Becky vs. Shayna and Cheering for the Yankees

Wrestling fans have an unhealthy obsession with losers. Most online discourse now seems to revolve around who is getting “buried” or who “deserves better,” and often these complaints come with some bonus conspiracy theories about who Vince McMahon likes and why. It’s a very easy habit to fall into because the outcomes are pre-determined, which means theoretically any wrestler could be booked to win any match, so anyone can fantasize about what would happen if their favorite received the strong booking of top stars.

As a long-time Becky Lynch fan, I feel like a veteran of this type of fandom — I’ve already been through it all, come out the other side, and am now free to offer my wisdom to the less experienced fans who don’t know any better. Because Lynch was the loveable loser in WWE for most of her career, really starting with her classic match with Sasha Banks in NXT in 2015, then in her feud with Charlotte Flair, where Becky portrayed the plucky underdog who constantly got screwed by her former friend with a family legacy. At one point, I think Lynch lost something like 11 pay-per-view matches in a row. She was never portrayed as a complete joke, as WWE would throw her a bone with wins here and there, but she was obviously not a priority of the booking team for most of this time.

After a lot of these losses, Becky would go backstage and cut an unscripted fiery promo, where she was outraged at the villainous behavior of the heels and vowed to get revenge. These would be posted on WWE’s YouTube channel, where not a lot of people saw them, but most people who sought them out were won over by Becky’s genuine demeanor, her passion, and her ability to seem real in the increasingly fake world of wrestling. After every loss that should have made fans give up on her, Becky had a knack for saying exactly what she needed to in order to make people keep believing in her. She plucked away at this for a long time, gradually building an army of passionate fans without WWE really taking much notice until they turned her heel and the fans rejected it because they liked her too much. And at WrestleMania 35, it all paid off when she defeated Charlotte Flair and Ronda Rousey in the first women’s main event as the ascending fan favorite.

At Wrestlemania 36 this past Saturday, Lynch and her fans found themselves in a very different place: she has now been champion for a year, she’s one of their most promoted stars, and there is more scrutiny than ever before. While it’s so easy in wrestling to root for the underdog or the loser, Becky has become the ultimate winner, and a vocal segment of the audience is sick of her “holding back” the division, preventing their favorite losers from becoming stars. Her match with Shayna Baszler seemed prime for a passing of the torch: Baszler is a vicious heel who thrived in NXT and I thought was likely to defeat Becky to cement herself as a major player on the bigger stage of Monday Night Raw.

The company had other plans, and Becky prevailed in my favorite match of the first night of the two-night Wrestlemania spectacular. The match only lasted about nine minutes, but it was hard-hitting, intense, and both wrestlers fought like winning meant more to them than anything. In the end, Becky won with a roll-up out of a submission move by Shayna, which Shayna will likely view as a flukey embarrassment while Becky will see it as her outsmarting Shayna and finding a way to win through superior technique. As chapter one of likely a two or three match story, it was exactly what it should have been.

Watching that match is where I fully realized the weird position I’m in, cheering for the frontrunner as someone who almost never loves anything that’s too popular. Similar to Yankees fans, I’ve learned to embrace the trollish aspect of it — regardless of whether it’s “good booking,” at this point I cheer for Becky to win and then make fun of the people who get mad when she does. As far as I’m concerned, Becky should be champion forever.

This is probably the optimal way to watch wrestling rather than micro-analyzing the business decisions, and her matches particularly benefit from this method of viewing. Becky isn’t the most athletic or smoothest in the ring (she’ll be the first to tell you), but she fights like she cares and is able to scrap out these victories over seemingly much more physically gifted performers. She’s a protagonist people can believe in who is fun to root for, and it all feels natural because she created this energy herself through hard work and determination. So it’s a very different vibe than some of WWE’s other stars like Roman Reigns or (in the past) John Cena, who were the top face but had a certain hand-picked corporate stench to them.

Becky is certainly a corporate favorite now, but only because she made herself undeniable by using every chance she could to develop her character and make herself sympathetic. I included the history lesson at the beginning because I feel like there is some revisionist history around this, where people act like she got over through happenstance and then WWE started pushing her. The reality is that she dug herself out and changed the way the higher-ups perceived her by connecting with the audience at a level few ever have. Nothing is stopping other wrestlers who people moan about “deserving better” from doing this except that they aren’t as talented and smart as Becky Lynch.

The Women’s Elimination Chamber Was The Best Worst Match

One of the personalities you unfortunately become acquainted with when you get way too hardcore into wrestling is Dave Meltzer, who has reported on the industry for years and created The Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Meltzer is maybe most known these days for his star ratings of wrestling matches, which started with a 0-5 scale but now has had multiple scale-breaking matches, including a recent AEW match he rated six stars. His ratings feed a concept that has taken hold of the wrestling industry: the idea of a match as an artistic performance that is held up to a critical standard of excellence, and fans now often rate matches themselves based on how “crisp” the “workrate” is. Meltzer’s system in particular favors matches with high athleticism, long run times, dramatic kickouts and false finishes — the recent AEW tag match he gave six stars was basically four wrestlers hitting every move that ever existed for over 30 minutes.

I didn’t like that match a whole lot, and I’ve increasingly become alienated from what the typical wrestling fan perceives as a “great match.” Wrestling is an art form, but I don’t think it should ever overtly resemble art. You should feel like you’re watching people fight, not like you’re watching people put on a great performance. And too many of these highly acclaimed matches are more like Cirque Du Soleil demonstrations, with everyone trying to “steal the show,” but in the process losing the thread of this being a simulated competition that it should look like you’re trying to win. This is in part a self-fulfilling prophecy from Meltzer’s scale — his influence on wrestling has shaped what a generation of wrestlers think “great wrestling” looks like, and they put on matches looking to score high on his star ratings scale rather than to tell a story or make people emotionally invested.

