Three questions lingered in my head when I drove to a bar last night to see SummerSlam, my first WWE PPV in at least six years. One, when you return to something you once loved after abandoning it, how much of the heart you gave to it will you still find? Two, is wrestling -- a ceaseless soap opera overloaded with changing character roles -- something you can simply enjoy once? Three, holy crap, Kane's still wrestling? That guy's old enough to do ads for dick medicine.
Years ago, in an Internet era older than dirt, I wrote columns about professional wrestling. They're gone now; only a few trolling traces remain. But, for a while, I was a card-carrying member of the Internet Wrestling Community (IWC), a group of people whose only universal characteristic -- if they have one -- is being disappointed by what's on TV.
My fandom was unusual. Though I watched classic early Wrestlemanias on tape as a kid, I never watched the free TV shows until college, when a close friend badgered me into experiencing the "Monday Night Wars" after months of relaying interesting story lines. This was wrestling's dynamic golden age, when the Attitude era, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Mick Foley were rewriting how wrestling characters worked -- while over on WCW, Chris Jericho was claiming trophies like, "Juvy's mask, Rey Mysterio's knee and Dean Malenko's dignity."
In short, I lucked out. Combined with the free-for-all of that less mature Internet, it was easy to go from overnight fan to overnight Internet blowhard. Thanks to the liberating properties of large amounts of canned Milkwaukee-based lager, I tried to fill a vital niche unexplored by the IWC: abstruse, twerpy Ph.D.-candidate style thinking about dudes in briefs whaling on each other.
Then I stopped. There were two reasons:
1. Too many likable people dying, essentially, from their jobs.
2. John Cena.
If you like wrestling, you probably understand these reasons enough to not need elaboration. You understand, too, that neither of these reasons obscure what is still, to borrow the Rock's word, electrifying about wrestling. Not wanting to endure losing favorite wrestlers or listen to some Masshole faux rap and wag his goddamn hand in front of his face doesn't mean you hate wrestling. In fact, the sadness at the former bespeaks a kind of love; so, too, does wanting to protect the sport from a white "rapper" in jorts who salutes all the time.
Knowing this history, the good people of SB Nation thought I'd be a prime candidate for an experiment. They sent me off to watch SummerSlam 2013 to find out what wrestling is like for someone who walked away. If you could understand wrestling enough to know the gimmicks, psychology and pageantry without understanding a single thing about the story lines or even most of the current wrestlers, would it be fun?
To answer this question, I kept up a running diary and have included some thoughts below.
• Our celebrity panel of analysts: some wank, Booker T in a tuxedo and incomprehensible as ever, Shawn Michaels and a woman who looks like a D-grade Liza Minelli wearing, for some reason -- I'm guessing because God is hilarious -- a necklace that says COUGARS. OK. Later I find out that this is Vickie Guerrero, which just makes me thankful that they didn't roll her husband's corpse out of its grave and kick it around a little for shock value.
• I'm flabbergasted at Shawn Michaels. The slick Heartbreak Kid has a giant beard and looks leathered. He looks like Ted Nugent's assistant on a self-produced hunting documentary. He's the one who holds down the elk carcass while Ted starts cleaning and does the real knife work. When they're done, they both look at the camera and say, "EAT EVERYTHING YOU KILL."
• The official host of SummerSlam is The Miz. I don't know what a Miz is, but I'm disappointed that it isn't a soul version of, like, Eddie Izzard or something. The Miz seems pretty charismatic on the mic and tells a couple of jokes, which makes me suspect he's injured and got shunted to this thoroughly made-up gig to keep him on camera. Although he would be doing better if the WWE didn't try to pass him off as some sort of glamorous dude, because he really just looks like a swollen version of young Stephen Baldwin. Miz probably pays his taxes though.
• Two people just interrupted The Miz and danced around to terrible 1950s-esque lounge music. I have no idea who they are, and it's impossible to determine what they're doing there. It's WWE, though, so it's a safe bet that it involves cross-promoting something truly terrible. What could make them dance this much? STUNOD, IT'S STACKER 2: THE WOILD'S STRONGEST FAT BOINA.
• SummerSlam is brought to you by DORITOS JACKED.
• Someone gives the paid attendance as a little over 17,000 people. That's not a huge number for arguably the second biggest PPV of the year -- or at least the third after 'Mania and the Royal Rumble. It makes me suspect that the WWE really hasn't recovered from that long post-Invasion hangover. Man, if Linda McMahon hadn't spent the last four years running for office to fix the country's economic woes, she could really get the WWE humming back at Attitude levels by the end of the third Five Year Plan.
