Let me take you back to 1997. The WWF (as they were known back then) were due to be hosting their first UK show in years, ‘One Night Only’, in Birmingham. My home town. The headline match was Shawn Michaels vs The British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith for the European Championship.
I’d started to get in to wrestling. It was having a bit of a revival and, aged 10, I was swept away by the characters. Larger than life, yet, at that age, completely believable. I was incredibly excited to find out that Shawn Michaels and The British Bulldog were doing a promo event at Birmingham Town Hall on August 31st…and my Dad was going to take me to it.
But, then…tragedy. Princess Diana dies in a car crash overnight. The country comes to a stand still. I still remember getting up early, seeing writing crawling across the bottom of the TV when watching Nickelodeon advising to put on the news and going to wake up my Mum and Dad to tell them. I look back now and think they must have been fuming with me for waking them up at 7am on a Sunday for that.
The Michaels and Bulldog event is postponed out of respect. My opportunity of seeing these people in real life is gone. Or so I think. A week later, they do the promo event in some run down industrial estate on the back of a van. From the Town Hall to that. All just to make sure the fans had that moment. That little bit of entertainment while promoting their event.
I remember when I saw The British Bulldog. He was massive. He looked more like a super hero than a real person. Even Shawn Michaels, regarded as fairly small in those days, looked huge. They were larger than life in character, larger than life in person.
The first match that truly got me addicted to the WWF was a few months prior to this event. It was at Wrestlemania 13. Bret Hart vs Stone Cold Steve Austin. They’d had quite a rivalry and this was the key moment in it. Hart entered as the babyface (good guy, for those not in to it) and Austin the heel (bad guy). It was a submission match, the winner would be whoever made the other quit. It was fast, it was hard hitting…it was incredible story telling.
In trying to win, being so desperate to win, Hart started to do things associated with heels. He used dirty tactics. Austin wouldn’t give up. He showed determination and grit. He kept getting up, kept going. The fans started to change tact. The final shot of the match was Bret Hart holding his sharpshooter finisher on Austin, Austin screaming in agony with blood pouring down his face…but he still never gave up. He passed out. The match was ended. Hart won, but Austin never quit. After the bell, Hart tried to attack Austin again…the crowd fully turned against him. The hero had become the villain, the villain became the hero.
Obviously, this is all planned. Whisper it quietly…but wrestling is fake. However, that really doesn’t matter. The story they told was unlike anything else. It was convincing, it felt real…and it created a superstar in Steve Austin.
It was the storytelling that got me hooked. I loved seeing how the stories unfolded and then how those stories transpired in to the ring. Austin would go on to have a legendary rivalry with the owner of the WWF, Vince McMahon. Disgruntled colleague vs terrible boss. It worked because so many people could relate to it. McMahon, when behind his people, would be abrasive to Austin…but when Austin broke through and got to him alone, he’d cower. Character based stories.
When they came to the UK for One Night Only, the British Bulldog was the champion. He got a heroes welcome due to being from England…Michaels, on the other hand, booed. In the end, through cheating, Michaels won and became European champion. The crowd threw bottles, programmes, food…Michaels (and the rest of his group) just fed off it. They embraced it. It was amazing heel work, amazing character work. As a viewer, you genuinely hated him…and he wanted you to.
I watched the WWF/WWE religiously in those days, starting to tail off from it all around 2004. I’d still buy the games – just always enjoyed them – but rarely, if ever, watched the shows. I’d normally just end up playing one of the games, feel nostalgic and seek out specific matches on YouTube.
Through doing that, I eventually got sucked back in to the world of sports entertainment and WWE. I became hooked on WhatCulture Wrestling’s YouTube channel…Adam Blampied, Adam Pacitti and others all created content I found hilarious…and also became almost addicted to Brian Zane’s YouTube channel, Wrestling With Wregret. I would watch list videos, get nostalgic over it all, and end up seeking out more videos of matches and promos. Before long, I started to pay more attention to the modern era of wrestling. Without really knowing it, I’d reached a point where I knew about every key character…without actually watching Raw or Smackdown. I still watch those YouTube channels now, along with Cultaholic and Inside The Ropes, and I would honestly recommend supporting them all.
It felt a bit like a dirty secret at first as I started to watch the WWE YouTube channel, watching every highlight video from the previous shows. I kept thinking, “I’m not a kid anymore…I should be past this”…but there I was, spending my days off watching recaps of shows. Now I look at it and think that, maybe, that’s why I watch it. It takes me back. That little bit of child left in me comes back to life when I watch WWE. I can forget about other things by watching something completely ridiculous. I can be the big kid again. From a mental health perspective, the WWE works wonders. It’s almost like a fantasy world at times and it enables you to switch off.
When I was younger, I watched the wrestling for the matches. I wanted the stories but, really, I wanted to see people like Jeff Hardy jump off 30 foot tall ladders more. Now, I rarely watch a full match. There are a few…most recent ones I’d recommend to anyone are any of the AJ Styles vs John Cena bouts, Tyler Bate vs Pete Dunne on NXT Takeover and, away from WWE, Okada vs Omega for New Japan…but mainly I watch the promos, the build up.
There are a few stories I’m invested in currently, but the biggest one is that of Bray Wyatt. Over the years, Wyatt has consistently been one of the best at talking on the mic and building a story. You get sucked in by him. Leading the Wyatt Family, he played a cult leader that would use his horror to scare opponents. The issue was…he’d always lose. It made it difficult to believe his storylines because you could guess the outcome every time. Regardless of how dominant he was as a character in the build up…his character lost believability because he’d never follow it up.
Last year, Wyatt went away for a while. On his return, he came back as a completely new character. He wasn’t in the ring, he had a video promo segment. As a kids TV presenter. It was surreal. It was creepy. It included nods to his previous characters and character arcs. He cut a cardboard cutout of his old character in half with a chainsaw. He presented himself as a deranged child’s TV host and it was incredible. Eventually, he started to portray himself almost as having schizophrenia. We then got introduced to an alter-ego, The Fiend. Over the months that followed, The Fiend targeted Wyatt’s old rivals, overcoming them with ease and getting revenge. After each win, the loser would change – often change back to an older version of their character. As we approach Wrestlemania, The Fiend faces John Cena, another person that beat Wyatt…and the storyline tells itself.
It’s unlike anything else on TV at the moment, unlike any other sport. It’s a complete escape from reality. It doesn’t matter that the ending is pre-determined. If you watch a film, it doesn’t matter that the ending is scripted…you can still enjoy it. You can still escape in it. And that’s exactly what wrestling is about…the escape. It’s a soap opera, of sorts, with a sports element.
As the world becomes affected more and more by the Coronavirus, most sports are closing their doors. Seasons have been postponed. Tournaments postponed. Yet WWE continues to go on without a live audience, giving people something to escape in.
At a time where people could do with something to take their minds off the real world, you could do far worse than start watching WWE. It is ridiculous. It often knows it is. Watching Stone Cold Steve Austin ask an empty arena to shout “Hell Yeah” shows that. It mocks itself. It takes itself seriously, but isn’t afraid to lighten up. The promos and acting are as good as anything you’ll see on a soap (watch Bray Wyatt and John Cena on Smackdown from Friday 13th March and tell me otherwise – I dare you) and the stories can take you away.
Much like they gave us something to take our minds away from the death of Princess Diana and the national mourning around that, the WWE are now giving us some kind of sport – even if it does have fixed endings – some kind of story…to take our imaginations and thoughts away somewhere different to Coronavirus. That can’t be a bad thing.
It still has the power to make you feel like a big kid and suspend your disbelief.
Thanks for reading!
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