Context is also something I think about a lot in art, and in wrestling it is particularly important. If every match is a “banger” where the competitors trade moves back and forth, kick out of everything, and engage in non-stop frenetic action, it has a numbing effect. Part of what once made these matches great was that they were rare and special, but now you can see an indie-style 20 minute “classic” every week, if not even more often. I’ve felt this in particular watching NXT, where everyone is so highly trained and athletic, but it leads to a sameness in the matches. My exhaustion of this style of wrestling has led to a weird effect where I have started to appreciate matches that just tell a coherent story of reasonable length and don’t engage in any of these modern wrestling tropes. Exhibit A for this happened last Sunday with the women’s Elimination Chamber match.

The chamber is a WWE match type where wrestlers are locked in pods and there is a convoluted rules system that basically leads to them wrestling in this dangerous structure. There is an underlying expectation to these gimmick matches now, that they’re going to be full of exciting action and creative moves. In the chamber match that happened earlier in the night, a wrestler climbed to the top of the cage and did a backflip onto all the other wrestlers, which wowed the crowd. With the women’s chamber match, which main evented a long three-and-a-half hour show, WWE subverted those expectations and essentially put on a match that was intentionally unentertaining and bad — and I loved it.

I realize that sounds weird, so I’ll try to explain. To start with, everyone knew who would win this match — the winner would get a match against this blog’s hero Becky Lynch at WrestleMania, and Becky had already started feuding with Shayna Baszler, the former long-reigning NXT champion. Along with that, the other five women in the match (Asuka, Natalya, Ruby Riott, Liv Morgan, Sarah Logan) had all either lost to Becky already or not been portrayed as serious competitors. So there was no drama in the outcome, which led to a disinvested crowd. The way the match played out pissed them off even more: once Shayna got in the match, she just systematically eliminated all the other competitors, and multiple times she cleared the ring and just stood around gloating while waiting for the next victim to come out of their pod. So a large chunk of this main event match was, incredibly, just Shayna Baszler walking around the ring taunting the other competitors while no action occurred. Everyone knowing Shayna would win and then Shayna easily dominating made this match unappealing while also adding a lot to the story, as there was a crushing and depressing inevitability to her victory.

Part of why I loved this match is that it had a verisimilitude to it that you rarely see in wrestling anymore. I remember watching Floyd Mayweather fights, and I would get pissed off that he dominated boxing in such a boring and workmanlike fashion that wasn’t fun to watch. I would be desperate to see a boxer step up and kick his ass, but no one ever could because he was too good. The psychology of this match felt similar: this wasn’t about every wrestler getting to showcase their artistic abilities, but about Baszler, a cage-fighting specialist, just being much better than everyone else and focusing only on winning the match and abusing her competitors rather than being entertaining. Now obviously wrestling should maintain its unique quirks that separate it from just being simulated UFC, but this was the perfect way to establish Baszler as a total killer, as well as a vicious heel who you hate in part because she “ruins” matches like this with her methodical style. This was a match that had a purpose to it that told a more resonant story than “look at the moves these wrestlers can do.”

The cost of this presentation was that WWE put on a main event that most people hated, and not really in the “getting worked” way where they’re upset at a heel but still hooked into the story. It remains to be seen, but I think the benefits of this are worth it: it makes future Shayna matches more compelling, especially her upcoming showdown with Lynch, because she seems unbeatable and is hated by fans for being “boring.” Ideally, that can be paid off with a satisfying moment when Baszler loses, and she’s already set the template in NXT, where both of her title losses were the kind of joyful moments that make me love wrestling. It also creates a context where you don’t know that every single main event is going to be a 30-minute thrill ride, or that every gimmick match is going to have the predictable high spots and excitement. In a sense, this match died so that other matches could live.

Brock Lesnar, The Royal Rumble, and the Art of Pissing Off Your Own Fans

I realized recently why I like WWE more than most other wrestling fans and don’t really enjoy AEW: I’m a bad person who enjoys seeing people get upset. AEW’s vision for wrestling is very positive, it’s inclusive, and it’s about pleasing their rabid audience, who are maniacally into every show and cheer loudly for all the wrestlers. This approach has a lot of upsides in terms of the “we’re all in this together” vibe of the promotion, and the way it’s been branded and marketed to this audience is part of why it’s been doing well for an upstart company. The downside is that it makes it hard to tell a story that authentically gets fans riled up in the way wrestling can. Sure, the company has some heels like MJF and Pac who will do villainous things, but because the underlying feeling about the company is so positive, I never get the sense that people are genuinely upset by their actions — they’ll boo and play along with the story because that’s “being a good fan,” but they’re not actually pissed because the company itself is portrayed as benevolent and caring, even within its own fictional universe.

This is a big contrast to WWE, which for a long time has portrayed itself as a heel company in storyline. Its hottest storyline ever involved Stone Cold Steve Austin fighting the boss, Vince McMahon, and recent storylines have involved similar demonic authority figures who meddle with the crowd’s favorite wrestlers. This approach has myriad downsides, and has probably cultivated the general feeling of resentment many fans have towards WWE, but it can also still be harnessed to tell stories that have an emotional weight that I’m not sure a company like AEW could quite pull off. The clearest most recent example was “Kofimania,” in which 11-year veteran Kofi Kingston finally got a chance at the world title that eluded him his whole career. He ended up jumping through hoops set up by Vince McMahon, who claimed he didn’t feel he was championship material, before finally winning the big one at Wrestlemania and then going on a lengthy Cinderella title run. But in the end, the clock struck midnight and it all came crashing down at the hands of Brock Lesnar.

