If you thought wrestling was on the decline, think again. WWE today is a bigger spectacle than before, screening in 180 countries to 650 million homes and with 810 million social media followers. Grethe Kemp spends a week in Brooklyn and finds out about a fandom more devoted than she could have ever imagined.
The group of fans outside the Holiday Inn in Downtown Brooklyn aren’t happy. World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) superstar Sasha Banks left the hotel without acknowledging them ... again.
“Sasha Banks is a bitch,” is the resounding conclusion.
Apparently, Sasha is notoriously rude to fans.
Seventeen-year-old Cerina Leone, who is staying in a hotel across the street for the WWE’s tour in Brooklyn, tells me how her 10-year-old sister – who was a huge Sasha fan – once asked the wrestler for a photo. When Sasha ignored her, the little girl said something like: “Well, Charlotte’s gonna beat you anyway.” Apparently, Sasha mumbled “little bitch”, something the girl’s mother heard.
Sasha Banks and Snoop Dogg at the WWE 218K launch party. Picture: Grethe Kemp
Sasha, with her magenta extensions and 1.65m frame, happens to be cousins with the likes of Snoop Dogg and Ray J, and helped put women’s wrestling on the map. An NXT champion (NXT is WWE’s development division), her fight against babyface Bayley in 2015 was the first women’s match to headline a WWE event.
But being rude to fans is the ultimate no-no in wrestling. It’s an extremely reciprocal form of entertainment, in which a wrestler is either made or broken by an audience’s reaction.
The new worship
Later that night, our African media posse heads out to the Barclays Centre for Summerslam 2017.
With journalists from Zambia, Nigeria and Kenya, we’re here courtesy of SuperSport to renew media coverage of WWE after it won the rights to air the franchise over free-to-air channel e.tv. According to an e.tv source, it was all a numbers game and SuperSport, with the monetary might of MultiChoice behind it, won.
The indoor stadium has a capacity of about 18 000, and every seat is filled. Dotted in the crowd are celebs Seth Green, Macaulay Culkin and Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che. This is WWE’s second biggest pay-per-view event of the year and, considering that they have up to 500 events a year (some of which don’t even get aired), it’s a pretty big deal.
WWE has put out all their biggest players, or “draws” as they’re called, for the night. There’s a “fatal 4-way” between Universal Champion Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton, Samoa Joe and Braun Strowman, in which the four wrestlers fend for themselves in the ring; the SmackDown Women’s Championship between Naomi and Natalya; and the SmackDown Tag Team Championship between The New Day and The Usos.
Naomi and Natalya at Summerslam Pictures: All supplied
In the Barclays Centre foyer, you can buy Summerslam shirts for R400 and Legit Boss caps (the kind that Sasha wears) for R350. A hot dog is about R200, and I balk at the price of a bottle of still water that would set me back R93. At the Swag Shop, there are WWE reproduction belts for about R5 180. They look just like the real thing, and I see numerous fans walking around with a belt slung over a shoulder.
Summerslam kicks off with spectacular preliminary events, but the crowd is pretty tame until rising star Finn Bálor is brought out. The Irish wrestler, whose real name is Fergal Devitt, cut his teeth in Japan under a tenure with New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and quickly rose through WWE’s NXT division. When he was finally called up to join Raw (WWE consists of Raw and SmackDown), he was so popular that he became the first to win a world title in his pay-per-view debut.
WWE doesn’t spare any expense when it comes to production and effects, and they pull out all the stops for Finn’s entrance. Known as The Demon King due to his black and white body paint and predator-like dreadlocks, he crawls into view as smoke creeps across the stage and scarlet light bathes the arena. A guitar riffs ominously over the sound of a heart beating, and the music crescendos with a choir piping out a “haaa!” sound. Finn lifts both his arms. The crowd lifts theirs. The show has taken on mythic proportions.
Later, when I send a clip of the entrance to my brother, he remarks: “It’s like a new sort of religion.”
The modern-day maharaja
But the most interesting fight of the night is that between WWE champion Jinder Mahal and Shinsuke Nakamura.
Born in Canada to Indian parents, the massive 1.96m tall, 108kg Jinder is styled as “The Modern-Day Maharaja”, and his entrances often involve Bhangra dance teams, the Indian national anthem and his two sidekicks – the Singh Brothers.
