It’s not what it used to be.
That was our first reaction when WWE announced they’d be bringing back the branding for World Championship Wrestling’s WrestleMania, Starrcade, 17 years after the last one. “It’s not even a pay-per-view.” They were taking WCW’s biggest show and using it to re-brand a Smackdown house show at the Greensboro Coliseum. Halloween Havoc shirts were showing up on WWE Shop, with the late-era logos. NXT was bringing back War Games and changing all the rules. WCW was “back” in a vague, broad “thing you remember” marketing stroke. It didn’t matter. It’s like buying a Nirvana shirt from Target.
As I’ve written and spoken about a lot, I grew up in the early 80s in southern Virginia and northern North Carolina, the Mesopotamia of Mid-Atlantic territories. The fertile crescent of southern, but not Texan, pro wrestling. Horsemen country. As I wrote about in my Dusty Rhodes eulogy,
When I describe my first moments in wrestling — I’ve been going to shows since I was in the womb, but these are the ones where I’m a cognizant person with memories or whatever — I sound like Bob Costas on Ken Burns’ Baseball. You know; the green of the grass, the crack of the bat, the smell of roasted peanuts wafting through the air. My version is a white square off in the distance, lit bright white and surrounded by darkness. The sticky, wet floors of the Greensboro Coliseum. A cigar smell I’m probably imagining. The Italian Stallion was in the ring, I think, but Dusty Rhodes was the reason we were there. He was the reason the show existed, and he was the reason my dad wasn’t paying attention and my mom had to guide me by the wrist through a dark, loud arena. When I remember it in my head, the view never changes.
It’s also my job — as is the job of pretty much every WWE fan on the Internet — to assume the worst and figure out what’s wrong with the situation. Pro wrestling used to be based on the idea of “good” vs. “evil,” with towering, heroic Americans bodyslamming evil foreigners and arrogant rich people and fat guys. In the ’90s the veil was pulled back, and the stories became about complex but somehow still overly simplistic people with real names (or at best, nicknames) getting into exaggeratedly violent or sexual or Machiavellian schemes. Higher powers, that kind of thing. We lost track of good versus evil and were conditioned to understand that everyone’s a little good and a little evil, so all the heroes died or went bad. We learned to expect the worst, even from the people we like, so that the good felt special. Like fearing your favorite team’s loss until that final out in the last game of the World Series. Being afraid that Tom Brady’s gonna come back and win the Super Bowl with only a minute left, whether he does or not, because we’re used to that being how life works. Why should we win? Everybody’s bad.
I can’t remember my true first images or opinions about pro wrestling and sports-entertainment because they’ve been with me since before I was born. My mom went to shows in Greensboro while I was in the womb. My dad had kayfabe destroyed for him as a teen because he saw the Andersons after a show eating ice cream with the guys they’d just wrestled. This nonsense was bred into me. I got it honest.
What I do remember, though, and what I’ve never really written about before, is the moment I realized this fandom was going to be a part of me forever. I was little. The trip to Starrcade ’85 doesn’t register, really. Magnum T.A. vs. Tully Blanchard in an I Quit match in a steel cage is the greatest North American pro wrestling match ever, but I mostly remember wanting my parents to buy me a program. I didn’t really develop an appreciation for what happened on the show until I watched it over and over on VHS tape — because I’m ancient — but I remember what happened when we were home. I remember my mom and dad breathlessly telling my aunt about what’d happened. I remember my dad with fire in his eyes retelling the story from his view in the nosebleeds … of Baby Doll throwing a wooden chair into the ring to help Tully, and it splintering, and a shard of it ending up in Tully’s eye. How he noticed that Tully said “yes” when they asked him if he quit instead of the words “I quit,” and how those weren’t really the rules, and how it was going somewhere. Tully would have an excuse. My parents were mad about this, because they loved Magnum, but they loved the idea that there’d be more of it. The moment wasn’t the point. The point was the feeling. The feeling you take home and tell people about instead of eating food or going to sleep.
“This is mine,” I thought to myself. “This is for me.”
As I grew up, Starrcade became “Thanksgiving” for me. When you’ve been a fan forever, the big events become your holidays. The Royal Rumble is winter. The new year. Possibility. WrestleMania is the spring, when things come alive. SummerSlam happens at the very end of summer, during the dog days, when everything feels tired and sweaty. Starrcade came at the end of the year, and was about the wrestling promotion I liked the most, so it felt like the end of the wrestling year. More than WrestleMania. WrestleMania’s always felt more like an attempted beginning than a satisfying end. Starrcade said to me, “this is it. This is when the bad guy gets his comeuppance. When Tully gets stabbed in the eye. When Dusty proves he can pin Flair.” There’s always more, which is why you’re excited about it, but the year ends at Starrcade. Then you have Christmas, and then you start over.