This year, for my 40th birthday, I was gifted tickets and a trip to WWE SummerSlam 2018. I get to attend this event with one of my best friends who I have watched wrestling with for nearly 25 years, my brother who has seen some over the years, and my dad who never fell into the trap but I have no doubt upon that day his life will be forever changed. I want to prepare him for the trip but how do I encapsulate decades of enjoyment? To take a lesson from another obsession, comic books, its not necessary to explain it all. Just enough. Captain America’s 75 year history doesn’t have to be on screen. Steve Rogers throwing himself on a grenade and then punching Nazis is all a new viewer needs to know to get hooked.
So why do I love it?
Wrestling has been there for me for as long as I have been there for it. This goes all the way back to WrestleMania III in 1987. I know I didn’t watch it live but I also know that would make me 9 years old in the height on the VCR and VHS era. My babysitter had two floor to ceiling shelves full of VHS tapes. 90% at least of them were recorded off HBO, dubbed from video rentals, or of course – pay per view. As sure as I am about that, I’m not sure why WrestleMania III was the chosen tape of the day. None of the babysitter’s kids were huge wrestling fans. We didn’t watch it there weekly. But that was a different show. Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant. A night that transcended the squared circle. I watched that tape dozens of times, ignoring hundreds of other choices. There is no good reason why a grown man should have fond memories of King Kong Bundy squashing a midget, and yet here I am.
Now wrestling became a thing for me to discover. Every grocery store at that time had a small VHS rental counter and I would go through all of the wrestling selections at every market, mart, shop and so on. At that age I was still at the mercy of adults’ schedules and would get upset when something exciting was happening on a Saturday episode of WWF Superstars or even worse, a match on Sunday’s Wrestling Challenge when its time to leave for church.
I remember walking past the giant display of TVs in our local Sears and on every screen was the Outlaw Ron Bass attacking Brutus the Barber Beefcake. Probably the last time Sears played wrestling too. I got on my bike and rode to my friend’s house after Shawn Michaels threw Marty Jannety into the Barber Shop window, because I knew he saw it too and I wanted to talk about it. I was there for Bret Hart pushing down Vince McMahon after a steel cage match. I was on camera marking out when Paul Heyman blamed Vince for the death of ECW. I was all the way up in the rafters for Hulk Hogan vs. The Rock and for the first time in my life realized that the “energy of the crowd” is not just a line for Michael Cole to say, it is a real tangible thing.
Wrestling has led to one of the best friendships of my life, the same friend I will see SummerSlam with. A new friend, one I didn’t know well yet, offered to help with my family move at 16 years old. As soon as he saw my wrestling tapes that was it. We talked for hours. We now had a bond and after near 25 years and all that life can change in that time we still talk about the ins and outs of wrestling every week. We spent a three hour car ride playing the wrestling name game. Name a wrestler, next person has to come up with a new name that begins with the last letter of the previous name. For three hours! The game never really ended, and we never got tired of it.
I cried when Owen Hart died. I bawled when WWE Raw played “Hurt” in tribute to Eddie Guerrero. I bought pants and grew a goatee to look like Tommy Dreamer (didn’t work). I painted my face like Sting (looked awful both times). I cheered for men who were fans first like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and The Miz, when they reached the pinnacle. I stood for two hours waiting for a table I knew would never free up so we could see which wrestlers were coming in to Buffalo Wild Wings to watch Brock Lesnar’s first UFC fight. “Right this way, Matt Hardy. Let me show you to your table.”
Wrestling has taken me to all four corners of New York state. Cities and towns I would never have a reason to go to otherwise but the draw of seeing my favorite Superstars live made untold hours in the car worth it. Down to Philadelphia, up to Toronto. Even if it wasn’t live I sought out the local channels across time zones so I wouldn’t miss a moment whether I was in New Jersey, Florida, South Carolina, California, Washington and numerous points in between.
When my now wife and I were dating and not yet living together we would talk about wrestling. She watched it in order to understand me more, and became a fan. When people half joking call wrestling “Shakespeare with violence” that is how she began to enjoy it. The drama, the theatrics. The build up of one match, one person, for hours of a show only to finally reach the main event and the hero stands tall. It’s still the best morality play on TV and its there fresh each and every week.
I remember I was dating a girl back when I was in college and her mother, before meeting me, said “oh he watches wrestling? I thought you said he was intelligent”. That statement showed her ignorance more than mine and really affected my opinion of her. Yeah, I watch wrestling. The secret’s out. We all know its a show. Its a show that writes hours of brand new content every week. Its a show with dozens of characters. Its a show that has to be accessible for new fans and old, kids and adults, men and women, every week and in multiple different cities all year round. No sport, no tour, no show, no theater, does that. Nothing else on earth has that level of exhaustive creativity every week. If Marvel Comics’ weekly output of brand new comics was taken panel for panel and filmed for TV every week it would come close, but until then wrestling is every sport and every entertainment franchise combined, brought into millions of homes 52 weeks a year.
I’m not looking forward to just the hours of action at SummerSlam. I’m looking forward to talking about the matches on the car ride and seeing where that conversation goes. I cant wait to be outside the arena, hear my name, and see a fellow wrestling fan I haven’t seen for months if not years also at the show. I can’t wait to look over at my father and see the moment when it all comes together for him and he’s a fan for life. I’ll buy merchandise, I’ll smile at someone’s sign, I’ll think I see a wrestler at the hotel and debate if I should leave him be or run up for a picture. Then on Monday I’ll watch the entire show all over again to hear the commentary and of course, see if we show up on camera. The build up has already began, as every week another match is announced and we start to discuss our predictions. My father wanted to go to a sports bar to watch Ronda in the UFC. Now he gets to see her live and possibly listen to the 16,000 plus fans roar in unison when she wins the WWE Raw Women’s title.
This is me being brief. The more I think about wrestling the longer I could talk. I have my own personal Owen Hart prank story. I had a long conversation with a then current WWE writer before everyone on the internet knew who they were. Almost getting slapped by The Sultan. Shooting the poo with Les Thatcher. Having Shawn Michaels grab my sign and hold it up in the ring, then sign it. The matches I saw, memories from road trips. The hours spent “drafting” wrestlers and writing our own shows.
While this is a gift for a fan who turned 40 it is by no means a symbol of growing up or being middle age. I’ll still be there cheering or booing when I’m 50, 60, and beyond. There is no way I could have imagined the WWE Network years ago and there is no way I can guess how WWE will share their programming with me over the next 10, 20 years. The only constant is I will be there for them, like they have been there for me.