Before WrestleMania 33, I had never watched a minute of pro wrestling in my life.
I knew the wrestlers played characters, but how much of it was acting? I knew they wore sparkly tights, lots of makeup, and beat each other up before someone tapped out and the victor won a belt. But was he or she truly the victor? Wasn’t it all decided beforehand? Did they actually hurt each other? What — to put it more simply — on God’s green earth is wrestling all about?
So I watched WrestleMania 33 in search of knowledge. I also live blogged the experience. Here is my journey.
TO SET THE SCENE
It’s Sunday night. I’ve bought a subscription to the WWE Network which I fully intend to cancel on Monday before the free month runs out. I have snacks (dried peaches, for some reason), because I’m expecting the 13 matches to last approximately 30 years.
I’m ready to enter the world of wrestling for the first time.
WrestleMania is apparently hosted by these three dudes in a wrestling collective (not sure that’s a thing, but gonna roll with it) called New Day. They're wearing red chaps, speedos, capes, and cowboy hats bedazzled with more Swarovski crystals than one of those Vaseline tubs Tyra Banks once gave out on her talk show. They don't do much as hosts besides announce that they are the hosts.
We’re on to the first match.
AJ STYLES vs. SHANE MCMAHON
The entrance ramp to WrestleMania is as long as a football field, so it takes hours for these guys to walk into the ring. AJ Styles makes the trek first. He’s wearing red, white, and blue tights, no shirt, and has the most luscious hair I’ve ever seen on a man.
The timing of the wind kicking up was... phenomenal. pic.twitter.com/eRGudUfwXd— TDE Wrestling (@totaldivaseps) April 2, 2017
His opponent is Shane McMahon, who is WWE tycoon Linda McMahon’s son. Linda is now the United States’ administrator of the Small Business Administration because Donald Trump is the president, and Donald Trump shaved Linda’s husband Vince’s head at WrestleMania 10 years ago. In other news, we’ve officially gone through the looking glass.
These wrestlers are older than I thought they'd be. They look like your middle-aged, elementary school gym teacher ate too much creatine, developed serious rage issues, and lost his cool at one too many indoor dodgeball games before the principal was like “Holy shit, Mr. Mahon is freebasing protein powder again, someone call the union.”
I gasp as AJ Styles bounces off the ropes and flips around. The dude has swagger. He looks to the crowd. He struts. He hears the screams. He loves the screams. He feeds on the screams.
Meanwhile, Shane is just losing. AJ hits him in the head as he slumps against the ropes looking dazed and confused. He’s not trying to fight back.
What’s wild to me about WWE is that you just let other people beat you up to ensure a performance that will please fans. You’re playing a role, and sometimes you have to lose for the greater good of the show. It’s a strange variety of selflessness mixed in with incredible ego — you are still, after all, in the ring in front of millions of people. It’s strangely moving.
The referee gets hit in the face and he’s down for the count. Shane brings a straight-up Oscar the Grouch-style trash can into the ring, puts AJ up against the ropes, makes him hold the trash can, and leaps off the ropes, drop kicking the trash can into AJ’s face.
Shane then climbs up onto the top rope again as AJ lies on the mat, spread eagle, staring up at Shane with the fear of God in his eyes. Shane launches himself off the ropes once more, but AJ rolls out of the way, so Shane crashes onto the mat.
In the waning light of the humid Florida evening, AJ writhes in pain from the whole trash can fiasco. Shane rolls around, pouring sweat, trying to breathe after knocking the wind clean out of himself.
This. Is. Insane.
AJ pins Shane. AJ wins. I like AJ, but I’m not sure I’m supposed to.
KEVIN OWENS vs. CHRIS JERICHO
Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho used to be best friends, but then Kevin Owens stabbed Chris Jericho in the back, claiming they weren’t ever really friends. This fight is a rematch of their best friend breakup in Vegas, where Kevin Owens beat the daylights out of Chris Jericho. I know this because the promotional videos the WWE shows before each match are works of art.
Chris Jericho is wearing a tiny, sparkly speedo, knee-high sparkly boots, and a scarf with Christmas lights blinking on it. Kevin Owens is wearing an ugly black tank top and some boring black pants. If this were a battle of the outfits, Kevin Owens wouldn’t stand a chance.
Watching these two wail on each other is heartbreaking; best friend breakups can be just as devastating the end of romantic relationships. This feud is made even worse because Kevin Owens used to revere Chris Jericho when he was little, and would watch Chris Jericho in the ring.
NEVER MEET YOUR HEROES, PEOPLE.
