Shuffling along the Albert Dock to the arena with my old friend Dan, surrounded by a sea of excited little boys in colourful masks and their generally disinterested parents, I wondered why on earth it was I was still doing this. For fun. Not even with children in tow as a suitable cover. I was, reader, attending a WWE live show. Of choice. And not for the first time.
Although I was greatly cheered by the elderly couple at the end of our row who just appeared to be there for the craic, there wasn’t really too many of us of any kind of mature years there without kids. Nevertheless, we had a great night. So what’s the appeal to this most guilty of pleasures?
Having a think, what occurred to me was that in its own way, it had always been part of life. It began with our first Sky dish in 1989; the introduction to the cheery, big-haired jock bravado of The Rockers, Ric Flair, and ludicrous Joan Collins-esque totty Sensational Sherri. But most of all, I was ridiculously intrigued by the debut of The Undertaker and his ghoulish sidekick Paul Bearer. The goth years to follow might have even been his fault. As our interest in Sky TV waned and we stopped paying the subscription, without access to WWF (as it was then), it all faded into the background.
That would have been that, but eventually, I moved to the States for a year, and, too young to hit the bars, ended up hanging out with people who watched it all the time. I thought it was hilarious. At the worst point of this ridiculous addiction, I knew people who had two huge TVs lined up side by side, so they could watch the big WWF and WCW Monday night shows AT THE SAME TIME. Honestly. I went to house shows. I bought ludicrous merchandise thinking it all very ironic (it wasn’t, but I still have a plastic flask in the shape of The Undertaker. With a straw coming out the top of his head).
Back then in the late 90s, the WWF was on a massive roll. The rosta was full of strong characters and plenty of old favourites that bought on a nostalgia for the old days. ‘Taker and others like Mankind were not only going to ever more attention-grabbing extremes in the ring – cages, ladder matches and what have you – but out of it had to be entertaining and capable of carrying the crowd along. Full of catchphrases and some kick-ass metal entrance music, its ridiculous sense of humour (it was, and is, incredibly funny) was what had me hooked more often than not, and failing that, there was always the endless parade of attractive young men in shorts. Hello, Chris Jericho (the picture below is from when he played the Masque in Liverpool a couple of years ago).
These days, I’m not a fanatic, but keep my hand in watching the major pay-per-view events and have a bit of a weakness for superstar autobiographies, which are often more candid and informative than you’d think. Bret Hart’s is next on the reading list.
Which brings us up to last night. The Smackdown show at the Echo Arena mightn’t really have had the massive superstar quota of the Raw tour, in the UK at the same time, so it actually ended up being quite an intimate affair. And there was one particular reason why I’m glad I went – Edge. Adam Copeland, a 31 time WWE champion belt holder, was very recently forced into immediate retirement as the real impact of an old injury made itself known. Unable to wrestle, he came out and gave a very genuine speech to the crowd.
“This is the part I’m going to miss the most,” he said, taking in the atmosphere. “But if I hadn’t found out what was going on with my neck I would have ended up in a wheelchair.” He’d spent the day checking out Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, he told us. “For 14 years I’ve been coming over to England and you guys have taken me in like I’m one of your own since day one.”
The crowd adored diminutive Latino firecracker Rey Mysterio Jr (pictured, top), and man-mountain The Big Show made a huge impression on the audience too. It was good to see Preston’s own Wade Barrett, who apparently used to bare knuckle fight in Liverpool, back in the region as reigning Intercontinental Champion – what a success story!
The main event saw Edge egg on the crowds to see his friend Christian take on bad guy Alberto del Rio in a “Liverpool street fight”, which was a nice touch. At the end, to the audience’s traditional yell of “thank you Edge”, all the wrestlers came out to pay tribute to their retiring friend, and many lingered to sign things for the ringside fans for quite a while.
One of the most entertaining matches of the night was the Divas’ tag team, that saw Layla and Kaitlyn take on Kelly Kelly (!) and Beth Phoenix. Not just one for the dads, the match was as comic as it was athletic. As performers, they know they need to try harder to elevate women’s wrestling out of cliched perv territory – not that they particularly succeed in that, but there is a bit more to it than meets the eye. There’d be plenty of other, easier ways to make a scantily-clad living than this.
You see, male or female, there’s more to WWE than just looking buff in a pair of wrestling tights. If the ability, discipline and flair aren’t there, you don’t get far. After that, if you can’t work the mic and entertain the crowd, then forget it. It’s all about big, commanding personalities, babyfaces and heels, and it’s all about a commitment to putting on a great show. What a load of hammy cliché she says, but it’s true. Wayne Rooney-style monosyllabic grunts and an insolent attitude just won’t do – it’s a whole package. I’d argue it’s a lot more demanding – not to mention creative – than its detractors would ever give it credit for. Fake? To an extent. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy life.
The WWE is such an intriguing, strange world full of equally intriguing and strange characters. Along with those glorious highs of sport and entertainment, there can be horrific lows. Early, tragic demises are no surprise. The story of Chris Benoit is especially shocking.
In 2008 I met Lance Cade – a former tag team champion who died last year, aged 29, of heart failure. The non-stop work ethic of the wrestling circuit made life just one giant cycle of flight,
gym, show, hotel ad infinitum. When he said “I’ve been all around the world, and I’ve seen nothing,” it felt profoundly sad. At least Edge made it over to Penny Lane.
Now, the WWE has moved on again. Edge, who I remember watching debut as I sat in a Washington State dorm room, has now ended his career. The sons of the 80s superstars, like Ted Dibiase Jr and Cody Rhodes, are now well-established wrestlers in their own right.
In good fortunes and bad, the company, its wild storylines, its OTT travelling circus and the people who make it all happen, it just keeps rolling on. Maybe it’s the Americana, the nostalgia, the comedy, the spectacle that grabs me. I still love being a fan – can’t help it. Maybe it is the fact is has always been a constant – that Lion King-esque circle of life – that keeps me loyal.
The WWE returns to the Echo arena in November, when its flagship Raw and Smackdown shows will be filmed and televised around the world. Tickets go on sale on April 20.