Chugging back an iced coffee, Will says, ‘Triple H married Vince McMahon’s, the top guy’s, daughter in real life and in storyline; storyline first. It was crazy.’
Vincent K. McMahon is a 68-year-old, third generation wrestling promoter, who has the type of face monopolised by super rich American men (Forbes puts his net worth at $878 million) in their twilight years: a closed-mouth smile above a full-stop cleft chin. Hailed by wrestling fans as the God of the modern era, McMahon inherited the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) from his father in 1983 and rebranded it World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) in 2002 – flogging it in both syndicated and pay-per-view television spotlights, and vigorously cross-promoting it, so that it now broadcasts in almost 150 countries in over thirty languages.
Will explains some of this to me while we’re waiting for the 2014 WWE Raw Tour performance at Rod Laver Arena to begin. He’s come with his dad (my sister’s partner) to Melbourne from Hobart, Tasmania, for the past three years to see the annual match. Last Christmas, though, I remember Will looking dubious when his dad had asked me if I could take Will next time, since I live in Melbourne. Thankfully, at Rod Laver, Will’s initial dismay at my lack of wrestling credentials evaporates as he says, with the speedy thrill of having finally been asked to share his vast strata of knowledge, that in the ‘early days [of WWE] wrestlers used to go off kayfabe fairly often.’
Kayfabe is the fictional narrative world of wrestling, presented as if it’s true. Of course, it’s now a massive open secret, but in wrestling’s original carnival days, and even into the 80s and 90s, kayfabe was a mystery. Will says that going off kayfabe just doesn’t happen anymore; it’s too risky business-wise for McMahon.
Will is a six-foot fifteen-year-old with sandy hair, the density of which only teenage boys or the occasional Frenchman is able to grow. His elephantine memory for facts and figures makes me wish my teenage years had been spent consuming only iced coffees. Going through the ‘card’ – the line-up of matches for the evening – Will predicts which ones will actually take place. He explains that this depends on the ‘storylines’ that need to be advanced, which depends on what’s happened in WWE’s many broadcasted shows in the hours leading up to tonight.
One match he’s fairly sure of is Kofi Kingston versus Bo Dallas: ‘Now we’re getting into the race problem of wrestling.’ Will says that in wrestling there’s ‘good guys and bad guys’, and, mostly, the bad guys are either black or coded as ethnic. Dion Beary, in his article for The Atlantic, ‘Pro Wrestling is Fake, but Its Race Problem Isn’t’, says that black characters like Kofi Kingston and R-Truth are, ‘perpetual losers called “jobbers”, meant to get beaten by whoever the WWE brass have decided to push that month.’ Bo Dallas is the jobbers’ white inverse, what WWE fans call a ‘babyface’: a good guy.
Just before babyface Bo enters, Rod Laver pulses with thousands of WWE fans in a vocal Mexican wave yelling ‘twoot, twoot, twoot’. It strikes me as an oddly high-pitched and breathy sound for WWE fans to be making, like it’s coming from a massive parliament of baby owls. I look probingly to Will who tells me that it ‘pays tribute to legendary pro wrestler Ric Flair – it was sort of his main catchphrase,’ and it’s now part of the parlance of noises WWE fans make during the live shows generally. The soothing twooting continues throughout the bouts, between chants of ‘this is awful’ and ‘you’re a wanker,’ depending on who’s fighting.
It’s difficult not to smile distractedly at Will, his earnest face covered in a sheep’s mask we bought earlier from the heaving merchandise stand, and a plastic WWE Championship belt at his feet. The sheep’s mask is the moniker of the wrestling group the Wyatt Family, who prove to be the evening’s star freaky family attraction, culminating in a battle with another, entirely different crowd favourite, Chris Jericho.
Rod Laver looks like the WWE excerpts I’ve seen on YouTube: a denuded white runway with huge screens on either side saying WWE, leading down to a raised wresting ring at the bottom, skirted by white matting.
All WWE wrestlers have an entrance video, and Bo Dallas’ is like a mid-90s advertisement for a Christian Science motivational speaker. A little black boy rides a bike for the first time, people play golf or jog over pastoral landscapes, doves are released and eagles soar – all hyper-lit as if by the hand of God himself. The word BOLIEVE flashes up every few seconds. Dressed in white undies and white mid-calf-length boots, Bo gets to the end of the walkway perfectly in time to his video. Kneeling on the stage surrounding the ring, he raises his right arm – a terrifying river of crisscrossing currents – flexes his hand hard as he turns it towards his head and places his brow lightly on his knuckles. Near naked under the white spotlight, he is Atlas and David’s bodybuilding descendant, fuelled by protein shakes and human growth hormones.
Bo stands up awkwardly, like a recently felled tree still semi-rooted to the ground, and takes the microphone from WWE’s beloved MC, Justin Roberts: ‘I can’t tell you how excited I am to see all of my Bolievers.’ The crowd whistles and whoops.
