Well, I got back yesterday, but I was so brain-dead that I completely unplugged from the Internet to start reading Starblazer Adventures. I’m hoping to do a GenCon post-mortem soon — I have a lot on my mind right now that I want to babble about.
I originally debated just not talking about this, but I need to get my head wrapped around it, and I do that best when I write things down for other people to read (which explains why I’m a writer, I guess). I then debated being very casual and flip about it, but I’m not there yet. So I’m just going to lay it out straight.
To start, my grandfather was in the Air Force, and
Before I begin on my
attack commentary on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, I need to set the stage.
During the week, I had a lot of trepidation about going to see this, to the point where
Further, I had heard so many bad things leading up to this that I had very low expectations. Living through the disappointment that was Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull also killed off a chunk of my soul. I even read (and reposted on Twitter) io9’s hilariously scathing review. I had resigned myself to trying to watch the movie as if it was just a movie about alien robots beating the shit out of each other. I set my opinions and emotional investment in the franchise aside. I also tried to get into the mindset of braindead appreciation that allowed me to (accidentally) appreciate Terminator Salvation as an entertaining movie.
So, keep that in mind: I’m a fan that wants to see the franchise succeed, but is willing to set that emotional investment aside and try to see the movie outside of my own nerdrage. And I recently was able to appreciate a movie that was criticized for many of the same flaws as this one. I’m not sure how much more sympathetic and biased I could be toward this movie.
And even then, I was still surprised at how fucking horrible this movie was.
As I mentioned in my prologue, on June 13, 2009 I watched one of my best friends wrestle his last match. It was Ric Byrne’s retirement match at WWC No Escape 2009 — an “impromptu” four corners match for the VCW World Heavyweight Title against JT Stahr, Ben Kimera and Shirley Doe. It was a fantastic match. Afterwards there was a lot of heart-felt sentiment, including both Ben and Shirely breaking character in the ring as heels to express their gratitude to a crowd of over 200 people for Byrne’s contributions to not only the midwestern professional wrestling scene, but to the industry as a whole. I was at Byrne’s premiere match, and there was absolutely nothing that would stop me from being there for his final one as well.
I was also present for the retirement of another Ric: Ric Flair’s final match against Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania XXIV. Again, it was a fantastic match, easily one of the best of the year. Again, there was a lot of emotion afterward, both on Raw the next day and in the following weeks as Flair bid farewell to a long and legendary career in professional wrestling. From there he went on to do a number of publicity appearances, as well as a few on-mic roles for WWE and some for Ring of Honor. We didn’t expect Flair to stay away from wrestling forever, but he had certainly retired from the ring.
On June 1st, 2009, Flair had a planned “backstage brawl” with Randy Orton on Raw. Although Flair himself said repeatedly that he wasn’t having a match, there have certainly been enough sanctioned street fights, parking-lot bouts and other matches-that-aren’t-inside-a-ring in WWE history that most fans I know call bullshit on the semantics. It was a match. It was a match on a professional wrestling program. It was a match on a professional wrestling program that he claimed he retired from.
As far as I’m concerned, Flair broke his word to his fans. He returned the gold watch.
Now, there’s certainly a history of leaving retirement in professional wrestling. There are a number of angles where the loser leaves town or a wrestler retires only to come back several months or years later. (For example, Mick Foley retired in 2000 from the WWF, only to start wrestling again in TNA in 2009.) Certainly fans can point to the rich history of wrestling and claim that it’s actually very rare that a wrestler stays retired. I’m not saying that there isn’t a tradition of breaking retirement. But there’s the other side to consider: a lot of wrestlers are forced to retire due to medical conditions or personal decisions, and may get nothing more than a short speech and a tournament over their vacated belt, if they’re not just mentioned in passing at the next show. There’s no consistency as to how a wrestler retires, and it seems that a particular performer has to build up a lot of respect in the industry before they’re given any kind of retirement match at all.
