The Origin and Evolution of the ‘Smart Fan’

For years now, there’s been a term to describe a fan who may be ‘in the know’ with the wrestling business, and that term is ‘smark’. Roughly speaking it means ‘smart mark’ mark meaning fan in the wrestling world, and it’s meaning can be used in many different ways, and has been used thus over the years, sometimes used by fellow fans and wrestlers as an insult, to imply that to like a certain style of wrestling or wrestler makes them somehow strange, think of it as the term ‘hipster’ but in a wrestling world. For example, a fan who only watches WWE yet still knows about other wrestling may call a fan of Japanese wrestling a ‘mark’ for it, it’s confusing, and the parameters are a bit jumbled.

In my eyes, every fan has equal say, after all, if not for the ‘smart marks’ support over the years they’d likely be no wrestling, or at the very least, less wrestling. But for the sake of argument, today I’ll delve into the many incarnations of the smart mark. This column has been inspired, in part by a series of conversations/debates with some friends of mine, who both happen to be wrestling fans (obviously) and all together we sort of form a Venn diagram of wrestling fandom. One, who I’ll call Jim, because I know he’ll hate that and I’m somewhat of an ass, is a Vince Russo fan, he likes outlandish characters and the Attitude Era, but in recent times has been indulging in more indy stuff, but for the sake of argument, we’ll put him in the ‘WWE purist’ side of the hypothetical diagram, my other friends who I’ll call Alan (no reason this time, well there is but it’s more subtle) is the middle of the diagram, likes WWE and Attitude era outlandishness and indy wrestling, so he’s the middle. And even though I am a WWE fan, for the sake of argument, I’ll take the ‘Indy Mark’ side of the board (my hands are tied here, I write for two indy wrestling sites, I don’t have a leg to stand on here). With those parameters in place, I’ll write this column from all three sides from the best of my ability.

Beginnings

So, way back when, wrestling was ‘real’. Well, it wasn’t but if you’d asked a casual fan, they’d probably tell you it was, because it was portrayed and protected as such. However, there were a pocket of fans who knew the business was all a pantomime, a theatre, and through tape trading with their wrestling fans and through early dirt sheets, they could freely discuss the business, what they thought was going on. In the territorial days, these ‘smart marks’ were the exception rather than the rule, your average fan in the stand knew nothing of what was happening in other territory’s, and similarly, most wrestlers stuck to one territory, very rarely moving around, this bred the ‘NWA purists’ those who would later scoff at the ‘circus’ of the then-WWF, I dread to think what they made of what happened to their beloved NWA.

As time progressed, more and more fans became ‘smart’ to the business, dirt sheets became bigger and easier to come across and people like Dave Meltzer (not sure if I’ve spelt that right, apologies if not) made a career of pulling back the curtain, reporting on the political goings-on behind the scenes whether your allegiance was NWA or WWF. The rise of the dirt sheets led to the mask of kayfabe beginning to slip, no matter how hard the wrestlers tried to protect their business, and they tried, believe me. Just ask the journalists who dared to ask whether the business was legitimate.

Then those fans who followed the dirt sheets and further than that traded tapes, some became invested in the completely different Japanese wrestling scene, in those days the chosen Japanese company was AJPW, it seemed a month wouldn’t go by in the 90’s without Dave Meltzer awarding a lauded ‘5 star’ match to another effort from the East, more often that not one including Mitsuharu Misawa.

Of course, your WWF die hard, not only didn’t care about Japan, but in the most part, didn’t even know it existed, that is because most WWF fans in the mid-90’s were around 5-8 years old, this was the ‘Cartoon era’ after all. In fact around this time ‘Jim’ would be starting watching (I think) and I’d be starting to eat solid food. Maybe that’s the drawback of old WWF, the fact I can only look back with modern eyes… No Duke Dreose will always be awful.

Meanwhile NWA fan, if they stayed with the company when it became WCW had no choice but to know Japanese wrestlers, as Japanese wrestlers were often integrated into the product, Great Muta for example was a main eventer in late-80’s NWA, while Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger would help revolutionise the Cruiserweight style, and in many ways, even introduce it to a Western audience.

This was Vince’s downfall in the mid-90’s while he was presenting wrestling clowns, plumbers, garbage men and even friars, his competition was presenting cutting-edge high flying from dynamic personalities from around the world. Not that WCW were immune from cartoon nonsense, after all, in the early 90’s they presented Kevin Nash as a bad ‘Wizard of Oz’ knock-off, and let’s not even mention the Dungeon of Doom.

A New Day (Not That One) Dawns

Fast forward to 2002, WCW and ECW have died a fiery death and now lay in a coffin labelled: ‘Here Lies Millions of Lost Dollars’ and fans who have shunned the WWF for the past few years are twiddling their thumbs, left only to subside on Japan tapes of AJPW, NJPW or NOAH, the American landscape is dominated by Vinny Mac and his House of Muscly Lads, and fans were left burned by the Invasion.

Then in New York, a spark of revolution is lit. Gabe Sapolsky, a student of Paul Heyman’s starts Ring of Honor, a company intent on bring the best ‘pro wrestling’ to combat the rise of ‘sports entertainment’ and became a breeding ground for future stars. Also around this time, Jeff Jarrett opens up Total Nonstop Action with his dad Jerry, and six guys get together in Southern California to create Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, all three would run to suit different styles and all three bred new fan bases, mostly smart fans, some from the old NWA days would go on to follow Ring of Honor, while lapsed WWE fans would eventually find their way to TNA, all the while PWG created a crowd and a product all it’s own, and pretty soon the face of wrestling had evolved again, you still had your die hard WWE fan, but here the ‘indy fan’ was truly born, the bastard child of old NWA guys and new sensibilities, and with the advent of the internet, they weren’t afraid to shout about their new found companies.

And where there is one opinion, there’s an opposite one (every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and all that) and the WWE ‘smart fans’ found their way online, and the never ending battle begun, a battle that begun with much more primitive means decades ago, the dirt sheet fans found new indy promotions and more access to Japanese wrestling than ever, they evolved just as the business itself has.

What About Today?

Now, there’s more wrestling than ever, and with that, more differing opinions than ever, for every fan of a particular company, there is a fan of another company who thinks they’re better. Ring of Honor have become a force in wrestling, through their partnerships with NJPW and, more recently, CMLL, they bring the next big talents to the forefront of wrestling media. TNA has, against all odds in past years, clung to life, but now looks to be in it’s most solid state it’s been in for some time and PWG? They’re still around, and they’re still as unique as ever, so who’s right then?

Well, the answer should be obvious. No-one. No-one is right. As I’ve written before, wrestling is everything you can think of, it can take whatever form, just like opinions. A great many wrestling fans would benefit to realise that their opinion is not worth more than anyone else’s, after all if everyone liked the same thing, wouldn’t life (and wrestling) be very boring?

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