In other news, had I comprehended how much human drama wrestling involves, I would've gotten into WWE way sooner. I can't resist a good narrative. I’m powerless in the face of speculative gossip.
“You don’t have any friends!” Kevin Ownes yells at Chris Jericho. He also yells, "You were never my best friend!" and "You're a piece of trash!"
It’s the meanest heckling I’ve ever heard. I can’t tell if the emotional pain is real (the physical pain definitely is), but the ability to act through all of it and put on a show while your ribs are splintering into a million tiny pieces is astounding regardless.
Chris Jericho pins Kevin Owens, but Kevin Owens has a finger on the rope, which appears to be the wrestling version of a Get Out of Jail Free card. It’s a brilliant move, judging by the reaction it’s getting from the crowd.
Kevin Owens wins. I hate Kevin Owens.
CHARLOTTE FLAIR, BAYLEY, SASHA, AND NIA JAX
Here is what I think about each of the women competing in this four-way elimination match:
- Bayley is the Lisa Frank of wrestling. She wears bright colors, reminds me of Punky Brewster, and comes across as very kind, which is impressive, given that she beats people up for a living.
- I obviously like Charlotte the best. Yes, we have the same name, but she’s also a total boss who wears medieval capes.
- Nia Jax is the most intimidating human I’ve ever laid eyes on; she’s a formidable, close to 300-pound woman who is stunningly beautiful and probably eats the ground-up bones of her opponents for breakfast.
- Sasha Banks rides in on a chariot and has flowing pink hair. I’m here for it.
They start wrestling, and if a woman ever looked at me the way Charlotte is looking at her opponents, I’d start to cry and sprint away as fast as I could. She just cork-screwed off the top rope onto all three of the other wrestlers.
Charlotte, Bayley, and Sasha quickly realize that the only way they stand a chance against Nia Jax is to team up against her, so they do, and she’s kaput. Sasha also gets eliminated.
Now Charlotte has Bayley’s leg in a figure four. I have a blanket over my eyes because it hurts too much to watch.
Somehow, after all the back and forth, body slamming, and rope slinging, Bayley manages to defend her championship title and win the belt. Charlotte looks pissed but resigned to the fact that Bayley won, fair and square, thanks to a deftly deployed elbow. I’m here for the elbows, because it’s the only wrestling move I know. I used to do it to my cousins when we were little (if you’re reading, Wilders, sorry for everything).
I'm just sitting here with my mouth open. I've never witnessed anything like that in my life. It was by far the best match I’ve seen yet. It will probably be the best match of the night.
Okay, I’m totally confused, now. We’re in the middle of the ladder match, and there are at least 15 people in the ring. They’re wrestling in teams of two, my favorite of which is Enzo and Big Cass, because they seem fun, and also because Enzo is wearing a leopard print suit. The crowd seems to love them, too.
One guy is spinning another guy around while a third guy repeatedly hits a fourth guy in the head.
I don’t know who the Hardy Boys are, but they have showed up in the ring, and both my Twitter timeline and the WrestleMania crowd are losing their collective minds. Apparently these guys were huge back in the ‘90s or something.
All 1,341 of the wrestlers in the ring are bunched up, smacking each other at the base of the ladder. They’re slamming Big Cass onto the rungs as Enzo tries to grab a belt hanging from the sky. Now another guy is beating Enzo over the head as he grabs for the belt. Now Enzo is fighting back. Now other dudes are crawling back into the ring. I don’t know who’s who.
OH MY GOD, one of the Hardy Boys has jumped off a ladder and smashed into the other guys, using his body to break not only the metal but also the other people’s bodies. What am I watching?
Matt Hardy managed to grab the belt, so he won? Everyone on my Twitter timeline is tweeting “DELETE!” I don’t understand why, but no one has the time to explain to me.
(Update: Apparently The Final Deletion was a match that previously took place between two Hardy Boys. Brothers? I’m so lost.)
JOHN CENA AND NIKKI BELLA vs. MIZ AND MARYSE
I know a little bit about this match: John Cena and Nikki Bella are dating, and John won’t marry Nikki. Miz and Maryse are married, and they’re really mean to Bella, telling her John must not love her if he won’t marry her.
That’s mean, and it’s also garbage; pressure to marry people is stupid. Marriage isn’t some finish line. It’s not the be all, end all of a relationship. Like, getting married won’t solve all your interpersonal problems.
But that’s a rant for another time.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far: Wrestling plays to our base human impulses. It’s a stripped down, violent play built around raw, universal reactions. The WWE takes the common characters and scripts of our lives — friends who betray each other, lovers who expect commitment, enemies who scheme against enemies — and removes the rules.
