“But when he came to himself he said, “How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough to spare, and I’m dying with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will tell him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. I am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.'” He arose, and came to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran towards him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
— Luke 15:17–20
By the time Jon Moxley closed out the night with his barn burner All Elite Wrestling debut, I knew for certain that it was time for me to start regularly writing about pop culture again.
The Elite, Tony Khan, and the entire AEW roster have brought something to professional wrestling that, despite arriving under the auspices of newness, is actually quite old-fashioned, even archetypal.
AEW isn’t a WWE killer. That notion is both reductive and restrictive.
AEW is something else entirely.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
I must first offer up a bit of backstory.
WHEN IT COMES CRASHING DOWN, AND IT HURTS INSIDE
I watched professional wrestling (exclusively WWF) for a few brief years when I was an adolescent. Like most kids my age, I was enthralled by these hulking athletes and their superhero-like personas.
I watched it from within the shag carpet basements that I grew up in: my parents’, my mamaw’s, my aunts’ and uncles’.
During WWF pay-per-views, I would drag out my wrestling action figures, playing along, usually more wrapped up in what I was concocting on my own than what was happening on screen. I had a superficial relationship with pro wrestling. It spurred my imagination into bouts of creative play acting, but I didn’t become a fan, per se.
I was more of a casual participant of the zeitgeist. The WWF and, specifically Hulk Hogan, were big in America. As a typical child of the Saturday-morning-cartoons-and-cereal 1980s, I liked what other people liked insomuch that it tickled my playtime fancy. I tended to act out wrestling much more than I watched it.
But I did watch it and was never less than enthralled by the goings on.
I would leg drop my stuffed animals, acting as both performer and referee as I rolled over and pinned them, smacking down a three count upon the aforementioned shag carpet.
Eventually watching wrestling became a kind of attempted pantomime. I tried to mimic everything I saw, getting fairly well banged up in the process.
Promos mostly flew over my head.
I’m not sure I even knew it was all predetermined. Narrative and aesthetic sophistication were not traits I possessed when I was ten years old.
I just liked badass shit.
As I morphed into a teenager, I became more enthralled by punk rock and horror movies than pro wrestling. I don’t remember a conscious decision to stop watching. It just petered out, like many casual childhood interests eventually do.
Post-1990s, wrestling was never more than something on the periphery, an acknowledged pop culture and sporting phenomenon that I no longer followed.
It never even crossed my mind much again until, many years later, I had kids.
At around the same age that I had taken an interest in the WWF, my kids also did.
My wife and I took them to see a weeknight house show. I remember absolutely nothing about it. We never went again. My kids eventually lost interest in wrestling in much the same way as I. Again, it drifted into the periphery.
And that’s it.
That’s the illustrious history of my relationship with professional wrestling, leading up to about ten months ago.
WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND
I stopped writing about pop culture in 2006, full stop.
How, where, and why don’t matter anymore. I’ve left that disastrous period of my life behind me. Suffice it to say that, for no good reason, I gave up something I loved dearly and disappeared into a period of creative dormancy.
A writer all my life, I didn’t write a single substantial new word of prose from 2006 until last year.
My creative spark was gone. And I was the only one responsible for it going out.
In the meantime, my life changed drastically and for the better.
I married my best friend.
I moved from the hustle and bustle of big city life to living on a small farm.
Life led me towards a life change that was both necessary and long overdue.
I tore myself apart and found something unexpected within the tightly wound ball of depression, insecurity, and fear that I lived every day: I found the courage to press on.
Through nutrition and fitness, I fixed myself.
I spent a couple of rigorously self-reflective years in a state of flux.
Improvements came in ebbs and flows.
I killed myself, bit by bit, until I was sufficiently remade.
The spark began, once again, to flicker.
But my new life left me in a strange predicament.
I was more motivated to be creative than I ever had been before, but I had a small problem: I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to write about. I was no longer motivated to write about cinema, which was where I cut my editorial teeth.
I didn’t know it, but that years-old casual interest of mine, the world of professional wrestling, was about to make a midlife reappearance.
And it was going to be more significant development than I could’ve possibly imagined.
Wrestling was going to change my creative life.
LIKE SON, LIKE FATHER
“I’ve been watching wrestling again,” said my oldest son, Omri.
I think we were talking in the kitchen. I don’t know how we got on the subject. Our conversations can be elliptical, traveling from subject to subject to subject.
On this day, somehow the conversation touched on pro wrestling.
My son talked enthusiastically about WWE, about indie wrestling. His vernacular was already full of inside-baseball stuff I didn’t comprehend in the slightest.
Prior to this day, the only time pro wrestling had crossed my path significantly since I was a child was when I heard the Radio Lab podcast episode about the legendary Montreal Screwjob incident. So, SOME of my son’s new lexicon had managed to worm its way into my brain: work, shoot, mark, kayfabe, babyface, heel, just the most basic of professional wrestling’s labyrinthian patois.
His enthusiasm was infectious, of course, but I noticed something else: he talked about it quite seriously. He talked about professional wrestling like I used to talk about cinema.
That really intrigued me.
