I blame Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for my not being able to watch the first World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) show in Araneta last February 2006. The RAW tour of Jonh Cena and company happened a day after Mrs. Arroyo declared a state of national emergency and ordered a crackdown on Arroyo critics. I was supposed to babysit some kids, and thereby get a free ticket to watch the first ever WWE match in the country. Dire circumstances prevented me from going with the kids that Saturday afternoon in Araneta.
Months passed before the next opportunity for wrestling entertainment came to the Philippines. This time it would be the Smackdown label that’s coming to Manila. The main highlight of the tour was Batista, an American wrestler of Filipino and Greek ancestry. The Survivor Series was coming to town.
The kids and I got to the Araneta collesium at around 4:30pm. Wrestling fever was in the air, even at the front entrance. Even the security people were huge, as in really huge like the Big Boss Man of the 90’s.
Several people, including the cops assigned to the security, asked me if there was going to be any rally that day (yup I get asked that often). I told them the only placards they’ll be seeing inside Araneta are the ones from wrestling fans.
There was so much wrestling paraphernalia going around as part of the promotional blitzkreig from the organizers. I learned for example, that a replica championship belt costs around P800-900, a small wristband P200, and a souvenir program with glossy photos P500. I did not bother to ask how much the T-shirts cost, though I noticed that the Degeneration X shirt seemed to be popular among the younger fans.
Some Filipino fans do come dressed up for a wrestling match. I swear I saw two guys dressed as WWE champ John Cena, complete with big shorts, high-cut rubber shoes, camouflaged shirt and bull-cap.
I got particularly irked at the whole concept of “reserved seats” at the upper box. There’s really no reserved seating in the upper box, only people who kept insisting that the seats beside them were “reserved” for some people. But some people take these “reservations” a bit too far. Take for example this mom, dad, and their kid, who said that they were “reserving” three rows good for more than 20 people. WTF was that? There were just three of them there and they get to reserve three freakin’ rows?! That’s just damn unfair for people who came early and couldn’t get a seat.
The fans couldn’t contain their excitement when the first match started. They applauded every armlock, reverse maneuver and drop kick from tag team champs Paul London and Brian Kendrick. The interesting thing with wrestling is the whole concept of “good vs. evil”. Pinoy fans would applaud every little move that the “good guys” do and would heckle everything the “bad guys” do. The wrestling characters are well established and they play out their roles either as heroes or heels.
At every point in the match, a chorous of chants would be heard from fans egging on their favorite wrestlers. I got goosebumps from hearing the cheers that sounded like the New York Yankees chants.
The best kontrabida wrestlers are the ones who have mastered the art of whipping the crowd into a murderous frenzy just by insulting them. Take for example the colorful and boisterous Mr. Kennedy who managed to elicit hateful reactions from the audience by repeatedly insulting homegrown boxing legend Manny Pacquiao. Or King Booker, the hip-hop wrestler turned “British royalty”, who addressed the audience as “peasants”.
I mean, even for most people (with the exception of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo perhaps), making everyone hate you is kinda hard to accomplish.
Hands-down the best entrance for that night came from the phenom the Undertaker. The lights were turned off, cellphones everywhere were lit, a spotlight was aimed at the wrestling giant and the eerie funeral soundtrack filled the entire collesium. The crowd relished every moment the Undertaker whipped Mr. Kennedy’s ass. From the arm twists while walking on the top rope, the signature choke slam up to the finishing tombstone move, the crowd cheered on one of the most recognizable icons in sports entertainment.
Other highlights of the night came from Bobby Lashley who made short work of William Regal; the Irishman, Finley who got the better of crowd-favorite Matt Hardy, the Rabid Wolverine Chris Benoit doing the cross-face on Chavo Guerrero, and of course, the cross-dressing Italian, Vito who wore thongs and scared the heck out of The Miz.
The most anticipated match-up that night was between “our very own” Batista (doesn’t that fill you with goosebumps too?) and reigning World Heavyweight champ King Booker. At the onset, my high school friends and I doubted that the title would change hands here in the Philippines. Stuff like that is reserved for big productions back in the States. Batista can’t win the championship but he can’t lose the match either because that would just upset the fans. So we thought that the likely outcome would be Batista would win via disqualification, that way the fans would stay happy even if the title doesn’t change hands. (You can only win the title via pin-fall or submission, not through disqualification).
The thing with wrestling is some of the storylines and outcomes are flat-out predictable. Watch WWE for even half a year and you’d know how things work. There’s always a basic stroyline.
We were right though about Batista. He won via disqualification. The match ended with several other wrestlers going at it in the ring. What was surprising was that in the end, it was the Undertaker who came to Batista’s rescue (a move that was so far out from the usual storylines, yet was a crowd-pleaser just the same).
Wrestling appeals to a lot of people, even to the teenage girls who were seated in front of us, for a number of reasons. There are universal themes which anyone could indentify with easily; good and evil, right or wrong, family, friendship, loyalty etc.
But not all the themes are neutral and “harmless”. In the past, entertainment wrestling, especially of the mega-corporate kind, has been used to whip up ultra-nationalism in the United States.
In the 80’s, the then WWF used the themes of the Cold War and conflicts in the Middle East as part of the story lines, with characters such as Sgt. Slaughter, the Iron Shiek and of course, the epitome of Americanism, Hulk Hogan representing parties in the conflict. In the post 9-11 era, the WWE employed characters of Arabic descent and turned them into objects of audience hate, further reinforcing racial profiling that has become part of the so-called war on terror. At the time France voted against going to war in Iraq, there were “French” tag-team wrestlers too who were part of the “bad guys”.
Current WWE champion John Cena’s character has completed the transition from neighborhood toughie to “patriot” and “soldier”, kinda like all those poor young American boys from the ‘hood who are now joining the Army only to be sent to Iraq.
Coincidence? I don’t think so. The writers at WWE know their current events and base their storylines on what they think are popular themes for the people, be it the Cold War, the Gulf War, the “war on terror”, immigration, drugs and other social issues.
“Yes, this is entertainment”, as the tag line goes, but the subliminal messages are more real than you think.