Grappling with Thursdays #1 – Stop taking it so seriously, man

Believe me, I’ve heard it all.

“You know it’s fake?”

“You just like watching near naked men grapple each other.”

“You’re fucking stupid.”

Each of those statements has their own degree of truth to them, but the weird thing is I’m not sure it happens for any other form of entertainment. Despite having written many thousands of words about television no-one has ever come up to me and whispered “you know that Arrested Development isn’t a documentary, right?”

But I’m long past the age of caring what other people think and I wear my wrestling fandom on my sleeve. Not literally – yet. That’s going to come later this year when I get a badass Undertaker tattooed on my right arm. At the moment it’s done via a multitude of t-shirts that help support those who I get the most joy from. And I love the community feel, of taking about wrestling with friends and fellow fans.

That’s not to say wrestling fandom isn’t without its issues. There’s a degree of self-entitlement I don’t see in other media, unsuprisingly centred around online forums. There were examples just this week when, on WWE’s premier show RAW, the hated Roman Reigns – who I’ve written about before – won clean over fan favourite Finn Balor.

 By Miguel Discart from Bruxelles, Belgique [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Miguel Discart from Bruxelles, Belgique [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

As predictable as rain in Auckland in April, many on the Squared Circle subreddit couldn’t contain their dismay. Some were done with the WWE for good, some claimed that WWE were trying to destroy Finn, that he had ‘jobbed’ or had been ‘buried’ by Roman, none of which were remotely true.

The match was a good one. In fact it’s one of the better matches I’ve seen in the last few months. It told the story of two strong wrestlers, both of whom got a lot of offence in. But, as with most matches, someone had to win. Last time they fought Finn won – a result that surprised many but made sense in the overall storyline. This time it’s Roman who went over, drawing an over-reaction that would put most wrestlers ‘selling’ a move to shame.

The one thing all of those who rushed to complain missed, without fail, is taking one single moment out of a whole storyline and giving that the power to determine everything is always going to end in disappointment. I’ve done it myself – but, I hope, not to the level I saw on Tuesday (NZ Time).

Does Roman Reigns beating Finn Balor on Tuesday make sense? The answer to that can only be found out when we know it’s ultimate destination. Either winning a single, one-off match makes sense as both are wrestlers at the top end of the company and more than capable of beating any other. But we’ll only know for sure when the Fatal Fiveway at Extreme Rules is finished. The winner goes on to face Brock Lesnar for the WWE Universal Championship – and my money is currently on Finn Balor to emerge victorious.

Long term it’s widely accepted that Roman is the ultimate destination for the title but it’s not supposed to happen so quickly. An injury to the formidable Brawn Strowman may have forced the timetable to move – but it would be a surprise I think, if he claimed victory at Extreme Rules and went on to face The Beast Incarnate.

Finn winning would, ultimately, make Roman’s victory this week way less meaningful and definitely not something to get so worked up about.

Of course, it would be remiss of me to not point out that some of this is the WWE’s own fault. By anointing Reigns so visibly so early in his career they made him a target. And rather than adjust to that situation they’ve largely dug their heels in and persisted. So much so that when Strowman, a ‘heel’, tipped over an ambulance with an injured Reigns in it, the crowd cheered for him and chanted ‘Thank you Strowman’.

Reigns would be a great heel, potentially one of the best in the modern era. But he’s currently positioned as a ‘tweener, a hero for the kids and someone to dislike for the grown-ups in the audience who take it too seriously. Like me, except I like Reigns because I’m a bloody-minded dick.

And so there we are – the first of many Grappling with Thursdays is done. And by somehow writing another 750 or so words on wrestling I’ve both proven and disproven every point I’ve made about taking it too seriously.

Before I disappear in a puff of logic (thank you Douglas Adams) let me offer you this. If you’re not a wrestling fan and wouldn’t dream of paying for the WWE Network streaming platform then grab a one-month free trial and watch every single WWE 24 released thus far. This show alone makes it worthwhile and gives you the kind of behind-the-scenes footage that the teenage me would have given up masturbation for. The storytelling, the editing, the music? It’s perfection and as good as the majority of documentaries you will watch this year. And then you can watch Total Divas!

