I’ve grown accustomed to oddities and surprises at sci-fi conventions, but there was something about walking toward my signing table and seeing a full-scale wrestling ring that caught me off guard. Atop the carpet of the hotel’s chandeliered grand ballroom, as if it had landed from outer space, sat a square, roped off stage—a scene usually contained inside the televisions and imaginations of teenaged boys. Its emptiness only made the context seem stranger, yet the costumed men at the tables surrounding it made the spectacle more digestible. Did I say men? There were women too. Tattooed, pierced, and mohawked, some sported shiny, bulging muscles; others were small and unassuming, surely revered for their acrobatic skills. I couldn’t help but flash to scenes from The Wrestler. And not just scenes, but all the emotions that went with it—a nauseating cocktail of excitement, sadness, curiosity and nostalgia. I spent the first half of the day in observation mode. During my breaks from signing autographs and making small talk with fans, I studied the wrestlers and their wares, their handwritten signs and championship belts, their intense and controlled energy, and their undeniable boredom. As I do with most things, I romanticized the situation to make it more palatable, but once my arrogance became too bitter, I resolved to introduce myself and see them as people just like me.
I stroked SnakeMaster Jeff’s albino boa constrictor. Oh, stop it. He told me about his nineteen pets and I imagined him alone in his house, feeling misunderstood except for the animals who loved him unconditionally. Then I learned he’s been happily married for years. Once again my arrogance hovered over me like a storm cloud. Thankfully, the ice was quickly smashed, as all the wrestlers were super fun and friendly, and some were even BSG fans. They invited me to the show later—not that an invitation was necessary, but it was more a matter of, “So, are you coming to the show tonight?” To which I replied with slight hesitation, “Yeah, sure!”
As the hours wore on and I relished in the quiet of my hotel room, the thought of going back downstairs into a massive crowd to watch grown men (and women) beat each other in the name of entertainment was not exactly the most appealing direction I saw my night heading. But I thought about my new pals, and I imagined greeting them the next morning with a contorted smile after missing the show, and that didn’t feel good either. I also thought about the fact that I was in Miami with the opportunity to witness something I’d never seen before, and whatever discomfort I was experiencing was even more reason to go and face it. So I made the trek, through hallways of wizards and Boba Fett wannabes, and I continued to feel more uncomfortable. The hall where I had earlier spent my day casually signing autographs was now filled with excited wrestling fans. Faces in the crowd pointing and whispering, I imagined things like, “Is that Cally from Battlestar Galactica standing over there? Why is she all by herself? She looks lost.” Oh yes, even I am not immune to making shit up to feel more in control of the situation, but I tried to move around and look like I was engaged in the evening’s entertainment. Though I have to admit, what I saw was met with emotional resistance. My attention was continuously drawn to the crowds, studying their faces, trying to understand what they feel and why they’re drawn to such displays of violence.
I didn’t get it. I was trying to, but I just couldn’t grasp grown men pacing around a ring, exchanging powerful blows, and demanding the audience’s complicity through cheering over another’s demise. Still, I’m stubborn enough that not being able to figure out the appeal only motivated me to keep watching. If I had left then, I would have felt as if I’d given up. By that point I’d moseyed on over to a table where a few men were seated. I leaned on the table and did my best to look casual and interested in the match, but not too affected. Lucky for me, I started chatting with the guy next to me, who happened to be friends with the referee. He started telling me what was really going on, the messages passed covertly to signal the next move, the politics of winning, and even some background information on the major players. Suddenly it was like I was watching it through a new lens: a lens that exposed the humanity where before there was none, a lens that allowed the skill and care of each move to come into focus, and a lens that crumbled my judgments and inspired me to just get over myself and see it for what it was: a game of strategy and skill, a performance requiring precision and self-awareness, and a metaphor for our power and celebrity obsessed culture.
The next day I was over-flowing with questions for the wrestlers. How did they get interested in wrestling? What did it mean to them? How did they train? Who were their heroes? What else did they do? How has it affected their personal lives? Did they date other wrestlers? I was especially interested in hearing from the female wrestlers, because the tendency for gratuitous violence seems less natural for women. One woman was kind enough to share quite a bit with me—the joys, the struggles, the successes, the romances, the politics—and I genuinely felt myself becoming some iteration of a fan. But because when I get interested in something, I don’t just like to read about it in a book, I half-jokingly asked if I could be part of the show that night. Which was pretty much all it took—once they realized I was serious—and the next thing I knew I was practicing roundhouse kicks backstage before my big debut!
Well, okay, it didn’t all happen quite so fast. There were several hours where I was stressing out, wanting to come up with a plan, a routine, a character, something! I felt so out of my element and I really didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of thousands of screaming fans. I really wanted to do a good job and justice for them allowing me to participate. But every time I tried to make a suggestion or ask what we were going to do, they were like, don’t worry about it, we’ll figure it out. Even though I intellectually understood that this is what they do every weekend and it’s really no big deal and I’m sure it’ll be fine, I was still freaking out inside—but in a fun, excited way. As we approached the start of the event, I finally got together with the other two girls to figure out what we were going to do. The energy backstage reminded me of putting on plays in high school, everyone with their costumes, props, rehearsing and hanging out. Which, again, brought a whole other level of humanity and feeling of community to my understanding of wrestling.
I don’t want to give away too much, but let’s just say we did what we did to prepare, and then I was left to wait for my big moment. It must seem funny that an actor would be so nervous about something like this, but I really had no idea what it was going to be like, or what I was going to do, or how I was going to feel, once I got in the ring. The level of uncertainty felt exponentially linked to the screaming crowds too, not to mention the men doing backflips into the ring in front of me—very different than the confines of a soundstage or a theater. In any case, I patiently waited for my cue as a ran through the routine in my head. I was to present a gigantic trophy to the winner, Chun Lee, at which point mohawked punk rock girl (the loser) would grab it from Chun Lee’s hands. What happened next exists as a series of stills in my mind, where we clotheslined punk rocker, I climbed the ropes, kicked her in the face (she really ran into my foot!), then I pounced on her for a final count. It was surreal. I was so stunned by the kick, I almost forgot to go pin her down. And once it was all over, I had no clue what to do. The crowd was cheering and suddenly (clearly inspired by my sheer bad-ass-ed-ness) they started yelling “Frak! Frak! Frak!” So I did what I thought any self-respecting wrestler would do and I climbed the ropes and pumped my fist in the air yelling, “Frak! Frak! Frak!” That’s when I had a real out of body moment, watching it all happen happen, almost as if in slow motion, seeing the absurdity, hearing my own disembodied voice, and yet being fully committed to the role and the experience.
I left that evening feeling fuller. Not because I had found my calling as a professional wrestler, or because I got people to cheer in my favor, but because I broke a barrier for myself. I challenged myself in an area I felt resistance, and not only developed an understanding of it, but embraced it. I felt closer to every wrestler and every wrestling fan in that room, and beyond. I felt my curiosity for other things kindled in the realization that avoidance only fuels the discomfort. If we really want to free ourselves from our fears and limited perspectives, if we really want to live in a world where people honor one another, instead of judging and criticizing, then we need to go where we don’t want to go. I can’t say if I’ll ever wrestle again, or if I even think it’s a particularly value-building form of entertainment, but I will say that I feel less afraid of it, less judgmental of the people who do it and adore it, and I feel more human as a result.