Let’s Talk About Wrestling: The Crowd
At the last show I worked, I had the honor of being in the venue before belltime, listening to Tracy Smothers hold court before a group of wrestlers preparing for Absolute Intense Wrestling to broadcast Absolution VIII around the world on internet pay-per-view. It’s unfortunate that the speech wasn’t taped for posterity. Not only is Smothers a legend with an unending supply of stories, but his thesis that night, may I humbly suggest, is something that should be drilled into the heads of every man and woman who nervously enters the ring on their first day of wrestling school: Slow down. Take your time. Breathe.
This seems like vague advice, but wrestling is an art form (I won’t say “industry,” because it’s really only an industry at the very upper echelons—many wrestling promotions in the United States are run month to month on the gate that comes in on the night of the show; one bad draw, and that’s it) defined by vagueness, and anything more specific, in truth, wouldn’t be helpful. But Smothers is an orator, and he came prepared, in case inference wasn’t enough.
“You can’t let the crowd dictate you,” he said, “and that’s hard. The crowds nowadays are smarter than us; they can call our fucking spots before we even think of them.”
In this, the modern era of professional wrestling, the trick every wrestler tries to perform, every match, is to disabuse the so-called “smart mark” of the notion that they are in any way hip to what’s happening in the ring. This is much harder to do in World Wrestling Entertainment for reasons that are obvious, but in indie wrestling, where the risks are higher and the rewards much smaller, guys on the card are often motivated to outperform one another, to put on the best match of the night and get the most buzz when the DVD comes out, the highlight package is posted on YouTube, and the reviews show up online. This means hard, often legitimate strikes; more dangerous maneuvers; surprise near-falls. As a fan and as a broadcaster, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with an eight-minute tag match. Imagine what that must be like for a performer. Slow down. Take your time. Breathe. Not exactly a bad mantra on a night as important as Absolution.
But what I keep returning to in the wake of Absolution is the matter of “the crowd” as a living, breathing, autonomous entity, an body capable not only of dictating the action in the ring, but the reaction somebody watching the event from home has to that match. Beyond children and the adults they drag to the show, the self-aware wrestling fan has been the industry’s main source of revenue since the Attitude Era waned. The dude holding the “If Cena Wins, We Riot” sign knows who he is, as do the guys who fire up the “WHAT?” chants during every promo as if it’ll conjure up the ghost of the Steve Austin who gave a damn. Sometimes, as in post-WrestleMania episodes of Raw or any Chicago pay-per-view featuring C.M. Punk, the self-aware wrestling fans add an undeniable spark to the proceedings. Other times, it feels like the crowd at the show is in competition with the crowd from the previous week’s show. When I listen to them chant “SEXUAL CHOCOLATE” at Mark Henry louder than the crowd before, or “HUSKY HARRIS” at Bray Wyatt when his hugely hyped debut comes to fruition, or, at their very worst, “WE ARE AWESOME” in an unflattering show of perceived self-importance, it’s enough to make me wish for the USA Network’s reruns of NCIS to gobble up as much of Raw’s three-hour timeslot as possible.
I mean to talk more about the independent scene than the WWE, but one crowd’s behavior translates rather nicely to the others. The level of devotion to wrestling minutiae only increases as the crowds get smaller, and that oftentimes more rabid fan base can act as a barrier for somebody new to the indies looking for more out of their wrestling dollar than tackles and drop-downs. When being a wrestling fan on the internet meant illegally downloading classic matches from Megaupload, I skipped out on Ring of Honor and IWA Mid-South because of those crowds—how much more knowledgeable they were than me, how involved they were in matches, how, at times, they seemed to dictate the promotion’s booking—and missed out on a decade of great pro-wrestling that was happening without the pocketbooks of Vince McMahon or Ted Turner, without writing rooms or booking comittees or Paul Heyman, and that ultimately manifested itself as the current generation of mainstream wrestling. It is, without question, my biggest oversight as a wrestling fan, but I guess I have some understanding of the reviews and podcasts I read and listen to about AIW’s product that incessantly harp on the Cleveland fans, who are often cited as among the worst or most disrespectful in the country.
