The Strangely Endearing Culture of Wrestlemania

 

Each year, about 70,000 wrestling fans converge on a major North American city to attend Wrestlemania. If the WWE Network subscriber numbers are to be believed, the WWE’s fanbase includes somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.3 million subscribers. That means that Wrestlemania attracts roughly the 5% of the most intense wrestling fans in the world. In other words, of the 20 wrestling fans you know, only the single craziest one is buying a plane ticket, dropping hundreds (if not thousands) on tickets and merchandise, and taking time away from work to attend Wrestlemania. The math isn’t perfect, but it gets the point across- the Wrestlemania crowd is just a little psychotic, in a good way.

 

Throughout Wrestlemania weekend, I catalogued much of what I saw in the ring on this site- from NXT, to Wrestlemania, to Raw. I also heard uniformly good things about wrestling events as disparate as ROH and Hood Slam. In this entry, I would like to recount some of the things I witnessed outside the wrestling ring- this bizarrely lovable subculture of professional wrestling maniacs that briefly coalesces into its own society each March.

 

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Photos courtesy of Jake Laber and Roster Resource Wrestling

 

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WWE liked to tell its fans that Wrestlemania was in the Bay Area, or even San Francisco. Its dirty little secret is that Levi’s Stadium is about 10 minutes from the San Jose airport and Raw’s SAP Center is in San Jose proper. I suppose “San Jose” presents the same marketing challenges that turned “East Rutherford” into “the NY area” a couple of years ago.

 

I landed in San Jose with my wife, Sam, on Friday afternoon. I would like to say that the trip went smoothly, but our rental car presented the first transit problem of the weekend. When I hear “economy car,” I think of something like a Toyota Corolla or a Honda Civic. Instead, Hertz wedged us into the partial car known as the Chevy Spark. It looked like someone took a Smart Car and jammed a second row of seats in it. We joked that if we couldn’t find parking, we could always just store it under our hotel bed for the evening. The car was so small, we both thought we had a giant blind spot until we realized it was just the back end of the car.

 

Both of the horsepower in this glorified bicycle puttered us to Sunnyvale, where we met fellow traveler and Roster Resource Wrestling co-author Scott Strandberg at the weekend’s hotel suite. We made a quick turnaround to downtown San Jose to find a happy hour before the night’s NXT show on the San Jose State campus. After a long day of traveling, a quick steak sandwich and a couple of Sierra Nevadas reenergized us for this abnormally late show.

 

No matter how long I continue to see wrestling shows, I think it’s unlikely that I will ever again attend three shows in four days with nothing scheduled between the primetime hours of 8-10 PM. Somehow, WWE managed to pull of this odd scheduling feat this weekend. Despite the late start, we nearly missed the start of NXT due to some errant directions that led us to the University’s performing arts center rather than its athletic arena (an understandable mistake from a non-wrestling fan giving directions). We wandered aimlessly between a maze of eerily quiet academic buildings. It felt like a bad omen until we rounded a library to happen on thousands of gleeful wrestling fans in Finn Balor and Kevin Owens t-shirts pouring into a cozy arena.

 

We made it to our seats just in time for Corey Graves’s microphone to malfunction, which gave the crowd its first chance to good-naturedly rib one of the performers. It quickly became more positive, though. Hideo Itami beat Tyler Breeze in an opening match full of both comedy and competition. The fact that he finished it with his first Go To Sleep with the company was pleasing in its own right and hinted that the show had great things in store.

 

The NXT show was a great example of how wrestling can be fun. So many factors lined up to make it so. The wrestlers certainly did their part with a collection of passionate, dedicated matches. The venue, from the great site lines to the reasonable beer prices, helped get all 5,000 fans in on the action. On top of all of that, this was the first taste of wrestling for so many of the fans who have been looking forward to this weekend for months or years. It was an evening of positive catharsis. Everyone was ready to suspend disbelief, cheer loudly, and go along for the ride.

 

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From San Francisco to San Jose, it was impossible to turn around in the Bay Area without seeing someone in a wrestling t-shirt. The 70,000 transplanted fans served as a moderately large suburb plopped down in the middle of a collection of already established suburbs. Everyone was eager to announce their affiliation to this group with their wrestling shirts. While that wardrobe might elicit condescending snickers in everyday life, there was strength in numbers here. Hey, 70,000 Brock Lesnar fans can’t be wrong!

 

For my part, I rotated between Dolph Ziggler, Kevin Owens, Bo Dallas, Randy Savage, and Mick Foley for the weekend. Scott used Rob Van Dam, Chris Jericho, and a collage of ’80s stars to proclaim his allegiance. With Randy Orton reserved for Raw, Sam had a tough choice between Steve Austin and HHH for Wrestlemania itself- would Austin make a surprise appearance? In the end, she went with The Game, a wise decision given the way the event turned out.

