Last weekend my wife and I had friends of ours and their kids over for an informal barbecue.
Entertaining others is not my strong suit.
Hosting any sort of festivities remains one of the unavoidable chores of adulthood I’ve yet to completely accept. After the initial greetings I casually broke away from the group and returned to my living room. I had been watching Night 9 of the G1 tournament beforehand; my futile attempt to catch up prior to the finals.
As the sound of Naomichi Marufuji chops echoed throughout the house my pal and his two young sons accepted my non-verbal invitation to join. Like me, his fandom was shaped during WWE’s golden era in the 1980s. Unlike me, his fandom became lapsed sometime around the end of the Attitude Era. His two superfan sons are responsible for reintroducing him to the product in recent years.
It’s a rare occasion when I can talk pro wrestling with someone in the flesh; my guests that night remain the only people I know that actually watch wrestling with any regularity. Before long the G1 was little more than an appropriate soundtrack to a wide-ranging discussion taking place in the foreground. My guest led most of the conversation. He started by explaining how excited he was to be following the New Japan product again. Word of the match between Ricochet and Will Ospreay drew him back after the departure of both Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles left him less motivated to watch. Since the Best of the Super Juniors he’s dedicated his summer to absorbing as much of New Japan World as time allows; Gedo’s booking is the best in the business today, he proclaimed.
As the conversation transitioned to WWE’s current offerings my guest had plenty more opinions. He lamented the fact that the company continues to push Roman Reigns despite the audience’s refusal to accept him; though he did admit that the prospect of a heel turn intrigued him. He worried that Styles’ current program with Cena would prove detrimental to the character unless he wins the upcoming match at SummerSlam. After a brief respite during supper he picked up right where he left off.
He’s happy about the recent title wins by Dean Ambrose and Sasha Banks, though he expressed some concern that Ambrose’s reign has a long way to go to repair the damage of ‘the stupid character’ he was molded into since The Shield break-up. He wants more New Day and less Gallows and Anderson; more Charlotte and less Dana Brooke; more Finn Balor and less Sheamus. On and on he went. By night’s end he’d articulated enough poignant opinions to warrant a tryout for a new Voices of Wrestling podcast of his own.
On the surface this may not seem like a ground-breaking conversation. There are plenty of well-informed wrestling fans capable of articulating thoughtful opinions based on sound storytelling concepts, traditional conflict devices and other factors we here in the bubble regularly dissect. But while that may be true, this was the first seven-year old I’ve met capable of doing so.
That’s right; the conversation wasn’t with my previously lapsed friend, but with his youngest son.
I’ve always known little Jeffery (or as my wife calls him, my little wrestling buddy) was a passionate pro wrestling fan. Any time we see each other the first words out of his mouth are always pro wrestling-related. The passion in his eyes when he talks about wrestling brings me back to when I was his age; a time when nothing outside the squared circle mattered. But our last meeting left me surprisingly perplexed – particularly after his less than stellar opinion of my thesis on moral ambiguity in pro wrestling characters as explained in a column a few weeks ago. Having your work torn to shreds by a soon-to-be third grader has a way of making you reevaluate things, believe me.
His insistence on a clear line between babyfaces and heels wasn’t what I found surprising; wrong but not surprising (take that, kid!). Instead it was the cavalier manner in which he threw around terms like babyface, heel and booking, all of which were used in the proper context – this was not a child attempting to use the language of adults simply to seek a reaction. The more I thought about it, the more I worried about the long term health of my little wrestling buddy’s fandom.
When I was seven years old Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior were immortal gods among men; their WrestleMania VI battle was not a fictional story, but a surreal clash of titans going to war over the WWF title. The Undertaker was not a character, he was a terrifying monster that scared me to death yet drew me in with an inexplicable hypnotic presence. Demolition was not a creative response to The Road Warriors, but a badass team of brawlers not even Andre ‘The Giant’ could suppress. Bobby Heenan was not a masterful orator; a brilliant salesman that could generate priceless heat seemingly at ease, he was an annoying scoundrel of the worst order. At seven years old I viewed the medium entirely through the magic filter of kayfabe; I was a fanatic in every sense of the word.
Times have most definitely changed, for the better in some ways and for the worse in others. It’s understandable why a seven-year old in today’s world would view pro wrestling strictly in a fictional context. A bottomless pit of shoot interviews, behind the scenes dirt and other reality-based material is but a click away for a generation that remains logged-in from the moment they wake up in the morning until the moment they close their eyes at night. Just this week on the WWE Network we learned that Dean Ambrose really had nothing to do with the Lunatic Fringe character, he doesn’t particularly understand it or even like it. That kind of information, while both informative and compelling for a wrestling critic such as myself, was still somewhat jarring to hear even at 33-years old; I will always have a strand of kayfabe in my DNA.
Most of us were introduced to pro wrestling under the guise of kayfabe. Our fandom is molded during that important gestational period; we learn what we like, what we dislike, what compels us to cheer or boo, even if we don’t fully understand why. Consuming pro wrestling in its purest form is a vital developmental stage for any fan. When the magic is revealed to be a combination of psychological chicanery and sleight of hand deception we are either driven away in disappointment or drawn in deeper than before. The emotional bond created by kayfabe, if strong enough, can serve as the antidote to the lethal dose of poison in the Cool-Aid served to us as children. We don’t stop celebrating Christmas after learning the truth about Santa Claus; we learn to appreciate the magic of the holiday in another manner. Like a child that sees his parents arranging gifts under the tree far too young, the entire concept of pro wrestling can be tainted if spoiled too soon.
At no point in the conversation with my little wrestling buddy did he exclaim how awesome someone or something was within the context of kayfabe. He didn’t convey how much he believed in a character like Ambrose, because he overcame the odds of the back-stabbing Seth Rollins and the powerful Reigns, who had beaten him twice before when the title was on the line. Instead he identified Ambrose as his favorite wrestler because he felt Ambrose’s current push was long overdue even if he didn’t fit the bill of Vince McMahon’s prototypical champion. A seven year old shouldn’t understand what a body-mark is, let alone understand why being one can be detrimental, but this one did. I suspect he is not alone in this regard.
Right now an entire generation of pro wrestling fans is becoming exposed to the product in a manner drastically different than any previous generation. Without the emotional attachment to characters (not the people portraying them) there is little connective tissue to maintain the bond over time. The result of which can be regularly observed on Twitter and other forms social media; cynicism, blind negativity and poor attempts at witty humor rule the day. They still want the gifts under the tree on Christmas morning, but they don’t want anyone to think they still believe in Santa.
I will always be a fan of the magic first; the art of making the magic will always be secondary, a fact that I’m convinced has made me a better columnist and critic. There is no substitute for becoming consumed on an emotional level by something you whole-heartedly believe in; tapping into those lasting feelings is a priceless tool at my disposal on a weekly basis. That precious time during my childhood shaped both the fan and the writer I’ve become. I can say with a confident certainty that I would not be a fan today had I knew as much at the age of seven as my little wrestling buddy does today.
How long will the mechanics of pro wrestling alone appeal to the current crop of young wrestling fans? With nothing or no one to truly believe in, the sight of the puppeteer’s strings becomes exponentially more damaging. I don’t know what that means for the future of the industry, but I suspect it won’t be good. Fans are less patient and more skeptical than ever before; each generation appears to be more unwilling to allow the magic to consume them than the last.
Without the magic…what’s the point?