BE SMARTER: A MESSAGE TO NXT FANS
I have found it increasingly difficult to enjoy watching NXT.
This has absolutely nothing to do with the talent, the staging, the direction, nor the narratives. NXT is an excellent promotion that makes great use of its roster and its resources. NXT remains the crowning jewel of the WWE Network; something that should make the show-runner and the talent incredibly proud.
I struggle to enjoy NXT because, far too often, a particular sect of the audience makes it impossible to absorb the show and pay attention to developing stories. This sect has become so insistent upon itself that it will derail promos (even those of wrestlers they actually like) or actively break the kayfabe of a match (ironically calling out moves, expressing boredom at familiar spots, chanting through a spot that would naturally elicit a completely different reaction). This sect of NXT fans at Full Sail, particularly those who know they're located in the camera's line of sight, will carry on, uncontrolled, occasionally unconcerned with the in-ring theatrics, and chant their clever chants at the expense of the show they supposedly want to see. They will sap the rest of the audience of their energy, reserving NXT-fandom for themselves.
The chance to appreciate what the performers are doing becomes less important than dancing and shouting on television. Making other audience members laugh or getting Twitter to light up with clever hashtags becomes the purpose of attending rather than watching the best pro-wrestling show the WWE has to offer.
There are times when the audience is perfect, when the rowdiness and the joyful chants don't impede anyone's ability to get wrapped up in the wrestling. That's becoming less the norm, though.
At first, I find myself smiling at this collection of ardent fans, getting wrapped up in their enthusiasm, entirely grateful that they're making the show feel lively and significant. But then, as their insistence wears on, bludgeoning everyone with noise, my smile fades and I see only people concerned with their own sense of importance rather than intelligent professional wrestling fans eager to watch a great show. This approach to a pro-wrestling show isn't confined to the NXT promotion. It's common in "smart" crowds. It's not necessarily a new problem, it's just never been streamed by the biggest promotion in wrestling history (WWE) on a weekly basis.
The latest example of this increasingly problematic phenomena took place on the November 18th, 2015 episode of NXT.
Before Bayley entered the theater, this collection of fans started dancing and shouting in unison, "Hey we want some Bayley! Hey we want some Bayley! Hey we want some Bayley!"
It comes out sounding like, "Haaaaay we want some Baaaaaylaaay!"
Their style of chant and their enthusiasm was actually in keeping with Bayley's gimmick (child-like, positive, and free to be a bit silly). It's a great chant. It demonstrates how much Bayley is loved, and the rhythm of the chant creates that rare and precious synergy among strangers at a live event. It's hard to sit on your hands when you hear this chant. It flows through you. Your head bobs, your foot taps, and all you want is for Bayley to come racing out from behind the curtain.
But, as is consistently the case, what began as a charming and creative celebration of the NXT Women's Champion gradually transformed into an oblivious refrain that drew attention away from the performers.
"Hey we want some Bayley" they insisted, despite Bayley being right in front of them, and despite how unwarranted the chant was given particular spots in the match. Some of these fans even turned their back to the action and danced in circles throughout, clearly aware that their antics would make it on the WWE Network (before Bayley wins this group inexplicably launches out of their seats and starts dancing, openly admiring themselves, ignoring the finish of the match).
The WWE Women's Championship was the main event of this week's show. That is still a relatively new and progressive booking decision. That fact seemed to be taken for granted by most viewers (those in attendance and those at home). Perhaps this being taken for granted is a sign of progress, but an increased familiarity with equatable booking doesn't merit disrespect by way of inattention.
Alexa Bliss and Bayley had worked a good program for several weeks, building into what promised to be an exciting contest. This was Bayley's first championship match since defeating Sasha Banks. This was Alexa Bliss' best opportunity to date. This was an important match for the most important title in NXT, and yet this raucous portion of the audience viewed the match as a foregone conclusion. "Smart" as they are to the work of wrestling, they chose to focus on their predetermined reaction rather the possibility of a good story. They knew Bayley would win, and so they had more fun singing and dancing than seeing how Bayley overcame her first challenger since Sasha Banks. This group of fans created an inattentive atmosphere that negatively affected the urgency of the match. Perhaps others in attendance did not find their experience negatively affected by these chants. Perhaps the entire crowd was on the same page. But, watching from home, it was near-impossible to focus on the action and enjoy the show. And it doesn't take long to notice some sour expressions from the audience members seated on the periphery of this jubilant mayhem.
We can always wonder: which came first, the bad match or the bad crowd?
It's possible Alexa and Bayley simply didn't click (very natural for this to happen), that the audience perceived this, and reacted to a less than thrilling exchange (even if that's what happened, that remains a flimsy defense of outright rudeness). I'm less inclined to blame Alexa and Bayley given the match's build, the excellence of both performers, the effort displayed in the contest, and how the audience refused to react appropriately as soon as the bell rang.
It would be wrong to label such crowds too smart for their own good because if they put their knowledge of the business into real action they wouldn't dare break the kayfabe of the event. So many modern pro-wrestling fans espouse the virtues of realistic presentation and bemoan the "death of kayfabe", but then they behave in a manner that completely disrespects the fiction of professional wrestling. To criticize the WWE for killing kayfabe but to then actively break kayfabe with a particular chant or sign or ignorant behavior (especially on the one show where the WWE actually maintains the traditions of kayfabe) is hypocrisy personified.
