If you’re reading this, you are now deep inside the bubble.
The bubble can be a fun place. It’s a world of highly specific podcasts, newsletters, boards, columns, reviews and Twitter accounts. If you’re looking in the right places, you will not find a greater collection of passionate, knowledgeable and intelligent wrestling fans. There’s even a podcast that covers the bubble itself. The bubble is not a monolith, either; there are a diversity of opinions, and many vehement and even civil disagreements within. But the more time we spend in here, the more secluded we are from the rest of the world, and the less we know about the illusive masses WWE so proudly pursues, who comprise most of the television viewership, who fill the house show seats and whom we in the radical bubble are so often contrasted against.
We often accuse those within WWE of being isolated and delusional. Before we raise too many charges, perhaps we should explore the world outside our own, as well. Maybe we should get out from behind our Twitter accounts and get into the house show seats.
The last time I went to a house show was 17 years ago. I’ve attended multiple WWE/WWF TV tapings since, but I’ve known better than to pay to see something so inconsequential. On November 7, 1998, the WWF sold out the then-named Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo, NY, as Steve Austin defended the WWF title in a four-way, packing in 18,017 fans. For a house show. That’s three times what the average WWE house show draws today. I was 13. The wrestling business had never been hotter. I think I went with three same-age school friends (who have probably seldom watched wrestling since that era). We downloaded and printed out via a dial-up America On-line internet connection images of WWF wrestlers drawn as South Park characters and taped them onto neon-colored poster board. I think we knew even then this was not going to be on TV, but we, along with the majority of the capacity audience, brought signs with us. As you might recall, wrestling arenas at that time were an absolute sea of poster board signs. With Twitter not yet invented I suppose we had no other outlet for our cries of 140 characters or less. Yet I don’t know who our signs were to send messages to. The people opposite us in the arena? Each other? The wrestlers? Ourselves?
If I’m to understand wrestling the best I can, I supposed I was well overdue to see a house show, especially as this gap between the hardcore and casual audiences apparently widens.
One show would not be enough. I knew this. I needed to acquire the largest sample I had the capacity to collect. On a weekend when there isn’t a pay-per-view, WWE runs up to five house shows (one Friday, two each on Saturday and Sunday). So there can be multiple house shows on the same day in different cities, the roster is split up into roughly two tours: currently one headlined by John Cena, the other by Roman Reigns. I initially toyed with the idea of going to WWE events five days in a row: three house shows (Friday, Saturday, Sunday), RAW (Monday) and SmackDown (Tuesday). A degree of sanity later prevailed. I settled on two house shows (a Cena show in Toronto on Friday, a Reigns show in Cleveland on Saturday) and, to compare the differences between house shows and TV tapings, Raw in my hometown of Buffalo on Monday.
There are many phenomena that reportedly occur at the house shows that are talked about in the bubble with mythical awe: the audience is largely kids and families while TV tapings draw more adult men, some of the matches are longer and sometimes better than what’s on TV, that there’s a difference between the arena work and TV work of certain performers (especially Randy Orton), that most of the merchandise available is for John Cena, and perhaps most controversially: the rich decibel of Roman Reigns’ house show pop.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
So on Friday afternoon, I got in my car, filled it with irresponsibly low-priced gasoline, and set out to find the truth about these myths.
On a long solitary drive, there are certain questions that reveal themselves only then. Especially absent any stipend from my fine publishers here at voicesofwrestling.com, especially as someone who has strongly criticized WWE, why would I subject myself to this? I would be very leery to allow anyone to call me a WWE fan. So why would I assign myself this costly task? Perhaps I’m a sadist. Or maybe the epidemic addiction to WWE within the hardcore bubble is as extensive as Vince McMahon insinuated during the 2014 Q4 conference call.
As I handed over my passport to the Canadian border agent, I told him I was going to the WWE show in Toronto. He asked what I was bringing with me into the country. For the sake of brevity and wanting to avoid suspicion, I did not elaborate that I was carrying many qualms and longstanding disdains for the Recognized Leader in Global Entertainment.
Instead I shrugged, “Nothing.”
He looked me in the eye, handed back my passport and waved me ahead, left to imagine me as the most unapologetic bearer of McMahon’s insensitive and emotionally destitute TV product, indeed, he must have thought, a proper American.
What was it about wrestling that had found me? If I woke up tomorrow having completely lost my wrestling memory, I’m not certain I would even discover an interest in it again at this stage of arduous adulthood. Yet here I was going literally great distances to make this my project.
