On December 8, 2018, David Arquette was standing in front of a table in the 2300 Arena, formerly the ECW Arena. He was wrestling later that night but was at that moment signing autographs and taking pictures. A fan approached the table to tell Arquette that he was his favorite World Championship Wrestling champion. It’s safe to say that after Arquette’s infamous and mercifully short title reign in that promotion at the turn of the century—his turn in the role came after filming the movie Ready To Rumble, a sort of long-form commercial for the promotion that also starred Rose McGowan, Martin Landau, and Diamond Dallas Page—this was not a compliment he’d received very often. That’s part of what put Arquette at that table, in that arena, after all these years.
Arquette is a professional wrestler for real, now, but he’s also 48 years old and graying; he’s fit, but stands at a charitable 5’10” in height and is probably 185 pounds at the most even after months of intensive workouts. In a classic WWE “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase t-shirt, he looks less like an actual wrestler than a fan dressed as one. It fits because he is both. That’s a big part of why, nearly two decades after he was one of the most widely reviled champions in pro wrestling history, that one young fan and many others are now chanting his name at indie wrestling shows all over the country after every crossbody block and double axe handle. Arquette was always a disarmingly natural actor, but his love and enthusiasm for pro wrestling cannot be and is not being faked. The challenge, when it comes to the necessary suspension of disbelief, has more to do with how it all came to this.
In Ready to Rumble, which was released in theaters on April 5, 2000, Arquette plays a wrestling obsessed fan who witnesses his wrestling hero Jimmy King (Oliver Platt) getting cheated out of the world heavyweight title and sets out on a quest to right that wrong and crown the king the champion once more.
The film was produced in part by World Championship Wrestling (WCW) which had spent the previous few years spending lavishly on celebrity wrestling appearances from personalities ranging from Dennis Rodman to Master P. and his No Limit Soldiers. By the time Ready to Rumble was released, the company was hemorrhaging money and fans. Despite that, or because of it, the promotion pushed the film by making David Arquette its world champion, in a wrestling ring, for real, during the April 26, 2000 episode of WCW Thunder. The moment came during a tag match pairing Arquette with DDP against Jeff Jarrett and Eric Bischoff; a weird heavyweight title change stipulation was involved, but it’s safe to say that few people watching expected that stipulation to elevate Deputy Dewey from Scream to the title. To complete the scene: Bischoff was the hated manager of the NWO, and the faction routinely beat down and humiliated anyone who tried to stand up to them. When an actor who had never wrestled before pinned Bischoff with a spear to win the world title, it was Brock Lesnar Beating The Undertaker-level shocking.
An actor had never been a pro wrestling champion before, but the wrestling business has had a long association with Hollywood, from Andy Kaufman famously getting piledriven by Jerry Lawler to Mr. T headlining Wrestlemania I in a tag team with Hulk Hogan. Show business is show business, and at the time Arquette was a very recognizable star—the husband of Friends star Courteney Cox, and instantly recognizable from his role in the Scream franchise. Scream 3, which would go on to make more than $161 million worldwide, was released just two months before Ready To Rumble.
All this is to say that, despite the overwhelming backlash that followed, fans were actually on Arquette’s side initially. Go back and watch his matches on the WWE Network and you’ll see fans holding up signs like “David Arquette 2-0 Who’s Next?” and my favorite, “Arquette: 110 Pounds Of Whoop Ass.” His sudden elevation may have rubbed some wrestlers wrong backstage, but fans truly enjoyed his matches at first, most of which consisted of him running around the ring looking as scared as any of those fans would have if they, like him, had found themselves in a similar situation. Initially, his reign as champion was a relief from the endless parking lot brawls and angles that abruptly ended with a meaningless swerve. In its twilight years, and in what is now mostly remembered as a desperate moment, WCW really did hit on something when it made a runty character actor into a champion.
The whole thing came to an abrupt end at the Slamboree PPV on May 7, when Arquette hit his friend Diamond Dallas Page with a guitar. That match unfolded atop the Triple Tower Of Doom Cage, which made it a reconstruction of the ending of Ready to Rumble. The next night, on WCW Monday Nitro, Arquette ended his run as champ with a bizarre and often unintelligible in-ring promo in which he told the fans to “Shuttttttt uuuuuuup” and “never trust a man from Hollywood!” The storyline, written by WCW booker Vince Russo, left David Arquette to be hated by both the wrestlers he worked with and the fans that watched it all unfold, and as one of the most divisive figures in wrestling history. When WCW died not long after, the reigning take among fans was that his run as champ had been a horrible idea and that Vince Russo and David Arquette had killed WCW. The sentiment was so widely and strongly held that, when I interviewed David on the phone in February 2018 and then talked to him in person at a film premiere for a criminal justice documentary he was producing, it felt almost rude to talk to him about wrestling. His brief run in pro wrestling seemed like one that all involved would want to forget. As it turned out, Arquette hadn’t forgotten it.
