Thursday, March 23, 2017

WrestleMania 22: A Sea Change By the Lake

Suffice to say, the Chicago Mania crowd didn't like this result
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The last WrestleMania that wasn't held in a gigantic stadium that kills intimacy and crowd excitement, WrestleMania 22 came from the AllState Arena in Chicago - site of Bret Hart and Steve Austin's masterpiece at Mania 13, and future site of CM Punk's greatest achievement at Money in the Bank 2011. Yes, CM Punk did show up at WrestleMania 22 as one of John Cena's nondescript mobster guys carrying a fake tommy gun, but that fun bit of trivia isn't the focus today, though Punk does figure in to what I'm thinking about with this show.

As someone who didn't regularly watch WWE from 2001 to 2011, my viewing of shows from that time period often brings some moments of clarity. WrestleMania 22 is chock full of those moments, specifically having to do with the phenomenon of the modern wrestling crowd not playing by the established rules and instead demanding that they get what they want. Anger reached its peak when Daniel Bryan was about to win the big one at Mania XXX and right after CM Punk walked out, but I hadn't considered where that anger might have started, or where the audience might have gotten the courage to stand up to their WWE overlords.

WrestleMania 22 is where this happened. If I'm wrong and there was another show where the crowd openly revolted against certain babyfaces, then please let me know, because I want to learn more about that era. But I think I can safely say that no previous show brought such a toxic energy to the proceedings, to the point at which the commentators were forced to acknowledge it and attempt to explain it away.

The first rumblings really happened during the Women's Championship match between Trish Stratus and the challenger, Mickie James. James had been portrayed for weeks as a psychotic obsessive lesbian who wanted to both kill and murder Stratus. Not a woke angle in the slightest. Putting aside that problematic stuff, it was clear that Stratus was the babyface and James was the heel, at least in WWE's mind. But the riotous crowd in Chicago said, "FORGET THAT, WE LIKE MICKIE."

It started slowly, but halfway into the match people were openly chanting for James, and booing Stratus' offense. Jim Ross told us that the crowd was being "defiant," and Jerry Lawler said that most of these Chicago fans had to check with their parole officers before coming. Because, apparently, you'd have to be a jerk or a criminal to prefer Mickie James over Trish Stratus. Nevermind that James was definitely a more skilled wrestler than her opponent, or that she was giving a nuanced performance with all her might. Trish Stratus was blonde and nice! You were supposed to love her no matter what!

The match for the World Heavyweight Championship also saw the crowd going against expectations. Kurt Angle entered as champion against Randy Orton and Rey Mysterio, and all goodwill was with Mysterio as he was dedicating the match to his departed friend Eddie Guerrero. Who could root against that guy? The criminals of Chicago, that's who. From the beginning, they clearly sided with Angle, and Mysterio got booed for almost everything he did. But really, Angle got cheered because he was a goddamn machine in this match, seriously. Go back and watch it, it's unbelievable. But still, Michael Cole and Taz on commentary tried to downplay the crowd's obvious revolt, saying "This crowd is kinda on the weird side." I dunno, man, Kurt Angle was out there tossing bodies around, and the crowd did just have to watch P.O.D. play Mysterio to the ring. I kinda get it.

Chicago reached maximum heat for the main event with champion John Cena defending against Triple H. Up until this point, Cena had pretty much been a universal babyface, with maybe a few prior shows seeing him get some boos (again, tell me if I'm wrong). But this match was another level. After the lame "WrestleMania Entrance" where fedora-clad CM Punk and Zack Ryder mugged for the camera and Cena shot a tommy gun at the ceiling, he was roundly booed. It was vicious. In the early minutes of the match, a loud section of the crowd chanted "Fuck you, Cena." Jim Ross acknowledged that one, because how could he not? And later in the match, we got what seems to be the very first instance of wrestling's most famous dueling chant: "Let's go, Cena"/"Cena sucks." Lawler laughed and scoffed at it as if he had never considered such a thing, so I'm quite sure it hadn't happened before. We have Chicago to thank for a chant that will never get old and will never stop being a barometer for whether there are more women and children or more angry men in an arena.

Perhaps it was those angry Chicago men who kickstarted the slow transformation of John Cena, going from the Thuganomics dude to an upstanding military gentleman who happens to wear jean shorts. Cena was a rapping hardass because in 2003-2005, that appealed to young men. But maybe after WrestleMania 22, when a focus group of young men all decided that Cena was a chump, Vince and his team decided to leave those guys in the dust forever. You don't like him anymore? Fine, now he's just for kids. Let him hear all your meanest chants. He's not meant for you anyway.

And of course, now it's 11 years later and we all like Cena again and we're mad that he's being wasted in a mixed tag match at WrestleMania. Life is weird.