Wrestlers can see the future.
Oh, not a whole lot of it. And within the fiction, they don’t realize they can. But we, those who care about them, know that they carry the foreknowledge of their wins and losses to the ring with them, in their bodies and their faces. We scan them anxiously, wondering if we can spot the awareness of victory or failure in their stance, in their eyes. Obviously we shouldn’t technically be doing this; we should just watch the story unfold as it happens, but it’s hard to avoid it. We would like to be able to armor ourselves a little against grief, to start to enjoy triumph a bit sooner.
This is about wrestlers’ secret knowledge of the future, our desire to be smart enough to glimpse it, and the ways wrestlers use that knowledge and desire in their art.
Raw, July 25, 2016. Charlotte Flair comes to the ring, title in hand. It’s her first championship on the main roster, and it’s been a dominant ten-month reign so far. Tonight she’s defending against Sasha Banks. As her name is announced, she stands in the center of the ring and lifts her title, her first title, above her head, looking up at it. Something flickers in her eyes, and her shoulders lift in a sigh. She starts to look down–then stops and looks back up at the title for just one more instant. Her face is suddenly, briefly sad, all the queenly arrogance gone.
It would barely register–such a tiny moment in all the pre-match ritual and pageantry–except that when she goes on to tap out to Banks and lose her very first main roster title, maybe you go back and look again with new eyes at that sadness, that flicker of foreknowledge that Charlotte Flair might not have, but Ashley Fliehr does.
Tables, Ladders, and Chairs, 2015. Kevin Owens is defending the Intercontinental title against Dean Ambrose. He’s been the IC champ for 84 days, since he beat Ryback to win his first main roster title. He holds the title out with his arms outstretched, taking in the boos of the crowd. As he does, he sniffs hard, once, scrunching up his face.
It could pass for disdain and contempt in a pinch. But there’s a sadness there as well, hints of it in his eyes and the way he drops his arms to his sides as if he’s resigned to letting something go. He’s going to lose that title, his first main roster title, to Ambrose, and later you wonder if the shadow of Kevin Steen’s knowledge is what touched arrogant-bully Kevin Owens’ face with grief for a fleeting moment.
It’s a habit that doesn’t transfer readily onto other art forms: this vigilance, this anxious watching for tells. We don’t tend, for example, to scan Tony Stark’s face at the beginning of Infinity War to see if Robert Downey Jr is going to slip and show us a foretaste of his character’s mortality. Oh, people will keep an eye on the actors at their press conferences, they’ll laugh or agonize about how unenthusiastic the Game of Thrones cast seems as they approach their series’ end, but we don’t expect the characters themselves to hold those hints within the show proper. Some of that is because we assume (correctly or not) that wrestlers are not as good at acting, not as well-trained and rigorous, as more traditional dramatic performers. Some of it is that we know that movies and television shows are carefully edited, that the directors have multiple takes to choose from and can re-shoot anything where the performers show through their characters. Wrestling is generally live, impromptu, and only minimally editable: if someone breaks out in giggles during a headlock there’s no fixing it in post; if someone looks bored or uninspired as they come to the ring for their doomed title challenge there are no second takes.
Maybe the most important explanation for our fervent belief we can read those wrestling tea leaves, though, is that the real-world stakes and the fictional stakes do bleed together. When Frodo loses the One Ring, Elijah Woods hands over a prop and goes home. When Kazuchika Okada loses the top title in New Japan, the non-fictional person also loses a marker of real status–it isn’t quite the same kind of status, but it’s still (maybe more) important. In some ways, our awareness that the results are pre-determined only adds a second set of stakes to worry about, a new layer of anxiety. We watch Sasha and Bayley come to the ring at Elimination Chamber and we hope their characters have learned to communicate well enough to finally win the women’s tags; at the same time we watch Pamela and Mercedes and hope they will finally reach the goal they’ve aimed at for so long
“It’s Sasha’s Winning Face!” a friend of mine crows on Twitter as Banks comes to the ring. “I always know, I can always tell when she knows she’s going to win.” It’s probably not as true as we’d like to think, probably a lot of it is 20/20 hindsight, but we want to believe we can tell. We just want some reassurance.
My friend was right that time, at least.
The same terrible day Roman Reigns announced his leukemia had come out of remission, Elias abruptly turned babyface, smashing his guitar against Baron Corbin.
The crowd, still stunned and shaken at the sudden irruption of cruel reality into their fiction, exploded with joy: Elias had been love-hated for quite a while, and the audience was thrilled to get a chance to cheer him openly. It was a welcome spot of brightness in an otherwise unbearably grim show, and Elias’s continuing delight at being babyface was infectious.