• A woman named Jo-Jo who is part of something named "Total Divas" or "Total Non-Stop Divas" or "Pizza Shooters and Extreme Fadivas" is out to sing the national anthem. I assume this is another cross-promotional thing. I'm in a bar with a lot of people who are seriously drinking, so I don't think anything of screaming, "JO-JO? THAT'S THE WORST NAME I EVER HEARD." Jo-Jo hears me, and she drops the mic and runs offstage. Miz yells, "No, Jo-Jo!" and runs after her. You're welcome, America.
• Speaking of economics, here's John Bradshaw Layfield on commentary. I'm aware for the rest of the show that he exists, but only a few of his comments register in my brain, and all for their redundancy. It's the definition of negative value added.
KANE vs. BRAY WYATT
• Not a big surprise to see a Kane match to start a pay-per-view. Glenn Jacobs needs to eat, but it's just brutal when his matches follow something that's gotten the crowd excited. To honor his political beliefs, I spend at least a minute of his match Googling Ron Paul.
• Michael Cole -- Jesus, him still? -- refers to Kane's opponent as "the perplexing Bray Wyatt." They're really digging into the thesaurus for this one. "Affected weird dude in a hat that belongs on some septuagenarian who buttonholes you on a Carnival cruise to ask if you've noticed his fellow card players cheating at canasta" would have worked just fine.
• Also, seriously? Bray Wyatt? Bray Wyatt??? That's not the name of some psycho hillbilly wrestler. That's the name of a girl from Los Altos Hills who's snapping her gum, swaddled in Benetton and laughing at you for asking her to homecoming. YES, IT STILL HURTS.
• Man, it's a good thing there's a first responder ringside, because these guys just killed the crowd.
• Wait. Waitwaitwait just a damn minute. Bray Wyatt's accomplices are named Harper and Rowan? Could Ashton and Taylor not make it tonight???
• Bray Wyatt and his associates Caitlin and Bethany cheat and demolish Kane, which is standard for matches when someone relatively new goes over Kane. It's nice to see familiar staples, but they're attended by something problematic that's haunted wrestling for a long time: the elaborate post-match violence that's solemnized and accompanied by breathless horror. Wyatt and pals put Kane's splayed body atop the bottom part of the steel steps, then hold the top part over his face and slam it down. Michael Cole, in hushed tones, says, "Oh, my God ..." Now, on one hand, this is silly: Cole isn't selling anyone on the moral shock he feels, and the violence is noticeably stagey and, well, non-violent. But it's a case of WWE wanting to have its cake and eat it, too. For the sake of placating parents' groups that fret theatrically over what their kids will see on TV, they've rolled back hardcore content and tried to make sure that really extreme moments of violence fall within a specific context. But then they do stuff like this, to generate cheap heel heat for a thoroughly forgettable dude with a gimmick that everyone can see is destined to go absolutely nowhere. It fully takes the audience out of their suspension of disbelief -- doubly so when Michael Cole tries to do his "Oh, the humanity"/"The lights are going out all over Europe" routine. Because the first thing you notice, after realizing that violence like Bray Wyatt's wasn't sanctioned by the match terms, is that the WWE has probably 100 trained personnel who could run down there and stop him. They could stop Wyatt while he's standing there with the top of the ring steps in his hands, letting the audience know that he's a dangerous psychopath, without going through with it. But they don't, and there's a very plain consequence for that. It's knowing that -- at the exact same moment that Michael Cole says, "Oh, my God" -- everything you see is sanctioned and planned by the same people who employ Michael Cole. You can't have dangerous, unpredictable violence and have it work when the means of experiencing it is so obviously arranged and plotted. The only possible outcome then is seeing something you find tacky or objectionable that puts as much heat on a guy like Wyatt as his grabbing the mic and just saying, "RIGHT NOW I'M DANGEROUS. I'M DANGEROUS. YOU, THERE, ON THE MEZZANINE! I AM DAAAAAAANGEROUUUUUUSSSS."
DAMIEN SANDOW vs. CODY RHODES
• Like the Kane-Wyatt match, Damien Sandow vs. Cody Rhodes begins without a video package hyping their feud. We don't get WWE's thoroughly enjoyable operatic smash-cuts to previous violence and voiceover bits with callout lines. Which is a good indicator that, like Kane-Wyatt, the WWE just put these matches on the card to round out three full hours and make people at home feel like they didn't get robbed.
