Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part series looking at a run of WWE live events attended by Brandon. Read part one here. Read part three here.

Cleveland, Ohio

Next I returned to America, home of Vince McMahon.

I took the I-90 W from Buffalo all the way to Cleveland to see the Roman Reigns tour and to finally witness that most elusive of crowd reactions: the Roman house show pop. About Roman Reigns, like so many things in WWE, there is a dual reality. Reigns is treated to mixed reactions at TV tapings, especially at pay-per-views, and was overwhelmingly booed at Royal Rumble and WrestleMania this year. Legend has it, though, at WWE house shows, where the world is right and the insatiable young men are fewer, Reigns is overwhelmingly cheered, just as nature intended. This is what’s said, but never recorded, never verified or denied. Until now. Approaching the 400-mile mark on my search, I was closing in on this mysterious artifact.

From my parking spot near Quicken Loans Arena, I walked up East 9th Street to the shore of Lake Erie, past the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. This area of East 9th Street is apparently part of the financial district of the city. I walked by an office for every imaginable bank in the US, many of them soaring overhead like giant pillars of towering granularity that would surely make the impressive hairs of WWE CFO George Barrios stand on end. Below the tops of those huge glass boxes were beggars with elaborate stories, wrestling fans carousing bars in Bray Wyatt and Seth Rollins T-shirts and American flags quivering at the bank office doors.

I’d just finished driving through three of the United States in a day — past the small towns and the big cities, over the suburban niceties and the rural nothing — which I think helps you see the nation more whole than usual, however slightly. McMahon’s company embodies the spirit of its country of origin in all the benign and all the well-meaning but insidious ways. Both want to offer a simple sort of happiness at the end of a work day. Both champion a specter of democracy in a world that is far too marred by ego and greed to genuinely administer their stated ideals, far too caught up in a celebrated macho culture to make more rational decisions and both far too comfortable to muster the urgency to repair.

And in many ways McMahon himself is the consummate American. He sees himself as having achieved the American dream. He had an impoverished and troubled childhood, but grew up to become a billionaire who dominated his industry anyway.

When I hear people from the projects, or anywhere else, blame their actions on the way they grew up, I think it’s a crock of shit. You can rise above it. This country gives you the opportunity if you want to take it, so don’t blame your environment. I look down on people who use their environment as a crutch.Vince McMahon, interview with Playboy (February 2001)

He seems to himself living proof that any welfare state is a sham. He is truly a man who grasped the furthest and heaviest of brass rings. So why can’t anyone else?

The Lost Generation

Meanwhile lurking on his roster is an entire generation of talents now in their finite athletic primes, with potentials far greater than what they fulfill on television. Namely, I’m thinking of Dean Ambrose, Rusev, Kevin Owens, Cesaro, Dolph Ziggler, maybe even Bray Wyatt, Sheamus and Ryback; all of whom were more over at one time than they are now. They were broken in with momentum that inspired real hope, only for that momentum to fizzle and be forgotten about —  maybe to be mildly rekindled for a few weeks before being forgotten about again. Besides those mentioned, I think even Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, and John Cena are better personalities than their environment allows them to be. That’s not even to mention WWE’s talented female wrestlers.

Why haven’t they reached their potential? For McMahon, it must be that they’re afraid to take the required risks, they don’t want to do the hard work or they’re just not good enough. “WWE gives you the opportunity if you want to take it, so don’t blame your environment.” Or is it McMahon who’s afraid to take a risk and get behind talent that bucks his own intuitions and ideals?

I fear we’re well underway completely passing by an entire generation of great stars, stories, and matches, that never got to be because of the repressive and antiquated creative environment McMahon has allowed to develop.

Merchandise

It’s been suggested that one reason why Cena is a much stronger merchandise draw than anyone else is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s alleged that a greatly disproportionate volume of the merchandise is of his brand. At one stand in Toronto, there were three conjoined booths selling and displaying WWE merchandise. There were about 15 different shirt designs at the stand, only one of which was a John Cena shirt. That said, there were three headless mannequins displaying that one shirt design, and one booth out of the three was almost completely dedicated to displaying this shirt, as well as the Cena foam fingers. It was notable that there were two different Ryback shirt designs (though that doesn’t discount whether WWE oddly forgot pack his merchandise this past weekend in Portland), no merchandise for any female wrestler, and there was already a shirt for the Dudley Boyz on sale, even though they only returned to WWE a few weeks ago.

