personality beyond wrestling’s four turnbuckles, loved by all, reading out his manifesto for 16 March to be a national holiday (3/16 in the US, of course) to commemorate not just him but his intergenerational legacy.
But in the world wrestling has created for itself, if a potential Hall of Fame WWE segment from one of its most revered hall-of-famers takes place in front of nobody, has it really happened?
At present the intention from the WWE is to push on. This Friday will see former New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowksi make his ring debut and, at the time of writing, next month’s Wrestlemania 36 is still scheduled to go ahead.
In a statement released on Monday, the organisation stated the following: ”In coordination with local partners and government officials, WrestleMania and all related events in Tampa Bay will not take place. However, WrestleMania will still stream live on Sunday, April 5 at 7 pm ET on WWE Network and be available on pay-per-view. Only essential personnel will be on the closed set at WWE’s training facility in Orlando, Florida to produce WrestleMania.”
That, of course, could change pending further government restrictions or, of course, if someone within the WWE family is struck down by coronavirus.
As Austin closed out Raw by calling for a “HELL YEAH”, stunnered commentator Byron Saxton and drained beer after a beer in front of no one, the futility of it all hit home. Even one of the most loved face-or-heel wrestlers, whose entire shtick is not giving a f***, serving up the classics that made him great was unsettling to a distanced audience who, for the first time, saw him simply as one man too far removed from his people.
For a make-believe world in a constant battle for legitimacy and acceptance, neither can be achieved when those who provide it ringside are unable to do so. And that’s the bottom line.
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