Eighth grade and there I am begging my parents for a trampoline. I cited imaginary statistics about just how much safer trampolines are than in-ground pools. Truth be told, my reasoning was more backhanded, more sinister: You couldn’t deliver a Stone Cold Stunner in a pool, but you sure as hell could on a trampoline.
I longed to sell the Stunner like The Rock, flying up and bouncing around the trampoline, exaggerating a knockout so theatrically, my friends would think I was having a seizure. My parents, like the parents of dozens of boys in my neighborhood, caved and took me to Costco to buy my very own wrestling ring. I helped my dad painstakingly assemble it. The resulting matches, for the Mawal Drive Backyard Championship Belt (which I fashioned out of cardboard and beads), were most epic.
I was fortunate enough to grow up before World Wrestling Entertainment. I grew up during the Monday Night Wars, when the World Wrestling Federation collided with World Championship Wrestling every Monday night. I grew up during the Attitude Era and walked around yelling things like “Oh Hell Yeah” and asking questions like “Do you live on Jabroni Drive?” I was team nWo Wolfpac and Degeneration X. I told my mom to “suck it.” She washed my mouth out with Irish Spring. It doesn’t taste that bad.
I am 25 years old now and have seen professional wrestling watered down to the point of sterility. Now, World Wrestling Entertainment has all but monopolized the industry. There are no more Monday Night Wars, no Monday Nitro versus Monday Night Raw. But something else happened along the way. Professional wrestling, the same entertainment that once asked me to believe a man could survive being buried alive, to watch as a millionaire CEO was sprayed with a beer hose, has become so tame, it hardly warrants a TV-14 rating.
Every wrestler had a gimmick. Back in the mid-90’s, Stone Cold Steve Austin pounded beers and delivered his trademark Stone Cold Stunner to everyone and everything. He won the fans over with profanity and lewd gestures. He gave the middle finger during matches and we all appropriately cheered and flipped out. The Rock, before he was Dwayne Johnson, was a heel, then a hero. He worked with the bad guys, only to turn on them for the good of the fans. These guys were larger than life. They weren’t even above calling out The Bible, with Stone Cold making a mockery of John 3:16 with his patented “Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass.”
The gimmicks were huge, and they sold tickets and merchandise. I owned every t-shirt, every action figure. I knew every catch phrase. I watched wide-eyed as Stone Cold attacked an enemy in a supermarket, as he drove a zamboni to the ring to attack Vince McMahon, the president of the WWE. Hulk Hogan became the ultimate bad guy when he and his group of thugs, the nWo, viciously attacked Macho Man Randy Savage (RIP). Not only did Hulk and the boys attack him, they beat him senseless, then spray-painted him yellow, all while the outraged fans flung garbage and chairs into the ring.
A few weeks ago, I turned on Monday Night Raw to find two popular wrestlers, Chris Jericho and CM Punk, feuding. CM Punk’s gimmick is that he’s straightedge, which is all well and cool. Chris Jericho was attacking CM Punk’s dad (verbally) on a giant screen calling Punk’s old man an “alcoholic.” My sister, two years younger than me, pointed out, “you know, back in the day, Jericho would have wheeled CM Punk’s old man out, stuck a funnel in his mouth, and poured beers down his throat.” I laughed because, well, it’s the truth.
The wrestlers I loved are either making comebacks (The Rock) or making direct-to-home video films like Tactical Force (I’m looking at you Stone Cold Steve Austin). There are no more real gimmicks, no wrestlers with back-stories or developed characters. Now everyone just yells things like “I’m the best and I’m awesome.” The thing is, my oiled-up friends, we don’t want you to be awesome; We want you to be larger-than-life.
I look back on the career of Diamond Dallas Page, whose in-ring promos during his time at World Championship Wrestling bordered on extreme spasms. By the end of a sentence, he was so incoherent and so fired up that he was just yelling and running around, throwing up the original ROC sign (a diamond made of thumbs and hands and index fingers) and screaming “BANG.” He was by no means a role model. In fact, he had a mullet that looked like hipster macaroni and cheese. Yet, for some reason, I walked the halls of my middle school saying things like “Randy Savage, don’t bother bringing your Slim Jims, because I’m going to give you something to snap in to!…BANG.”
Professional wrestling taught me how to swear and give the finger; it was a reason to get together one Sunday a month with ten of my best friends to watch the pay-per-views. It was the reason girls didn’t talk to us and our parents thought we were just “boys being boys” …it was the cure to ADD before medication.
I think back to the epic trampoline matches for my imaginary championship belt. We sweat and bled on that trampoline. I broke a finger and crushed a lung, all while yelling “and that’s the bottom line …’cause Nick Orsini said so.” What do I miss? I miss the over-the-top theatrics, the stunts. I mean, The Undertaker once crucified someone in the middle of the ring — that someone happened to be Stephanie McMahon (the boss, Vince McMahon’s daughter).
Now, the best you get is Chris Jericho, on the TitanTron, calling CM Punk “CM Drunk.” I am lucky to have been a part of the golden age of professional wrestling. Some called it too violent, but I called it perfect. Let’s raise a Steveweiser to a bygone era, to trampoline matches and to always feeling… the BANG.