‘Do you have a dream? What do you need to do to make it happen?’ He asks the crowd who call back in one voice: ‘Bolieve!’
This takes me back to Rod Laver Arena two years ago, when I took Will’s sister, Lucy, to the Justin Bieber concert: five thousand Beliebers squealed on the brink of a collective tween orgasm.
Bo says, nodding his head earnestly, ‘Dreams, dreams do come true. All you have to do is bolieve.’
Bieber had told his smitten fans the exact same thing.
Bo shakes his long dark hair over his shoulders and looks straight up at me. I bolieve in you, he seems to silently mouth. I look at Will. Did anyone else just see that?
The trance is broken by R-Truth, a rapper, singing his theme song ‘What’s Up’. The crowd sings along – ‘People over there, what’s up, feel me/Stand up and say, what’s up!’ – drowning out R-Truth’s buttery-thick American accent in one-beat-behind, nasal Australian. ‘You can get with this or you can get with that/You better get with this, ‘cos this is where it’s at/What’s up, what’s up!’ R-Truth’s rapping and hip-hop dancing is obviously one of his trademarks; he’s black, see? Accidentally proving the absurdity of WWE’s own racist stereotypes, though, R-Truth is not a natural dancer. Or, if he once was, stubbornly unyielding muscles now seriously hamper his rhythm.
R-Truth says, ‘Melbourne Australia, make some noise!’ with an inflection that makes me think he’s said ‘male-born Australia’, and I’m briefly horrified. I tell Will that his prediction earlier about who Bo would come up against was pretty much right: ‘babyface’ Bo versus a ‘jobber’, albeit not Kofi, but Truth.
Will stops yelling, making sure I know ‘this is just a buffer match.’ It will be a short match, so as to not wear the crowd out too early in the evening.
He’s right again; I can’t see what’s happened in the match to swing the scales of fortune in Bo’s direction, but within a few minutes R-Truth is on the floor with the referee crouching beside him, raising his arm high over his head and smacking it down with melodramatic force. ‘Four, three, two, one,’ and it’s all over. A little boy, around seven years old, sitting behind us with his family, says loudly, ‘Dad, what’s a bloody wanker?’
The big ‘tag team’ match of the night is the psychotic Wyatt Family versus twin Samoans Jimmy and Jey Uso. The Wyatt Family is a cultish brood of hillbilly men with unwashed beards in sweat-stained singlets: like the kinfolk of an unholy union between the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deliverance. Rowan Wyatt is wearing their signature dead-eyed sheep mask, another brother dons a brown butcher’s apron, and Dad Wyatt is known for never washing his singlet, which is horribly stained in all sweat-gathering places. Before Rowan appears in his sheep’s mask, the crowd take out their phones and raise them in the air like lighters, waving them from side-to-side as they sing along to, ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’, playing over the speakers. The beer-ripened smells of stale deodorant mixed with feet make me feel light-headed, sick, and I can’t help but genuinely hate the Wyatt Family a little bit, fixating on the idea that these men are semi (if not fully) inbred.
Both teams circle each other, neither a picture of rippling fitness from where I’m sitting. About eight minutes in, the crowd starts going wild, cheering and clapping: the match is building to something and their eyes are trained to the nuances of the drama. Mine are useless. I feel like I’ve come in on the middle of an episode of a long-running Mexican soap opera, watching it with a group of aggressively obsessed housewives. I look around the stadium bug-eyed at my own ignorance, flailing for answers in a sea of knowing faces. The seven year old yells, ‘Leave him alone for Christ’s sake!’ and I want to turn around and ask him, who? Satisfied, he says, ‘How’d ya like that!’ and the match is over. But who the fuck won?
Towards the end of the evening, the Wyatt Family faces off against a massive crowd favourite, Chris Jericho. The crowd twoots again like baby owls, before Jericho puts his hand on his heart, saying, ‘It’s an honour to be working in front of you guys.’ He says something about Tasmania and the crowd boos long and low. I feel mildly, absurdly offended on behalf of my home state. Jericho steps in: ‘You don’t boo Tasmania; you cheer for Tasmania!’ Official-looking WWE people nudge a middle-aged man and woman onto the stage, followed by a teenage girl. Jericho introduces them as Matthew, Rachel, and Rachel’s daughter Kirby. People yell, ‘cousins!’ as Matthew says gingerly to Rachel, ‘I just can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done since we got together.’ He gets down on bended knee, the crowd screams, ‘Yes! Yes!’ Rachel looks thrilled, moved, she sputters ‘yes’ to his inevitable question, and they kiss as if we’ve all disappeared.
I wish with every fibre that Rachel had gone off kayfabe, and said what I was thinking: ‘I’m so sorry, this is all too overwhelming. I’ll need some time to think about it.’
Jericho takes the mic back from Matthew, puts his arm around the lovebirds – Kirby stands awkwardly beside her mum – and smiles sagely: ‘You see guys, dreams do come true on WWE’.
Image credit: Robert McGoldrick