I can’t quite explain what it is that draws me to pro wrestling. I know it’s fake. I realize that the ‘storylines’ are often even less plausible (and more poorly acted) than tragic daytime TV like Days of our Lives and Passions.
But in spite of all of that – or maybe because of it – I’ve been hooked ever since I first saw The Rock take on Steve Blackman on an episode of Monday Night Raw back in 1999. I was still an awkward, nerdy kid (as opposed to a nerdy adult sans the awkward) and my mate Magro was one of the first people in my sleepy hometown to get cable TV. I’d regularly stay the night on a Tuesday so I could do two things:
- Watch wrestling
- Perve in a totally non creepy way as the girl I liked played touch football across the road
Since those days it’s become something of an on again/off again fascination. It’s not so much the matches or the promos that I enjoy – it’s the whole business. The politics behind it, the up and comers, the guys who have overstayed their welcome, the backstage antics, and the wheeling and dealing as different promotions try to become #1.
I started watching when it was WWF and WCW, and while WCW is long gone, I’ve still found alternatives to the often hokey (and always frustrating) WWE/F product. One of these was TNA, who just happened to have a PPV (pay per view) called Destination X on the very night I arrived in Orlando. It was kismet.
After saying my temporary goodbyes to Heather, I met my friend Candy for the first time. We’d been chatting online since 2003 or so, so it was surreal to finally put a face to the late night university MSN conversations. She’d originally planned a night of drinking to welcome me to Orlando, but I begged and pleaded and she was happy to tag along to the wrestling.
You can imagine the way my heartbreak when we arrived and saw a collosal line. I’d been assured all day via Twitter that their shows never sold out, but a stern faced woman approached and I knew it wasn’t going to be my day. It seems Destination X is a particularly popular event.
“Do you two have tickets?” she asked.
I was resigned to missing out. To have come so close and miss out was going to destroy me a little, but I’d have other opportunities.
“But my friend came all the way from Australia!” Candy lied.
“Hold on a second,” the woman replied. Moments later, she came back with a ticket for me and ushered me down to the back of the queue. Candy followed me and somehow, we both got let in.
“There aren’t any seats left,” Candy noticed as we got into the smoky arena.
“You can go stand up by the ring,” a helpful attendant suggested.
Ringside? I get to stand ringside for my first wrestling show? Hell fucking yes!
Now, I could bore you with play by play results of a wrestling show populated by guys you’ve probably never heard of, but I thought sharing some of my favorite photos from the night would be better. Enjoy!
TNA Destination X 2012
The majority of the ‘card’ (schedule) for Destination X would feature TNA’s ‘X-Division’ roster. This is ostensibly a collection of smaller, lightweight wrestlers who work (wrestle) a more high flying style. The focus in these matches is on pace, wowing audiences with seemingly (and often genuinely) dangerous moves, and showcasing the flexibility and agility of some very talented workers from around the world.
These matches also serve a very valuable purpose in the live experience. The high speed and more dazzling style of the matches works to get a crowd excited and fired up for later matches between bigger names. When these bigger names tend to be literally bigger and also older, it pays to have the crowd already in a good mood to build atmosphere.
The above image really illustrates for me why calling wrestling ‘fake’ is such a misnomer. While the results are pre-planned and a lot of the hits are not legitimate, there is still a very real risk of injury. The performer above, Sonjay Dutt, fell badly earlier in this match and dislocated his shoulder. Being all man, he then popped it back into place and completed the match as planned.
While outcomes are decided in advance, the actual content of a match is often changed on the fly to take into account audience reaction and legitimate injuries to competitors.
Bigger Names, Bigger Matches
A well built card intersperses the high flying and often storyline free matches with higher profile bouts. Feuds (several month long programs between two or more personalities and usually involving a cheesy storyline) and dream matches are the matches that sell a pay-per-view event, but they don’t always deliver thrills.
I was lucky enough to see a number of these matches at Destination X really deliver. A bloody ‘grudge match’ between TNA mainstays AJ Styles & Christopher Daniels, a technical masterpiece between Kurt Angle and Samoa Joe, and a main event match that featured two very talented wrestlers and storytellers doing the classic ‘plucky good guy against unbeatable bad guy’ storyline.
The enthusiasm of a crowd is vital to an event as well. A silent crowd can make an otherwise good match seem slow and boring, while a ‘hot’ crowd can turn an average match into something far more memorable.
Being in the live crowd, it’s hard not to cheer for the good guy or boo the bad guy. It’s all very vaudevillian and reminds me of how Shakespeare’s theater must have felt with the crowd hissing at villains and cheering raucously for the heroes of the pieces.
If you’ve ever watched pro-wrestling (or played a cheesy combat game) you’re aware that most workers have a ‘finisher’ – a move that typically ends a match.
