When my family took a vacation as a kid, I was allotted one gift, whether it was a CD, magazine or airbrushed shirt. My family vacationed in Panama City Beach every summer. We usually stayed about a mile from the famed Club La-Vela that was a WCW hub in the late 1990’s. I still remembering browsing the Wal-Mart in 1997 and coming across a foreign wrestling magazine, Pro Wrestling Illustrated. By this point in my life, I was living in Heflin, Alabama, a 2,500 person community where the Dollar General was called “Wal-Mart” and a trailer called Tasty Dip that served ice cream and hot dogs transplanted straight from 1950’s Americana was referred to as “Dairy Queen”. I had my share of wrestling magazines growing up, but they consisted of the WCW and WWF-produced ones. As I got older, I realized how much these magazines toed the company line so they lost interest for me. Raw magazine was a revelation, but it stared at me as something different and objective, it felt like the blueprint to becoming a bigger wrestling fan.
As an accountant by trade, it was pretty tough for me to decide to buy a $5 magazine as my gift when a $13 CD could have been mine for the taking. Still, I had to see how these rankings shook out. Every moment I was lounging on the beach that week, I was reading the PWI 500. I was blown away that they ranked Dean Malenko #1. I was a fan of Malenko; my envisioned wrestling champion persona that I would become one day, Mr. Intensity, stole liberally from the Iceman act. Still, this guy was the #1 wrestler in the world? The #2 guy was even more puzzling, Mitsuharu Misawa? Who is this guy? I learned he was a star in Japan, which set forth an obsession that switched from a kid-devoted hobby to a lifetime devoted one.
Fast forward to two years later when we finally got the internet in my home. My first foray onto the interwebs was finding 1wrestling.com where the Daily Lariat became a piece I had to consume as soon as it was posted. Wrestleline.com, featuring PPV reviews from a NetCop, also was a frequent stopping point. I thought I knew everything about wrestling, but I was also self-aware that I was only 13 years old. In addition to my age, none of these websites had much to say about Misawa and the other Japanese and Mexican wrestlers that weren’t wrestling stateside but filled my PWI pages every time the 500 came out. I quenched my thirst but was still looking for that one community that resonated with me.
In November 2001, maybe by divine intervention, I discovered deathvalleydriver.com. They were doing their own version of the top 500. Jushin Liger was #1. This was someone I was familiar with, but was he really that much better than Kurt Angle? By this point, I had started watching Japanese wrestling tapes after joining some communities so I knew what Misawa, Kawada and Kobashi were all about. However, a guy was ranked at #7 that I have never heard of, Low-Ki. I found out he was a U.S. indy wrestler. This was unique to me as my idea of indy wrestling was the locally focused Turnbuckle Championship Wrestling, ran by Dusty Rhodes. I have found a greater appreciation for this promotion later in life and did enjoy the shows I went to as a kid, but as an octane-fueled 15 year old, it was kind of disheartening to see an older Barry Windham and Steve Corino work a southern-style feud. I needed to see what the buzz with this Low-Ki guy was all about. Enter a guy named Wes Hatch and his Weside Connection Comps. Wes was also based in the Atlanta area and made 8 hour custom compilations of all the best indy stuff happening in the Northeast at the time. My wrestling journey was revitalized, and I had found a community that I felt like I belonged to.
I still was a lurker for the most part of the next 7-8 years, only chiming in when I was sure my input would be a value add. In that span of time, my wrestling fandom had peaks and valleys that corresponding with real life getting in the way. The one constant was that I was still a member of the DVDVR (Death Valley Driver Video Review) community, although a silent one. I joined another message board called prowrestlingonly.com and still remained silent there even though my wrestling watching and knowledge was increasingly expanding. It really wasn’t until the summer of 2011, nearly ten years after I first found DVDVR, that I began to chime up. I participated in a project hosted by Ditch ranking the best Japanese matches of 2004 and followed that up by participating in a bigger encompassing project ranking the top All Japan matches from the 1980’s. These projects gave me focus on wrestling watching and confidence in sharing my thoughts. I soon discovered that my experience with watching this footage was equaled by many of the same people commenting.
During this process, I caught the eye of a brash poster by the name of jerryvonkramer who messaged me regarding whether I wanted to start a WCW-centric podcast. That night, I discussed the possibility of doing this with my wife Jennifer. I expressed my uncertainty because of how this poster, named Parv in his private message to me, was getting into fights on the forums. I felt I could debate the merits of something I believe in well, but I am also a naturally non-confrontational person. I decided to roll the dice and agree, and this was the genesis of Where the Big Boys Play. The 2.5 years after that has been an outburst from a wrestling community notoriety standpoint. I have met and discussed wrestling with dozens of people I now consider friends. I have also found out about their lives and the depths beyond their wrestling fandom. This was a really big deal for me considering how after the Attitude Era died off, I never engaged in 1-on-1 wrestling discussion and was always on the outside looking in.
All of this groundwork I laid out in the preceding paragraphs was done to share a thought that keeps constantly inhabiting my mind lately: the wrestling community framework is changing. Wrestling fandom has always had different levels to it. Some people watch it casually on a Monday night, some might read one of the bigger wrestling articles online at Grantland or Yahoo, and some may subscribe to a wrestling newsletter website such as f4wonline.com or pwtorch.com. Beyond even those layers is where I currently reside, being a force behind a pop culture website with a heavy emphasis on wrestling and a moderator at prowrestlingonly.com. It can become a niche of a niche where reality can get distorted and unfair labels get projected. Within the Place to Be community, I often am referred to as the Japanese guy. Place to Be gets levied as a WWF-first brand. Voices of Wrestling is where you go for New Japan discussion. Prowrestlingonly.com is at the forefront for analytical, minutia analysis of wrestling and workers. These are all labels that have a semblance of truth to them, but are labels nonetheless and where I think WE (if you are reading this, you are a part of the WE, trust me) are faltering at building up a community that is treated with respect and preserving a hobby we all enjoy.
