From 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. June 11, at Verizon Arena, my 6- and 11-year-old sons and I watched “WWE Monday Night Raw” live.
I had not watched wrestling since the 1980s Hulk-a-Mania craze.
It’s hard to trace precisely how I got here. Innocently enough, I began fielding questions about Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and the Macho Man Randy Savage from my eldest son. Seizing a chance to connect by introducing him, I showed him YouTube videos of The Nature Boy Ric Flair and Wrestle-Mania II (a 1986 fete featuring a King Kong Bundy, Hulk Hogan cage match and a
My wife blames me for all subsequent interest. Flair is the paragon of interview smack talk and ’80s Gordon Gekko excess. His raspy, yelled soliloquies are canonized in popular culture. (I tried but never mastered an impression when I was younger, always quickly giving into coughing fits) Eagerly, I introduced my family to his greatest hit:
“It’s so hard for me to sit back here in this studio, lookin’ at a guy out here, hollerin’ my name! When last year I spent more money on
Interspersed throughout the charge is Flair’s famed WOOOO! an expression that he is able to make multisyllabic or curt, soft and sensual or aggressive and threatening, on command.
On the ride up, while my younger son sleeps, I pepper his older brother with questions to prepare my heart and mind and connect with his interest:
Q: Who are you looking forward to seeing tonight?
A: Finn Balor. [I’m unimpressed, already playing the it-was-better-back-in-my-day card in my mind: Give me a Jimmy Superfly Snuka, a George the Animal Steele, or an Iron Shiek. A guy named Finn? A Universal champion named Brock? How far have we fallen? Undoubtedly, the suburban disintegration of a once great institution. A quick Google image search confirmed my suspicion: Brock Lesner’s blonde flattop and stern, smug gaze carry the Teutonic mien of every archetypal high school bully.]
Q: What interests you the most about seeing them live?
A: “The production.” [This doesn’t surprise me. My wife is an artist and photographer, and he has inherited both her acute eye for detail — observing the intricacies of body movement and facial features, along with her understanding of artistic mise-en-scene.]
But the kid’s a comic book junky, too, so he loves the storylines and drama as well, and he’s interested in getting an in-person glance at character development and plot.
“Really, I just want to see the wrestling,” he admits. “I want to see how they can go so hard and not hurt each other.”
Walking up to the arena, we hear call-and-response Flair WOOOs echoing and bouncing around near and far. Like a parliament of owls, or feral hounds, the wind takes a joyous onomatopoetic response from one corner to the next: each person
The cultural scene resists in vogue race, class, gender and political lenses: Here, neck and knuckle tats and Razorback logo calf tats mingle with the neon Southern Tide polo.
My relationship with modern WWE is dichotomous. No middle ground: I tolerate, poorly, my kids’ interest in it. I desperately want to be polite and interested when they talk to me about it. But I cannot. And they must know this, glazed over eyes and
Yet, I love when they wrestle each other and come up with characters, signature moves, entrance songs, and back-stories. My youngest son is
The cross-promotional infrastructure is meticulous and executed without scruple all night. “Monday Night Raw” and “Smackdown” are the two big draws, each with their own wrestlers; though, apparently, one can be drafted to fight in the other. NXT seems like the minor leagues for folks trying to get the nod, and 205 Live is for cruiserweights. Along with “Wrestlemania,” several reality television shows featuring wrestlers airing on the WWE network and E! (the promo for John Cena and Nikki Bella’s impending “DTR” on Total Bellas plays most consistently) are promoted regularly; it’s clear you’ve entered into a multi-layered entertainment stratosphere eager to soak up every consumer dollar and free binge-watching minute of the devoted. Teasers are infused into the unfolding drama all night, kicking the narrative down the road … you’ll have to tune in on Saturday night to find out …
The event resists entertainment categories: Rock show meets soap opera mixed with contemporary dance, synchronized athletics and a strongman competition; co-mingled with Kardashian-stylized reality television, a call-and-response sing-a-long, an off-off-off-Broadway play, a bodybuilding catwalk and a Fortune 500 corporate board meeting.
Personally, I find submission holds less thrilling. I prefer the ref pounding the
Antagonizing the crowd is necessary. So is
Finesse and agility vs. brute strength is an appreciated trope. Braun Strowman (6-foot-8, 325) fought Bobby Roode (6-foot, 235), Finn Balor (5-foot-11, 170), and Kevin Owens (6-foot, 266), who flung his body off a 10-foot ladder onto the giant’s body lying prostrate on a table. Strowman endured each wrestler’s signature move and the above gymnastic brutality before finally winning the match, much to the audience’s admiration.
It’s helpful to watch someone of common build have a wrestling move performed on them: Jinder Mahal’s diminutive manager Ranjin Singh caught the business end of Roman Reigns’ spear. Like watching a middle-aged used car salesman play Lebron James in one-on-one or race Usain Bolt, it is useful for context.
The interviews and match-segue-smack-talk sessions are more important than the bouts, as they allow for just enough character development and conflict to tease the audience to subscribe to pay-per-view matches or tune in to Saturday’s “Main Event” or the next week’s “Raw,” which eventually lead to the climax and thus set up of new alliances and storylines in the classic soap opera formula. Rowdy Ronda Rousey’s (who appears to be quickly becoming the branding face of the women’s side) smack-talk-interview with Nia Jax serves as
Anytime there is a lull in the action, someone lets out a WOOO! The majority respond.
The cheap memorabilia is a decidedly popular draw. Standing in line, we witnessed a decidedly middle-class man buying a $350 dollar replica Universal Championship Belt and then immediately clasping it around his waist and walking off. My eldest son,
Marxist critique: As the storyline seems to go, the wrestlers are merely
Feminist critique: I would shell out however much to read Judith Butler’s critique of this. The women are not pawns used for men. They are athletic, powerful and seemingly as much a part of the night’s event as the men. They are “fetishized normative” in standards — as are the men, muscular and fit. They are overtly sexual — as are the men. There is a lot of long hair whipping, and I can imagine this as potentially offensive and empowering simultaneously; there seems to be enough plasticity within the genre to complicate a clear-eyed declaration.
Cultural critique via theorist Frederic Jameson: Wrestling is a social act serving as
As I entered my house for lunch the Tuesday after “Raw,” I heard the upstairs shaking and my wife yelling. The boys came down in their underwear, my oldest with a blotchy red chest where the youngest was strategically and without prejudice delivering Ric Flair chops. The latter had the $35 dollar imitation Universal Championship belt they cajoled out of me the night before draped across his bony shoulder. They gave me a knowing look. I responded: WOOO!