 

Of course everyone at Wrestlemania would be wearing WWE gear. What was more impressive was how prevalent the merchandise was at non-wrestling events through the weekend. We spent Saturday bar-hopping around Sunnyvale’s Murphy Avenue area. The venues ranged from some of the divey-est dive bars around to upscale restaurants. Despite the variety, there were wrestling fans loudly proclaiming their fandom in every establishment we entered.

 

One of the best destinations was the Paul and Harvey bar. While it looked like it had seen better days from the outside, much of the interior was in the bar when it opened in the ’30s. One happy hour cocktail proved that this was an establishment where serious drinkers do serious drinking. A slight miscommunication turned Sam’s order into a gin and tonic and a double gin and tonic, and the night was off to a fast start. We queued up a variety of wrestling-related songs on the jukebox and threw darts until the rest of the fans came out of the woodwork and started to introduce themselves to the guys blaring Cult of Personality.

 

We circulated through several other bars until we landed in Tarragon, an upscale Italian restaurant- for Scott’s birthday dinner. We looked more than a little out of place, so we made sure to order a bottle of wine and a plate of oysters to hint that we aren’t the out-of-place cheapskates we appeared to be. Our insecurity was unnecessary because our waiter was a witty smartass who was more than willing to play along. While he failed to fulfill our request of an Applebee’s-like hoard of servers singing a hokey birthday song to Scott, he and the rest of the bar staff watched gleefully as Scott struggled his way through a hands-free birthday shot known as the blowjob. I even got stopped in the restroom by a fan from Toronto who was dressed appropriately for the restaurant, but showed me a Daniel Bryan shirt under his sweater. Maybe that was the way to go, but when your culture is the dominant one, then everyone else can adapt to you.

 

As the night wore on, we met up with our friends Mike and Casey while more and more non-wrestling fans started to inquire about the abundance of WWE merchandise in their regular haunts. It’s always a strange sensation to distill from the tiny cultural niche into a giant wrestling crowd. It usually happens as you walk from our parking space to an arena for a show. This weekend had that aura in every bar, restaurant, and other venue through the whole metro area. When we walked by a wannabe nightclub with lines around the block, we knew we didn’t need to put on designer suits or short skirts to fit in- we already had our group for the weekend, and it was everywhere.

 

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For all of the weekend’s fun, there were a few black clouds that lingered. The most disturbing was the treatment of women by this giant group made up of mostly young men. WWE has worked hard in the McMahon era to move wrestling away from its carney past and toward broader social acceptance. That cannot happen if many of the fans remain stuck in antiquated, misogynistic mindsets.

 

The only downer of the otherwise brilliant NXT show was the discouraging treatment of women at the show. For a fanbase that pretends to celebrate the opportunities given to women in NXT and that begs for WWE to give its women the same chance, the crowd was oddly preoccupied with the wrestlers’ appearance over their in-ring ability.

 

There were the usually unfair and beside-the-point “Sasha’s ratchet” chants: first, that’s absurdly inaccurate. Second, who cares, even if it is true? Third, these comments are disproportionately targeted at women. And fourth, don’t even bother by answering, “No she’s not.” Just boo these idiots back into silence. Even WWE’s famed Sign Guy had three signs for the evening, all focused on wrestlers’ physical appearance, two of which we insulting to women. None of these chants or signs are even tangentially related to our collective ideal of wrestling as a competitive spectacle. Moreover, it makes a very depressing point about the aggregate behavior of a predominantly young, male audience.

 

The sexism was more obvious on Raw, where an entire women’s match was overrun with chants about the wrestlers’ significant others. It started with a “you suck Cena” chant directed at Nikki Bella and progressed through five of the six wrestlers in the match. Fortunately for Paige, the fans didn’t know her boyfriend’s name. I understand that it’s en vogue to rail against Nikki and that the chant is a derivation of “Cena sucks,” but it’s incredibly ignorant to only focus on the sexual lives of these women who have tried to overcome the stereotypes and the company’s old way of thinking to become tough, competitive wrestlers.

 

The other persistent shitstorm through the weekend was the shockingly horrendous crowd management in the Bay Area. Levi’s Stadium incredibly reduced the parking line to a single lane for every car arriving at Wrestlemania. The overzealous rent-a-cops at the door were befuddled by fans bringing wrestling memorabilia to a wrestling event and caused thousands to miss much of the pre-show. The stadium confiscated sealed water bottles from fans who were about to sit in direct, sweltering sun for five hours. The lines at the SAP Center for Raw wrapped around the building and held people outside as the show started because they opened one of the arena’s four entrances. I understand that WWE does not manage the event staffs at these venues, but they can certainly train them on what to expect.

 

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Complaints aside, the weekend took a turn for the better at the ManiaCrawl on Sunday morning. Our group swelled to seven with the addition of friends Jake and Karissa and we made our way to downtown San Jose’s San Pedro Square for a pub crawl organized by posters on Reddit. We thought we arrived early when the industrial warehouse of a bar seemed populated by hipsters and young professionals. We looked incredibly out of place with wrestling belts and our Slammy trophy as we started to double fist mimosas and bloody marys from the brunch bar.

