Last week the above picture circulated around the usual spots you can find picture-cum-rants like this online.
It sounds all fluffy, romantic and idealistic, the notion that fans should respect the performers who put their bodies on the line each night and adjust their chants accordingly. It also sounds as if it's a modern (and, let's face it, pretty first world) problem. Neither are in any way true though.
The rebellious nature of wrestling audiences was first exploited, quite successfully, for profit over two decades ago in Paul Heyman's Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). Heyman managed to galvanise his rabid, passionate and, truth be told, ageing fanbase by encouraging, and later even provoking, them to speak their mind. On the face of it, chanting "You fucked up" at a performer who risked physical harm messing up a death-defying stunt may sound coarse and disrespectful. But ECW fans were like an Irish family who rip seven shades of shite out of each other, but defend their own to the death. "You fucked up" was intended as a gentle rib to those who were welcome to the family. It was a way of adults engaging as adults in a genre where the market leaders, WWE, were courting the younger audience. That was all. Heyman realised this and, though ECW existed for less than a decade, fans who experienced his product as work to this day feel indebted towards him. Connected to him. If you listen you can hear it each time he announces himself as the advocate for Brock Lesnar each week on Raw.
Which brings me nicely to Roman Reigns: the man who is currently slated to face Lesnar for the WWE World Championship in the main event of WrestleMania 31.
The reason The Rock isn't echoing Reigns' goofy grin in the above picture is because he's listening to the Philadelphia crowd booing his cousin/nephew/brother (nobody really knows, truth be told) out of the building in the wake of Roman's Royal Rumble win this January.
It wasn't always this way. In fact, the complete opposite was the case twelve months prior when Reigns was the people's hero as fans railed against the hand-picked winner Batista. However Reigns' solo career since the dissolution of The Shield has so far gone about as well as Nick Carter (of Backstreet Boys fame). Like Carter, Reigns has looks that the women go wild for. However, also like Carter, without his bandmates surrounding him to protect his limitations, he seems excruciatingly vanilla.
That isn't the worst thing to be in the world, though. Vanilla can be grand if the mood strikes. And the man standing beside him looking semi-morto in the above picture knows exactly how successfully you can turn boos into cheers. As Rocky Maivia back in 1996-7 (again disproving the notion that this is a modern trend), he was booed out of buildings to chants of "Die Rocky Die". What did he do? He chose to hear the chants in German and became "THE Rocky THE", dropping the 'y' and second 'the' shortly afterwards. The rest was history.
An even older comparison can be found in the sad tale of Lex Luger. Luger was a bonafide star at the turn of the 90's in WCW/NWA, before jumping ship to WWE to help fill the void left in the main event picture by Hulk Hogan's exit and Ultimate Warrior's unravelling. Luger had everything Vince McMahon sought in a champion back then: flowing blonde hair, a chiselled jaw and a mean addiction to steroids.
Luger's initial push worked a treat. Dubbed 'The All-American', he caught fire with the crowd after bodyslamming 600-lb WWE champion, Yokozuna, on board the USS Intrepid as part of a 4th July special. He began travelling the nation in his 'Lex Express' bus campaigning for a title shot, which he lost by countout at SummerSlam. But the wheels were in motion. WWE had him be a 'co-winner' of the 1994 Royal Rumble alongside the unconventional, smaller Bret Hart, and booked Yokozuna to face both men in separate matches at WrestleMania X (which I reviewed here).
Then it began to go downhill. First, Luger got drunk and spilled the beans to a newspaper reporter that he was going to win the belt at WrestleMania. The story made national news and caught him a ton of heat. Vince was said to still consider him for the title in spite of the leak, not wanting to be seen reacting to the media. However Luger's fate was sealed when WWE tried to test the waters with him as champion at a TV taping due to air after WrestleMania. The segment, with Yoko's manager Jim Cornette, ended with Luger holding the title and Vince prompting the live audience for a reaction. It was lukewarm at best. Fans had seen the 'Real American' act before with Hogan. They wanted Bret, the work horse. Luger lost his WrestleMania match and was forced to congratulate Bret in the ring to close the show. He would be gone from WWE altogether within 18 months. (Hat-tip to rovert, an essential follow for Irish wrestling fans, for the assist in research there).
It's spooky watching history repeat itself over twenty years later. Part of the reason fans balked at his Royal Rumble win was the meek way actual fan favourite, Daniel Bryan, was dumped early in the contest. The backlash was so severe that, for the second year running, it appeared as if Bryan would muscle his way into the title conversation at the behest of McMahon's chosen one, who had the physique and look but lacked the in-ring work ethic. To quell fans' worries, they were forced to have Bryan square off with Reigns at WWE Fast Lane to decide who would REALLY face Lesnar, leak a false rumour that the title match was now scheduled to be a triple-threat and even had Stone Cold Steve Austin grill Triple H on the 'controversy' on the WWE Network.