• Pluses to Sandow-Rhodes! One, Sandow does a pretty nasty looking variation of the Sharpshooter, which is always fun. Two, Cody Rhodes sounds like a great name for a country rock bassist who dies. Like, "Cody Rhodes, a member of Molly Hatchet, 54, perished yesterday in a Sea-Doo accident after accidentally decapitating himself on a low river bridge."
• Minuses to Sandow-Rhodes! Sandow's doing yet another riff on the DiBiase-like snob, only with a terrycloth robe and some weak references to literature. (Come on, WWE; plenty of people in your audience read.) Also, Cody Rhodes could be the next Randy Orton. Tremendous upside potential.
ALBERTO DEL RIO vs. CHRISTIAN
• I don't know a thing about Alberto Del Rio going into his match with Christian, but just seeing Christian there was a guarantee that this would at least be a pretty decent match. What a nice surprise! Del Rio's hitting some Flair-like notes, and he and Christian obviously work out a thoughtful match. As someone with a wrecked knee, Del Rio's dropkick between the second and third ropes -- which Christian ducks -- and fall out to the floor is scary to watch, but points for something so WWE-unconventional. Also welcome: psychology! Del Rio working over Christian's shoulder to make Christian's Spear finisher just as harmful to him is a nice touch, and I guess that it maximized the effect of his finisher. Also a bonus: any time there are Frankensteiners.
• Christian slightly oversells his shoulder pain from hitting the Spear. Still, overselling ring psychology is a good problem to have. Also, when Del Rio hangs Christian upside down from the turnbuckle, Bradshaw needs to scream, "SPANISH JOEY LAWRENCE HAS PUT CHRISTIAN IN THE TREE OF WHOA," because we'd all finally forget the goose-stepping thing.
DIVAS MATCH and BACKSTAGE
• Ahahahaha, a divas match! Because I can't think of any way I could use the Internet device in my pocket or in my tablet case or at home to summon images to masturbate to. Yes, I know there are divas who are strong workers and who want to do more serious stuff, but evidently the WWE still has zero interest in pursuing that, unless it's some spinoff reality series that's probably 10-percent wrestling at best. I guess I have to give the WWE credit for not having any of these women rip another's clothes off, or bark like a dog, or crawl on all fours, or get horsewhipped on the ass. On the other hand, I know this is candy for 10 year olds or people without broadband. My friend Jon is with me and absolutely loses his patience about 30 seconds in. "I just wanna see these chicks start blading," he says, sort of loudly. "Just bleeding all over." We eventually root for seeing hair extensions get yanked out.
• A backstage sketch where a man bullies another man over soup. NOW I WANT TO SEE EVERYTHING SOUP MAN IS IN. *takes a sausage-sized piece of chalk and screechingly drags a fat hash mark under a column marked ANOTHER WWE VICTORY*
LESNAR vs. CM PUNK
• The Lesnar and CM Punk preview is outstanding. Moments like this are what frustrate so much about the WWE. They can put together such thoughtful packages that highlight every great beat and note of a feud, then run it right after some dude whose jacket is evidently named "Paules" pours bean-with-bacon on a peon. The creative process at HQ is its own antipode. It's like clicking a button that flips an SNL broadcast between sketches from different Belushis.
• This match is so good that there's really nothing to say. Watch it; it's worth it. I could describe what's great, but watching it will tell you. Instead I'm going to focus on how Lesnar's face seems to keep getting broader, redder and sort of menacingly doughier. With each passing year he looks more like some fat Nazi Gauleiter. You could just picture him getting cast as a villain in a WWII movie, running his finger along a weeping girl's chin and saying, "WHY DO YOU BEGUILE ME SO, JEW?"
• Dialogue. Endless dialogue. COLE: Lesnar is a frightening man! JON: And slippery! ME: BAH GAWD, LESNAR IS MOIST.
• No, wait, I've got it! Lesnar is turning into Gert Frobe. HE'S GOLDFINGER WITH DIVERTICULITIS. It's perfect. "Do you expect me to quit?" "NO, MR. PUNK, I EXPECT YOU TO DIE."