This really stuck out to me with two examples. One, the initials of things and people in our hub were getting thrown around like common knowledge. In my daily chats, PWO (prowrestlingonly.com), VOW (voicesofwrestling.com) and PTBN (placetobenation.com) are thrown around like WCW and WWF. Acronyms can be great at times with condensing thoughts, but I think it is always important to know who the potential audience is. A Facebook chat message with friends is fine for using acronyms, but a message board post that talks about the above examples and then references people with user names by their real names can look intrusive to an onlooker and be off-putting. These people are so comfortable with each other they just address everyone directly. I have been guilty of this lately and have made a conscious effort over the past few weeks to address the username instead of the person’s real name. Even worse is when veiled comments are thrown around such as “there is a community out there that thinks this way”. Be specific in levying out accusations. The above type of comments only create schisms between the niche wrestling communities and propel the labels that get unjustifiably attached to each of the examples presented.
I sometimes get boisterous and think I listen to more wrestling-related podcasts than anyone. I am afforded a situation at work that allows me to listen nearly uninterrupted throughout the day. On the last Voices of Wrestling podcast (had to resist typing VOW there), Rich and Joe (the hosts) discussed their rotation of wrestling podcasts. Joe takes an approach of not listening to any other podcasts for fear that material or an astute point could subconsciously be lifted. I disagree fundamentally with this approach, much like Joe and I disagree with pro wrestling fundamentals. However, I DO understand his rationale. I think this is a key point in many of our wrestling discussions. I feel like arguments in the wrestling communities I frequent boil down to one of three things: 1) a dick measuring contest to see who has watched/listened/read the most on a particular subject; 2) avoiding any direct critiques by resulting into straw man arguments such as “I like what I like” or “we can just agree to disagree” after the first opposing point has been raised; or 3) name calling and general dislike for the person overall based on wrestling opinions. All three of these things are unfortunate and unnecessary. At certain points, an argument can be beat to the ground and each combatant can walk away being satisfied that their opinion was presented. Pro wrestling in regards to match quality is highly subjective. I love Ron Garvin. I love Jimmy Valiant. Those two statements can seem pretentious to certain people I have interacted with, though it is much easier for me to explain my adulation for Garvin compared to Valiant. Arguments will inherently flare up based on the subject matter of pro wrestling in general, but a higher standard of presenting an argument and receiving a counter-argument will go a long way in advancing the overall wrestling internet community.
Lastly, I want to address my boisterous comment in the previous paragraph with this thought. Of the individuals I interact with daily and know their wrestling habits first-hand, I know I listen to more wrestling-related podcasts than them. This can inflate my perception of how that relates to the overall notion. Remember, I spent ten years lurking on message boards and being part of the silent majority. In those years, I watched almost every Independent Wrestling Association Mid-South show from a two-year stretch. My point in stating that is just because you don’t “hear” a person doesn’t mean they aren’t knowledgeable. Looking at the stats for our podcasts, I am amazed we get 1,000 downloads to the show just from Soundcloud. Even more amazing than that, is that of those 1,000 downloads, we only get live comments and feedback from about 15-20 individuals from a given show. This amount of comments seems like a lot on the surface, but there is 980 people out there listening that could have something to add. This is a key point in not talking in absolutes. Thousands of people subscribe to the Observer, but many may never post on THE BOARD or comment on a podcast there. The silent minority can feel extremely overpowering in our wrestling corner sometimes, but they are the minority and that can’t be taken lightly.
Brainstorming what the wrestling fan community will look like in my own personal world five years from now is tough to say. It is something that carries weight with every decision at placetobenation.com. I feel that even though the accessibility of wrestling overall is at an all-time high, more groups and communities are becoming more closed off. I have shared a thought that before places like Death Valley Driver and Pro Wrestling Only were seen as large communities where a random match recommendation would have multiple people running out and ordering a 1999 Big Japan or Battlarts show from Jeff Lynch. Now, the community feels smaller and more like a Goodreads setting where the approach has become, “you like what you like, I’ll like what I like”. I am not sure whether this will be a prevailing trend of pro wrestling communities where the niche gets continually broken down, but I do think pro wrestling communities need to constantly strive to remain focused on bringing thought-provoking discussion. Remember that my first instinct in seeing that Dean Malenko was ranked #1 was intrigue, not pessimism. I have been as guilty as others in the past to be condescending initially at an opinion contrary to mine, regardless of the weight behind the argument that is being made. I implore us as a community to think more about improving our knowledge base and seeing other points of views instead of making rash preconceptions.
Wrestling as an art form overall will never be as scholarly as the opera, but there is no reason why thought-provoking abstract articles and projects can’t be aspired to and become the standard rather than the exception. Wrestling fans as a whole have a lot to overcome and are still referred to as “booger eaters” and hurled other inflammatory insults even within the subset of nerd cultures. Certain items like This Week in 90’s Wrestling written by Charles Williams, the Voices of Wrestling New Japan e-Book and Paul Cooke’s Match Monthly Guide are going a long way to redirect this notion and add credibility to a hobby we all enjoy discussing and analyzing. My last piece of advice is to always be a FAN of wrestling first, not an overbearing fanatic.