Storytelling, Characters Allow Blind Fans to Revel in the Art of Pro Wrestling

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead Writer

Credit: WWE.com

When Dean Ambrose steps into a wrestling ring and starts wailing away on whichever villain has wronged him this month, swinging his taped fists or diving from the top turnbuckle with his elbow cocked, Cheryl Bess watches intently, enthralled.

Except that she doesn't really "watch" him.

Bess lost her vision as a teenager. Or, more accurately, it was stolen from her.

As Nancy Wride detailed in the Los Angeles Times, a maintenance worker attacked Bess when she was a sophomore in high school in 1984. The man drove her into the Mojave Desert, where he attempted to rape her. When she escaped, he poured sulfuric acid over her face, leaving her blind and disfigured.

Wrestling has since provided her with a means to forget, to shake off her pain for an hour or two.

"I was dealing with a lot of stuff: depression, tons of surgeries, a lot of recovery and rehab. Wrestling seemed to be the way that I was able to escape all of that," Bess told Bleacher Report.

For a sighted person, it's hard to imagine someone who can't see enjoying pro wrestling. After all, it's a hugely visual medium.

Lights gleam off chiseled muscles. Hair flutters as men and women dive out of the ring. Fireworks shoot past titans in robes and masks as they pose on the entrance ramp with taut muscles on display.

Brock Lesnar makes his entrance at WrestleMania 31.
Brock Lesnar makes his entrance at WrestleMania 31.Don Feria/Associated Press

But blind wrestling fans like Bess experience the medium differently. They listen to it. They feel it. They absorb it.

Bess is not alone. A small portion of the wrestling fanbase is made up of men and women with impaired vision.

Des Delgadillo is a college student and freelance journalist who lives 15 minutes outside Los Angeles. He writes for the Pasadena Weekly, is a major fan of Lucha Underground masked martial artist Pentagon Jr. and has been fully blind since he was three years old.

Aaron Reed, a former internet radio disc jockey from Kentucky, lost his sight as an infant. Excess oxygen in an incubator destroyed his retinas.

Still, he has been a wrestling fan since he was a kid. His family passed down the passion to him.

"My dad told me a lot of stories about Bill Dundee and Jerry Lawler having concession stands in the Louisville Gardens with The Blond Bombers back before I was even thought of," Reed said.

Sam Conduit remains a wrestling fan even after Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) left him legally blind just three years ago.

The former restaurant chef from Maffra, Victoria, Australia, has had to adjust how he takes in wrestling. These days, he presses his face to the TV, trying to catch what he can. "Although I do miss a lot," he explained.

Every blind fan is missing part of the art that unfolds in the ring and must latch on to wrestling's non-visual elements.

Sounds of the Squared Circle

For a sighted person, pro wrestling commentary is simply a layer added to what's going on between the ropes. Should, say, Roman Reigns provide the sentence with a powerslam, the announcer provides the exclamation point afterward.

Commentary has a different role for blind wrestling fans. Done well, it helps these members of the audience see the action through words.

Some announcers do that better than others.

To Reed, Joey Styles, Tony Schiavone and Jim Ross are among the best at "painting a verbal picture of all the action in and out of the ring." He said of former ECW announcer Styles: "Here's an artist at work, painting on the canvas, describing it so you imagine it for yourself."

Bess had similar thoughts about Ross, who was WWE's head announcer for years. She noted that he helped create a mental picture but also "emphasized what was going on in the ring."

In Bess' mind, commentary doesn't need to be a transcription of the action in the ring. "I don't need to have to know each move-by-move; just when big things happen or important things go on in the ring," she said.

The art of play-by-play has been lost to some degree in recent years.

Styles is no longer calling matches. Ross left WWE in 2013. And the announcers who now call the action for WWE often drift away from the match at hand and bicker with each other or focus too much on telling jokes.

That leaves fans like Reed frustrated. Of today's commentary, he said: "I rely on it despite it being stale."

