Wrestling fans of all ages gather in Manila for Philippine Wrestling Revolution events. (Photo by Ryan Songalia)
As a dedicated wrestling fan, Stan Sy had learned to be skeptical of wrestling rumors. Whispers of Edge – real name Adam Copeland – making an “impossible” return to World Wrestling Entertainment, nine years after triple-level cervical fusion surgery, had circulated for months. Sy had been moved to tears when Edge gave his retirement speech in 2011, pulling back the curtain on live TV to tell fans about losing feeling in his arms, and how he could have ended up in a wheelchair had he continued.
This time Sy’s tears were those of joy. He watched on TV from a sports bar in Manila when, after a brief pause, the “You think you know me” prelude to Edge’s entrance theme rang through Houston’s Minute Maid Park at January’s Royal Rumble event.
“I was celebrating, ready to scream, and hitting my friend Raf Camus so he could hit me back and wake me up from this dream,” remembered Sy.
While the stereotype of a wrestling fan is an 8-year-old going to live events with his parents, the median age of wrestling viewers has doubled since the beginning of the century, from 28 years old to 54, according to a 2017 Sports Business Journal study which looked at 25 years of Nielsen ratings. This has defied the programming trend in World Wrestling Entertainment, which moved from its TV-14 days of the “Attitude Era” in the late ‘90s to a PG rating in 2008.
Even with greater access to WWE’s archives through its streaming on-demand WWE Network, the average 12-year-old wouldn’t remember Edge spearing Mick Foley through a flaming table at WrestleMania 22 in 2006, or his iconic Tables, Ladders and Chairs match five years prior to that. The nostalgia returns of wrestlers like Edge and newly-crowned WWE Universal champion Bill Goldberg are storylines which are aimed almost exclusively to older fans.
Nowhere has this age divide been more apparent than during appearances by super hero-to-grade schoolers John Cena (below), this generation’s answer to Hulk Hogan, when high-pitched chants of “Let’s go Cena!” from younger fans are followed by lower-pitched chants of “Cena sucks!” from adults.
Sy, a 30-year-old radio host, also co-hosts the Wrestling-Wrestling podcast and performs for Philippine Wrestling Revolution, playing the “heel” figure Mr. Sy, who he describes as a stereotypical “evil Chinese-Filipino businessman” character (who leads a group of bad guys known collectively as MSG). It’s a character with such nuance that its best grasped by more mature audiences.
“I like starting off with that, and then I get into how my character is woke and progressive when it comes to socio-political issues. You know he's right because you find yourself agreeing with what he says,” explains Sy. “He just says it in such an abrasive and self-righteous way that you resent him for being right.”
Not everyone gets the appeal of wrestling. The worst experience he can recall was being called out by a former boss, who asked in front of his coworkers “if I knew that shit was fake.” Sy held his tongue that day, not wanting to jeopardize his job. He says he doesn’t get as much of that dismissive tone now that he’s involved in the business himself. “I can easily shut down any dismissive comments with retorts like, ‘You can't fake gravity’ or ‘You try getting hit with a steel chair and tell me if that's fake or not.’ I try to beat them to the punch, and after that, they realize they can't hit me with the stigma,” said Sy.
Paul Mutillo of North Bergen, N.J. can attest to that. The former “Paul Nixon” of the Original Repeat Offenders tag team had been in the business for three years, working for the regional East Coast Professional Wrestling company, when he attempted a top rope maneuver he had done many times before. Ideally, he’d land in a sit-out position, but he says the ropes on this ring in Pennsylvania were faulty.
“I actually landed in a prone position where my arm landed on the guy’s chest and the ring pushed my arm back, so I wound up tearing my rotator cuff,” said Mutillo. The injury sidelined him for an entire year, and when he returned to the ring, this time as a masked character in a tag team called The Black Hand, Mutillo injured his knee in just his third or fourth match back. That’s when he realized it was time to get out.
“I said, you know what, I’m 36 years old, I’m probably never gonna make it to the show and it’s starting to put too much wear and tear on my body, I’m not looking forward to getting another surgery, and I said I was done,” remembered Mutillo.
Mutillo had been a wrestling fan since he was a child, first becoming enamored with the legendary Bruno Sammartino, who hailed from the same town in Italy, Pizzoferrato, as his family. He would attend wrestling events at the Embassy Theater in North Bergen, watching legends like Mr. Fuji, Professor Toru Tanaka, Tony Garea and Rick Martel up close.
Mutillo says the current WWE programming has a good mix of storylines for adults, like “The Fiend,” a monstrous villain who he says scares his mother, and children, with The New Day doing singalongs with fans and throwing pancakes into the crowd.
Sy says that the abundance of wrestling programming, such as WWE’s offshoot brand NXT, or the TV-14 promotion All Elite Wrestling which launched last year, or the more physical cult favorite New Japan Pro Wrestling, there’s something for all fans.
For some lapsed fans, like Matt Yanofsky, the problem isn’t so much the lack of adult themes. His issue is that the product is stretched too thin.
“There were times that it was hard to fill two good hours of wrestling and now there’s three hours, meaning a lot more pointless matches, dead-end storylines and gimmicks that I just can’t get behind,” said Yanofsky, a public relations consultant based out of Tampa, Fla.
“There really isn’t a face of the company now either that makes you want to watch what may unfold on Monday nights,” he added, naming Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold Steve Austin and CM Punk as names who had done that for him in the past.
The proliferation of wrestling program means it is more ubiquitous now than ever before, and its corporatization has given way to greater acceptance by sports outlets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated, which now cover the business’s ins-and-outs in a way that would have been an embarrassment for both the wrestling and media side decades ago.
Still, some blind spots remain among public figures. Ohio rep. Tim Ryan drew condemnation from fans and wrestlers alike for comparing President Trump’s State of the Union address in February to “watching professional wrestling…It’s all fake.”
In the post-kayfabe world, dismissiveness has replaced skepticism as wrestling’s great minimizer.
For Sy, the love affair continues, even as he struggles to find time to fit in time to keep up with wrestling schedules and the responsibilities of adulthood. Some storylines may miss, but when they hit, there’s nothing like it.
“Wrestling has traditionally targeted the lowest common denominator, which has led to tons of campy stories over the years,” said Sy.
“But wrestling is, at its heart, a morality play. And when booked well, its stories can be as compelling, if not more compelling than your favorite movies and TV shows.”
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at email@example.com.