BY RUSSELL JAFFEE
“Just cause it’s fake doesn’t mean I don’t feel it” –Laird, GIRLS (Season 3, Episode 4)
Pro wrestling has got to be one of the weirdest things in the world—sports, performance art, huge budgets, mainstream appeal, a field day of semiotic analysis, and even strange poetry and music collide, and strange social trends emerge. Royal Rumble 2014 will undoubtedly go down in history as one of World Wrestling Entertainment’s most memorable pay per views, but it will do so for all the wrong reasons, at least as far as the company seems to measure right and wrong; this instant absurdist classic featured some of the loudest, most impassioned crowd reactions and online negative fallout in company history. And it all comes back to Daniel Bryan and what he says about the weird world we live in.
Daniel Bryan, bearded and beloved, is the hottest WWE commodity right now, and his opening match with redneck cult weirdo Bray Wyatt (whose evil control he just bucked in a quickly aborted storyline) was fantastic. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttiGTC5B2gg
This happened, too: http://cdn2.sbnation.com/assets/3916509/spiderwalk.gif
Bryan losing 100% clean (fairly, without interference or referee ineptitude) poured some cold water on the collective junk of the crowd. But Bryan-mania was still running wild with fans anticipating their nuclear-hot hero entering the 30-man over-the-top-rope rumble match to win a shot at WrestleMania. His trademark YES! chants have seemingly, after all, taken the place of Hulk Hogan’s cupped hand to his ear, Stone Cold’s middle-finger salute and gruff “OH HELL YEAH!”, and any number of hilarious and infectious catch phrases from The Rock. The crowd loves him! Bryan is smaller, he’s faster, but he’s just as charismatic and exciting as any of WWE’s lexicon of transcendent superstars. He has an ineffable fighting spirit, a real connection with fans, a trustworthy emotional attachment! Most fans assumed he’d be a secret entrant and go on to win.
Not only did that not happen, but he wasn’t in the rumble match at all. The rumble did, however, featured commentator JBL entering and instantly being knocked out, Alexsnder Rusev, a grunting muscle clown making his debut to total silence from the confused crowd, and El Torito, a dwarf dressed as a bull. And the crowd treated the match as bull, burying everyone under DAN-IEL-BRY-AN chants, YES! chants, and panic-attack-inducing boos, heavy as an alien gravity bearing down on and crushing the wrestlers squabbling in the ring. They booed Batista, the turning good-guy eventual winner. They booed Sheamus, good guy returning from a nasty injury layoff. They booed Rey Mysterio, perpetual underdog and #30 entrant. They booed, they booed, and they booed.
And they kept on booing long after the event: http://www.prowrestling.net/artman/publish/powellsmailbag/article10035498.shtml
And not only did they boo the main event and it’s emergent WrestleMania title challenger, but they sat on on their hands for “Eat, Sleep, Conquer, Repeat” villain Brock Lesnar’s dismantling of supposedly sympathetic Big Show with a chair, and they booed WWE’s posterboys for the last decade, Randy Orton and John Cena, whose contest for the WWE World Heavyweight Title has been reheated and reserved since 2005. The fans chanted “WE WANT DIVAS,” “YOU BOTH SUCK,” and the death-knell of any pro wrestling match, the equivalent of the N-word getting dropped by clueless white TV personalities: the fans chanted “BORRRRINNNGGG.”
The boring chant is reportedly so hated in WWE that Vince McMahon once came out during an untelevised match between Rhyno and Tajiri and personally stopped it, demanding they both leave the ring. WWE hates apathy, and they should: they’re in the spectacle business.
