What I learned from attending my first live WWE event
I already knew what was going to happen.
Dean Ambrose appeared on the screen early during the WWE Money in the Bank Pay-Per-View to speak about his upcoming ladder match. And, of course, he was asked about the main event grudge match between his former "The Shield" partners Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns.
Ambrose played coy but nothing in his statement made me believe he wouldn't somehow make his way into the championship showdown.
If there was anything I remembered from my years of watching the WWE as a kid, which at that time was called the WWF, it was that the promotion had a penchant for foreshadowing. The WWE's extravagant storylines relied on the narrative element to help promote an overall theme and bring a certain cohesiveness to their shows.
So as I attended my first live WWE event, I kept Ambrose's words in mind. "Money in the Bank" was not only my first live WWE event, but it is the first event I've watched since the turn of the millennium. The last time I watched professional wrestling, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin were feuding, Mankind was destroying his body in Hell-in-a-Cell matches and Goldberg had just started spearing all of my heroes.
I used to love pro wrestling. I faithfully watched "Raw is War" every Monday night and developed my own in-ring name and signature moves with friends.
But like an eighth-grade girlfriend, wrestling and I grew apart -- fast.
So here I am, sitting comfortably in a floor seat with Roman Reigns' face on it in the new T-Mobile arena in Las Vegas, 24 hours after watching Stephen Thompson bash Rory MacDonald's face in at UFC Ottawa to claim a shot at the UFC welterweight title. Real fighting.
Sitting directly to my left is a gentleman wearing a crisp Kawhi Leonard jersey. There were a lot of jerseys in the building, likely because the Cavaliers and Warriors were playing in the seventh game of the NBA Finals, where another championship would be decided. The big game didn't deter the crowd though.
I stared in amazement through the rafters of the arena. You'd think Conor McGregor was fighting the way this place was packed.
But he wasn't.
It was another Irish character named Sheamus, who was engaged in a pretty grueling match with a guy named Apollo Crews. After some intense grappling, Crews unceremoniously pinned Sheamus.
Suddenly, the lights dropped and all eyes turned to the jumbo screen surrounded by 20-foot ladders and huge Money in the Bank logos. Just like at a UFC fight, it was a chance for the promotion to inform fans of the backstories of the two fighters about to engage in hand-to-hand combat.
The difference, however, was that instead of a training montage with a few lines about how hard he was preparing for the fight, it was more like a two-minute scene at the beginning of your favorite TV show that catches you up on what you missed last week.
Apparently, sometime in the recent past, AJ Styles welcomed John Cena back from an injury during an episode of Raw. Styles and Cena soaked up the adoration from fans for a bit before agreeing to be bros. Then out of nowhere, two guys appeared, looking for a fight. According to the 20-something year-old to my left wearing a "You Can't See Me" shirt and backwards red snapback, they were former Styles' former stablemates.
Styles then, shockingly, turned and dropped Cena and the three wrestlers took turns beating on the downed fighter.
"Damn, that's pretty messed up," I thought as I watched Cena get fake- stomped out.
Cena began his WWE rise well after I stopped watching, but he was one of those whose name transcended sports entertainment. I still didn't know much about him, though, other than the fact that he sports denim shorts and wrist bands while he fights.
Insanely loud pyrotechnics signaled the beginning of the bout and Styles and Cena made their way to the ring, both receiving a true superstar's welcome. Right before they started fighting, both guys circled the ring, staring out to the crowd, which did its best to hype their respective favorite. It was crazy, and at that point I was hooked.
This is insanely fun already. pic.twitter.com/P46cL8Tp5i— Jonathan Bradley (@Jon__Bradley) June 20, 2016
The guy to my left wasn't there to pick sides.
"A-J-Styles! ... Let's-go-Cena!" he chanted along with both sides of the raucous crowd. And I found myself cheering along with him.
It is easy to see why Cena and Styles are such big stars. Aside from their compelling storyline, they are both talented wrestlers and entertained the crowd with a bevy of front kicks, slams, reversals and last-second kick-outs.
I found myself bobbing and weaving my head around the person seated in front of me to catch every moment of the action. Up until that point, it was the most technically sound and believable match of the night.
I won't spoil it and tell you exactly how the fight ended, but I was pretty disappointed that Cena was robbed of a win. That disappointment didn't last long, however, as someone behind me pointed out that the Money in the Bank ladder match was up next.
I saw WWE ladder matches as a kid, but this one had a twist. The prize, a briefcase hanging in the center of the ring, granting the winner a title shot at any time in the next year.
