Sunday, April 3, 2016

WrestleMania at Hooters

Being a pro wrestling fan has its challenges.

You know it’s fake, right? uncertain friends inquire.

I always thought you’d outgrow this, my mother says.

I’ve lived through two golden ages of wrestling--one in my childhood when Hulk Hogan ran wild across a nation. Another during the “Attitude Era”--a period when declining business and a surge of popularity from an upstart little company called Extreme Championship Wrestling prompted the World Wrestling Federation to move away from cartoon characters and occupationally based gimmicks to reality oriented storylines that alternately treated wrestling more like a legitimate sport or more like a mainstream soap opera (including far more sex-based angles and shocking plot turns).

I didn’t watch much wrestling during my college years, but it was during that time that I met my friend David. David studied communications and served as the Arts & Entertainment Editor when I was leading the school’s weekly newspaper. His hallmarks as a critic were his expansive vocabulary that was at times brilliantly incisive and times nearly impossible for a mere mortal to hack through to understand his meaning, and his proclivity for writing seriously about art forms including indie music, cult TV, video games, and film.

And one day I learned he was a wrestling fan.

I played my fanship close to the chest those days, but when David talked openly about going to an off-campus Wrestlemania party, it stirred a conversation that not only drew me in, but any number of other men of our age bracket who had spent hours each Monday night in high school consuming the WWF and WCW product.

This gave way to a conversation outside the office between me and my girlfriend at the time, when I tried to educate her about the lineage of the WWF Championship, and historic bouts. I told her about the most iconic match I knew of--the Wrestlemania 3 showdown between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. This conversation carried until we were back in the office, and I asked David to expound on “the greatest wrestling match of all time.”

“Flair-Steamboat?” he asked.

The conversation took a turn, from casual fans, keeping a lid on their wrestling nerddom to a debate over workrate (the in-ring action, independent of storyline and theatrics) versus sports entertainment (all the drama and frills that accessorize a performance). In this conversation, I both left behind the shackles of a closeted wrestling fan and, to my surprise, began an informal education in smarkdom (smart fans pride themselves on knowing the behind-the-scenes workings of wrestling; marks believe whatever they see on TV; “smarks” are wise backstage news, history, and the many of the mechanics of how wrestling works but willingly suspend disbelief to enjoy the show). He introduced me to 411mania.com, the website I’d spend the next decade-plus relying upon for pro wrestling news.

I think it was my ongoing wrestling talk with David that facilitated the next step in my fandom, as I left college, became largely re-closeted as a wrestling fan, but without the rigors and unpredictability of an undergrad schedule, began watching wrestling on Monday nights again and began accruing what would become an unwieldy collection of wrestling DVDs and memoirs. David and I lived in the same town of Syracuse at that point, but between my res life schedule and his commitments to a graduate program in journalism we scarcely saw one another.

That spring, when WrestleMania rolled around again, one of my buddies from back home decided to throw a WrestleMania party for old time’s sake. I invited David to make the hour journey home, fairly certain he’d pass, but figuring it was only fair to make the offer to the sensei of my second wave of wrestling fandom.

And that’s one of the funny things about wrestling fans and the friendships between them. Regardless of time spent apart and the potential discomfort of walking into an unfamiliar social situation, by and large, we long to be part of a community.

David joined me for the drive. And between travel, the show itself, and chit-chat before and after, we were as tight as ever--maybe closer, even.

The following year, there was no such get together. I forget who reached out to whom, but David and I ended up meeting up again, this time just the two of us for WrestleMania 23 at a Hooters. We weren't the only ones there for the big show, though I suspect we were in the minority who paid so little attention to the waitresses in favor of it. We shot the shit leading up to the show, recalling the best ‘Mania matches of years past and debating our most sought over “dream matches” between opponents who hadn’t crossed paths yet, or better yet those historical figures who were never under contract to the same promotion at the same time. I called for some form of falls count anywhere between a “best of” assemblage of DX and NWO guys. David called for The Undertaker vs. Sting.

To the best of my recollection, I haven’t seen David since that night, now nine years ago. I watched WrestleMania 24 alone in my new apartment in Baltimore, just a few months after moving to Maryland. The following year, I made a pilgrimage to Houston to catch the show live. For the five years to follow I hosted parties at my apartment, drawing in co-workers who hadn’t watched wrestling before and probably wouldn’t watch it again to at least get lost in the spectacle of it all for one night out of the year. I caught the show live again last year, and will watch it more quietly at home in Oregon this year.

In between, I published a countdown of all the (then) 287 Wrestlemania matches and became a columnist for 411mania.com. David incorporated his fandom into his gig as an editor for a newspaper in Auburn, for which he’s very literally paid to blog, podcast, and Tweet about pro wrestling happenings (among other things).

I moved across the country to Oregon. And though a return back east seems likely, I don’t know if or when David and I will ever meet up again. But I do know we’ll probably exchange Tweets, Facebook messages, or text messages each year around this time, when ‘Mania rolls around again. And I know that the memory of sitting on opposite sides of a table in Hooters, an oversized flat screen TV in front of me, a platter of 50 buffalo wings between us will survive as one of my fondest memories from that period in my life.

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