The man in the tiny purple shorts scurried around the ring while gesturing at the guy walking towards him. Compared to Brandon Scott who seemed small and slightly frightened, wrestler Billy Gunn was built like a Greek statue and looked like he could eat Scott as a snack as he approached the ring. Gunn’s appearance marked the opening match on Saturday or Day 2 of Wrestlecade in Winston-Salem. The well-known WWE wrestler — who found fame in the late nineties and early 2000s with partner Road Dogg as part of a tag team known as the New Age Outlaws — looked older, his face significantly more lined than in his heyday, but the bulging muscles that clustered around his shoulders suggested he still had what it takes to own the ring. Gunn, who stood over six feet tall, stepped into the box and began pacing around, hunting Scott, who seemed like a foot shorter than him.
“You must be this tall to ride this ride,” yelled a man sitting in the front row. Another yelled, “Get him a step stool!”
Nimbler than Gunn, Scott took the upper hand quickly, taking a running start, then sliding and kicking Gunn out of the ring. Gunn got up slowly and crawled back in, moving quickly and clotheslining him when he tried to get back up. But before the referee could make the full count, Scott had recovered and clambered onto the top rope and jumped onto Gunn, pinning him to the ground. As the referee called the match in favor of Scott, the crowd began to boo while Scott grinned and gestured obscenely at the audience as he walked back down the aisle. Gunn on the other hand, smiled at the crowd and held up his hand to cheers from the fans who were happy to see him back in the ring.
The three-day event brought fans from all over the country for information sessions and VIP meet-and-greets in addition to the matches. Some had even dressed up like their favorite wrestlers.
Misty Rose, a 20-year-old from Wilmington, stood out in gold face paint, bold black eyeliner, a gold bodysuit, long black gloves and a white wig as she waited in line for the Saturday matches. She was Goldust of course, the sexually charged, flamboyant WWE wrestler who is the longest active WWE performer. She said the get-up took two hours to put together. Rose had gone to other wrestling conventions in New York but said that this was her first time at Wrestlecade. She became a fan through her grandpa.
“I love wrestling,” Rose said. “The atmosphere is close knit.”
At the front of the line were two men standing next a pair of boys holding lucha libre masks. The two men, brothers, said they grew up watching wrestling in the seventies.
“Our parents would watch it a lot, said Scott Rathburn. “And there was only one TV back then so you watched what they watched.”
Now, Scott and his brother Robert are passing down their generational love for pro-wrestling to the two boys who were Robert’s grandkids.
“I like seeing them fly and stuff,” said Brian Mendoza, one of the grandsons who clutched a shiny blue mask.
Inside, a few VIP guests and wrestlers sat around waiting for the rest of the audience to be let in. Chuck Lennox sat in one of the front rows, gazing at the ring where a blonde Harley Quinn-like woman was stretching. Hailing from Maryland, Lennox had wrestled the day before and has been a wrestler for almost a decade.
“It’s something I loved as a kid,” Lennox said. “Everything looked larger than life.”
And sure, when there’s vacuum cleaners being thrown in the ring and men clubbing other men with trash cans while yelling obscenities, it’s hard to take the thing seriously. And the fact that the matches are pre-determined? What’s up with that?
But Lennox argues that there’s still an art and mastery to wrestling.
“It puts extra years on your body,” Lennox said. “You have to prepare for it.”
And he’s right. Despite the fights being “fake,” the stunts are still 100 percent real. Wrestlers train to avoid injury and many still end up getting hurt. A 2014 study by Eastern Michigan University found that mortality rates for professional wrestlers were almost three times greater than the average male. So why do people do it? And why do more and more people become fans each year?
“It’s like a getaway from the real world,” said Lennox whose grandfather introduced him to wrestling. “You can be someone else or be more yourself.”
And as the matches kept coming on, their over-the-top, theatrical nature seemed to be exactly what captured audiences both old and new. They told a story — one as old as time — of good versus evil, hero versus villain, face versus heel.
In the corner of the room, two women stood off to the side watching the matches unfold.
The pair, who call themselves the Kodokushi Death Squad, were a wrestling team from Florida. Su Yung, who was participating in the convention, has been in the industry for 11 years while her partner, Zeda Zhang has two years under her belt. Both of them grew up watching wrestling because of family members too.
“My dad watched it and was a huge fan of wrestling,” said Yung, whose long, jet-black hair was tied up in two buns, Sailor Moon style. “It’s always been my dream.”
Zhang, who had trained as an MMA fighter before becoming a professional wrestler said that she made the switch because it combined her favorite things: theatricality and fighting.
“I loved doing everything that was pro-wrestling,” Zhang said. “I just didn’t know it was pro-wrestling.”
And as the men in the ring continued to flip each other while fans hooted and hollered, a sense of camaraderie could be felt in the stuffy convention room.
This was their fantasy football; this was their fandom. And like most fandoms, you don’t really get it until you do.