Smackdown Visits Baltimore: Why Being A Wrestling Fan Isn't Cool (Or is it?)
While driving to the First Mariner Arena for the WWE Smackdown television taping on Tuesday night with one of my brothers and a friend, I ran into another friend of mine while we were waiting at a stoplight. He asked where we were off to, and I told him we were going to see some rasslin'. His response was a familiar one.
"You still watch that stuff?"
You see, it isn't cool to be a wrestling fan.
In fact, it hasn't really been cool to be a wrestling fan for most of my life.
I was born in 1984, the year Hulkamania began and Vince McMahon expanded the then-WWF from a regional promotion to the first ever national wrestling company. For the first few years of my life, wrestling was considered sort of a kitschy novelty form of entertainment, and thanks to the involvement of Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T, it was actually sort of cool. But after a few years of the same campy, cartoonish product and with the added outrage over the industry's steroid problems, the fad was over.
There was another surge in popularity during my teenage years when Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley, Bill Goldberg, and a new bad guy named "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan were the biggest stars in wrestling. I may wear sunglasses with white frames to this day because "Hollywood" Hogan did.
But then too, the repetitive nature of the simple stories that are told in wrestling combined with the incompetence of those in charge of the industry led to another wrestling bubble bursting. WWE is a financially stable, publicly-traded company and has enough sources of revenue that the industry is in no danger of dying anytime soon. But it is hard to remember a time in my life when wrestling has been as uncool as it is now.
With that as background, I attended the aforementioned Smackdown tapings. A crowd I would estimate at roughly 4,500 piled into the ancient First Mariner Arena to be sports-entertained.
It's quite the crowd that attends a wrestling show, let me tell you. There was a guy a few seats down from me who was lauding the USAir Arena and how much better it was than our arena. I don't doubt that it was. However USAir Arena was destroyed 10 years ago and its former site has been a mall for quite some time, yet this gentleman was unaware of that.
The show started at 7 PM with two "dark" matches, which were not filmed for broadcast, but used to warm up the crowd. One saw Damien Sandow, who uses a "Leaping" Lanny Poffo-style gimmick defeat "Showtime" Percy Watson. The other featured Sin Cara defeating Antonio Cesaro in an elementary, but fun match. Cesaro used to be known as Claudio Castignoli and was a solid wrestler in a variety of minor league promotions for a number of years. Sin Cara is more talented and more popular than he is presented on television. I saw this firsthand last October when I travelled to Texas to watch a weekend of shows in Corpus Christi and San Antonio. He was the second most popular guy in Corpus Christi, in particular. I'm sure some of that had to do with its proximity to the border and the fact that he was a star in Mexico for a number of years. Still, he was popular in Baltimore too, but because he doesn't fit the mold of what Vince McMahon thinks a superstar wrestler looks like, he will likely always be a middle of the card wrestler in WWE.
Next, Hunico, a talented wrestler, defeated Ezekiel Jackson, a large man that makes you question just how serious the WWE Wellness Policy is. Stereotypes are alive and well in professional wrestling, as Hunico came to the ring on a "low-rider" bicycle with his henchman, Camacho. The match was taped for the Superstars television show which is broadcast internationally, but only available on the internet in the United States.
Wrestling lifer Teddy Long was out next to remind the crowd that evil authority figure John Laurinaitis had been relieved of his storyline role of general manager of Smackdown, and that Mick Foley would be running the show. Foley was known for his daredevil, stuntman style when he was a star in the 90's, and you can see the effects of that style today. He waddled to the ring later, his hips and knees clearly in bad shape.
Next was a segment where Big Show, one of the most tenured members of the roster, came to the ring and talked about what an evil man he was. To prove it, he destroyed the fun-loving, dancing machine known as Brodus Clay.
That was followed by an old wrestling standard, as two local wrestlers came out and were billed as hailing from Pittsburgh. An easy way to get the crowd riled up. They were quickly disposed of by Ryback, a massive man. Ryback may best be known as the guy who was involved in an angle two summers ago where Ricky Steamboat was legitimately injured. Ryback was repackaged after a long hiatus due to injury, but his style is still rough and at least gives the appearance of bordering on unsafe. Time will tell whether or not the wrestling audience as a whole will accept him as a star, but on this night in Baltimore, the crowd ate it up.