He pines for the days when Lance Russell used to call bouts in Memphis. Russell made him feel like he was our friend, connecting with the audience as he talked about the matches. "You don't get that anymore," Reed lamented, "you get this detached guy reading notecards."

Delgadillo noted that "some commentary is more helpful than others." Longtime WWE voices Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler aren't his favorites, a sentiment shared by many a sighted wrestling fan.

"I feel like they are trying to be like CNN pundits as opposed to wrestling announcers," Delgadillo explained.

Styles' focus on technique is something that Delgadillo likes. And newest SmackDown announcer Mauro Ranallo's respectful treatment of the medium is something the California native appreciates.

"Ranallo calls professional wrestling the same way he would call a kickboxing show or an MMA show. He calls it like a sport."

But as surprising as it might sound, Delgadillo doesn't find commentary essential to enjoying wrestling. Patterns in the art form emerge. There is a certain rhythm to it all that one can anticipate.

"If you watch wrestling long enough, you start to fill in the gaps yourself," Delgadillo said.

Conduit isn't a huge fan of today's announcing, either. "The commentary is very hit-and-miss. Sometimes it's good for a laugh, but most times it's just Michael Cole shilling the new network and reciting lines Vince [McMahon] is screaming at him from the back," he said.

To make up for what he misses with commentary, Conduit bends his back and sticks his face up to the screen for the entirety of a wrestling show, trying to catch whatever glimpses of the in-ring action he can. That's a tiring process that causes him to skip SmackDown on Thursdays.

"These days, I find more enjoyment listening to wrestling podcasts and following the backstage news online. At times, it's more entertaining than following the actual product," he said. Conduit subscribes to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, listens to eight to 10 radio shows a week and soaks up wrestling through analysis.

It's easier on his body that way. Conduit said: "Wearing headphones is a lot more comfortable than cranking my neck for three hours on a Monday night."

Sometimes it's the wrestlers who provide the sounds rather than those sitting at the announce desk. Kevin Owens is a master of talking trash to his foes. Rusev roars in the midst of battle. Paige shouts at her opponents that the ring is her house.

Reed finds watching old footage of Japan's Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW) enjoyable because of how much auditory stimuli there is. The hardcore gimmick matches offer their own macabre music.

"I listen to the sounds of the guys in the ring. If I hear an electrical shock, somebody's going through electrified barbed wire. If there's a siren going off, that means that there's a bomb," Reed explained. "I can hear that Terry Funk just gave that guy a chop. Terry Funk is going to toss [Atsushi] Onita on electrified barbed wire."

Connection Through Character

It wasn't until after the attack that Bess began to drift toward wrestling. In 1989, she underwent a corneal transplant that temporarily gave her what she described as "a tiny little bit of vision."

The campy, colorful world of Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (G.L.O.W.) was what first pulled her in. It was amusing and fun, an effective distraction. She also enjoyed Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty's work as a tassel-donning tag team.

"I loved The Rockers; they were cute."

The vision she regained soon vanished, though. By 1991, she was completely blind again. But somehow that only increased her interest in what unfolded in the squared circle. "I had more of a passion for it. Even though I couldn't see what was going on, I could still enjoy it," she explained.

It has often been well-told in-ring narratives that have drawn Bess in since.

In 2002, Stephanie McMahon turned on her husband and sided instead with his rival, Chris Jericho. In 2014, Daniel Bryan battled the tyrannical reign of The Authority, outlasting Triple H, Randy Orton and Batista at WrestleMania XXX. Those were the kinds of stories that she most remembers, that she most connected with.

And while Bess is frustrated by WWE "because they start feuds and then discard them," she knows she can always turn to Lucha Underground, the cinematic offshoot of Mexico's Asistencia Asesoria y Administracion promotion. That wrestling serial has made a habit of crafting in-depth backstories for each of its warriors.

Prince Puma is said to come from a tribe of fighters and came to Lucha Underground as Konnan's protege. Drago is portrayed as a descendant of dragons, the human link to the lineage of an ancient creature.