In Cleveland, where Cena didn’t appear, his merchandise was still on sale; but there were a greater variety of shirts to choose from, including Paige shirts.

The “million dollar question” Randy Orton raises in the above tweet, however, is that the youth size shirts are slanted toward Cena. At the merchandise trailer in Buffalo, I was told youth sizes were carried for Cena, Rollins and Ambrose shirts. I confirmed that, at least at this trailer, they had no Orton shirts in youth sizes to begin with.

WWE Live
September 26, 2015
Cleveland, Ohio
Quicken Loans Arena

Despite some media manipulations that things for WWE are really better than ever, the attendance for this house show suggested otherwise. Cleveland is categorized as a “B” city. The last WWE event there was the dreaded Tables, Ladders & Chairs (& Stairs!) pay-per-view on December 14, 2014. That show drew 14,481 fans. It sold out; this show did not.

This crowd was probably under 4,000, to be generous. Why the difference of over 10,000 fans from one show to the next? Granted, the previous show was a PPV, the type of event we can expect to draw most strongly. Regardless, that’s a huge drop, especially when over eight months went by between shows in this city. There was no Cena on this show. Does that indicate how strong of a draw he is and/or how weak Reigns is? Or is it still possible to kill a territory in modern times, and did the bad PPV do just that?

Something the Toronto house show didn’t have: Sheamus and Bray Wyatt each cut video promos that played on Quicken Loans Arena’s enormous scoreboard screen. They each hyped their matches later against Randy Orton and Reigns, respectively. Interesting juxtaposition in that here we have local promos again in 2015, yet they are seen only after the paying fan is already in the seat.

1. Neville beat Stardust

The disappointing turnout didn’t stop the crowd from getting into the matches. It may have had something to do with the demographics a house show attracts (and doesn’t attract), but it really felt like the people were there to react, to finally get to be part of the live crowd that pops and cheers and boos, after only before watching at home. Not with the Red Arrow; instead Neville won with a 450 splash.

2. Lucha Dragons (Kalisto & Sin Cara) beat The Ascension (Viktor & Konnor)

Maybe even more so live, the Ascension looked like something straight out of CHIKARA. Indeed, I see a King of Trios appearance not far off in their future. Of all the entrance reactions I saw for this article, the Ascension’s was the weakest. That said, I don’t condone the narrative that they’re awful in-ring. They did fine here, and were good power bases for Kalisto and Sin Cara’s high-flying moves, even executing a great near-tag spot, knocking Sin Cara off the apron at the absolute last second as Kalisto reached the corner. Sin Cara eventually made the tag and pinned Viktor after a flipping senton off the top.

3. Jimmy Uso beat Adam Rose

Post-party gimmick Adam Rose came out here in black framed glasses and a blue vest. This whole segment was the epitome of what you imagine happens at house shows. Rose cut a promo that was really for kids, saying they’d seen enough matches for the night and that the show should be stopped. He instructed fans to line up single file towards the exits. After soaking up some juvenile but solid heat, the referee rudely rang the bell anyway. One superkick and Uso splash off the top later and it was over.

This got over well. I can’t stress enough that everyone (except maybe the Ascension) are over on these house shows. The fans, however few, seem to be having a great time. Newsflash: the wrestlers on the WWE main roster are talented and know how to get over, and they particularly do get over on house shows before these less jaded audiences. So it’s easy to see how decision-makers in WWE find it hard to deviate from the status quo.

4. Jack Swagger beat The Miz

Miz, in his hometown, got a mixed reaction coming out. He took the microphone and teased being a face, but quickly insulted the crowd and cut a promo on LeBron James. At this point, Miz needs to find a time machine and travel back to Memphis in the 1980s. His shtick-to-high-profile ratio may be the highest in pro wrestling history.

Even Jack Swagger was over. As he came around the guardrail to slap hands, kids sprinted from the back rows of the floor seats to join in. Yes, Swagger, who hasn’t appeared on Raw in who-knows-how-long and who was last World Heavyweight Champion too long ago for most children at this show to remember.

Unless your name is Braun Strowman, heels always lose on house shows. Swagger tapped Miz out clean with the Patriot Lock.

