Tuesday, August 17, 2010

WWE Summer Slam 2010!

"Thanks for introducing me to the world of Professional Wrestling."
"It's pretty great, isn't it?"
"...It's bizarre..."

That's an exchange I had with my girlfriend after I took her to WWE Summer Slam, their biggest live on pay-per-view event of the summer, and arguably their second biggest event of the year, after WrestleMania. It happened to be at LA's Staples Center, and I happened to know someone who could get us into the press box. So naturally I jumped at the opportunity.

I had never been to a WWE event before, despite having watched many dozens on television and pay-per-view. I have to say that actually being inside the arena makes it a totally different experience. The action is noticeably more electrifying... while not at all less bizarre. However you may judge the institution of pro wrestling, I love it all the same.

The first thing that struck me about being there live is that those fireworks and pyrotechnics are LOUD. We were high up on the level of the rafters, and still each blast brought a shudder of physical discomfort - not only a sharp pain in the ears, but also a jolt through the whole body. It's like someone grabbed you from behind and shook vigorously. I can't imagine what it would feel like to be standing right in front of them on the entrance ramp.

I also, for the first time, got a look at the cameras that provide such an up-close-and-personal view of the action to the average TV audience member. Any time there's a superstar walking to or from the ring, there's a huge camera tracking him (or her) from less than two feet away. It makes you very aware of the theatricality of the whole business: when the jumbo-tron features an intense closeup of Kane glaring at his brother, The Undertaker (who made a very special guest appearance, mysteriously showing up in a previously empty casket!), if you look down, you can see that he's making a conscious effort to ignore the camera guy shoving a lens in his face. Then you should see them haul ass away from the ring, lest they get engulfed in flame spouting from all four turnbuckles. It's clear that great athleticism is necessary for more WWE jobs than those that require spandex and body oil.

It's also much clearer that the fighting is fake when you're watching in person. That's mostly because they can't employ the remarkably effective strategy of quickly cutting to a different camera angle as soon as a punch lands, which draws attention away from the lack of actual contact. But it's not just the striking moves - when you have a view of the whole ring, it's easier to see that the superstars' movements follow a choreographed pattern, like a big macho testosterone-charged dance.

But you can't fake the athleticism. Or the charisma required to sell the reaction to a hard clothesline or hype a match. Pro-Wrestling has never been a contest of combative skills - it's more accurately described as a group of extremely talented stunt performers acting out physical soap operas. And there's something highly entertaining in that concept, even more so if you accept it for what it is.

The first thing I did when I found out I was able to attend was to brush up on the latest storylines. Because WWE pay-per-views are traditionally the culmination of plots that build during the weekly TV programming. In order to fully appreciate the spectacle of these grown men mercilessly pounding on one another, you have to stay up to date on who are the faces (good guys) and who are the heels (bad guys), who's feuding with whom, and who's getting a shot at which title.

I won't bore you with a recap, but suffice it to say, no major belts changed hands - except for the Divas Championship, but let's be honest, it's generally harder to get excited about the ladies' division. There's only so many times you can watch a girl slam another girl's head into the mat before it gets old. In the main event - a giant 7-vs.-7 tag team elimination match between team WWE (face) and The Nexus (heel) - John Cena took a break from his burgeoning film career (backed by the nascent WWE Films) to lead his team of heroes to a come-from-behind victory.

In the epic BIFF moment of the night, Randy Orton failed to follow through on a longstanding WWE tradition: breaking the ring announcers' table. After current WWE Champion Sheamus cost Orton a shot to win the title by disqualifying himself (he hit the referee with a steel chair [which, incidentally, I learned are legal to bring in the ring as long as you don't hit you're opponent in the head with it]), Orton kicked Sheamus in the balls, flung him outside the ring, set him up on the table, and performed his finishing move, the RKO (a cross between a Stone Cold Stunner and a Diamond Cutter). But when he landed the move, there was nothing but a disappointing thud, and the table remained intact. I guess they don't make them (tables OR superstars) like they used to - I've never seen Triple-H fail to break a table with The Pedigree.