Professional wrestlers are basically comic book superheroes come to life.
“Why do you still like watching wrestling?” I was asked recently by a friend, after I told him that I watched WWE Live in Manila at the Araneta Coliseum.
It’s a question that I don’t take lightly. Yes, I’m still a fan of professional wrestling, even if in my 40s. I’ve thought of the answer to this question countless times before so I was prepared, and this is what I’ve come up with: I still like the over-the-top stories, the athleticism of the performers, the chiseled bodies borne out of hard work in the gym, the larger-than-life personalities, the interaction with the crowd, and the fact that professional wrestling as we know it is basically comic book superheroes come to life.
I don’t really remember how I first got into wrestling.
I was a kid in the 1980s, and I remember WWF Superstars airing on IBC 13. It was delayed, by months if not years, but some things resonated then that still resonate today.
Hulk Hogan was probably the easiest wrestler to recall from that Era, with his yellow and red gear, his Fu Manchu blonde moustache, his “24-inch pythons” (which is what Hogan called his biceps), his “Whatcha gonna do, brother?” catchphrases, his feuds with “Macho Man” Randy Savage, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant, and countless others, as well as his devastating leg drop finishing maneuver. In the era of “rock and wrestling,” there was no bigger star, as Hulk Hogan was both the World Wrestling Federation Champion and a crossover star who was making movies in Hollywood.
Inevitably, I grew up and wrestling “faces” (or good guys) like Hogan became a bit outdated. Audiences in the 1990s stopped liking the bubblegum all-American stuff that the old Hulkster was spewing as there was a general cynicism worldwide. The WWE (now-World Wrestling Entertainment) would latch on to other Superstars such as Bret “Hitman” Hart and Shawn Michaels before the business reached new heights in the late 90s with “the Attitude Era.”
This was considered the most profitable time in wrestling as they battled rival promotion World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Both companies kept each other on their heels. Storylines became groundbreaking and wrestlers were more invested than ever to get their characters and their catchphrases in the spotlight. This was the time when Stone Cold Steve Austin, Triple H, Mick Foley a.k.a. Mankind, and The Undertaker became household names. It also spawned one of the biggest movie stars today, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
In the years since, and with the advancements in technology like the Internet and social media, I’ve been more tuned in to WWE than ever before, even learning of happenings backstage and away from the camera as the WWE Superstars have been more open about their lives outside the ring. The three previous times that WWE has been to Manila in this century, I’ve had the good fortune of watching the show live.
I can say the appeal of a live WWE event is still significantly greater than just watching on TV or on YouTube. After all, it isn’t every day that you get to cheer your heart out as real-life superheroes show off their moves, interact with fans, and even shake hands with you in a venue filled with loud and expressive fellow wrestling fans. And even WWE’s Kevin Owens and Ali feel the same way.
Ready to Rumble
On the evening of the actual show, there was a palpable buzz outside the Smart Araneta Coliseum. It had been three years since WWE was last in the Philippines so Filipino wrestling fans had to get their wrestling fix mostly from television and YouTube. Outside the coliseum, t-shirts commemorating the show and featuring some of the WWE Superstars were selling at a brisk pace. After all, merchandising and branding were key elements in making WWE a global phenomenon.
Another thing I noticed throughout the evening was that the audience was up to date with the current WWE storylines, chanting along with the good guys or “faces” and booing the villains or “heels.” In essence, the crowd was filled with smart marks or “smarks,” that is people who were aware of the scripted nature of wrestling, and yet fully participate in the show. They even knew who these wrestlers were dating in real life, so much so that there were bursts of chants for those significant others when certain wrestlers were in the middle of their matches.
Clearly, the WWE influence is strong in Manila.
In 2016, Kevin Owens was the villainous WWE Universal Champion. He defended that title against Seth Rollins at the Mall of Asia Arena in the main event. In 2019, he was a clear babyface and opened the evening against third generation Mexican wrestler Andrade. During the press conference, KO admitted that he should have turned into a good guy at least two years earlier, but that isn’t stopping him from enjoying his current storyline rivalry with Shane McMahon, the son of WWE President and Owner Vince McMahon.
In this match with Andrade you had two very different physical specimens: the stocky, admittedly not buff Owens and the chiseled, lucha libre-trained Andrade. The globalization of WWE has seen more chances for a match like this, with the Montreal-born Owens whose first language was French and the Mexican high-flyer across the ring from him. In a theme that would echo throughout the evening, both performers played to their character’s strengths: Owens as the recently-turned good guy who came from independent promotions to fight the evil promoter and Andrade as a scheming heel who won’t hesitate to bend the rules for a win.
Sudden title changes and women’s matches
This was followed by a match between EC3 and Chad Gable, both so ripped that you under why WWE Superstars seem like a different species of human altogether. Serving as guest ring announcer to hype the show was R-Truth, who at 47-years-young, has been the focal point of the recently created WWE 24/7 Championship. (The story behind the title is that the champion can be pinned or submitted anywhere, at any time, in any country whether it airs on television or not.) Thus, after Gable beat EC3, the latter suddenly pinned R-Truth to win the 24/7 Championship. Mere minutes later however (after a quick run into the backstage area), R-Truth won back the gold. I then saw the brilliance of that green and gold belt: it allows WWE to show a title change when they travel abroad even without their “main” title changing hands in non-televised shows like WWE Manila 2019.
