If you check your Twitter feed this weekend, you'll likely see references to people like Brock Lesnar. Hashtags like #NewDayRocks. And don't be shocked if Suplex City is a trending topic. Just like the #ThankYouDanielBryan hashtag two weeks ago, pro wrestling is about to dominate your social media feed.
That's because WrestleMania is just over a month away. It's somewhere between the Super Bowl and the season finale of a TV show, and it's the most important date on the wrestling calendar. This Sunday WWE's Fastlane -- the last major event before WrestleMania -- will be streamed online live from Cleveland on the WWE Network, starting at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET (that's Monday 1 a.m. UK and 12 noon AEST).
What is Fastlane?
Fastlane, like WrestleMania, is one of WWE's marquee live shows, set to cap a month of regular weekly programming with big payoffs and bigger to-be-continueds in wrestling's never-ending plotlines. You can bet with WrestleMania 32 on the horizon, it'll be one hell of a setup.
WWE has a lot riding on this year's WrestleMania. Set to crash land on AT&T stadium in Dallas on April 2, WWE has its sights set on the all-time attendance record for an indoor event. WrestleMania III held that record for decades (more than 93,000 attended the event at the Pontiac Silverdome in 1987), until it was broken in 2010 by the NBA All-Star game, also at AT&T stadium. But with last-minute storyline changes, a roster waylaid by injuries and several of the company's top stars benched for the foreseeable future, the company will need to pull something magic out of its hat.
If you haven't watched wrestling before, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Wrestling isn't fake, it's predetermined.
- Wrestling is ridiculously over the top.
- Wrestling is some of the funniest, most impressive, most athletic performance art you'll ever see.
How can I watch it?
If you don't have tickets to the stadium, there are two other ways to catch Fastlane. You can pay $60 to your cable/satellite company as with a normal PPV event, and Fastlane is also airing live on the WWE Network (and on-demand anytime after that). The hugely popular network is WWE's dedicated subscription service, second only to MLB.tv in the sports genre, fifth overall and the subscriber base is still growing. It's kind of like Netflix for wrestling, streaming 40 years of wrestling content to pretty much any connected device. If you're a newcomer, your first month is free. Otherwise, you're on the hook for $9.99 per month.
Wrestling is like any other live sports event when it comes to social media, so tune in to the #Fastlane hashtag and take part in the Twitter discussion as it unfolds. Seeing a crazy wrestling move is one thing, but seeing everyone go nuts over an endlessly looping GIF is another.
But what's so good about wrestling anyway?
Questions of character
Wrestling isn't wrestling without completely over-the-top character gimmicks. At Fastlane, you'll see magical swamp hillbilly cultists face off against three of the largest athletes in the world, one of whom may or may not be an actual demon (he's not). Get ready to suspend your disbelief, because this is wrestling as high art.
And then there's The New Day, a three-man team made up of Xavier Woods, Big E and Kofi Kingston. The trio are routinely the most entertaining part of whatever show they happen to appear on. When these three first teamed up, it was with a tired, stereotypical southern preacher theme that quickly soured the crowd. Rather than face a slow decline into irrelevancy like too many other failed gimmicks, they fought for creative freedom and in doing so they became one of the strangest, freshest, most popular groups in WWE today.
Here are some New Day facts: The fourth member of their group is a trombone called Francesca II (the first Francesca, also a trombone, having been unceremoniously murdered). They get on the microphone and talk about unicorns and drop obscure pop culture references. To give you an idea of how popular these guys are now, just having them talking is listed alongside the matches at Fastlane.
For years now, the women's division of the WWE main roster has played second fiddle, with embarrassingly short matches and flimsy storylines meaning they never really had a chance to connect with the crowd. NXT, technically WWE's minor leagues, where potential wrestling superstars hone their craft before getting the call up to WWE proper, has ironically been making good where the main roster has fallen short.
