“FOLLOW THESE CONDITIONS OR WE’LL KICK YOUR ASS OUT:
Vegans only: NO MEAT ALLOWED!
Straight edge only: NO DRINKING ALLOWED!
Fixed gears only: NO THREE-SPEEDS ALLOWED!
Me me me!!!: I’M SMART! I’M RIGHT! I’M SMART!”
Today is the twentieth anniversary of WrestleMania 13, and with it, the twentieth anniversary of one of the greatest matches in professional wrestling history. It is a match of passion and determination, a match marked by an unflinching resolve and a changing culture. We all know the match I’m talking about: the fabled, the historic, the legendary Billy Gunn vs. Flash Funk.
No, no, of course I’m talking about the submission match between Bret Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin. If you’ve seen it, I don’t need to sell you on it. If you’ve not seen it, what are you doing reading my dumb thinkpiece? While perhaps empty and boring at a glance, I consider it a near-perfect match, one that gets better every time you watch it. As with so many great matches, the devil is in the details with this one. It’s in the way Bret stomps through broken glass to get to his opponent. It’s in the way Austin teeters when he throws a punch, when he swings a chair, putting his all into every wild strike. It’s in the way Vince McMahon, speaking on commentary, insists “somebody’s gonna give, somebody’s gonna give.” It’s in the way Bret leers, indignant, hands on his hips, at the Rosemont crowd that has turned on him. More often than not, this is a match that moves me to tears when I watch it, melodramatic oaf that I am. It’s something that taps into what I love most about professional wrestling.
I’ve written and podcasted before about how much I appreciate Stone Cold Steve Austin and how I consider him perhaps the greatest wrestler of all time. Part of that simply means that he had matches that I loved, that he created moments that have stuck with me throughout the years. Part of that means that I find him to be a fascinating and nuanced performer, far more layered and subtle than the beer swillin’ Texas redneck character he inhabits would suggest. But part of that means that Austin and his career speak to greater truths, to larger concepts and concerns. His rebelliousness in and out of the ring, his paranoia, his struggle against the establishment in all forms, these are all elements that connect with me on a fundamental level. I have rebelled. I have feared those around me. I have fought against the system that keeps me and others like me down.
I’d been meaning to write about this match for its twentieth anniversary for some time now, but a curious thing happened when I sat down to watch it for the third time in as many weeks. The news came out that a few UK indie promotions, namely PROGRESS and ICW, would be pairing up with WWE at WrestleMania Axxess to provide a number of matches through the week’s festivities. As you can imagine, this sent shockwaves throughout the Wrestling Twitter community, with scores of people celebrating and decrying the announcement. The supporters, fans of WWE and the UK indies alike, praised the inclusive nature of the announcement, amazed at the idea of seeing the likes of Jimmy Havoc and Dahlia Black in a WWE ring. The critics lambasted the news, citing the monopolistic tendencies of WWE and their unwillingness to see any more of their favorite wrestlers fall under its homogenized rule. Moreover, fans (keep in mind, whatever side of this argument you fall on: the people on the other side are fans just as much as you are) with a more, let’s say, “underground” interest found continued irony and hypocrisy in PROGRESS and their “punk rock pro wrestling” moniker, asserting that partnering up with a large, oligopolistic corporation with a long history of driving its opponents out of business and mistreating its employees is anything but punk.
Largely, this is an argument of semantics, though not one without merit on both sides. For people in the wide-reaching punk scene, seeing a company use that name and aesthetic as a branding tool while buddying up to another company whose creators and operators gave millions of dollars to Donald Trump is, at the very least, somewhere on the scale of distasteful to disgusting. Sure, it’s only one of the latest examples of the general punk ethos being bastardized by an uncaring corporation and/or one of its members trying to make a few bucks, a tradition that dates back decades, but it still stings on some level for some people, generally the sort of people still living that lifestyle. This isn’t the only scene the promotion has been biting, however: PROGRESS has also declared itself to be “strong-style pro wrestling” despite neither resembling the admittedly poorly-defined strong style in any real sense or being connected to Antonio Inoki or any of his students in any way. It’s safe to say that when you’re just throwing around buzzwords and catchphrases for the sake of branding, you’re going to piss off some people who care about the meanings of those words. What’s more, if you happen to feel at home in the specific culture a particular company tries to ape without being representative of who you are or where you come from, you’re bound to be pissed off by it. To paint with broad strokes and Neanderthal tones: representation good, profiting off misrepresentation bad.
