by Glenn Matchett
In the UK there seems to be a long history of a love for our national sports. Things like football, cricket and rugby seem to be more national obsessions than casual hobbies or interests. I’ve been told in the past that comic fans seem to be a very demanding ‘hardcore’ fan base but I’d argue than some sports fans are just as bad, if not even more passionate about their interest but it is somehow seen as more acceptable. The reason for this I’m afraid I cannot explain but with me it never caught on. Growing up in school football was a daily conversation among my fellow male students and I listened pretending to feign interest only to have no clue what they were talking about. Even today I would be amazed if I can name 10 footballers playing at a pro level so my interest in sports has always been nonexistent.
With that in mind I do find it interesting that I became a fan of wrestling and why I’ve remained a fan for what will be 13 years this January. I can’t explain why it appealed to me when so many sports did not. It was probably the fact that there seemed to be a story that made you care about the actual wrestlers and you really wanted one to win and another to lose. I was aware of wrestling from a young age and was familiar with stars like Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker and Bret Hart but didn’t know much more than. I began regularly watching wrestling almost by chance when one morning I was up before everyone else and was going through the channels on Sky and found something called ‘WWF Livewire.’ Hosted by the person who has made a career out of being a really annoying person in Michel Cole it summed up the events of the World Wrestling Federation’s biggest weekly show ‘Raw Is War’ in one hour. In hindsight this was a really smart move as it allowed the company (called the WWE now after some Panda’s got pissy about sharing the same logos as a wrestling company) total control of what a young impressionable mind like me was exposed to. Matches could be shortened and edited so that every star looked good and every angle was given the same treatment so that it all seemed so exciting. At first the actual matches held little interest for me and Livewire seemed to focus more on the stories which suited me fine. The storyline that really caught my attention was the seemingly long ongoing feud between Stone Cold Steve Austin and the owner of the WWF(later E) Vince McMahon.
The feud centred around the fans being so behind Austin and his pursuit of the WWE title against McMahon’s desire to do anything to stop him gaining the belt. In the story this was because McMahon did not approve of Austin who drank beer, swore and gave the middle finger as a casual greeting as WWE champion. To witness at a young age person like Austin openly defy his boss to the point of rebellion was really compelling. After some time of McMahon repeatedly holding Austin down the two would be the first two participants in the yearly Royal Rumble match. This meant that Austin would be in the ring with McMahon and could do with him whatever he wished. I had to watch it and luckily enough this event was free! Back in the day in UK all WWE events were free, sadly this changed over time but I think we still get 6 per year which isn’t too bad. I had the next day off school so the event being on at 1 in the morning live from the US wasn’t an issue. I actually remember thinking that this much anticipated confrontation between Austin and McMahon would be on first and I could go to bed and be satisfied with my brief love affair with pro wrestling.
Like much in my life things did not proceed as expected. Not only was the match not on first but it was on last and I sat through *gasps* full wrestling matches that night. To my shock and horror I found the wrestling equally as entertaining and watched the utterly brutal confrontation between the main villain and McMahon’s personal pick as champion The Rock battle in an ‘I Quit’ match against Mankind. These two are now regarded as two of the biggest stars the wrestling business has ever seen and on my first night watching a full WWE show I saw them go at it in one of their best matches. The match was brutal and I was hanging on the edge of my seat with every minute. The WWE excels at video packages for feuds and hyping up events and debuts and on this night it was no different. The video package told me everything I needed to know and that the wrestler called Mankind was somehow immune to pain and had never, ever said ‘I Quit’. After several brutal chair shots to the head it seemed he did just that. I was in shock despite caring about this wrestler who I’d been aware of for roughly 40 minutes had done such a thing!
