My father used to talk about what it was like for him to watch things like Naked Gun or Monty Python, where it wasn’t just laughing at the jokes, but laughing at yourself for laughing at them, which only made you laugh even more than you already were.
That can happen with other things and other emotions, where the actual action of them causes you to fall deeper into the feelings that caused them. Sports can bring us to tears, in both the good and bad sense. Great movies or shows can do so as well (or even mediocre ones if you’re on an airplane, because it seems everyone cries at everything when watching on a plane. I lost it to fucking 16 Blocks on a trans-Atlantic flight once. The birthday cake!) And you find yourself emoting about something you know isn’t real, or isn’t really yours in any logical sense, and you feel even more helpless and then lose yourself into it more because, well, you can’t really pull out of it.
So of course, in the netherworld between sports and fiction that wrestling lives in, it can also cause all sorts of emotions that you couldn’t predict, certainly don’t know what to do with, and have no choice but to sink into. And there I was as Thunder Rosa become AEW’s women’s world champion last night:
My facial expression wasn’t too different than Rosa’s when ref Aubrey Edwards counted three.
Even if you knew nothing about Thunder Rosa, or even about wrestling, it’s hard for her emotions to not pour through the screen and touch you (and from various fan videos on Twitter, it was also doing so throughout the arena in her hometown of San Antonio). It obviously means the world to her and is obviously a huge moment not just for her, but the fans too.
Now, it would be easy to be dismissive and pawn it off to acting, though it’s a pretty high level of acting if that’s all you’re labeling it. Obviously, Thunder Rosa knew she would be winning before the match, and perhaps weeks before. But if you’re even a casual fan, you know that being crowned champion means far more than just playing that night’s role for the company. It’s affirmation. It’s a statement that as far as that company and that booker is concerned, you’re the best we have and we want you to front this whole division in whatever way we take it. We want you to be in the biggest matches, the ones we’ll promote the most, and in AEW’s case, give you the most TV time (this is relative when it comes to AEW and its women’s division, but we’ll leave that for now). And when you’re someone like Thunder Rosa, who had spent years grinding away on the indies before even getting a shot in AEW, it’s the culmination of all that work, sacrifices, and choices. The miles driven, the sparsely attended shows, the constant beating one’s body takes, all of it leads to this. So there is no acting there. It’s all of that being realized and her coming to terms with that in that moment, in front of thousands. Even if she knew long beforehand, she couldn’t possibly have realized what it would feel like until she was there.
(Sneaky other tear-jerker moment of this video is to watch ref Edwards as she raises Rosa’s arms with the title, because she’s clenching that jaw pretty hard to hold it together herself).
So it exists in the middle of those emotions that real sports, which always focus on the road taken and the work put in and the canyon of failure that awaits around every turn, and fictionalized stories give us every day, which means fans like me get it from both ends, basically. And if you’re like me, there’s an even more personal connection to Thunder Rosa. Some three years ago now, maybe slightly less, I saw her at my local indie show, Freelance Wrestling. From there — a dingy theater in front of 200 people in a highly entertaining yet pretty slapstick six-person inter-gender scramble match (the kind of place my girlfriend and I have joked where COVID is only about 7th on the list of things you need to worry about catching) — to winning one of the biggest titles in the industry in front of 10,000 people live and a million or so watching on TV. It was obvious even then, in that theater years ago, that she was a star, her charisma pretty much beating you over the head and her in-ring ability not trailing at all. To get to be part of that journey in even the smallest way hits one in the chest all that much harder.
And AEW has allowed fans to do that for a host of people. Even if you never saw these wrestlers in the indies or in Japan in person, they make sure you know everything that’s happened to them and where they’ve come from so you can feel like you did. Adam Page’s sojourn through NJPW and ROH was highlighted before he won the men’s title. Scorpio Sky, the current TNT champion, was an AEW original and an indie darling with SCU. Eddie Kingston’s rise to perhaps the most popular wrestler on the roster is because everyone has been told about his roots in the business and his life overall.
To be fair, AEW kind of has to do that, as it only has two years of history as a company. But it’s still in contrast to the way WWE essentially tries to erase any trace of its wrestlers before they came to the company. If you’re going to call back to things that happened to you before entering WWE, you’d better do it in a way that Vince McMahon can’t actually notice. That doesn’t mean WWE can’t pull these kinds of strings. Big E’s title win did a lot of the same for a host of people, making it all the more infuriating the way his title run was wasted. Daniel Bryan/Bryan Danielson’s run to and win at Mania 30 is that for a lot of people. But again, Bryan was able to call on his entire journey, not just within WWE.
There is just something to watching someone reach the pinnacle of their career, their life’s passion, when they themselves may have wondered if they would ever get there. Perhaps wrestling has a cheat code. We’re just fans to sporting achievements, mere witnesses, though we get to be so together, in a group. There’s a connection there. Fictional stories were completely separated from, but they’re allowed to hit any note they’d like.
Wrestling gets to be both. Our connection to the wrestlers is what helps propel them up through the lower rungs to the bigger companies and up the roster. They get to pick all the notes to accentuate that. We watch it together, it’s communal, even though it’s scripted. Sure, we can get manipulated by their choices and writing, but we also get to partake. Our love of Thunder Rosa helped get her there. We all get to take something from it, even just a morsel.
I still wouldn’t want to ugly cry from wrestling in front of anyone, though. Not there yet.