The End of an Era: Twenty-Three Years (and counting) as a Wrestling Fan by Gabriel Ricard

Wrestlemania 28 is old news. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (I have a feeling that most people still just call him The Rock) is back to Hollywood (although he swears Wrestlemania 28 will not be the last time we see him in a World Wrestling Entertainment ring) to star in more mediocre action movies. John Cena is now waging war against the returning Brock Lesner (who left the company eight years ago, and went on to become a pretty big deal in the UFC), and continues to sharply divide wrestling fans in terms of his popularity. The next WWE PPV, Extreme Rules, may also be old news by the time you read this.

Wrestling moves quickly. It always has, but that became even more the case with the explosion of popularity wrestling experienced in the late-90’s. I remember that period of time pretty well. It was the point in which the kids who had called me a faggot for liking wrestling in the first place were asking me what I thought of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin on Raw the night before.

That took some getting used to, but I was mostly just happy to see wrestling enter such a period of intense prosperity. It was a time when I couldn’t imagine anyone watching anything besides Raw on Mondays. When everything and I mean everything about wrestling was exciting in some way. Even the worst performers and storylines had potential, appeal, the ability to be an indispensible part of the show. I was turned thirteen in 1998. This was the year when things exploded. I had been a fan for about nine years at that point, so being into it all wasn’t new territory for me. I took to wrestling as a small child the way most kids my age did. I just kept at being a fan long after most of the other kids moved on to other things.

I’ve always had a bad habit of sticking with something, well past the point of leaving when almost everyone else does. This often walks a very fine line between loyalty and mildly-obsessive stupidity.

I’m not sure which one wrestling falls under, but I’ve kept at it for most of my life. Entirely too many hours have been spent over the years watching tapes, then DVDs, TV shows, PPVs, reading magazines (eBay always had great lots of vintage magazines), books (and before Mick Foley’s first memoir, Have A Nice Day! came out in 1999, really good books about wrestling were not easy to come by), online nonsense, watching shoot interviews (in which personalities are interviewed out-of-character) , going to events, interviewing some of my all-time favorites (Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “Diamond” Dallas Page, most notably), enjoying very brief forays into what barely qualifies as the actual business and arguing the specifics of a staged physical contest with other nerds. That about covers the different ways I’ve enjoyed wrestling since roughly 1988. I can’t remember the first time I ever watched wrestling, but there’s a good chance that it probably had something to do with Hulk Hogan. For most 80’s kids he was the reason why we got into wrestling in the first place. He, and Andre the Giant, would certainly explain why I was hooked early and immediately.

To see Hogan now is to see someone playing the nostalgia card over and over again (with mixed results), but in the 80’s and 90’s, he was kind of a big deal. People know that, but it can be difficult to explain to anyone who wasn’t around at the time. It’s the same as trying to explain just how ridiculously popular wrestling became in the late 90’s.

It was a great time to be a fan. Unfortunately anyone who knows wrestling knows it’s one of the most cyclical industries in popular culture. The bottom dropped out in 2002, and although wrestling, particularly, WWE, has done just fine since then, it’s become one of those things where I have to admit that it’s never going to be quite the same as it was when I was a kid. Wrestling has been one of the great constants in my entertainment diet. I still watch the shows, still catch the PPVs when possible, still keep up with what’s going on and still throw on something from my childhood, but I would be hard-pressed to remember the last time something came along in wrestling that truly excited me.

So, why keep watching?

I guess it’s a matter of habit. Or the fact that it’s never been so inhumanly awful that I just can’t watch it anymore (I’ve come close to this thought a couple of times though). If there’s one noticeable downside to being a longtime fan it’s that it gets more and more difficult to be surprised. It’s a lot easier to be cynical about things, to greet anything good that comes along as something that will probably be bungled by the decision-makers (this happens a lot in WWE). Pessimism comes easily to me with a lot of things, and wrestling has been hanging around that list for a lot longer than it has any right to.