So The Rock walked out as champ and I wasn’t a happy camper but it was going to be okay as the Royal Rumble featuring the first two entrants in Austin and McMahon was up next. Now I had a casual interest in wrestling at this moment but the Royal Rumble probably made me a fan for life. Anyone with the slightest inclination to watch it should start with the last recent Royal Rumble. In short it’s a match featuring 30 wrestlers with 2 starting and another enters after 90 seconds or so. Wrestlers are eliminated by going over the top rope and both feet hitting the floor. The last man remaining wins and gets a shot at the WWE title at Wrestlemania which is the WWE’s biggest event of the year. The way the announcers were hyping it and how hard it seemed to win the Rumble it seemed to me that Wrestlemania was a huge deal. I wanted Austin to win but he was the first entrant and the odds were vastly against him. The Rumble is perfect for someone wanting to get into wrestling because during the match you are introduced to the majority of the roster and the announcers tell you about nearly every important player in the match. Who’s good, who’s bad, who’s a champion or in a tag team or whatever. The Royal Rumble gives you it all in one match and the combination of this, the strategy needed behind the match and the prize sealed my fate as a pro wrestling fan. In recent years the Rumble is still enjoyable to watch but the prize for winning seems at best subjective. Last year’s winner Alberto Del Rio did receive a championship match at Wrestlemania but in a bizarre twist it was the first match on the card. The point in the past of winning the Rumble is you got to go for the title in the most important match on the WWE’s biggest event, not be the first person out the door. The Rumble in itself still enjoyable but the prize in recent years doesn’t seem more prestigious as if you’re just going for a title match that you can get at any other event it takes some of the shine from it. I’m hoping this year WWE does something to fix that but time will tell.
Back to 1999 and long story short Austin and McMahon are the last two in and the Rock costs my hero the victory. Man I hated that guy so much it was unreal. By some miracle McMahon won and Austin’s dreams of a title match at Wrestlemania were vanquished. By a complex series of events I watched as Austin regained his right to the match and go on to beat the Rock at Wrestlemania. After that The Rock turned against McMahon and although my memories of him acting like a jerk for months were fresh he soon won me over and I watched him become the star he is today. Following that Austin went into a feud with The Undertaker and the feud with McMahon continued when he was revealed as the mastermind behind the ‘Corporate Ministry’ which was the main villain faction at the time. To people not familiar with wrestling this probably doesn’t seem like much of a stretch but prior to this McMahon seemed to have a change of heart and his son Shane seemed to become Austin’s nemeses. I was sure shocked by the reveal anyway and the best thing about it that it was all real.
Yup for many years I was under the impression that everything in pro wrestling was 100% fact. These people did hate each other, gimmicks were for the most part genuine and those that seemed slightly farfetched were simply the result of someone being overly dramatic. I heard whispers about the truth behind wrestling being fake and dismissed it as nonsense! I don’t think it was until I read Mick Foley’s (also known as Mankind) first autobiography ‘Have A Nice Day’ that the penny finally dropped.
As a result of this wrestling I feel is held in quite a low regard for not being real. I often say to people how many of their favourite TV shows are real. Do people watch CSI or Walking Dead or any other popular show and go ‘this is crap because these people aren’t real?’ You get absorbed in it and watch it for what it is but there seems to be a disconnect with wrestling. People often would say to my point ‘Yeah but those shows don’t pretend to be real’ when actually….they kind of due. I promise if I ever watch a television show and the main character turns to the camera at the end and says ‘Thanks for watching our totally fake show. See you next week!’ Followed by a large cast wide song and dance then I’ll change my stance. Over the years I’ve learned that wrestling is in fact more real than I can say. My first exposure to this reality came while still watching Livewire and longing to watch Raw Is War (later simply RAW). After seeing full unedited matches at Royal Rumble and other events like Wrestlemania itself I wanted a weekly fix of more. By chance I found it on Sky Sports and was eagerly waiting watching my first ever full RAW which would immediately follow a PPV in May 1999 called ‘Over The Edge.’ People who have watched wrestling as long as myself will read the name of that event, feel a chill down their spine and their minds will all turn to one thing. That one thing is a wrestler named Owen Hart and I had the misfortune of watching him die live on television. At this time Owen was a heel (or bad guy) who had been tag team champion briefly during my time as a wrestling fan. I didn’t know a lot about him beyond this because Livewire didn’t feature him a great deal. The story at the time though was that he was masquerading as a hero called the ‘Blue Blazer’ and was wrestling for the WWE’s second most important championship the Intercontinental title at ‘Over The Edge’ under this guise. During the event after one of the matches we got a shot of the crowd and I waited and waited and nothing happened. Part of Owens ‘Blue Blazer’ entrance involved him being lowered from the rafters into the ring. Sadly during the entrance the wires snapped and Owen fell to the ring. At the time the visibly upset announcers told us the audience that Owen was going to the hospital later and about 2 hours later they reported live on air that he had passed away. Later on I would read that he had passed away immediately as a result of the impact but at the time I watched the rest of the event in a daze. It is the only WWE event to never be released on video or DVD because of the events. I have heard stories that Vince and the production team regret continuing the show following the tragic event and as always hindsight is a wonderful thing. So the first full RAW I watched was an emotionally driven two hour tribute to Owen. Filled with videos of wrestlers giving tear filled goodbyes to their friend. I hadn’t known Owen that well as a wrestler but I was upset by the events of that night and it wouldn’t be the last time this would happen.