This tradition of false retirements and sudden returns means that we, as the fans, often don’t know if a retirement is legitimate until it’s too late. We become blase and suspicious of retirement matches or speeches, only to feel bad when we find out later that the retirement is legitimate. At Wrestlemania 25, I saw JBL’s last match, but at the time I didn’t know it was his last match, because he’s “quit” a number of times before in the WWE. On June 8, 2009, Vickie Guerrero suddenly quit as Raw General Manager, and we as fans didn’t realize until later that she had decided to leave the company to spend more time with her children. So when a wrestler has a lengthy build-up to retirement and a chance to put out a fantastic match, and when that match is able to overcome our inherent skepticism and get us emotionally involved, that’s something special. It’s special to the wrestler, to the industry and to the fans.
Which is why I’m so pissed that Flair had a chance to do something classy with his retirement, and barely waited a year before he was mixing it up again.
His decision makes the problem of future sendoffs so much worse. Now just about every retirement is going to be mocked or ignored. We won’t realize someone is gone until a few years go by and someone asks “Hey, whatever happened to so-and-so?” Nothing is going to be taken at face value. This isn’t exciting. This isn’t clever. This is disrespectful to the fans, the wrestlers and the industry as a whole, because now if a wrestler does have to retire and does put himself through one last amazing match to celebrate his career (like Ric Byrne), it doesn’t mean a damned thing. It’s going to be harder and harder for the guys in future to have respectful, dignified retirements, because I’m going to be thinking “If the legendary Ric Flair couldn’t stay retired, why will you?”
I saw that we declare this particular swerve over and done with. I’m sick of it. It can be done with class and dignity. For example, Chris Jericho didn’t “retire” in 2005. He was (kayfabe) fired from the WWE, but he said that he was just leaving wrestling “for now,” and that if and when he came back, it would be with the WWE again. Others have quietly left for other feds or other opportunities, such as mixed martial arts. That’s fine — I can accept that. But if you use the word retired, be serious about it. Make it rare, make it special, and make it stick. I’m tired of being emotionally abused by fake retirements.
If you take the gold watch, you’d better damn well keep it.
Today is a special day, a day to celebrate the birth of the most wonderful woman in the world, my wife Michelle (
I have previously gone on at length about the awesomeness of being able to marry my best friend, the woman that completes me. We have been together for over a decade and married for over eight, and while the relationship has naturally changed as we’ve gotten older, I still simply cannot envision a life without her.
Michelle, you are my partner, my strength, my fantasy, my support, my cheerleader, my protector, my fury, and I love you. I am so proud of what you’ve accomplished, and I eager await how far you can go. I know how much you’ve brought into my life, and I can only hope that the world can appreciate a fraction of that.
Many happy returns.
On June 25, 2007, Chris Benoit was found dead with his wife Nancy and their son Daniel in their home in Fayetteville, Georgia. On February 12, 2008, the Fayette County Police Department closed their investigation, citing that Benoit strangled his wife and suffocated his son before hanging himself. The reasons for his actions haven’t been officially determined, but the most plausible theory (proposed by Chris Nowinski) involves chronic brain damage to all four lobes of his brain leading to depression and dementia. Interestingly, the original and most popular theory in the media — that Benoit used steroids and went into a so-called “roid rage” — was disproven when no artificial steroids were found in his system in the autopsy. Many other wrestling deaths have come to light over the years, but none have garnered as much controversy and attention to professional wrestling as Chris Benoit’s case. The media attention led to an overall examination of the impact of steroids and other drugs on the lives of professional wrestlers, regardless of the unlikeliness that they contributed to death of Benoit and his family specifically.
Whether it was brain damage acquired from repeated concussions gained by a signature move and a variety of head shots, or steroids and other damaging medical procedures to increase strength and change body shape, professional wrestlers have died for actions that directly or indirectly involve their performance in the ring and in the industry as a whole. Their desire to be a better or more popular wrestler lead them to take actions that dramatically increase their chances of an early death. As I mentioned in my first essay, many professional wrestlers don’t perform purely out of financial incentive, but rather because of their passion and respect for the business. But on a more fundamental level, many of them do it for the same reasons that musicians perform in concerts or actors perform on stage — for the reaction of the crowd, the thrill of public performance, the excitement of crowds of people chanting your name. And we, as fans, comprise that audience.
