“You’re not going to get in to it when you’re older, trust me. It’s fake.” Erik Lagunas’ father had just broken his 8-year-old son’s heart. The young boy stared at his TV screen in disbelief. The father was not referring to the jolly bearded man who comes from the North Pole bearing gifts, to the mystical winged creature that compensates youth for their dentures. He was referencing robust men, wearing brightly colored latex costumes, which have become apart of the largest wrestling promotion in the world.
Despite its skewed reality, many fans of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), have stuck with the company since it’s beginning in the early 1990s. Whether it’s the merchandise, the storylines or their die-hard favorite wrestler, every fan has a different connection.
Lagunas, a sophomore, almost gave in to his father’s words. After giving it up for a couple of his teenage years, he realized that something was missing in his life.
“I could never let go. I fell in love with it,” Lagunas said. “Everyone says it’s steroids and acting. I see it as a sport. You have to have talent to wrestle. The shows you watch on TV, they’re scripted. I treat it as a show. Little bit of a sport, and the script for entertainment.”
For sophomore Sam Stewart, what started as a hidden secret manifested itself into pure admiration.
“My parents forbid me from watching wrestling. Whenever they would go out on weekends, and my brother was babysitting, we would secretly watch,” Stewart said. “I didn’t become a big wrestling fan until I was a teenager. I went to my first event in 2012, and since then, I watch it every week.”
As much as Stewart is intrigued by the sport itself, he also is fascinated by the history of what makes the activity so appealing.
“Kids like wrestling because they’re living superheroes. For adults, the key is its fakeness,” Stewart said. “Pretending that it’s real is what makes it fun. Wresting is a morality play of good vs. evil. To win a championship, it isn’t about who’s the best at fighting, it’s about who can get the fans to like them. The audience affects the show. When wrestling is good, you don’t care if it’s real or fake. You’re cheering for your guy.”
A wrestler’s fan base is what makes him or her a legendary household name. Stewart said that one legend, in particular, has a strong family tie.
“My grandparents bought a house from Hulk Hogan. It had his kids’ names on the wall. As a kid, I was like, ‘Man, I just sat on the same toilet as Hulk Hogan,’” Stewart said.
What Hogan was for Stewart, is what John Cena has been for many fans. Many can only dream of meeting their favorite WWE superstar, but Lagunas has been lucky to turn that dream into a reality.
“I met John Cena. WrestleMania was going to L.A in 2005,” Lagunas said. “They were signing autographs at a Blockbuster. My dad woke up at four in the morning and saved me a spot. I didn’t even know how to react. It was surreal. That took the fanboy into another level.”
Recently, Cena has transitioned from WWE to the Hollywood scene, starring in Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck,” and alongside Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in “Sisters.” Lagunas wishes Cena would go back to his roots, believing that venturing into new territory shortens his time in the ring.
“It shortens their career. I prefer they don’t act,” Lagunas said. “In a few years John Cena might go to acting full time, like The Rock (Dwayne Johnson). I would have loved to see The Rock wrestle a lot more. His career lasted about seven years. The fact that it was that short sucked.”
It’s easy to misinterpret the WWE franchise as being a man’s world. Contrary to popular belief, it has evolved to better represent women’s athleticism.
Sophomore Anna Bauch said the industry has shed the diva titles and is progressing more towards female empowerment.
“Wrestling isn’t a woman-heavy sport, so it’s hard to get women. They’re doing a better job integrating women into it,” Bauch said. “This year at WrestleMania, they introduced the first women’s championship. It wasn’t called the diva’s championship. Calling it ‘divas’ has a bad connotation, whereas (the title) ‘women’s’ (means that it) is equal to men. It’s awesome they’re doing more.”
Bauch, personally, prefers watching the men duke it out compared to the women. Attending the Payback Match at the Allstate Arena a few weeks prior was an experience for her like no other.
“I am one of the few Roman Reigns fans. It was great to see him win,” Bauch said. “It was two of my favorites, him and AJ Styles, so it was hard to know who to root for. Even though it’s scripted, it’s fun because you don’t always know what’s going to happen. There’s so many different types of people coming together for this one thing, it’s great.”
Stewart, who attended the event with Bauch said that in light of the company struggling to find a rivalry amid numerous wrestlers suffering injuries, the match proved that the WWE legacy is far from over.
“They’re trying to promote Roman Reigns as the new guy. Chicago fans love AJ Styles and hate Roman Reigns,” Stewart said. “The energy of that main event, the crowd hating one guy and loving another, was so much fun. I’ve been to three WWE events, and that’s the best one I’ve been too.”
WWE functions as the reality television for sports fans. With more than two decades worth of famous matches, legendary champions and a global fanbase, who knows what awaits for the years to come.
Bauch encourages individuals who might be averse to WWE to try it for themselves.
“The most important part is to give it a chance” Bauch said. “I was so against it, but it’s really entertaining. It’s something that’s easier to pass down. The whole family can watch it, and people stay interested.”