I’ve been watching wrestling for a long time now, have been cognizant of it for at least 20 years, going back to the Christmas my sister and I received a pair of WWF Wrestling Buddies (Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior, for the intensely curious). Since then, and with few interruptions (Katie Vick), I have absolutely devoured wrestling any way I can: VHS recordings of Monday Night Raw and Monday Nitro, Coliseum Home Video releases of old WrestleManias and house shows, DVDs, live shows, autograph signings by the likes of “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan (2′x4′), Buff Bagwell (8″x10″), and Chyna (“autobiography”), the point being this: I’m a mark, man, a shameless mark.
But, for as long as I’ve been a mark, I’ve been looking for a way to elevate myself above that particular crowd. Not that I’m better than any other wrestling fan, but as I get older, wrestling’s become less and less about the unending battle between good and evil, and more about the effort and artistry behind a good match, all the elements that go into one. Mostly, I’ve looked for a way to get involved in the industry in some way. I was too cowardly (or too smart) to backyard wrestle as a kid and too uninterested in athletics as a teenager to consider wrestling school, so I looked up to and wished to emulate the great announcers and color commentators of the sport — Jim Ross and Bobby Heenan, Gordon Solie and Lance Russell, Jesse Ventura and Gorilla Monsoon, Paul Heyman and Jim Cornette — men capable of translating what is essentially a foreign language to an audience who really wouldn’t know a wristlock from a wristwatch, who need to be told why a hammerlock hurts and why one should fear the DDT.
I have always wanted to do this, wanted to call a wrestling match, and on January 29th this year, I got to do just that. This is one of the more unique privileges of indie wrestling fandom, that a promotion you enjoy and wish to see succeed will hold a fundraiser, with one of the rewards for donating being something you’ve always wanted to do, but never figured would happen. For $75, I was given a “try out” as an announcer behind a live microphone, talking about a wrestling match on a DVD that’d later be watched and picked apart by other fans who, like me, consider themselves aficionados. This, I admit, is a pretty weird dream, but it’s one I’ve had for awhile, and one I probably would have paid more money to accomplish, not knowing many other ways for a layman to get on the air.
The only thing left to do once the money left my wallet was to wait for a match I wanted to call. As soon as AIW announced the return of Sara Del Rey (a favorite wrestler of mine), I knew that was one. The one problem was that Del Rey was scheduled to face AIW Women’s Champion Mickie Knuckles on a card centered around women’s wrestling, making it the main event. AIW would have been within rights to say “no” and ask me to take on a match with less riding on it, say, The Duke vs. The Chad, which opened the show, or “Crazy” Mary Dobson vs. Miss Heidi, which had no bearing on the success or failure of the DVD. But instead, they said “yes,” and I made my debut as a professional wrestling announcer in the main event of a show that’s pretty important for AIW, among their top DVD sellers.
Most of Girls Night Out 5 was an absolute blur for me. My buddy Caleb and I arrived at the arena a little late, Caleb carrying a pie he’d baked for Del Rey (the third such baked good he’s made for a wrestler, wrestlers not being known for their affinity for cake and pie), and me half-expecting/half-hoping to be informed that it just wouldn’t be possible for me to claim my fundraiser prize that evening. But the owners of the promotion knew me on sight and said “Main event tonight? Good luck,” which made me both incredibly excited and incredibly nervous. It was on. There was no turning back. Match after match went by with me in a kind of stupor, drinking tons of water and trying to hang on to the research I’d done earlier (despite having seen her at most of the AIW shows I’ve been to since last June, I didn’t know much about Mickie Knuckles, an indie fixture) while populating a list of old cliches I could use in case I got stuck (“Tonight has been the greatest night in the history of our industry!”). The highlights of the DVD, having watched it a few times now, include Eric Ryan vs. Rickey Shane Page, Mia Yim vs. Marti Belle, Veda Scott vs. Kimber Lee, and Allysin Kay vs. Mia Yim, but they barely registered live, as the whole time I was worried about coming across like this:
Granted I’m not a completely unbiased judge, but if you ask me, I did a pretty good job. There are, of course, things I could stand to improve — being more excited for big moves — some things I need to avoid — over-relying on the use of full names (but they’re so rhythmic!) and the phrase “that’s a devastating submission maneuver!”(I used it twice, like Vince McMahon not knowing what a suplex is and instead shouting “what a maneuver!”) — and I made one flat-out error — claiming that Sara Del Rey had taken to the Fujiwara armbar when, in fact, she uses the cross armbreaker — but those are small, quibbling details, things anybody could have screwed up. Mostly, I’m happy to have not come across like this:
Being an announcer, as it turns out, isn’t a simple matter of knowing the names of the wrestlers involved and knowing the moves they’re performing, how they effect an opponent’s anatomy. To do it right, you need to be able to react quickly to everything that’s happening in front of you. If you’ve got a preference for one wrestler and aren’t supposed to, you need to mask it. If there’s a wrestler on the microphone, you’re not to talk over them. If your view of the match is blocked off by a standing crowd or the ring or the wrestlers disappearing outside or behind the curtain, you cannot allow silence. If there is dead air, it is your responsibility to pick the conversation up again. That’s what announcing is in wrestling, not a dry reporting of facts, but a conversation between two or more distinct individuals about a conflict taking place right before them. It is good to know and call upon history. It is good to know basic strategy. It is good to note when one wrestler is working over a specific body part, which part of the body a submission hold damages. It is especially good to have a partner who can also do these things, a partner with whom you can bounce things back and forth.
