08/18/2014 12:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Learning the Ropes


Boys will be boys. But at some point, we expect them to become men. And when that happens, there's an expectation that we cast aside those joys of childhood and assume the responsibilities of adulthood. We're told to put down the matchbox cars, the army men, and the teddy bears, and to pick up the newspapers, the briefcases, and the car keys. But adulthood, for me and for millions (AND MILLIONS!) of others, involves some other toys. Like tables, ladders, and chairs.

Yes, you read that correctly. You see, I have been watching professional wrestling for 20 of my 30 years. To say that I'm a fan is to do a great disservice to the amount of time and money I have invested over the years. I've lost track of how many live events I've been to at this point. I'm more than a fan, really. I'm a student of the game, an ambassador of the brand, and a person whose life is left more colorful and more entertained, week in and week out. I've had 20 years to get to the bottom of why professional wrestling makes me tick, and I've heard all the objections along the way about why I shouldn't love it as much as I do.

So let's get this out of the way, and quickly. Wrestling isn't real. Happy? That's usually the distinction someone strikes when asked why wrestling isn't a sport. It can't be a sport if the outcomes are all pre-determined, and the promos are all scripted, right? Wrong. In terms of sheer athleticism, give me any superstar in the WWE locker room over 90 percent of the athletes on a professional baseball team, and you'll learn quickly and humbly what stamina, strength and agility are.

On any given Monday night, I'll take my sport over yours in a heartbeat.

I wanted to reach out to other fans across the world to talk about the why's, the how's, and the who's that have roped us in and kept us all hooked. I spoke with Raj Giri, president of the incredibly popular site, WrestlingInc. I dug deep with Afonso Malheiro, founder of the nostalgic and meme-friendly Heelbook site, and chatted with David Friedberg and Brandon Grunther, who run the Markin' Out podcast and live-tweet to thousands every Monday night.

As wrestling fans, we're too often pigeon-holed as being uneducated, redneck, toothless, beer-guzzling plebeians who love violence and blood and gore. I am college-educated, employed, and have played in a professional symphony orchestra. Oh, and I knew the word "plebeian" at 12. I learned it from Bob Backlund, a wrestler.

I loved to read as a child, still do. Storytelling is important, it's how we communicate lessons and morals. It's how we teach vocabulary and grammar, as well as how we pass on the stories of those who've come before us. Stories teach children the right things to do, and how to conduct ourselves in an effort to be good people.

I learned all of these things. Except I learned them from Bret "The Hitman" Hart. In chatting with Afonso Malheiro, I mentioned that I was a fan of the Hitman, and Afonso said, "I'd have to go with Bret Hart too. He acted like a bona-fide hero and fought like one too. As a kid, I always felt very respectful towards Bret because of how hard he strived to prove, day in and day out, that he was, as he himself put it, 'the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be'." Markin' Out founder David Friedberg added that, "Bret Hart was the ultimate good guy that never did any wrong. I always wanted to be that lucky fan in the front row to receive his sunglasses."

And children before me learned to say their prayers and take their vitamins, from the immortal Hulk Hogan. Raj Giri talked about the Hogan phenomenon, adding that "Hogan was the best of his era. Fans went crazy for him, and he was the biggest face during the most-watched period of wrestling of the modern era."

For 20 years, I've been able to let go of everything in my life that is frustrating or difficult, on Monday nights. For three hours, I can immerse myself in front of the television and watch modern-day gladiators duke it out for a championship, or for the honor of a woman, or for a briefcase with a guaranteed shot at the championship inside, or even for their own pride. In the ring, and backstage, it's all about storytelling. It's about getting fans to rally behind one guy, and to boo another. In today's world, the good guy doesn't always win, and the bad guys don't always lose. So it goes in wrestling, too. Well, unless you're John Cena... then you just win all the time, no matter how much sense it makes.

It's been fascinating to watch the television product reflect the evolution of what fans will or won't buy. The evolution of storytelling is something I've come to appreciate differently over the years. Through adult eyes, informed by 20 years of product immersion, I can tell why a wrestler is performing a certain move, can see the layered and educated reasoning behind certain moves, all designed to elicit a very specific reaction from the assembled personage at a live event.

Quick education, okay? Good guys are "faces", short for "babyfaces", while the bad guys are "heels". The best performers in the business can get you to hate them without you even knowing why, or that it's happened at all. In the wrestling business, that's called "building heat", and building heat is just as important as being a face. Storylines aren't written by the wrestlers themselves, but delivering on those characters? That's all up to the talent. WrestlingInc's Raj Giri puts it this way, and says, "I think wrestlers connect with fans most when their characters seem real and they don't appear to be playing a part. The best heels should be so convincing that fans would think twice about approaching them if they saw them in real life."

Heelbook's Afonso Malheiro agrees, "A great face will give you exactly what you want. A great heel will take it away and step on it. While smiling at you."