I don’t believe that criticism is fair for a number of reasons. The first, in the interest of full disclosure, has to do with the fact that, until I drove home from Absolution VIII, I worked for AIW. This made it my business to promote the AIW brand, roster, and experience. But I started out in AIW as a paying customer, at Girls Night Out 4 in 2011. I went with a friend of mine and his now ex-girlfriend as part of a three-night, three-show road trip to the ECW Arena in Philadelphia, where Sara Del Rey was wrestling Claudio Castagnoli as part of a summer-long tournament to name the first singles champion of Chikara, a now-defunct outfit with a largely-earned reputation for being one of America’s best promotions. Del Rey was scheduled to wrestle Super Oprah—a male wrestler in the garb of a beginner drag queen—at the show, and, since our trip to Philadelphia’s legendary bingo-hall-turned-wrestling-arena was largely motivated by our fandom of her, we stopped in Cleveland on Friday night to introduce ourselves and check out AIW, which the internet was starting to buzz about as the mid-west’s best promotion.
Based entirely on that one experience, Caleb and I were fairly certain we’d never make a return trip to Cleveland. Back then, Girls Night Out shows were split, with one portion devoted to men’s competition with the majority of the night set aside for the women’s roster. The crowd that evening had come not for women’s wrestling, but to see Madman Pondo and Rickey Shane Page wrestle in fluorescent light tubes (a few fans outside the venue even complained that Page—who stands out on the AIW roster for the amount of awful bumps he’s willing to take and blood he’s willing to spill—hadn’t popped enough tubes in his previous death match) and watch local hero Johnny Gargano maul the evil, sneaky Chest Flexor—who’d bought a partial stake in the company and used it to push the wrestlers whose contracts he owned into unearned title reigns—in the name of Absolute Intense Wrestling. Though the crowd came alive for certain moments of the woman’s card—Veda Scott, in her third match as a pro, getting dropkicked into the ring post, Mickie Knuckles and Allysin Kay’s match, and Sara Del Rey—the truth is that utter silence would have been preferable to what the men in the crowd were shouting the majority of the night. My first indie wrestling show was Chikara’s We Must Eat Michigan’s Brains in 2010. It got me hooked on the indies, but Chikara’s microverse and the placard at the front door that asks fans to maintain the company’s kid-friendly PG vibe didn’t prepare me for an evening behind an eight-year-old boy demanding Portia Perez suck his dick.
I still remember Caleb and me making our way to Del Rey’s gimmick table at intermission, shaking her hand, and apologizing for the crowd she was to wrestle before. When the show ended, we shuffled out of the arena and back to the Howard Johnson’s unnoticed and somewhat deflated. But wrestling has the miraculous ability to cure the woes brought on by wrestling, and the weekend’s Chikara shows left us desiring to see more wrestling. Any wrestling. We went to a show in the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant and baked on the asphalt while a rotund, perfectly spherical man by the name of Wreckingball got heat on the mostly-Mexican crowd by threatening to eat all the tacos at the lunch buffet. We attended several CLASH—that’s the Collective League of Adrenaline, Strength, and Honor in Taylor, MI—shows, but while they tried their best to emulate Chikara’s ethos, it was a heartless emulation at best. Even our first ROH card left us somewhat cold. It wasn’t the wrestling that gave us the hollow feeling that comes from an evening of less-than-satisfying entertainment (okay, the show at the restaurant flat-out sucked, food included), but the fact that the wrestlers and the fans in the crowd treated every show we saw in the months following our pilgrimage to the ECW Arena like it was inconsequential, to be forgotten about the minute the ring was torn down. Little believing it, Caleb and I once again found ourselves looking towards Cleveland and AIW. Then we found ourselves driving to their annual Black Friday show that November. Then we found ourselves as repeat customers. Finally, I found myself at the announcer’s desk, where I learned to manipulate and dictate the story of a match while being unobtrusive to the talent in the ring.