This was one of WWE’s shrewdest meta-booking moves of the year, and it made fans legitimately irate. They hated that Kofi went on this long run only to be booked to get squashed by Lesnar in four seconds. They hated that Brock, who wrestles only part-time and has been portrayed as someone who hates wrestling and the fans, was champion again, which meant his title would disappear from TV. A segment of fans will still insist they hated it because it was “bad storytelling,” but they should learn that an unhappy ending isn’t always a bad one. This succeeded in making people hate Lesnar even more and it gained Kofi tons of sympathy because, once again, the company screwed him and didn’t see any value in him. If this match had gone on for 10 minutes with Brock winning, that emotion wouldn’t have been there — the feeling would have been that Kofi got a fair shot, it was a good title run, and everyone would have moved on with their lives.

Booking moments like this are part of why Lesnar is the best heel in wrestling. WWE has meticulously booked him like a god over the years, and he’s always there to crush the dreams of your favorite wrestlers with his stupid repeated German suplexes. His mouthpiece, Paul Heyman, is one of the best talkers in wrestling history and is the perfect guy to bloviate about his accomplishments to further piss off the fans. Fans believe in Lesnar because of his legitimate credentials (former UFC champion) and because he rarely shows much of his personality to the public. At a recent Minnesota Gopher wrestling event, Lesnar was a guest coach and was seen smiling and taking pictures with children, and it was jarring because the image of him seen on WWE — a ruthless beast who only takes pleasure in tormenting others and hates having to show up and wrestle — is so rarely contradicted anywhere.

This past Sunday, Lesnar decided to enter first in the Royal Rumble, and it answered the question many fans have about why WWE invests so much in him. The Rumble match is an annual favorite that involves 30 wrestlers entering the match one-at-a-time every 90 seconds until only one is left standing in the ring. Typically, the ring fills up with guys who sort of fake fight while one notable thing is happening at a time, but this year’s was different: with Lesnar starting first and vowing to eliminate everyone (his reasons were never outright stated, but presumably it was to prove his dominance and make children cry), this match instead became a series of dramatic confrontations, with a variety of wrestlers trying their hand at slaying the beast while fans speculated on who would be the one to do it. It was the best one of these matches I’ve ever seen and an example of WWE’s antagonistic storytelling method being executed perfectly.

This match is fascinating because the entire first half is WWE pissing off its own audience, and it’s just not something you see in any other storytelling medium. Lesnar starts in the ring and predictably throws out a series of wrestlers who aren’t portrayed as being close to his level competitively. These first eliminations (Elias, Erick Rowan, John Morrison and Bobby Roode) aren’t exciting to watch necessarily, but they create a context for the rest of this match, establishing that Lesnar is unstoppable and that eliminating him will be nearly impossible. So by entry #6, fans are getting a bit uneasy, wondering if anyone can take Lesnar down or if WWE is really going to book him to “bury” the entire roster.

At #6, Kofi Kingston comes out and it’s the first confrontation of the match that feels like a big deal due to their match months earlier. And as Kofi starts kicking the crap out of Lesnar for a few seconds and the crowd goes nuts, WWE’s booking of that match fully clicks for me, because I feel how desperately the fans want to see the likable face overcome the monstrous heel. Kofi is the first to survive the first 90 seconds and then he’s joined by Rey Mysterio, a legendary cruiserweight whose large adult son, Dominick, was assaulted by Brock months ago. 90 seconds later, they’re joined by Kofi’s tag team partner, Big E (who is big) and all three of the faces team up and go after Brock.

The fans are hyped for this trio to eliminate Brock, but he ends up eliminating all of them after a couple incredible spots that showcase his freakish athleticism. Then Brock eliminates the next few guys without much effort (Cesaro, Shelton Benjamin, Shinsuke Nakamura, MVP), giving the fans some time to breathe and continuing to build a sense of uneasiness in the room, a feeling that Brock might actually win this entire stupid match. At this point, I glance at Twitter and Reddit and just see fans yelling about how horrible the match is, how much they hate everything, etc. But this is exactly what WWE wanted them to be saying and the company is playing them like a fiddle at this point — this whole segment of the match is like a symphony of audience manipulation.

Keith Lee comes out next — he’s a massive, athletic star on the rise and was a popular pick to knock Lesnar out. Brock’s reactions to Lee are hilarious and the two behemoths go toe-to-toe. Because Lesnar has just been manhandling everyone in the match for so long, Lee looks incredible just for holding his own against him, and when he takes Brock off his feet with a shoulder tackle, the crowd goes crazy (think about that for a moment — the crowd cheered loudly for the most basic move in wrestling). The two collide mid-ring and are down when Braun Strowman, an even more massive man, joins the fray, so at this point Lesnar is exhausted and up against two giants. But when Lee and Strowman start fighting each other, Brock sneaks up and eliminates both, and the crowd totally deflates. You can feel them thinking “that was our chance and they just blew it.”

