What do we have here?
Why that’s my wife wearing a Daniel Bryan t-shirt, yours truly wearing a vintage Macho Man t-shirt, and our friend Cindy in a Dolph Ziggler t-shirt in a photo taken over a month ago inside a luxury box at the Pepsi Center for a WWE live event.
How did we get here? And why the hell am I at a WWE event again after forswearing off it forever not more than 5 years ago? First history, then epiphany.
In 1998 and 1999, professional wrestling was one of the hottest tickets around. The Rock began his ascent that would ultimately lead to him being the biggest crossover star the wrestling world had ever seen. Mick Foley would be thrown off the top of a cage by the Undertaker cementing his status as a wrestling legend. D-Generation X would rule the airwaves shouting “We’ve got two words for ya’: Suck it!” and perform the crotch chop, which would then find its way to sack and touchdown celebrations in the NFL. Sable would pose for Playboy, which would become the highest selling Playboy of all time.
Most importantly, Stone Cold Steve Austin would feud with WWE owner Vince McMahon in what was arguably the greatest storyline in the history of the WWE. It was perfect. Here was Stone Cold, a Texas redneck who flipped off the crowd, beat up his boss, and got arrested about every 4th show. He set the world ablaze, and you couldn’t go 20 feet down the road without seeing an Austin 3:16 shirt.
The issue at the heart of his battle with Vince McMahon is what fueled the popularity and ubiquity of Stone Cold Steve Austin. As owner of the WWE, McMahon’s character thought Stone Cold as champion would destroy his business from the inside out, and did everything in his power to prevent Stone Cold from ever achieving the company’s highest honor. Stone Cold represented every downtrodden fan who felt, rightfully or not, they were being held back by their evil boss. Watching Stone Cold antagonize McMahon allowed everyone who hated their boss to live vicariously through him and net some karmic justice for their own lives. I still get chills thinking about the moment below and just how perfect it encapsulated everything great and life-affirming about this angle.
Cut ahead 14 years later or so. While not as ubiquitous as it was in the late-90s, professional wrestling is not the dungeon dweller it once was either. You can be a wrestling fan more in public than you used to be, and the WWE is the sole reason the USA Network gets to call itself the #1 cable network. Wrestlers regularly show up in all forms of media, and tout a huge digital footprint.
As I’ve noted before, my wife and I are big podcast fans. One of our favorites is The Nerdist, hosted by Chris Hardwick. One of his guests earlier this year was CM Punk, who turns out to be an awesome dude. Kristin listens and develops a huge celebrity crush. So on Mondays during the summer, we tune into Monday Night Raw, and as Kristin begins to crane her neck to the TV for CM Punk’s segments, we both fall in love with Daniel Bryan, a little goat-faced, bearded, hipster, vegan guy, who gets a shot at John Cena at the company’s biggest summer event, to the chagrin of management.
And why? Because management (as a character) fears Daniel Bryan as champion will not be “best for business,” so they throw up roadblocks every chance they get to stop him. I won’t bore you with the storyline details of this entire saga, so we’ll cut ahead to the point where I feel more optimistic about society having lived through Stone Cold in this role, and now Daniel Bryan.
Do you know what Austin 3:16 stood for? It was an obvious takeoff on the Bible verse John 3:16, and proclaimed “I just whipped your ass!” Stone Cold pounded beers, extended his middle finger to everyone and everything, and was pure, violent, anarchic, redneck glee. Society was a little bit rougher, so watching the everyman lash out physically against his boss was cathartic and inspiring.
By 2013, we’ve seen what real violence is (without getting into specific examples because I’m sure you can call to mind any of a dozen instances right off the top of your head), and what it achieves – only unhappiness and misery. So here’s Daniel Bryan – 185 lbs. with a big goofy beard, and a never say die attitude. They keep kicking him down, but he keeps getting up and leading the crowd in this:
Daniel Bryan’s main cheer is raising your index fingers in the air and thrusting them repeatedly while yelling, “YES! YES! YES!” Do that a few times and it’s fucking life affirming.
We had to be a part of it. So when Daniel Bryan was announced as coming to the Pepsi Center for a non-televised event, I knew we’d be there. Because that’s what wrestling is perfect for, and why (I suspect) Daniel Bryan has caught on with such a wave of popularity.
You get to lose yourself in a moment, and you’re standing there with your friends, all 5 of you shouting “YES!” over and over again like fucking idiots while thrusting your fingers into the air supporting this weird little vegan hipster dude who inspires you to greatness.
You may not be a professional wrestling fan, but you recognize a moment when it happens. This was a moment. Stone Cold in 1998 was a moment too. But this one is somehow gentler. And that’s a good thing.