My opinion on the utility of a wrestling crowd has evolved a lot since I began regularly attending AIW shows, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that AIW itself has evolved, and far faster than most wrestling promotions at its level. When Caleb and I would drive to Cleveland for the best wrestling we could afford to see in a three-hour radius, AIW was still using a lot of local talent—dudes who were talented, but forever stuck in first gear. The audience they attracted wasn’t as bad as reviews have it, but I saw Rickey Shane Page and BJ Whitmer wrestle a great match in library silence once, fans try to throw chairs into the ring, and a ring bound fan get his head stomped in by one of the Irish Airborne. It was ugly at times, but this was AIW at a crossroads, leaving its roots as a bar-based show where fans fought each other during the matches and challenged the workers to get involved between bouts. Caleb and I kept going to AIW shows partially out of curiosity, to see how much further the audience could go, but, as it turned out, 2011 was the end of the freakshow. The crowd still alternated between blistering heat and utter silence, but AIW was on the cusp of being a “name” promotion, and the fans have acted accordingly.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit, because after Girls Night Out 4, I had something of a moral obligation to not attend another AIW show. Beyond the promise of a good card (which is something even the promotion’s most vocal critics frequently admit AIW provides), the reason I was able to justify my November sojourn is because I mentally divorced the wrestling crowd from the wrestling match. I thought of AIW’s shows less as a live experience than as a movie, and, as a film critic, it’d be disingenuous if I let my opinion of the theater’s seats or the texting teenager three rows ahead of me trickle down to my opinion of the film. If Sara Del Rey or Veda Scott could handle some dude yelling “KICK HER IN THE CLIT!” until his vocal chords went ragged, well, so could I. I became the guy in the crowd with his lips pursed and his hands tented. I put myself not just outside of the crowd, but above it.
This, ultimately, was a stupidly undertaken task, one that’s impossible to maintain during, say, an iron man match between ACH and AR Fox, or a brawl between John Thorne and Hailey Hatred. 2012 was AIW’s breakout year, and, beginning with the JT Lightning Invitational Tournament, I was regularly booked as an announcer and asked to write press releases and YouTube video descriptions. I filmed promos in the back, started to get to know AIW’s regulars, and watched as this promotion I once derided became one of the few can’t-miss shows on the scene. I am very proud of Absolute Intense Wrestling and how far it has come, but I was also becoming acutely aware of AIW’s perception among the vocal population of wrestling bloggers and podcasters. AIW had (and still has) some raw edges. I think those are necessary considering how frequently wrestling leans towards homogenization, but I can see where the promotion rubs critics the wrong way. It’s one thing to book an intergender tag team comprising a man with cerebral palsy and a woman who earned a law degree while finishing wrestling school and completing her first year in wrestling as nefarious, underhanded heels; it’s quite another—especially to a customer watching the DVD in Austin, TX—when the crowd’s insider knowledge of that wrestler (and, all things being fair, the wrestler’s knowledge of the crowd) leads to a five-minute promo being drowned out by that crowd heckling the wrestler with a “PEDOPHILE!” chant.
In the wake of incidents like this (and, more specifically, in the wake of accusations made of AIW’s crowd and management after last year’s Hell On Earth 8, where critic and progressive voice Danielle Matheson pointed to a fan in the crowd calling a worker a nigger), a question that’s cropped up frequently has been that of the promoter’s obligation to police the crowd. Matheson, at one end of the spectrum, has suggested that fans of that ilk paint AIW in an extremely negative light and that John Thorne and Chandler Biggins are obligated to find and throw them out. Biggins and Thorne, at the other end of the spectrum, don’t encourage racist, sexist, or homophobic crowd conduct, but kicking out a fan and losing their money that night and at future events risks an already overbudgeted show becoming that much harder to support. Conflating things further, AIW fans are aware of their perception online, and have taken to Twitter and other venues to voice their displeasure with the criticisms aimed at them. Recently, this led to an AIW fan tweeting that he’d “hate fuck” Matheson and that another blogger (Thomas Holzerman, of The Wrestling Blog) needed “to party” instead of get offended over tweets that’d never translate into real-world events (which, regardless of the fan’s intent, doesn’t excuse him—men online use sexually violent metaphors to silence female voices and render them worthless, and that is a misogynist act). I suspect that the bloom is off the rose, for all parties involved. Matheson, Holzerman, and Brandon Stroud (of With Leather, which, to my knowledge, has never covered Absolute Intense Wrestling) will continue to cover AIW, if they do, in dismissive tones, and Biggins and Thorne will continue booking AIW shows without a care for that coverage because, despite claims to the contrary, their promotion has grown without it.
