Former WWE superstar and head enthusiast Al Snow once tweeted something to the effect of: “Remember how much more you enjoyed wrestling before you became an expert in it?” I’m off somewhat on the wording, but the general point is that we all had more fun watching pro wrestling/sports entertainment before we, as a fanbase, immersed ourselves in all aspects of the business by way of the internet and social media.
While it’s true that the cat was out of the bag long before YouTube started posting shoot interviews with disgruntled former stars and every wrestler under the sun got their own podcast, it’s impossible to deny that the give and take relationship of wrestling fans and wrestling personalities by way of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has changed the business in some fundamental ways.
There are the simple examples of performers whose on-screen characters are engaged in an ongoing conflict posting pics of themselves together on Instagram, as Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman famously did at the heat of their rivalry a few years back. There are countless occasions where vicious heel characters do kindly things like visit sick kids in the hospital or tweet friendly greetings back and forth to other wrestlers. And, of course, there is the forced dichotomy of the on-camera characters of the McMahon Family and their real-life deeds furthering cancer research, supporting the troops, and booking and presenting of the WWE product.
Sometimes these lines are smudged further when the art of WWE TV imitates the life of what we all know, or at least think we know, about Vince McMahon and his offspring. We are seeing this right now with Vince appearing in two different angles playing the same “spoiler” role for fan-favourites Becky Lynch and Kofi Kingston. In both instances, Vinnie Mac is playing a character that is out of touch with fans and driven to put the superstars he favours in big matches, regardless of what fans think, because he deems it best for business. That is what all of us in the world of pro wrestling punditry think he does, anyway.
Now, I’d like to point out that that opinion of Mr. McMahon absolutely comes from a real place. We all sat through CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and the endless push of Roman Reigns. We have all seen him chew up and spit out NXT talents and book the RAW tag division into oblivion. But it is an interesting sign of the times to see WWE creative use the disgruntled voices of their online detractors as source material for storylines because storylines are what holds this business together.
They are also the reason for this piece and for my desire to re-enter a world where I exist in at least a partial state of kayfabe. I want to go on the stories again. I want to believe in wrestling.
Belief is actually the hardest thing to explain to a non-wrestling fan when justifying love of this form of entertainment. Why would I, an adult person of moderate intellect watch something I know is “fake” and enjoy it? Why would I want to watch an athletic contest where the result is predetermined? Of course, you could make the same argument against being a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but that’s not the point. The point is that at its best, a pro-wrestling match is a simulated, athletic contest that is a mix of theatre, combat sports, and comic books. It’s drama. It’s performance art and, when its done right, you forget what you know, sit back, and enjoy the ride.
Unless you happen to know too much and that ability to believe is stretched to a breaking point that sucks you right out of something you would otherwise really enjoy.
The nail-in-the-coffin example of this occurred for me last week when a group of NXT wrestlers, including my two favourites, Tomasso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano, appeared on Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live. Booking aside, seeing guys I know work super hard and put on amazing matches get the call up to the big show (shout out to Paul Wight) should have been a moment with all the warm fuzzies for me. However, two things got in the way.
Number one, as mentioned above, I have seen how badly NXT talent have been handled on the main roster. I also “know” how Vince McMahon feels about smaller, undersized workers and they don’t get much more undersized than 180 pounds of Johnny Wrestling.
The other factor, which brings us back to the age of social media, is that Johnny appeared as the NXT North American Champion, even though the spoilers of him losing it at the last round of NXT tapings were already out there.
Instagram knows me really well. To be honest, I’m not hard to figure out. I like comics, wrestling, action figures, and US politics. In the “things you may like” section of the search menu, it provides me equal doses of all those topics, perfectly curated by its algorithm to maximize my eyeballs-to-screen ratio for the day. I don’t seek out spoilers, but when they are there, what am I going to do?
So, when my favourite wrestler appeared on the largest platform of his professional career proudly carrying a championship belt that I knew he already lost, I was forced to not only take the leap of belief I engage in week to week that punches without bruises hurt and that the sound of a well-placed superkick is foot-on-jaw and not hand-on-thigh. I was also forced to pretend I didn’t know what I knew because I had seen it on the internet.
The word “spoiler” had never carried more weight than it did at that moment.
But I didn’t learn, got burned again for this round of NXT tapings, and then it finally hit me: didn’t I like this stuff more when I wasn’t an “expert” in it?
Granted, knowing about the business and being fascinated by its interworkings is different from having results spoiled by some jerk on Instagram, but I’m sure that putting a few layers back on the onion couldn’t hurt. As I made the very grounded in real life concerns to take a social media detox break, bringing back an element of surprise and suspension of disbelief to the world of sports entertainment was totally part of my calculation.
Reading that last part back, it’s kind of a ridiculous thing to say in print or out loud. That as I make a choice about the way I live my life and direct my time, one of the things I am considering is how I will better enjoy a bunch of giant sweaty men in tights fake punching each other. But, doing something ridiculous sort of comes with the territory of being a fan in the first place. So if I’m going in, it may as well be all the way.
Til next time, see you around the loop.