If I made a serious, grave error, it was ultimately that I was intensely focused on the match. That might not seem like a terrible thing, but, without my knowing it, I was playing a part in a long, ongoing battle behind the microphone that involved a swarthy, lascivious announcer named Aaron Bauer (@fairtoaar), who usually spends Girls Night Out events talking about which competitors he finds more attractive. For some reason, I didn’t bank on AIW having a back up plan in case I stuttered, stammered, and shamefully silenced myself into an early retirement, but Bauer was that back up, and I was so into Kuckles/Del Rey that I barely noticed him the first time he came to the table (and, later, I called him “bro”). He came around three times, at which point everybody (including me) figured that Rickey Shane Page didn’t need to be rescued from me. After the show, both Page and Bauer complimented me, which was flattering, but calling Knuckles/Del Rey had an unforeseen consequence, something that’ll take a little bit of backstory to fully explain.
Shortly before Girls Night Out 5, Caleb had signed up for a wrestling school run by Ring of Honor stalwart Truth Martini, who is one of the best managers in wrestling today. He was about a month out from starting his training, but you could tell, watching him, that there was something different in the way he was watching the show. On the first day of the course, Martini gathered his prospective wrestlers in the ring and said to them all “You’re not marks anymore.” That’s not to say that Martini was forbidding Caleb from being a fan (because, honestly, why voluntarily do something you hate?). He was saying that Caleb’s purpose in watching wrestling was changing from “man wishing to be entertained” to “student of the game.” You watch an episode of Raw, and it’s not to complain about John Cena and Zack Ryder, but to watch CM Punk, Chris Jericho, and Daniel Bryan wrestle. You go to an indie show, and it’s not to get caught up in fan chants or be awed by the things the athletes are capable of, but to ingratiate yourself to the promotion by setting up the ring or being security, picking the brains of the much more experienced competitors in the back. It’s still wrestling, but, as a student, wrestling has a higher purpose. You do these things because you want to learn.
But still, imagine Caleb, a big enough fan of wrestling that he carves Sara Del Rey’s logo into the latticework of his homemade apple pie, being told not to be that guy anymore. It’s a weird situation, but, sitting there during the show, both of us could feel our identities as fans changing. Caleb and I, usually two of the loudest people in the room, just sat back and watched the show unfold, studying everything that was happening in the ring as if we knew there was no going back, as if Caleb had already been told by Martini that it was no longer acceptable to chant “You’re gonna get your fucking head kicked in” with the rest of the crowd, that things were going to be different, even if we didn’t want them to be.
This is nothing new to me. I’ve been blogging about movies for four years now, and over that time have felt my appreciation for them change. Yes, I’ll still watch a movie like Underworld: Awakening or The Scorpion King 3, but I do so with a critical eye, presumably because I can pick up an element of craft from any movie, even if what I learn is simply how not to do something. My experience as an announcer was great, but it has fundamentally changed the way I take in and digest wrestling. While announcing, you must be aware both of yourself on the microphone and the match in the ring. You’re split, in a way observing yourself observe not only a work of art, but the way that work of art moves you. You find yourself enjoying wrestling, yes, but in the same way one enjoys a book that fundamentally changes ones perspective. While I will always have my one experience, while Caleb will always have his training, there will be no going back to the way things were, and that, honestly, is fine. The best way I can sum up the experience of announcing is this: I feel a little bit like David Bowman going through the light show at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s like I’ve grown younger and older, like I’m calm and nervous, naive but somehow enlightened. I left Cleveland that night knowing that I could no longer be a mark. I left Cleveland having never been a bigger fan.
If you like wrestling or like the sound of my voice, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Absolute Intense Wrestling’s Girls Night Out 5. You can purchase the event directly from AIW at shop.aiwrestling.com, or from the guys at Smart Mark Video, who are selling the DVD for $15, and an mp4 download of the show for $10. If you live in Cleveland or within reasonable driving distance, go to aiwrestling.com, check out AIW’s Facebook page, or follow them on Twitter (@aiwrestling) for more information on their upcoming shows: Straight Outta Compton, Girls Night Out 6, and the J.T. Lightning Invitational Tournament.