For example: At work, if someone pisses you off, you can’t just body slam them. But in wrestling, you get to destroy them while you wear spandex in front of a screaming crowd. Wrestling appeals to the masses, I think, because it sets the Id free in a show of beautiful and exciting pageantry.
I’m going to skip the actual fight, but the bottom line is that John Cena and Nikki Bella win, and OH MY GOD, JOHN CENA IS PROPOSING NOW!!!
Nikki says yes. I’m tearing up. They’re hugging each other. They’re making out. They’re so happy. I’m melting.
Wrestling is dope.
SETH ROLLINS vs. TRIPLE H
Seth Rollins messed up his knee and isn’t cleared by doctors to compete. But he wants to beat Triple H to prove something (I can’t remember what), so he’s fighting anyway. The match is therefore “non-sanctioned.”
I like that in wrestling, if you want to get around the rules, you just sign some paperwork saying you won’t sue if you get maimed. The match is then marked as “non-sanctioned,” and you can do whatever you want with your broken body.
Triple H rides in on this dope motorcycle as police motorcycles ride down the ramp in front of him, blaring their sirens. This is a circus. The heavy metal music is seeping into my veins. I’m wide-eyed. I stand up. I’m sorry for the all-caps I’m about to hit you with, but THIS IS MAKING ME SO AMPED THAT I WANT TO GO KICK DOWN A DOOR!!!!!
I feel like I’m high.
Seth Rollins is a beautiful man. Triple H is a jacked-up monster. I can’t write about the actual fight because it makes me sick to my stomach to watch and therefore to think about.
TL;DR: Seth’s knee is not OK, and Triple H keeps hurting it more. Seth is in so much pain that I’m not sure he’ll ever walk again, and now there’s a sledgehammer involved, and it feels like they’ve been murdering each other for five hours.
Here are my raw, unedited notes:
MY SHOULDERS are up at my ears. Omg a sledge hammer omg. I JUST want to die i don’t know how anyone can still watch this. Triple h is dragging seth up on the ropes and omg i am going to throw up. Seth Rollins did something called a cork screw phoenix splash? Omg he is ten thousand feet in the air!!!! I WANT THIS TO END SO BADLY. Triple H’s face is horrifying. Omg a pedigree. Can he do that HE DID IT. SETH WINS Thank fucking god that is over. That was so brutal.
HAHAHA PITBULL IS HERE PERFORMING A SONG
Of course he is.
RANDY ORTON vs. BRAY WYATT
This is the match between the cult leader married to a dead witch named Abigail (Bray Wyatt) and the guy who joined the cult and then burned down the other guy’s house (Randy Orton).
God, I love this. It’s like make-believe for grown-ups. It reminds me of the games my friends and I used to play when we were little, where we had to run away from ogres and save princes (we were feminists, OK?) from dragons. I adore the fact that millions of Americans are like, “Yeah, sure, we’ll buy into a storyline where a guy rubs the ashes of a dead witch all over his face to become more powerful in the ring.”
Randy Orton is wearing a fur vest and a speedo. Bray Wyatt is wearing a shirt with a demon octopus on it (I’ve noticed that usually one of the wrestlers is clothed, and one is less clothed). It feels very Florida.
I think this match is a big deal, like, a championship or something? But it’s really boring. After the ladders, Seth’s pain, the women’s badass fight, Triple H’s entrance, and all the buildup surrounding this match, I’m pretty disappointed.
I don’t even remember who won and it just ended.
GOLDBERG vs. BROCK LESNAR
- Brock Lesnar sounds like the name you'd give at a deli instead of your real one to mess with the people who have to call out your name when your sandwich is ready.
- Goldberg looks like that gym teacher I made up at the beginning of this blog post who kept eating creatine after he was fired, got another job as a high school softball coach, and ripped his shirt off in a rage after the girls lost the championship.
- Here is Goldberg:
This match is for the Universal Championship? I don’t know what that is. There are too many championships.
They just crashed through a barricade. Are those not fortified? THESE MEN ARE FIFTY YEARS OLD, HOW ARE THEY DOING THIS?
Brock Lesnar has a dragon on his butt. He also looks like a refrigerator.
This is a good match.
Brock wins. He looks like something that climbed out of the Earth's molten core and yelled "I'M HERE, MOTHERFUCKERS!!!!" instead of being born.