When David Arquette decided that he wanted to wrestle again, he started training in jiu-jitsu with coach Rigan Machado, boxing with Ricky Quiles, and wrestling with Peter Avalon of Championship Wrestling. But the physical part of wrestling is the half of the job that can be taught. Arquette would still need to learn how to get over with fans, online and in-person, as something other than the celebrity stunt performer he’d been in the past. For that, he connected through mutual friends with Toronto wrestler, RJ City, who became Arquette’s new tag team partner and, in short order, both his close friend and “uncle RJ” to Arquette’s kids.
City is a veteran wrestler with a love for film and television and his chosen craft. “Wrestling is simply a violent sweaty Lawrence Welk Show,” he once tweeted, “and if you don’t agree then you don’t get life.” The unlikely pair—a Canadian indie wrestler with a mouthy Twitter feed and a legacy Hollywood goofball—began their partnership through a rather one-sided war of words on Twitter. RJ teased Arquette for his role in Muppets From Space and invited Arquette to wrestle and participate in one of City’s favorite activities—cutting a promo while having coffee in his underwear. David’s sister Rosanna got involved online, tweeting “No one wants to see him in his underwear,” but RJ would not be stopped. “You don’t want to get involved, Rosanna,” he replied. “I’ll make your brother more forgettable than your 1979 appearance on Eight Is Enough.”
Arquette and City later met and continued to talk, eventually planning a match. All the while, RJ continued to deride Arquette over his acting and his physique and everything else; because he is a professional, City helpfully collected their online story into a Twitter moment, where it can be enjoyed by everyone.
Finally on May 31, 2018, David announced his return on The Wendy Williams Show. Williams, like everyone else, had some questions. Why, for one, would a 47-year-old, newly re-married and the father of two young children and a teenage daughter, risk life and limb to go diving off the top rope onto men half his age and twice his size? Arquette hasn’t been working in film or TV as much as in previous decades, but his IMDb page attests to the fact that he was still acting regularly and producing projects constantly. He had become a certified Bob Ross painting instructor. This was not someone who seemed driven towards a return to the ring.
What Arquette told Wendy—and later told me, and has since told everyone who would listen for months and months—was that it was because he was tired of being bullied online, and wanted to bring respect back to his name. We can probably accept this as storyline stuff—while Arquette was trolled online and has fought back more than once, a simpler and more compelling explanation may be that Arquette really and truly seems to love wrestling with a childlike zeal. “It’s a unique way of entertaining,” he told me. “There’s really nothing else like it.”
RJ City echoed this sentiment. “I think he found something, performance-wise, that he couldn’t get from a movie,” City said. “There aren’t other forms of performance where you can yell at the audience and they can yell back.”
During his indie return, Arquette’s ring introductions have been deliriously and proudly over the top—ridiculous new ring garb at every match, wildly shooting confetti into the audience, that sort of thing. “He’s a 12-year-old boy,” City told me while recounting a stop the two made at a convenience store during a road trip. “I’m drinking a pea protein with green powder and raw asparagus and he bought beef jerky, cheese strings, ghost pepper peanuts, and two Halloween masks.”
While Arquette has clearly been having fun in the ring, the hard work that he put in before coming back—getting in game shape, physically and mentally, and learning the moves—made all that possible. “It’s not a bullshit celebrity appearance,” City said. “People would assume he would phone it in, but much to my dismay he’s working harder than I am.” Arquette’s trainer, Peter Avalon, told me that David ended up constructing a wrestling ring at his house so he could train with Avalon several times a week leading up to his first match back last July, with RJ City at Championship Wrestling From Hollywood.
On July 15, 2018, Arquette made his debut, against RJ City at Championship Wrestling From Hollywood. The hometown fans were quickly on his side and were chanting his name after he executed his big moves—a diamond cutter, in a tip of the hat to DDP, a fairly awkward jump off the top rope, and a sharpshooter. His Cinderella homecoming came to an abrupt end when he found himself on the receiving end of RJ’s finishing move, a high knee that City dubbed “Knee Arthur” in tribute to his favorite Golden Girls actress. Stories about the match appeared across the wrestling internet, and his quest for respect seemed off to an encouraging start. Arquette’s tag matches with RJ City were comic affairs—the two entered the ring accompanied by the theme from TV’s Perfect Strangers—and routinely faced off against much larger opponents in David-and-Goliath matches. RJ told the crowd that he had to “teach David Arquette how to wrestle” and frequently yelled reminders at him not to jump off the top rope. They won through a series of improbable reversals against the behemoths; “Arquette City,” as David kept calling them in promos, was in full effect.
