July 7, 1996. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was ten years old with at least seven of those years being a Hulkamaniac. I grew up watching wrestling with my dad, a Ric Flair fan, and became one of Hulk Hogan's fans. I had the Hulk Hogan wrestling buddy and was all for anything with wrestling. Up until July 7, 1996 wrestling to me was crystal clear. There were the good guys and the bad guys. The bad guys won sometimes, but the good guys always got back on top. On that date, at the WCW Bash at the Beach pay-per-view, Hulk Hogan made a surprise appearance. He came down to the ring, the returning crusader, to save Sting, Macho Man, and the whole of the WCW from the despicable tag team of Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, the Outsiders. Hogan entered the ring and the Outsiders cleared out, leaving only a fallen Macho Man. Hogan had saved the day! Then, in a moment which has never left me, Hogan delivered his patented leg drop on the Macho Man. The stunned crowd sat in silence trying to process what happened. Hogan was joined by Hall and Nash and this was birth of the New World Order, and the death of my innocence.
For the next eight years I watched wrestling religiously. Back in the late 80s-mid 90s you had to be a fan of both WWF and WCW since they interchanged stars so often. By the late 90s the rosters settled down a bit and you just had to channel surf on Monday nights and hope you caught the best moments of either WCW Nitro or WWF Raw. The Monday night programs, the Thursday night Smackdown and Thunder shows, the occasional pay-per-view (they were expensive then), I watched anything I could. I got wrapped up in the storylines, practiced wrestling moves on my friends (and my little sister), and played wrestling videogames. Groups like the nWo and DX made it cool to root for the perceived bad guys. Both organizations had great entertainers. Stone Cold, the Rock, and Shawn Michaels were great in the ring and with a mike. There were still clear sides to root for and against (though the wrestlers were constantly switching sides depending on the story). Then things started to change. The WWF bought out the WCW in 2001 and then changed their name to WWE in 2002. Everything seemed different and by the time I graduated high school in 2004 I drifted away from wrestling. By the end of college I had only a passing knowledge of who the big names were. Many of the superstars and storylines I loved were gone, so I moved on from my wrestling fandom. Since I stopped being a fan I have stayed firmly on the periphery, occasionally dipping a toe back in the water when big events happened, such as Bret Hart's return in 2009. Those instances didn't last long, and I never got back into it.
Fast forward to last Friday when I notice the WWE Network app on my Playstation. I had heard of the network and thought it seemed like a pretty good deal for fans. For $10 a month you got access to all WWE programming plus archived WWF and WCW stuff (ECW too if you were into that) and all the pay-per-views as well. They offer the first month for free so I signed up so I could relive some of my favorite childhood moments. After watching several old PPVs and Monday night shows I was feeling the itch to get into wrestling again. As luck would have it, Sunday night was PPV night and I resolved to give the WWE a shot at roping me back in. These are my observations on WWE Battleground. For those of you who are current wrestling fans please bear in mind that I have no prior knowledge of the events leading up to these matches or storylines other than what was shown during the event. I also have no allegiances or fandom for any of these wrestlers so when I disparage your favorite wrestler, don't take it personally. (Spoiler alert for Battleground below)
The WWE has always been pretty hardcore about pushing its brand. That's one of the reasons they won the Monday Night War. This hasn't changed as there were a lot (at least six or seven) of programming or social media plugs for the WWE. I get it, you have to hype up your product, but it seems like unnecessary filler and the bottom screen Twitter crawl was annoying. I absolutely admit that this is just me being a crotchety old man, and I'm ok with that.
It seems like modern day superstars have very ordinary names. Granted it's only one PPV and I'm getting limited exposure to the roster, but man these names are boring. John Cena, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Randy Orton, Bray Wyatt? The best names of the night were Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar, but even those sound normal. The Big Show and the Miz were the only ones with "character" names and they didn't even wrestle. What happened to the non-realistic names like Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Sting, etc. Even the tag team wrestlers used regular names. I'm used to guys like Road Warrior Hawk and the Road Dogg as good tag team names. This could just be the result of the particular lineup for that night, but the names left a lot to be desired.
