I shouldn't have been shocked when I checked the internet for feedback after WWE's latest incarnation of Hell in a Cell. I thought the show was tremendous, starting strong with a surprise hit from the Bella Twins and culminating with an ode to the Attitude Era, a classic bit of wacky wrestling that was bound to get people talking.
But I've been around the internet wrestling community (IWC) for almost two decades. I knew better than to expect a glowing response. "Tremendous" doesn't exist on the internet, at least where wrestling is involved—and hasn't for years.
The world of hardcore wrestling fans is a stew of negativity, second-guessing and clueless whinging, the kind of place that makes the current fracas between video game fans seem ordinary and pedestrian. There's a cottage industry built up around these fans, online cesspools that exist seemingly to spread ugly rumors, perpetuate grievances and create new victims to support and villains to decry.
In the IWC, victory is never to be celebrated. If CM Punk was on top, that means Daniel Bryan wasn't. When Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins were given the honor of going on last, after proven stars like Randy Orton and Cena at Hell in a Cell, there was still the finish to complain about.
There's nothing wrong with criticism. It can be healthy and, at times, even help push the WWE in new directions. But many people throughout the IWC are perpetually aggrieved customers.
The battle started in the mid-1990s, with restless fans and predictable product. Both WCW and WWE seemed stuck in a time warp, a vortex devoid of creativity. Instead of ECW's ultraviolence, Chris Benoit's Japanese-inspired mat extravaganzas and Chris Jericho's modern smarm, wrestling promoters gave fans more of the same, still featuring yesterday's heroes like Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, who were pantomiming an act no one quite believed in anymore.
Something new was on the horizon, faster-paced and thrilling—but the business wasn't ready quite yet. Hardcore fans, however, were. And it created a divide that exists to this day, ever-widening. The hardcore, authoritative wrestling fan became the enemy of convention, turning pro wrestling into its own version of the culture wars.
On one side was tradition. Hogan. Savage. Sting. Big men doing what wrestlers had always done, only doing it in front of progressively smaller crowds. Across the proverbial aisle were men wrestler Kevin Nash dismissively called "Vanilla Midgets." They worked a faster pace, eschewing presentation for passion, in-ring ability and pure high-octane action as their ticket to the main event.
These workrate wars were fought mostly online on the developing internet, in newsgroups and moderated forums at places like AOL. And the battles were grim.
Fans wanted to see this new breed of wrestler given respect and glory. Wrestling promoters seemed indifferent or hostile toward this, WCW especially appearing to take great delight in relegating their new stars to a secondary status, talking over their matches and often cutting away to more important shots of the "real stars" arriving at the arena in limousines.
Battle lines were drawn, with hardcore fans siding with the new style and new crop of performers. But just preferring their style wasn't enough. Working hard in the ring and performing hard-hitting and action-packed matches seemed to bring with it a kind of moral authority.
To fans who loved this brand of wrestling, its superiority was self-evident. That meant, continuing down this rabbit hole of twisted logic, the failure of these new wrestlers to advance was unthinkable. It could only be the product of one thing—politics.
Wrestling, of course, is indeed a very competitive industry. There are a handful of top positions at any time. The current occupants, logically, will fight very hard to maintain them. Newcomers will battle to supplant them. It surely got ugly at times when those dueling ambitions came to a head.
But to some in the IWC, the old guard should have simply given up their hold on the industry, realizing it was best for business to let the new breed shine. They became the villains in a weekly morality play, with wrestlers like Hogan, Nash and Shawn Michaels accused of holding back deserving talent.
Wrestling, suddenly, was two shows in one—the show fans watched on television and the one playing out behind the scenes, speculated about endlessly on the internet and fueled by unsourced insider gossip sites with dubious authority or grasp of the facts.
Wrestling fandom became a grievance industry, with fans choosing their favorites and lamenting any results that didn't immediately catapult them to the top. More than a decade after the "Monday Night Wars," it's a paradigm that has yet to shift.
There is always the hero of the hard cores, that talent who has yet to find his mark but surely deserves to. Once, it was Benoit and Jericho. Today, it's Antonio Cesaro and Dolph Ziggler. The leading "real life" villains, too, have shifted, with Michaels giving way to his former protege Triple H and Hogan yielding to his successor, John Cena.
Never mind that Triple H, in his role of WWE executive, is proving to be an innovator with an eye for talent and a plan to revitalize the industry. Never mind that Cena is a brilliant performer who sells more merchandise than anyone else on the roster. Never mind that workrate darlings like Punk and Bryan have been major WWE players for years.
The problem begins and ends with expectations. These closet creatives have their own fantasy scenarios laid out in advance. Anything that deviates is bad by default. Fans seem to a have a certain vision of what wrestling is and should be and expect WWE to fit into that mold. Unfortunately, it's a ship that sailed 30 years ago with Hulkamania and continued right on through Stone Cold and now Cena.
The prevailing form of wrestling is not the one you seek if you want in-ring skill to be the sole determiner of success. More than ever, charisma and the ability to connect with wide swaths of the audience matter more than pure wrestling ability.
Other issues, like a desire for clean finishes and unambiguous endings create an additional disconnect between the WWE and some of its most ardent viewers. Wrestling, by design, has very few definitive endings. It's a never-ending serial with the same characters, played on an endless loop. That's its great strength because the stock characters and stories are instantly recognizable, and its greatest weakness—it can also grow wearisome to those who stick around on the ride too long.
If you find yourself constantly complaining about what you see on Raw or pay-per-view, it might be time to reconsider why you're so quick to rush to the computer to air your grievances. Is it just something you do because wrestling fans have always done it? Or does it legitimately make you unhappy?
If you watch wrestling every week for years at a time and find yourself perpetually angry and disappointed, why not just walk away? If you're among those who will never be happy with WWE wrestling, just stop. There's no reason to subject yourself to something you don't enjoy.
Wrestling is supposed to be fun. And it is if you let it carry you away. It's okay to be a fan. No one will think less of you.
You have to make a conscious effort not to enjoy wrestling. Even bad wrestling is amazing if you're willing to work with it just a little bit.
Make that effort. It's worth it. And if it's not? If you cant' stop talking about how terrible it all is? Why not just stop watching all together? You don't need wrestling—and the wrestling community certainly doesn't need you.