There were parents with babies in strollers at the event, ten-year-olds, die-hard thirty-somethings and everything in between. Some double-daters were there too. There were even some enthused fans from a group home in White Plains.
As I found my seat, the lights went down and hard rock blared over the loudspeakers. The crowd came alive all around me. Waves of fans swept over to the gate where some big name wrestler would be making his entrance. Young and old had their camera-phones and digital cameras at the ready.
A young boy began talking excitedly to his father. "I bet you it's Chris Masters!" the boy said. The father raised his eyebrows appropriately. The boy held a pretzel in one hand and wore a t-shirt that said, "Layeth the SmackDown."
A wrestler suddenly appeared from a dark corner—it was none other than "The Masterpiece" Chris Masters. The crazed crowd stomped their feet as he made his way toward the ring. Camera flashes lit up the room like fire-crackers. His face was stern and determined. He wore a laser-blue trunk. Stepping into the ring one leg at a time, he acknowledged the crowd with a wave.
As Masters settled into the ring, the music took a darker tone. There was a flash of light as another figure appeared. This wrestler had bleached-blonde hair and wore a leopard skin trunk. The crowd jeered loudly as Jack Swagger (*) headed toward the ring. He posed and flexed his muscles, grinning at the crowd and pointing his finger at Masters.
As the two sized each other up, something took hold of me. I was never the biggest wrestling fan as a kid, but something about this match got my attention. I sensed that the match was about more than just wrestling. I was about to witness a battle between good and evil!
This type of wrestling storyline was nothing new, of course. In the wrestling world, Swagger would be referred to as the 'heel' or villain. Masters was the 'face' (short for babyface, wrestling slang for the crowd favorite), a heroic character who stood for the doing the right thing.
Looking back, the most recognizable 'face' in wrestling, despite his being retired, is probably still Hollywood Hulk Hogan. His signature red and yellow feather boa and shirt-ripping bit were the stuff of legend.
Hogan used to drop in like the cavalry and save other wrestlers from injustice at the hands of mean-spirited heels. The heel would stoke the crowd's ire by cheating and hitting his opponent with a metal chair, or crushing the referee, making him go unconscious. Sometimes a small contingent of heels would triple-team one wrestler, brutalizing him.
If someone was being mistreated in one way or another, you could count on hearing Hogan's theme song, "I am a Real American" kick on. Hogan would burst onto the scene, pointing his finger threateningly at the offenders and cussing under his breath.
As he made his way to the ring, everyone would be on their feet, the song still playing: "I am a real American, fight for the rights of every man—fight for what's right, fight for your life!" An enormous American flag would unfurl in the background. You'd have to be a cold, heartless human being not to be moved.
Jumping into the ring, he'd make short work of everyone. After the confrontation was over, he'd cup his hand to his ear as if to say, "I can't hear you!" and the crowd would just erupt. Then, he'd rip his shirt in half and it was pandemonium. The hairs on your arm would stand throughout the whole spectacle.
There was some of that, as I watched Masters and Swagger go at it in the ring. Unfortunately for the youngsters in the audience, Swagger beat Masters. I say unfortunately because Masters was the clear favorite. One boy was so upset that he started crying openly.
When Swagger was pronounced the champion, he gloated like a teenager, while Masters stood in the ring as if in a daze. Masters, with hands on hips, just stood there, shaking his head in dismay. He eventually limped out of the ring, and was comforted by little fans who patted him on the back as he left the arena.
As the next wrestler made his entrance, I overheard this phone conversation from someone sitting behind me: "Hey, yeah, I'm at SmackDown. What's up!? No, R-Truth said, 'what's up!?' so I had to say, what's up!?" R-Truth, a rapper-wrestler, had a bit where he came out saying, "What's up!?" to the crowd. It was the chorus to his theme song. R-Truth was up against heel CM Punk, which ended up being the second match where a heel beat out a face.
I was curious to see who the favorites were, so I turned to some of the people around me to ask them some general questions: favorite wrestlers, what attracted them most to the sport, and whether or not they were long-time fans.
Shanewa Hall, a twenty-two-year old who had come to the event alone that night, the same one from the phone conversation, said what she liked most about wrestling were the moves, the action.
Stephan Chamberlin, a twenty-six-year old, knew everything there was to know about wrestling. He was even able to rattle off who won which years. He was able to tell me that Batista beat Triple-H in 2005 at the Trump Plaza. Among Stephan's favorite wrestlers were the Undertaker and Jake the Snake.
I also spoke to three fans in their twenties who had watched wrestling since the late eighties. Cassy and Christy Jean were sisters who were at the event with their friend Tasha Miller. The three agreed that Bret Heart, Ric Flair, The Rock, and Hulk Hogan were among the best wrestlers of all-time.
The three said that as they got older, they appreciated the appeal of handsome, muscular men with their shirts off. They had a thing for John Cena, who's slogan was, "You Can't C Me" with a hash-mark through the letter 'C', 'C' for Cena. Looking around, John Cena t-shirts were everywhere, always with the term 'Cenation' on there.
Would that have worked in the 80s and 90s? Back when I was a kid, the wrestlers that were billed as regular everyday first and last names were usually the worst wrestlers. All the best wrestlers had some gimmick, or gimmicks that broadened their appeal, and made matches more interesting.
If you have a guy named John Cena who doesn't role-pay as anyone but himself and he represents the best of what the WWE has to offer, then I'm sorry, but standards have seriously dropped. He may be a great wrestler – I wouldn't really know about that – but someone who makes no effort to come up with a wrestling persona comes across to me as extremely self-absorbed, someone who thinks he's too cool for school.
What happened to standing for something bigger than yourself? Hogan used to stand for doing the right thing, an all-American hero at a time when nerves were still raw over communism and the Cold War. Infamous heels like the Iron Sheik, the Undertaker and Yokozuna lassoed the cultural zeitgeist to draw heat from the crowd with their cartoonish personifications of the strange, the threatening and the exotic. Cena doesn't represent anything except himself. There's nothing to aspire to there. What scares me is that little kids look up to Cena as a role model. He's a heel masquerading as a face.
The main event was between The Big Show and Kane, the current heavyweight champion. The Big Show, who wore a t-shirt that said 'Go Big Or Get Lost', stood at a billed seven feet tall and 485 lbs, a truly monstrous man. Kane, the heel, came out wearing leather chaps. Despite Kane's smaller stature, he ended being the third heel to beat a face that night.
What happened to all the good faces? We appear to be in the middle of a new era in sports entertainment where there are more compelling heels than faces. Every so often, a Hulk Hogan comes around, or a wrestler like The Rock, who mixes the qualities of heel and face, but stands for the right thing. The WWE seems to be waiting for its next messiah.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified wrestler Jack Swagger and described him as a jobber. Swagger is a regular cast member of performances under WWE's Smackdown brand.