On the rainy Sunday evening before New Year's Eve, tucked away in Raleigh's RBC Center arena, an estimated 5,000 rollicking, patriotic, oft-conservative lovers of professional wrestling sit with their cameras accessible and overpriced beer cups steady. Holding signs that read "FU," "You Suck," "Woooooo" and "Hooooooo," the fans quiet as the lights dim, eager to see which WWE "Raw Live" Superstar will appear first.
World Wrestling Entertainment is the leading purveyor of the strange combination of buffoonery, kitsch and muscle-bound athleticism known as professional wrestling. Billionaire chairman and N.C. native Vince McMahon—240 pounds of muscle, wrestling experience and business savvy—commands it with an iron fist. Poised to decipher sports entertainment for me is wrestling expert and Chapel Hill resident Ted Hobgood, a friend and former co-conspirator of tonight's World Championship challenger, WWE superstar Jeff Hardy.
Hardy, born and raised in Cameron, 50 miles southwest of Raleigh, is the local favorite. In 1992 Hobgood—armed with a master's degree in popular culture and a thesis on wrestling (entitled "I'm Gonna Kick Yer Butt: Competitive Dramatics and the Professional Wrestling Interview Segment")—first encountered Jeff and his brother Matt in Southern Pines at their independent wrestling match. With $5 tickets and backyard announcers, Jeff and Matt wrestled on a ring built by laying wood over a trampoline and covering it with a blue tarp. "The ring bowed in the middle and looked like a swimming pool," Ted remembers.
Despite the brothers' clumsy concoction of painted tattoos, ski masks, sweat pants and tennis shoes, Ted was amazed by what he saw. "Matt had a move called the '450' or the 'Phoenix Splash' where ... you climb up on the rope and jump off and do a somersault in mid-air and then another half somersault and you lay out and splash on top of [your opponent]. At that point there were only two people in the world doing that move, and here's this 17-, 18-year-old kid doing this from bum-fuck N.C."
Hobgood began working with them—designing their costumes, logos and posters and announcing their shows. In line to become tobacco farmers, the brothers instead formed their own wrestling group—called OMEGA (Organization for Modern Extreme Grappling Arts)—before taking off with WWE careers, first as the "Hardy Boyz" tag team and then as solo wrestlers.
Finally, the speakers blare Jeff Hardy's name and the crowd erupts. Jeff enters and takes the mic. Dressed in loose-fitting jeans and a black tank top, he has two layers of sliced pantyhose on his arms, black fingernails, a beard with lightning bolts carved out of it, purple streaks in his medium-length black hair, and tattoos (real) covering his arms and neck. "Greetings, home!" he bellows.
Jeff announces that he won't wait until the scheduled time for his match and challenges his opponent, second-generation WWE Superstar Randy Orton, to fight now. "Randy, get your arrogant ass out here," Jeff yells. Six-foot four, 245 pounds, Orton stalks into the arena, sporting AC/DC trunks (the manlier word for "panties"). People on the floor lean against red-shirted security guards to get a better look. The crowd boos—though one woman and her daughter, seated in the $60 floor seats, sport a "We *Heart* You Orton" sign. As the match warms up, Hardy slings his tank top into the crowd.
A surprisingly short time later—after a rapid sequence of lead reversals—Orton ends the match with his signature "RKO" move, a backward jump at the opponent's neck that ends in a face slam. The crowd audibly deflates.
Despite—or, according to Hobgood, due to—Jeff's local tie, the big man upstairs (McMahon, that is) made the call that Orton would be the night's WWE World Champion. The smaller matches are determined by road agents backstage (themselves former wrestlers), but McMahon decides the big matches. "Vince McMahon's idea is that if the hometown person loses then the crowd will want to come back later," explains Hobgood, adding that the tactic usually just disappoints. Later, we texted Matt Hardy, who was backstage, and discovered that the match was cut short because Orton had been injured in a recent match.
The curious world of professional wrestling, with its pre-determined outcomes, dramatic storylines and penned rivalries, is "soap opera for guys," Hobgood says. "When you're in wrestling, you live in this world and to a certain extent you believe the storyline."
He insists that professional wrestling isn't fake, stating that the wrestlers (for the most part) are skilled athletes. "[They] are always hurting. The level of pain they're in on any given day is more than you and I as normal human beings could take. You and I would be at home screaming for orange juice and pain killers." Even the ring's springboard ropes—made with steel cables—can injure the untrained.
This is the world that Jeff Hardy has dedicated his life to. Behind us, fanatics yell in Southern drawls at the "bad guys" of the match—inevitably the foreign wrestlers, who exaggerate their foreignness. "Speaka English, spaghetti eater," they yell to Italian wrestler Santino Marella. "No Commies in America" to the Russian Vladimir Kozlov. When a wrestler with an accent takes the mic, the crowd relentlessly taunts "What!?! What?!?" at every pause—referencing the annoying tactic originally used by "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. When the Diva Tag Team comes out, the yelling turns to misogynistic mocking—"What's the screaming for? You ain't having sex with nobody." Throughout the night the crowd chants "USA! USA!"—a mantra that culminates with the entrance of "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan in the fourth match when he runs out waving an American flag and his trademark two-by-four (symbolizing American hard work).
It is a world, though, that Hobgood maintains holds a unique appeal. At one point, when wrestler Hardcore Holly is histrionically breaking free of an opponent's hold, arms shaking for added effect, the quick-to-insult fans behind us murmur in all seriousness, "Look at that strength."
"You lose yourself in it," Hobgood explains, adding that to see their wrestling heroes from pay-per-view in real life is "magical" for kids.
Other fans take a less storybook approach. During the third match, between the rigid wrestlers Snitsky and Drew McEntyre, I hear a man taunt, "You hit like a girl!" "Durn right," says his friend.
On Sunday, Jan. 27, Hardy and Orton had a rematch in New York's Madison Square Garden. Orton won the bout and retained the WWE Championship.