At the same time, policing who or what fits into your niche or scene is itself a terrible thing to do. There is a certain contrived authenticity and safety created when declaring someone or something to be not-punk, not-edge, not-hardcore, not-emo, etc., and while boundaries and definitions are helpful in a general sense, who gets to decide who is the Grand Arbiter of All That Is Punk? Who among us is righteous enough to separate the goat and the sheep? It’s a mantle we all take up from time to time, but it’s not a crown fit for any of our heads. And what’s more: who honestly cares? If some goofs operating a thousand miles away from you have declared themselves to be punk and you don’t think they really are, let ‘em do it. It doesn’t actually make them punk any more than the dude mumbling to himself on the train about being Abraham Lincoln actually makes him Abraham Lincoln. You’re not deeply offended as an American about this train mumbler pretending to be our greatest president, so why get all up in arms about some British dork with an AC/DC entrance theme pretending that he’s got anything to do with Heavens to Betsy or The Ergs or whoever? Let him be dumb. He does it well enough all on his own.
This argument of semantics, though, is simply a symptom of a larger issue: the divide between the people who are pro-WWE and the people who are anti-WWE.
If it wasn’t easy to tell, I’m fairly anti-WWE, though that’s not to say that there aren’t a number of advantages to being a fan of, employee of, or promotion partnering with the New York territory.
As a fan, the biggest wrestling promotion in the world puts out the most accessible and digestible product, theoretically uniting the best talent under one roof for your ease and enjoyment. They have a fairly hassle-free streaming service that is both cheap and likely to be in your language. If you’ve been watching wrestling for a considerable amount of time, it’s likely a brand ingrained in your life and maybe the lives of your friends and family.
Theoretically, the situation is even better for workers in WWE. On average, you almost certainly earn more money than you would on the indies, and after “slumming it” in front of crowds of 50, 100, 150 people, maybe you feel that your hard work has paid off and you’re finally working at your talent level. Additionally, your work now has more exposure to a greater worldwide audience than it would otherwise. For some of you, being on WrestleMania is a childhood dream, and as a WWE Superstar, you have a chance to live that dream.
Promotions too benefit from WWE connections. Whether you want the satisfaction of working for the biggest promotion in the world without the grind of constantly touring or you simply want more eyes on the product you’ve created yourself, partnering with WWE as a smaller company seems to come with no downside.
There is a downside, though. Just not in the eyes of everyone.
For other fans, seeing wrestlers you love join a corporation that embodies everything you hate artistically and/or ethically is painful. You don’t want to see your favorite performers stagnate creatively under a system of dozens and dozens of writers, producers, and executives any more than you want to see them work for people who have profited from necrophilia storylines, covering up murders, and the deaths of their own employees.
As wrestlers, you feel those same concerns. You don’t want to waste away your prime years wrestling Titus O’Neil for years on non-televised C shows. You don’t want to work for a company that gives you little to no employee benefits, one that leaves you in the dust when you’re no longer profitable the way it’s left thousands of your predecessors.
Promoters likewise feel this burden, seeing their top stars routinely snatched up by a far larger group with a never-ending demand for fresh bodies and an even larger supply of cash. You can only build and recruit new talent for so long before the well is dry, and your fans can only watch as the situation worsens for so long before moving on to something else.
Wrestling draws in all kinds of fans, workers, and promoters, and the spectrum of their experiences is vast and daunting. The distance between both ends seems unfathomably large, as the people on the other side seem simply irreconcilable, completely disconnected from your way of life. While I don’t consider myself as anti-WWE as others (heck, I still watch it quite regularly and spend hours of my life talking, writing, and podcasting about it), it baffles me that my friends and contemporaries are unable to see the writing on the wall that I see, that a massive corporation that directly supports fascism gobbling up the world’s wrestlers en masse is destructive to wrestlers, the wrestling business, and to wrestling fandom.
There’s a saying that a rising tide lifts all boats, but when the biggest barge in the bay insists on running over any and all smaller ships in sight to stay afloat, that aphorism rings hollow. At this point, WWE have directly or indirectly caused every one of their major competitors in the United States to fold in an effort to make their brand synonymous with the words “pro wrestling”. For many people, that marked the death of what they understood as pro wrestling, as the homogenized rock n’ wrestling buffoonery that was left was not of value to them. There is little reason to believe that this cycle would not repeat itself yet again, or perhaps be replaced by a similar system in which more and more smaller promotions are added as feeder teams until all of wrestling is united under one umbrella.
To return to WrestleMania 13, it baffles me how the same people who celebrate Steve Austin’s struggle against the establishment could endorse and support that very same establishment that does so much harm to the wrestling world and, increasingly, to the world in general. Maybe it’s simply because a work of art need not reflect our personal beliefs in order to be entertaining or have value to us. Maybe it’s because wrestling is, after all, a work. Maybe it speaks to the complicated nature of professional wrestling, this never-ending soap opera of good and evil performed by abusers, by murderers, by hatemongers, by the worst among us. When those that inspire us are themselves such immoral people, should we be surprised when the institution that houses them is itself immoral? It’s a difficult situation, being so enthralled by an art form that is so fundamentally corrupt.