Ricochet, the pre-eminent flippy-doo wrestler of this whole generation of flippy wrestlers, comes out next, jumps right into Brock’s arms like an idiot and gets casually ragdolled into the corner. Then Drew McIntyre’s music hits and he comes to the ring looking like a guy from the cover of a romance novel and stares down his enemy. Brock focuses in on him and starts removing his gloves, knowing that McIntyre means serious business. But Ricochet comes to and kicks Lesnar in the balls, then McIntyre hits his signature “Claymore kick” on Brock and sends him toppling over the top rope.

The crowd reaction to this is something seldom seen — it was like their home team just won the Super Bowl or something, and I practically expected champagne to start popping. And it wasn’t a bunch of fans cheering because they love the WWE brand — it was because they legitimately, in real life, hate Brock Lesnar and were overjoyed that he was eliminated from this match that it was starting to look like he was winning. And now, just by kicking this large albino-gorilla-looking guy over the top rope, McIntyre (who has mostly been a villain in WWE) is instantly the most beloved face in the company. WWE brilliantly doubled down on this booking and ended up having McIntyre win the whole match about 30 minutes later, setting him up to face Brock for the title at Wrestlemania.

Brock Lesnar’s performance in the match was legendary — he was terrifying, brutal, and looked completely unstoppable. He’s so incredibly good at pro wrestling, but a lot of fans don’t realize it because they legitimately resent him due to how he has been booked and portrayed. WWE harnessed those negative emotions in this match and used it to create a new star in McIntyre, who had been previously directionless. This match was a perfect example of the give-and-take of wrestling storytelling and how context and build can create amazing moments. In order to feel as joyful and happy as fans did in that moment Lesnar was eliminated, they first needed to be really furious.

A Good Segment From Monday Night Raw, Which is a Good Show

I’m not sure if there is anything in other media quite like the relationship between wrestling fans and WWE’s flagship show, Monday Night Raw. Clocking in at three hours every Monday night, Raw is the most-watched wrestling show in the world despite the fact that seemingly everyone hates it. There is an entire industry now of YouTubers, podcasters, and social media personalities who build their entire brand around trashing Raw and dramatically talking about how TERRIBLE and SO BAD everything is, and it’s become something of a bizarre shared ritual where fans tune in to bitch about the writing, the wrestlers that are being pushed, the amount of talking on the show, and pretty much anything else anyone could possibly complain about. This sort of contrived “suffering fan” schtick is insufferable to me and it’s part of why I tend to keep my wrestling fandom guarded in public.

I’ve always enjoyed Raw, but often it’s been something like a guilty pleasure. I have a certain respect for the difficulty of putting on a 3-hour show every week for a fickle and tough audience, and if the show ever had major flaws (and boy did it ever), I usually would find them fascinating instead of frustrating. It provides a lot of analytical fodder, thinking of how they could have handled certain wrestlers, how they should be telling a story, what a segment was trying to accomplish that it didn’t, etc. One reason I recommend wrestling is that you get a really strong visceral sense of how storytelling works in real time, and sometimes there is a lot to be learned in watching WWE step in it. But lately, for a variety of reasons, Raw has become an actual good show, with what seems to be a more logical booking philosophy and plan for its main characters. And it turns out, it’s just as fun to analyze something that actually works.

One segment in particular on this week’s show captured the essence of what I think pro wrestling should be. To the surprise of nobody who is familiar with my scorching wrestling takes, it involves the best professional wrestler in the world, Becky Lynch. That is a bit controversial because most wrestling fans on the internet think being a professional wrestler means doing the most cool moves, flipping around the ring like a gymnast, and having self-indulgent 4o-minute matches that are designed to get “five stars” from hack wrestling journalists and “this is awesome” chants from fans who don’t care who wins. I’m part of a shrinking group of boomer fans who really love the non-match parts of wrestling, and I think a lot of the art in this business comes from talking, promoting, and making people actually give a shit about the match. Nobody is better at that than Becky Lynch.

Becky has run roughshod over the roster since winning all the gold in the main event of Wrestlemania this year, and as with any long title reign, it’s brought out critics who are sick of her push and think she’s a bad wrestler because she isn’t putting on the aforementioned nonsense matches with all the moves and flips. These people are wrong, they’re bad, and they deserve to be shunned from the wrestling community. Because even months into this reign, the crowd still loves Becky and she’s still evolving as a character, from an outlaw rebel who was defying the company to the self-admitted “golden goose” of WWE who now has to fight to maintain her individuality and desire for the toughest fights while being “protected” due to her value as a corporate spokeswoman.

The target for Becky is Asuka, the Japanese wrestler who beat her nearly a year ago at the Royal Rumble and has continued to have her number since. Becky’s story is that WWE didn’t want her to face Asuka, figuring she’d lose again and it would damage her marketability as “the face of the company.” Asuka is a mega-talented wrestler who doesn’t speak much English but still has tons of charisma, and she’s only lost a tiny handful of matches in her entire career. Lately she’s taken to spraying her opponents with “green mist,” and in this week’s segment she hit Becky with it after signing the contract for the match at this year’s Royal Rumble.

At this point, it’s worth observing that spraying green mist in people’s eyes is not something that people generally do, and it’s seldom seen in the real world. That’s part of what made this segment feel so definitively pro wrestling to me: it’s this ridiculous character trait that has been passed down in Japanese tradition (notably by The Great Muta, who Asuka cites as an inspiration) and it’s just this weird wrestling thing that exists and is accepted by fans. The reason it’s accepted is because of performances like Becky’s in this clip: of course we know wrestling is fake, and within the realm of fakeness the green mist is even faker, but she sells it seriously and believably as if it is incredibly painful. And because she is so damn good at this, and it’s presented without any irony or winking at the audience, fans actually believe now that this mist is a real dangerous thing, that Asuka can hit it at any time, and that the most pushed woman in the company’s title reign could be in jeopardy.

