In December 2018, the McMahon family came out on Monday Night Raw to announce that, after careful consideration, they had decided the fans were the new authority. Finally, WWE was ready to listen to their audience, to respond to what the fans were interested in instead of pushing their own narratives at all costs. The WWE universe was in charge now, and the McMahon’s were finally recognizing the power that fans can hold in wrestling.
Now, if only they’d watched a little wrestling film from 2000 that preached the same thing, they could have come to this conclusion about 20 years ago.
David Arquette may be a big time indie star now, but once upon a time he was simply a very famous actor winning the WCW Heavyweight title to promote a film. Ready to Rumble, starring Arquette, Oliver Platt, and Scott Cahn, wasn’t quite the success WCW was hoping for. In fact, the decision to make Arquette Heavyweight champ as a tie-in to the movie is widely regarded as one of the final nails in the company’s coffin. I’m not going to argue that it’s a good film- it’s so 2000’s that “My Own Worst Enemy” plays over two separate driving montages, and there’s more casual homophobia than an AJ Styles TNA promo. But, in a strange and terrible way, Ready to Rumble was almost ahead of it’s time. Not just because it foreshadowed DDP’s downfall in WWF, but because of it’s devotion to the wrestling fan above all else. At its core, this is film a tribute to the fans, a reminder of their special place in this sport.
Ready to Rumble follows two die-hard wrestling fans, Gordie (Arquette) and Sean (Cahn), as they go on a journey to restore their idol, Jimmy King (Platt) to his rightful place as WCW Heavyweight Champ. The film begins with the two teaching young kids about the glory of wrestling and the power of the incredible Jimmy King. In fact, the very first line of the movie asserts that “it is safe to assume professional wrestlers are the greatest athletes in the world.” From the opening voiceover, the hero worship, the idolization both Gordie and Sean hold for King is plain. They are obsessed with this man, to a degree where he is literally all they talk about; with each other, with family, with random children at the gas station. Already, we as an audience are set up to see King as a god.
His first appearance in the film comes when the boys attend a WCW show in their hometown. King is set to face Diamond Dallas Page, played by himself, in the main event. King has a huge, elaborate entrance complete with beautiful women escorting him and a rap theme that he sings himself, because I guess his gimmick is being a middle aged southern rapping king. That’s never really expanded on, regrettably. As King is soaking in the adoration of his fans, the villain of our story, a booker named Titus Sinclair (Joe Pantoliano), warns King that he made him what he was, and he is capable of taking that away at the same time. During the match, Sinclair signals Page to go into business for himself, attacking King as his goons (various WCW wrestlers) come to the ring to join in. King loses the title, beaten and bruised, and the boys are heartbroken. This is their hero, the only man they look up to, and he’s just been left decimated by the bad guys. Life couldn’t get any worse.
This leads the guys to find where King is hiding out, in a motor home wearing a disguise. At this point, they’ve made some unsavory discoveries about their hero; he’s abandoned his wife and son, he fabricated his life story, and is currently drinking his problems away. And yet, they are still undeterred. Even when King reminds them that the stories in the ring are fake, Gordie can’t bring himself to give up on his idol. “How can you be phony if we believe in you?” he asks King, who, again, is WCW’s most over babyface with his rapping ruler gimmick. It’s the boys faith in King, and their faith in wrestling, that gets him to agree to travel to New York in the hopes of confronting Sinclair. After a showdown involving a port-a-potty, King gets his rematch: a triple cage match against Page in Las Vegas. We’re really in it now, folks.
Gordie and Sean want to help King train, so they enlist the help of an old school wrestling coach (Martin Landau). During this time, Gordie becomes involved with Nitro Girl Sasha, played as flatly as possible by Rose McGowan, who definitely owed someone money post-Jawbreakers. The group goes to a training gym, where they meet two-time Universal Champion Bill Goldberg. Gordie and Sean both encourage Goldberg to help King out, but he refuses, citing King’s sloppy work in the ring and larger than life ego. Gordie swears that King is getting his life back on track, but Goldberg isn’t convinced. Despite the two men’s support of King, his lack of dedication to wrestling has made his coworkers turn their backs on him, unwilling to lend a hand during his time of need. King has gone down a path familiar to many performers, where his fame has blinded him to his love and passion for the sport. Luckily, he has two new friends who are able to help him rediscover it again.
With Gordie and Sean’s encouraging, King goes to make amends with his wife. After some dick jokes, he promises to win the match and bring home the money for her and their son. Already, we see the impact of him spending time with his biggest fans. King is recognizing the wrongs he’s made in life, and he’s willing to dedicate himself to becoming a better person and a better wrestler. He trains, he works out, he pushes himself to reach his full potential. When the big day finally comes, Sean is in King’s corner with a red suit and I think a pimp-esque gimmick, while Gordie has to stay home and take the police exam at his father’s request. King expresses his wish that both men were there to support him, showing how much he relies on them and their belief in him. They have given as much to him as King has given to them. But, even with all their help, he has to step into the triple cage alone.
The match starts out one on one, but soon enough, DDP brings in his uncredited WCW wrestler friends to beat on King. Luckily, the power of Gordie and Sean’s smooth talking has ensured King some allies as well, as Goldberg, Booker T, and Billy Kidman rush the ring to even the odds. Gordie comes flying in on a motorcycle with a cop gimmick, proving that he has held onto his own love for wrestling, and chosen his dream over making his family happy. Even Sting comes to King’s aid, saying his one (1) line for the entire film, allowing King to climb the cages and grab the belt. The fans boo Sinclair, who tries to claim he is responsible for wrestling, until Sean and Gordie throw him into the angry crowd. “The fans make wrestling,” they declare, and all is well. King is champion, Sean and Gordie are living their dream, and Goldberg is a good guy. What more could you possibly ask for?
Ready to Rumble premiered just a year before WCW folded as a promotion, making it unfortunately one of the last big things the company ever did. In 2000, the landscape of the wrestling business was fundamentally different than it is today. Someone like Arquette, with no legitimate wrestling training at the time, winning a major title was seen as a slap in the face to “real” wrestlers. And that’s more than fair- Arquette said himself that he was against the decision, seeing as he held the WCW title in such high esteem. The move to promote the film on Nitro may have been what helped tank it in theaters. Of course, it may also have bombed because of all the wildly unfunny jokes and casual sexism. We really can’t be sure. But beyond that, Ready to Rumble may have offered a glimpse at something the wrestling world wasn’t interested in focusing on yet. The all important role the fans play in wrestling. In 2000, wrestling fans didn’t have Twitter to complain about storylines. They didn’t have dozens of website where they could talk about who they liked or didn’t like. The power of the fan may not have felt so obvious as Ready to Rumble makes it. But in 2020, we may have a different perspective. We can see the impact fans have everywhere; Twitter polls, WWE Network surveys, YouTube views. The wrestling business has shifted to reflect what Ready to Rumble told us two decades ago, a lesson that seems almost chilling given our current climate; wrestling is nothing without fans.