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Friday, 23 of April of 2021

A Novice’s Take on WrestleMania XXVI

I don’t watch wrestling of any sort.  Not the wrestling on the Olympics and not the wrestling that dominates for USA on Monday nights. And I never have, really. Even when a number of the people I ate lunch with back in elementary school and middle school talked about Hulk Hogan or the Macho Man or The Rock or Goldberg (a favorite due to his Georgia roots), I only had a passing understanding of who they were talking about.

Last night, however, I watched my first WrestleMania. Ted Friedman hosted the event, and luckily the viewing party had a couple of big fans who know the ins and outs of professional wrestling that way I can talk to you about Lost (thanks to Shane, Brandon, and Bryce for putting up with questions). My girlfriend and I (yes, I brought my girlfriend to a wrestling viewing party) were the real novices at the event (though I think she knew more than I did), but I think it was quite the experience, though I am by no means compelled to watch Raw on Monday nights.

Coming in cold to WrestleMania isn’t the best idea. There are narrative threads going on in these battles, and Shane was kind enough to accept my analogy of WrestleMania being along the lines of Raw‘s season finale. So, essentially, it’s liking deciding you’re going to watch the Lost finale without having seen but maybe two episodes of the show in your entire life.

The show, thankfully, provides clip montages (like many serialized shows, and make no mistake: professional wrestling IS serialized) before the especially big fights to remind fans of the history between the combatants and/or to initiate new viewers, so I at least had some context for the events.

It was interesting to me for an event like WrestleMania to have these “Previously on…” clip montages since I wouldn’t think that non-fans would be paying to watch this on Pay-Per-View. Yes, non-fans may be there for the viewing party, but they may not shell out the money to order it (though they can rent the DVD when it comes out), but that the show is making an attempt at making new viewers informed is fascinating.

So the matches start, and they’re a bit lackluster. The tag team match and the triple threat match are all a bit dull. Shane and Bryce kindly explain what’s going on with Randy Orton in the triple threat match, but no one seems all that interested in the match. The first real interest arrives with the Money in the Bank ladder match.

In this type of match, there are 10 wrestlers attempting to reach a briefcase dangling in the air using ladders to reach the case and to beat up their opponents. The person who manages to unhook the case gets the privilege of competing in any championship match that they want up until the next WrestleMania.

It was actually a fairly fun event. Watching the creative stunts used with the ladders was entertaining (at one point, Kofi Kingston used a broken ladder as a pair of stilts, though he had no hope of reaching the case like that), but the scripted nature of the event was a little noticeable. Very rare was for it all 10 of the competitors to be in the ring, trying to get up a ladder. And those who were going up ladders never seemed to climb very quickly, nor did they seem to want to climb onto the top steps of the ladder, despite their willingness to bit hit by the ladders or fall on top of them.

One of the singles match, CM Punk versus Rey Mysterio was also entertaining. The storyline here is that CM Punk leads a straight edge lifestyle (and has two followers) and interrupted Rey Mysterio’s celebration of his daughter’s birthday, and thus needed to avenge her. If Rey lost, he would have to become a member of CM Punk’s group (and give up his boozing and drug use, though I never felt like Mysterio used any drugs — he seemed like a great family man to me…).

Phillip Jack Brooks, who is CM Punk, is an incredible performer. The vaguely psychotic religious nut aspects he plays up wonderfully, and the crowd really responded to him in a way that they didn’t for many of the other events. And the event uses close-ups wisely to emphasize facial expressions before and during the actual match. I felt like Rey’s persona didn’t really hold up to CM Punk’s much flashier role, but the match as a whole was fairly entertaining.

Which brings us to Bret Hart and Vince McMahon. I’m going to tell you go read Myles’ excellent essay to give you the necessary background on this match. After you read it, come back.

According to Bryce and Shane, because of Hart’s condition, he couldn’t really fight-fight McMahon, so members of the Hart family (that McMahon had paid to beat up Hart himself) ended up doing most of the work while Hart stood in the ring, looking angry. Having seen the promos for when Hart returned to Raw, I was expecting a much bigger bash here, but it was decidedly dull. And given that Hart wasn’t actively involved, the narrative closure the event should’ve had never really occurred, even for someone who has nothing invested in it. I can’t imagine that it was overly satisfying for those with something invested in it.

The Jericho and Edge match was an equally dull affair, punctuated by the viewing party mocking the commentators (who were really awfully) for talking about Canada in those broad stroke of The Great White North. Our favorite was the notion that Jericho and Edge had spent much time together, traveling around Canada, in a car for five or six hours at a time. I quickly pointed out that those were five or six Canadian hours, so much longer than in U.S. time.

It was, however, the last two fights that struck me. The John Cena and Batista fight was, frankly, sloppy. It looked unpolished and was given very little background that I could feel a narrative thread through. I had no reason to care about what was going on, and by the end of the match, I wasn’t sure that anyone really cared. I was further surprised to learn that such a shoddy match was for the championship.

The last fight, however, had all of us engaged. The Undertaker, undefeated in seventeen WrestleManias, battled Shawn Michaels, who has a career spanning 20+ years. If Michaels lost, he would retire from professional wrestling forever. Compared to the previous match, and really all the matches of the evening, this one had dramatic stakes and was incredibly polished bit of both wrestling and acting.

From a drama and acting point of view, the match was clear in Michaels’ stake (he had been out for a number of years due to a back injury) and in The Undertaker’s, keeping his streak alive. The clip montage building up to filled in gaps, and the final bit of moves between the two wrestlers and Michaels’ walk off the ring was incredibly poignant and thoughtful for a program that doesn’t seem prone to that sort of sentiment.

But it also stood in stark contrast to the previous match in sheer professionalism. Where Cena and Batistia’s moves (attacks?) were clearly, often painfully, staged looking, the bout between Michaels and The Undertaker seemed like a natural evolution of a knock-out brawl, albeit choreographed. It felt and looked like the fight was real, and it caused all of us at the viewing party, to get really really into it as a result. I don’t think anyone was rooting for anyone in particular, but I think we would’ve been satisfied with either conclusion.

So, while the event didn’t make me into a convert, I found the experience to be fairly illuminating. The narrative drive behind many of these matches, some flimsy and others dating back decades, showcases the reasons why ideas about seriality (maybe even narrative complexity?) should be applied to other programming (COUGHsoapoperasCOUGH), not just the primetime fiction programming. It’s a thought.

FINAL THOUGHTS

  • To the guy in the front row wearing the Cavs jersey: You were the viewing party’s favorite part of the evening. You were up, down, sad, looking on in disbelief, excitement. You, sir, were the MVP of Wrestlemania XXVI.
  • My girlfriend really looked forward to the Diva match, but it was a let down and a half. Not nearly enough cat-fighting.
  • One thing I did notice, and was looking forward to, was a lack of back-stage interviews and skits between events. That they managed to fill 4 hours without that is amazing, but it really prevented many of the personalities from coming through.
  • After the party was over, my girlfriend asked if I wanted to go to next year’s event which is being held at the Georgia Dome here in Atlanta. When I said that I wasn’t interested, I don’t think the sad puppy dog eyes she gave me were totally fake.


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