Then Becky demands a microphone and delivers a fantastic promo while recovering from the mist and looking into a camera that she is blindly swiping at with her hands.  Maybe it got a little too fanciful with its language, but I felt the emotion and the intensity, and it was from someone who just is their character, not someone who is playing a role and thinks of themselves as a performance artist. And now because of segments like this, I want to see the match and there’s a clear sense of stakes — Becky needs to win this match to prove something to herself and to get revenge on Asuka. All of this build-up is going to make their match at Royal Rumble feel bigger, the moves are going to mean more, and it will almost certainly be awesome, even though I don’t think either of these wrestlers has ever done a flippy move in their life.

This should be Pro Wrestling 101, but the current landscape is polluted with an “everyone knows wrestling is fake so nobody will care about anything so why should we even try” mentality where everyone just does outlandish goofy crap and winks at the audience. I can’t even go to indie shows because all of them feature so much dumb nonsense on the card, and WWE’s competitor, AEW, continues to struggle at telling stories that have any real sense of gravitas or stakes like this one does, despite the ridiculousness of the green mist. So, bizarrely, Monday Night Raw, the punching bag of fans, is my favorite wrestling show right now and the one that I think has the most talent and a philosophy that makes me want to watch.

A Dispatch From the Wednesday Night Wrestling Wars

The most polarizing character in wrestling right now is Orange Cassidy, a comedic character who performs in the ring as if he just woke up from a hangover and has no interest in anything that is going on. When he enters the ring, he lightly kicks his opponents in a parody of the typical “babyface fire-up” in wrestling, when the heroic character regains their strength and starts hitting all of their impactful moves. Fans react with ironic shock at Cassidy’s “brutal violence,” and it’s generally been a popular gimmick that taps into the type of ironic comedy and memes that are currently popular with the youths.

While Cassidy is a minor player in All Elite Wrestling, the upstart promotion that just began airing a weekly TV show called “Dynamite” a few weeks ago, I increasingly think he is the litmus test for potential fans of the company. AEW stormed onto the airwaves on TNT with a wave of momentum from fans who are fed up with WWE’s monopoly on large-scale American wrestling and its various frustrating creative and booking decisions. However, in a few weeks, AEW has lost hundreds of thousands of viewers as potential fans tuned in and lost interest. I’m one of those who has eventually tuned out, and Cassidy is emblematic of the reasons why.

It’s not that Orange Cassidy is necessarily unfunny — it’s that he represents a flaw in the core of AEW’s DNA that makes it impossible for me to enjoy it as a fan of wrestling. Even though wrestling is fake, I think it is at its best when it feels real and it taps into authentic emotions and makes people feel invested in the winner of the match. Maybe that sounds like a silly notion if you don’t watch wrestling, but think of it like any other form of entertainment. If you read or watch  The Lord of Rings, of course you know that the world is fictitious, that hobbits and wizards and orcs don’t really exist. But it is still presented as a world with its own set of rules and logic, which combined with serious storytelling makes you still feel an attachment to the characters. Once you’ve suspended your disbelief in this way and gotten caught up in the world, storytelling moments like Gandalf’s “death” generate emotional reactions that are very real, even though he is a fictional character.

The massive problem I have with AEW that I haven’t really seen discussed much (most hardcore wrestling fans and critic types love this show) is that it has absolutely no suspension of disbelief, in part due to the comedic hijinks of a character like Orange Cassidy, whose entire gimmick and humor is based on knowing that what you’re watching isn’t real. But it goes beyond Cassidy: because the show is aimed at the young male wrestling fan who knows the ins and outs of wrestling shows, it plays constantly to that base with insider jokes and winks at the audience. The matches themselves don’t feel real either, even for the standards of pretend fighting — a lot of the matches in AEW are more like choreographed gymnastics displays, with the clear goal being to “put on a great match” instead of trying to win or hurt your opponent.

AEW’s champion, Chris Jericho, is one of wrestling’s greatest performers, but over the run of the show his character has become increasingly goofy and silly, with promos that more closely resemble bad SNL sketches or improv routines than the classic style of wrestling promo that I love. Instead of building conflicts based on emotion and real-life feelings, his segments are increasingly focused on props and jokes, and because he is funny, fans don’t desire to see him lose the way they should with a heel champion. Even when Jericho gets booed by the fans, it’s obvious that they’re playing along because “this is a good heel promo,” not because they actually hate the guy and want to see someone beat him.

Another potential star, Jon Moxley, left WWE right before the launch of AEW and talked a big game about how he was held back there creatively and was going to change wrestling once the shackles of the evil corporation were off him. What got me most excited about AEW was to see what this guy could do with more creative freedom and a chip on his shoulder. But it became apparent pretty quickly that he had no brilliant ideas: he just wanted to behave like a generic badass who walks through the crowd and loves violence while “wrestling” garbage deathmatches with contrived weapons that are in no way believable or entertaining, such has his indulgent, interminable match with Kenny Omega at their last pay-per-view. Moxley said he hated WWE’s “hokey shit,” but his match with Omega was the hokiest thing I’ve ever seen in wrestling with its use of mouse traps and other dumb weapons.