In an interview with City Press before the fight, I tell Jinder about his opponent Shinsuke’s jab that if the Singh Brothers throw curry powder at him, he’ll throw wasabi powder back.
“I know curry powder burns a lot more than wasabi – especially in the eyes!” Jinder replies, laughing.
Wrestlers rarely play themselves, but instead are carefully constructed characters, meticulously styled by the WWE to be either “heels ” (bad guys) or “babyfaces” (good guys). Right now, Jinder is a heel, and the more boos he gets, the more successfully it means he’s played his part.
That week, The New York Times ran a piece on Jinder, describing how the wrestler has made “cultural confrontation the focus of his persona”.
The idea of Jinder as the immigrant plays perfectly into the fears of Trump-era Americans, and the gimmick has paid off. Jinder’s jibes will often include statements on the great nation of India and the demise of the American empire.
Wrestling often reflects the political zeitgeist of the day. Back in the mid-80s, during the Cold War and when Hulk Hogan was at the peak of his career, the organisation would pit him against villainous Russian character Nikolai Volkoff. The Hulkster would always win, head-butting Volkoff and cementing American domination by spitting on the communist flag.
But WWE has often skirted the thin line between offence and entertainment, and many of their characters were nothing more than offensive stereotypes. In 2004, for instance, they styled wrestler Marc Julian Copani as an Arab-American terrorist called Muhammad Hassan, but the character was pulled quickly after public outrage. There was also an “African witch doctor” character in 1992 called Papa Shango, who entered the ring in a bone necklace and face paint. And then there was PMS (Pretty Mean Sisters), a trio of female wrestlers named after premenstrual syndrome, who WWE chief executive officer Vince McMahon apparently created in 1998 to poke fun at feminists. PMS’s gimmicks included lying about a pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage, attacking male wrestlers and controlling a “love slave” named Meat.
Marks on the inside
Summerslam wraps up with Braun throwing not one, not two, but three announcer tables on top of Brock, who is then theatrically wheeled off on a gurney, but he returns 10 minutes later to finish the match and retain his title.
Back at the hotel, the fans are waiting for their favourites to return from the Barclays Centre. In the lobby, a girl has fallen asleep on a chair, curled up with her WWE encyclopaedia (a book featuring all the wrestlers) held to her chest, which I’m assuming she was hoping to get signed.
I decide to interview Mike McNicholas, a slightly geeky and enthusiastic 19-year-old who wears metal T-shirts and sports long hair and a beard. The group of fans all point to him as “definitely the biggest WWE fan”.
McNicholas comes to the hotel around noon every day, and says he stays there until well past 2am.
“Oh man,” he says with bright eyes when I ask him about his fandom. “WWE is just the hardest-hitting wrestling action in the world. It’s gone from being created by one man – Vince McMahon – in New York to being a worldwide phenomenon. I’ll do anything for the WWE – backstage work, volunteering, selling merchandise.”
I start following McNicholas on his Instagram, which he updates several times a day with pictures he’s managed to take with famous wrestlers. He seems to enjoy the family he’s found within the fandom, while Leone (mentioned earlier) tells me that she loves wrestling because she’s finally found “a thing”.
The New Day
“You know how everybody has that thing?” she tells me in a thick New York accent. “Like back in the day my friends had Justin Bieber, and like, One Direction. I didn’t really have that until I started watching wrestling.”
But it is 26-year-old John Vargas, a rake-thin guy in a Crash Bandicoot T-shirt, whose love of wrestling seems the most earnest, and urgent.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for professional wrestling,” he tells me candidly. “To me, it’s a way to escape my personal issues at home. As a kid, I would watch what the wrestlers did and imitate it – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was the reason I overcame my speech impediment. I became very vocal every time I saw him. Throughout my entire life, I’ve been an outcast, but I feel like I fit into the wrestling crowd.”
McNicholas later explains some wrestling terms to me, including “mark”. Marks are fans who get too wrapped up in a wrestling storyline and start talking as if wrestling is real.
“People get on me a lot of the time for being a diehard fan. Or a lot of people will say ‘he’s a mark, she’s a mark’. But, honestly, we’re all marks on the inside,” he grins.
Kemp was hosted by SuperSport.
WWE airs on SuperSport 4, 7, 9 and 10.