This makes it easy for Bess and other blind wrestling fans to enjoy the art form. "You learn about the history of why these two hate each other, why these two are rivals, why they came to Lucha Underground or how they came to be in the first place," she said.

For Reed of Frankfort, Kentucky, it was the WWE's Attitude Era that enthralled him. The company's most irreverent period in the late '90s caught his attention via "swearing, cussing, beating the hell out of each other."

Reed used to sit alongside his late mother when he was four years old as she watched Ric Flair take down the latest challenger for his world title. As he grew older, one of Reed's favorites was a man famous for showing his boss a pair of middle fingers.

It didn't matter that Reed couldn't see "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's bald head or watch his boots smash down on a foe in the corner, his defiant, take-no-prisoners persona sucked him in.

Looking back on the story of Austin battling Vince McMahon, the rebel taking on the corporate tyrant, Reed said: "You got an owner of the company who wants it his way, and his way only. On the other side of the token, you got this guy, 252 pounds, well-put-together, who is this beer-drinking, curse-swearing, loudmouth Texas redneck that doesn't care about authority."

Whether Austin was driving a Zamboni into the Joe Louis Arena or attacking McMahon with a bedpan, Reed wanted to tune in to see what was next.

Today, he revisits this period with the WWE's streaming network. "I replay that bedpan shot over and over again," he said.

Some moments don't need to be seen to be savored, to be felt with one's core. When WCW ran out of business and longtime rivals Sting and Ric Flair battled in the company's last match on its last show, many fans were left stunned. An era was over. A whole collection of wrestlers suddenly faced uncertain futures.

That moment affected Reed. "I'm not an emotional man, but I actually cried watching the last Nitro. When Ric Flair and Sting worked that last match together, I was like, 'Is this really the end?'" he said.

For Delgadillo, there is a simple formula to why he enjoys pro wrestling so much, sight or no sight.

"There's a good guy and a bad guy, and they both have motivations for doing something. I think the key to wrestling is that both characters, both sets of ideologies, are trying to convince you that they're right. And as a fan you feel both of those motives, and you have to decide which one you like."

This is where the heart of wrestling lies: in emotion and drama, in the juxtaposition of characters. The physicality is a huge part of the art form, but it is about more than visuals and wrestling moves.

That explains how Delgadillo got so entranced by the medium.

His first experience with wrestling was negative, though. "The first time I watched wrestling I thought it was really dumb," he explained. He turned on WWE SmackDown for a recap show and listened in as Undertaker "buried" Paul Bearer in concrete.

It was later Eddie Guerrero and Kurt Angle who showed him a less silly side of the business. The two respected technicians battled in a 2-out-of-3 Falls match on SmackDown in 2004. A fervent crowd watched on as the two rivals set out once again to prove who was the better wrestler, Guerrero illegally yanking on Angle's tights, the Olympian rattling the ring with German suplexes.

It turned out to be Delgadillo's entry point into an escapist art. He recalled, "They told an amazing story in the ring. I found that from bell to bell, it was a self-contained narrative."

Today, he admires the work of Pentagon Jr. in Lucha Underground, British submission artists like Zack Sabre Jr. and Japanese stars like Kota Ibushi. The Nature Boy, though, remains one of his favorites.

One doesn't need to see to appreciate Flair's charisma. He spent much of his career bragging about his custom suits and sexual conquests. He was an egotist with a sharp tongue, often punctuating his rants by shouting, "Woo!"

Delgadillo appreciated Flair "being his character all the time. There is no 'in character' and 'out of character' for Flair. There's no separation," he explained.

A Subsection of a Universe

After LHON left Conduit legally blind, his days as a restaurant chef were over. Other work was hard to find. Living in such a rural town didn't help.

During that process from sighted to visually impaired, he didn't let go of a passion he had since he was 10. Wrestling fascinated him. "To think that in this world where the badass is giving it to his boss just like everyone in the real world wanted to; there is also the living dead with magic and murder," he said.