Watching wrestling at this point in my life is like being a lifetime fan of a sports team. It doesn’t really matter if they ever win the big one again, or at all,

Wrestlemania 28 is not be my favorite Wrestlemania of all time. When it’s all said and done, the all-time choice will probably be 17. The main connection between 17 and 28 would have to be that both events featured an Undertaker-Triple H showdown. Wrestlemania 17 was their first Wrestlemania against each other. For those who are terrible at math (like me), that was eleven years ago. A lot has happened in eleven years. Most of the WWE’s talent roster at the time of the PPV is now either retired or elsewhere (likely to TNA, which continues to be a very, very distant second to WWE). The Rock was in the main-event for both 17 and 28, and his run against Cena over the past year was good but not great. This year saw a good main event, but that honestly wasn’t where my interest was.

Initially I didn’t really care about yet another Undertaker-Triple H Wrestlemania match. This was to be the third match between them at Wrestlemania, and I was really at a loss to think of what they could possibly do to make the match special. Would it be entertaining? Probably. Would it be anything really worth getting keyed up about? Not that I could think of. Even with various stipulations, most notably, the addition of Shawn Michaels as the guest referee, I was only marginally interested. Even when the WWE billed it as the “End of an Era” match I didn’t have much more than a passing fascination. I felt that way about the entire card actually, and that was taking into account that it was shaping up to be a pretty good show. I could see that, and I could see myself having a good time watching it live with friends at a house in Virginia Beach. I just wasn’t going to be all that emotionally involved. At least half of the fun with wrestling is taking it way too seriously. I’m not talking about people who write novel-length rants about what they perceive to be wrong with the business. I’m referring more to the amusement value in arguing about great matches, bad matches, legends, names who don’t deserve that label, phenomenal gimmicks, god-awful gimmicks, storylines, matches and anything else that might come up in a conversation. It’s not so much a matter of thinking its real, but rather a question of getting the most entertainment out of it possible. That means getting annoyed when a favorite loses, and acting as though somebody really won something when the favorite does come out on top. It means, to me, breaking down a match in terms of the talent involved, the quality of the match and whether or not that match told the story it was seeking to tell.

That last part is the most important to me. My favorite match of all time remains Bret Hart against Steve Austin at Wrestlemania 13. It was a fantastic, hard-hitting deal between the two of the greatest at their very best. More than that it told the most compelling, most effective story I’ve ever seen. The match ran a little over twenty minutes. Over the course of those twenty minutes, Austin became a hero who would not die without one hell of a fight, and Bret Hart became a bitter, vicious veteran who would stop at nothing to win. Many say it’s the match that cemented Austin as a main-event name. Which in turn ushered in the popularity that would raise wrestling to even greater heights than it had seen in the 80’s (Austin has the distinction of having the best year in the history of his field, in terms of attendance, TV ratings, merchandise etc).

That storytelling component is so critical to me, and it’s what I point to as my biggest reason for being a fan for so long. It’s still the largest reason although the actual quality of the match itself certainly can’t be denied.

The Undertaker was at Wrestlemania 13. So was Triple H. It’s been almost twenty-two years since The Undertaker made his first appearance in a WWE ring. I still remember seeing Triple H make his debut in WCW in 1994 before going on to sign with the WWE in 1995. A lot of things have happened in wrestling between 1990 or 1994 and now. The amount of talent, trends, changes and events that have come and gone between either of those years and the present is remarkable. I don’t even really recognize it anymore. Even though the core elements of wrestling, feuds, soap opera antics, titles and matches, remain pretty much the same. The landscape is still night and day compared to the scene eighteen or twenty-two years ago.

Both Triple H and The Undertaker have been there every step of the way. Their characters have gone through various transitions, but the core workers haven’t really changed. Everyone else has either died, retired, left, came back, left again, come out of retirement, gone back into retirement. Shawn Michaels, the guest referee for the third Taker-Triple H match, has been enjoying retirement for over two years at this point, after losing a retirement match to Undertaker in their second of two Wrestlemania matches. His presence was meant to add intrigue to a match that was on its third go-round. The idea being that “What’s going to draw Michaels’ hand? His friendship with Triple H, or his belief that if he couldn’t beat The Undertaker, then no one should?” would be a compelling side story. I didn’t doubt for a second that it could. It still just didn’t strike me as enough to get my interest. I could even see myself going out for a cigarette at some point.

