For the longest time, I wondered whether or not I would ever love professional wrestling in the same way again. Don’t get me wrong, I love professional wrestling with every bit of my heart. It is literally my favorite thing in the entire world. I’ve turned down offers to do things with friends, family, and significant others because they wanted to hang out nights when wrestling was on. Most of the accounts I follow on Twitter are wrestling-related. I consider quitting college at least once a day to try to become a wrestler. I love this shit in a way I can never fully put into words, but that doesn’t mean that my love for it hasn’t changed over time.
Watching wrestling on television is one thing, and it has its advantages like better angles on all the action, commentary on the occasions that it really adds something to the show, and of course the lack of costs involved typically. This is professional wrestling though, to remove the element of fan engagement and crowd reaction is to remove a giant chunk of the soul of what the greatest form of entertainment in the world can be, something we’re all too familiar with in a post-COVID-19 world. Pro wrestling in a more recognizable form has been around since the 1800s when even radio broadcasting had not yet been invented and in-person attendance was the only way shows made money, which makes crowds literally a cornerstone to building wrestling up to what we know it as now, even if TV rights continue to take over as the major source of income for the larger companies in America.
Going to shows was always the absolute best. Growing up in northwestern Pennsylvania I knew that at least once a year every year for my entire life I would get to hop in the car with my dad and drive to the Covelli Center in Youngstown or more often Mellon Arena and PPG Paints in Pittsburgh to see my favorites do what they do and be awed. I got to see some pretty cool shit too. I saw the first iron man match to ever take place on RAW, I saw Finn Balor, my favorite wrestler at the time, debut on the main roster, I even got to be there for what I believed for seven years to be the last time CM Punk would ever wrestle, even though none of us knew it would be his last match at the time. But even when I wasn’t seeing the patented MOMENTS that WWE loves to tout so much, I was just happy to be there to cheer on the wrestlers who kept me entertained and enjoy the chance to be around other wrestling fans, people who wouldn’t make fun of me for liking “fake” fighting, a refrain that everyone who loves wrestling is all too sick of hearing.
At some point though, something changed. I didn’t feel the same excitement about being at live wrestling shows anymore.
For a while, I thought it was me, maybe there was some personal trait that kept me from enjoying live pro wrestling. I’m an introvert by nature; I generally avoid loud and crowded places at all costs. So maybe I just grew out of being able to tolerate that sort of thing just to see wrestling. Maybe I had seen so much wrestling live that it had just lost the specialness and become mundane. Maybe as I got older the expectation became that I start paying for my own tickets and I just didn’t want to spend the money. All possible and valid explanations for my change of heart, but none could really explain it.
Eventually, though I realized, it’s not me it’s them. The them in this case being WWE. My interest in WWE waned severely in my later teens, especially as I finally fully introduced myself to the world of wrestling outside of the Vince McMahon bubble. I found Ring of Honor and New Japan and All Japan and Progress and American indies of all sorts. All these places, for one reason or another, appealed to me so much more than WWE where the creativity and presentation left so much to be desired that seeking alternatives was much easier than allowing myself to hope that the situation there would ever improve. Once I realized it was them and not me, I started seeking out live wrestling in other forms, mostly local indies, and while those shows were almost always plenty of fun, something was missing still. There was a distinct lack of grandeur and a lack of heat; these shows felt like shows, not events. So, I figured that wasn’t quite working but maybe something already around would. In an attempt to find that something else I drove six hours to Atlantic City to experience GCW in person for the first time for Tournament of Survival 4. It had some of that heat that I was looking for, but it was mostly centered around Nick Gage, who was eliminated from the tournament in the first round. So, we were close but not quite there still. I resigned myself to living in a world where wrestling was best enjoyed from the comfort of my own home, and I resigned myself to living in a world where American pro wrestling was best enjoyed with a focus on independents putting on fun shows. I accepted this world but still always felt like something was missing, like a key part of the experience of being a wrestling fan in my home country was gone. I never got to experience the heydays of territory wrestling, the powerhouse of Jim Crockett Promotions, or the all-out war between the WWF and WCW. I figured I might never get to experience big-time exciting American pro wrestling ever.
Then, of course, AEW happened.
A new promotion with all the money and all the production value but none of the 20 odd years of complacency and dysfunction of WWE. After all these years my dreams of some billionaire who loves wrestling coming in to save us all actually came true. I was excited every week to watch Dynamite; for the first time in my life, I was paying to watch pay-per-views live with my own money; this felt so different even just through my television. Wrestlers I cared about being given good sensical stories to tell and having great match after great match in myriad different styles shouldn’t be too much to ask for. In fact, it should be what every wrestling company strives to be, but it still felt novel in a way. Dynamite even came to Pittsburgh in its early days with a PAC vs Jon Moxley main event, a no-brainer show for me to go to right? Absolutely.