5. Streetfight: Randy Orton beat Sheamus

Legend has it that you just have to see Randy Orton at house shows. While everyone is trained to wrestle for the TV cameras, there are only certain guys who are also truly great arena workers, Orton is among them — or such is the line of thinking from Dave Meltzer.

Orton did seem very comfortable in this setting. He was possibly the most over wrestler of the night. But I wouldn’t have come away with Meltzer’s narrative, at least for this match, as he faced-off with Sheamus one-on-one for the 18th time this year, 56th time ever.

I waited to get “sucked in” to the match, as Meltzer says. It went about 18 minutes, all of which were solid, but only the last few were really dramatic. The RKO has to be by far the most over move in WWE right now. Orton and Sheamus broke a table just before the finish, which got a big pop, but the RKO for the finish is what got the loudest pop of the night.

6. Natalya beat Naomi

To hype up the crowd, ring announcer Eden Stiles teased, “How about we get into some Divas’ action?” and suggestively rocked and swayed to the final four syllables of that question. I was left to absurdly imagine the ring announcer before a fight of Ronda Rousey’s, archetype of the Divas Revolution™, prepping the crowd with a similar tone.

I suppose house shows are the place to learn for someone like Naomi, but it was disturbing watching Sasha Banks, the greatest American female wrestler ever, sidelined at ringside rather than working in the ring to give the paying customers their money’s worth.

Naomi looked awkward at times, but mostly okay. Natalya got the win with the Sharpshooter after six to eight minutes.

7. Dolph Ziggler beat Rusev

Dolph Ziggler is good-looking and athletic. He has flashy, colorful, well-designed gear. He’s never without style, but none of the style denotes anything. His style is always absolutely cool; a little nostalgia, a little irony. John Cena at least elicits some faint direction toward an ethos, even if that direction ultimately goes nowhere, an incomplete sentence. Ziggler elicits no direction at all, merely attractive packaging with no contents. He is a dyed and flavorless nihilistic frosting.

That’s not to say Ziggler’s a bad wrestler. This was the best match of the night. The larger part of the credit, though, goes to Rusev, whose performance here surprised and impressed me above all others in the three shows I saw for this article.

Rusev’s awesome, brutish display left me longing for a dream match between him and Tomohiro Ishii.

As bad as their feud on TV may be, Ziggler and Rusev worked very well together, with Rusev as the beast who repeatedly flung Ziggler and shut down his flippy offense until of course finally he didn’t.

Ziggler is known for his tremendous bumps. Live, before his hometown crowd — even if a small one — he bumped hard. Ziggler executed his moves well and attacked the canvas with the great ferocity he’s known for. He bumps, but does he sell? Does he inflect? Does he generate from those astounding bumps the fire and passion to boil the audience toward a comeback? Not so much here, though the match was excellent even so.

This escalated into a Cena PPV formula of awe-inspiring nearfalls and false-finishes. Rusev kicked out of the Zigzag; Ziggler kicked out of a strike from Summer Rae’s high heel followed by Rusev’s excellent superkick. Both pin attempts were fully-believed by the audience, including myself. Ziggler got the win with a second Zigzag after Summer was ejected. A ***3/4 match.

This match left me believing Rusev is among the top five in-ring performers in the company. His post-WrestleMania squandering seems all the more foolish now. He should be either the number-one or number-two heel in WWE and we should all have our memories erased to forget that he and Lana ever broke up.

8. Roman Reigns & Dean Ambrose beat Braun Strowman & Bray Wyatt

Finally what I came all this way for. Is Roman Reigns who they say he is? When his music hits, when he throws his Superman fists in the air, is it all obviously revealed that he is The Next Guy? Not just his house show pop, I wanted to see his face, his presence unfiltered by extravagant WWE production values: the steely coolness, the chameleon eyes, unedited. Would he betray the paramount uncertainty he does on television as he wades through a crowd of mixed emotions? Or would he be comforted by his mysterious and much-celebrated house show pop?

I have to say in the video I capture above, it does not sound overwhelming. I admit, the larger pop was for the first note of his entrance music, a moment I did not capture. That said, I did not find his pop in Cleveland at any time to be remarkably louder than that of his partner, Dean Ambrose. There were however very noticeable screams from a certain demographic when Reigns tagged in to the match for the first time.