We then saw Alberto Del Rio defeat Christian in the first matchup of the night that pitted two true stars against each other. I'll forever be a fan of Del Rio as he gave a tremendous effort in the main event of the show I saw in San Antonio last October. His match was the only very good one that I saw on that trip and made me feel like I got my money's worth. Christian is one of the most talented in-ring performers in wrestling today. I don't think I've ever seen him have a bad match, and that streak continued here. Del Rio won with his armbar submission hold.
Next up was Kane defeating Daniel Bryan after some chicanery involving their would-be love interest. I went to a show in D.C. in 2008 where several television programs were taped on the same night and I saw Kane wrestle at least twice that evening. The next summer I went to shows in Baltimore, D.C., St. Louis and Phoenix. I don't recall off the top of my head how many times Kane wrestled on those shows, but I came away from those experiences never wanting to see him wrestle again. He's a fine wrestler for a man of his age and his size, but he's been on TV for 15 years and is beyond stale to me. So this match did nothing for me.
Next we had fan favorite Zack Ryder defeat Heath Slater, in a matchup of terrible fake names. I'm not someone who thinks everything was better in the old days. I think the NBA is a more exciting product to watch when the stars are allowed some leeway from the officials when it comes to fouls, travelling and the like. I like the rules in the NFL that reward teams with a good passing game and that protect quarterbacks from being hit. That said, I don't care for Zack Ryder. He's a cult hero to the modern wrestling fan. He used social media to make himself something of a star when he was presented as anything but in his rare television appearances. That's all well and good and I hope he has a great career and makes and saves a lot of money. He's just not for me.
We then had a tag team bout pitting the "Prime Time Playas" against the latest incarnation of Samoan wrestlers in WWE, the Uso brothers. There seems to be an unwritten rule in wrestling that African-American wrestlers must team together. The current tag team champions are both African-American and the "Playas" are the number one contenders. As I said, stereotypes are alive and well in wrestling, as the "Playas" and their manager enter to hip-hop and brag about millions of dollars or something like that. They were victorious.
Santino Marella, a comedy wrestler was out next to crack wise and point out signs in the crowd. "Comedy" ensued, as a plant came out of the audience and got into the ring. Santino is very good at his shtick. And in the context of a wrestling show, by wrestling standards, he's usually very funny. This was not his best night.
In another segment that was not taped for broadcast, the dastardly All-American Jack Swagger came out to run down the audience and complain that he wasn't featured on the show. Swagger is a good wrestler. He is not so good at talking. Triple H came out and laid him out. The people loved this. Triple H has semi-retired as a wrestler and is now a WWE executive.
In a match that will air as the main event on Friday's Smackdown television show, Sheamus, the current World Heavyweight Champion, not to be confused with the more prestigious WWE Champion, defeated the terribly named, but wonderfully talented, Dolph Ziggler. Dolph draws a lot of comparisons to the late "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig, both for his terrible hair and technically sound in-ring style. Sheamus is a notch below the level of a top star, but I texted a friend who isn't a fan a photo of him. They responded "Is that the super albino Irish dude?", so maybe he's becoming more well-known in the mainstream.
As is the case with most of the shows I have been to over the last several years, the crowd was really there to see one guy more than any other, That guy is John Cena, who defeated Big Show and David Otunga in a handicap match in the true main event of the evening.
Cena is as close to a mainstream star as the WWE has these days. The only exception to that statement would be The Rock, but he has wrestled only twice since returning to the WWE as a part-time performer in February 2011. Cena is the guy who can get booked on The Tonight Show. His movie, The Marine, is one of only two WWE-produced movies that turned a profit in the last decade. He's the guy whose face is on cereal boxes. He's the only guy that makes everyone in the arena stand up when his music plays.
And he's the guy who all the little kids look up to and beg their parents to take them to see.
And that, to me, is at the heart of all of this. You take away the bad acting, the bad comedy, the wrestling matches (some choreographed, some unrehearsed and improvised, but all pre-determined), and the whole WWE experience is about providing a form of entertainment that people can bond over.
It's the guy who thinks USAir Arena still exists, bringing his kid to see his hero.
It's the single mom who brings her kids to the show and buys them John Cena wristbands and t-shirts.
It's me and my brothers, sister and friends sitting together for three hours, talking and laughing.
So, yeah, I still watch that stuff.
I guess I won’t ever be cool.
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(All photos courtesy of WWE)