Playing in Brother’s Sandbox: An Account of WWE Summerslam Weekend, Part 1

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Brandon Howard’s visit to Brooklyn for Summerslam weekend. Part 2 is here.

Following pro wrestling, especially WWE, can be a frustrating and evermore time-consuming ordeal. Why do we put up with it? Why not quit? Or why not just “sit back and enjoy,” as some inside the business command? Why spend vacation days and hundreds of dollars and travel through states and countries to be there in person on Summerslam weekend?

We all have different reasons, but all our reasons probably come down to the same thing: at one time or another we fell in love. Pro wrestling is the great and difficult medium unlike any other: more dramatic than sport, more visceral and spontaneous than film or theater. Whether WWE is dominating the world or not, it’s pro wrestling that has us. And whether we’re enamored by the company or not, it’s the one with many of the best pro wrestlers on the planet, and it’s the major league of the medium we love.

What do I love about pro wrestling? I strangely find that hard to answer. Pro wrestling has become ubiquitous in my life: I study it, write about it, do it, teach it. It long ago became an ingrained part of me, like a language I long ago learned and now must use to do just about everything. Growing up as a teenager in the early 2000s, entrenched in one or another teenage dysphorias or national anxieties, pro wrestling was a language when I didn’t know any other, and I’ve been led by the culture of that language ever since.

I’m now under the delusion I’m something more than a fan. I guess I’m trying to understand wrestling. Most people just want to have fun with it, which is perfectly sane. I use pro wrestling as an allusion, a window to view the world through, a world I find has way too much data for any one person or population to manage. Wrestling is a small cut-out space where I can finally make sense of something, and know it myself, without several-hand deference.

I’ve sat many hours at grainy desks, philosophizing a priori, putting numbers in spreadsheets and visualizing those numbers into graphs. But there’s more to life, and wrestling, than numbers. There’s truth to be found in boiling down all the data, as well as in visiting the disorganized mess itself. So eventually one morning you have load up a backpack and fannypack and put yourself on a bus that leaves your cynical town and goes to New York City on the second-biggest wrestling weekend of the year.

For eight hours, the Greyhound drove through interstates and inched its way past summer construction. Most of driving through upstate New York consists of going past field after field; surrounded in the distance by forested mountains, green like bumpy piles of broccoli on display at the grocery store. The pictures in the bus windows constantly renew themselves with something only barely different, like the never-ending scroll on websites like WWE.com. On brief detours, the bus turned through mazes of sunburnt and paint-chipped houses, and cigarette-smoking and stroller-pushing parents in the small towns between New York’s two biggest cities. It went through snippets of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, until getting to the realest multiple series column graph -- the Manhattan skyline -- and carouseled around billboards reminding you to watch TV and to not abandon your babies, just as you’re flushed down the 495 and into the Hudson River through the Lincoln Tunnel.

The bus unloaded at the Port Authority station at midtown Manhattan. I told myself the frenzy there was over something more than just the usual turnover of visitors in the city, that the arrivals of ten thousand ardent wrestling fans from all over the world were fizzling onto this busy spot on the globe.

I walked past a thousand people: standing in lines and going in all directions, up the stairs and finally onto the street in the early part of a Friday evening in August. I narrowly avoided Times Square and marched down 8th Avenue, at the feet of all the towers, where all the graphs and data end: the heat plowing up out of the subway grates; the sun going down somewhere well beyond the buildings; the temperature easing; the people heating up, populating the streets, making plans and crossing avenues; the repeated squeal of heavy braking machinery off in the distance, echoing off the tall facades; the city humming; all storefronts busy; the sidewalks full of people almost colliding; buildings massively watching their spew; successful young adults filling the restaurants with conversation; the business moving all the time; people who inconceivably spend absolutely no time during their day thinking about wrestling.

Across the street from the post office and its giant staircase on 8th Avenue is the back of Madison Square Garden, home of three previous Summerslams. The first time I became really captured by pro wrestling was through watching and repeatedly re-watching a Betamax tape of Summerslam 1991 at MSG. It’s a show I can view today with a nostalgia that completely blinds me from any objective account of the event. I’m too proud to note that more than the jingoistic main event involving Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter, I was taken by the Bret Hart and Mr. Perfect competing over the Intercontinental Title. I’d practically memorized the match and would reenact it move-for-move with action figures while it played on the TV, the film grinded through the VCR and the tiny silver dot dashed across the display.