Regardless, the AIW crowd will likely remain a large talking point in future discussions about the company, just as nearly every review of a WWE show will note every “WHAT” chant, every time a new character is heckled by the crowd via his old gimmick, and every instance where a crying wrestler is ushered to the back with a rousing cry of “YOU TAPPED OUT!” Me personally? I wholeheartedly believe—and sometimes find it necessary—that it is possible to ignore a crowd and focus on the show itself. Do I find it distasteful when some drunk dude in the first row of an ROH show asks Colt Cabana if he sucked the Weedman’s dick in prison? I wouldn’t be a guilt-ridden academic if I didn’t, but I wouldn’t be able to enjoy professional wrestling in person or on DVD, as a fan or as a critic, if I found myself hung up on that guy, unable to parse Colt Cabana’s work because a person I’ve never met, who I’ll never talk to, holds homosexuals as something less-than-masculine, and the act of sucking a dick an insult.
When it comes to AIW and what it can do to change the perception of its crowd, I’d argue that they’ve already done much of that work. As the company has evolved and the roster grown, the action in the ring leaves the heckler with less room to breathe—they’re too busy losing their minds. Proof of this can be found across the Girls Night Out series of DVDs. AIW, beyond serving as a home to Hailey Hatred, Jessica Havok, and Allysin Kay for the early portions of their career, didn’t always take women’s wrestling seriously, and that attitude pervaded those shows and made itself apparent in the way the audiences at those shows responded. Girls Night Out 4, which left me depressed to be a wrestling fan, is emblematic of that attitude. But the talent AIW brought in to Girls Night Out 5, a change in the tone of commentary during the matches, and the eventual decision to not run a male pre-show marked the events as serious entries in the women’s wrestling genre; talent and critical reception did the rest.
But what is the value of a wrestling crowd? I suppose that depends. I’d argue that large-scale heckling at a WWE event, beyond the perception of certain segments (comedy and women’s matches, in particular) as so-called “piss breaks,” are an indication of the self-aware fan’s dissatisfaction with the product. Given workers like Tensai, an “ALBERT” chant works as a fairly accurate barometer in fan interest. Given a chant of “SEXUAL CHOCOLATE” during Mark Henry’s brilliant, remarkable “retirement ceremony” from Raw a few weeks back, the self-aware fan is just showing off and should be ignored. At an indie show? If a fan yells “faggot” or “cunt” at a wrestler and it pops on the audio because the crowds are smaller and closer to the ring, that fan makes up a much larger percentage of the crowd than he would were he in the upper deck at SmackDown! (where he’d likely be thrown out because large arenas have paid security) and it is tempting to associate that fan’s behavior with the audience as a whole, and thus the promotion itself. But that crowd, be it 500 people strong or 27, is still made up of individuals. Moreover, they’re individuals whose involvement in what happens between the ropes—unless it’s a C.M. Punk in Chicago crowd or the group that serenaded Tim Donst and Michael Hutter in dueling chants for the first ten minutes of their Absolution VIII contest, at which point the crowd becomes essential to the creation of something memorable—is minimal at best. Wrestling is an old art form at this point, but the community of critics carrying the serious discussion of that art form forward is nebulous at best. It wouldn’t be fair to judge American Gothic by the candor of the folks gawking at it—what makes wrestling any different?
Paul Arrand Rodgers
Paul Arrand Rodgers has this blog, and that's about it.