The Undercard: A non-wrestling fan engages with wrestling
By Brandon Weigel
Sep 30, 2015 | 3:00 AM
On Grantland, a writer named The Masked Man recently proclaimed that professional wrestling is more mainstream and popular than ever, thanks to major outlets (such as Grantland) taking it seriously, WWE's stars breaking through in both mixed-martial arts and Hollywood, and a culture of people embracing their own nerdiness.
ThinkProgress asserts that wrestling—specifically, a 1957 essay on the sport by French philosopher Roland Barthes—explains the phenomenon of Donald Trump. The boisterous business celebrity turned Republican nominee front-runner is a classic wrestler when everyone else in the field is a pugilist.
"Wrestlers know very well how to play up to the capacity for indignation of the public by presenting the very limit of the concept of Justice," Barthes writes. Once that fire is ignited in the crowd, "it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theater."
Fittingly, Trump, who has made several memorable appearances in wrestling, including one match where he and WWE CEO Vince McMahon had representatives in the ring fighting to see which mogul would have to shave his head, is a member of the sports entertainment company's hall of fame. Kinda makes sense when you think about it.
Anyway, the Masked Man's point about our culture of nerdiness dovetails with a particular phenomenon I've recently noticed among twenty- and thirtysomethings: Many who grew up in the golden age of what was then known as the WWF—roughly starting around the superstardom of Hulk Hogan in the '80s and ending with the "Attitude Era" that brought about the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock in the late '90s—are unabashedly into wrestling again. Maybe some of them never stopped, but they are more upfront about it, owning their fandom by broadcasting it on social media.
The group of people returning to wrestling includes two of my friends, who I joined earlier this month for two prominent events in Baltimore, WWE's "Monday Night Raw" at the Royal Farms Arena and Maryland Championship Wrestling's "Rally In the Alley" outdoors at The Avenue in White Marsh. MCW is a local semi-pro circuit that, in addition to its own talent, lures some of wrestling's former legends to make special appearances—sometimes to wrestle, often to host or guest referee or pop in to execute one well-known move before collecting a check.
Despite growing up during that aforementioned golden age—and the name of this column, which could refer to early matches of less prominence (but is instead a reference to races of similar stature in horse racing)—I never really got into wrestling. There was a point in high school when my buddies and I would watch, around the height of Triple H, Kurt Angle et al., but I never really followed it consistently. It had pretty much been off my radar altogether until my two friends became obsessives within the last year or two.
So I got tickets to these two events, in part, because I wanted to see if wrestling would take for me. That, and I kind of wanted to see what my friends were all hyped about. This is something I've been trying for a while. In 2011, these same two friends got me to go to WWE's Tables, Ladders and Chairs—one of the sport's pay-per-view main events—when it was filmed in Baltimore. Didn't feel it back then, either. More recently, I attended two MCW matches within the last year, prior to the "Rally In the Alley," because it is people watching par excellence. But I certainly didn't start following them to Joppa, Waldorf, Frederick, and wherever else they travel.
Know what I learned from attending two wrestling matches in one week? You can't half-ass it when it comes to being a wrestling fan. It was hard, at least for me, to drop in the middle of established storylines and give a shit about what was going on. The true fans really commit to tuning in regularly and seeing the human drama unfold before their eyes. Why they commit and what hooks them in, I still cannot say.
At "Raw," for example, when new superstar Seth Rollins came to the ring, my friends were going nuts—or "marking out," as it is apparently called. The name Seth Rollins didn't mean shit to me, and it was really hard for me to care that Sting—an old-school guy whose name even I remember—stole his statue and destroyed it. This was apparently a big deal.
The "Rally In the Alley" was a far more engaging spectacle for reasons beyond the action in the ring. Let me set the scene: The event was a quasi-pep rally for the kickoff of the Ravens season, but because it fell on 9/11, the match doubled as a tribute to fallen heroes. These ideas were merged in the circular logo on the flier, which featured the Ravens logo, and the tops of the Twin Towers flanked by American flags. The proceedings started off with wrestling's equivalent to the 21-gun salute—the bell was rung 10 times—and, during the main event, the crowd was led in multiple "U-S-A!" chants by WWE Hall of Famer and noted patriot Hacksaw Jim Duggan. So, yeah.
Unfortunately, the night also encapsulated many people's worst preconceived notions about wrestling and its fans, in that it was weirdly racist and sexist. Namely, two announcers trying to humor the crowd made a bunch of references to lesbian sex during a women's match—because it would be impossible to simply consider them as athletes. One of the wrestlers was part of a faction of African-American business executives cum wrestlers, Black Wall Street, prompting an announcer to quip, "Black Wall Street: The only place where you can put transactions on layaway," or something to that effect.