This time, though, Vince wasn't for turning. It seems set in stone that Reigns will become champion at WrestleMania 31, whether fans like it or not. Though whether he will end the night as such is another story, as they've also hinted strongly that his former Shield teammate (and smart fan approved) Seth Rollins will cash-in his Money In The Bank briefcase following the bout.
It's a weird, unique trait that wrestling fans (myself included) possess: the need to see 'their guy' in the main event or nothing else. I write this while my beloved Villareal play Celta Vigo on the television in the background. They're my favourite La Liga team. In Serie A, I follow Fiorentina. In my youth, I was a Bayern Munich fan in the Bundesliga, but that has since grown tiresome with their dominance. This season has sealed my allegiance (as a turncoat) to Dortmund. Seeing them go from the Champions League final, just two years ago, to a relegation dog-fight that they're currently in a babyface comeback from has inspired the sports romantic in me.
What draws me to these teams (aside from my obvious thing for teams that play in yellow; Norwich are swell too) isn't that they're likely going to be champions anytime soon. They may have enough about them to stay in the Champions League conversation by season's end. But a Champions League run, for all three, next year is just as likely as a relegation scrap. Since the turn of the century, Villareal and Fiorentina have both had to toil in their country's second divisions. BVB may yet get dragged back into their crisis and face life in the 2. Bundesliga next season. They won't win their leagues this year. They don't need to. That's not why I like them.
I guess that sentiment is what's at the core behind the picture at the top of the page: why can't you just enjoy seeing your favourite wrestlers perform for you, wherever that may be in the card? The people spouting this kinda stuff are looking at the bigger picture.
But zoom out again for a second and see the even bigger picture than that. I would fucking LOVE if Fiorentina, Villareal or Dortmund mounted a genuine title challenge. When they play Juventus, Real Madrid or Bayern, I make sure I watch on the off-chance they can pull off a rare scalp. I spit venom when the latter teams perform to their ability and win. As a fan, Bayern are the enemy of Dortmund. In reality, Bayern once bailed Dortmund out with a loan when the latter couldn't make ends meet. They miss them as adversaries. Dortmund being a viable challenger to Bayern's crown brings in more interest, and thus TV money, into the league. Bayern can't become the best team in Germany without beating 19 other teams, like Dortmund, at the end of the season. Otherwise they're just one team existing in a perpetual state of unchallenged limbo (you could actually make that case for Bayern this season, but I digress). They work together but compete at the same time for the sake of putting out an entertaining end product that we consume. Kinda like wrestling.
For the jig to work, we need people to boo as much as we need people to cheer, or the whole thing is a waste of everyone's time. When fans boo Roman Reigns, they're not being disrespectful. Fans don't 'owe' the billion-dollar corporation WWE, Vince McMahon or Reigns himself the 'respect' of honouring the people they want them to chant for. This is business, not charity. Imagine how much you'd laugh if you were eating in McDonalds and someone came up to lecture you about eating your McNugget because you weren't honouring how the person who made that McNugget wished you ate it.
What they're doing is engaging in the product. Consuming.
Make no mistake about it, not one person who you can find on the street who will actively engage in a discussion about Roman Reigns not being ready for the main event of WrestleMania will not consume the show in some form. Even those who do actually follow through with their threats of not watching will consume in some way: they'll follow along on Twitter, check the results and videos the next day or just tell their mates how they didn't watch WrestleMania and ask what happened. Do you know how I know this? Well, if you were watching and agreeing with those who said Lex Luger wasn't ready in 1994, here you are right now: reading an article about who is or isn't ready for the main event of WWE WrestleMania. 21 years later. Gotcha.
Just as sure as many of the Bayern Munich players are probably really sound in real life, when they don that shirt we'll vilify them for the sake of giving ourselves a more entertaining journey. Just as sure as Daniel Bryan is probably completely cool with not being in the main event at WrestleMania and will get on with his spectacular life just fine the day after it's all over, we'll yell YES and NO and cheer on his behalf for the sake of giving ourselves a more entertaining journey.
ECW fans chanted "You fucked up" not because they're a mob of bloodthirsty sociopaths who wished harm upon decent, hard-working gentlemen attempting to entertain them, they were engaging for the sake of having a better night. They were adults consuming pro-wrestling in a way that adults enjoy.
And people who boo Roman Reigns aren't being 'disrespectful', nor should they 'be ashamed of themselves'. They're adults consuming pro-wrestling in a way that adults enjoy. And if Daniel Bryan or Dolph Ziggler ever beat him for the belt, they'll go mental. But in the meantime they'll cheer their underdog heroes on and pretend that their fates affect their lives in a meaningful way in the same way we pretend Fantasy Football matters. It's fans being fans. The way it always has been.
Rick Nash is a former professional wrestler, the co-host of Balls.ie's official WWE podcast, Low Blows, and the founder of WWE Parties Ireland who hosted their WWE WrestleMania 31 Party in Woolshed Baa & Grill, Dublin next month. He is also a DJ and terrible sports gambler, so feel free to share some tips with him on Twitter.