But the story of the tiny underdog overcoming the colossal villain grows aged, times changed, and the product needed to evolve... or die.

Vince McMahon, the genius behind it all, knew that the WWE had to change. So in the late '90s, the Attitude Era was born, an era that saw wrestlers putting more of themselves into their characters, with stories that reflected an edgier product. This murkier concept of right and wrong led to the birth of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and Triple H. It gave us DX, you know, that thing that made us all chop our crotches endlessly in high school. The Attitude Era allowed Vince McMahon to step into the on-camera role of one of the most hated and villainous characters in WWE history.

Trivia time. If you could have lunch with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? For me, that's Vince McMahon, no questions asked. The man behind the WWE is, I believe, one of the most visionary and brilliant entrepreneurs of our generation. The storytelling under his direction was the basis for some of the best rivalries in wrestling history. His Wrestlemania event yearly draws more people than any other event held in those locations; cities are bidding for the right to host a Wrestlemania for the sheer amount of money it brings to the host city. The WWE Network is revolutionizing the way that fans access his product. Vince has defined the term "sports entertainment" and is a constant reminder that you can do big things with the appropriate amount of hard work and determination. To work for the WWE is any and every fan's dream, this guy included, because of the man at the top.

Markin' Out's Brandon Grunther shares that view, "He is an absolute genius. Vince McMahon built an empire, he took something big and made it the biggest. I'm sure there's a lot of resentment from promoters, back in the days of territories, but I bet it's only because they didn't think of it first."

Heelbook's Malheiro sees all sides of it. "Read and hear enough about the man, and you'll get two sides: the genius who revolutionized the business, and the control freak who gets grumpy when he sneezes because he can't control the sneeze."

Vince and his WWE make a lot of money in ticket sales, pay-per-view buys, WWE Network subscriptions (only $9.99!), merchandise sales, international tours, DVD sales, and licensing. But with that money, Vince McMahon and his company are part of initiatives that truly make me, and others, proud to be fans. The "Be A Star" campaign aims to tackle bullying, and awards grants to organizations who create communities for young people that are safe and supportive. The WWE's work with the "Make A Wish Foundation" is unbelievable, with superstar John Cena granting more wishes than anyone in the history of the foundation.

And that's to say nothing about the way the WWE changed the life of Connor "The Crusher" Michalek.

So when I talk about being a fan of pro wrestling, there's an understanding that it should be shame-based. Well, it just isn't. I'm proud to be a wrestling fan, I always have been. Wrestling has played a role in shaping me, it's helped me to learn how to defend my own opinions. And it's not just me. The WWE has stretched its fingers into every corner of the globe, pulling together wrestling fans young and old, to take along for the ride week after week.

Some of us are afraid of the Undertaker, and some of us would just like to shake Mark Calloway's hand to say thank you. Some of us only know Michael Cole and Jerry "The King" Lawler in the broadcast booth, while others prefer the voices of Good Ol' Jim Ross, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, and Gorilla Monsoon. Some of us love the spectacle of a flaming barbed-wire bat, and some of us prefer the purity of a 60-minute Iron Man match in Anaheim that reminded us of what wrestling can be. Some of us love Montreal, and some of us will always hate it. Some of us rake leaves, and some of us rake backs. Some of us are Paul Heyman Guys, and others know that no one worked a crowd like The Rock. And all of us, Hunter, all of us, want to see Sting.

And that's the beauty of being a WWE fan. You can root for the underdog, you can love the hero and hate the villain. You can wonder when your favorite wrestler will get his shot on the biggest stage of them all. You can leave your world behind, and be part of something bigger than yourself, every week. Because, ultimately, we're all wrestling fans together, there are no differences between us. Whether you're tall or short, fat or skinny, black or white or yellow or brown, there's a place for all of us, the whole WWE Universe, at one big table.

As long as it's not the Spanish Announcer's Table.

So, men. Boys. Here's what I think. You don't have to stop playing pretend, or believing in fantastical and unbelievable stories when you get older. It's okay to enjoy things that you liked when you were a kid. Passion can exist without justification. You are not alone, and the imagination and creativity you appreciate in the world is never a bad thing. You'll grow to be better men, better husbands, and better fathers, if you never stop believing in amazing stories, because you are the only one who gets to decide what's real...and what's not.

And that's the bottom line.


Many thanks to my tag team partners this time around, including the amazing custom illustration done by the wonderfully talented Phillip Orozco. I've daydreamed about being a profession wrestler my entire life, so much love and appreciation goes out to the man who was finally able to make me into one. Thanks Phillip!

Be sure to check out Raj Giri's WrestlingInc, Afonso Malheiro's Heelbook, and Brandon Grunther and David Friedberg's Markin' Out site! Thanks fellas, I'd have you on my Survivor Series team any day.