AEW’s women’s division has also been a massive problem, in part due to WWE having a monopoly on talent and in part due to AEW being run by a bunch of guys who don’t seem to care much about telling stories in the division. Its champion, Riho, weighs about 95 pounds and wins all of her matches with sneaky roll-ups. Undersized heroes will always be a thing in wrestling, but Riho doesn’t even seem to have a mean streak or a switch she can hit where she starts kicking ass. She’s portrayed as completely sweet and innocent, someone who would never hurt a fly, which is boring in a wrestling context where I want to experience some catharsis in a staged fight. So just the idea of this demure character being the best women’s wrestler in the company is another of the many things reminding you of how fake AEW is.

Further damaging AEW was WWE’s ruthless and frankly evil decision to put its “NXT” show head-to-head with AEW by switching to a two-hour cable format. And it’s formed an obvious contrast with AEW by taking itself seriously with high-level performers and a logical storytelling flow week-to-week. To me, the breakout star on NXT since its move to cable has been Rhea Ripley, and she has also served to expose many of AEW’s flaws. She is everything missing from AEW: a wrestler who is serious, has star power, looks and acts legit, and the fact that she’s a woman has only further turned a spotlight on the clown show that is the competition’s women’s division. While AEW’s champion barely looks like she could hold her own in a fight, Ripley gives off the vibe that she’s going to rip someone’s head off at any moment. There is intensity and emotion in Ripley’s performances, which are a far cry from the bland choreography in AEW. She’s now set to take on long-reigning women’s champion Shayna Baszler in a match that feels much bigger than anything AEW has offered.

Baszler is her own contrast to AEW and its champion. While Jericho has been putting on interminable promo segments that seek to “entertain” and make people laugh, even though he is a heel, Baszler is no fun whatsoever. She’s a mean, sadistic bully, and she’s held the title for so long and is so ruthless that fans are becoming desperate to see someone knock her off the mountain. And since NXT has an incredibly talented women’s division, fans get to speculate and hope that one of their favorites can be the one to dethrone Shayna. That’s just classic heel wrestling psychology, and that’s what I find fun in wrestling more than segments that are desperately trying to be clever. Even though the fans of NXT are aware of a lot of the behind-the-scenes information, they buy into Baszler because she is believable and serious, and everyone is emotionally invested in seeing who can beat her.

I feel a little bad for these opinions, because the truth is I wanted an alternative to WWE, and I like that AEW exists to push them a bit instead of letting them become complacent. At the same time, I’m not going to watch a show I don’t like because “it’s the right thing to do,” and I also don’t believe WWE is evil and AEW is some virtuous company when both are run by billionaires, who are all inherently horrible. For all of WWE’s faults, they still deliver storytelling that has more emotion and takes itself more seriously than AEW, which seems to lack the confidence to do anything without winking at you and reminding you that it’s all just for show. That might appeal to certain fans of irony and memes — the people who love Orange Cassidy — but it doesn’t speak to what I think pro wrestling can be.

 

 

Give Me What I Want

A few weeks ago, I was watching WWE, and there was a promo segment between Batista and Triple H. Batista had just returned to wrestling after embarking on a successful Hollywood acting career in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and was setting up a feud with his former mentor for WrestleMania. His rustiness from the business might be why he seemingly forgot all of his lines when he went on stage, which resulted in one of the most awkward verbal exchanges I’ve seen in my years of watching wrestling. For multiple minutes, all he did was yell “GIVE ME WHAT I WANT” at Triple H in his most intense wrestler delivery that sent spit all over the place. The absurdity of the promo helped it reach instant meme status.

Beyond the comical nature of the promo, what I think resonated about it was how Batista unwittingly captured the tone and tenor of fanbases in 2019, especially WWE’s, which is notorious for spending most of its time grumbling about the company’s booking decisions rather than enjoying the show. But while hardcore wrestling fans have long been known for being jaded and miserable, the “give me what I want” ethos has now spread to almost all circles of fandom via the internet. Unlimited viewing, listening, playing, and reading options have cultivated a sense of entitlement in audiences, who increasingly want their entertainment to only reflect their own personal tastes, values, and desires. A popular TV show like Game of Thrones comes with weekly episodic recaps on 240 different websites which all tediously pick apart the storytelling choices, character beats, directorial decisions, possible plot and logic holes, etc. Like wrestling, a lot of TV now is watched by groups of “smart” fans who are less invested in the story itself than in the making of the story and whether it fits their own vision for how things should go.

Thrones has been the most frustrating in this regard. This is an incredible show, with a scope and scale never before seen on TV and a roster of morally ambiguous, well-drawn characters with compelling backstories. It’s delivering spectacle with huge battles and dragons, but also is examining dark, adult subject matter like rape, abuse, suffering and redemption in a way that is far deeper than ever attempted on TV. Yet if you look to find analysis of these artistic qualities of the show, you mostly will come up empty outside of the work of a couple of dedicated writers (my favorites are Sean T. Collins and Gretchen Felker-Martin). Instead, what you get is every random writer on every website complaining about what the writers should have done instead, bemoaning choices made by characters, complaining about “problematic” elements of the script, etc. Rather than take the show for what it is and appreciate its obvious strengths (while still pointing out areas where it could be improved), I get the sense that many are going out of their way to be dissatisfied with it as it reaches its final episodes.

