What better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than watching live wrestling? It's hard to think of any pop culture pastime that's more 100 percent Grade-A American. The Greeks developed wrestling as a sport, but leave it to us Yankees to turn it into theater.
When the WWE announced they'd host two live shows in Phoenix, I leapt at the chance to see Raw and SmackDown Live at Talking Stick Resort Arena. As a wrestling fan, I'm still a neophyte. I've been watching both shows since last summer, but I had yet to actually attend a live bout in person.
I ended up watching more than six hours of wrestling in two days. Here's what I learned during my voyage into the WWE Universe.
No Breaks From The Commercial Breaks
If you thought seeing a WWE show live meant that you'd be spared from the agony of having to watch commercials, you're dead wrong. Throughout both nights, we were treated to a bevy of ads in between matches. Unlike the TV ads, these were all commercials for WWE-related content, some of which is getting downright surreal. Did I hallucinate that ad for a Flintstones wrestling movie? Please tell me that was a yabba-dabba bad dream.
Ixnay On The Commentary
Biggest surprise of seeing wrestling live: There's no audible commentary. While the usual commentary teams for the blue and red brands were at ringside both nights to comment on the action, we couldn't hear anything they were saying. It made the live event feel oddly incomplete. One of the pleasures of watching wrestling on TV is the mixed quality of the commentary. Sometimes they'll say something insightful or hilarious (Corey Graves is the master at throwing delightful shade at performers) or they'll say something so stupid you'd swear you could hear the pebbles rolling around in their skull (I'm looking at you, David Otunga). If anything, considering the varying degrees of visibility that the audience had for watching the matches, you'd figure commentary would actually be more useful for a live audience.
It also took away from the impact of any sneak attacks performed by wrestlers sitting in as guest commentators. When The Hardy Boyz jumped in to attack Cesaro and Sheamus on this week's Raw, I hadn't realized that they'd been sitting in as commentators the whole time.
Brock Lesnar Sounds Like a Realtor
The second-biggest surprise: Brock Lesnar spoke during a video promo on Monday and his voice sounds insanely normal. For a guy that people call The Beast Incarnate, he sounds more like a dude who'd like to talk to you about the curb appeal of this great Arcadia property he's sitting on. The kind of guy who only drinks water with cucumbers in it. No wonder they gave him Paul Heyman to act as his mouthpiece — with a voice like that, he sounds more likely to take you to a golf course than Suplex City.
People Really Love Braun Strowman
The Monster Among Men has been white-hot lately, thanks in part to giving 90 percent of the WWE's fanbase exactly what they want: putting a major-league hurt on Roman Reigns. Whether it's flipping over ambulances or throwing Reigns across the arena like a rag doll, Strowman's become the best antagonist the WWE has. He sounds like he gargles with razor blades, he's big enough that he can manhandle anybody with ease, and he's great in the ring. He's the only wrestler on either show that you could believe other wrestlers are genuinely afraid of him. And the crowd can't get enough.
On Monday's show, fans were calling his name all night long. Strowman chants would build up in between matches, and sometimes break out in the middle of fights that had nothing to do with Braun or his arch-nemesis Reigns. When the big man finally came out, people lost their shit as if Michael Jackson had just entered the building. And he didn't short-change us when it came to dishing out brutal thrills. Braun showed off his freakish strength by kicking Apollo Crews across the ring while Crews was in midair. When Titus O'Neil (who's a big man, too) tried to intervene, Strowman picked him up and casually slammed him to the mat like he was a bag of oranges he was dropping in a shopping cart. Even when Reigns popped out at the end for a surprise attack and left the big man sprawled out in a pit offstage, people were still calling out for more Strowman.
People Really, Really Hate Roman Reigns
If you meet someone who's into wrestling, a great way to form an instant bond with them is to ask them just how much they hate Roman Reigns. The wrestling equivalent of Poochie, he's been a thorn in the side of fandom for years. You can hear crowds chant "You suck, Roman!" on TV, but it's not the same as sitting in an arena and hearing that chant hit deafening levels of volume. The sheer amount of vitriol that people have for Reigns is staggering. People are so eager to troll The Big Dog that when SmackDown Live (a show that Roman doesn't appear on anymore) showed a brief clip of him during a preshow montage, the crowd booed it so fiercely that I was waiting for them to start flinging rotten tomatoes at the screen.