In NXT, female competitors are main event performers, and "the four horsewomen" led the charge. Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Bayley (no surname) put on one of the best matches of 2015, turning mainstream women's wrestling on its head in the process. They perform like they've got something to prove, and do they ever prove it.
They've brought a ruthless, technical style to the women's division, more in line with showy collegiate wrestling than near-miss fake punches. This Sunday you can see them in action. Charlotte (daughter of wrestling legend and 16-time champ "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair) will put her Diva's championship on the line. Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch will be doing their best to dismember Banks' ex-teammates in a tag team match, where two teams of two compete, with only one from each side allowed the ring at once. Unless, of course, someone cheats. Which is half the fun.
Human destruction machine Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar is the genetically engineered answer to anyone who's ever said wrestling is fake. The former UFC champion is a legitimate badass, and WWE has used Lesnar's background as a real-life fighter of the highest caliber to make Brock Lesnar the character into an irresistible force in the ring.
Since he shocked the wrestling world by putting an end to the longest undefeated streak in wrestling history two years ago by defeating The Undertaker, Lesnar hasn't been scripted to lose. He may not always win, but he's never been pinned and he never submits.
His current part-time contract means he's not on TV every week, but when he does make a rare appearance on WWE's weekly flagship show, Monday Night Raw, or at an event like Fastlane, it's like Christmas, and every present is a suplex. If you've never seen a suplex before, no one does it quite like Lesnar. He wraps his arms around his opponent and then proceeds to toss a 300-pound man backwards over his head. It looks like this:
Given his real-life history, his penchant for bleeding "the hard way" (read: getting his opponents to hit him so hard he starts bleeding for real during matches), and his sheer physical presence, no one else brings authenticity to pro wrestling like Lesnar. When he's in the ring, you're about to watch a fight.
All roads lead to Roman
This brings us to Roman Reigns, and here's where it gets interesting. At Fastlane, Lesnar is in a three-way match with Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns, with the winner going on to face the WWE champ (a title currently held by the actual Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events & Creative for WWE) in the main event of WrestleMania.
In a vacuum, WWE would have already hand-picked Reigns as the winner. It's no secret that WWE wants Roman as the top "babyface" (good guy) of the company. But it's not in a vacuum. It's in front of tens of thousands in the crowd, and millions more around the globe.
WWE's support for Reigns is at odds with the fan belief that he hasn't earned the top spot in the company, despite his character's dominance. Reigns definitely looks the part, but his character has failed to connect with hardcore WWE fans.
Rumour has it that Reigns was meant to win his first WWE championship at WrestleMania last year against Lesnar, but fan backlash resulted in eleventh-hour rewrites to save the coronation of the company's next top star being met with a chorus of boos.
Of course, Reigns' former brother-in-arms Dean Ambrose is also involved. Ambrose is far more popular with the die-hards than Reigns, and his recent second-place finish in one of the biggest matches of the year at the Royal Rumble -- a predetermined outcome that succeeded in surprising the audience -- might point to Roman missing out again.
The result of the main event at Fastlane has a lot riding on it when it comes to the future direction of the company and how WWE deals with modern fandom. The matches are predetermined, but backstage politics is anything but, and the result is far from certain.
So why should you care?
It's serialised live storytelling with incredibly athletic performers playing outlandish villains and heroes with an overarching plot that never truly ends.
There's a reason fans fall hard for pro wrestling. It can be dumb. It can be offensive. But we persist for those moments when you know it's all scripted, but you're in too deep to care. When it connects, when you're so invested it feels real or better than real sometimes, and you won't ever find another form of entertainment quite like it.
Even if you've never watched a single match, Fastlane is a great place to start. If you love it, WrestleMania is right around the corner. If you hate it, you can confidently go back to ignoring wrestling for the foreseeable future. Give it a try and get swept up in the atmosphere, the adrenaline and the hype.
And maybe you'll get why the top trend on Twitter this weekend is about a pretend sport.