January 26, 2014...Pittsburgh, PA...a night that will live in wrestling infamy and the night I woke up. I traveled down to Pittsburgh, with my brother, from Buffalo, NY. This was the closest the Rumble had been to our hometown since 1992, so we decided at the last minute to head down and cross it off our pro wrestling bucket list. It wasn’t until I found myself among the thousands of hijackers that I realized how conditioned and cynical I had become to sports entertainment.
I have since gone back and re-watched the broadcast and while it certainly captured the mood in the Consol Energy Center that night, it, like all wrestling events, wasn’t the same as being there. Walking through the arena that night, my brother and I took note of the average age of the fan: generally two decades too old to be citizens of Ce-Nation. Even taking all that in, I still didn’t expect the night to go as it did.
I admit, I am a dirt sheet addict, and went there knowing Batista was going to win, knowing Cena/Orton was going to stink the joint up, but I honestly thought the crowd was going to rubber stamp it like they have with everything else. For me, wrestling is that drug I can’t quit; I will most likely always keep watching, but I’ve honestly been on auto pilot since the Miz main-evented XXVII. Even to this day, I can’t believe they did that to us. Following that up with the “Once in a Lifetime Match”...twice...(I had no emotional stake in Cena/ Rock, didn’t care and don’t know why 80,000 did) I was just along for the ride and have been until the Rumble.
After the event, we were called hijackers and were accused of “going into business for ourselves,” of “being disrespectful to the talent,” and all the rest. The truth is the arena was full of old school wrestling fans that night. The fans who’d bought the tear-away Hogan shirts and foam fingers in the 80s, the Austin 3:16 shirts in the 90s, basically the generation that built the WWE, and after years of being abandoned for the PG era, we had just simply had enough and took back our company, even if just for a night.
As far as going into business for ourselves, if you go to Best Buy, purchase a flat screen television and the box is empty when you get it home, you’re going to raise some hell. I know, Daniel Bryan wasn’t advertised for the rumble match, but neither was Cena the first time he won, or Edge in 2010. The fans were accustomed to surprise rumble entrants and thought that since they had been so behind Bryan for so long, of course he was going to come out and win. When Rey Mysterio came out at number 30 the reaction from the crowd made me realize that I wasn’t alone, that fans of my generation were tired of the product, and maybe had been for as long as I had, and to my surprise had decided enough was enough.
So what do we take away from that night? First and foremost, WWE is aiming to please the wrong fan base. As Jim Cornette has stated, we have two types of fans, those raised on sports entertainment and, as we saw in Pittsburgh, old school professional wrestling fans. Over the last several years, WWE has shifted its focus, appealing to the former, the sports entertainment fan, what I call the rubber-stampers. This generation is composed of families and small children that watch Raw and attend live events just to have fun. As the last few years have shown us, they will cheer for anything put in front of them; there is certainly no threat of 8 year old's hijacking a future pay per view. So why focus on them? I’m not suggesting we shift back to the NC-17’esque Attitude Era, but there is certainly room to be a little more sophisticated and mature than what is currently being offered.
So this leaves us then with the old school professional wrestling fans. And I know our generation has been assigned a lot of fun labels: internet fans, smart marks, etc...but I have another name for our generation: passionate wrestling fans. Fans who have stuck with the product for nearly 30 years now, that care enough to become as knowledgeable as they can, that push the WWE to make its product as great as it can be, and as many have suggested, the most likely to purchase the WWE Network. Why wouldn’t the WWE aim to please this demo?
Some have suggested, we are the most discontented, and impossible to please. Well, here comes the next lesson to learn. We are not. Picture if Daniel Bryan had won the Rumble. It would have been a celebration coming out of the Consol Center, not a rage-filled funeral. It would have started a momentum that would have carried them into April, and I do not believe we would have heard what we have since that night.
As far as pleasing us, the Rumble showed how easy it truly can be. The only match of the night to have any real fan approval was Bryan/Wyatt. Why? Because it was a great wrestling match. It had a great build and gave us two talented wrestlers who have shown us enough of their personalities to latch onto and really get behind. Also, it was something new; we hadn’t seen it a thousand times before.
As an extension of this, another point to come out of the Rumble and the last few months is that maybe NXT isn’t the be all end all. You think about who are among the most over right now; Daniel Brian, the Shield, Cesaro, once upon a few weeks ago CM Punk, among others, all got their starts in the independents. They learned how to wrestle and grew as performers before coming to WWE. In fact, two of the most anticipated from NXT, Adrian Neville and Sami Zayn, are two guys that got their starts in the independents. There is something to be said about receiving a more well rounded albeit less structured wrestling education. And again, it feeds into the larger lesson here; that fans want to see wrestling again.
So the largest lesson to learn from that fateful night in Pittsburgh is simply that a generation of fans has awoken from their sports-entertainment delusion. The old tricks of feeding off-color lines to JBL to alter our thinking or reducing us to internet wrestling fans isn’t going to keep us down anymore. Paying quasi-movie stars a shit-ton to come back to improve buy rates isn’t going to work anymore. Shoving one-dimensional, one-move wonders down our throats isn’t going to be tolerated anymore. But even if they change nothing, we will just keep watching right?
Well see, that’s the point, we will keep watching...and we will keep hijacking. We have too much invested so we’re not going anywhere. And as we connect more on Twitter, as fans turn more and more to YouTube to educate themselves, as the Network shows the sport-entertainment generation what it used to be like, our numbers will only increase. The hijackings will happen again. After all, who is going to be in New Orleans on April 6th? We know what nearly 20,000 sounded like. What will nearly 80,000 sound like if WWE doesn’t heed the wake-up call of the Rumble?
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