I’m always in favor of thinking critically about art, but this strain of fandom feels jaded, myopic, and unproductive. I don’t think most people doing this are seriously engaging with the show and what it is trying to say; they’re viewing it with an ironic detachment, snarking about minute details and completely missing the bigger picture. Everyone spends more time wondering how the characters traveled from Winterfell to King’s Landing so quickly instead of thinking about the actual overarching themes of the work. No one is obligated to enjoy Game of Thrones or all of the creative decisions of the show, but there is rarely even an attempt to engage with it in a reasonable way. So we’re in this weird situation where this show is massively popular, it’s amazing, and yet it feels almost underrated as a work of art, because so few people are even making a good faith effort to engage with and appreciate the greatness that is right in front of them.

But far from just cultivating a blasé attitude towards art, this “give me what I want” mentality also causes art to be more safe and less impactful when it’s taken seriously by creators. A few weeks ago, the creator of Bojack Horseman retweeted someone saying that shows shouldn’t depict rape for the same reason they don’t depict someone having diarrhea — because audiences don’t want to see it. It concerned me because Bojack is one of my favorite shows in part because it has made such an effort to show its audience what it doesn’t want to see. As a viewer invested in the characters, I didn’t want to see Bojack and Diane self-destruct and struggle with depression and alcoholism. But because they have, the show was able to explore mature themes about overcoming personal demons in a way that resonated and was cathartic. The version of Bojack that avoids uncomfortable topics would basically be a kid’s cartoon.

That tweeter’s hot take was almost certainly aimed somewhat at Game of Thrones, which has been notorious for its portrayals of rape and abuse towards women. A certain segment of liberal types have hounded the show with accusations of sexism for years, assuming that the on-screen depictions of violence against women are endorsements of that behavior from the makers of the show — an extremely ungenerous reading of the material that doesn’t really hold up to any reasonable interpretation. The prevailing belief seems to be that these sorts of taboo, sensitive topics should simply never be portrayed in media due to their unpleasantness. Actress Jessica Chastain recently tweeted as such, saying “Rape is not a tool to make a character stronger. A woman doesn’t need to be victimized in order to become a butterfly.” This was in response to the Sansa Stark character acknowledging the abuse she’d faced, how she still lived with it, and how it had shaped who she was. In Chastain’s desired version of the show, Sansa never would have faced suffering, and there would be no insight into the very real abuse women face at the hands of men, both in Westeros and the real world.

This is where the “give me what I want” mindset goes past simply being about lame crowd-pleasing stuff and crosses over into something resembling censorship. Of course, any time the subject of rape is brought into entertainment, it needs to be taken seriously and portrayed in a thoughtful, humane way. I don’t think the Thrones writers have always gotten it right (the infamous Jaime/Cersei scene from a few years ago being the predominant example), but for the most part the show has made an effort to portray the realities and effects of abuse on its victims. Characters like Sansa, Theon, and others have endured abuse and lived with the consequences in a way that has rarely been depicted on TV. If your argument is that rape should never be in entertainment, then that is diminishing a major part of art’s function, which is how it can express feelings of personal traumatic experiences in a shared way that makes people understand it better.

A lot of these arguments strike me as the same types you see from people who want to ban classic novels for being too “dangerous.” What these people really want is for art to be a sanctuary, and for all entertainment to be blandly inoffensive, shiny and flawless. Those who nitpick every barely relevant detail of the logic and character choices often think of themselves as being smarter than the rest of the audience and the writers, when really they have this same childlike mindset towards art. For them, a show like Game of Thrones only exists to be joylessly ripped apart as a means of validating their own perceived intelligence. They don’t want to think about the actual themes or the storytelling.

As we stare down the barrel of another eight million superhero movie sequels and live action Disney remakes, it’s hard not to be a little concerned about the future of art that actually attempts to provoke and challenge audiences. Part of my frustration with the response to this season of Game of Thrones is that we’re really witnessing an end of an era — I doubt another show will capture the public imagination quite like this one, much less one with this much depth and artistry. And yet the response to it by many seems to be a collective shrug, a snarky comment or two while glancing at their phone. That’s why the present and future of entertainment is Marvel movies and other audience-pleasing franchises that don’t require too much thinking or attentiveness. Of course, there will still be real artists making powerful, important work outside of the mainstream — but good luck trying to discuss it with anybody.

Becky Lynch is Making Wrestling Real

Wrestling fans are used to hearing people tell them “you know it’s fake, right?” My rebuttal to this is to point out that all TV shows are fake. It’s like asking a fan of Game of Thrones if they know that the dragons in the show are CGI. If anything, wrestling is much more real than other things on TV, including heavily edited “reality” shows. It has predetermined outcomes, but the physicality is more real than most people assume and the storytelling is often tethered to reality in a way that other scripted shows aren’t.

I think wrestling is at its best when it has that connection to reality and gets viewers to forget that they’re watching characters. But these days, with social media and WWE’s branding of itself as a “sports entertainment” company, wrestling is probably the least immersive it’s ever been. The talented wrestlers are often stuck delivering overly scripted, inauthentic promos and too many matches feel like choreographed ballet routines instead of a fight. While the show has moved away from larger-than-life characters like The Undertaker (a dead guy), it is still hard to get emotionally invested in what’s going on because a lot of the wrestlers aren’t allowed to truly show what they can do.

This all ties into why the last few months of Becky Lynch have been so satisfying. I already wrote about her feud with Charlotte Flair, which culminated in Becky keeping her title at Evolution, WWE’s first all-women’s pay-per-view, in an epic last woman standing match that was my favorite in WWE this year. Since then, Becky’s star has continued to rise: I don’t know if she is literally the most popular performer in the company, but nobody is getting the reactions she does, and her character is connecting with the audience in a way that few ever have. And much of it is due to how her character feels real, how it intertwines with her actual self, and how she tells stories in a way that creates maximum immersion. It’s to the point that when Becky is on TV, I actually do think wrestling is real for a brief moment. I want her to win, I feel happy when she gets cheered, and I hate her opponents. I’ve always tried to keep an ironic distance from wrestling because it’s “cooler” to watch that way, but I’m all the way in this and there’s no getting out. I’m a “mark,” as they say, and it feels great.