So, from a fan perspective, the question must be asked. Do fans push wrestlers too hard, leading them to their premature deaths? Is their blood in some way on our hands? In effect, did we kill Benoit?
There are two obvious answers to that question. Yes, we are responsible — if there were no professional wrestling fans, there would be no industry, which wouldn’t require these risky actions to be taken, which would lead to less deaths. No, we aren’t responsible — the talent make their own choices to put their lives on the line every night, and taking actions that put their lives at even greater risk ultimately stem from their own decisions. But both answers are simplistic and trite, and neither is completely accurate. The reality is that, on a fundamental level, there’s a symbiotic relationship between the wrestlers and the fans that twists in on itself, providing no easy starting point to examine. An amazing match brings us time and again to watch our favorite wrestlers perform or create new fans. An incredible crowd reaction energizes a wrestler and pushes him to keep delivering quality matches for as long as he’s able (and, perhaps, long after he’s no longer able). The moment of a perfect crowd and a perfect match transcends both; the result is much greater than the sum of its parts.
From there, attention naturally moves in the same direction it did with the media — to the promoters and federation owners. It’s easy to say that they are responsible for pushing the performers to take the head shots or consider using drugs, but that’s also too simplistic. Wrestlers often volunteer to do risky spots on their own initiative, and I’ve heard of a number of cases where a wrestler refused a particular spot in a match. Also, regardless of what you think about the effectiveness of the WWE’s Wellness Program, it is true that a number of wrestlers have been suspended and released due to violations of the program, even before Chris Benoit (for example, Eddie Guerrero is pretty open about his own termination over his drug use in his biography). WWE has also taken steps to reduce the extreme matches on their product, particularly on their ECW brand. Arguments can certainly be made that perhaps WWE and the other federations haven’t done enough to reduce career-ending spots and performer drug use, but it’s false to say that nothing has been done at all to discourage both in the industry. And yet fans continually respond well to risky spots and wrestlers of a particular build or physique.
The reality is an unfortunate Catch 22. Wrestlers are frequently paid by performance, so they have to limp their body along for one more match to get one more paycheck. They often use drugs to help them when they’re injured (Footnote: Alcohol is probably the most abused drug by wrestlers. Many wrestlers I’ve talked to admit to drinking after (or before) matches to help with pain management) . They also accept risky spots in order to get a particular match over. This gets the audience excited, which creates more fans, which helps to grow a federation. The federation wants to bring more attention and people to the events, so they can make more money — which, ideally, will make it back to the talent. If you get rid of one part of the equation, the rest falls apart.
Where does the blame ultimately lie? I don’t think any one group is completely to blame, but neither do I think that any one group is completely innocent, either. Wrestlers have to make decisions for themselves about what kinds of matches they will do, and what they’re willing to put their bodies through. Promoters have to decide what kind of product they want to produce, and what financial and cultural risks they’re willing to take for it. And fans have to decide what forms of wrestling they’ll support with their money. For example, I personally don’t like how devastating “ultra-violent” wrestling (such as what CZW promotes) can be, so I don’t support it when my money anymore. I buy the merchandise and photo opportunities of wrestlers that I want to see succeed, to give them a financial avenue in addition to their appearance fee. I try to spend my money — the one commodity that ties this equation together — to direct the industry in the ways I want it to go. My money is the first, last and only direct impact I have on professional wrestling, so I use it consciously.
As wrestlers make decisions that help to extend their careers and promoters decide to reduce dangerous spots and punish drug use, we as fans should think about how we support the industry with our money and our enthusiasm. It won’t bring any of the great talent we’ve lost over the years back, but maybe it will allow the wrestlers of today to live longer and healthier lives so that they can entertain us for years to come.