B Sides is a weekly feature where we look at an element of contemporary culture that isn't specifically related to music, and this week, we were on the ground at Wrestlemania 32.
My earliest vivid memory of professional wrestling was of an evening where my parents wouldn't let me watch it.
In 1996 when I was seven years old, Monday Nitro -- the flagship program of Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling (WCW) -- ran from 8 PM to 10 PM on TBS. Because I was so young, my parents would let me watch the first hour of the show as it aired live, they would tape the second hour on our VCR, and I'd watch the rest of the episode the next day when I got home from school. But, one day, I got home from school excited to see what the costumed heroes and villains of my youth would do next, and my parents wouldn't let me watch the rest of the episode.
The nefarious Dungeon of Doom -- a group of wrestling bad guys (also known in wrestling slang as a heel faction) -- led by the evil Taskmaster (Kevin Sullivan) had assaulted Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea) backstage and left him a bloody pulp. In the 80s and early 90s, Hulk Hogan was Rocky, Captain America, and Ronald Reagan all rolled into one. He told you to say your prayers and eat your vitamins. He was the "real American." Despite his recent fall from grace from the industry due to his sex scandal and racist outbursts, 80s Hulk Hogan will always be the archetypal vision of the pro wrestling good guy (aka a babyface/face). And, at such a young age, my parents were concerned that witnessing such brutal violence against my hero would prove to be too upsetting.
I was explicitly reminded of that moment Friday night during NXT Takeover: Dallas. NXT is the developmental division to/an alternative promotion for Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) -- run by Paul "HHH" Levesque, COO of the WWE/wrestling icon/real-life son-in-law of Vince McMahon. Simultaneously a training ground for the company's home-grown talent and a hotbed of the best independent and foreign wrestlers on the planet, NXT represents the future of the WWE. Once a quarter, NXT puts on a live supercard -- billed as NXT Takeover events -- showcasing the best of its performers as well as its hottest feuds.
The second card at the top of Takeover: Dallas's bill was NXT Women's Champion Bayley (Pamela Rose Martinez) defending her title against the #1 contender, Asuka (Kanako Urai). Alongside the main roster's John Cena, Bayley is the closest thing the modern WWE has to a successor to the living, breathing superhero trope that Hulk Hogan popularized in his prime. Bayley's gimmick -- pro wrestling slang for her character -- is that of an earnest, lifelong fan of the industry who has overcome the odds stacked against someone so fundamentally good and sincere to be the champion. Her ring attire is what would happen if an extra in a 1980s Cyndi Lauper video were a wrestler, and to sell her inherent decency, hugging her friends and fans is one of the most integral parts of her character. If that sounds disgustingly sweet for a sport built around simulated violence, it would be in the hands of anyone besides Bayley who rarely comes off like she's acting and instead transmits the energy that she really is living out her lifelong dream of being a wrestling star.
And then there's Asuka. One of the WWE's most notable signings of foreign wrestling talent, Asuka was a megastar in her native Japan under the moniker of Kana. One of the world's most famous female wrestlers, Kana is part of a sea of stars that the WWE has begun to pilfer from Japanese wrestling promotions (most infamously stars like Hideo Itami, Finn Balor, AJ Styles, and Shinsuke Nakamura from the Japanese equivalent of the WWE, New Japan Pro Wrestling). Although Asuka has gotten babyface reactions from crowds during her undefeated run in NXT, her in-ring style is morally ambiguous with a brutality rarely afforded to female wrestlers. It's not uncommon for crowds to chant "Asuka's gonna kill you" during her matches.
As you can imagine considering Bayley's aesthetic/the personality of her character, she is very popular with the children at NXT's tapings at Full Sail University in Florida as well as its live events. NXT is taped in the same place for nearly every episode, and if you watch it long enough, you recognize a significant portion of the audience. One of the most visible sights at any NXT taping is Izzy, the world's most famous Bayley fan. A little girl who's around six years old, she dresses like Bayley for each taping, and Bayley even brought her into the ring to celebrate not long after she won the NXT Women's Championship from longtime rival Sasha Banks (Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado).
