Wrestlemania, baby!

When it comes to wrestling prognostication these days it feels like I’d be as well tossing a coin – I’m still head-scratching over Roman Reigns clean-pinning Braun Strowman at Fastlane. However I am supremely confident in making this prediction – the second of the double main events at Wrestlemania XIII won’t make anyone’s list of top Wrestlemania moments. Except mine.

 The good old days when every wrestler was an 8-bit character.

The good old days when every wrestler was an 8-bit character.

Sure, there’s an outside chance the fantastic Intercontinental Championship match between Bret Hart and Roddy Piper may top someone’s lineup. Even the culmination of the Macho Man/Ric Flair feud that featured doctored photos of Miss Elizabeth by the swimming pool may tug at a few heart strings. But Hulk Hogan versus Sid Justice is where it’s at.

For some context, Wrestlemania XIII was in the old Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis in 1992, before the internet was a thing for home consumers and mobile phones weighed about the same as one of the Natural Disasters. I was also still living in Scotland which meant live Pay Per Views kicked off sometime after midnight UK time – and watching it at my best friend Stuart’s house as we did so many times because he had the appropriate satellite TV package. It was the week before Easter, but this was our religious holiday.

We were both 17, in our last year at high school and only a few months from being legally able to drink the beer and spirits we had been occasionally imbibing for at least a year. Some of those same drinks may well have kept us awake until the start of the Shawn Michaels versus Tito Santana match that kicked off the event – but they aren’t the reason I can’t remember much else from the first Wrestlemania I watched live.

No, memories fade as we get older, much like the chances of Goldberg leaving Orlando with the WWE Universal Championship around his waist, but one moment holds above all others – the Ultimate Warrior theme tune ringing around the stadium and the man hailing from parts unknown making his comeback. It would have been just before 4am in Scotland and there’s no chance anyone in the neighbourhood didn’t hear the pop. But more on that later…

I recently rewatched the match that defined wrestling for me for so long and – the Warrior’s return aside – the reason it’s still so enjoyable is because it was a microcosm of everything WWF at that time. Waves and waves of nostalgia wash over me thinking about it, kayfabe still fully in force as I mentally sing along to I Am A Real American. Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan are back together and the world is right. Oh, for one more ‘will you stop’ call.

So to the event itself, which the WWF was building as the possible end of Hulkamania. Sid Justice was a monster and the insanely yelled pre-interview was terrifying and made us believe it was likely to happen.

Oh, the match itself was a shocker. Virtually zero moves of note, a strength test that could have sent us to sleep, a bizarre mid-match promo from Psycho Sid direct to camera, Hogan vastly overselling a sidewalk slam – and the customary Hulkster comeback and leg drop. The ending was worse – Harvey Wippleman interfering, costing Sid the match via disqualification, the worst ending to a Wrestlemania since… okay, last year but you know what I mean.

Then the fun started. That’s when the man who would become most famous as The Godfather made his appearance. Even ignoring the vaguely racist undertones to Papa Shango there was something about the character that I loved – and still do. His post-match beat-down of Hogan was a thing of beauty, the ultimate (no pun intended) heel move. Because that’s when the Warrior struck.

I didn’t register the music for the first few seconds. And then all I remember is Stuart going ballistic. “It’s the Warrior,” he shouted, although likely with more words beginning with ‘f’ in there. I’m guessing high-fives were shared, we celebrated like one of our teams had just scored a last minute winner in the Cup Final and, before we knew what it even meant, we marked out harder than we ever had in the past. There’s not a chance we didn’t wake everyone in the house and at least some of the neighbours.

These days there are no surprises. You can’t go anywhere near a wrestling news site or forum in the lead up to any event, never mind Wrestlemania, without everything being analysed and potential spoilers shared.

But in the distant world of pre-internet Scotland there had been zero indication the Ultimate Warrior was on his way back – and that made it just so much more exciting. But sharing that moment with my oldest and best friend turned this from something most wrestling fans would happily shit on from a great height into something magical. And unforgettable. And even today closes the gap between New Zealand and Scotland just thinking about it.

Before I abandon this bro-love-fest it should be noted the fallout from the main event may be even better than the event itself.

The feud between the Warrior and Papa Shango post-Wrestlemania, hastened by Sid departing the company, is brilliant. Curses were uttered, the Warrior would collapse in agony – and then there was the infamous interview with Mean Gene when black goo starting flowing from the Warrior’s head as a silenced crowd wondered what the hell was happening. It’s absolutely terrible but brilliant at the same time – and still makes me laugh now.

Stuart and I watched that together too – wondering why on earth the Warrior had a jacket on and why his hands were in his pockets. The moment we made the connection between that and the goo was, I think, the moment wrestling went from something we wanted to believe in to something a little more disappointing.

That culminated in Wrestlemania IX. We were in the same place, watching together at 4am again as the single worst moment in Wrestlemania history occurred – Hulk Hogan winning the title from Yokozuna when he wasn’t even in the main event. Kayfabe had been on life support for us at that point – but that was the moment it died. Actually, that’s not quite true. It didn’t die. It was forcibly stolen from us before being euthanised as we watched on in horror.

And so to this year’s show, one I’m looking forward to immensely. Except for Goldberg versus Brock Lesnar which I’m going to use as a comfort break. Ugh. But there are going to be some great matches out there and I’m hoping that Roman Reigns defeating The Undertaker could spark the biggest heel turn in years.

Oh, but what I wouldn’t give for a Papa Shango run in to help.

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.