FOUR MORE WOMEN WRESTLE EACH OTHER, I THINK THEIR NAMES ARE ALEXA BLISS, NAOMI, CARMELA, AND ONE MORE I CAN’T REMEMBER
I’m starting to run out of steam. This is emotionally exhausting. But here are some thoughts:
- I like Naomi’s outfit; it’s glow in the dark. She’s twirling around like a boss.
- These women are just kicking each other in the face. Carmela looks like she has galoshes on.
- Why is Vanilla Ice’s brother in the ring?
- I don’t know who is who besides Naomi.
- Naomi wins! She’s the Smackdown Women’s Champion! I love her.
- The New Day is back as the hosts. I forgot about them. They haven’t been hosting at all.
UNDERTAKER vs. ROMAN REIGNS
We did it, you guys. We made it to the last match. I feel like a shell of a human. If I was high before, I’m now hungover.
But I know the Undertaker is a big deal, so I’m trying to stay invested.
I was led to believe his entrance would be more dramatic, but he just walked slowly down to the ring. Undertaker has a dad bod. Roman reigns is a beautiful man, much like Seth Rollins. I like the dudes with long greasy hair, apparently.
Roman is really beating Taker up. Taker is going to give me nightmares.
"You may never have seen Babe Ruth walk into Yankee Stadium, or Joe Montana at Candlestick, but you've seen the Undertaker at WrestleMania,” says an announcer with a southern accent who’s been brought in just for this match. I think he’s famous?
I'm going to have nightmares of Undertaker staring at me while he runs his thumb across his neck as though he were threatening to slit my throat, but hopefully I’ll wake up before he kills me.*
Roman is just destroying the Undertaker. Is he bleeding? Is he OK? I feel sick watching this, but I can’t tell if it’s all the dried peaches I ate over the course of the 15 years we’ve been here or if it’s the match.
*I actually did end up having nightmares about WrestleMania.
Why did that feel sad and anticlimactic? Was it supposed to be different? Did they go off script? How does this work? Is it Undertaker’s last match? Why is Roman shaking his head? Why is Taker just lying there? Is he actually hurt? I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS and the fans don’t really even seem to care.
Wait, hold up. Undertaker is retiring. I feel like I'm at the funeral of someone I didn't know that well. Everyone in the stands and on Twitter is really sad, so I'm really sad. But it’s awkward that I’m here. I feel like I shouldn’t be seeing this if I don’t understand how big of a deal this is.
Taker takes off his cloak, his hat, and his gloves, and lays them down on the ring. He raises his fist. The stadium shows lightning bolts.
The dead man is actually dead.
RIP Undertaker. I hardly knew ye.
I’ve been in an alternate reality for five hours. It reminded me a little bit of The Bachelor, in that there’s a rough script and, as a viewer, you don’t know exactly how much is staged. But the wrestlers and the fans are both so thoroughly invested that none of that matters.
The physicality of wrestling is stunning. These people perform mind-blowing feats of athletic ability — they corkscrew off the ropes, they jump off of stories-high ladders, they lift up 300-pound opponents — and yet, I don’t think they get the credit they deserve from the general public because it’s wrestling. It can’t be real, some folks argue.
But let me tell you: The winners may be decided, but holy hell, that doesn’t make the stunts less superhuman. I don’t know how people survive this.
The violence is ... a lot. In the beginning of the show I couldn’t watch the beat downs without imagining what it felt like to receive them. My hand was over my eyes for much of it, specifically during Seth Rollins’ match. By the end, however, I watched Roman Reigns bash Taker with a chair and thought more about the plot of Taker’s career ending than I did about his body getting absolutely destroyed. I grew somewhat immune to the violence. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing? Like, I feel a little gross.
But that grossness is cancelled out by the fact that, more so than violence, nostalgia is the WWE’s main commodity.
That’s what this is all about. As someone just dropping in, I was an imposter. I regretted that I couldn’t fully appreciate the beauty of the relationships or the narrative arcs because I just didn’t know enough. But if you grew up a wrestling fan or have been following the sport (yes, it’s a sport) for a while, you become invested in the storylines. You have years worth of build up, tension that comes to a climax when the matches are announced, and gets released as the referee counts to three and a winner is crowned (belted?). The announcers do an incredible job of fueling those dramatic fires.
Any good sport worth its salt is largely about fans’ connection to the athletes and memories of past teams. Wrestling takes all of that, adds raw human impulses and violent physical action, dresses everything up in spandex and sequins, and sells it to football stadiums filled with screaming humans who are willing to suspend their disbelief to enter a weird, wild, mystical world that isn’t a far cry from one giant Greek tragedy.
And as long as everyone — fans and performers alike — is a willing participant, there’s something kind of glorious about the whole visceral experience. This is living.