When did the Divas division become actual wrestling? Back when I was a fan the Diva fights added up to little more than slapping and hair pulling. Battleground's Divas match was legitimate wrestling and was far more than just parading attractive scantily clad women like it used to be. There always seemed to be one or two of these wrestling divas but the WWE has done a good job developing the Diva talent into an entertaining product.
One of the things I remember most fondly of my time as a wrestling fan were the entrances. A lot of this comes from familiarity. When I heard breaking glass, I knew Stone Cold was coming out and could get excited accordingly. With the exception of Cena, I didn't immediately recognize anybody's intro music. This did not prevent me from enjoying several of the entrances though. I enjoyed Brock Lesnar's entrance, especially his timing with the fireworks. I was already familiar with Cena's intro but I hadn't seen it in a while so I enjoyed him running to the ring and playing the crowd. The best entrance of the night was Bray Wyatt. One of my favorite intro gimmicks is the arena going dark, and his entrance nailed that. The added effect of people using their cell phone lights to create a creepy glow throughout the arena was pretty cool.
Wrestling matches tend to be a bit formulaic and, as a result, predictable. This was another factor which led to me getting out of wrestling. Quite simply I was getting bored. The first few matches of the night fell into this category. The tag team championship match between the Prime Time Players and the New Day (whose microphone skills left me yearning for some New Age Outlaws) was horribly predictable. Halfway through the event I had been able to script out most of the matches, including the interference of the Wyatt-Reigns match. Things took a turn for the better though starting with the Divas Triple Threat match. After that, the Cena-Owens match had more twists than M. Night Shymalan's filmography, and the night got a huge boost from the surprise return of the Undertaker during the Lesnar-Rollins match. This last one was especially important because main events should never be as one-sided as that match was. Lesnar had suplexed Rollins so many times and dominated so thoroughly that it was inevitable that something was going to happen. The Undertaker appearance was even more impressive once I found out that it had been 16 months since he had appeared at a WWE event.
Not only was I happily surprised with the less than predictable outcome of some of the matches, I was also happily surprised that the story still matters. Prior to each match the relevant backstory was given so viewers were up to speed on what was going on between the opponents. Sometimes this was annoying and unnecessary, like in the case of the tag team match and the opening Orton-Sheamus match. The announcers can give you filler on the less relevant matches. Others, such as Wyatt-Reigns, Cena-Owens, and Rollins-Lesnar, the background was significant and gave a better depth to the match itself. The stories were always the main driving force of entertainment for me as a fan, and at the end of Battleground I was interested in what would become of the three above mentioned stories, although it looks like Lesnar-Rollins will take a backseat to Lesnar-Undertaker. I smell a triple threat match.
The mike skills these days are awful. At least they were on Sunday night. I hope there are some roster members with more charisma who just weren't active, otherwise I feel bad for current fans. The most mike time went to the Miz, who had a couple of decent quips, but overall he was very bland. He was obviously hamming up the bad guy, goofy routine, but he was mostly just uninteresting. The next longest talking segment belonged to the New Day tag team. Again, awful. I'm not even going to waste anymore time talking about it, I'm just going to post this video of Stone Cold. (NSFW: Language)
A lot has changed about watching wrestling from my previous time. For the most part all of the characters, including announcers, are different. Even the holdovers from my time were much less like I remember them (Jerry "The King" Lawler was not nearly snarky enough). The presentation style is different, Michael Cole actually referenced stats and there was a Twitter crawl section on the bottom of the screen. Ultimately though, what goes on in the ring and around the stories is what will or will not keep my interest piqued. I don't know if Battleground was a good PPV. After it ended I got on Twitter to see what WWE fans had to say about it and get a pulse on whether it was a good event or not. (Those damn Twitter adverts worked!) The overall sentiment seemed positive, except towards Cena who I guess everybody over the age of 12 hates. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, especially after an underwhelming first hour or so. I have a long way to go to say I'm again a fan, but I'm willing to explore this a little further. In the meantime I will continue to watch, and hope I see moments that make me react like this guy.