But wrestlers also have signature moves. These are akin to character traits, and help make a wrestler’s matches feel a little more personable. These become familiar sign-posts in matches that fans can react to, and work to engage the crowd.
Below you’ll see a series of pictures featuring a bloody battle between Christopher Daniels and AJ Styles. Daniels is playing the ‘heel’ (bad guy) and is renowned for doing this with a kind of Machiavellian evil. AJ Styles is the ‘face’ (short for babyface, which means good guy) and this suits him. Not a very charismatic guy, he lets his in ring work win over fans.
Aside from obvious character differences, there is also a difference in the way a heel or babyface will work a match. The heel, as part of his role as the villain, will often resort to underhanded means such as low blows, raking the eyes, refusing a handshake, or having an outsider interfere. They also rely on ‘rest holds’ (holds that both slow down the match and allow the workers to discuss what comes next) far more. The majority of bad guys are played as big talkers but cowards.
A babyface will play to all that is good and noble. They generally (with a few notable exceptions) follow the rules, they perform more daring moves, and generally stand up for one another. The majority of good guys are played as noble guys who will stand up for the little guy.
The Main Event
The evening’s main event would pit two of TNA’s home grown stars against one another. Bobby Roode, a Canadian born wrestler who has been in the company for several years, has been playing an arrogant and unbeatable bad guy for a long time now. He wins by any means necessary and has beaten big names including Kurt Angle and Sting during his reign.
Austin Aries, who only joined the company about a year earlier, has risen rapidly and despite playing a bad guy – won over the crowds and had recently become a good guy by default. He plays an arrogant, cocky good guy rather than a needlessly noble one – and the crowd loves it.
To describe the atmosphere as electric doesn’t do it justice. I’ve been to live sports before and seen big matches played, and it really does compare quite well. Despite knowing it is fake – you seldom really know who will win, and when you’re a fan of the game like I am – you’re constantly second guessing it.
Who does the company see as the best money maker down the line? Who sells the most merchandise? Who offers the company the most options when it comes to future matches?
It’s more than just sweaty guys wrestling in spandex. There’s a whole business beneath the bravado that fascinates me, and it only served to make me enjoy the night all the more.
If I thought being at Destination X was a memorable experience, it was something else entirely to be in the crowd when my favorite wrestler picked up the win and his first world title. The crowd erupted as loudly as I’d ever heard at a football game, but it was all the louder for being in a small TV studio.
A well worked pro wrestling match is more than just two sweaty guys in tights beating one another up. It’s a metaphor for the greater struggle of good vs evil. There’s a reason that we get behind the good guy and loathe the bad guy, and it’s more than just social convention.
Professional wrestling, aimed at the everyman, plays to our love of seeing the good guy or little guy triumph over somebody who has achieved their own success unfairly. The bad guys are symbols for our bosses, the tax men, bullies, law-makers, and politicians who we often feel victimised by – and the good guy? That’s us. That’s the little guy winning and good old fashioned morals triumphing over greed and injustice.
Whether at the end of the day you watch it for the matches, the story lines, the girls, the guys, the business, or the escape from reality it offers – professional wrestling is an often abhorred and always under-appreciated form of theater. It exists somewhere between the circus, the freak show, the sport, and the play – and I love that weird little crossroads it exists at.
There’s electricity in professional wrestling. There’s a kind of tribal power to the way we live vicariously through these men and women who walk the line between actor, athlete, dancer, and artist. I don’t mean to paint them as more than they are – but if you’re at all familiar with the business, you’ll know that it’s not the easy job some might imagine.
The whole experience was great fun. There’s a real carnival meets sports event atmosphere to the whole thing, and it was really great to see guys I’ve watched on TV for over a decade now live and in person.
Another fun experience was starting chants during matches and having the crowd catch on. It’s a kind of solidarity you form with your fellow attendees when you all get behind a good guy or cheer on a bad guy because, well, he’s just so much more fun than the good guy.
By night’s end my throat was hoarse, my head light from yelling, and my wallet even lighter for having picked up some souvenir shirts. But damned if it wasn’t a good time.
Have you ever been to a live professional wrestling event?
Interested in Attending?
If seeing live professional wrestling intrigues you, you can see it for free while in Orlando. Impact Wrestling films their weekly show, TNA Impact, at Universal Studios every Thursday night and admission is free. I’m told it rarely sells out, so you needn’t be there too early.
Pay-per-views, which typically boast higher profile and longer matches, are generally taped once a month on a Sunday evening and are also free. These do sell out though, so get in early and avoid having to lie about how far you’ve really come to see the show.
A live wrestling event, whether you’re a fan of the ‘sport’ or not, really is a truly American experience and one I would recommend regardless of how into the ‘art’ you may be.
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