September 11, 2010

Ring of Honor: Definitely pro, definitely wrestling

For several years during my childhood, I was a huge pro wrestling fan. And my dad—who was willing to do anything for his kids—was a good enough sport to take me to more than a few live WWF events, including WrestleManias III and V. I clearly recall, waiting online to get into the Pontiac Silverdome for WMIII, my father looking at the crowd and wondering out loud how many of the people thought wrestling was real. Thankfully, nobody kicked his ass.

In hindsight, the answer was "some." I'd guess it was about half the children (and there were lots of children there), and a small percentage of the adults, believed that Kamala the Ugandan Headhunter was actually a cannibal from the jungles of Africa. But I think most of the grown-ups knew the score. As I often say, if you complain that wrestling is fake, you're missing the point: It's supposed to be predetermined, and the punches are only partly pulled. Nobody complains that West Side Story is fake.

Tonight I went to a live wrestling card for the first time in more than 20 years: I was at the Grand Ballroom at Manhattan Center (same complex as Hammerstein Ballroom) to see Ring of Honor's "Glory by Honor IX." Eight matches of some serious, serious professional wrestling. Ring of Honor prides itself on being a higher caliber than the current WWE product—much less emphasis on the soap operatics, much more appreciation of the physicality of the show. I saw suplexes, I saw powerbombs, I saw a whole lot of enzuigiris. Predetermined or no, these guys are serious athletes, and the fans are serious about their appreciation of it.

Most of the matches followed a formula: two (or four) roid-sculpted bantamweight men expending frightening amounts of energy, trading punches, kicks, and disturbingly punishing-looking holds and throws. (The closest thing to a "hardcore" match was a "double chain" contest—two guys vs. two guys, each one chained to a guy on the other team. It was brutal and bloody, but they used the gimmick to tell a nice story.) One match—labeled "Best of the Best"—pitted Austin Aries against "the Fallen Angel" Christopher Daniels, and ended with a ridiculously amazing move that I can only make a pathetic attempt to describe: Basically, Daniels dropped Aries face first upside down from the top turnbuckle, three quarters of the way across the ring. Incredible.

As for the crowd, hoo-boy. Other than the fact that I was sitting next to the single biggest drunk asshole in the room (he seemed to find a lot of humor in shouting "I love HIV"), these people were true connoisseurs. They sat down to watch the action, they clapped after every impressive spot, and—lest you think they were refugees from the Bolshoi Theatre—they chanted in reaction to nearly everything ("Fuck him up!" was common; "Future jobber!" was funny). They also threw streamers into the ring at the beginning of every match. When is some cultural anthropologist going to write a dissertation about it? (Wait, someone did.)

If my dad asked how many of the people there thought it was "real," I would have to say zero. There were no kids there, and with the advent of the Internet, pro wrestling pretty much gave up on "kayfabe"—the code that dictates you never, ever admit that the characters are constructed, the outcomes scripted. Besides, as I say, if you think wrestling is fake, you're missing the point. And the people at the show tonight clearly were getting the point.

If you care about results, this guy was quick with the recap. Otherwise, I leave you with this: a three-and-a-half-year-old match between two of the superstars of the show, Austin Aries and Eddie Edwards. Enjoy: