As I ordered a drink from the wait staff in the club seating at the FleetCenter, a thought suddenly occurred to me. Perhaps it's not the best idea to serve alcohol at a live wrestling event. After all, you need only look around to see the clientele: a group of varied-aged teenagers ogling a WWE "Divas" magazine... a near four hundred pound man with a Kane T-shirt that reads "The Fire Still Burns"... an already drunk middle aged guy who wouldn't shut up about days of wrestling passed... an eight year old who dropped more F-bombs in three minutes than Chris Rock does in an entire stand-up routine. Ah yes, the WWE brings out the finest in every community.
I wish I could say I was there gathering information for a case study on the degeneration of American values or some such thing. But the truth is, I enjoy wrestling. Sure it's gotten really boring lately (and I'm not alone on this one, given the number of seats that were covered with black tarps to hide the fact that they were empty), and they seem to talk more than wrestle, but when your buddy says, "My girlfriend can get free tickets,"... why the hell not?
So there we were in the FleetCenter, directly across from the Titantron, a mammoth viewscreen set up not only to play all of the backstage action and video intros for each wrestler, but also to market all of the WWE-related products. Through the course of the night, no fewer than five different bands are touted, from Saliva to Our Lady Peace. Ads for CD boxed sets, DVDs, and magazines are broadcast during every commercial break, and the ring announcers practically beg the crowd to visit the concession stand while a WWE stagehand fires T-shirts into the stands with some kind of pneumatic launching cannon.
The Monday night show consists of three parts. First, the so-called "dark matches", ones that aren't on TV. The purpose is to get in some extra work for some of the lesser-knowns, rehab a guy coming back from injury, and to see how the crowd reacts to new faces. As security finally got a Hulk Hogan wannabe back to his seat (to the dismay of the crowd), ring announcer Howard Finkel entered the ring and did his thing.
"The Fink" is a small guy with just an unbelievably powerful voice, the kind of guy you look at and wonder, "How does he talk like that?" Howard informs the crowd that photography is totally cool with the WWE, as long as you're not selling the pictures. He also asks that we not throw anything in the direction of the ring (does that mean throwing things in other directions is allowed?) and makes the mistake of calling Boston "Beantown", which no one seems to realize is an insult. Soon enough, we are treated to our first match.
It's Arch Kincaid against Nathan Jones. For those of you wondering who these two guys are, you aren't the only one. Arch Kincaid is a medium sized blonde guy... Nathan Jones is around seven feet tall and built like a brick shithouse. He makes short work of Kincaid, basically throwing him around the ring at will. Given the "pop" he gets from the crowd, I'm sure they'll be "putting him over" more as weeks go by. In laymen's terms, that means that the fans like him, so his competitors are likely to lose in the weeks to follow.
The fact that Nathan Jones won the match is immaterial, really, as are all the results. No one really seems to care who wins or loses, it's all a matter of how badly each guy gets beaten, and what kind of taunts go on between matches. It's a soap opera for guys. Today's hero is tomorrow's goat, and the fans like it that way. Oh sure, they complain that nowadays it's more theatrics than wrestling, but sitting in the arena, you can see why. The crowd cheers more for the backstage events than they do for the matches.
The second part of the show is the taping for "Sunday Night Heat" on MTV. All of the banners and video screens are set up for the show, and the TV announcers are introduced. The Fink instructs us, for the first of several times that when the lights go down, and pyrotechnics go off, it's our turn to go crazy. This is the initial shot of every WWF TV event: a barely-focused zoom and zip around a crowd going crazy. Thirty minutes later comes the most contrived part of the evening.
You see, the Fink tells us beforehand to go crazy, but he really doesn't need to. The crowd is already excited that the show is starting... we practically go nuts when Howard tells us that the show is about to begin. The problem is... for TNN, they run a live promo at about 8:50 (you've seen it if you watch Star Trek: TNG at the 8 o'clock time slot on Mondays), and they need to crowd to go crazy for it. So at around 8:49, the Fink tells everyone that they need to go crazy as soon as the lights go out. Well, the lights go out, and everyone goes crazy for about thirty seconds, until all of a sudden, the lights go back on and Howard says, "Thank you." And all at once the crowd goes silent again. It's surreal.
Soon enough, however, the main event begins: the live airing of Monday Night Raw. Our announcers are introduced... Good Ol' J.R. comes out to the Oklahoma Sooners fight song. His counterpart Jerry "The King" Lawler comes out in a more regal fashion, to Mussorgsky's "The Great Gate At Kiev" (although I'm betting you could count on one hand the number of people who know the name of the piece). Clips from last Thursday's show are aired as an introduction, and then it's full bore into another exciting wrestling show.