Strowman was again protected as a monster who did not take an outright bump at any time. Some young adult male voices in one section chanted “You can’t wrestle” at him, but I thought he was fine here, where he didn’t have to do anything too elaborate, only to hit his spots and register flurries of strikes as he tumbled through the ropes to the outside to be disposed of.

Reigns’ Superman Punch and Spear got strong reactions. Those are moves that his TV matches are built around, and it’s no surprise that translates well to house shows.

Nor did Strowman take the pin. That came when Reigns hit the Spear on Wyatt, finalizing a card of 100% babyface wins.

Did I learn anything about Roman Reigns here? Only a little. And I think that quantity actually tells the story.

As the spotlight found Reigns descending the arena stairs I saw a fear in his eyes, a vacancy that was occupied by exceptional poise in the case of John Cena. Reigns’ eyes may be attractive, his presence smoldering, but I’m doubtful there is any shine to his star that we haven’t seen yet. On TV, he looks like a man afraid to not get over; at house shows he looks like a man who only knows how to be as over as he already is. His house show presence was his TV presence, with no more cheers, only with the boos stripped away.

When you deal with an Internet situation where all these people are attacking you for no real reason at all. You’re just going out there trying to entertain them, trying to give them something to get outside of their life, to get outside their reality and suspend belief for them. And then for them to attack you for no real reason. It’s not like I was trying to hurt anybody. I was just trying to do my thing, make my art the way I want it and have a good time and hopefully it reflects that. It’s just one of those things that once it’s opened up it’s eye-opening. It’s shocking, it’s hurtful but it’s just a part of the world. Just like anything else, any other form of bullying that the world’s dealt with, we’re going to get past it. – Roman Reigns, interview with Sporting News (8/12/2015)

If this is what he really believes, Reigns has misinterpreted the boos. He seems to think the fans have chosen to boo him out of sheer groupthink, or (as he mentions earlier in the same interview) because he was not Daniel Bryan. To an extent he may be correct. But Reigns has only diagnosed the symptoms and not the disease. There is indeed a reason.

For far too long WWE has believed they are the master manipulators over their audience. They believe they can alter the most recent or distant history to their convenience and ignore or fabricate events at will. This may have worked in 1985, even 1995, maybe even 2005.

The audience is no longer such an inert object. It talks back more now, no matter how carefully the SmackDown crowd reactions are edited. I believe they listen to the audience to an extent, but above all, in their own bubble, they listen to themselves, they fulfill their own prophecies.

WWE presents itself as a democracy where the fans decide who the stars are, but as any disenfranchised American citizen knows, it’s not as simple as that. The corporate powers dictate a very limited menu.

We are steadily arriving at a day where the audience is self-aware enough to realize this paradigm and, more, are able to broadcast their frustrations and connect with those who feel similar. It’s all-too frustrating to be a WWE fan of any depth. The more loyal you are, rather than being rewarded like dedicated viewers of most television shows, the more you’re punished. The more you pay attention, the more you realize your intelligence is being insulted. Cf.: A US champion who has defeated the WWE champion clean on multiple occasions with no recourse, Lana’s dissolution from enigmatic authoritarian to unabashed panderer, a Divas Revolution that does not understand its own need for revolution, etc.

The rejection of Roman Reigns — and to some extent John Cena — isn’t bullying, it’s not just some malicious people on the internet drumming up disdain for a jock. It didn’t happen just because it was “the cool thing” to do; far removed, it’s the manifestation of a generation’s worth of insults to fans’ intelligence. It’s a frustrated cry for help from passionate fans who still love pro wrestling but just don’t always love what it’s become.

The wrestling fan-base has changed. The audience still needs to be manipulated, though only insofar as an audience needs to be taken on a ride where they don’t quite know where they’re going. But the manipulators, if they are to be true masters, need to be in closer touch with the fans’ tastes than the fans are themselves. In the past 13 or so years since the end of the last great wrestling boom, the tastes of fans have changed greatly, and the means by which they interact, express themselves and form those tastes has become increasingly complex. The wrestling environment has evolved and the man atop the wrestling world doesn’t know it yet. He may never.

They’re not booing you, Roman; whether they know it or not, they’re booing Vince, with you as his proxy.