A Collection of Strange Individuals: Tales from TNA's Slammiversary

A lifelong wrestling fan's first time at a major event
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About an hour before TNA Slammiversary started, my fiancé and I were across the street at Raisin’ Cane’s, waiting for the doors of the Agganis Arena to open and eating burning hot chicken fingers. She had never been to a wrestling show before, and was asking me about the general structure of the event. She was asking logical questions: What’s the etiquette about when you sit and when you stand? Is it okay to go to the bathroom in the middle of a match? What will the fans be like? Will the matches be different from the ones on TV?

I was trying to answer in as reassuring and useful a way as possible, as I only half-knew myself. Prior to Slammiversary, I had only attended one of TNA’s BaseBrawl outdoor events and a single ROH show. While a lifelong wrestling fan, I had never actually attended an important show. I’d never seen a title change in person, never been at a show with a video screen, never been part of the pop for a big finish. In some ways, I was my fiancé’s tour guide; in other ways, we were in unexplored territory together, like two mountaineers tethered together, gently probing the ice for weakness with each step.

As others wandered in for a hot bite before the “Captive Audience” special of eight-dollar slices, our conversation shifted away from the show being put on by Impact Wrestling and toward the show being put on by our peers. We looked out our window seats at grown men dressed as Hulk Hogan, folks wearing grey, washed-out original nWo shirts, and a seemingly infinite number of men and women weighing “in excess of 300 pounds.” I never lived through the era of carnival parades, but I can suddenly imagine how it felt to be lined up along Main Street in your straw hat, watching a steady procession of the strangest and most engaging people you’ve seen in your life, each freakier and more fascinating than the last.

After a few minutes of this, excitement over the show changed to the sheer depths of embarrassment. I had taken my wonderful, patient fiancé, who already suffers through several hours a week watching wrestling with me -- not to mention the recommendations she has to scroll past on our Netflix queue -- to a sideshow for neck-bearded nerds. I found myself asking the question we all do when we have those moments of being a little too self-aware: “Am I really part of this world?”

***

Of course, there are times when I’ve been made to feel embarrassed by my fandom before. I’m sure it happens to everybody who tries to explain their love of wrestling to the wrong person. Recently at work, I mentioned that I blogged about wrestling to a coworker, which prompted her to say, “I’m glad I didn’t have any water in my mouth at that moment, or I would have spit it out all over the room.” In fact, when I bought these very Slammiversary tickets, they were accidentally delivered to my parents’ house, prompting my dad to ask over the phone, “So, is this like going to the opera for you?”

In those final minutes before I entered the arena for the show, I was in the midst of a philosophical near-death experience. It was like I was floating above myself, looking at the world around me, and thinking back over my life, wondering, “Should I have watched wrestling when I was seven and my parents told me not to?” or “What if I had stopped watching wrestling when TNA made me hate it and myself for the ten thousandth time?” or “Why didn’t I just buy this on pay per view and watch it from home?”

My fiancé, in an equally assuring and dismissive manner, told me I was being silly, and so we lined up to head into the building just as they opened the door. I paid $17.50 for two beers (eight bucks for a Boston Lager and $9.50 for a Summer Ale [hers]) and found my seat. The unease and self-loathing continued as I looked around our section and saw a motley collection of balding guys with long hair, fifty-year-old mouth breathers there by themselves, and internet “smarks,” discussing the night’s event like they’d booked it all last night. My fiancé quipped, “I feel like this is the one event I’ve ever been to where it will be faster to use the ladies’ restroom.”

Suddenly, though, the lights dimmed and the artificial smoke started pouring off the stage. We all stood up as Jeremy Borash pumped up the crowd for the show to go live. In the moment of creating that pop, essentially canned as it was, it finally hit me: I am part of this, and I’m proud of it. The feeling got bigger and bigger throughout the night until it reached the point where I was just as into the show, if not more so, than the bizarre cavalcade of fans I’d previously written off.

I saw the following things at TNA Slammiversary: American flag Zubaz, a Juggalo in Crocs, a replica WCW Television Title belt, a DX tattoo on the back of a man’s neck, a couple of 45-plus-year-old “goth kids,” and a group of certified ring rats being led to the back by a burly security guard. The effect of all this: the biggest boost of self-esteem I’ve had in months.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t judging people or acting like I was better than them. Rather, I was soaking up a three-hour-long moment in which everybody was purely and unabashedly themselves. Looking at the fans lining up from a distance, I had thought, “Look at that collection of strange individuals,” once inside the building, I couldn’t help but think, “Look at this collection of strange individuals.”

It was an awesome experience, and by the end of the night, even my fiancé, who had started the night as an outsider was clapping along with chants and excitedly taking pictures for me with her higher-quality camera phone. Afterwards, she talked disapprovingly about our neighbors who kept leaving their seats. “They missed so much!” she lamented.

When we filed out of the arena, I was faced once again with the entire crowd of wrestling fans, this time hotter and smellier than before. And yet, in the course of just three hours, my perspective had shifted 180 degrees. These were my kin, people who drew solace and the freedom to be themselves from the same pastime I did. My first big-show wrestling experience changed the way I felt not only about wrestling, but also myself. It was authentic. It was overwhelming. It was complicated. It was everything that people who don’t give credence to wrestling say it can’t be.


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