This is not an argument in favor of professional wrestling fans performing as if they're at a legitimate sporting event. This is a simple argument in favor of paying attention to what you're watching.
This article is the kind of self-critical lens we professional wrestling fans do not point at ourselves. We only judge people harshly for not knowing their history or for not watching an independent promotion or for being a "mark". We only point out the ills of the main roster booking and harp on Vince McMahon being out of touch. We never question whether or not our behaviors prove the WWE's unfavorable opinion of "internet fans" correct, thus contributing to an unnecessarily contentious relationship. We also do not consider that we are, unavoidably, irritating pro-wrestlers like Bayley, Charlotte, and Kevin Owens who we supposedly support with our chants.
Bayley should not have to shush us.
Charlotte should not have to ask us if we'll shut up.
Kevin Owens should not have to educate us.
We're supposed to be on their side.
A real mark is a more present professional wrestling fan than those who care about getting on television. The knowledgeable fan who allows themselves to transform into a believer rather than expressing their boredom at the sight of a rear chin lock is the respectful fan.
A good professional wrestling fan understands the necessity of a rear chin lock. A good professional wrestling fan understands that botches are inevitable and should be instantly forgiven by the viewer. A good professional wrestling fan understands that chanting "Boring!" doesn't magically improve the quality of a scene (whether it's boring or not). A good professional wrestling fan understands that their reaction does not represent everyone's reaction.
Pro-wrestling fandom has transformed into a far too insulated, self-serving experience.
We smart wrestling fans do not consider our culpability in the death of kayfabe. We have been emboldened to think that we dictate what happens in the ring. We have been conditioned to behave like children with open mouths, awaiting our meal, ready to spit up whatever we dislike.
I want to blame the WWE for allowing this. I want to believe that the responsibility of setting expectations and cultivating an environment of respect falls upon the promotion. But NXT does everything it can to make it clear that it is an environment of honor and respect. Fans are certainly encouraged (as they should be) to regard NXT as their righteous beacon of pro-wrestling hope, but that is not necessarily an invitation to disrupt an entire broadcast.
We are not as important as professional wrestlers during a professional wrestling match.
When we realize that, we become better professional wrestling fans.
We are observers.
We are there, very simply, to watch what the talent does and pay the proper respect for their effort and their sacrifice.
We are there to lose ourselves in the story of simulated combat, and it's the promotion's job and the wrestler's job to make us believe in that story. NXT is specifically designed to foster that benevolent process and yet we still refuse.
The show is an invitation to see exactly what we've been clamoring for on the main roster, but we choose to write our own invitations to an entirely different, self-aggrandizing experience.
Not long ago, Kevin Owens valiantly pointed out the hypocrisy of the NXT crowd booing NXT Take Over: Brooklyn. "You claim to love NXT. You claim to want to see it grow. But when we talk about NXT selling out a thirteen thousand seat arena, you boo...you boo!"
This hypocrisy runs deep, affecting the very perspective of the NXT-fan (and many pro-wrestling fans hip to the nature of the business). This hypocrisy allows one to regard their chant as more important than the pain of the wrestler, and even more important than the continued success of the brand.
Raw audiences might be "casual".
Raw audiences might be more willing to stomach the WWE's questionable booking decisions.
But at least they're honest.
At least, on a good night, during a good match, with good performers working a good angle, they pay attention.
This collection of NXT fans was gifted with a NXT Women's Championship Main Event between Bayley & Alexa Bliss, and they couldn't be bothered to do anything other than spin in circles and wave their arms. Instead of watching an intense main event battle between two good wrestlers, I watched a group of friends have a good time before hitting their next party.
Paying attention is the ultimate respect an observer can offer an artist.
And that's why I am so perplexed by this regrettable behavior. It gets worse every week.
NXT fans are, predominantly, great professional wrestling fans with a deep love and a deep respect for the medium. The vast majority of NXT fans have no interest in bringing the show to a screeching halt. Even those fans who are carrying on in this way don't necessarily want to ruin the show; they want to selfishly enhance it.
This problem is less apparent at NXT Take Over specials because the audience is more diverse and more grateful. On an average Wednesday in the middle of the month, the standbys are in attendance and they feel they have a right to run their show.
The vast majority of professional wrestling fans participate in a match by watching and listening to the actions of the wrestlers and then reacting, in an unconsciousness way, to what they're experiencing. That's all we need to do at a live event. We need to be open to feeling something. Only then can we pop with any sincerity.
Sincere pops make better wrestling shows. Not clever chants.
I'm less concerned with the crowd mercilessly booing Eva Marie into oblivion than I am with the way they chose to disregard the main event. Although silently leaving the theater during an Eva Marie appearance would send a much stronger message than a din of jeers, at least they were paying attention to her. They did not pay Bayley and Alexa Bliss that same respect.
There's an old adage in the business that "the fan pays for their ticket so they can do whatever they want." That statement should be amended.
The fan pays for their ticket, but that is not a free pass to be disrespectful.
The ticket does not entitle us to be rude, to disrupt another fan's experience of the show, to believe the show is "ours", or to unravel the fiction of professional wrestling which we purport to uphold. The ticket never gives us the right to call the artist's match.
The ticket entitles us to a seat.
Let's boo as loudly as we want. Let's cheer and dance and sing as loudly as we want. But let's be honest about it. Let's pay attention.
Let's be smarter professional wrestling fans.