On October 11th, WWE’s Friday Night SmackDown rolled into Portland. I bribed my friend Shawn (the only person I knew would even be interested in seeing such an event) into going with me by paying for his ticket. While the show was well worth the $120 I ended up plopping on my credit card, I questioned how a “Sports Entertainment” company could charge so much for tickets when its very fan base seems to be some of society’s less privileged.
It’s been a month since the show and it’s taken me that long to get over the sheer theatrical nature of it, the pyrotechnics, the athleticism and showmanship of the wrestlers, ring announcers, and referees. Dissection of the set design (and it is a set), set directors, camera operators, crowd control (via both security in the crowd and the large jumbo screen showing advertisements for the Army, The Army Reserve, and other WWE products such as DVDs, video games and action figures), the pre-recorded general disclaimer booming over the loudspeakers before the show began (I don’t actually have rights to these images I’m about to post), all came much later. Vince McMahon, CEO and former sole proprietor of the WWE, has his show down to a science. The doors to the arena opened at promptly 6:30p, the show started at exactly 7:30pm and was over at 11pm on the dot. There were three separate segments filmed that night: a segment for a web-only exclusive for WWE NXT (kinda like the reality version of wrestling, as wrestlers compete for a spot in the WWE Universe) as well as a small match for WWE’s Superstars, which, from what I can tell, is filler for their website as well. The main event of the night was WWE’s Friday Night SmackDown! which, in fact, is filmed on Tuesdays for airing on Fridays.
The live event was hands-down more exciting than watching the edited footage days later. However, the master manipulator camera-men with HD filming capacity really knew how to put a spin on the action that wasn’t evident watching the show from the seats. As someone who has never been to live sporting events of any other kind, it was being in the crowd that made the event memorable. The mix in Portland’s Rose Garden Arena was magical. Every economic and social circle was represented, from good old boys with their fake, plastic replica WWE Championship belts slung over their shoulders to preppy couples in evening wear. Whites, blacks, Hispanics– all there. And there was a designated superstar for them all. Rey Mysterio and Alberto Del Rio for the Hispanics, Kofi Kingston and MVP for the blacks, and old stand-by honkies for the whites- Edge, Big Show, The Miz. The majority of the audience was male, between the ages of 18 – 35. WWE prides itself on capturing that demographic, one of the most sought after in television. There were lots of kids as well, but not as many as I was expecting since this supposedly is WWE’s glorious return to “PG” television, the last era of kid-friendly programming having ended the last time I watched the WWF in the early 90s.
In any case, I could write a book on the following topics focusing solely on the WWE (and one day I will):
- How racism and classism is promoted through targeted marketing and character development of professional wrestlers
- How social and sexist stereotypes of women have been manipulated over three decades by the WWE
- How co-branding between the WWE, The Army and Army Reserves exploits our nation’s poor and uneducated
- How ideas of masculinity and homophobia are shaped and presented within the WWE
Here are some photographs I took at key moments throughout the night:
At the beginning of the night, a pre-recorded full-disclosure statement aired over the PA system. Basically, you have no rights in the WWE Universe. The WWE can use your image at their discretion at any time for anything and you will receive no compensation. Also, technically, this photograph belongs to Vince McMahon. At this point, the ring announcer asked everyone to show their signs and wave them in support of the performers. In reality, the television producers were screening for signs they didn’t want on the air. Obscene signs were taken by security. If you didn’t surrender your sign, you would be asked to leave.
This is the massive, live feed video wall. We were a captive audience. There were more commercials being played in the arena than during regular televised shows. Between each match there were advertisements for WWE pay-per-views (Which cost $50 – $70 I learned), WWE video games and action figures, as well as special WWE promos featuring the Army and Army Reserves. These promos, which featured wrestlers sent overseas to perform for the troops, were then followed by high budget recruitment advertisements showing all the glory of enlisting during wartime.
This is Alberto Del Rio. He’s like a Latino “Mr. Perfect.” He drove that convertible during his entrance, complete with cascading pyrotechnics. Although the character of Alberto Del Rio only made his debut in August, the crowd has already been trained to hate him. He is a “heel.” The way his character was made a heel by Vince McMahon’s creative team was twofold: 1. He only speaks Spanish. He has his own ring announcer that accompanies him to announce his entry to the ring in Spanish. His theme music is classical and “ethnic” sounding. (In fact, his music was the only non-vocal, non-rock/reggae of the night). 2. He is wealthy and arrogant. Instant Villian = rich Mexican.