The trees that surrounded the highway in Southern Ontario seemed a little taller, the primitive autumn colors’ hues already a little more forthright than those on the other side of the Niagara River. As you start driving into Canada, if you look to your right on the QEW and look over Lake Ontario, you’ll see the faded blue sticks of the Toronto skyline waiting as you wind toward it. As I neared the metro area, traffic picked up like some sort of indie scramble gauntlet match that included ever-more participants and high spots as time wore on and ever-less sensible psychology. In this mess I was but a barely trained wrestling student botching moves and trying to avoid catching the dives, an errant New York State driver narrowly escaping international insurance claims.
Why was I going through all this? So that I might understand WWE and its business better? For what end? So that I might write some radical arguments on the internet that awaken and revolutionize the industry? So that wrestling fans might emerge from the gutters and take our rightful place with raised brows throughout all arenas, not just in past eras at Wrestling at the Chase or in the front rows of Nippon Budokan? Not quite. I don’t pine to live in a world where people attend wrestling events and sip champagne over finely covered tables and remark on the art’s aesthetic virtues. Simpler than that, I want to live in a world where someone can walk into the room and you don’t have to try to explain away the nonsense they’ve caught you watching. I want to live in a world where nobody has to apologize for being a wrestling fan, where the great moments alone are what stand out, where the natural highs given off at the end of a long and well-told story are what wrestling is best known for. And I’m belligerent enough to think that might even be a world where pro wrestling has greater mass appeal. Though in the likely event that little we say here in the bubble is heard in the upper floors of Titan Towers, at the very least we can find and comfort those of a like mind.
— Brandon Howard (@adecorativedrop) September 25, 2015
Once in Toronto, I took a walk around downtown. It was a decent fall day with hints in the breeze of the Great Northern weather to come. From the small airport along the lake shore, planes glided in my periphery along with the birds. The former SkyDome, the Rogers Centre was home to two past WrestleManias and the much-highlighted Rock-Hulk Hogan stare down. The Blue Jays were playing this evening, and the grounds were swarmed by city pigeons and humans in blue.
With the house show’s start time getting closer, I returned toward Ricoh Coliseum. When you arrive at a venue for a wrestling event, there’s always a moment where you are abruptly left with no doubt that you’re at the right place. In the parking lots, children burst out of minivans and literally pounded their chests, beating rapidly with both fists as if they were the Ultimate Warrior in his WrestleMania VI title victory, the siblings adorned in tag team championship belts, the parents weary escorts holding desperately onto a single thread of obedience. Somewhere I heard a faint cry. I couldn’t discern whether it was a seagull or an arriving fan boisterously humming the trumpeting intro to John Cena’s entrance music. One after another, the car doors shuttered. All exiting, most wearing some form of WWE merchandise, ensuring to one another with their broad Canadian vowels, “Ya got your tickets?” before leaving their cars in the distance.
September 25, 2015
Toronto is categorized an “A” city by WWE, based on its high attendance potential. The Greater Toronto Area (“GTA” for short) is populated by over six million people, by far the largest in Canada. The last show before this one was October 3, 2014, in the same venue before somewhere between 5,100 and 6,100 fans for a main event of Seth Rollins vs. John Cena, who also main evented this show. I’d estimate this event was very close to a sell-out of the 8,000-seat building. Numbered standing room areas were sold and occupied throughout the night. There were very few empty seats visible. It’s notable that this show advertised Canadians Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens, as well, who did not appear on the card the previous year.
1. WWE Tag Team Title Match: New Day (Xavier Woods & Big E) beat The Prime Time Players (Darren Young & Titus O’Neil)
New Day erupted through the curtain, the first act out. All the smartphones’ camera apps armed up. The pop was huge, a complete babyface reaction. Car horns would even be heard the next day in the streets of Cleveland, where they didn’t appear, beeping out the rhythm of “New Day Rocks.” It’s an irresistible joy to see New Day get so over, especially after their floundering start. As a result of being positioned against the hottest new act in the company, Darren Young and Titus O’Neil got a lukewarm, almost mixed reaction. As I watched the match, I realized New Day are the most fun act to watch this side of NXT, not just because they’re funny or entertaining, but because you know the passion and creativity are real. Even in their endless absurdisms, there’s a sincerity that can’t be faked, which is lacking in many other performances on this roster. Seeing New Day perform is like being around a true friend in that there is no servility; the energy is unmistakably real.
That said, New Day did even one better. They turned a crowd that wanted to treat them as faces. Working the heat on Young, Xavier and Big E at one point took turns tagging in and dropping a ridiculous number of continuous stomps on their opponent. They stomped and stomped with conviction until finally the crowd got trivially frustrated and began emphatically booing. By the time New Day cheated to win with interference from Kofi Kingston, the boos (which all felt like “good heat”) completely rained down.
