On Monday night, I went to the Staples Center in downtown L.A. to see Monday Night Raw.
Initially, I wanted to go the night before. Sunday night was the WWE's SummerSlam pay-per-view, which holds special significance for me. I became a pro wrestling fan when I was hanging out with a bunch of my elementary school friends and they were watching SummerSlam 1989. (Main event: Hulk Hogan and Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake versus Randy Savage and Debo from "Friday". I was young. I didn't know better.) I remained a wrestling fan until 2002 -- even through the very rough patch in the early and mid '90s -- but I finally gave it up. I haven't watched wrestling for the past eight years.
My friend Vanessa works for the Staples Center's parent company (not Staples, by the way) and couldn't swing good tickets for SummerSlam, but could swing me tickets for Monday Night Raw the next night.
So on Monday, my girlfriend and I trekked to downtown L.A. to watch us some sports entertainment. Here's what I found out about the WWE after almost a decade away.
The days of a "live sex show" on Monday Night Raw are over.
TV-PG. This is, by far, the biggest change. At some point in the past decade, Vince McMahon brought the families back into wrestling. Maybe it's because he (and his shareholders) realized that there was more money in action figures than wrestling porn stars or simulated necrophilia... maybe it's because Linda McMahon is running for the Senate... maybe it was a reaction to the Chris Benoit tragedy... or maybe it's because of society's ever-growing "Catcher in the Rye" movement -- but this thing is totally cleaned up.
No one swears anymore. No one talks about shoving their boot up another wrestler's candy ass. No one is accompanied to the ring by a woman who resembles a dime store hooker. It's all so sanitized and so clean.
And... the clean-up effort it seemed to work. The show is rated TV-PG, not TV-14 anymore. At the arena, there were countless families. The little kids who were driven away during the late '90s era when wrestling got -- pun coming -- raw are back now.
There's so much more writing. With the absence of a major competitor (there's another pro wrestling league but it only does a fraction of the WWE's ratings and sales) and less of a "crash TV grabs ratings" mentality, it seems that the WWE has a lot more time to write and plan the show. I can only imagine the staff of writers they have working on this thing now.
Raw had a logical and well-developed story with a legit beginning, middle and end. Long gone are the days of the top guys grabbing a microphone and just rambling for hours. The wrestlers still ramble for hours, but now they're delivering punchlines and plot-driven monologues.
It's an interesting evolution, since these guys have varying degrees of skill in the acting realm -- some can pull off the jokes and speeches, some are so bad at acting you'd think they were dating Turtle or E on "Entourage".
They've created some new stars over the decade, but some old, old standbys remain the same. There were definitely names and faces I didn't recognize -- the world champion, for example, is a gigantic Irish guy with the whitest skin I've ever seen and his name is Sheamus. But there are still some names I recognize very well -- when they talked about how Kane and the Undertaker are feuding again, I briefly wondered if the Staples Center wasn't some kind of Hot Arena Time Machine.
Also, I was shocked when they announced Bret "Hitman" Hart was wrestling on Raw. (He didn't, they ended up replacing him in his match, but still, wow.) He was my favorite wrestler back when I was watching in elementary school... 21 years ago. And I think I heard he had a stroke. He's either been drinking Julio Franco's blood or it's time for him to head to the big wrestler retirement home. (Which would sit on a plot of land next to the much, much larger wrestler graveyard, sadly.)
The invaders, 2010 edition.
Who's getting booed? The biggest boos of the night went to a faction of guys none of whom I recognized. They were called the Nexus. From what I could tell they're a group that's "invading" the WWE to try to take over. I thought this was a perfect "the more things change, the more they stay the same" moment -- when I gave up on wrestling it was after several consecutive botched invasion angles.
Eight years later, and the hottest wrestling angle's an invasion. I guess there was a long enough layoff that it's fresh again. (And, like most invasions, the WWE is oh so worried about them taking over... but not worried enough to stop selling their t-shirt for $30 at all of the concession stands.)
The second biggest boos went to this anonymous General Manager who kept interrupting the show to make announcements. And rightfully so -- he was annoying.
The third biggest boos? When LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appeared on the screen.
The women still have fake breasts, but they wrestle now instead of competing in bikini contests. The women still have that "Playboy" look (although they don't appear in "Playboy" anymore as part of the new family-friendly WWE) -- but now, they actually wrestle. Apparently on every show. The problem: From what I could tell, they don't wrestle that well. When the huge screen showed a graphic that the there was a three-on-three women's tag match coming up, the fans made a mass exodus for the bathrooms and concession stands. Seriously, they fled. There wasn't even time for the dough to rise.
Raw has guest hosts. Monday Night Raw apparently has guest hosts. And by guest hosts, they mean -- celebrities come out, quickly plug a movie and then disappear. (Not just the night I watched. I looked through the guest host history while I was writing this and that seems to be the case 90 percent of the time.)