After dispensing with Charlotte Flair, whose father once famously said “to be the man, you gotta beat the man,” Becky has christened herself The Man in a clever post-gender angle. It’s her character showing confidence while also acknowledging the reality that she’s on top and is genuinely the most exciting thing in wrestling. WWE tried to portray this new-found confidence as villainous, but it resonates too much with people who feel like they’re not getting what they deserve and lack Becky’s ability to do something about it. While most people are stuck without real options in scenarios where they feel undervalued, Becky’s character lives in the wrestling reality where you can beat the crap out of your co-workers and show you’re better than them. It’s very cathartic, and I think fans are living vicariously through Becky as they witness someone who they perceive as being underrated by the company climb all the way to the top while taking no prisoners.

Becky has created this unique connection to the audience in part by showing a deep understanding of her character and staying true to it in publicity appearances and on social media. When she explains why she calls herself The Man, it’s part Becky Lynch, part Rebecca Quin, and the line between the two is blurred in a way that only happens with wrestlers. Observe how she toes the line in this interview for an LGBT news outlet, touting her accolades from the wrestling world while also making real-world points she actually believes about gender/sexuality equality.

Now established as The Man, Becky entered a feud with Ronda Rousey, WWE’s current biggest star in terms of mainstream appeal who has proven to be a natural at professional wrestling. They exchanged barbs for a couple of weeks, with Rousey notably mocking Becky for taking odd jobs and retiring from wrestling for awhile while she was dominating in UFC. Lynch’s response to this was up there as one of the best babyface promos I’ve ever seen, as she described her real-life upbringing and struggles as an independent wrestler as a contrast to Rousey, who she perceived as being bred for greatness. It was character-defining in establishing Becky as someone who worked her way to the top, never got handed anything, and developed an authentic connection with the fans in spite of how she was often portrayed. Wrestlers are rarely thought of as artists by the general public, but there is real artistry here in her choice of words, the delivery, and the way she connects her real-life self to her on-screen character.

But, as has happened a weird amount of times in this storyline, reality intervened. On the Monday before her big match with Rousey was scheduled, Lynch led an “invasion” of her show, Smackdown, on Raw. They do this every year and usually I find it to be contrived nonsense. But this became a prime example of how the real world and the wrestling world can merge to create unmatched serendipitous drama.

While the wrestlers were randomly brawling, Becky took a legitimate punch to the face from Nia Jax, the giant of the women’s division. Now, I’ve never been in the ring (surprising, I know), but my understanding is that a lot of the strikes, while not being completely fake, are done in a way to protect the opponent and cause no real damage. The top goal in this choreographed play-fighting is to make sure no one gets hurt while still putting on a show that appears realistic. So what Jax did was an egregious blunder: nobody is supposed to just land a full punch to someone’s face or it creates what happened here — a serious injury and a lot of blood.

Becky went down briefly, and had what is later described by WWE as “a severe concussion and a broken face.” But then she got back up and finished out the show with blood all over her face and hands. She hit Rousey with a chair and then taunted her from the crowd, completely owning the entire scene while bleeding profusely and I’m sure being in a tremendous amount of pain (not to mention being concussed). She looked like the coolest person who ever lived and I knew I was witnessing an iconic wrestling moment.

If there was any doubt, this cemented Becky as a legend and a character unlike anything wrestling fans have seen. It was also when I realized that the women’s division in WWE genuinely feels like the most important and coolest thing on the show, which was always her goal. The downside to the moment is that, well, she had a severe concussion and a broken face. And that meant she wasn’t able to actually have the match with Rousey, which was likely going to be main event the show and be a huge moment for women’s wrestling in WWE.

One of the narratives running through Becky’s story has been the idea that the company has “held her down,” which was basically true as she was booked to lose a lot for multiple years. But somewhere during this push, I think she has opened the eyes of people backstage and it feels like the machinery is totally behind her now. A good piece of evidence was this mini-documentary they did on her finding out that she wouldn’t be able to wrestle Rousey.

Out of all of the reality/fiction-blending things involving Becky recently, this is the most impactful. It’s mundane in how it shows her going through a fairly bland real-life routine of calling her mom, checking her phone, and eating. But then she receives the gutting news and there’s this moment where she is simultaneously Becky Lynch and Rebecca Quin. She wants to have this match to kick Ronda Rousey’s ass, but she also wants this match because as a performer, she’s spent years working up to this point, building all this momentum, and now she feels it could slip away because of a co-worker’s careless mistake. It’s heartbreaking to watch and as real as it gets.

The silver lining to all of this is that if Lynch recovers (which isn’t trivial given a concussion), she could be in line to main event WrestleMania, the biggest show of the year, against Rousey, which seemed unthinkable a few months ago. Women have never main evented that show and I honestly never thought they would — not because they weren’t capable, but because I never felt like the company would get behind it. But Lynch has given the company little choice with the artistry of her performances and the way she has rallied fans behind her organically. As a performer and character, she is making wrestling feel real, and it should lead to her finally getting what she deserves: the biggest match of the year, on the biggest stage, with thousands of people chanting her name.