However, as has so often been a frustration in my life, cool stuff was happening in Pittsburgh while I was stuck at school in Oklahoma watching jealously from afar. Oh well though, they were bound to be in Pittsburgh at the same time as me eventually, or at the very least were bound to make their way to Oklahoma City. Well, just like I could never have dreamed of being so lucky as to have a new big-money American wrestling promotion to come along and do everything I want to see a company like that do, nobody could have dreamed of being so cursed as to live through a pandemic that disrupted the entire world. I’d prefer to limit my discussion of that because even mentioning something so real and so horrific in the same breath as professional wrestling feels improper.
Suffice it to say, my dreams of experiencing AEW live were put on hold for very good reason. I watched on TV every week as companies struggled to figure out how to exist in a world with no fans, no audience to react and give their shows the right amount of adrenaline. Even in the middle of these struggles AEW proved to be at the forefront of getting pandemic wrestling right, and so I waited and hoped knowing that someday fans would be allowed back in buildings, and I would finally get my chance, and get my chance I did. AEW began touring again and it just so happened that Pittsburgh was not only set to host Dynamite but also the first-ever episode of Rampage, and this time I was gonna be there for it one goddamn way or another.
It was an experience unlike anything I had ever felt before in pro wrestling, to be in the building to see my favorite show in the city that has been my wrestling home for 24 years was going to be special to me even if it didn’t manage to live up to the lofty expectations I had set in my head for what AEW’s appearance in Pittsburgh could be, but it did and was so much more.
It started on Dark where, rather than feel like I was watching the performers put in meaningless reps just to go through the motions, I felt like I was watching them learn and grow and figure themselves out. I watched Lee Moriarty who I saw wrestle in front of maybe 50 people in a little square building in McKeesport, PA years ago get a bigger ovation than signed AEW talent Dante Martin and it made me feel so happy to see someone whose success I’ve been invested in since he was nearly brand new cheered on like that. It continued on Dynamite where the terrible towels waved, and Britt Baker was turned into the biggest star in the world for at least one night.
The show was great but the in-ring product itself felt secondary to me that night. First and foremost were the emotional highs that never seemed to stop hitting. It felt like I was in a sea of people who collectively realized that we were here to see a company that we cared about care about us back. The sheer amount of energy radiating from the crowd made me feel like I was part of something special, but not unique. The fact that it isn’t unique is what makes it so notable to me. This is how crowds react to see AEW live almost every single week, even when they don’t have hometown heroes like Britt Baker or historic returns like CM Punk. Sure, there are bigger and hotter crowds in the world, at least under normal circumstances, but those are for shows like Wrestle Kingdoms and big-time pay-per-views, once-a-year events that exist to be the talk of the wrestling world for that day or week. This was Dynamite, there’s one of these things every single week of the year and still, we were acting and reacting like this was a once-in-a-lifetime event that we needed to make the most of, almost as if it may never happen again. But it will happen this week, and the week after, and the month after, and hopefully for a very long time. And if AEW continues to put on great shows that make wrestling fans feel like they’re being rewarded for their time and money and attention then crowds will continue to act like this routine show is an event that they cannot miss and cannot let feel mundane. For the first time in years, and maybe more so than ever, I felt pure joy for what amounted to four hours of wrestling but never felt like that long and never even felt like enough. I bought tickets to Rampage in the middle of Dynamite because my best friend and I could not miss the opportunity to Christian wrestling in person and to be a part of another scorching hot crowd that made me proud to be a Pittsburgh wrestling fan. We felt like kids again at Rampage. My friend, who I bonded for life with over pro wrestling as kids, watched in actual amazement as Christian pinned Kenny Omega to win the Impact World Championship, jumped up and down, and sat in his seat after repeating the words “He did it” over and over almost in disbelief that he had gotten to witness one of his favorite wrestlers of all-time win a world title years after we thought we’d never see him wrestle ever again either.
I don’t think I stopped smiling from the start of show Wednesday to end of show Friday, and the coolest part is that there are other people, children and adults, new fans, returning fans, and long-suffering fans, who are feeling this way all over the country every single week. We should all feel grateful to live in a time where weekly American professional wrestling is beginning to feel this way again with no visible signs of slowing down or stopping any time soon. I never stopped loving wrestling, but I missed out for years on a key part of the wrestling fan experience, but now that feeling in my gut that this is the greatest thing in the entire world, and I need to do whatever I can to experience it live and in-person is back. This isn’t just a fling; I am absolutely head over heels back in love with wrestling to the fullest extent.
At Dynamite that week in Pittsburgh, one person brought a sign that said, “Tony Khan saved professional wrestling” and Justin Roberts introduced Tony that way every time he came out to address the crowd that week. It was funny and fun and of course got a big pop every time, but as Dynamite and Rampage continue to hold me enthralled every week, and as American wrestling continues to grow and feel like something special again, I wonder if that person was more prophetic than any of us realize right now.