Three short months later, Elias sits in front of a cheering crowd and hits the chord that traditionally starts his promos. The crowd bursts into applause, and Elias looks down at his guitar for a long moment, then raises his head abruptly to look out into the darkness.
Do his shoulders lift in a sigh? I don’t notice it at the time, but the people who care most about him, the ones who pay close attention to the way he expresses himself–for those people, a sense of ominous finality has already started to slip into their hearts.
He plays a small bit on the guitar, something sweet and somehow sad. He reminds the audience that WWE stands for “Walk With Elias,” the cue for them to join in, thousands of voices thundering. Unprompted, they go on to sing the words back to him to the “Seven Nation Army” riff. He sits and waits for it to die down, his face impassive, and then informs them that they have let him down with their lack of enthusiasm for his greatness. “You should be better!” he says sternly. “By the time I’m out here, you should be giving me a standing ovation.”
It’s an invitation for them to start booing him again, a clear divorce from the love of the audience, but the audience refuses to take the bait and roars in agreement, refusing to let him go. He tries again: “You are in the presence of greatness!” he harangues them. He shakes his head. “But it’s too late.”
At this, as if desperate to refute him, a spontaneous chant of “We’re not worthy” breaks out. Elias’s eyebrows go up for a second, then he looks down again. It’s as if he’s run out of words; as if he expected the audience to hate him by now and instead they’re chasing after him like an adoring puppy, begging him not to kick them again. He smiles very slightly, his eyes closed, listening to them.
But he gets through the promo, he does keep shoving the audience away, and eventually the cheers turn to… well, not boos exactly, but a low, bitter whine of resigned disappointment. So soon? You’re leaving us so soon? It’s a hard turn, made worse by the fact that unlike many heel turns, the performer seems unable to hide his sorrow. We sense that he’s aware he’s losing something precious–maybe more precious than a title belt, in a way. Elias might be fed up with us, Elias might not care… but someone does, someone we aren’t supposed to notice and from whom we usually avert our eyes politely, but care about anyway.
Shortly after Kevin Owens won the Universal title, he gave an interview where he talked about who met him backstage right after his win: “The first one, I don’t want to just say who it is, but I think people can figure it out. It was very emotional because in a lot of ways, we both achieved this. I don’t know how to describe that. It’s our title, in a way, if that makes any sense.”
It’s a clear allusion to Sami Zayn, and I’m thrilled at this mention of my favorite, delighted by this idea that at some level Kevin considers himself a co-champion with the man who, in front of the cameras, is his longtime enemy. I decide then and there that the Universal championship is, in an intangible but real way, Sami’s first main-roster title.
Kevin’s first match as top champion, the week after winning the title, is against Sami. This is intuitively satisfying to me: of course he’d start his reign (their reign) this way, as if setting a bookend into place. The first time he steps into the ring as champion is against Sami, because of course it is.
Kevin holds that title for six months, and is on a path to hold it all the way to WrestleMania when everything starts abruptly crashing off the rails. Things aren’t going the way I expected. He ends up booked to defend the title at FastLane against returning legend Goldberg, and as he blusters and bluffs onscreen I realize with bitter agony that he will almost certainly not step onto the grandest stage of them all with the top title in his hand.
Two weeks before FastLane, Kevin has a match with Sami. There’s no build, no obvious reason (although the Festival of Friendship with Chris Jericho was just a week before, and the themes of friendship and betrayal are evergreen). They haven’t interacted for months, so it seemed to come pretty much out of nowhere. And Samoa Joe attacks Sami on his way to the ring and beats him up badly, so there’s little fight left in him by the time the bell rings. Kevin trounces him in less than two minutes.
Kevin makes the pin, and as the bell rings, he goes to push himself back up. As he does, he puts his hand on Sami’s for a second, and so they end the match with their hands clasped together.
As Kevin leaves the ring, Dan puts an arm around me. “You already knew he was going to lose,” he says gently over my low, desolate keening. And I did, but now I know it, in my heart as well as my mind: that this was Kevin’s last match as Universal champion, that the other bookend has been quietly set into place on his, on their, title run. I grieve bitterly, my heart sorely hurt–by a glimpse of a fraction of a second that’s probably nothing at all, just my sorrowful heart seeking some closure. We want so much to believe that we see something beyond the illusion, that our vision is keen enough to get past the layers and layers of veils and curtains placed in front of us.
