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I’ve been a fan of professional wrestling (or sports entertainment) off and on for the vast majority of my life. As a kid in the 90s, wrestling was at its height. Every Monday night my friends and I would finish our chores and homework early, polish off our halos, and stay out of trouble in hopes of staying up late to watch an episode of wrestling in its entirety. The most important word in that last sentence is, ‘episode.’ There was a time when I believed that everything I saw in that ring was real. I thought Hulk Hogan had a lower body made of stone and that the Undertaker was an actual dead person. I believed Kane’s body was covered in burns and that Shawn Michaels had magic in his shoes that could put anyone to sleep. Then one day, Vince McMahon made a video. In this video, Vince looks directly into the camera and utters words that would change my life forever. With a grin of confidence he tells us that the fights we’ve been watching for years is part of a show. It’s not real so to speak. The outcomes are predetermined and most of what we see has been scripted and rehearsed. I was devastated. I didn’t know what to believe. I thought Vince McMahon was just a commentator. I had no idea he owned the company. The curtain had fallen for me and millions of others, thus bringing with it an inevitable decline.
Several years passed and I became a teenager. With enlightened eyes I heard and saw wrestling anew. Instead of seeing good versus evil or giants fight men, I saw stories. I watched for crowd reactions and microphone skills. As I aged, so did my favorite performers. Some retired, others left for the bright lights of Hollywood. New faces came in and told the same old stories. I slowly transitioned to more culturally appropriate and historically accepted sports like basketball and football. I was tired of hiding my nWo and DX shirts in the back of my closet. I had already gotten rid of my action figures and started inviting friends over to watch Monday Night Football. The final nail in the coffin was hammered in by the NFL when they began airing games on Thursdays. I had a good run. Just like Sesame Street, Barney, and Pokémon before it, I had outgrown professional wrestling.
As humans tend to do, I grew up. I’m a man now. I have fond memories of my childhood and many awkward stories of teenage angst. Here I am, pretty sure of myself, watching SummerSlam with a big smile on my face on a Sunday night. How did I end up here you ask? It wasn’t easy. It took die hard fans and a few peers I look up to showing me how it’s done. Fortunately, I never strayed too far from home.
I was never one to follow trends or care what the popular thing was, but with wrestling it was different. My entire family watched on a weekly basis. My mom and her siblings, as well as my father and his, along with my cousins and friends. It was something that brought us all together. We never needed a BBQ, birthday, or graduation to come together. We had wrestling and football. I know it wasn’t his intention, but Vince McMahon destroyed my family. He gets the blame. Not the divorce, not the Seahawks moving to the NFC, and certainly not Ted Turner, Eric Bischoff or WCW.
Lied to, betrayed, and dirty. That’s how wrestling fans felt after the announcement. At least, that’s how I felt. I wanted to stay home from school forever. How could I face my friends after this? The girls already thought we were dumb for watching wrestling in the first place, and we’d already wasted countless recesses arguing over who would win imaginary fist fights between WCW and WWF guys. Slowly but surely, all of my friends stopped making references, stopped wearing the shirts, and began to sour on the concepts and characters. It became unpopular to mention and eventually disappeared altogether. I still remember my dad calling and asking me what happened on RAW the night before, and the awkward silence that followed. The one thing that connected me to everyone else I came in contact with was ripped away. Socially, I was just a kid again. There was no reason for me to jump into a conversation with adults. I remember my mother being afraid when I wore my nWo shirt out in public because grown men would howl and walk up to me making the, “too sweet” gesture. Not anymore.
Life after the downfall was odd. I would still watch but the living room was empty and when something crazy happened I had no one to turn to in disbelief. I would fake the funk at school. Tell everyone I USED to watch but not anymore, while going home and indulging in secrecy. Eventually, I had no choice but to let go. I could no longer maintain the facade and the Seahawks drafted a running back out of Alabama named Shaun Alexander. Just like the peach fuzz on my upper lip, the Seahawks began to grow on me. Football now occupied the void that wrestling left.
When I was in high school, I would see the occasional WWE commercial, poster, or video game. Some promotion called TNA had taken the place of WCW but my interest was still in football. I did however, grab a copy of WWE SmackDown: Here Comes The Pain. I had seen a commercial for it and there was a bit of a buzz in the city because WrestleMania had come to town. The game brought back great memories and my friends felt the same way. It made me want to take a peek at WWE and see what had changed. On lazy Thursday nights during the NFL offseason, I would watch a few matches. When the novelty wore off and summer came to an end, it was back to the football fields and basketball courts I was used to.
Many years passed and I completely lost touch with wrestling. I’d stopped watching entirely and paid the ads and flyers no mind. I saw some tatted up guy named CM Punk was the new hotshot. I scoffed at a poster and went on about my day. I had landed my first ‘real’ job and I was excited to see what adulthood had to offer. I worked in a warehouse. I met many great people and had a few scary bosses. There were lots of young people there my age and I immediately made a connection with a young man and a young woman. We were the three amigos. One thing that they had in common that I didn’t share was that they both still watched wrestling. I cared about their opinions and I had no desire to shun them for their transgressions. I had to take a hard look in the mirror and ask myself, “Why?” Why not? They encouraged me to try. Give it a chance. I slowly opened my heart and my eyes to what was truly my first love. The internet wasn’t as prevalent or accessible to me as a kid but now I had power. The power of technology as well as the ability to see any match I could think of. Before long, the WWE announced the launch of their very own Netflix-like service, and with that, I was back.
I had so much to catch up on. Who was that CM Punk guy I ignored? Whatever happened to John Cena? The Undertaker? Shawn Michaels? Who is the current champion and when are they coming to my city? Did I miss any dream matches? Who besides these two individuals whom I no longer work with can I talk to about this? I was comfortable and loved. I had no problem and felt no shame in acknowledging my rekindled love. I did some research and found out that the WWE was heading my way and I was eager to go. I saved up some money and bought a ticket. In fact, I bought a ticket every time they came to my area. I saw the future of the company. I saw the Usos, The Shield, and The Miz. I saw Daniel Bryan and Ryback. I saw Randy Orton, John Cena, and Brock Lesnar. I started to use the internet as a support system. I followed a few of my favorite wrestlers on social media. I subscribed to YouTubers who exclusively made wrestling content. I learned so much about the business and the grueling work schedule. These men and women were more than the larger than life characters that grace our television sets twice a week. They were husbands and wives, parents, siblings, and fans just like me. I grew a greater respect for everyone that ever entertained me whether live or through my television set. I was ashamed that I was ever ashamed in the first place, and sad that I missed out on so many years of content.
Today, I find joy in wrestling again. Not just the WWE, but Impact Wrestling, Ring of Honor, and New Japan Pro Wrestling to name a few promotions. I have a healthy balance of being a surprised fanatic and peering at the underbelly of how the business works behind the scenes. The characters inspire me to be the best I can. Wrestling taught me to never give up, fight for what you believe in, and against all odds you can stand atop the world as a champion. Keep your friends close and be weary of vipers. Learn from your elders. Most importantly, hustle, be loyal, and show respect.