2. Braun Strowman beat Damien Sandow
Strowman’s entrance had no music. Rather, we heard the buzzard soundbite, the lights went down and he suddenly appeared in the middle of the ring in the black sheep mask, standing there ominously before Sandow for a long time.
A boy of about six arrived in his seat at the start of this match. Seeing what was in the ring, he turned to his mother and reported, “Damien Sandow. He sucks.” That said, almost everyone, including Sandow, felt recognized and at least somewhat over in these house shows.
This was a very short squash. Strowman did not bump, won with his submission and left again to no music.
3. Curtis Axel & Torito beat Los Matadores (Diego & Fernando)
Without explanation this started as a handicap match. Axel took heat until being saved by a running-in Torito, who entered to — of all things — a fairly-used “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood. Immediately and inexplicably a legal participant in the match, Torito ran wild with hurricanranas until Axel finally press slammed him onto one of the Matadores for the pin, to the delight of children everywhere.
4. Chris Jericho beat Luke Harper
Naturally, Jericho was among the most over on the show. The Toronto crowd was hot throughout most of the night, particularly this match, popping hard for the simplest of Jericho’s offense and even harder when he hit his trademark moves. The Walls of Jericho got the biggest pop of the night to that point. I was reminded watching this match that the classic veteran advice about “working smartly” and “not rushing” is about a hundred times easier to follow when you are already perceived by the audience as a major star as Jericho was here. This is often why the legends and the great top stars appear so much further ahead of everyone else.
5. WWE Intercontinental Title Match: Ryback beat Kevin Owens by DQ
Ryback came out first to a very mixed reaction, due to his advertised opponent. Owens got a decidedly face reaction, but worked complete heel regardless, often getting cheers for his heel tactics. His running the ropes only to apply a chinlock received applause.
Owens was actually disqualified after using an eyerake as means to avoid the Shellshock. This was possibly the first such disqualification in WWE in decades. Did the referees have a meeting? Was the WWE Official Rulebook amended? I have scoured WWE.com and cannot find the rulebook PDF.
6. Streetfight: Dean Ambrose beat Bray Wyatt
The smart phone lights in the crowd for Wyatt’s entrance was an even cooler sight than it comes across as on television. It made you feel like you are really about see a star as special as Bray Wyatt once was.
Ambrose has a lucid in-ring charisma that cannot even be subdued in an era as stifling as this one. He emoted facial expressions that I could see and was compelled by even from the second floor standing room. Seeing him live only confirmed what I suspected having seen him on TV and having been spellbound by his indie promos: that Dean Ambrose is a once in a generation talent that should have been pushed to the moon yesterday: actually, a year ago. His is the most tragic case among the Lost Generation of supposed WWE Superstars who are now tasked to carry the company through this extended period of creative and economic mediocrity.
This match ended with a relay of run-ins after Ambrose put Wyatt through a table, appearing to have him beat. Harper ran in first. The Dudleys came out next to a huge reaction, for their only appearance of the night, putting the entire arena on their feet as they put Harper through a table. Strowman alone cut-off the Dudleys. For some reason, this brought out Ryback who fought off Strowman with help from Ambrose, allowing Ambrose to get the pin after the Dirty Deeds. The run-ins were well-timed and got over strongly.
7. Charlotte & Becky Lynch beat Nikki & Brie Bella
As this match was introduced, a man approvingly remarked to the rest of his party, “All right, let’s see some hot divas, boys!” However anecdotal, this made me wonder if there is an immature section of the WWE mass audience that is just not primed yet for even the most ideal “revolution” in the presentation of women in WWE. Then again, maybe if said “revolution” was being executed better, this gentleman’s reaction would have been more subtle.
The women all got solid reactions here for their entrances. Becky Lynch took the heat after a somewhat light apron bump. I watched Charlotte’s sometimes criticized offense closely on her comeback. The chops, spear and Figure-8 (leading directly to the finish) all looked okay. Not super strong, but not remarkably weak, either.
8. Big Show beat Cesaro
I’m afraid to say I’ve found a Cesaro match in 2015 that wasn’t any good. He attacked Show with flurries of repeated axe handles and European uppercuts, even a bodyslam, but there was little in the way of drama here.
Big Show is the most overexposed talent in the history of the business. Who even comes close? He’s exactly the kind of wrestler who is best used in spurts. Instead he’s been on TV more often than not for 20 years and has turned face or heel more than 20 times. Andre the Giant, the biggest draw in the 1970s, would have been rendered absolutely meaningless, as well.
