I’ve been watching wrestling for around nine months this January. Which, unsurprisingly, is also the length of time I’ve known Kefin Mahon from the Attitude Era Podcast.
It took a notably long time for Kefin to actually show me any wrestling. I knew he was involved in a podcast that had something to do with the sport I had never watched and as a result I was intrigued as to what wrestling was actually all about. Wrestling fans as a stereotype always seem to be unusually sweaty nerds – larger than life, obsessed with oily hunks in spandex. Certainly my own experience with the “fandom” (is that the correct term? I have no idea) wasn’t far off the mark. As an awkward 14 year old goth-wannabe I visited some family friends whose sons had set up their own wrestling group in a local park. Keen to impress the older boys, I volunteered to join, and was given the name ‘Ice Queen’. No doubt nervous about accidentally hurting a significantly younger girl they’d only just met (and consequently getting told off by my mum), my duties mainly involved cackling dramatically and pretending I had magic ice powers. Meanwhile, they took their tops off and grappled each other until someone got called home for dinner.
That was my only experience of wrestling until the age of 23. I assumed wrestling was something you grew out of as you got older and more fragile, like those Stretch Armstrong dolls that exploded if you were too rough with them. Before Kefin, the only person I knew above the age of 20 who still liked wrestling was a guy at college who had pierced his spine 12 times and called himself Snake Man. The thought that the sophisticated and charming person sitting in front of me at dinner was not only into wrestling, but somewhat of an expert, meant everything I thought I knew was a lie. But when I tried to get Kefin to show me something, anything, to do with the sport, my efforts were politely brushed aside. And so I took matters into my own hands.
It’s amazing how difficult it is to get into wrestling when you know absolutely nothing about it. I tried googling ‘wrestling’ but it came up with countless news stories about people wearing helmets in school gyms and I was pretty sure that wasn’t what I was looking for. I tried listening to the AE Podcast but found it alarmingly loud and confusing – full of references and in-jokes I wasn’t yet a part of. In the end, I asked a couple of friends if they had ever watched any wrestling and was consequently linked to a match between Mick Foley and The Rock. At the time I didn’t even know Dwayne Johnson had been a wrestler, associating him only with that one film where he was a tooth fairy or something, and as a result was pleasantly surprised to see two giant, massive hunks (is Mick Foley a hunk? Vote now!) perform feats I had only previously seen in high-level contemporary dance.
I was hooked.
After sending a quick text to Kefin to say “fell in love with mick foley btw” I delved deeper into the related videos on YouTube, discovering the likes of Ric Flair (who looked like my boss), Randy Orton (who I hated, but in a good way) and Batista (who I immediately forgot about until he was in that one film recently). The next day, Kefin showed me the 1998 Hell in a Cell match with Mankind versus the Undertaker and I was officially reborn as a beautiful butterfly wrestling fan. A couple of weeks later, a guy at work dared suggest that wrestling was “fake” and I exploded, immediately linking him to instances of very real and horrific injuries; furious that such a word be used to describe so many hugely talented individuals I had come to love and admire. I had become One of Them.
It was a few months after that when I was introduced to the modern wrestling roster. At first I didn’t think much of it – all the men looked like uncooked hams and hairless ball sacks and the fights seemed to go on forever without any sort of coherent structure. I couldn’t tell any of the wrestlers apart from one another and besides, there was no blood and hardly anyone got hit with chairs and that bored me after the grand spectacles I had been introduced to. Quick to catch onto my lack of interest, Kefin instead showed me NXT and once again, I was enthralled. Amazed at how different the two shows could be, I adored the flip-de-doo wrestling style of the majority of fighters on NXT, as opposed to the slow, awkward groping that seemed to make up the main show I had watched on WWE. As a self-professed regular Tumblr user, I was already familiar with the faces of The Shield; and although I wasn’t all too keen on that pesky lookin’ Dean Ambrose, I immediately fell in love with Seth Rollins. What can I say, dark men in black leather pants doing backflips just does something to me.
When it comes to music, I like to pride myself on my ability to match people’s tastes to new bands they may not have heard of. Kefin has the same ability, but for wrestling. Picking up on the fact that I liked Seth’s wrestling style, he showed me Finn Balor, Hideo Itami and Sami Zayn. I started wondering where wrestling had been all my life – these handsome oily hunks in tight clothing, doing majestic acrobatics an Olympic gymnast would be proud of. I’m not sure if it’s the fancy-pants wrestling style, or the fact that the majority of wrestlers on NXT are incredibly attractive that’s more important, but above all, the biggest appeal to me was the female roster.
Women had, for the most part, been notably absent from the matches I’d been shown by Kefin, and as a result I just assumed they hadn’t really “been invented” until more recent shows. As it turned out, he had been carefully selecting matches that wouldn’t accidentally offend my feminist sensibilities and consequently put me off the sport altogether. Looking back, that was a very smart move – to this day, and nine months a wrestling fan, I still can’t stomach the bra and panties matches that once consisted some of women’s wrestling. Much better instead, that my first female match consisted of Bailey versus Sasha Banks. These women were a breath of fresh air I didn’t know I needed. Their plots were fascinating, addressing issues of bullying anyone can identify with, but in this instance especially young girls. Bailey was the perfect person to represent an idol for younger female wrestling fans – she’s genuine, passionate, loveable and loyal. She’s also an incredibly talented wrestler.
I can’t emphasise how much NXT went up in my books after watching that first match. The thought that young girls had someone in wrestling they could look up to who wasn’t sexualised, but who had a genuinely likeable and interesting personality without relying on the “strong female character” cliché made me literally tear up with happiness. As a woman, I’m desperate for any female representation, no matter how tiny, and NXT delivered not only a wonderful array of amazing female wrestlers, but also interesting, developed characters that didn’t stumble into every disappointing and overused trope imaginable.
It’s interesting in retrospect to see how wrestling has slowly begun catering to a growing female audience. Male wrestlers have become more handsome (perhaps we have NXT to thank for that – I struggle to think of any ridiculously attractive wrestler that didn’t start there), female wrestlers have been given more complex and interesting opportunities. We’ve still got a long way to go before we have a female wrestler equivalent for Bray Wyatt (an overweight female wrestler who’s portrayed as powerful AND charismatic? I wish) but I’m grateful for the progress made so far.
I’m excited for the future of wrestling. Excited to see NXT this Thursday, excited to watch the Royal Rumble, excited to see Mick Foley’s daughter grow up to become a champion (c’mon, she will). I’ll continue to squeal in delight when Sami Zayn does a particularly majestic backflip out of the ring, landing perfectly on his opponent’s head, continue to pretend Ric Flair is actually my boss in an Alternate Universe in which he’s a wrestler, continue to complain that Triple H looks like a joint of gammon left out in the sun. And above all, I’ll continue to follow Sasha Banks on Tumblr, because every so often she’ll reblog a gifset of Bailey tagged #adorable angel and I’ll blubber like a big ol’ baby.
As published in Calling Spots magazine.