Bayley lost to Asuka Friday night at NXT Takeover: Dallas. She put up a valiant effort -- Bayley has now been part of four of the five best women's wrestling matches that WWE has put on in the last two years -- but the match ended with Asuka locking Bayley in a chokehold til Bayley kayfabe -- wrestling slang for in-universe -- passed out. As the match was drawing to an end, Twitter blew up with news that Izzy -- who was in the audience -- had become so upset that her dad had to carry her out of the building as she was crying. Wrestling is scripted and choreographed, but for many of the children in the audience, the illusion of its reality hasn't been stripped away.
I'm 27 years old, and I've been watching wrestling off & on for as long as I can remember -- from the WCW years in the 90s to my introduction to the WWE in the mid-2000s to my return to the company's fold in the lead-up to Wrestlemania 30 two years ago. And while I can't speak for any other wrestling fan beside myself, there are two things that keep me returning to a form of entertainment that so many "cultured" folks look down on and whose enjoyment I have to consistently defend: an appreciation of ritualized athletic excellence from performers who embody larger than life characters and storytelling and a hope that a match/character/storyline will recapture that magic that makes me want to believe the way Izzy still does and the way I did as a child.
Sunday night, Dallas, Texas, and AT&T Stadium (home of the Dallas Cowboys) played host to Wrestlemania 32. Wrestlemania is the Super Bowl of professional wrestling, and 101,000+ fans from around the world (a WWE attendance record) were jammed into one of the largest sports arenas in America. Technical errors with ticketing led to me waiting four hours in the baking Texas sun before I could get to my seat (causing me to miss an hour of the program which...I was irate about but dwelling on it will just make me angrier). A WWE main roster crippled by injuries put on a show that was a textbook example of Vince McMahon's inability to capture that magic anymore in a weekend brimming of reminders of the impossibly bright potential of the future of the company he turned into a billion dollar industry.
It's not a controversial opinion to say that HHH and his performers at NXT consistently upstage the product put on by Vince McMahon and their peers on the main roster despite NXT's de jure status as a developmental division. They are the Portland Sea Dogs to the WWE's Boston Red Sox, but minus crowd size you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the reverse. Where the main roster meanders through unfocused storylines, stale rehashes of the same feuds and matches with often soporific work rates (wrestling slang for the quality of the in-ring performance), NXT has stories with logical beginnings, ends, and conclusions with continuity that genuinely matters, a revolving door of fresh rivalries, and some of the best wrestling on the planet.
This weekend, the WWE put on one of its worst Wrestlemanias from a writing/booking perspective in the history of the company on Sunday while NXT put on one of the best cards the company has ever delivered on Friday. My friends on Twitter who don't follow wrestling constantly joke about the mood whiplash of Wrestling Twitter, and this weekend was a perfect encapsulation of the intoxicating highs the medium can deliver for its adult fans and the disheartening lows that make many of us wonder why we still watch this nonsense in the first place.
One match from each card is all that's necessary to put this contrast into perspective. On Friday night, longtime NXT favorite Sami Zayn (Rami Sebei) wrestled what will likely be his final match with the promotion after being called up to the main roster against new signing and Japanese wrestling megastar Shinsuke Nakamura. A Syrian-Canadian talent taken out of the indies like Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Sami Zayn is another embodiment of the classic babyface. With an absurd amount of athletic and technical skill and an authentic, humble charm, he's been one of the top faces of NXT for the last several years (though a shoulder injury put him on the sideline for over six months last year). Shinsuke Nakamura was one of the biggest stars of New Japan Pro Wrestling for the last decade and their youngest champion ever. Their pairing was a dream match scenario, and they didn't disappoint with a perfectly paced bout with expert psychology (wrestling slang for the way wrestlers work out what moves they do in a match to tell a specific story) that let Sami Zayn take a loss on his way to a permanent spot on the main roster while establishing Shinsuke Nakamura as one of the top performers in NXT. Alongside Daniel Bryan's (Bryan Danielson) triumphant moment at Wrestlemania 30, it was the most I'd "believed" in a match since I was a teenager and Shawn Michaels (Michael Hickenbottom), Chris Benoit, and HHH headlined WM 30.