The next day I subscribed to the WWE Network. It was a fairly rushed deep dive into the pool of everything The Network has to offer. Mostly it was stuff from my childhood. Rumbles and Manias that I remembered from the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Within a month or so I was regularly watching the weekly shows WWE had on offer (Raw, Smackdown, NXT, 205 Live, and, later, NXT UK).
I began with a marathon of each and every Royal Rumble. It gave me an instant snapshot of the ever-evolving WWE Main Roster over the years. It was an enlightening crash course in the WWE zeitgeist.
I subscribed to NJPW.
Then to Meltzer’s content.
Just a few months took me from casually interested to full-blown fan in a matter of months.
But I still had a very limited grasp of indie wrestling.
The Elite were on my radar by reputation, but I had very little experience with them prior to Double or Nothing. I watched all of the Road To Double or Nothing episodes. Binged on YouTube videos that gave me a bit of history.
I was excited for Double Or Nothing because it seemed legitimately new, but I didn’t have much emotional investment.
And then I saw the promos for the Rhodes Brothers match.
Something sparked. Just under the surface. Dustin and Cody were hitting my buttons.
Family. Generations. Dynasties. Parables. Brothers.
Those two Double or Nothing promos cast me in a kind of deer-in-the-headlights fascination with where they were going.
I was enamored.
When the night of the show finally came, I found myself full of butterflies, and I didn’t know why.
My journey of nearly a year as a born-again wrestling fan had led me to a dull place of anticipation tempered by reality: I was enthralled by wrestling, I wanted to talk about it, discuss it. But I didn’t want to write about the WWE per se.
My limited exposure early on to the indies led me to creative stagnation.
Double Or Nothing changed all of that.
But, again, I’m cart-before-horsing.
Before I talk about my creative rebirth…I have to talk about the WWE.
THE SOFT BIGOTRY OF LOW EXPECTATIONS
It’s impossible to talk about Double Or Nothing without talking about Jon Moxley.
And, for me, Jon Moxley’s story starts with the WWE.
For the record, I don’t think Vince McMahon is a Bad Guy, per se. I just think he’s deluded. And lazy. And not in the slightest bit intellectually curious. He also seems to be a bit of a troll, both on camera and off.
It may, in fact, be all he is capable of.
If so, it’s going to harm his company.
As much as I’ve enjoyed becoming a wrestling fan, I haven’t seen anything in the WWE over the past 10-12 months that inspired me to write. While recognizing the archetypal tropes that make wrestling so appealing, the WWE product (excluding NXT) is rote. It’s affected and stilted, clearly because of layers upon layers of over planning.
The monolith has become so large that wrestling is disappearing inside of it.
The WWE is mighty and impressive in scope. But it’s as stale as stale can be, and it’s not because of the talent. It’s because of the leadership.
Jon Moxley’s revelatory episode of Talk Is Jericho, while unprecedented for someone so recently with the WWE, still managed to be unsurprising.
It was more of a confirmation of suspicion than it was truly revelatory.
And it spoke as to why the WWE is so uninspiring for those who spend time in editorial.
I enjoy writing about things that I like.
I rarely publish negative reviews, essays, or features, primarily because I think you learn more about someone from what they like than from what they don’t.
I had the desire to write about wrestling and its timeless themes. But I didn’t have good enough material to work with, so to speak.
Week after week, the WWE managed to entertain me, but not move me.
And I simply didn’t know enough about the indies to mine them for material. It remained just inconvenient enough to access (especially when compared with the juggernaut that is the WWE Network) that I kept it, unconsciously, at arm’s length.
Until May 25, 2019.
HARD TIMES BREED BETTER MEN
I was walking across our farm’s smallest pasture, heading toward the barn to close up our chicken coops for the night. My head was swimming from what I had just been watching.
Cody and Dustin Rhodes, progeny of the late, great Dusty Rhodes, had just brought me back to life.
“Fuck, I HAVE to write about THAT,” I said out loud to myself as I loped toward our roosting chickens.
I felt a little dizzy.
I often get light-headed when I see a great deal of blood loss, and the Rhodes boys had just delivered a blood-drenched masterpiece.
Although I’m not usually a fan of hardcore style wrestling, everything about Rhodes vs. Rhodes felt pitch perfect.
More importantly, I felt the way I used to feel about wrestling.
Despite a lack of breadth early life as a wrestling fan, I did still remembered stories being told in the ring.
I remembered archetypes being played out in the ring.
I remembered promos being set dressing, a taste of flavor to get you excited for the real deal: a wrestling match, and subsequent story, that took place inside the damn wrestling ring.
This is the crux of The WWE Problem.
The WWE has forgotten how to show.
They only know how to tell.
And so, the wrestling suffers.
And so, the WWE fan suffers.
And now, All Elite Wrestling finds itself positioned not as a WWE killer, but as Rightful Heir to the legacy of pro wrestling.
I still have a lot to learn, but I think I’m ready for wrestling to be my new beat.
AEW has given my old creative battery a jump start.
And I cannot wait to watch that Rhodes match again, and give it a proper write-up.
Wrestling is back, and it’s exciting for me again.
Writing, too, is back, and it’s also exciting for me again.
It’s all uphill from here, folks.
By Rick Curnutte (@rickcurnutte)
CrossFit Athlete / Spartan 4-0 / Farmer / Writer / Journalist / Political Fact Checker / Lover of History / Non-partisan News Aggregator