—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
"Here I am
Rock you like a hurricane!"
—The Scorpions, "Rock You Like a Hurricane"
THE SHOW DIDN'T START for six hours, but I was already excited.
Six hours before attending World Wrestling Entertainment's WWE Unleashed!, I was making signs. Even with my limited WWE knowledge, I knew two things: that Unleashed! would be all about grown men pretending to beat the shit out of each other, and that any fan worth his or her salt goes to WWE matches with homemade signs. I was worth my salt.
My first sign was too pedestrian—"Portland ♥s Rasslin.' I scanned the lineup for a more specific target: "Big Sexy" Kevin Nash. After scrawling a much-improved mantra ("Big Sexy is a Big Pussy"), I moved on to The Hurricane. I drew two blue lightning bolts and wrote "The Hurricane Will Rock You Like a Hurricane."
I looked over my signs, realizing I didn't actually know if Portland ♥ed Rasslin', or if "Big Sexy" was a big pussy, or if there was lightning during hurricanes. But it didn't matter. No—what mattered was that I was going to see some grown men beat the shit out of each other. And I had signs. Excitement rose inside me, my chest feeling like my lungs were full of helium.
GOOD QUALITY ENTERTAINMENT
When the WWE took over the Rose Garden on May 31, it was the first time they had visited Portland in more than a decade. Michael, a local fan who had two enormous plastic prize belts draped over his shoulders, made the event sound like a religious pilgrimage.
"I was down here at 5:30 in the morning to buy my ticket," he boasted. "I walked all the way from 122nd and Division."
Emily Richard was more casual. "It's like a male soap opera. It's so funny. I don't think it's real," she added quickly. "Just good quality entertainment."
But the belligerently drunk man who refused to give me his name—when he wasn't leveling vague threats towards me—might've said it best:
"We're so pumped you can't believe it," he told me. "This is like 10 times better than Tim McGraw."
LEARNING THE CHOKESLAM
Talking to people was fine, but this was wrestling, goddammit, where asses are kicked and shit hits fans. I needed some hands-on experience.
Upon request, WWE fans proved helpful in giving me just that—whether it was lifting me up and spinning me around, or cutting off my air supply for minutes on end while repeatedly punching me in the stomach. One man offered to teach me a move in which the wrestler "picks the other guy up so his feet are towards the ceiling." Well, that sounds all right, I thought. That might be a good one to try ou—"Then he drops him on his head," he finished.
A boy named Brent told me about "the Chokeslam," where a wrestler "picks up the other guy by the throat, then slams him into the ground." After a few headlocks, I was shown the weirdly painful "Roll the Dice" by two kind gentlemen, while a kid named Jake told me about his favorite move, "the F-5" ("Well, I can't really explain it, but it's also called the Facebuster Five'"). Robert explained "the Pedigree," where the wrestler "puts [his opponent's] head beneath his legs, and just grinds their face into the canvas. It's killer."
As showtime neared, I followed the example of the overwhelming number of fans who were already shit-faced. I chugged a Bud Light, the lights darkened, and without warning, cornea-searing fireworks exploded from the ring as Guns N' Roses shook the concrete beneath my feet. At that moment, I knew that this night would be everything that I had both hoped and feared.
THE SIREN'S CALL / THE WWE LOGO
I was lucky enough to sit behind Mas: chokehold expert, Hurricane devotee, and 14-year-old professional wrestling analyst. After showing him my "Rock You Like a Hurricane" sign—"Yes! Awesome! Cool!"—he was kind enough to take me under his wing, shouting over the pyrotechnics to let me know who I should root for.
"Wait," he suddenly said with grave suspicion. "You aren't doing this to go like against wrestling, are you?"
"No, no," I said. I shook my Hurricane sign at him as proof.
Mas' giddy excitement was contagious, and soon, I was a WWE convert, bellowing with barbaric glee at every body slam. Fuck those pretentious bastards who'll sneer! I thought. Fuck everyone except us, we who are rockin' and rasslin'! Fuck everybody except people like me and like Mas, who fucking get it, who fucking know that Booker T beating the living shit out of Christian is what life is all about!
Twenty minutes later I was bored.
Not only did watching men throw each other around get old pretty fast, but it quickly became clear that this was a second-tier show. The WWE wrestlers familiar in the popular lexicon—"Stone Cold" Steve Austin, The Rock, Hulk Hogan—were MIA. In their places were non-stars, like the dubiously-named Val Venis, the glitter-slathered Goldust, and "Harvard's Own" Chris Nowinski, who showcased the Harvard crest on the back of his crimson Speedo.
With lame wrestlers and the show going untelevised, I wondered if the crowd would turn. They didn't—regardless of who wrestled, it seemed that the WWE's logo mattered the most. The tuxedoed announcer must've noticed this too—throughout the show, he hawked souvenirs and upcoming pay-per-view bouts to an audience already clad in "Hulkmania" T-shirts.
Despite the myriad of distractions—the screaming crowd, the eardrum-bursting music, the drunk teenagers stumbling on the stairs—one insurmountable problem was made manifest by first-hand presence: wrestling looked even faker in person than on TV. But a bigger disenchantment was soon to come, when I noticed that Mas was somehow predicting the winner of every match.
"The thing is, championships aren't going to change in an untelevised match. They just wouldn't do that," he told me. "So all the champions are probably going to win." I couldn't believe it was that simple, that suspense-less, but Mas' method was proven from then on. People were paying to see all the champions remain champions, and all of the challengers remain challengers—until a later, televised date.
As simple as the WWE's formula is—good vs. bad, violence + spectacle—there's enough under the surface of to make things sociologically interesting.
In other words: the homoeroticism was undeniable.
The wrestlers entered the ring via a long runway, strutting in their vinyl superhero costumes. Once in the ring, the capes come off, and the spotlights shone on their oiled-down, spandexed bodies. This pre-match fanfare usually took more time than the matches, which themselves ended in slippery, muscle-flexing chokeholds. (This isn't to say that it was all man-on-man action: the "Women's Title Fatal Four-Way Match" was an elimination round between four anatomically astounding "WWE Divas.")
All paled, though, to the French-themed tag team "La Resistance." Wearing berets and sequined, tasseled capes, La Resistance hugged before the match and danced foppish little jigs after each winning move.
La Resistance's tactics started well, but once their more manly opponents—Kane and Rob Van Dam—staged a comeback, they retreated to each others' arms, pantomiming schoolgirl fright, waving their opponents back with limp wrists. Against the crowd's chants of "USA! USA! USA!", I heard others—"GAY BOYS UNITE!" and the even more succinct, "QUEERS!"
There was an uneasy vibe in the crowd when La Resistance was on stage—these thousands filled the Rose Garden to watch a show rife with homoerotic subtext, but they were less than pleased when the stereotypical gayness took off its sequined cape.
Unleashed! was designed to keep one from thinking, and with me, it did an admirable job. Therefore, no intelligent conclusion, at least from me, can come of this.
The thing that upsets me the most is that my signs—which I think all will agree were pretty goddamn clever—didn't get used, except when I showed Mas my Hurricane one. Most of this was due to the terrifying woman behind me who kept shouting at everyone who had a sign that she was going to come after them and their children if they blocked her view, but part of it was that I wasn't sure why it'd be fun to even pretend to cheer for fake matches with predetermined decisions. The WWE didn't ask a lot of me, but it did ask that I would passively accept what they gave me.
But I couldn't, and I'm thinking too much. It's wrestling, for chrissakes, and it should therefore be held to only one set of criteria: in terms of watching fights and shit blow up, did WWE Unleashed! rock me—as I had hoped—like a hurricane?