On the Wrestlemania card, you had another potential dream bout...ten years ago. The Undertaker (Mark Calloway) fought Shane McMahon (the real life son of Vince McMahon) in a Hell in a Cell match (a cage match gimmick that's supposed to be inescapable but is most famous for Mick Foley being thrown off the top of the cage by Undertaker in 1998) as part of a kayfabe power struggle between Vince and Shane for control of the company. Undertaker is 51 years old. Shane McMahon is 46. Undertaker is one of the most iconic performers in the history of the WWE. Shane hadn't performed in the ring in nearly a decade but in his prime, he was notorious for life-threatening stunts like jumping off the Titantron (the massive screen where the WWE shows wrestler's entrance videos).
Ignoring the fact that Undertaker had no reason to align himself with Vince McMahon in this match or the fact that their combined age is 97 or the fact that Shane is a 46 year old real estate developer that looks like a 46 year old real estate developer (albeit one with better abs than I could ever hope to have), the match could have had the chance to shake things up storywise in the WWE by bringing an end to the miserably overdrawn Authority storylines (a kayfabe story with HHH and Stephanie McMahon as heel corporate figures making life miserable for the babyfaces in the WWE). Instead, what we got was two middle-aged men without the conditioning to put on a long match, one man without the ring training to look fit to be in the same ring as the Undertaker, and (admittedly) one insane stunt off the top of the Cell that I was screaming at Shane not to do cause I was afraid he would literally die. And when Undertaker won, months of storytelling came to mean nothing and the status quo of the WWE was maintained...as it almost always is.
Wrestlemania 32 was full of inexplicable matches like that and booking decisions that were somehow even worse. When Shinsuke Nakamura was signed to the WWE away from New Japan Pro Wrestling, the other big signing was AJ Styles (Allen Jones), the top star of Total Nonstop Action (the WWE's biggest American competitor after Vince McMahon purchased the WCW) for a decade and one of the top draws of NJPW. They had AJ Styles face Chris Jericho (Christopher Irvine) for the fourth time in two months. Chris Jericho is one of my favorite wrestlers of all time and one of the biggest stars in WWE in the last fifteen years, but he's also a middle-aged man who works in the company part time (he spends half the year touring with his metal band, Fozzy) as a way to put over younger talent. The WWE spent a sizable amount of money to sign AJ Styles because he's one of the most talented wrestlers on the planet, and they booked him to lose clean in the middle of the ring to Chris Jericho at their biggest show of the year. I can not imagine what that accomplishes.
One of the company's hottest tag teams in the last ten years, The New Day, did the job (wrestling slang for "lost") to a heel faction with all of the heat (wrestling slang for crowd reaction) of undercooked porridge. The company's top belt went to a performer known as Roman Reigns (Leati Anoa'i) who has all of the talent in the world but just isn't connecting with fans as the heir to John Cena that the company wants him to be. The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) and John Cena came out and decimated another heel faction, the Wyatt Family (a group of vaguely supernatural rednecks), in a couple minutes instead of helping to establish them as real threats in a company that is sorely lacking in top-tier heels. Watching wrestling on a week to week basis often feels like Vince McMahon rolling dice to see who should win matches/feuds, and that was never more apparent than the build to/execution of Wrestlemania.
Yet despite all of that -- despite spending about $1000 on a ticket/plane/hotel room for an evening that was a decisive letdown -- I can't remember the last time I was this excited to be a wrestling fan. One of the most exciting elements of the WWE of the last couple years was the revolution in women's wrestling that the company has sparked with performers like Sasha Banks, Bayley, Asuka, Charlotte (Ashley Fliehr, real-life daughter of wrestling legend Ric Flair), and Becky Lynch (Rebecca Quinn). For the last thirty years, the WWE treated its female performers as second fiddle to the men at best and sex objects at worst. But starting with NXT and now on the main roster, an emphasis on athletics and competent storytelling for the women has let them consistently outshine their male counterparts. And the match of the night at Wrestlemania was the Triple Threat match (wrestling slang for a match with three competitors) for the newly minted WWE Women's Championship (a belt that had previously been called the Diva's Championship which was as unfortunate looking as it was unfortunately named).
