Image via @cmpunk
Image via @cmpunk
In the lower bowl of the Richmond Coliseum sat a couple of old tatted-up hardcore warriors, guys well into their 30s, guys who'd probably seen all kinds of acrobatic berserk-ninja mosh pit mayhem in their day, poised with the customary old-hardcore-guy rigid-back posture. I forget which bands' shirts they were wearing, but one of them definitely said something about a "motherfucking tour," and it was definitely in earshot of whole crowds of small children. The old hardcore guys had come to the WWE's Monday Night Raw live show, and they radiated a sense of purpose.
After the show had ended, WWE Champion CM Punk was celebrating an off-camera win against newly minted archrival Daniel Bryan, galloping around the ring and high-fiving everyone in high-fiving range. When he galloped around to our side of the arena, the two guys stood up and held aloft a gigantic hand-drawn sign that they'd evidently spent some time on. I couldn't tell what the sign said, since the two guys were standing directly in front of me, but it said something about straight-edge. Punk looked up, saw the sign, pointed, and did the iconic arms-X'ed straight-edge salute. The two guys started jumping up and down, laughing. They might've hugged each other; I'm not sure.
Richmond is essentially the crusty-punk capitol of the world, so maybe it's an outlier. But from what I saw that night, a whole lot of punks and hardcore guys, young and old, are making their way to WWE shows these days. In the arena’s concrete hallways, I saw bullet-belts and neck-tats and vests that seemed to be held together entirely by the band patches covering them, all sharing space with the fired-up children and exurban hunter/fisher types who seem to be the WWE's most loyal customers. Raw tickets aren't cheap; even the cheapest ones cost about six times as much as admission for the Tragedy show that had come to town the week before. But old punks were heavy on the ground in the Richmond Coliseum that night, and hell, I guess I was one of them. This was somehow my first WWE live show in about a decade. The subcultural influx was beyond noticeable, shading into jarring. But the WWE has lately seen fit to put an old punk on top, so it just makes sense.
Last summer, CM Punk gave pro wrestling its most exciting pop-cultural moment in years when he ended an episode of Raw by laying out company figurehead John Cena and then launching into a fiery speech decrying the corporate cronyism and backwards thinking in the WWE, naming names and talking righteous shit before some production figure shut his microphone off. This was a planned stunt, of course, since everything in wrestling is a planned stunt. But Punk sure seemed to believe everything he was saying, and he seemed to believe that he was getting away with something by saying it. At the time, I was just getting back into watching wrestling after spending a few years away, and the moment immediately drew me all the way back in: A guy who called himself Punk actually getting a chance to be a punk, with all the self-defeating bomb-throwing that the word, at its best, implies. Judging by that Raw crowd, I wasn't the only old punk who felt that way.
After that rant, the WWE ran a storyline where Punk beat Cena for the championship, leaving the company in the process but then returning a week later. In the months since, he's been promoted to company-figurehead status himself, holding the title for months now and uneasily existing alongside Cena as one of the company's resident unbeatable forces for good—a far cry from the marginal cult-leader bad guy he was before the speech. In the process, his character has suffered. He now indulges in the same skin-crawl playground-bully antics and unfunny joke-slinging that every top-echelon WWE guy has to do, for whatever reason. But he's still having amazing matches—long and hard-fought contests that exhibit the Japanese/American fusion style that he honed in all his years on the indie-wrestling circuit. And he's still existing as an old-punk dude at the center of a massive entertainment corporation. The week after Raw came to Richmond, the company made a big deal out of unveiling the cover of its new WWE '13 video game, which depicts Punk in that same arms-X'ed salute. And for old punks like me, his continued existence at the top causes a weird sort of displaced pride.
The punk/wrestling connection goes back decades. The Dictators' Handsome Dick Manitoba was writing songs about wrestlers way the hell back in the pre-Sex Pistols/pre-Hulk Hogan days. A couple of decades later, Antiseen devoted a huge chunk of their discography to it. And there have been punk wrestlers before, too. The Road Warriors, among various other '80s clubberers, were rocking action-movie-henchman mohawks back when those things actually looked vaguely scary and unusual. The hugely popular high-flying late ‘90s/early ‘00s female wrestler Lita was devoted enough to the subculture that she actually dated Beau Beau, the mega-goateed satyr hypeman for Richmond hardcore gods Avail for a while before she got famous. But Punk's explosive success feels bigger, somehow. As in: He actually named himself "Punk," not even treating it as a stage name. (I've spent a bit of time around Punk, and even his best friends directly address him as "Punk." He's like a rapper that way.)
At that Richmond Raw, I got a pretty good look at the level of work and planning that goes into a routine WWE show. I sat next to the hard camera, with a good view of the production desk, where a crew of functionaries sat at an elaborate bank of screens and controls, processing the feeds from all the cameras in real time. A few rows in front of me, a mob of production assistants sat wearing headphones, ready to snap into action if a banner needed to be re-hung or a bunch of flamethrowers had to be mounted to the turnbuckles for Kane's entrance. In person, the massive Titantron screen is a marvel -- utterly crisp definition even though it's a couple of stories high, way better than anything I've ever seen at an arena concert. And the whole show snaps along with no delays and no missed cues, even during the parts of the show that happen after the cameras turn off.
Even during a lackluster episode of Raw, like the one that was happening in Richmond, it's immensely impressive and weirdly gratifying to see all these moving parts in action. This isn't exactly news, but the WWE has figured out how to translate the carnival geek-show standby of pro wrestling into glittering expensive spectacle. It exists in a different universe from TNA, its still-pretty-carny closest competitor, let alone all the scrappy indie leagues across the country. When someone like Punk, even in a slightly watered-down form, ascends to the top of a company like that, it feels like a vicarious victory for those of us who care about these things.