To compensate for having lost much of his vision, he tries to watch the action from up close. Extremely close.

Conduit explained: "I have a 50-inch TV I sit in front of. My nose is roughly six inches from the screen, and I'm constantly moving my head toward the screen trying to keep up."

Wrestling is often well-lit and bright, so it's easier to catch than many shows and movies. Still, there are things that slip by him, even from six inches away.

"The things I do miss seeing, though, are the facial expressions of the wrestlers, and it gets really hard when new characters are introduced," he said.

Triple H during his ring entrance.
Triple H during his ring entrance.THOMAS SAMSON/Getty Images

As unique as Conduit's story may seem, he is far from alone. There is a community of blind wrestling fans.

Delgadillo met up with some of that community in person during WrestleMania weekend last year. "We walked around the streets of San Jose, and I think we alarmed some people," he said.

Of the contingent of wrestling fans who aren't actually seeing the action, he noted: "There are a few of us out there." Still, this part of the audience may not be large enough to influence decision-makers. "There isn't a significant enough proportion of us," Delgadillo said.

Bess has formed a community of her own, a conglomerate of wrestling fans, visually impaired or otherwise.

Having sighted fellow wrestling heads is hugely helpful...well, sometimes more than others. Bess asks her friends to help describe wrestling moves she has never heard of. After all, something like the Blue Thunder Bomb isn't exactly self-explanatory.

But not everyone is skilled at conveying the visual of a grappler caught in another's grip. "Some people will describe it, and I'm more confused than before they told me what it was."

Bess also enlists others to help her imagine what wrestlers look like.

When she first heard Dean Ambrose, she tried to draw up a mental image herself. Then she asked for additional input.

"One person's opinion doesn't really paint a picture for me. If I get several people's opinions, something in the middle is probably the truth, probably the true vision of what he looks like," she said. "Voice and personality and attitude shade in other things so I can get a complete picture."

Now she has a good idea of what the frenetic Superstar looks like as he stands in the ring, gritting his teeth, sharing how much he hates the man he is feuding with. Bess said: "Pacing. He does a lot of pacing. He never stays still. He twitches. He does all sorts of weird mannerisms."

Bess has met several of the wrestlers she is a fan of, from Al Snow to Tommy Dreamer. At this year's WrestleCon event, though, she wanted most to chat with Lance Storm, a former ECW and WWE tag team champ.

"If I don't meet anyone else at this convention, it has to be Lance Storm," she said to herself.

She had a special connection with the Canadian grappler after meeting him online. After talking back-and-forth on the internet for some time, she knitted him slippers once that were apparently so comfy-looking that his mother wanted to take them for herself.

Bess said: "I told him, 'Tell her not to steal your slippers. I'll make her a pair.' So I made them a pair and handed them to him at WrestleCon for his mother."

You catch Bess on many a Monday night, tweeting about the chaos and comedy that is WWE Raw. Delgadillo often shares his wrestling thoughts on Twitter, too, be it about the latest Ring of Honor show or Kevin Owens' banter ability.

As for Reed, he's drifted away from wrestling a bit. He's not a fan of the long-running story of The Authority controlling Raw or WWE's move to a PG rating in recent years. Even so, he still loves the medium. It was evident in his voice as he talked about how powerful a bruiser Goldberg was or the genuine shock he felt when Undertaker pushed Mankind off the Hell in a Cell in 1998.

"I'll never forget. I was eight years old, sitting in my brother's bedroom watching King of the Ring 1998 on his VCR. I heard Mankind fall from the top of the cell and hit the Spanish announce table hard. And I said, 'Is this guy dead?'"

Apparently, once wrestling gets inside one's veins, it doesn't leave. Not even damaged retinas or a disease like LHON can change that. "Once a wrestling fan, always a wrestling fan. Blind or not, I find a way to keep up with my fake sports," Conduit joked.

Ryan Dilbert is the WWE Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand.

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