One of the guest hosts my night was Charlie from "Sunny" out there promoting that Drew Barrymore movie "Going the Distance". I can't believe they think that movie's demographic matches up with the WWE's demographic.
Anyway, Charlie (along with Justin Long and Jason Sudekis from "SNL") came out, had some awkward banter where they got the crowd to cheer by mentioning the Lakers, and then disappeared. They did a quick bit backstage later in the show too and that was it.
It was less of a guest hosting gig and more like being a presenter at an awards show. They were there for such a short amount of time that Charlie must've gotten his milksteak to go.
The wrestling style has changed and grounded. Wrestling had a problem in the late '90s/early '00s -- the bar kept getting raised, and it kept getting more and more dangerous. Someone jumping off the top rope like Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka would do a decade earlier -- that was old news. Guys were routinely jumping off of giant ladders onto guys set up on top of tables. The wrestlers were stuntmen.
Things seem to have changed quite a bit since then. During the entire broadcast there was only one move off the top rope. One guy used a chair, but it seemed like a special occasion that he was doing so. There was no table to be found.
And I don't think this is a bad thing. It's good when certain things are kept special. It's like -- if I ate Dairy Queen every day, having a Blizzard would be no big deal. In fact, I'd have to start escalating things to stay excited, like adding bacon or peyote to my Blizzards. But if you only eat Dairy Queen once a year, that Blizzard tastes like God himself blended together those Oreo cookies or Heath bars. Or something. I don't know. I stopped writing in the middle of that paragraph and lost my flow because I wanted to Google where the nearest Dairy Queen is.
The Miz and David Otunga, from reality to the WWE.
Two legit wrestlers are former reality show stars.Two of the new stars I recognized were, strangely enough, guys I knew from reality TV. I knew The Miz (from "Real World") was in the WWE, but I had no idea he's become, legitimately, one of their top stars. He's got a championship, he gets interview time, he's a major player in major angles.
I was more surprised to see David Otunga is a wrestler now. I knew him when he was a contestant on one of the trashiest reality shows ever -- VH1's "I Love New York" -- and then saw him in the news again when he married Jennifer Hudson. Now he's one of the guys "invading" the WWE.
And all I could think was -- how has Ruben Studdard not cashed in on this opportunity yet?
I can still see the endings coming a mile away. It's so interesting to see the same patterns emerge in matches that have always emerged in matched. I watched so much wrestling back in the day that I learned there are no surprises. You can almost always predict who's going to win.
The same thing applies today, only it happened in a fascinating new way for me. I didn't know about half of the guys wrestling. I recognized some old names (Chris Jericho, Edge) and didn't recognize others at all. But just by watching the entrances, the way the guys carried themselves, how much offense they got in, what kind of reactions they got from the crowd, how the match's storyline was playing out -- I knew the winner of each match within the first minute.
And that's important, because I think the average match lasts about 150 seconds. No hyperbole there. Two-and-a-half minutes.
There was a really drunk guy in the row in front of us (that remains a pro wrestling constant no matter how TV-PG things get) who kept screaming, "Shut the f*** up and wrestle!" Over and over and over. Kids nearby be damned. But he did have a point. The wrestling is absolutely secondary to the story. The talking. The plot development. The show.
We're back to the '80s "you'll like who we tell you to like" style. My girlfriend -- who was never a wrestling fan -- had an interesting comment during the show. When the crowd lustily booed the Nexus invaders and then exploded in cheers when the top face (John Cena) came out, she said, without a trace of sarcasm, "It's so weird how they all like the exact same guys."
And she was right. The era of the "smart" fan seems to have passed. The WWE has cycled back to the '80s style; you'll cheer for who we tell you to cheer for and boo who we tell you to boo. And the fans are totally on board with that. The cheers and boos were legitimate, loud and impassioned. The fans are absolutely fine with responding to wrestlers how the WWE wants them to respond.
Beware of being Vince McMahon's puppets, my friends. He will never use you for good.
The fans are now the WWE universe. Apparently, there are no longer WWE fans. Now the people in the arena and watching at home are the "WWE universe." (And, yes, I decided not to fight it anymore and just say "WWE." It's not worth the effort.)
This WWE universe thing must've been a company-wide memo -- with the way that every wrestler so intentionally says "WWE universe", no matter how stilted or un-conversational it sounds, you get the feeling like they'll get fined or fired for calling the fans anything else.
We've come a long way from the days when we were Hulkamaniacs. Or, to a lesser extent, lil' boss men.
Overall, I had a great time going back to a pro wrestling event. While I won't allow myself to get sucked in again -- with the amount of TV shows they have and the amount of websites devoted to wrestling news, it's a full-time hobby -- I think I will occasionally check in on the WWE and see how it's doing. After all, there's an invasion afoot and the entire future of the company hangs in the balance. (Again.)
This post was originally published on Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 11:00:00 AM under the category Sports.