I was about 45 minutes into my live review of AAW’s “Defining Moment,” a fun show with a PWG “Mystery Vortex” kind of feel to it, where anything and everything could happen — and little did I know that would apply to the fans in attendance, as well. Sure, a review of the matches would maybe help convince a couple people to buy the show on DVD or MP4, but I found myself continually going back to something that had nothing to do with the action between the ropes. For if it wasn’t for a pair of rude, racially driven fans seated behind me, maybe you would be reading that review right now instead of this. But that wasn’t the kind of night I had on Thursday.
A little backstory before I dive into it: I’ve been attending AAW regularly since early 2011. I still consider myself a “new” fan, despite my six-and-a-half-year tenure with the Chicago-based organization, and I don’t mince words about my feelings for the matches, shows, wrestlers and booking decisions. I’ve been on and off with my writing for the company, having previously contributed articles, columns, reviews and even an infamous podcast about the subject that secured me at least one death threat. I love AAW. It’s my hometown company, it’s a pride of said hometown, and I want it to succeed, and that’s why I have always tried to be honest in everything I do. And if I’m being honest right now, AAW and pro-wrestling in general kind of have a racism problem.
It’s important I address this not only to call attention to AAW’s audience members in specific, but independent pro-wrestling crowds on the whole. Just because the incident I am about to describe happened at an AAW shows does not mean other companies and their fans are free from the bigotry. If anything, by all accounts, other companies and their fanbases are even worse than that of AAW when it comes to this sort of thing, but I can only speak to the companies on which I have eyes, and which I attend. It should be noted that I also attend Freelance Wrestling, but I have never had an issue with them or their fans.
It started as heckling. I was seated on the first row of the stage with another young man and two ladies, and behind us were four others, two of whom were a little loud but nothing too wild. It was a wrestling show and they were excited.The two gents seated to their left, however, I had problems with all night long, and I wasn’t alone on that. So, yes, it started innocently enough as heckling, shouting toward the wrestlers, comparing one wrestler to another he happens to look like. The lewd fan in the Chicago Cubs cap seated immediately behind me, and his buddy, had a ball giving hell to Joey Janela, who they repeatedly called “Daniel Bryan” at the top of their lungs. And that was fine. Then they did the “Yes!” chant, also at the top of their lungs. And that was fine. Then they started shouting things toward the African-American wrestlers.
And that was not fine.
The content alone of these heckles wasn’t what bothered me, but the convictions and intentions behind them. It was clear there was something deeper to their casual racism than just poking fun. Shouting “Spinaroonie” at Shane Strickland, who at best only slightly resembles Booker T from 2002, isn’t the most racist thing one could shout toward a wrestler. I’ll admit that. Despite them shouting it, over and over, as loudly as they could into the back of my head. And shouting out that ACH looks like D-Von Dudley — again, over and over and over until it’s no longer a point to be made — isn’t the worst thing in the world. They refrained from slurs and epithets, for instance. They didn’t use the “N-word.” But they did, in my opinion, cross a line that need not be crossed at a pro-wrestling show, which is supposed to be a safe and welcoming space for everybody. Saying “X black wrestler looks like Y black wrestler” isn’t the most racist thing in the world, but it absolutely is reductive of an entire race of people, and that shit has no place anywhere in our society in 2017. (Really, anybody who brings up race that often more than likely has some outstanding issues with it, let’s be perfectly honest.)
The most startling point of the evening came when Cody Rhodes was cutting a promo about the city of Chicago and his adoration for ketchup on hot dogs — which stirred boos from the masses. He got around to talking about his wife, Brandi, which prompted my Cubs hat-clad friend to shout, “She’s black!” His friend, in a petty attempt to reign him in a little, stopped him in his tracks and responded, “Dude! Too far. Too far.”
I’ll admit I have a thick enough skin and I let most things fly, and I’ll even heckle a wrestler myself (while keeping it appropriate). But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fans being at their nastiest, realistically. Lest we forget the CZW shows where some in the audience hurled change toward Jewish wrestler David Starr. Or Mexico’s fans chanting “open your eyes” at Japanese wrestler Tetsuya Naito while he was on excursion. Or the fans who attended PWG’s “Battle of Los Angeles Night 2” over the weekend, where some idiot was chanting “Call ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)” toward Penta El Zero M. I can sit and list example after example of pro-wrestling crowds engaging in racist behavior that is baffling in its breadth, but I’d be here all day. The overarching point is simple: We all need to be better. Myself included, for I am at least partly responsible.
As wrestling fans, it is our responsibility to be good, upright citizens who respect our fellow man, and in my opinion, if you’re not part of the solution on this, you are part of the problem. And the other day, I was part of the problem. Maybe I was stunned at what I was hearing, maybe I was convinced it would eventually subside or go away altogether. Maybe I didn’t want to get into a fight with two dudes who had been drinking. Maybe I shouldn’t use my own naivete as an excuse. Regardless, I should have done something and told somebody, anybody. While it would be nice to have a text message alert system like the NFL has, where if somebody is acting a fool during a game, you can text a number with your seat location, independent wrestling is not a billion dollar industry. It is, in fact, a carny industry, and perhaps that is why behavior like this not only exists, but seemingly flourishes.
We need to do better, as people first and foremost, and as fans of wrestling thereafter. I understand moronic, pig ignorant fans are few and far between on the independents, but that numbers discrepancy should lend itself to the good, upstanding fans speaking up and calling out this sort of behavior the second it arises. Either by telling somebody in charge and letting them know a fan is shouting in your ears and ruining your experience, or taking matters into one’s own hands. I don’t encourage duking it out with somebody for real while a staged fight takes place, but telling them to cut the shit might go a long way. I failed to do this last week at AAW, and I somewhat blame myself for the racially driven heckling continuing throughout the evening, thus the reason for this article. If I could in any way spread awareness about this, or inspire somebody to do better, to be better, then I will be happy.