It’s always hard to make friends, but in middle school, being a wrestling fan made it infinitely easier. All you really had to do was overhear a classmate revealing they had the same favorite wrestler as you or spot someone who had a matching, oversized Undertaker shirt. And if you were fortunate enough to have parents willing to foot the bill for a pay-per-view event, you were set.
I don’t remember the exact year I started watching wrestling, but I do remember the match: Kane vs. X-Pac; as an amateur pyromanic, I was fascinated by the fire that Kane summoned from the turnbuckles. And I remember excitedly joining the play-by-play recap with a group of boys from my school the very next day. It took one episode of Monday Night Raw before I was hooked. Mondays became my favorite day, secretly staying up with my older brother much later than we were allowed to, hastily shutting off the television and pretending to sleep when we heard our parents stirring upstairs. Tuesdays were my second favorite, as I’d stroll into the classroom with knowledge far more important than whatever academics we were being taught that day. Knowledge is power; knowledge about the outcome of a match your friends weren’t allowed to watch can be a childhood dictatorship.
As someone who was generally deemed an outcast growing up, wrestling simultaneously tossed me even further on the fringes while also helping me find other similar outcasts to commiserate with. Any normal anxiety that I had about talking to people melted away when I saw a peer wearing a D-Generation X shirt because that wrestling stable was much so bigger than my stranger-induced panic attacks. But, as these things go, people switch schools, find different interests, grow out of wrestling, and therefore grow out of you. Eventually, you stop watching too, even if you still wear your Stone Cold T-shirt to bed most high school nights.
Knowledge is power; knowledge about the outcome of a match your friends weren’t allowed to watch can be a childhood dictatorship.
But there is some sort of magnetic pull with WWE, something about the franchise that makes it impossible to fully disconnect. In college, my prior wrestling fandom would sometimes slip out unexpectedly—a casual reference to the Rock’s musical career, visible excitement when driving past Nassau Coliseum and seeing a WWE event advertised—and it would become akin to an understanding nod across a hall, a silent understanding that you both spent time in the WWE trenches, an exchanged glance that all but says “Yes, I know. I thought it was real, too.”
Shortly after college, I found myself watching wrestling again, partly because I just needed something unobtrusive to provide background noise while I worked, and partly because I had become somewhat intrigued about the current product. It didn’t take long before I was sucked in yet again, secretly rushing home to watch Raw. This time, embarrassingly enough, my fandom was even stronger than when I was a kid. As with most things in life, I can both thank and blame the Internet for that.
My wrestling obsession predated my Internet obsession; the two didn’t converge until I was in my early 20s and learned that Wikipedia was invaluable for procrastination. Reading detailed entries about wrestlers filled the gaps between working shitty jobs and applying to graduate schools, letting me escape into fictional words to avoid my own reality. Then, one day, I searched CM Punk on Tumblr and was done for.
As I started watching Raw again, I started discovering all these pockets within pockets online: a thread within a private feminist group that was specifically dedicated to chatting about wrestling, multiple punk rock-oriented groups that talked about the intersection of punk and wrestling, and so on. These groups provided me with places to chat free of judgment, to find smart folks who also love to analyze a “lowbrow” form of entertainment in terms of racism and sexism, and communities full of card-carrying feminists who are also grappling with a product that has yet to learn how to treat its women wrestlers as more than just flimsy objects. I found friends within these online communities. It was like middle school all over again—our mutual love of wrestling trumping our general awkwardness and social anxiety.
There is some sort of magnetic pull with WWE, something about the franchise that makes it impossible to fully disconnect.
As this was going on, however, an unforeseen problem popped up in my personal life. College was the first time I found lifelong friends, friends who were loyal and protective. It was also, not coincidentally, the first time I realized I’m a very co-dependent human being. As we scattered into different apartments in different cities and even on different continents, I became increasingly paranoid, slipping into depressive phases where I could only focus on how terrible it would be if I lost these friends—and ironically, that anxiety often prevented me from going to see people I loved.
Somehow, perhaps through a drunken admission, my friend group found out that a lot of us had secretly picked back up wrestling. We watched an episode of Raw together, and then suddenly, we were watching every episode together. Without even making plans, we’d all slowly trickle into one person’s apartment on Monday nights to glue ourselves to the TV, struggling but failing to maintain some ironic distance between us and the WWE. This led to buying the WWE Network, putting on old Attitude Era matches when there was nothing else on television. It led to us piling into a car to drive to a Raw taping in Long Island, New York. It led to full-on bashes celebrating pay-per-view events, group-chatting when we couldn’t watch live together, parties dedicated solely to watching men grapple each other, a collection of toy wrestling belts that became prizes in our fantasy football league, and matching New Day shirts that we’d wear to bars together.
No one really teaches you how to maintain adult friendships because there isn’t just one answer. People tend to forget that friendship is work: You work to keep in touch with people, you work to forgive someone after a fight, you work to look past petty jealousy, you work to accept the fact that people grow older and change—they find partners who occupy their time, align with political parties you may not agree with, take jobs that mean going to bed early or no longer getting trashed on a random Monday night.
Reading detailed entries about wrestlers let me escape into fictional words to avoid my own reality.
With wrestling, we found ways to combat these challenges. It’s a way for us to set aside a few hours a week to make sure we see each other, even if I’m falling asleep on the couch during the third hour of Raw. We brought our roommates and partners—people who had no prior interest in wrestling—into the fold.
For a group of friends who are glued together because of our love of competitive grappling, our friendship tends to be devoid of competition. It doesn’t matter where we’re at personally or professionally. That’s the stuff that you leave backstage; all that matters to us is what’s in the ring.