• So much great stuff. The sequence with Punk cinching a choke on Lesnar on the ground and Lesnar trying to break it by standing up and powerbombing Punk is genius. Paul Heyman is genius; watching that guy pull faces at ringside will never not be fun. And the sequence where Punk holds onto Heyman's tie while Lesnar tries to yank Punk away is glorious. The F-5 onto the chair is a smart ending, and I can only hope that in the rematch Punk suplexes Heyman onto Lesnar.
• There were a couple moments where Punk and Lesnar have to be too conveniently oblivious in order to kill time for the opponent to come over and sabotage whatever they were doing, but those are the breaks with wrestling. Everything else is fantastic, and it's no surprise that it is match of the night. But you knew that on paper. You could just look at the card and know that this would kill.
• I don't even pretend to pay attention to this second diva match. Instead I spend the entire time texting a girl. Also, I've had sex. Not with her, but I totally have.
JOHN CENA vs. DANIEL BRYAN with guest referee TRIPLE H
• Triple H comes out kind of like a face, and I feel a great fracture in the natural order of the universe. Also, what happened to "Time to Play the Game"? THIS SONG SUCKS.
• Daniel Bryan is my kind of dude. He looks unkempt and lame. He's also wearing a T-shirt. The only thing wrong with him is that he has too many first names. He has to choose one or the other.
• Why is Cena mounting this guy? Why is he hopping onto Daniel Bryan's pelvis with his pelvis? WHY DO I HAVE THESE FEELINGS?
• Once again, the promotional package for this match was pretty spectacular, but I still feel unclear as to what Cena's motivations are. Is this a Face vs. Face match, where Cena grudgingly respects Daniel Bryan? Fans are booing Cena, but I thought at this point that he had an upper-card version of X-Pac heat from fans. It's easy to believe that plenty of people in the arena are as sick to death of this guy as I was in 2007, but that WWE insists on booking him as a perennial quasi-face despite lusty popular desire to make him full-on terrible.
• Watching Daniel Bryan feed off the crowd is really fun. The old-school vibe to him feels earnest without being precious, and the high quality of his ring work keeps him from being a dope. He gives off a charming blend of goofiness without being pathetic: You can root for it without feeling silly, while still knowingly appreciating that your fandom hearkens back a bit to a classic wrestling vibe of clear and genuine motives.
• Has anyone ever forgotten to kick out after two? What if Daniel Bryan was having such a good time simply being in this singular moment that he just lay there? What would happen? How would anyone even be prepared for that?
• Wow... uh... OK. Daniel Bryan does a crossface AND a diving headbutt from the top turnbuckle? What's he do for an encore — kill his family and hang himself?
• I guess what surprises me is that I expected it would be a long time before the WWE let iconic associations with Chris Benoit slip past the Stalinist veil of the company's endless self-mythologizing, bowdlerizing and self-interest. (Picture the NFL front office's rabid obsession with preserving its own honor and crushing dissent, then replace Roger Goodell and company with actual pirates. Some of whom are on steroids.) It's not that fans couldn't deal with it: People are remarkably good at rationalizing history to comfort themselves. Just look at the rogues gallery we put on our money; Americans actually get offended and accuse you of negativity when you mention things those guys did as opposed to focusing on the positive. They act like you did the bad things you mention reading in an undergrad history text. So it was only inevitable that parts of the fan base would eventually pardon some things, at least to be able to enjoy Benoit's stellar matches again. The process of selective forgiveness was only helped along by reports that Benoit's autopsied brain was allegedly indistinct from that of an 85-year-old severe Alzheimer's sufferer and that he was quite likely totally demented. But the fact that the WWE has a main-eventer doing moves that can remind people of a superstar whose real-life tragedy suggests that perhaps wrestling is bad for you, that perhaps WWE itself is hazardous to your health, that's kind of stunning. Stunning! Stunning!
• I don't know what that sequence in the turnbuckle was supposed to be. A piledriver? Whatever it was, it was ugly as sin, and the leglock that Cena tried to do immediately after made people around me wince.
• Bryan's win feels a little unexpected. The pacing seems off: The intensity leading up to it doesn't feel commensurate with the sudden outcome. Even the people in the bar are unsure how to take it. A few people stand up and put their fingers in the air to do a "YES! YES!" like Bryan, but they all get up haltingly and a bit late, as if they aren't even certain that it happened. The loud cross-talk and trash-talk that greeted the Lesnar-Punk match and Cena's entrance into this one aren't anywhere to be found. Everything feels abrupt.
• Annnnnd of course Randy Orton comes out, cashes in his Money in the Bank, Triple H turns heel, and Orton is the new champion. You can see it all playing out this way from the moment Orton emerges from backstage. Because there is no road quite like the one that slopes gently downward.