We continue to be so dedicated to pro wrestling because, even though it can be awful and embarrassing, it can at other times be the greatest thing in the world. We know because pro wrestling had us completely once -- whatever that era is for you that intoxicated you into thinking it could always be that great, whether it was the WWF or NWA of your youth, or the mystique in waiting for video tapes to arrive by mail with the next installment of All Japan in the 90s, or something else. That love of wrestling hit you like a bomb: its impact gigantic and affecting you long after the huge thing itself was gone. And it’s worth trudging through all the bad, because sometimes you see flashes of that greatness you fell for. You see it fleetingly in a single match or just a moment, and you know again this is all worth it, that so much more of it could be like that. So we wait patiently (or not) for wrestling to be as meaningful as we believe it can be. And we travel far from our homes for a weekend, to New York City this time, hoping we might find a few of those moments.

***

As a predictable result of being helpless to understand where I was being torpedoed by the New York subway system, I took a long walk down 18th Avenue in Brooklyn on Saturday afternoon, through the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood, through many blocks of families in traditional dress, talking to each other in Yiddish.

As I got closer to the church gym where Evolve 67 was happening, I began to see the dress and language of another religion: friends in Pentagon, Jr. and New Japan Pro Wrestling shirts crawled out of cars and rounded sidewalks, bubbling about the Cruiserweight Classic, the G1 and British indies.

In such a niche world, where the depths of the niche interact almost exclusively through the internet, it’s strange and fascinating to walk into a room with about a thousand people in it who all know what you know. And it’s only weekends like this one that can provide occasions where that usually-virtual community comes to corporeal life.

I walked through the doorway as the crowd counted down the final seconds to the show going live on iPPV. The chairs were expectedly filled, leaving many sitting in the back on tables or leaning against walls. People erupted for the appearance of Joey Styles at the start of the show. They had the energy of the hardest of the hardcore at the beginning of a wrestling weekend: people who held a shared and obscure passion, carried with equal furor, and who could roar in worship for a man the vast majority of the U.S. population would never recognize.

The crowd at Evolve was almost exclusively young adults between the ages of 18 and 40, mostly male, guttural, but enthusiastic, positive, not taking, not asking, giving, with voices and applause as thick as the unconditioned air inside the gym. That is, until the last two matches.

Highlights from Matt Riddle and Tommy End, then Cedric Alexander and Zack Sabre, Jr., were followed by a tiring encounter for the Evolve Title between Timothy Thatcher and Drew Gulak, which the crowd had little interest in as Thatcher’s stock continued to fall. Thatcher’s heel turn following the match at least showed some self-awareness as the company tried to channel the heat, which may not all be good heat, that its champion has received this year.

The show was capped with a forgettable six-man tag main event, featuring a random onslaught of brawling, high spots and angles, which again struggled to get reactions from a crowd that now seemed ready to pack it in and go to NXT, which was starting shortly.

The church gym and the Barclays Center are about six miles apart, but you didn’t need a sense of direction or a GPS to get from one to the other that evening; you only needed to trail the wrestling shirts up the platform and onto the subway. I followed the hivemind onto the D train. They loaded up, and the cars became abuzz with wrestling talk. Faces flew past the tiled walls as the blue and amber lights streaked by, fans leaned in about Daniel Bryan and the train dove further into the ground.

***

NXT gives hope that pro wrestling can make us fall in love with it again. I’d been to every type of main roster WWE live event in the last twelve months: house shows, RAW, SmackDown, a pay-per-view, a Network special. Seeing an NXT Takeover in a major arena, with a crowd that felt the way they did, was an experience far removed from any other WWE event.

At other shows, you’ll see children who are fully committed, mixed in with the adults who know this company will bite them but who attend despite themselves and out of submission for their allegiance to pro wrestling. At NXT you find an audience, mostly young adults, probably fewer children, but an audience that is all-in. There’s no cynicism in the air at a Takeover like there is at a usual WWE TV event, or like there would be the next two nights in the same building before many of the same fans. These people weren’t jaded; they were trusting. Their goodwill was earned and secure. You could see it in the commitment on their faces, in their voices: the conviction they had as they stood up, yelled at the top of their lungs and stomped the cement with both feet for the entrances of people like Bobby Roode and Shinsuke Nakamura, stars whose faces have never even graced a RAW or SmackDown taping.