So Royal Rumble, WWE’s biggest show of the year second only to Wrestlemania, the show I used to be unable to sleep the day before anxiously anticipating a Hulk Hogan win, or a Stone Cold Steve Austin win, or a Rock win, and then eventually just wanting someone awesome, or unique, or surprising, all the things that made pro wrestling wild and wonderful to win ended with Batista, a returning good guy, looking up at the Wrestlemania sign while the crowd intermittently booed him and chanted DAN-IEL-BRY-AN, a guy who wasn’t even in the match, to goosebump-raising levels. Even WWE’s ambassador Mick Foley, the post-violent Santa Claus loving author and educated defender of WWE’s dubious storytelling, shit all over the move on Facebook and Twitter. https://www.facebook.com/RealMickFoley/posts/766587886704685
What the fuck happened?
What happened is that World Wrestling Entertainment isn’t wild anymore, and they don’t want to be looked at as weird, which itself is so weird it’s almost impossible to put to terms. Pro wrestling is gaudy. It’s tacky. It’s dirty, and when it’s not dirty it’s waxen, plastic clean like a new action figure right out of the box. I was inspired by the movie The Wrestler to write about independent pro wrestling, something I’ve always loved, but something I thought the movie got wrong was the crowd. Those crowds are always cheering in that movie, always bloodthirsty. That’s a hopefully Hollywood addition that only die-hards can identify as being incorrect; crowds are lethargic, annoying, and sometimes totally bored, silent, upsettingly detached. Crowds themselves make moments, and pro-wrestling is a variety show about producing authentically emotional moments from artful performance.
The WWE of The Rock and Stone Cold was counter-culture. It was raw. And now it is pure, unfiltered establishment. It’s about suits and brand appeal. It’s about networking opportunities. It’s about business, and that business is telling fans what they want and how much they have to pay for it. And the fans at Royal Rumble 2014 refused to be told anything.
What happened is that booing is a by-product of our polarizing spiritual wars of capital-driven conglomeration vs. indefatigable human spirit and its need to express itself.
I’m a poet and it breaks my heart that there aren’t more boos and cheers at poetry readings, art galleries, etc. But pro wrestling lets us be the weirdos we all really are. It’s not that WWE owes it’s fans exactly who and what they want, but that denying them hero stories in order to go with yesterday’s muscleman, a safer bet for merchandise and ratings based on past trends, is so illogical it borderlines on being egomaniacally sociopathic; it’s a bully taking away your beloved book or toy because that bully can.
Can you imagine a world where Michael Jordan got benched during the 90s when he took the Bulls to multiple titles? How about record companies telling The Beatles “no thanks, dudes, you sound good but we just don’t see money in you.” Though pro wrestling is fake, the raw emotions aren’t. And what is fake, anyway? Is art fake? Is life fake? Success seems to be a weird formula of talent + “right place, right time” luck. And right now, in this place, everyone has an opinion, and the nebulous anonymity of the crowd is unafraid to express it and to make demands.
Daniel Bryan is a weirdo. I know that really well—I’ve been watching him since the early 2000s when I used to huddle in my buddy’s basement seeing old tapes of him in high school gyms, or when I’d go to the Frontier Fieldhouse to see him as Ring of Honor world champion. ROH, budget wise, is to WWE what one of those red bubble plastic toddler cars you put your feet through to push is to a new sports car, but the grittiness and raw emotion of the show is captivating and disgusting and purely pro wrestling. I wanted to punch former baddie Bryan (then Bryan Danielson) in the face when he defeated stalwort good guy Roderick Strong in an hour plus long title match, and that’s when I realized that his ability to extract and manipulate my emotions made him the kind of performance artist I prefer to get behind.
In the months leading up to Royal Rumble, despite the fact that he won title match and was screwed by the bad guys at three—THREE, that’s over a hundred bucks for suckers who don’t illegally pirate the pay per views—Daniel Bryan was shuffled out of the main event and into a feud with the Wyatt Family, entertaining hillbilly cultists far from the top of the card. And this isn’t the first time WWE has tried to bury him. When he debuted on a show called NXT, he lost all of his matches and the commentators constantly ranted about how unproven he was and how he didn’t have what it took. It stops being bad guy pro wrestlers working towards their comeuppance when it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; WWE fired him for choking an announcer with a tie when he became a bad guy. It was something every major star had done, a classic goofy brawl move, but suddenly the TV-PG WWE didn’t want to be associated with it.