If WWE is so bad, then, should we simply watch and support its alternatives? Certainly, though it must be noted that WWE is far from alone in this sort of corruption. Even my most beloved promotions have skeletons in their closets, barely hidden from the public eye. Last year, the family-friendly Chikara partnered with the anti-sex worker organization Polaris Project and has more recently been the subject of numerous allegations of underpaying and exploiting its workers. They, along with the likes of Beyond Wrestling and EVOLVE, likewise employed part-time commentator and full-time sexual assault jokester Joey Styles for a number of months last year, whose firing was “overblown” according to AAW booker Danny Daniels, someone who sees fit to continue employing a certain domestic abuser making money off his domestic abuse. Mark Burnett, executive producer of Lucha Underground, refused to release allegedly damning video evidence of President Trump from the television program The Apprentice, which Burnett created. PWG has a long history of casual racism, tongue-in-cheek antisemitism, and ridiculing intellectual and developmental disabilities for cheap laughs. Dragon Gate wrestlers took part in and subsequently covered up an animal abuse scandal. CZW, my favorite promotion ever, is a hotbed for despicable acts of hatred both in and out of the ring. And these are only recent examples in indie wrestling! Wrestling’s 100+ year history is ripe with malice and mistreatment on all levels. It is, after all, a carny business through and through.
So if there is no promotion to be trusted, should we just stop watching wrestling altogether? That’s the sort of question every fan has to struggle with themselves. Many of them reach the conclusion that yes, wrestling is a lost cause, and write it off as an unethical and unrepentant business, never to return. For others, something unknowable keeps us here, leaving us to solve the impossible task of navigating this world of tights and atrocities while doing as little harm as possible. It leaves us to make difficult choices, such as supporting performers we love in promotions we hate, or understanding why someone would sacrifice morality for a much-needed paycheck, or coming to terms with the fact that our friends and contemporaries are themselves struggling through these difficult choices that often do not have clear-cut answers. It leaves us, also, with the responsibility to make things better in wrestling in whatever way we can for the people around us and for the people who entertain us.
As wrestling fans, it is almost inevitable that someone you value artistically will do something that you will have to grapple with morally.
— Necro, But Cher (@wrestlingbubble) March 3, 2017
If I hadn’t been exposed to left-leaning politics in the Bush administration, if I hadn’t stumbled into the straight edge community at an early age, if I hadn’t been brought up with copious amounts of CZW and ROH in the generation of “you sold out”, would I still think of WWE as this evil empire? Maybe not. I’d like to think that I would, that the morals and ideals that make me me would have still developed without those same formative influences in my youth. Regardless of what could have happened had things been different, the person I am today perceives this situation to be wrong, as something that needs to be changed.
The problem is, not every wrestling fan has that same moral compass. That’s not meant to be a value judgment, though my naturally snarky tone makes it sound like more than a simple statement of fact. Not every wrestling fan shares my same set of values, my same core principles. Not every wrestling fan cares about monopolies or unionization or artistic integrity the way that I do. That does not necessarily make me right or make me superior, nor does it make you, dear reader, right or superior. Different things are important to all of us, in different ways and on different levels. Different people care about different things. We all have our different experiences, motives, thought processes, and concerns. Some of those are universal. Some of those are far more personal, and don’t always have a bearing on the lives of others.
What unites us, then, is wrestling. Obviously there is more that unites us than that, greater, much deeper human bonds, but here, on this goofy website, we talk about wrestling. If you’re reading this, it’s because you love wrestling to one degree or another. If you’re reading this, so too are other wrestling fans. Take comfort in that, take strength in it. Take a moment to realize that there is more that unites us than separates us. Take a moment to remember that arbitrary labels do not strictly define or isolate us unless we let them. Take a moment today to better understand your fellow wrestling fan, to make the world better for your fellow wrestling fan, and know that, whatever may come, we always have this.
Regarding the Header Image:
Stone Cold Steve Austin is hardly the unifying figure best suited for this cause. A convicted domestic abuser is a simply uncomfortable symbol at best, an unacceptable one at worst. But when I watch that historic match that took place twenty years ago today, I’m inspired by the man’s determination. Fighting against the establishment, he shocked the world with his resiliency, and although left bleeding and unconscious in the end, he was only defeated momentarily. While the man Steve Austin is not the image of an inclusive, unified movement to make wrestling better, his determination may well be, and in the spirit of that determination Aaron Taube and Dylan Chadwick have created a shirt whose profits are donated to the National Immigration Law Center in an effort to make the world at large a better place along with the wrestling world. You can find more of Dylan’s work on his website.