*as in the observation of, not necessarily participating in
Wrestlemania 33 is set to go off on Sunday. When I found out my softball game this Sunday is scheduled for 9:30 AM, I literally said “Yes! I won’t miss ‘Mania!” and my brother Matty scoffed at me.
My love affair (and that’s what it is) with professional wrestling actually bears striking similarities to the kind of trajectory found in archetypal tales of star-crossed lovers. In the most basic sense, my relationship with wrestling the truest form of if-you-love-something-let-it-go-and-if-it-comes-back-to-you-it-was-meant-to-be I’ve ever experienced in my life. At some point over the last two years, I realized that my on-again/off-again viewership with wrestling coincided with significant lifestyle changes.
I was first hooked on wrestling in the late ’80s. My earliest favorites include Hulk Hogan, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, “The Macho Man” Randy Savage, Tito Santana, and Bret Hart. I was young and of course thought the entire thing was real. In fact, of all the stories that hooked me, it was this one:
As part of the build to their legendary Wrestlemania III match, Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat worked an angle which involved the former crushing the latter’s throat with the timer’s bell. Just fast-forward to about 45 second in and prepare to die. As a kid? I was all in on this. I remember seeing this segment when it aired and thinking Ricky might never talk again. The last thing I remember from this time period was the Hulk Hogan/Ultimate Warrior double-clothesline from their bout at Wrestlemania VI in April of 1990. But that’s about right because that’s right around the time I started playing baseball.
I didn’t watch wrestling during the ’90s. I missed the debuts of Monday Night Raw and Monday Nitro. I was too busy with Little League and then high school baseball to do much of anything else. Even in retrospect it’s difficult for me to grasp how much time, energy, and emotion I spent on baseball from the ages of 9-18. It was nearly a decade of courtly love. Anyway, I found my way back to wrestling during my junior year because of a small handful of high school classmates who were also into wrestling. There were three on my baseball team: Donald, Willie, and Jeremy. There were more in my classes: Kevin, Brett, and Darnell. I can’t speak for them, but I know that they sucked me back in because they were all talking about something called the “NWO” and when I saw it for the first time, I was all “Holy sh…” We would watch pay-per-views at Kevin’s house with his de-scrambled cable.
My three favorite wrestling-related memories from this period of my life:
3. During baseball practice, Donald, Willie, Jeremy, Matty, and I would take turns climbing the fenced walls inside the storage room that used to be at the back of campus near the batting cage. One guy would be laying out on the foam pits (for the high jump) and the others would jump from the second story to deliver elbow drops, leg drops, and splashes. The very first time, Donald climbed to the second floor and told Willie to lay on the foam. When Donald was near the top, Willie sat up as if to move away. “YOU BETTER STAY THERE, WILLIE!” Donald shouted from the fence. “AHHHHH!” Willie said. Eventually Donald bombed Willie and everything was fine. From that point on, we did that crap every day.
2. I want to say it was Survivor Series 1997 – the Montreal Screwjob – that we were watching at Brett’s house. At the time, Brett had a notoriously fussy neighbor with an extremely short fuse. We had had run-ins with him before over noise. Well, at the end of the PPV, we’re all in disbelief at the screw job, but then we hear Brett’s neighbor from the outside. He’s screaming. He’s yelling at Brett’s dad, at us, the whole thing. Then someone – probably Joel – said “You heard that, Brett? He just questioned your sexuality!” It should be said, I didn’t hear if Brett’s neighbor did this. “What? Are you sure?” Brett asked Joel. “Yes. I can’t believe you didn’t hear it,” Joel might have replied. Soon somehow the rest of us got behind it. Because back then, Brett had a short fuse, too. And then in an amazing turn of events, Brett was up and running out of the house to confront his neighbor. It was incredible. My only regret was that we didn’t have entrance music cued up for him. So Brett gets to his neighbor and unleashes a few choice words, then DROPS THE DX CROTCH CHOP ON HIM. We cheered Brett on from inside his house. To this day, it remains one of the funniest things I have ever seen.
1. During the senior assembly in the last month of high school, Darnell, another guy I can’t remember, and I were nominated in the hoss election category of “biggest wrestling fan”. I knew Darnell was going to win, so on the way up to the front of the gym, I whispered to him “When you win, I’m going to turn to shake your hand, kick me in the stomach, then stunner me.” He nodded. Sure enough, Darnell won. I turned and extended my hand, he kicked, he hit me with the stunner, and I ate it in front of the entire student body. Nobody in administration ever said a word to us. Maybe they were wrestling fans, too.
Then I went to college and didn’t watch any wrestling regularly for over a decade.
CM Punk brought me back to wrestling in 2011 because he did something I didn’t think possible: he captured my imagination.
CM Punk was great on the mic (and overrated in the ring), but what he was doing felt fresh to me. At this point, I was over 30 and would begin the most intense study of wrestling I had ever done in my life. I spent hours Googling CM Punk, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, and Dean Ambrose. This led to video clips of them in indy promotions under different names. This led to Googling those promotions. This led to the Bullet Club and AJ Styles. And where I am today.
There is no doubt that baseball was my first love. During my teens and early ’20s I cared about baseball with an intensity that is uncommon for me. But then over time, my feelings ebbed. I no longer live and die with the outcome of every Mets game. I haven’t played fantasy baseball in years. Honestly? I don’t miss it at all. I think part of the reason for that is the static nature of baseball. It never changes. The names do. But the game, the strategy, the approach never do. So how is it that I am still crazy about wrestling?
The answer, I think, helps explain two things. First, I think it explains why I am a bigger wrestling fan now that I ever have been. When I when I was a kid and I believed wrestling was real, I cared deeply about the outcomes and storylines in terms of good vs. evil, wins and losses only. In my teens, I was drawn to the outsized personalities, the depravity of the Attitude Era, and possibly maybe also scantily-clad women. Now, though, I am interested in two different things: athletic ability and meta-storytelling. I care most about the motivations behind storylines, why certain wrestlers should win or lose, and why on earth would they decide Shane McMahon is a good opponent for AJ Styles, the best wrestler in the company, damn it.
Basically, wrestling always changes (country/western Undertaker became supernatural Undertaker became American Badass Undertaker became just the Undertaker), but also never changes at all (since he’s still the Undertaker and is going be in another one-off Wrestlemania match) – but the manner in which I am able to appreciate it has. I love wrestling for all the old reasons, but I love it for a whole bunch of new ones, too. When I came to this epiphany, when I thought about wrestling in these terms, it made me legitimately laugh out loud. Because this is exactly how I would describe the way I feel about something else: