Last night, just before midnight, I got myself cosy and put my feet up. I tuned in to one of the most hotly anticipated events of the year, a sport but not, yet a spectacle in every way, shape and form. The talent involved in pulling it off is incredible.
The skill-set needed is almost incomprehensible. Split second timing, awesome athleticism, and an ability to bullshit whilst seeming deadly serious … I got to the party late, but I’m enjoying it now I’ve arrived.
I’m a convert to the Church of McMahon. I am a fully-fledged WWE devotee. Staged? So what. This is entertainment alright. This is the Real Kind, and last night was one of the biggest events on the calendar; the Royal Rumble. Man, oh man.
I am not about to spoil it for those yet to see it; death sentences have been passed for less, and if someone did that to me that person would need to live very far away. So no, this article will not contain spoilers, even if I have to bite down hard on my fist to stop from posting them.
Instead this is a piece about why I bothered in the first place, and what got me here.
See, like I said, I arrived late. Until two and a half years ago, I’d never have watched a professional wrestling match. The idea would never have occurred to me. It held no interest whatsoever. Like the way certain people view the fantasy and sci-fi genres, it seemed hopelessly geeky and it was just incomprehensible that anyone could want to watch something that was staged and fake. We used to get enough of that in Scottish football.
Yet I am, myself, hopelessly geeky. In hindsight I was just biding my time before this came along and grabbed a hold of me, but I have my girlfriend and her family to thank for turning me around. They watch the shows every week and the depth and breadth of their knowledge of the subject reminds me very much of my own encyclopaedic recall of films and TV shows I’ve seen, and of Celtic matches I’ve watched throughout the years.
It’s pretty impressive, and kind of scary, the way certain types of people can retain information like that, and all of it without the slightest application in their day-to-day lives.
Now, a heretics confession; no booing please, long-time devotees.
I know it’s coming, but try to contain yourselves. I’m simply going to be honest.
What started as enthusiasm for how enthusiastic they were about WWE grew into an interest in the spectacle itself, and it came about naturally enough from watching what they did and being drawn towards certain characters within the sport. (And I am calling it that, with no equivocation.)
The one who caught the eye, for a guy who’s never been interested, was the one the fans call The Beast, Brock Lesnar, the iconic figure who’s at the centre of much of their marketing campaign. Let me tell you; having been exposed to the WWE universe as I have, from talking to fans including my good lady and the kids, I get the residual bitterness that surrounds giving this guy such incredible publicity and hype. Whereas most of the competitors are full-time wrestlers, appearing week in week out, and putting in a shift, Brock drifts through the world like he owns it. His contract stipulates that he appear only sporadically; he’s a guy many think hasn’t “given back”.
But to the new initiate, you can see, immediately, why Brock is such a core part of the publicity machine. He’s a majorly impressive physical specimen; all muscle and aggression. He’s imposing, intimidating and he has been a dominant presence in the ring for years.
A champion wrestler before he got to the WWE universe, it’s not for nothing that he was once considered unconquerable. He was the youngest ever winner of the Rumble itself, the WWE title and King of the Ring. ESPN named him “the most accomplished athlete in professional wrestling history” in 2015. On top of that, he went to another level by competing in, and winning, the heavyweight crown in UFC, which as you’ll know is a different level of badass entirely.
Before that, at WrestleMania XXX, he pulled off one of the greatest shocks in the history of the franchise when he ended the legendry “Streak” set by the Undertaker.
And that’s roughly where I came in. The first proper WWE spectacle I watched, with an eye on the talents involved and the abilities of the wrestlers themselves, was the 2015 Hell In A Cell rematch between the pair of them, which Brock won after an immense battle.
From then on, I’ve barely missed a show and I went to Raw when it came to Glasgow late last year, and I enjoyed it live even more than I thought I would.
To those who’ve never seen a WWE event, the first thing you need to know is that staged or not, rigged or not, scripted or not, you’ll see a show and a half. Even if the outcomes in every fight are fixed the skills and the moves these guys and gals (and the women’s wrestling is amongst the most watchable and impressive parts of the show; Bayley is a particular favourite of the crowd and it’s easy, from the off, to see why but she’s one of many, like Charlotte and Sasha Banks, incredibly talented women who often put the men to shame) pull off are certainly not. These are remarkable athletes with styles of their own.
Take Neville, a Geordie wrestler who is a WWE favourite. This guy has all the grace and skill of a pro gymnast. He can do the most extraordinary things in the ring. Then there’s Dean Ambrose, who looks about as far removed from being a heavyweight wrestler as you could imagine; he looks like a typical, scruffy, bar brawler. But he has an almost awesome ability to withstand pain and keep going, and he moves with lightning speed when he has to, and can beat opponents who are much more physically imposing. Bray Wyatt looks like what you’d expect a pro-wrestler to look like, but he is nimble, fearless and plain wacky … his entrance, and that of his sidekick “family” is something to behold, and sets just the right creepy atmosphere. Contrast that with the colour and noise and general humour of guys like The New Day, who dress like they’re fresh out of clown school, and act the part too, but whose core group are all immensely good in the ring; it’s not for nothing that they recently broke a long standing record as tag-team champions.
There are big scary bruisers, like Kane, Braun Strowman and the terrifying Big Show, and there are huge characters like Roman Reigns (stop the booing, I can hear it), Seth Rawlins, Kevin Owens and “his best friend Chris Jericho”, Enzo Amore and his sidekick Big Cass, the powerful John Cena and a host of other weird and wonderful folk, as well as a handful of genuine legends like the Undertaker and the recently returned Goldberg (who shocked the fans with a victory over the eponymous Lesnar in under two minutes recently).
The Royal Rumble is major league because it brings them all together, in one night, in one fight, in one ring. 30 of the biggest names, entering one at a time, where the last man standing is the winner. Exit the ring and it’s over.
It’s every bit as chaotic and insane as it sounds, frequently becoming a full-scale free-for-all, but it’s also coldly logical and even tactical; you will get people teaming up to take the big guys out early, and you will see rivalries set aside to work (temporarily) in a common cause. The destination might be planned in advance (and think on the skill it takes to do that, when you have such mayhem going on) but the journey is never less than fascinating.
To cap it all off, the event itself was the crowning moment of a night’s entertainment where, this year, no fewer than five titles were contested across the divisions; the Women’s Championship, the Tag-Team Championship, the Cruiserweight title and the Universal and WWE crowns.
That’s a night of battles you’d be hard pressed to beat anywhere, with only the main event of WrestleMania even coming close, and those events are interconnected, as the Royal Rumble winner gets a prime time slot there and a WWE title shot.
So how did I enjoy it?
That’s difficult to properly articulate without spoiling it for someone else. I did enjoy it, hugely, of course, but to talk about why would be ruinous for those who’ve not watched it yet.
Give it a day or two and I’ll write in some detail about the matches themselves and the big one in particular, and talk about some of the conundrums the McMahon’s now have to resolve about where things are headed … in any scripted show you always risk writing yourself into a corner; it’s how you get out of it that will determine how pleased your audience is.
For the moment, as a relative newbie, I’ll just say that there was enough, more than enough, to keep me very interested in WrestleMania 33.
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