It was all going great until Arquette’s appearance in an infamous death match bout on November 16, 2018 on Joey Janela’s LA Confidential, which you can watch on Fite TV. A deathmatch is similar to a regular match except weapons like barbed wire, and in this match light tubes, are introduced to up the violence and the blood is very real. Arquette mostly held his own against his opponent, the veteran indie brawler Nick Gage, in a match that was a lot more entertaining than it had any right to be. The crowd was hot throughout; a fan was audibly heard at the event shouting “are you fuckin ready to rumble or what?” at the overmatched actor. When Arquette started exchanging light tube spots with Gage, fans were once again chanting his name. It was during one of those exchanges that Arquette absorbed a shot wrong and his neck was cut by the broken glass; he was bloodied, but still ended up finishing the match. In this fan clip of the match you can see a wild exchange where David hits Gage in the face with a chair causing glass to explode. After that is an awkward exchange where Arquette tried to grab him around the head and Gage judo flips him onto the ground and holds him down for the pin where it appears the cut happens. There is some speculation that David was shooting on Gage and instantly got put in his place. “I started laying the violence in on him and he started bugging out a little bit,” Gage told Fightful.
The match got a lot of negative coverage and Arquette issued an apology the next day on Twitter. “The main reason I got injured was because of my lack of experience,” Arquette wrote. “Don’t try this at home.” Later, In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Arquette explains, “We were both at fault for the neck cut, but me defending myself is how it actually happened.” The promoter, Brett Lauderdale, told me that David was probably confused, “but for him to be in a moment like that, which calls for someone to adjust on the fly in front of a rabid crowd, is one even experienced vets could struggle with.” Brett also says that Gage deserves props for ending the match shortly after that, “before things got more out of control.” Whatever the case, it was clear that Arquette didn’t belong in the ring with a man known as “the king of ultraviolence.”
In the aftermath of that controversy, Arquette brought a strange and jittery new energy both in the ring and in promos that painted him as a madman. His hair-versus-hair match against Jocephus, on January 5, 2019 was preceded with a series of increasingly heated and increasingly strange promo videos between the two online. “What are you, crazy?” Arquette glowered in one, “I was born on a commune. I’m not just gonna let you shave my head. It’s pilot season.”
Match by match, Arquette leaned into what increasingly felt like an Andy Kaufman homage. After his April 26 match against King Brian, for Northeast Wrestling, Arquette found himself facing frequent Kaufman antagonist Jerry Lawler. As Lawler began approaching the ring, Arquette howled, “I’m from Hollywood! I’m an actor! If you touch me I’m going to sue you, Lawler!” Lawler, who can still wrestle a bit at age 69, was more than happy to oblige. He piledrived Arquette just like as he had Kaufman decades ago.
“Hollywood is fake,” says Colt Cabana, who wrestled Arquette in January, “but wrestling fans are real. And they’re not oohing or aahing over him because he was in a movie.” Em Fear of the wrestling podcast Talking Honor said that Arquette is “connecting with fans in really direct ways and having the time of his life, and that’s really hard not to root for.”
Some of that connection surely has to do with the fact that Arquette is very much a fan himself. He attended WrestleMania 35 as a fan—he can be seen ringside during the match between Bautista and Arrow actor Stephen Amell screaming “actors can’t wrestle!”—and seems delighted to be working and hanging around with performers he admires. In April, Arquette announced in a tweet that he was producing a new horror movie called 12-Hour Shift, with wrestling legend Mick Foley in the cast. His goal, he said, was to “bridge the gap between Hollywood and the wrestling world.”
Arquette had one of the best matches of his return at Bar Wrestling 35, on May 8. He faced Jungle Boy, son of the late actor Luke Perry and a rising star in his own right who recently signed with AEW, in a match that began with Arquette telling the crowd that he was crazy and then proving it by eating Pop Rocks and chugging Coca-Cola. Arquette survived that, and he and Jungle Boy wrestled a wild and thrilling match that concluded with a Pop Rocks And Coke callback. “You’re a great fighter,” Arquette told Jungle Boy in the ring afterwards, “and I loved your father dearly. And I love you.” The fans were on their feet and crowding the ring as the two wrestlers embraced.
Arquette had hinted that this might be his last match in California, which suggested he might be hanging it up again soon. When I asked his trainer, Peter Avalon, about it, he said, “I don’t even think he knows.”
Nearly a year after Arquette announced to Wendy Williams and everyone that he was returning to wrestling, Alpha-1 Wrestling promoted his May 26 match by putting him front and center on their poster. It was the first time this has happened, either in his first unhappy attempt at the sport or his much sunnier return to it. It’s not the same as a championship belt, but it might be more satisfying—Arquette isn’t there because of cross-promotion and fame-chasing booking but because he’s finally winning over the people that had rebuked him the first time around. “It’s the fans,” Arquette told me, “who determine where you go in this business.”
Joshua Dudley has been a sports fan since Ric Flair said “to be the man, you have to be the man,” and has been writing about entertainment since 2016 for Observer and Forbes.