The Best Shit Talkers Are Children
When it comes to talking shit, no fan has less chill or gives zero fucks as hard as children. Here's a few choice nuggets of "Wrestling Kid Fans Say The Darnedest Things":
"Nobody cares about you, Goldust!"
"You suck! Hey — I'm talking to you! I said you suck!"
"Sheamus looks so stupid. YOU LOOK STUPID, SHEAMUS!"
"You should quit! You're so bad!"
The "WHAT" Chant Is The Worst Thing Ever
The worst part about seeing wrestling live? It can be hard to appreciate a good in-ring promo or video piece because of all the goddamn hyenas who insist on shouting "what" every time a heel says something. It's the worst kind of heckling because it doesn't add anything to what's happening onstage, it makes it harder for everyone else to follow what's going on, and it often kills the rhythms of the people on the mic. While some wrestlers like Alexa Bliss are able to improvise and work their way around all the shouting, it's plain to see how much it can fluster and throw off other wrestlers. The "what" chant should be dragged out into the desert and left to rot into coyote chow.
Actually, The "USA!" Chant Is The Worst Thing Ever
Wait, on second thought, there is something worse than "what." It's the jingoistic "USA! USA!" chant. Tuesday's show was on the Fourth of July, so the show poured an extra helping of 'Murica syrup on the proceedings. John Cena gave a long speech about the American Dream and then got into an argument with the Bulgarian bruiser Rusev, encouraging the audience to chant "USA! USA!" over him. So charged was the crowd with America fever that they USA'd anybody who was even vaguely foreign. Even Natalya got the chant when she did a "dark match" (a.k.a. a match that's not televised) with Charlotte Flair at the top of SmackDown. The guy next to me shook his head and muttered, "She's from Nevada, you morons."
The worst use of "USA! USA!" happens whenever current WWE Champion Jinder Mahal shows up. Once a glorified "jobber" (meaning a guy who always loses fights) who looks like he juices every other hour, the veiny Mahal has been the reigning champ for awhile. People can't stand him — mostly because he's a sub-par wrestler and his character is boring. But whenever he gets on a mic, Mahal insists people hate him cause they're prejudiced. It's an argument that shouldn't carry any water on its own, but every time that damnable chant starts up, it makes him sound like he's got a point.
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The Cruiserweights Can't Catch A Break
Speaking of hate and trolling, the only wrestlers who give Reigns a run for his money as No. 1 Most Hated is the entire Cruiserweight division. The crowd HATED them. When Neville and Mustafa Ali had a match during Raw, the crowd went from electrified to wet blankets in the blink of an eye. People streamed out of the room to take a break, the way music fans do when a beloved band plays some new stuff in between the hits.
It's a shame, because Neville and Ali had a pretty solid match. The stockier Neville (looking like an elf on steroids) executed some brutal slams and also displayed some surprising dexterity. He snapped back up to his feet so effortlessly after hitting the mat you'd think he had Slinkies in his legs. And the lithe Ali hopped and spun around in the air like he was a ninja. How could people hate on Cruiserweights when two of them put on a better match than most of the Raw roster did that night?
The answer: 205 Live. When SmackDown ended on Tuesday, they immediately went into the Cruiserweight's show. Judging from the chants of "We didn't pay for this!" and "We want SmackDown!", folks were not expecting this bonus show. I haven't seen people get this outraged over some extra content since U2 sneaked an album onto everybody's phones. Adding to the general discontent was the announcement that there would be a "dark match" main event after 205 Live, with John Cena and Shinsuke Nakamura in a tag team match against Baron Corbin and Rusev. Placing the event that everybody was hot to see after 205 Live was a smart move. It kept people from streaming out the door. But it also meant that the crowd was extra vocal about their displeasure over having to endure a halfhearted, too-long bout between Gentleman Jack Gallagher and Tony Nese. And when a powdered wig-wearing Brian Kendrick crashed the party with a godawful video piece about how much he hates England, you could hear an entire stadium full of people setting up scales to weigh the pros and cons of sitting through the rest of this shit.
You Will Believe a Tooth Can Fly
I didn't imagine that it'd be possible to see a single tooth fly across a room, and then I watched Luke Harper knock a tooth out of Dolph Ziggler's mouth. Even in the midst of a raging battle royale, I could see Ziggler's tooth glinting in the light as it arced across the ring. It was a glorious sight.