I’m in the back row at Saturday night's WWE Raw show at Verizon Arena. The six-year-old sitting next to me is excited to see his favorite pro wrestlers settle things in the ring. He’s the youngest in his family of what appears to consist of nothing but older brothers. He is screaming “YOU SUCK YOU SUCK” at the bad guy without taking breaths.
After big moves, he yells at his brothers, “NO WAY THIS IS FAKE!” I figure they’ve teased him and told him it’s fake, and now, in front of him, is proof that it’s real. I wonder if he’s going to pass out or use an f-bomb first, but after a while, he settles down and in a quiet and reflective moment stops yelling at the bad guy and says calmly, “I hate him. I want to see him killed.” His brothers start laughing uncontrollably.
Despite the screaming kids, the matches are incredibly quiet. The wrestlers rely on vaudevillian gestures to communicate with the crowd, and they’re lucky, because in this world, every stimulus requires an equal or greater response. In the three matches up to this point, the bad guys have drawn the response. For the most part, the crowd doesn't necessarily want the good guys to win; they just want to see the bad guy punished. (For a similar example, see politics as played out on the 24-hour news networks — same idea.)
The women’s championship is next, but the WWE calls its female wrestlers Divas, and its championship belt has a pink butterfly on it. Both women get big crowd responses, and many in the audience are now standing up, cell phones at the ready, trying to snap a picture. The match is delayed so the two can have a pose off. A man a few rows in front of me wearing a shirt that says “Stand Up or Stand Down!” is asked to sit down so the children behind him can see. He obliges.
The kid finally notices me. He’s trying to figure me out. He asks me who I want to win, and tells me he wants Layla to win because she’s special. There is a silence. “Is this fake?” He seems legitimately concerned, and he’s not looking away from me. I’m not sure what to say, but he loses interest in me when he sees that Layla is in trouble. But Layla is the champion, and there’s no way a champion loses in an untelevised show. Just a few minutes after it looked like she was out, Layla gets the win.
The tag-team championship is on the line next, and the challengers are The Prime Time Players, a kind of hip-hop duo with a hype man. The kid next to me says “I like their music but not them.” The champions aren’t so much a team as they are separate gimmicks paired together. One has an imaginary friend named “Little Jimmy,” and the other is the personification of a tourist’s version of Jamaica, all smiles, palm trees and reggae music.
The hype man works the crowd, saying that anyone who’s ever worn a Razorback on their shirt is a fool. The crowd is understandably outraged, but the imaginary friend wrestler has the state’s back. “What? He don’t like the Razorbacks?” He then takes off his shirt to reveal a Razorback shirt underneath. A hog hat is supplied. Like clockwork, the Hog Call starts from the crowd. The champs who defended the Hogs seemed surprised at this chant, unsure what to do. Luckily, the bad guys will carry their unsure counterparts and writhe around the ring holding their ears as if the call was weakening them somehow.
The champs lose the match and their belts, and then win them back five seconds later in an immediate rematch. The kid next to me is concerned that I don’t understand why the Prime Time Players are bad guys. “It’s because they kicked Little Jimmy, and Little Jimmy is his brother who died.” He says this with a solemnity he has up to this point reserved for “I want to see him killed.”
There’s an intermission at 9 p.m., and many of the families leave, including my interpreter. From here on out, everything changes. The show goes on, but it’s pretty boring without his running commentary.
The WWE seems to have toned down its product in recent years. Perhaps seeing the coveted 18-35 year-old male audience abandon it for mixed martial arts organizations like the Ultimate Fighting Championship has pushed the WWE toward a tamer product that’s more kid friendly. Which is perfect. There’s only one way to watch pro wrestling, and that’s with a six-year-old screaming in your ear.