They rehired Bryan a few months later because of fan outcry. So back to that warfare: Bryan’s storyline has been that the bad guys in charge don’t want him at the top, they pushed him away from the top, and now he’s gone, and we fans are supposed to just consume some grunting muscleman from over a decade ago riding in like Prince Charming to save the day. But we don’t want Prince Charming, and we don’t want WWE’s take on mansplaining who we should be cheering and why.
Fans want something authentic, something they can breathe the air of. And they can find authenticity in the manufactured reality of professional wrestling—through the tacky, oversimplified hero narratives, they can link up viral moments of excitement, triumph, comedy, and righteous energy. WWE has the power to be a barometer and showcaser of the unusual avant-garde, but they’re relegating themselves to the consumer reports of bygone days instead.
Despite the neutered WWE’s corporate-PSA-heavy anti-bullying campaigns, the company has, however intentionally, become ideal for bullies. The product is all about the larger-than-life, the muscle-fetishist, the animal mouth-breather who again and again bests smaller, more virtuous, smarter, and most importantly connected-with-the-fans wrestlers. Batista returns after years off, hugs ultra-heels Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, vows to win the Royal Rumble, and does, just like he did in 2005. Roman Reigns, a promising heel who hasn’t fully connected with the fans yet (and not nearly on the fever-pitch level of Daniel Bryan), reportedly has the sports background and build that WWE likes to see in top stars. They’re safe bets, routines, and predictable—elements bullies immerse themselves in, using intimidation, humiliation, or violence to preserve a status quo because, like the cliché says, bullies are cowards, they are insecure. Humanity cuts through the clutter of artifice because we desperately need to feel. Constantly.
WWE exhibits these bully traits from what feels like their haughty corporate crow’s nest, sipping champagne above rioters below, totally oblivious to their demands. They exhibit a culture of bullying with their stubborn instance of paving over what feels artfully authentic in favor of what is manufactured and monetized. Yes, Daniel Bryan is probably making bank. And he makes bank FOR WWE! But he does so as a bit player when the fans feel him on another level.
In 2014, we have both unprecedented consciousness-expanding access to information about socio-economic disparity while also living a time of banner years for CEOs and companies; we see a stark contrast between free and low wage art produced by a generation in debt while also seeing attempts by those with access to our most pervasive cultural narratives—that is, companies like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon, who control shares of our movies and TV shows, our books and ebooks in the mainstream—to find ways to monetize it. To put it simply, we’re at war with monetization. WWE, a publically traded commercial organization, sees monetization through proven algorithm-like determining factors of the past: size, muscles, grunting, sports background, “masculine aggression.” And, like a hero narrative within a narrative, algorithms can’t measure spirit.
They’re obsessed with things going their way, and like petulant bullies, they pigheadedly ignore pleas for change and the rebellious spirit of newness in favor of what their plans are, and those plans are uncreative and uninteresting. Bullies try to stifle creative growth because they are afraid of it, and WWE is afraid of sea change to their product so feverishly demanded that it’s dismantling their own events.
To fight this spiritual war against monetization, fans will likely have to do as former WWE star Lance Storm suggests:
“If you want to send a message Chanting won't do it. Watch only @WWEDanielBryan segments on RAW, turn other segments off. That's a message. I'm a huge fan of @WWEDanielBryan I'm just pointing out that chanting and bitching online isn't the way to accomplish what you want.”
WWE fans, like most fans in 2014, are more concerned with being entertained than being convinced.
ussell Jaffe is the Co-Editor of Strange Cage (strangecage.org), a chapbook poetry press, and MC/coordinator of its reading series. He is the author of one poetry collection, This Super Doom I Aver (Poets Democracy, '13) and a few chapbooks. His poems have appeared in The Colorado Review, PANK, H_NGM_N, DIAGRAM, La Petite Zine, American Letters & Commentary, and others. He collects 8-tracks. Get at him at russelljaffeusa.com