Watching Myself Watch Wrestling

In yesterday’s piece about how wrestling continues undaunted through a pandemic, I mentioned that my relationship to wrestling was growing strained as a result, that I didn’t know if it would be possible to repair my relationship to it. The reason I haven’t completely broken away from wrestling in this moment is that I’ve been actively working on it, mostly by watching WCW from 1997 and by joining friends to watch random stuff on Kosmi. When the platform is working, it’s great—the YouTube equivalent of letting somebody take the AUX chord, and my friends, when they’re not watching local Georgia wrasslin’ from five years ago or the finally released Wrestling Revolution Project, all have much better taste than I do.

More Professional Wrestling

In one of these chats, my friend Ed cued up an easy pick for one of the best indie matches of the 2010s—Sara Del Rey vs. Claudio Castagnoli from night two of CHIKARA’s Chikarasaurus Rex 2011. If you’ve never seen it before, you should.

I’ve watched this match dozens of times. When I taught a class on the narrative structure of pro wrestling, this was one of the matches I used. When a friend expresses an interest in wrestling but doesn’t know where to start, this is one of the matches I send along. It’s brutal, gutsy, no-nonsense wrestling from two of the best of their generation, right on the doorstep of their leaving the independents. And there I am in the corner of the screen, wearing a powder blue I ✡ COLT Colt Cabana t-shirt, somehow unavoidable to my eye for the first time.

It was an unsettling experience, watching myself watch wrestling. I remember how excited I was for that match despite it coming at the end of a long, three day road trip spent watching wrestling, how my friends and I somehow got to the front row of the ECW Arena for it, screaming for Del Rey and yelling insults at Claudio in very bad German. But that’s not what I see in the corner of the frame. The Colette there is vague in my memory, virtually a stranger. We love the same things, but we aren’t the same person.

That feels like an obvious thing to say, but it isn’t. I don’t have any hang-ups with images of my pre-transition self. There’s a photo of me in football pads by my record player, three or four things hung on the wall of my apartment signed to my previous name. But beyond my Ultramantis Black and Sara Del Rey t-shirts and the two or three people I still tweet at from that time in my life, I have relatively few things marking my interest in an era that defined the way I interact with wrestling, and beyond the occasional match here and there, I don’t frequently revisit it the way I do favorite movies or albums.

The voice in the above clip is mine. I know I’ve mentioned it before in this space, but there are two whole years of shows from Absolute Intense Wrestling with my voice on it. I called Johnny Gargano matches, Tracy Smothers matches, Mia Yim matches, and Adam Cole matches. I shot a backstage fight between Eddie Kingston and Tim Donst, conducted a shoot interview with Willie Mack, and helped produce promos for release on show DVDs. I have done a lot of things I’m proud of in my professional life, but my time as an announcer at AIW is probably as close as I’ll get to living the dream of being in professional wrestling. It’s also the least known aspect of my creative career, a thing I drag out every now and again like a bit of trivia, something fun that you don’t need to see. I haven’t watched any of it since it happened. What a strange way to treat a realized dream.

If there’s a reason for it, then perhaps it’s discomfort with being confronted by my pre-transition self at her happiest, on rare days when I could get out of bed and groom my beard and really indulge in the low tones of my voice in a way that didn’t feel like an out of body experience. Another reason may have to do with feeling like I lost something, not to transition, but to time. It’s a weird thing, hanging out in a locker room and getting to know people you respect and love as performers, to see them grow and evolve and, in a lot of instances, sign contracts with the WWE. I’m proud of a lot of wrestlers I knew for achieving that goal, happy for the guy I used to call matches with who does play-by-play on Raw, but I fell out of that circle years ago when I moved to Georgia, and if any of them remember me now, it’s as who I was and not as who I am.

Maybe there’s a small sadness to that, but it’s hard enough to remember brief acquaintances when your job doesn’t involve traveling from place to place to wrestle for different promotions, different audiences, different crews. Besides, there’s something nice about there being an area of my life where there’s a clean break between the past and the present, something fun about being in a crowd with no obligation to the show and no worry that someone on it is going to remember you. Maybe the way that I feel right now, this unease, is because that break is less clean than I thought, that it’s always possible to meet a past self when she’s least expected.

Professional wrestling, in its triumph and tragedy, lives entirely in the realm of bittersweetness—I’m just caught by surprise that this week’s pangs of it were caused by me. The match I’m in the front row for, Del Rey vs. Castagnoli, was meant to evoke joy, and it did. I can remember how it felt being there, and I can see it when I watch the video. When I watch clips of matches I called, I can hear the thrill in my voice. It’s wild, this experience, because it stands in contrast to what I was feeling at the time, the deep well of misery I did my best to hide. When I was at the matches, that well did not exist.

When I watch myself watch wrestling, I see, with startling clarity, why wrestling—any artform, really—is so important. Yes, when someone in wrestling talks about its role in society, to entertain and put smiles on faces, it is usually bullshit. I wouldn’t say that’s why wrestling is important, nor why art is so profound. At its best, wrestling is capable of evoking emotion that otherwise isn’t there. The specific emotion, whether it’s joy, anger, sadness, fear, doesn’t matter—it’s the conjuring that does. I often forget that wrestling is still capable of pulling that magic act on me, so the act of watching myself this week was useful, almost therapeutic. I see myself loving something that is honestly very hard to love at the moment. I get to see my past self at her happiest. I get to feel happy for her in those moments of escape, with no idea of the good that’s yet to come.