PHILADELPHIA — Everybody in the arena knew Ronda Rousey was coming out next. The delay seemed to stretch on forever as we waited. It had been 25 seconds since Nia Jax’s theme ended ... 26, 27, 28, 29 … and, finally, “Bad Reputation” played. Ronda Rousey made her entrance. She got the loudest cheer of the night.
Rousey doesn’t wrestle much. Though the former MMA champ is a burgeoning star due to her success in her previous unscripted fighting career, she’s still new to the world of fixed fights. She impressed in her debut at WrestleMania and looked solid in her first singles match last month. But put aside her already-decent technical ability. She’s already shown she can create drama in her matches. WWE has booked her well. I’m a big fan already.
So when WWE announced she would be wrestling a match in South Philadelphia, I got a ticket. On TV, Rousey is “suspended” for attacking Alexa Bliss and GM Kurt Angle the night after Bliss cost Rousey her chance at the Raw women’s title. WWE spun her match against Jax on Friday as Rousey “respecting contractual obligations.” Sure.
Going to see a specific wrestler at an un-televised show—a house show, in wrestling parlance—is an anachronism in 2018. It wasn’t always this way. Though wrestling was on television both at the beginning of network TV in the 1950s and at the start of the cable TV boom in the 1970s and 1980s, wrestling promoters traditionally made their money from live gates. The television shows existed to entice fans to attend the live events.
And there wasn’t much TV. My family didn’t have cable when I was little, so all I got was one half-hour of wrestling a week, a WWF show on Saturday mornings. It mostly featured matches where established stars (or new guys the WWF was trying to push) beat up no-name wrestlers. WWF had other shows, too, but they were all stars vs. jobbers. If you wanted to see a big-name guy face another big-name guy, you generally had to buy a PPV or head to your local arena.
Now the WWE broadcasts five hours of live programming on cable, plus at least two hours of weekly programming on their own network. In my area alone I can get weekly shows from Impact Wrestling (the former TNA), New Japan Pro Wrestling, and Ring of Honor. There are also streaming options for smaller and larger promotions. There’s a lot of wrestling to watch.
While smaller promotions still make a large chunk of revenue from their live shows, that’s not the case for WWE. The company just signed a huge new TV rights deal; the combined deals with Fox and USA are worth $2 billion over five years. The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer reported WWE made an average of $37,000 in profit for each house show last quarter. Not bad, but not close to the TV deals.
WWE, formerly the WWF and the WWWF, has a long history in Philadelphia—so much so that current mayor Jim Kenney has both referenced Toru Tanaka and said the words “Iran number one!” The promotion was here constantly in the ‘70s and ‘80s, running a show at the Spectrum pretty much every month in the latter decade. I attended a house show at the Spectrum in 1991; the Ultimate Warrior beat The Undertaker in a bodybag match. (In a notable undercard match, Irwin R. Shyster beat Virgil.)
It’s understandable that the WWE added Rousey to Friday’s show. The card was pretty weak otherwise. Seth Rollins and Dolph Ziggler had a decent opener; all the other male Raw stars on the show were dumped into a six-man tag in the main event (Roman Reigns, Finn Balor, and Braun Strowman beat Kevin Owens, Baron Corbin, and Elias). Aside from some pops for Bayley and WWE making Drew Gulak take the pinfall loss in his hometown again, the rest of the card was mostly filler.
It was still good. A televised WWE show is a slog. If it’s not a PPV, there are long breaks for commercials. (Hell, sometimes there are even commercial breaks during a WWE Network show.) But a house show is nice and tight. There’s very little wasted time. The wrestlers don’t play to the cameras; the big screens only really show wrestlers’ exits and entrances. It’s neat to see them have to play to everyone in the arena for once. Everything is exaggerated just a little bit more, so the kid in the last row of the arena can see it.
But I was there for one person: Rousey. I saw her WWE debut back at the Royal Rumble in January, and wanted to see her first match in Philly. It didn’t disappoint. Alexa Bliss would be the special guest referee for the Jax/Rousey match. Beforehand, she called out a second special guest ref (Mickie James). Both refs ended up attacking both wrestlers throughout the match. The whole thing didn’t make a ton of sense, but it didn’t need to: It wasn’t on TV.
Rousey is already over big with the crowd, which was more kid-heavy than a televised WWE show. (Tickets are cheaper at house shows.) She and Jax traded the advantage a few times; both fought off James’s and Bliss’s attacks. They had a match that was as good as their one last month at Money In The Bank. Rousey won when both refs were KOed, and a third ref ran out to declare Rousey the winner after Nia Jax tapped to an armbar.
It was great! Rousey the goofy, smiling babyface might look a little weird on TV, but it works at a house show. Afterward, she circled the ring taking selfies with fans and high-fiving people. It was worth $40 to turn back the clock and see a wrestler live and in person.