The show is nothing if not formulaic. Each wrestler is typecast, with a specific catch-phrase and a set of specific moves that they do, and that's what the crowd expects. In a match featuring Bubba Ray Dudley, the crowd chants "Table! Table! Table!", waiting for the signature table smashing that Bubba Ray is famous for. After Booker T clears the ring of bad guys, he stares at his hand for minute, igniting the crowd. That the sign that he's gonna do the Spinarooni, a breakdancing backspin that only Booker T can do.
The good guys play to the crowd. And naturally, the bad guys do just the opposite. Antagonizing the crowd with anti-hometown sentiments is the easiest way to "generate cheap heat" (that's "make the crowd hate you"). Harvard graduate Christopher Nowitski comes down to ringside and informs us all that Boston has gone down the crapper since he left school, and that people like us need intelligent people like him to rule over them. Around the part where he makes a joke about Ted Williams' frozen corpse, his rival Maven sneaks up behind him and gives him a beating. The crowd loves it.
Similarly, Canadian Lance Storm begins lecturing "us Americans" about our lack of interest in the political system. A guy to the right of us, who to this point has shown about a ten word vocabulary (which includes the line "Get him a bodybag, yeah!!!!" from The Karate Kid), stands up and shouts, "Your country is a bunch of socialists!" Unfortunately, he's about seventy rows back, and his assessment of the Canadian government goes unheard by the intended target of his verbal abuse. Luckily, however, Storm is interrupted by a video montage of one "Big Poppa Pump", a popular wrestler who has recently signed with the WWE. The crowd seems disappointed when Sir Pump doesn't show up personally, but cheers nonetheless when Al Snow and Tommy Dreamer come down the aisle for the match.
That's the interesting thing about the WWE fans. They know everyone. When you're at a typical sporting event, most of the fans don't know the third string linebacker or where the left-handed spot reliever pitched back in 1998. Wrestling fans know *ALL* of this, and are only too happy to oblige you with the details. As Booker T comes out for his match, the guy beside asks me how cool it would be if his brother were here. "Who's his brother?" I ask. I am told it is Stevie Ray, a name I'm somewhat familiar with. "I didn't know they were brothers." Oh yeah, he explains. Don't I remember back in the WCW when they were a tag team. "WCW?" I ask incredulously, "I don't watch that shit."
With the look he gave me, you'd think I killed his mother. "EIGHTY-FOUR WEEKS they beat the WWF in the ratings", he says, "EIGHTY FOUR WEEKS IN A ROW!" He's clearly waiting for a rebuttal. Thinking quickly, I remember RimRod's E2 writeup on the worst wrestling pay-per-view event of all time. "You know why I stopped watching the WCW? Four words: Great American Bash '91!" He stops for a second, thinks, and concedes defeat. "Yeah, I hear you! That totally sucked!" He gives me a high five and nods his head with a smile. He's thinking, "This motherfucker is all right!"
It's simply amazing the folks that attend these shows, and the ones who bring their kids. If you thought Mr. WCW was the exception, you'd be dead wrong. The kid sitting behind us, no more than seven, recited the name of every move that Rob Van Dam performed in the match. If you think it's fun hearing someone behind you shout "DOUBLE WHEEL KICK! YEAH! CLOTHESLINE! YEAH! PUMP-HANDLE SLAM! YEAH!"... well, you're mistaken. But I suppose that's cool. I'd have done the same thing when I was seven. What kind of bothers me is that when they put up the video of Trish Stratus walking around in a thong bikini, the kid told his dad, "With her, Stratusfaction is guaranteed!"
Yes indeed, the WWE offsets any of the underlying homoeroticism in wrestling with half-naked women of all shapes and sizes, known as the "Divas". Trish is a full figured girl, likely constructed more from silicone than muscle fiber and fat tissue. There's Stacy Keibler, former Baltimore Ravens cheerleader, who proclaims that her legs are forty-one and one half inches long. Her shtick is bending over when she enters the ring, giving half the crowd a good look at her ass. She seems to be proud of this feat. Can't say I don't enjoy it, but one wonders if her dad watches the show.
Over the course of the night they play four or five different videos of the Divas, which essentially double as ads for their magazines, calendars, DVDs, and pay-per-view specials. The crowd gets unruly when the Stacy video momentarily freezes. Strange, you'd think they'd cheer for a ten-second freeze-frame of a girl's ass on the beach. But then, you'd be thinking logically, which is right out the window with most of these people. These are the same people who got angry at me when I wondered aloud why Chris Jericho would lock a submission move on a guy when there was another guy in the ring waiting to beat him up. I suppose I think too much for my own good.
It seems like I'm knocking the whole affair, and in truth I probably am, because it's such a strange event, and we tend to make fun of and fear that which we don't understand. But these folks put on a four hour show that's never dull (well, never *intentionally* dull), with lights, pyrotechnics, action, comedy, and sex. Guys got their asses kicked, girls walked around half-naked, poignant observations were made about the Canadian government, and a man spent the last of his welfare check on some foam thumbs with the letters R.V.D. on them. This wasn't no night at the opera.