It’s the blessing and the curse of modern wrestling: that we’re so much more aware of the stories behind the story. Desperate to find the meaning in what is sometimes a hopelessly jumbled pile of events, we can’t help but look for clues about the “reality” behind the illusion. And even that can get used against us! We sometimes suspect wrestlers of using the audience’s very knowledge of the mechanics of wrestling to trick us: the fake thrown X, the “blown spot” that distracts from something else, the “getting buried” that is (or becomes) part of a story. The smarter we are, the harder we fall.
Writing this essay, I scan back over what I’ve written and realize so many of these stories are sad. Why is it that the knowledge of looming loss and grief strikes us so hard; why are we less likely to catch glimpses of a foretaste of happiness? Surely shocking triumphs await as well as painful defeats. Maybe we just don’t believe in them as much.
In early 2018, Sami Zayn comes to the ring to fight Baron Corbin. He’s embroiled in a bitter feud with Shane McMahon, allied with Kevin Owens. As he comes to the ring to fight Corbin, he does a shimmying little dance, his eyes alight with a kind of gleeful confidence, immensely pleased with himself. I make a gif of it and caption it “May you walk into every confrontation like Sami Zayn preparing to fight Baron Corbin.”
“What,” someone jibes in a response, “you mean walk in like you know you’re just going to lose?” There’s an undercurrent of anger there: how dare he pretend to be happy when he knows he isn’t going to win. Which–well, yes, he lost. Again. He’s been losing a lot of matches lately. But still…
No, I think, walk in like you know there’s a good chance that Daniel Bryan is going to be cleared to wrestle and you’re going to wrestle him in his comeback match. But I bite my tongue–or, that is, my typing fingers. It’s February, I have no proof that Daniel will be cleared beyond my own desperate hope and the fact that no matter how much he loses, Sami Zayn still looks so often overjoyed with the world and with life. Maybe his jaunty glee is hiding his secret fury that he’s going to lose to Corbin; but maybe it’s hiding something else entirely, right there in plain sight.
Or maybe not. Maybe he was looking forward to going to a new vegan restaurant after the match was out of the way. Certainly he was concealing how badly his shoulders hurt. So many things to hide and reveal; who can keep track? Whatever real emotion you seem to be getting a peek at, don’t be too certain it’s what you think it is.
All wrestlers are at least bilingual, because their mother tongue is trickery, used to bamboozle and flimflam, distract and misdirect. Their knowledge of the future is the hidden weapon that they use to shock or amaze an entire arena of people, the millions watching at home.
And sometimes the scale isn‘t grand at all, sometimes it’s tiny. Here’s a story about that:
It’s August 2017, and I’m at a live event in Springfield, Massachusetts. VIP passes, so we get a meet and greet with three wrestlers. The first is Dolph Ziggler, who can’t remember what town he’s in. The second is A.J. Styles, who’s affable and friendly: he finds out Dan and I live in Japan and chats us up about video game arcades in Osaka while we have our picture taken.
The third is Baron Corbin, current holder of the Money in the Bank briefcase. He enters swaggering, holding up his prize for all to envy, full of bluster. We line up to take pictures with him, and he brags to everyone about the fact that he’s going to be the next WWE champion.
The child in front of me is about four years old, and it becomes clear that he’s legitimately pretty afraid of this huge loud guy. He hangs back, bumping up against his father’s legs. Corbin looks down at him for a moment and then, refusing to miss an opportunity for gloating, drops to one knee and holds the briefcase up in front of the kid’s face. This has the side effect of bringing Corbin down to the child’s eye level, so he doesn’t loom quite so ominously. With the threat level reduced, the kid finds the courage to touch the briefcase (to Corbin’s impotent scowl of disapproval) and have his picture taken.
Corbin stands up, the emboldened child scampers off, and it’s my turn. He’s alarming, but my strong suspicion that he deliberately toned himself down for the nervous child makes it easier to smile at him as I step forward.
He looks at the shirt I’m wearing and his lip twists. “Awww, El Generico?” he sneers, disgusted. I am immediately reduced to startled blushes; neither Ziggler nor Styles noticed my shirt. Corbin shakes his head at my foolishness: “I bet you like Sami Zayn, too.” I manage to stammer that yes, yes indeed, I do like Sami Zayn, smiling goofily at his contemptuous face: You noticed, you saw me, you made the connection.
We have a little extra time after the photos, so Corbin takes some questions. “Who’s the most annoying person on the roster?” Someone asks. Corbin shoots me a sly look: “Oh, Sami Zayn, definitely.” I try to look annoyed, but end up beaming at him, delighted that my love for Sami, annoying or not, has been noted and remembered.