Back in the days of kayfabe…

Back in the days of kayfabe, wrestling was easy to understand. One was the bad guy, the other was a good guy. You cheered for the good guy, you booed the bad guy. Back before I even knew what “face” and “heel” meant the world was a simpler place. But in our post-kayfabe world it’s become a confusing mess. People cheering the bad guy, others booing everyone. Good guys—but only some—are pelted with proverbial tomatoes. And let’s not get started on not being the good guy or the bad guy but just being “the guy”. I can’t keep up with the attempts to placate those in the audience who won’t play along to the storylines WWE is attempting to tell.

I’ve fallen victim to the confusion myself. I left wrestling for a while after the heady days of Mick Foley, Stone Cold Steve Austin and the likes. But I got back into it in a big way around about the time The Shield were starting to get popular.

It seemed clear back then that Roman Reigns was the one destined to be the biggest star with Seth Rollins behind him and Dean Ambrose a distant third. Whether that was because of the way they were being portrayed, or just my WWE instincts I’m not quite sure – but Reigns seemed to have the world at his feet. And he did. For a time.

And then he fell victim, for want of a better word, to the demands of a section of the fans. How big, we’ll never quite know – a vocal minority or an overwhelming majority? It’s hard to tell in the echo rooms that is the comments section on some internet wrestling sites.

 By Miguel Discart [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Miguel Discart [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Is Joe Anoa’i the most deserving wrestler? Is he the most talented? The answer to both questions is no. But that’s not how the world works. I once lost a job to one of the biggest assholes on the planet so “deserving” and “talented” clearly don’t always matter. Well, I would say that. But Roman Reigns, the character, was written as the guy who was going to be the top star and—at some point—we should respect that decision. So we should cheer him.

Does that make me a mark? Stupid? Both? Probably. But I’ve read all the excuses—he’s too green, he’s limited in the ring, he can’t do a promo—and while there may be grains of truth in all of those, he’s no worse than many others who’ve graced the squared circle—and won titles—without the vitriol.

I genuinely can’t think of another example in the sports and entertainment world where fans feel they have to have such a big say in the minutiae of the product, to the extent where some can’t get any enjoyment out of the matches that Roman Reigns has put on in the last year with a variety of the other top stars. Matches that put anything Hulk Hogan did in his career to shame.

Soap opera fans (and I consider WWE a soap-opera of sorts) will vent their displeasure, but I don’t see anything like the equivalent behaviour of chanting “you can’t wrestle” at someone who clearly can and has improved immensely over the last few years.

And it’s now got to the point where we seem to be in a Mexican stand-off. The clever thing to do to appease the fans (sorry, some fans) would be to turn Roman heel. I’m now down with this as an option, because I’ve started genuinely feeling sorry for the abuse the guy gets – and it would be a way for his character to take the Rocky Maivia route to superstardom.

But Vince McMahon undoubtedly wants to retain some control of the product. And so he should. He should be responsive to the fans, but not capitulate because at the end of the day it’s his company.

And I say that despite some of the decisions Vince has made in the past—The Gobbledy Gooker, Battle Kat, Isaac Yankem, Papa Shango, Hogan winning the title at WrestleMania IX—it’s a long (and incomplete) list.

I’d more value a fan who was prepared to walk away rather than hurl invectives at someone who’s done nothing other than his job. Like I was, briefly, when I saw a panicked decision to give Sheamus the belt at Survivor Series 2015.

Of course, this may all be moot anyway, because of Joe/Roman’s failure of a drugs test. His push seems to be at an end, at least in the immediate future. Will this take the heat off him? I hope so.

But I genuinely wonder if we were better off as wrestling fans when Vinnie Mac was just a commentator and Jack Tunney was the President. Unfortunately the cat is out of the bag. And I’m going to have put my head in an internet-free one to try and make sense of it all.

Regardless, I’m hoping I see a few of you at WWE Live at the Vector Arena. I’ll be the one cheering Roman Reigns, wearing the t-shirt and waving the sign. And booing Seth Rollins. Not because I don’t like him, but because that’s what we’re supposed to do.

This post was originally written for NZPWI.co.nz.