The Heart is Raw: First and Last

For being a fake sport, wrestling sure does have a lot of statistics. You can chart wins and losses, ratings, buyrates, social media impressions, and merchandise sales. You can put all of these metrics to startling work, revealing truths simple assumptions can’t properly measure. Through these statistics, we have a good idea who is really in favour, who is really in charge, who is going nowhere, and who is going home.

I’m not really a fan of statistics, because in wrestling these numbers chart something that isn’t real. They aren’t charting accomplishments. They’re charting decisions, and the reasons behind these decisions are, unfortunately, not something one can measure.

I’ve become fond of a truth I can’t prove. It is a thought that’s been running through my head for weeks, and it’s culminated at the Royal Rumble, which will go down in history as a very special show for wrestling fans. This truth makes perfect sense when you think about it, and continues to for much later. You’ll hold onto this one. It’ll make you stop and think about things.

Every single wrestling show is somebody’s first, and somebody’s last. This is true sometimes about the performers themselves. Debuts and last matches happen all the time, and the Rumble saw its share of both. But I’m not really talking about the performers. I’m talking about the fans.

Royal Rumble 2014 will be some wrestling fans’ last show. It will of course be a moment in time when many wrestling fans state that it’s over yet continue on, trudging against the inevitable acceptance, another whack of singapore on a dreamer’s back. But for an unknown number, they’ll actually mean it. Whether by frustration, boredom, or the pressures of the real and difficult world, this is the end of the road for some wrestling fans.

There may be wrestling fans who stop watching because they love Brock Lesnar, and his return has disappointed them, this match with the Big Show feeling too much like a placeholder, something far beneath a star of Lesnar’s calibre. They will see the churning of regular gears again; the great beast—just another guy on a television show.

They may be John Cena fans, who are fed up with going to live shows, buying his merchandise, cheering on their hero, only to be drowned out by the apparent cynicism and too-cool-for-school attitude of wrestling fans who cry when they don’t get what they want. They may love John but hate the world he inhabits. These people may have followed John and found grit in his rising fist, but to what end?  When he is devoured again by fresh beasts, these people may say, that’s it. I’m even stronger without all this.

And they may be fans of Daniel Bryan, who have finally had enough.

I have an old argument about which type of wrestling fan one is, and how this designation defines the general level of enjoyment regardless of development. The technical wrestling fan, who’s joy stems from the dance itself, is not worried about Bryan. He has had the best match on almost every major show in the last two calendar years, and watching him move and be is a delight. They have not taken this part away. For fans of character, Bryan is still strong. We know his motivations, and what he does makes sense in the context of his world. But where it all becomes melancholic is for the fans of movements.

On twitter, Daniel Bryan has been known to call his fanbase the #yesmovement (it’s stupid, and he should stop). But there is no doubt that his rise to popularity and success has been a movement, and that there are wrestling fans who will come out of the woodwork in order to see a great wrestling happening. They may not care about the wrestling quality, or even the motivations behind the characters. They are there to see moments etched in history, great deeds won and lost on grander and grander stages. They are there for the epic, and this Royal Rumble was a lock to be just that. Listen to the crowd for the entire run of the show: I was hardly the only person who expected Bryan to enter the Rumble match proper. It was a hopeful Rumble from numbers 1-29. We thought about how they like to tease, and make us wait. We gave them so much credit.

But 30, poor Rey Mysterio, was a gloaming. It was in that moment when I could see the deep roller fan of happenings—hovering precariously for two hours, if not six months—roll all the way down, hit, and die.

At some point, Vince McMahon will stop watching wrestling. He’ll be done with it. And I’ll wonder, what’ll be what stops him? Death? Probably. But maybe it’ll be a decision made by the people in charge of his company, long after he’s been retired. I wonder if he’ll watch a Royal Rumble one year and say “well, that’s it for me.”

I wonder when I’ll be done. I take lengthy, healthy breaks, but I know I’m coming back. But one day I will.

But, then, this Royal Rumble was also someone’s first wrestling show. In that crowd, somewhere, was a person who’d never once made the pilgrimage. Maybe they’d never really watched it, and went because they won tickets or were offered them by a friend. Maybe they knew nothing of this world, and the 2014 Royal Rumble was their foray into the insane circus that is pro wrestling. What must they think?

I’m interested in hearing the thoughts of fans who have stuck with wrestling their entire life. But equally valid are the bright eyes, those who may not know what they’re in for.

Do we try to turn them away? I mean, we’ve been hurt. Shouldn’t we warn them? How would we even do that? I mean shouldn’t there be a warning on the box? Causes heartbreak. Wrestling? Oh, no, you wouldn’t like that.  But then I see them, across an indeterminate distance in my mind, and they sit and watch and are delighted by the spectacle. They aren’t falling in the cracks of expectation and self-ruin, for, of course, it’s only half wrestling’s fault. We have done this to ourselves.

WWE puts on a show. They present characters and let us know their troubles. They tell us what would help, and they systematically deny them. That’s what they do. What we do is choose icons and heroes. What we do is say “you are going to make it better.” We look for a sort of communal deliverance. Wrestling becomes a dumping ground of our frustrations and negativity, and we believe that if the good guys win then everything will be okay with us, too. If Hogan can beat Andre, I can pass this test. If Bret can beat Yokozuna, I can score that goal. If Austin can beat McMahon, I can deal with this shitty high school. If Jericho can get a girl, well, maybe I can too. If AJ Styles can win a world title, maybe we can work things out. If Michaels can best the Undertaker, maybe she’ll come back. Maybe if Punk beats Cena, maybe I’ll finally be able to move on.

And sometimes, life has hit us and then we hit wrestling. We create entire websites to make fun of it. We revere its worst elements, because we need to kick something easy. We spoil it for others. And in a weird way, we do erect signs to warn new fans. Here be nonsense and bullshit and wrenched emotions. You don’t want any of this. I’m conflicted on whether this is the right course or if we should perhaps be a little accommodating to newer fans. Imagine sitting next to an irate group of adult men at the Royal Rumble, and they are so beyond reproach angry, you don’t even want to move. You worry a little. You ask, why do they care so much? Wasn’t this stuff supposed to be fake? What am I doing here? I don’t belong here.

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