“Upon examining the galaxies in space, images begin to appear. Images of strange and powerful forces. But of all the forces in the universe, the two most powerful – Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior, prepare to explode. Champion vs Champion, Title for Title, IT’S THE ULLLLLTIMMMMMATE CHALLENGE, IT’S WRESTLEMANIAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”
I first heard that voiceover when I was six years old, lying on my back in a body cast. My parents bought me a copy of WrestleMania VI as a post-surgery present, and that is when wrestling became a permanent part of my life
As anyone who has ever read any of my work probably knows, I discovered professional wrestling when I saw Sgt. Slaughter burn an American flag while wearing an Iraqi uniform. However, WrestleMania VI is more sentimental. Seeing an irresistible force like The Ultimate Warrior stare down an immovable object like Hulk Hogan captured my imagination like nothing else ever had. I liked Star Wars, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the magic of the World Wrestling Federation.
I’ve never stopped watching completely, but once I hit my mid-20s, Monday nights were no longer reserved for Raw. Wrestling was evolving, and I didn’t relate to the characters they were pushing. Although I’d quit watching on Monday night, WrestleMania was sacred. No matter how Vince McMahon disappointed me during the year, he would always pull me back for the granddaddy of them all. However, the last three years were less about wrestling and more of an excuse to eat fried cheese with my buddy Shaun. I didn’t even watch last year, because Shaun couldn’t make it to the bar, and I didn’t care about The Rock wrestling John Cena.
Heading into WrestleMania season this year, WWE launched their 24 hour streaming service, the WWE Network. For a paltry 9.99 a month, wrestling fans would be able to watch every WWE pay per view. Although I thought it was a cool concept, WrestleMania was shaping up to be uneventful. And then something unexpected happened.
Daniel Bryan, one of the greatest technical wrestlers on earth, and an internet darling, suddenly became the hottest act in World Wrestling Entertainment. Using the classic underdog vs. corporate machine trope, Bryan was getting people to react in a way I hadn’t seen since the rise of Steve Austin back in 1997.
The savvy wrestling observer could note that something similar had occurred with C.M. Punk’s “pipebomb” promo back in 2011, but while that had gotten my attention, there was distance. Punk was deliberately appealing to the “smart,” fans in the audience, breaking the fourth wall by namedropping Colt Cabana and Ring of Honor. He turned Monday Night Raw into Pitchfork Media.
Like Punk, Daniel Bryan also hijacked Raw, but without a trace of a smirk. Sitting on the left corner turnbuckle, surrounded by hundreds of fans wearing identical t-shirts, Daniel told Triple H that he would not leave the ring without a title shot. Triple H relented, but only after he added the caveat that Bryan would have to go through him first. I was transfixed. For the first time in a decade, I not only wanted to see WrestleMania, I wanted someone to lose.
I considered having a WrestleMania party, but I didn’t want to be self-depricating or sarcastic about my love of professional wrestling. I wanted to feel the joy and not feel weird that I was freaking out over a pre-determined sport. I wanted to be unfiltered
The show opened with Hulk Hogan, The Rock and Steve Austin sharing the same ring. I reacted as if Bruce Springsteen had walked through the door carrying a family size bag of Twizzlers.
After the three biggest stars in the history of the business left the ring, Lemmy’s tobacco charred vocal chords filled the Superdome. Triple H was sitting on an iron throne, a cross between Conan The Barbarian and Jamie Lannister. He looked ridiculous, but I didn’t laugh at him. Instead, I marveled at how powerful he looked, and wondered if Daniel Bryan had the intestinal fortitude to defeat such a powerful specimen. This was supposed to be predetermined, right?
Triple H’s walk was slow and methodical. In contrast, Daniel Bryan strode to the ring, urging the crowd to chant with him. The crowd crested and fell like a wave: “YES! YES! YES! YES!” I was chanting along with them.
There comes a time in every wrestling fan’s life when the moves overtake the narrative. This usually happens when you become a teenager, and need to explain to non-believers why you still watch a morality play performed by large men in spandex. Instead of focusing on how a match or a performer makes you feel, you judge them by wether or not they can perform a shooting star press. I’ve seen both Daniel Bryan and Triple H have better technical matches than this. Daniel’s work didn’t seem as fluid as usual, and Triple H moved like the 40-something he is. I didn’t care, because for the first time in my adult life, it was about the story. Bryan could have poked Triple H with his finger, and I would have still reacted as if I had never seen a wrestling match before.
My relationship with Vince McMahon is similar to many of my friends’ relationship to George Lucas. No matter how frustrated I get with the direction of his company, he created a world that I love. It’s damn near impossible to break free from something that shaped me as a person. Watching Daniel Bryan hoist the gleaming straps of leather across his narrow shoulders, I became six years old. For that moment, it was real to me, damn it.