In actuality, he’s a renowned third generation wrestler from a famous Mexican wrestling family. He has toured extensively through Latin America and Japan. He’s trained in both mixed martial arts and as a luchador. His contract with the WWE has been in negotiations for more than a year. As part of his acceptance of the offer to join the WWE, he was able to by-pass the WWE’s rookie training program in Florida. This is the first time in his career that he’s ever been billed as a heel.
Alberto in the ring, humiliating someone. Notice how he plays to the side of the ring with the least amount of people and the most cameras. Throughout the entire night, every wrestler plays to the cameras, the side of the arena that is essentially empty of people. It’s obvious what matters most to the modern WWE: television. The crowd is simply a studio audience that is still paying the price of admittance for a sporting event.
A pivotal plot moment: Alberto the heel refuses to shake the hand of Big Show, a “face” (or good guy). Big Show is the team leader of the spot that Alberto just won by beating his opponent. By refusing to shake Big Show’s hand, Alberto further infuriates the crowd, solidifying his heel-ness.
This is pretty much what it felt like as a member of the audience for 3 1/2 hours.
The devil horns can’t be beat. Seriously, though, some of the things that little kids were screaming at the wrestlers were appalling. I can only assume that their parents were with them and thus allowing such crude language to flow from the mouths of babes. WWE “PG” is highly debatable.
Edge, current king of crackers. All the white folks love him, though he’s kinda boring to watch. He’s an incredibly skilled and technically talented wrestler but has personality like cardboard. He’s been with the company for over a decade, and was involved in the 2007 WWE steroid scandal. He’s held championships with the WWE on 29 occasions.
Rey Mysetrio is one of my favorites. You can’t tell from the photos, but all the wrestlers are SUPER HUGE. Like, towering close to 7 feet tall. This guy is 5’6″, weighs 175 lbs and simply soars off the top rope. This is the only in focus photo I was able to get because he literally never stopped moving. He has “Mexican” tattooed across his abdomen which is a fairly big deal for such a once, from all accounts, racist wrestling promotion. He joined the WWE in the early 2000s after having wrestled for various other promotions throughout the 90s. He respects his Lucha Libre roots by never removing his mask in public. He’s won a plethora of titles, works tirelessly on his career, and has a habit of visiting children with cancer in his spare time.
The Undertaker is the keystone to the SmackDown “brand.” Basically, there are two main WWE shows – Raw and SmackDown. Each show has their own stable of wrestlers, only bring together both brands for pay-per-view matches. The Undertaker has been wrestling with the WWE for 20 years, though he’s been wrestling professionally since 1984. 20 years of hard, physical work. He’s made his character an icon, constantly re-inventing his persona to keep fans’ interest. He’s gone by dozens of monikers – the phenom, the dead man, Taker, and even had a stint using his own name, Mark Calaway. He’s suffered numerous injuries over the years, and apparently, this was one of his last appearances until early 2011 as he was suffering from a debilitating shoulder injury, having torn his rotator cuff. This episode at SmackDown featured no contact with his opponent Kane, and set the psychological stage for their match a week later. The pay-per-view “Bragging Rights” would have Undertaker lose to Kane so he could have needed surgery on his shoulder and time to heal.
The Undertaker is the most respected professional wrestler working today. On every account, from management to his fellow wrestlers, he is an articulate, fair person, a diplomat in the locker room, a gentleman in the ring (believe it or not!) and a true company man. These qualities have enabled his successful career to last as long as it has while still garnering so much respect in the industry. I remember watching his debut in 1990, terrified. He still inspires awe in the arena.
Kane, the big bald headed wrestler, is the kayfabe (or fake) brother of The Undertaker. They have had several feuds over the years. Outside of the ring, however, Mark Calaway and Glenn Jacobs are close friends and rely on each other as confidants in the business. The trust needed between two nearly 7 foot, 300lb giants working together in the ring without inflicting injury upon the other is immense. Though the story lines in Wrestling for the most part are fake and scripted, and yes, punches are pulled and body slams are made to look more painful than they actually are, the amount of athleticism required to compete in the ring and still make it look believable is immense. The skill and trust needed to make sure your opponent is not severely hurt during a match is immeasurable. It’s a testament to Mark Calaway’s technical ability, communication skills and respect of his fellow wrestlers that have enabled him to compete for nearly three decades.
And when that arena goes dark, and the Deadman’s Bell tolls overhead, The Undertaker’s presence alone is enough to make the crowd become eerily silent… and then explode.