And beyond the revolution in women's wrestling, the WWE is being flooded by a host of hungry talent from NXT's developmental division that are making the main roster performers better due to their presence. The aforementioned New Day is a tweener faction (they were heels for months but they're sort of faces again but they're still a little morally ambiguous) that consists of two standout NXT talents and one main roster veteran. Big E (Ettore Ewen) and Xavier Woods (Austin Watson) were notable members of the NXT roster (and Big E was a former NXT champ) who floundered on the main roster for too long before the New Day gimmick breathed new life into their career. They also helped to resuscitate the career of Kofi Kingston (Kofi Nahaje Sarkodie-Mensah), another performer who had floundered in the mid-card despite being one of the most athletic and natural performers on the roster. The WWE has a notorious habit of not giving its performers of color the same creative pushes that its white performers get, and each member of the New Day had suffered that fate til they were put together in a group, given a shit stereotypical black preacher gimmick, and turned that into a comedic, cocky heel group that has been one of the best parts of the show for the last year.
John Cena is affectionately known as the Face That Runs the Place in the WWE. He's been the company's top star since 2005. And his schtick had been stale for probably half of those years. But during a run with the company's United States Championship last year prior to an injury, John Cena used his status as a living legend in the company (he's one championship reign behind Ric Flair for the most in company history) to elevate new talent including Neville (Benjamin Satterley), Sami Zayn, and Kevin Owens (Kevin Steen), and it was the best John Cena had looked since he joined the WWE. I went from a vocal John Cena hater (hater of his character; John Cena the man is one of the most philanthropically-oriented celebrities on the planet and is a genuinely great guy who's granted more wishes for Make-A-Wish than anyone else) to someone with nothing but respect and nice things to say about him.
And on the Raw on Monday after Wrestlemania, the WWE introduced more performers from NXT to the main roster. We have Apollo Crews (Sesugh Uhaa), the definition of a five star prospect (he's both a high-flier and a more traditional, muscular WWE performer) who just needs to do a little work refining his character. You have Enzo Amore (Eric Arndt) and Colin Cassady (William Morrisey) who are two of the most natural performers on the mic that the company has had since Stone Cold Steve Austin (Steven Williams) and the Rock. A duo called the Vaudevillains are coming up who pretend they're 1920s circus wrestlers and somehow make it work. And AJ Styles won a match to become the #1 Contender to Roman Reigns' WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
The WWE is not lacking in talent although a plethora of injuries in the last year and a half occasionally make it seem like it is. Daniel Bryan was on the verge of becoming the biggest star in the company when a history of concussions forced him to retire. The company's new, young top heel, Seth Rollins (Colby Lopez), had to vacate his championship last year when he blew out his knees and was taken out of action indefinitely. John Cena was hurt. Neville was on the verge of a major push when he broke his ankle and will be out for the foreseeable future. And all of these injuries were apparent at Wrestlemania where stars who have all the talent to put on great matches did just that...in matches where they'd never been given the stories to make us care.
We are living in a golden age of professional wrestling. The WWE has a goldmine of (often underutilized) talent, and if the booking/storytelling were better, they'd easily be in one of the most productive/highest drawing ages the company has ever produced. New Japan put on what will likely be the best or second best wrestling show of the year with their annual Wrestle Kingdom event. Robert Rodriguez's Lucha Underground is handily the best week-to-week wrestling program on TV at the moment and proves that consistent, logical storytelling isn't out of the reach of wrestling fans and wrestling creative.
And, so, as cold as this might sound, it's time for the 70 year old Vince McMahon to retire and let HHH take the reins of the company. There's no WWE without Vince McMahon. His ruthless consolidation of the old school wrestling territories and his business sense to turn figures like Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage (Randy Poffo) into cartoon superheroes of children's dreams took the WWE from being a regional sideshow to a global powerhouse. But the last decade of the WWE has proven that he just doesn't get how it works anymore or what his fans relate to in 2016, and HHH has proven that he does. If he were to finally let go of the reins of the company to someone else, the WWE could find its glory days again. There's no question that they have the talent to make this happen.