Over the years I’ve seen many come and many go. I’ve seen people get injured, paralyzed and yes more pass away. In 2005 a wrestler named Eddie Guerrero who was not only a fantastic wrestler but a brilliant character passed away and once again I was profoundly upset by the passing of someone I didn’t even know but felt I knew by watching them on television and at this point seeing them live and in person. In wrestling there also seems to be a certain tragedy in regards to not letting go. A friend of mine who was also a fan once said ‘wrestlers never retire’ and in most cases it’s true. The film the wrestler I think portrayed it very accurately and was brutally honest about the subject. Many wrestlers who were big in their day seem to have issues letting go and for a while it’s good to see them but at one point it gets a little bit tragic and I thought the movie captured that perfectly. Of the current WWE roster there are only 3 wrestlers that have remained with WWE the whole time since I began watching not counting those who have gone and come back of which there have been many. It’s a strange thing seeing the constant changing faces but it also causes the product as a whole to free fresh again. I’m glad in more recent times that wrestlers I enjoyed like Shawn Michaels and Edge got to leave mostly on their own terms and although they certainly make cameos on the show seem to have had their last matches ever.
Despite my first experience of RAW I watched week after week and even remember the launch of the second show Smackdown. I believe in the time I’ve watched I have only ever missed maybe 4 or 5 shows at the most. I would be lying if I said it’s been a smooth road through those 13 years quality wise but there have certainly been more highs and lows. My viewing of the Rumble caused me to go back and buy the Rumbles from 1997 and 1998 and then soon I had all the events in-between as well. I have a video/DVD collection of every event the WWE did from Rumble 1997 all the way to Judgement day 2005. At this time I stopped getting every event because now WWE were doing too many and other things were taking my time and attention. I still buy Wrestlemania on DVD every year but find it better to buy the really high quality collection of matches with certain wrestlers highlighted or certain event landmarked. I have a lot of good memories from watching wrestling and sometimes it even still catches me by surprise. I was have a basic level of enjoyment of it of course but the wonder I felt in those early days is essentially gone but now and then something happens that brings those old feelings back.
In the early days I was aware of other wrestling product but never showed interest in watching it. Even now I hear companies like Ring Of Honour being better than WWE and I have seen shows and maybe it’s because I’ve been programmed for 13 years but it didn’t appeal to me. The WWE seems to get a certain amount of flack from wrestling fans but to me there’s a reason that it is the oldest and most successful wrestling company in the world. Although it really doesn’t influence me creativity as much as other things wrestling always holds a special place to me and I honestly do really enjoy watching it every week. Like comics I think people sometimes take it a little too seriously or with a critical eye looking for things not to enjoy. I’ve always been in the mindset of simply not giving my time to things I don’t enjoy and WWE and pro wrestling certainly something I still enjoy immensely.
I could talk about many things over the 13 years I’ve watched and could probably do an article for every year I watched. I could talk about Austin/McMahon or the beer truck event or D-X or Shawn Michaels or Mick Foley or who ran Austin over or John Cena or Undertaker or ECW One Night Stand or many fantastic matches. I’m currently on the countdown towards the Royal Rumble 2012 and Wrestlemania 28. I wouldn’t miss it for the world and I think I’ll have to say that about WWE for a long time to come or myself from 1999 may never speak to me again.
Next: From Damn Fine Coffee to Travelling Through Time