 

Before long, a chorus of “John Cena suuuuucks” burst out from the rear of the warehouse and we realized we were in the right place. Behind the main bar, a hallway opened into a second bar and a food court. Here, there were no hipsters or professionals, but there were plenty of wrestling fans with insanely elaborate costumes. My personal favorite was the San Jose host in a perfect Goldust outfit with the character to match. I also enjoyed the guy trolling the crowd in a full John Cena costume, the numerous guys in Sting get-ups, and Busty Hogan- a Hulk costume with a pillow for pecs.

 

More than the costumes, the hallmark of the event was the sense of community. I don’t think I’m telling any tales out of school when I say that a lot of wrestling fans are slightly socially awkward. Hell, it might even be the fact that wrestling fans are ostracized for being wrestling fans that causes the feeling of being an outsider. In this group, the wrestling fans became the predominant community. Everyone was happy to meet everyone. All non-Cena wrestling fans were welcomed.

 

We bonded over stories of previous wrestling trips, of how we got into wrestling, and of how much we didn’t want Roman Reigns to win in the main event. While sameness can sometimes descend into unpleasant and boring groupthink, this group was different. The similarities were about respect and even love for one another. There was no hostility or defensiveness, just a space to safely be a freak about pro wrestling.

 

That atmosphere created one of the strangest drinking environments of my life. The early mimosas gave way to heavy British ales, which turned into a celebratory round of fine scotch with some new Australian friends. We found our way to a large, open patio where the non-wrestling fans could only smile and laugh at the painted faces and impromptu chants. Normally, this behavior would not be socially acceptable, but when you create your own society, you get to make up new rules.

 

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The rest of the weekend taught me less about wrestling culture because it was all about watching wrestling, which I have done plenty of times.

 

Wrestlemania was tremendous- so good, in fact, that it left little meat on the bone for Raw the next night. We met some great people from the Bay Area, and when I insisted that the woman in front of me show respect for the United States President, Armed Forces, and Champion (read: Rusev), she looked me in the eye and simply said “girl, bye.” I have never been dismissed so effectively and completely.

 

Wrestlemania entertained everyone in the audience and every type of wrestling fan. Want high spots? The Intercontinental Title Ladder Match was insane. Prefer technical brilliance? Rollins and Orton put together a masterpiece that gets better with each viewing. Are you into childhood sentimentality? Can’t do much better than Triple H, Sting, Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Shawn Michaels, and all of DX in the same match. How about celebrity tie-ins? It would be hard to find two celebrities who fit modern wrestling better than The Rock and Ronda Rousey. On top of all of that, the main event put it all together: star power, a competitive and brutal match, and a surprising storyline twist. Despite the miles of traffic, we all went home happy.

 

Everyone started to get a little chippy by Monday afternoon. San Jose’s SAP Center is in an industrial park a solid mile from the downtown corridor. Most of the 20,000 fans showed up hungover, exhausted, and sun-soaked. There was no hair of the dog to be found around the arena. Instead, we stood in an interminable security line (complete with line-cutting narcissists) and barely made it to our seats for the start of Raw.

 

Predictably, the crowd wanted to leave its mark on the show. Through a brilliant Bryan-Ziggler match, a crazy Lesnar rampage segment, and a really fun Cena- Ambrose match, the fan input added to the experience. The last hour of the show was slow-paced, predictable, and rote, and the fans responded in kind. The chants went from embarrassingly sexist to mean-spirited to whiny and self-promotional.

 

As much as the crowd turning on Raw was about a poor third hour (or at least poor sequencing of the show), I think it was also about the anticipated withdrawals. For four days, we stopped being cultural oddities and became the norm. Nobody in the crowd wanted that to end, so we clung to it by doubling down on the things we shared in common- we all hate Big Show and you can’t take that away from us. That does not excuse the bad behavior, but at least it puts it in some context.

 

By Tuesday morning, we all sobered up and got some sleep. The wrestling belts went back in the suitcases (that somehow passed the watchful eyes of TSA), but the wrestling shirts stayed out. It made me happy to see so many Wrestlemania XXXI event shirts at the San Jose airport on Tuesday afternoon. More than any specific wrestler, we wanted to signal to each other that we still share that common bond. That’s why we could sit in the boarding area and loudly discuss how Rollins will be a great champion and we can’t wait to go to Dallas next year.

 

These are not conversations anyone would normally have while waiting to board a plane, but the collection of Wrestlemania shirts specifically told the rest of the travelers that the event was not quite over and our subculture had not quite receded back to its niche. For a few more minutes, we still had control over the social norms, and in our little society, we don’t shake hands to say goodbye, we complain about John Cena and fantasy book the next Wrestlemania.




@WrestleRosters