It’s a credit to Big Show that he’s still healthy enough to work a full schedule. But this is a guy, especially at this point in his career, who should be on TV a maximum of ten times a year. Let him work all the house shows he wants. It’s not a coincidence that Chris Jericho is so over while not being on TV. If Big Show were used similarly he would have an even greater effect as a house show attraction, “The World’s Largest Athlete,” that you can only see when he comes to your town because he’s not on TV regularly. Instead, he’s “The World’s Largest Athlete,” who everyone is quite tired of seeing for the last two decades, who received the “Please retire” chants here.
This is not a critique on the performer himself. I think Big Show has been an underrated promo at times, and he appeared very comfortable here in a house show setting. So imagine how powerful those promos would be if he was a destructive, effective giant who was only around a few weeks a year.
9. WWE US Title Match: John Cena beat Seth Rollins
I wanted to see the whites of John Cena’s eyes. I thought maybe if I got within a hundred yards of him, I might be able to search the man’s soul and it might be related to me somehow whether there’s any true thing he believes in, anything other than Company. This turned out to be a foolish hope. How do you find the reality in a man who is among the best ever at being watched?
For all that is said about how “the brand is the draw” — and maybe it is — nonetheless, this felt like a big time, important main event that people were waiting for and had paid to see. It delivered on that anticipation.
For all that’s criticized, justifiably, about the booking of Seth Rollins as a weak champion, you would have thought he was Ric Flair in 1985 here. In fact, with all the heat this match had, you would have thought the whole thing took place in 1985.
Of course, there was no bigger pop that evening than for the entrance of Mr. John Felix Anthony Cena, the Great American Wrestler, the man, the myth, the product, the prince of WWE’s Lost Generation and verified shortlisted candidate for the 2015 Ric Flair/Lou Thesz Wrestling Observer Newsletter Wrestler of the Year Award.
At this point, near the end of the night, the Canadian crowd was a bit drunker and fully prepared for such a main event. Friends turned around in their seats and embraced as they peered into their phones’ cameras’ eyes, taking selfies aback either Cena’s entrance or him getting beaten down by Rollins.
The Ricoh Coliseum finally sat only a few minutes after Rollins jumped Cena at the end of the very heated in-ring introductions.
Children’s voices down in the floor seats chirped “Cena” in unison. Both “Let’s Go Cena” and “Cena Sucks” were maximally shouted in succession by the very same young men.
Like in the Jericho-Harper match, the most basic moves got reactions. The match went on and earned even bigger gasps as this unfolded into full-blown Cena PPV mode with a dozen nearfalls: Code Red, Tornado DDT, maybe I was caught up in the moment but Cena hit here the one out of every ten springboard stunners that looks okay. Rollins kicked out the AA. The crowd devoured everything. I had to move to make sure it wasn’t just the section I was near.
As the drama escalated, kids who didn’t know any better chanted for Sting to run-in. A dad cheering on WWE World Heavyweight Champion Rollins made the excuse, “I love the underdog!” Indeed, he knew too well how this must end. After just over 20 minutes, the AA off the ropes ended an easy **** match.
Was this match exceptionally good, or is Cena having matches this great on a nightly basis? If the latter, then despite all the excellent performances of AJ Styles and Kota Ibushi this year, Cena has to be a lock for the Observer’s 2015 Wrestler of the Year award.
Cena & Rollins just went 20+ at a house show to super hot crowd. Easy ****. What if it's all like this? Is Cena WOTY? pic.twitter.com/NmFjNHpLtn
— Brandon Howard (@adecorativedrop) September 26, 2015
After the show, I took an account of the merchandise on sale. More on that later — but you can’t help but notice the giddiness of kids as they’re ushered away from the merch booth by their parents, piling their fresh Cena shirt into the shiny white bag with black Network era logo.
Is John Cena a robot? Maybe, at least to us who pay so much attention. How then does he connect with people on such a broad scale? What is it they like about his personality? What is it that actually resonates? What belief does “Hustle. Loyalty. Respect.” refer to? Hustle what? Be loyal to what? Respect what?
That’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something: Do you support our policy? That’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about. – Noam Chomsky, “On Propaganda”
[Cena] wraps himself in soldiers and sick children so that to wish John Cena to disappear means wishing all good in the world to perish. – Sean Flynn, “WWE Monday Night Raw (September 21) Review: John Cena’s Modern Dance Hour”
John Cena is the crown jewel of the first pro wrestling company that finally conceives of itself as a giant corporate propaganda machine. Cena is a man with a strong but undescribed moral code. In the face of angsty smartfan booing, WWE has concocted a character who is impossible to disagree with, who is meant to be immune from criticism, who seems to believe passionately in something — whatever you choose to believe that might be.