Seeing Orton crowned champion at the end of this show is perversely fitting for me, because if there was any one topic that gained me notoriety, it was blasting Randy Orton early and often. It took others months to start to find him grating, during which time I got emails demanding to explain not why I disliked him but how it was even possible. Then I made up a story about being his psychologist in a military-operated asylum before he was given a bad conduct discharge from the Marines, and his fans threatened to have the American Medical and American Psychiatric associations bring me up on ethics charges. I guess what I'm saying is that wrestlers get the fans they deserve.
Ending the evening with Randy Orton isn't fun. Especially when he stands there doing that arcing-his-arms routine, desperately trying to seem majestic and powerful and infamously crafty, when really the narrow range of his terminal vacuity screams, "BRUH???" and "CAN YOU SPOT ME???" and "I'M GONNA FINGERBANG YOU IN MY H2." Randy Orton doesn't just smell like Axe Body spray; he might actually have been created by it.
The coronation bit at the end instantly reminded me of one of the things that was so exhausting about being a regular fan of the WWE: Their slavish devotion to "all attention is good attention." While only an idiot -- or, say, Ring of Honor -- would suggest that wrestling doesn't need heels, the WWE clings fanatically to the idea that fan service is a short-term game, but relentlessly pissing people off is good business in the long run. (Unless the fan service involves Cena, in which case it's already spiteful -- because jorts. #YOLO.) It's more difficult to create a personality that fans will go to see merely doing things, walking around, being that personality, which is why Steve Austin and The Rock are peerless. But it's very easy to induce people to come back to see something loathsome be destroyed. Getting people to love and admire is always a more uphill trek than stoking their hatred. What made Triple H's heel turn and Orton's victory so easy to see coming was a question that anybody trying to predict WWE match outcomes long ago learned to ask as a thought exercise, "What can piss off the most people with the least effort?"
Really, all this is too bad, because watching a pay-per-view for the first time after more than half a decade was a lot of fun. Christian and Del Rio, Punk and Lesnar and even Cena and Bryan would be enjoyable to watch any time. All the segments and features that feel tedious are just a blip when you drop in for a night after time off. Even the clunky bits seem charming, old friends hobbling into view, doing their idiosyncratic things. Somewhat perversely, I also think I enjoyed the matches more because I didn't care about the outcomes. There were no stories for me, no histories I wanted redeemed or revenged. They appeared in my life for one evening, explained the stakes to me, then let me see what happened. It is a noble truth that you cannot cause me suffering by denying me my desires when I have none. Rikishi said that.
The biggest takeaway, however, is that you can leave and come back at will. The non-fan can't do that: The history of the sport, the psychology, the idiom that promos and even match booking and plotting rely on -- all those can't be learned in one show, at least not enough to be enjoyable. But once you've come to understand that idiom, you can return as you please. In the meantime, what you miss doesn't hurt you, because you don't know what you're missing.
This can be hard for the fan to process. One, the WWE hammers home the "ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN!" message as often as possible, because fans missing even one show is dangerous. (If they come back and realize they missed nothing important, they might miss even more shows and start watching à la carte.) But we play into it ourselves: We resent missing that amazing title match on free TV after watching two weeks of mediocrity. We suffer enough that the meager reward is all the more eagerly sought. Skipping episodes here and there means running the risk of skipping the moments that make all the forgettable stuff seem like it was worth it.
Sometimes that's the right attitude. I can barely remember any matches from the WCW Invasion and Austin's subsequent reign as a toady for Mr. McMahon. But I remember his desperate wild-eyed hug of Vince. I remember the antic sucking up that he and Angle did to Vince, each jockeying for power by singing "Jimmy Crack Corn" with an acoustic guitar or wearing tiny cowboy hats. That was some of the surrealest, funniest, most dangerously metatextual content the WWE has ever aired. It might be the best stuff they ever aired, period. And none of it aired on PPV.
Maybe something that good aired between 2007 and the present, but I don't miss it, because I'll never know what happened unless I seek it out. You can only be haunted by what you didn't experience if you take pains to learn about it. On the other hand, if you really, truly walk away, you have nothing to lament losing. You can drop back in anytime and be happy. You can watch a pay-per-view as nothing more than one night's event. And, if for some reason it ends with Randy Orton being smugly happy, who cares? Come Monday night, it's not like you have to watch the dipshit.