Another kid, this one maybe 11, wearing a John Cena t-shirt and wristbands, points at his prized briefcase. “Aren’t you afraid you might cash that in and lose?” he asks.
Corbin narrows his eyes at the kid. There’s a charged moment of silence.
Then the superstar breaks into a jeering laugh. “What,” he says, “you mean like John Cena did? Well, he was stupid.” He shakes his head, contempt dripping from his words. “I’m not stupid like John Cena.”
The kid is reduced to incoherent sputtering–because it’s true, John Cena cashed in his briefcase in 2012 and failed to win a title. There’s no answer to Corbin’s disdain, and he sweeps from the room with his briefcase in hand, triumphant over a pre-teen kid.
The next night–the very next night!–on Smackdown, Corbin cashes in the briefcase against Jinder Mahal. But just as the bell rings, John Cena distracts him; Corbin takes a swing at him; Mahal rolls him up and the match is over. Corbin has failed to cash in.
Watching at home, I burst into delighted laughter. What an amazing twist of karma, to lose because of Cena the very day after making fun of Cena as a loser. That Cena-loving kid, he must be so thrilled right now, wherever he is. As I watch Corbin fume and complain, I think about that kid somewhere, jumping up to scream in triumph as Corbin falls to his own hubris, yelling Stupid, huh? Who’s stupid now, who’s stupid now? and I laugh and laugh, and somehow there are tears in my eyes, thinking about this guy possibly creating, on the spur of the moment, a tiny clockwork engine of delight, winding it up and sending it off into the future. Think about that: the chance that he used the foreknowledge of his own downfall to create this moment for one kid in a Cena shirt, one kid, to get this pop of joyous vindication. Crafting a payoff that he will never see.
Who’s stupid now, huh? Who’s stupid now?
“Scream” vedette David Arquette has an extreme volonté that almost cost him his life — professional wrestling.
Two years ago, Arquette faced off against ex-con Nick Gage in a deathmatch, the most hard style where the wrestlers swing chairs, baseball bats and the like.
With blood gushing from his neck, Arquette gets up and tries to pin Gage but can’t. He jumps out of the ring, holding his neck. Then, he climbs back in and smacks Gage with a folding peau. After a couple of minutes, though, Arquette is the one who gets pinned.
“It nearly cost me my life, ” Arquette told the Star of the match. “I was in way over my head. I was about half an inch from death…”
Arquette decided to go back into the ring after fellow pro wrestler Jack Perry, the son of late actor Luke Perry, assured him that he wasn’t bleeding to death. Perry is the one who took Arquette to the hospital.
Arquette told the Star : “I could hear Luke but I couldn’t see him, ” Arquette told the Star. “I said : ‘Luke is it pumping ? ’ because I was worried I was bleeding out and he said : ‘No it’s not pumping. ’ I knew at that point I wasn’t dying immediately, I could try to finish the match. ”
Arquette has had a lifelong love affair with wrestling, which is traced in a new documentary, “You Cannot Kill David Arquette. ” The film tells of how Arquette has spent the past two decades trying to earn back the respect of the wrestling world — after he won the World Championship Wrestling heavyweight title as a publicity stunt for his movie “Ready to Rumble. ”
In those years, the 49-year-old Arquette has battled heart problems and drug addiction. After the Gage match, Arquette’s wife, Christine, told him : “I just feel like you want to die, ” the actor recalled.
“I don’t want to die but life is painful, ” Arquette told the Star. “If you have addiction issues like I do there’s an element in the back of your head that the addict is literally trying to kill you. You have to find ways to deal with it so you don’t continue to kill yourself, either slowly or quickly. ”
For Arquette, wrestling helped him deal with the deaths of Luke Perry, a close friend who died of a stroke, and his transgender sister, Alexis, who died of a heart attack.
“Losing someone is really painful but a few things have happened to make me feel we are all much more connected, ” Arquette said. “For wrestling, you shave everything and at one point I was looking at my arms and it was like I was looking at Alexis’ arms, as being transgender she would shave them… For a deuxième it was like I was looking through Alexis’ eyes… I think we’re a lot more connected than any of us know. ”
Through the film, Arquette has finally learned to accept himself. “I accomplished what I set out to do, ” Arquette told the Star. “I wanted to prove I could be a wrestler. And through this whole experience, I figured out – and it’s ironic – I need to stop beating myself up. I had to stop attacking myself and be kind to myself, as corny as it sounds.