One of the things that have given new life to WWE in recent years has been the rise of women’s wrestling. Although females have been wrestling since the 1950s, they were often treated like sideshows, not given as much of the spotlight, and valued more for their looks than actual in-ring work. The current bumper crop of excellent female wrestlers in WWE has been so strong that this year’s WrestleMania 35 main event held last April featured women as the main event to close out the show. Happily, the show featured two women’s matches: Mandy Rose versus Carmella and a street fight between Smackdown Women’s Champion Bayley and Charlotte Flair. The days of seeing women wrestlers as mere eye candy are now gone as these four hit hard and executed their moves as precisely as their male counterparts.
With the core of this roster of Superstars comprised of those from WWE Smackdown (as compared to WWE Raw or WWE NXT), several wrestlers from the blue brand topped the show. On her second trip to Manila, Charlotte Flair again got the “Whoo!” chants evocative of her father, the legendary 16-time world champion Ric Flair. In street fight rules, anything goes, so weapons made their appearance to the delight of the audience. Even as chants of “We want tables!” broke out, Bayley, as the heel, consistently turned down that request. When Flair did set up a table, Bayley immediately cast it aside to a string of boos. Chairs and kendo sticks were eventually introduced into the match, all within the rules, but Bayley would end up winning, only to get slammed into a table by Charlotte after.
More championships on the line
WWE Superstars are no longer just American-born these days, and further evidence of that was in the Intercontinental Championship match between champion Shinsuke Nakamura (with Sami Zayn in his corner) against the Pakistani-Indian-American Ali. Speaking on Nakamura’s behalf, Zayn kept riling up the crowd and interfering on behalf of the champion, as all the best heels do. This was the first match to get chants of “This is awesome!” something that is reserved for matches with crisp ring work, lots of false finishes, and hard-hitting moves that really draw the crowd into the action. Though he has been a villain since last year, Nakamura’s natural charisma (and probably his reputation as a superstar in Japan before his WWE stint) had a large chunk of those in attendance rooting for him, but Ali played the underdog babyface role to the hilt. Still, when Nakamura connected with his trademark Kinshasa knee strike, the Intercontinental Championship stayed around his waist.
Feeling victorious after his friend’s win, Zayn then proceeded to challenge anyone in the back for an impromptu match, thus bringing out one of WWE’s top stars of the past few years, Roman Reigns. It’s no secret that WWE management has long been grooming Reigns to be the face of the company much like Hogan, Hart, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and The Rock before him. And after he came back from another bout with leukemia earlier this year, “the Big Dog” has earned the respect of the proverbial WWE Universe. It’s easy to see why the McMahons believe in him, what with his hard-hitting style and movie star looks (as well as being related to The Rock and the legendary Anoa’I wrestling family). Reigns pulverized Zayn as the latter kept trying to back out of the battle before the former finally got the pin.
Smackdown Tag Team Champions The Revival (Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder) then defended their titles against 2/3 of the video game-playing, pancake-tossing, trombone-playing faction that is The New Day (Xavier Woods and Big E). Both teams clearly love their roles with The Revival as the sneaky, unscrupulous heels and The New Day as the dancing, fan-friendly faces. Though Big E and Woods would come up short in once again earning tag team gold, they still got some measure of revenge on Dash and Dawson before leaving the ring.
WrestleMania rematch in Cubao
For the main event, Manila was in for a treat. The main event of last April’s WrestleMania saw Kofi Kingston of The New Day defeat Daniel Bryan to win the WWE Championship after 11 years in the company. On this night, it was Kingston with the gold as Bryan tried to reclaim arguably the biggest prize in professional wrestling. As expected from two Superstars of this caliber, this was a match that truly deserved to be the main event. Both Kingston and Bryan have paid their proverbial dues at the bottom and middle of many wrestling cards for over a decade now, and their great performances have been rewarded with their respective pushes to the top of the card.
Bryan popularized the chants of “Yes! Yes! Yes!” that have echoed through many venues for the past six or so years. Thus, despite operating mainly as the “heel,” he still got large “Yes!” chants from the Manila fans. For his part, Kingston’s story eerily echoes that of Bryan as someone who never really got the respect of WWE management to be the top guy until this year. Both are respected by their fellow Superstars and fans so it was indeed a treat to see them give their all for the WWE Championship. Kingston eventually won with his S.O.S. but Bryan, seemingly giving Manila fans a preview of what is about to happen on Smackdown, clapped for the champion and raised Kofi’s hand.
As the night drew to a close and fans began filing out of the historic venue, the smiles on our faces were easy to spot. Owens and Ali both said that their job as WWE Superstars is to put on a show for the fans and for the babyfaces like them, to place smiles on those fans’ faces. With more content accessible to more people than ever in history, the challenge for WWE and other organizations to keep getting eyes on their product is higher than ever as well. Yet for someone like me who has been watching wrestling for several decades now, I’m happy to say that I’m still a fan, still a smark, and still part of the WWE Universe.