At Arthur Ashe Stadium, Is Wrestling Fandom a Community?

Sometimes, for a second, if you’re lucky.

Wednesday night, I attended AEW: Grand Slam at Arthur Ashe stadium, along with about twenty thousand other people. The show was AEW’s most highly attended event ever, and the stadium likely contained more people than I have personally laid eyes on in in the last year and a half combined.

I’ve only been to one other pro wrestling show since the pandemic hit. It was back in July, in the brief post-vaccination-pre-delta window when things felt a bit safer. But it was Paris Is Bumping, a wrestling show influenced by the legacy of Harlem’s queer ballroom scene, produced by and featuring a diverse array of queer, trans, and POC talent. The audience was mostly made up of people who fell into one or several of those categories. People who come to a show like Paris is Bumping already define themselves as members of a community (or, in my case, as respectful but conditional guests of that community) before the show even starts.

A cable TV taping put on by a major American wrestling promotion will never feel like that. One of the amazing things about wrestling fandom, often overlooked by outsiders, is just how diverse it is. Arthur Ashe stadium is in Flushing, Queens, one of the most diverse areas of one of the most diverse cities in the country. Just in my little nosebleed section of the arena Wednesday night, there was a black couple with two young daughters, a few clusters of boisterous barrell chested white guys from Long Island (each crew of which represented a different subgroup of the coveted 18-49 demographic), people of all races and gender combinations on dates with one another, and a guy who kept cursing at Adam Cole in peals of furious Spanish.

This diversity isn’t unusual in New York, but spending five sustained hours with what felt like a randomly selected sampling of the public at large was something I haven’t experienced in at least a year and a half. We all had different reasons for being at the show, different favorites and least favorites, and different ways of responding to what we were seeing. Mainstream wrestling strives to have something for everyone – based on the sample size of Section 302, rows D-K, AEW seems to be achieving in this.

The Spirit Will Enter You

But for much of Wednesday’s show, I found myself having trouble figuring out my own interpretation of what I was seeing. I’ve forgotten how not to be distracted by the sheer amount of stimuli that get thrown at you when you’re in a room with twenty thousand other people, state of the art sound and lighting systems, and the occasional pyrotecnic explosion. Despite the vaccination requirement and the KN95 mask that I wore all night, I was still a little nervous. I felt more hesitant to strike up a conversation with a chatty stranger than I would have pre-COVID. I couldn’t tell if the guys behind me were genuinely being annoying, or if I just no longer remember how to tune stuff out. It took a few fights for me to be able to even parse the ebb and flow of the matches I was watching, something that felt like second nature to me before the pandemic. I just felt less receptive in general, more closed off. It was harder for the Spirit of Wrestling to fill me.

AEW

The thing is though, when wrestling is at its best, the spirit will enter you whether you are ready to receive it or not. When pro wrestling is truly captivating, it wills you into the rhythms of its story and compels you into a unified response with whoever else is around to bear witness to it, no matter who they are. It’s not that there is no community to be found at a show like AEW’s – it’s just that the communal experience is ephemeral and conditional, willed into existence by the wrestling itself. And that’s really at the heart of what makes wrestling so special to me – its ability to turn twenty thousand culturally disparate individuals into a unified organism, even if it’s just for an moment. I’ve taken a lot of drugs in my life, but those moments of unity are the closest I’ve ever gotten to true ego death.

Judas on the 7 Train

There were a few moments of communal experience on Wednesday, but at no point in the show was the unifying power of wrestling more apparent than in the final match of the evening, Jon Moxley and Eddie Kingston vs Lance Archer and Minoru Suzuki. At the start of the match, everyone was exhausted. The meaty Long Island guy in front of me was complaining about how he couldn’t take the “Japanese grandpa” seriously. One of the kids to my right had been sound asleep for the last hour. The couple behind me were trying to remember where they parked.

But then Eddie Kingston got a little desperate offense in on Suzuki, and the whole crowd used its last bits of energy to let our long suffering hero know he was home. Our attention focused, the arena erupted in “Eddie” chants, willing Kingston up from outside the ring, through kendo stick strikes and cracks of a belt across his back, to eventually make the save for Moxley and get the pin on Archer. Strangers high fived and clapped each other on the back. Eddie thanked his mom and cried. And then, instantly, we were individuals again, streaming out of the arena and opining about how long the train was going to take.

By the way, as it turned out, the train would take LONG. We packed a much delayed 7 to its limit to head back toward the city, and almost as soon as we had boarded, were held up for a few minutes on the tracks, suspended over the Grand Central Parkway. People started audibly getting upset, grumbling to themselves, and my anxiety rose—I don’t tend to get nervous on a sluggish train under normal circumstances, but after absorbing their emotional energy for five hours, I didn’t know if I could handle the way a cramped mob of exhausted wrestling fans were going to deal with being trapped in a subway car for an unspecified length of time.

Thankfully, the train lurched its way in the right direction, tensions eased, and I reflected on how fleeting the whole idea of a “wrestling community” is. We were far from the united force we were for our boy Eddie, but at least nobody in my car attempted to start a Judas singalong.

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Kath Barbadoro

Kath Barbadoro is a stand up comedian, writer, and podcaster based in New York. She is a cofounder of the podcast Wrestlesplania and has a self-imposed restraining order against Tim Thatcher.

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