The building was invested in nearly every character (Andrade Cien Almas the most obvious exception). People lost themselves in the NXT Tag Team Title match between the Revival and the team of Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano, as Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder continued to build a resume of tag team matches unlike anything seen since the prime of the Midnight Express.

Nakamura came across as a surefire superstar who can transcend languages and cultures. When he reaches the main roster, he should be the first serious difference-maker to business since John Cena, provided he’s handled well: the all-too-familiar caveat.

There aren’t enough reasons, neither real nor imagined by outdated philosophies, why the main roster can’t elicit a passion and gratification from its customers more like what was felt on Saturday night. Even if the main roster has far more hours of TV time to fill, it has the most talented roster in the world and the benefit of being perceived as the grand stage of pro wrestling. If Triple H’s NXT is a vanity project, at least it’s a vanity project that connects strongly with its audience. More vain than that is a product booked for an “audience of one”, and where, as Dean Ambrose fruitlessly tried to relate to Steve Austin a few weeks ago, “at the end of the day, you’re playing in brother’s sandbox.”

There’s a cry from the old guard of pro wrestling that rather than promoters manipulating the fans, the most hardcore fans today have manipulated promoters into disregarding the tastes of a wider audience, and that promoters pay more attention to the tastes of the few hardcores, thereby causing wrestling to be less popular. There’s a sentiment that the most ardent fans are just too negative; they complain a lot about the wrestling products they follow, yet somehow, they still follow them. The belief is these people who complain are the minority of the audience, whose revenue is most secure because they’re so dedicated, whose taste isn’t consistent with a wider audience that needs to be appealed to in order for wrestling to become more popular. Basically, the hardcores are always going to be there, no matter what, so it’s a waste to appeal to them.

“We have people on the inside of the business -- performers, writers, et cetera, management -- who live in a wrestling bubble,” Al Snow said in a recent interview, “who now cater to this contemptuous vocal minority, as opposed to catering to the largest audience, which is the general audience, that don’t really know much about or care much about wrestling other than ‘Hey, I wanna be entertained.’ That’s it.”

The credibility of this argument depends on there being two distinct audiences attracted to two incompatible types of wrestling. There are only two distinct audiences in the sense there’s one more willing accept just about anything, who can be heard, for example, cheering Roman Reigns at house shows; and another which is admittedly more difficult and selective, who have been fans for a longer amount of time, but who are at least as representative of the tastes of the fanbase at-large, who are heard at TV tapings with higher attendances than those of house shows, and who are indeed more representative of the most capturable audience WWE doesn’t already have: people who are don’t watch wrestling regularly but did once and can be sucked back in if they’re convinced the show appeals to them, which in actuality, it seldom does.

But most main roster house shows still outdraw NXT house shows a few times over. Isn’t that evidence the main roster’s formula is better for business? WWE is on cable TV and is the major league brand. That NXT is able to draw thousands on the road and fill the Barclays Center shouldn’t be seen merely as a token of success in appealing to a hardcore base; it should be seen as an astounding success that that many people can be drawn to live events without any traditional TV exposure. The key to NXT’s success isn’t an elaborate formula; it’s just a good wrestling product. This is what happens when you offer wrestling fans something they can believe is important, with characters and story-arcs that can be trusted enough to lucidly follow along with for the ride. When you give people that, finally then they’ll sit back and enjoy.

After Nakamura won the NXT Title from Samoa Joe, the masses poured out, shoulder-to-shoulder onto Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, humming the melody to a Japanese wrestler’s theme music in a waddling makeshift chorus. We staggered out into the night under pinkish streetlights and brand’s neon signs, in small steps, in a euphoric herd. Single-voice chants broke out from those who simply could not contain themselves, and had to seize and affirm this moment in their lives. As the humanity drained out of the block, over the crosswalks and down into the subways, some remaining wandered on the arena’s wide doorstep as if relieved: not just pacified but satisfied, found, rescued after decades of desertion.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Brandon Howard’s visit to Brooklyn for Summerslam weekend. Part 2 is here.

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