So, it was a surprise that Undertaker-Triple H III delivered as a great match, a phenomenal example of in-ring storytelling and even something that brought out passionate, vocal audience participation from even the most jaded people at that friend’s house. It didn’t take long to suddenly realize that cynicism was miles behind me. Credit The Undertaker and Triple H for that. They’ve been responsible for moments good and bad over their long respective careers, but they know how to deliver when the pressure is on. The bulk of the attention for the evening was on The Rock and John Cena. I have to imagine that both Taker and Triple H (who will likely be running the entire company at some point in the near future, and you can take that information however you want) felt like they had an uphill battle to steal some of the thunder from the actual main event. They’re legends, and I would argue that they deserve to be. Whatever the line of work, whether it’s a real athletic contest or a staged one, the great ones are those who can surprise you even when you’re convinced that they can’t.

Shawn Michaels deserves a lot of credit, too. You can always count on him to deliver, and his dilemma of who to favor in the match added drama. I wasn’t the only one who seemed to think so. The entire Wrestlemania 28 card brought out the best in everyone’s interest levels. Even the most disappointing match (Sheamus vs. Daniel Bryan) generated some pretty active participation. I could very well be wrong, but it seemed like everyone got the most of Undertaker, Triple H and Shawn Michaels packing their individual talents, their decades of experience as performers and the “history” (both real and constructed) shared amongst them into one of the best thirty-minute stories I’ve ever seen in a wrestling ring. The Undertaker has never lost a Wrestlemania match. That’s a big part of his mythos. Should he ever lose on such a massive stage (the PPV generated somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.3 million buys, a Wrestlemania record), the person who wins is clearly someone the WWE has a pretty high opinion of him.

There are two traditions at Wrestlemania. One is that the event itself is held every year. The other is The Undertaker’s streak.

With Undertaker-Triple H III there were actually moments when I thought that streak was in jeopardy. Between Triple H working one of his best matches in years, the steel cell the match was held in, The Undertaker surviving everything thrown at him, and even with Michaels’ nervous breakdown near the end of the match, I was actually able to suspend my disbelief, and that’s something that has become exceedingly rare in my wrestling fandom.

It’s nice to know it’s still possible, but I have to wonder if the new generation of talent can shock and awe me like my favorites have for so many years. Triple H works in the front office of the WWE now. He will probably wrestle again, but his days as a long-term performer are over. That’s probably for the best. Triple H’s legacy will forever be in doubt with some. Marrying Vince McMahon’s daughter and making yourself a nearly-invincible world champion for several consecutive years can rub people the wrong way. It’s best that he keep his appearances on the part-time side. The Undertaker has been around since November 1990. That’s a long time to be an active member of the company. He likely has a few more matches left in him, but his retirement will probably come a lot sooner than any of us think.

Shawn Michaels may or may not wrestle again. Never say never, but it’s doubtful. He saved his money, and he seems to have a lot to keep him busy. I’m grateful he came back in 2002, and hung around for some eight years. His legend will grow to rival that of names like Ric Flair if it hasn’t already.

And when Triple H and The Undertaker retire for good it truly will be the end of an era. The link between the wrestling of my childhood and whatever’s going on in the eventual present will finally become two distinct periods of time. I understand that’s inevitable with all things, but it’s still very much on my mind. It was in my head when the match had ended, and both Undertaker and Shawn Michaels helped Triple H to the back. WWE wanted me to be aware of the passage of time, and they succeeded. Everyone in the room praised the match on all fronts, and I did, too, but I then went out for a cigarette and played that image of Michaels, Taker and Triple H leaving together. No disrespect to The Rock. He is indeed an icon, but he went on to other things. He had been a regular visitor to WWE. Nothing more than that.

Michaels, Triple H and Undertaker, whatever you might think of their individual careers, have been there for almost as long as I’ve been of wrestling itself. Their passion for what they do is obvious, and that’s what made Triple H-Undertaker III the highlight of Wrestlemania 28 for me. For thirty minutes I felt the rush of childhood memories, and I saw three veterans prove they could still turn the lights on whenever they want to.

What of the younger talent? Are there other men and women on WWE’s roster who can do that? There are a few contenders, and though it will never be the same, I accept that and am willing to keep watching. Wrestlemania 28 reminded me that I shouldn’t take my cynicism for granted. Something can always come along, and knock it for a loop. The best things that drive my own passions and leisure always can. I almost forgot wrestling was one of those things, but it is, and I’m grateful to Undertaker, Triple H and Shawn Michaels for reminding me.

The Rock and John Cena? A good show was put on by both guys, but it wasn’t the main event. Even if it did go on last.