With that much on the line, coupled with my fond memories of ladder matches, I was eager for the action to get started.
The bell rang and the aforementioned Ambrose, as well as Chris Jericho -- another name I recognized -- and four other wrestlers started brawling.
"This-is-awesome!" the crowd cheered as Ambrose launched his body out of the ring to flatten a stumbling opponent. And it was awesome... for about 15 minutes.
The bout dragged for too a long time for my liking. Fighters were executing bone-crushing slams on to ladders while also using them as weapons at various points. One of the contestants, in particular, Kevin Owens, memorably put his body on the line twice.
But it was too obvious that fighters were sandbagging it up the ladder to extend the action.
"No one is ever going to win this fight," I remember thinking.
Eventually, Ambrose, who wrestled the entire match in his jeans, was able to make his way up the ladder and grab hold of the gold briefcase. Cheers echoed throughout the arena. They knew where this event was headed.
Dean Ambrose just won the Money in the Bank ladder match, a bout I thought would never end pic.twitter.com/V54IQQjQbx— Jonathan Bradley (@Jon__Bradley) June 20, 2016
"The main event just got better!" someone in the group behind me shouted.
I started thinking of the possibilities of Ambrose crashing the main event when a huge Bulgarian wrestler named Rusev was introduced and made his way to the ring. He didn't get the roars that Cena, Styles and others received, though.
In fact, there was more chatter than there were cheers.
Just in front of me, three men were huddled around a brightly lit cell phone.
"The Warriors are down by three with 50 seconds left. They're done," someone said as I peered around and noticed everyone's faces in their phones. Game 7 had successfully distracted fans.
After the game ended, folks turned their attention back to the ring just in time for the room to go dark again as the Jumbotron lit up for more backstory. Apparently, Rollins, Reigns and Ambrose use to all be tight, but now they weren't, especially after Reigns claimed the belt Rollins had to give up after suffering an injury.
I'm sure there's much more to the story, so wrestling fans forgive me, but that's what I gathered from the video breakdown.
More pyrotechnics had me wishing I purchased a pair of the giant earmuffs the person a few rows ahead of me smartly brought for their child. Rollins and Reigns sauntered to the ring, each to huge cheers and jeers.
The other fighters that wrestled were big, burly, muscle-bound guys that you would assume, on first glance, belonged in a ring or on Venice Beach somewhere pumping iron. Reigns and Rollins both had a different look though.
These guys hate each other, apparently. pic.twitter.com/JyBOnfTmXs— Jonathan Bradley (@Jon__Bradley) June 20, 2016
Taking a page straight out of the book of X-Pac, both fighters sported long, almost always sweaty, curly black hair. While still physically imposing, they were agile and moved like strong safeties compared to some of the lumbering linebackers earlier in the event.
The match was exciting from the start. I swung my head and contorted my body to the left to get a better view of the ring since the fan in front of me decided this was the perfect time to stand up on his chair. I found enough space to see Reigns bullying Rollins in a corner -- like an older brother shameless picking on his younger sibling-- much to the referee's dismay.
I felt for Rollins, losing his belt due to injury and all, but I was rooting for Reigns. I don't know if that was because I was sitting on chair with a picture of his face, but I felt I needed to pick a side.
The main event was the longest match of the evening, but it didn't feel like it. No doubt Rollins and Reigns were talented entertainers worthy of the marquee spot. Like Styles and Cena, they played off each other well, executed their moves with exceptional realism and, as it appeared, were equally adored by fans.
More "this is awesome" chants broke out, and this time I joined in.
Rollins and Reigns spent the last few minutes of their bout pulverizing each other until the staggering and stumbling former champion was able to secure a pin over his friend-turned-foe, which resulted in the biggest cheer of the night. Apparently, I was one of the few people rooting for Reigns.
Then it happened.
DEAN AMBROSE JUST CAME OUT AND CAUSED ALL TYPES OF CHAOS!!! pic.twitter.com/GVerdBQxY9— Jonathan Bradley (@Jon__Bradley) June 20, 2016
The lights dropped and a familiar face and song popped up on the big screen. It was Dean freakin' Ambrose. How could I forget he virtually told us this was going to happen?
Before I could wrap my head around the situation, Ambrose was already in the ring, ready to go.
"Dean Ambrose is cashing in his Money in the Bank contract!" the in-ring announcer said. And it was on... but not for long. Eight seconds and one DDT later, sleeveless, jeans-wearing Dean Ambrose was champion.
Ambrose sprinted from corner to corner, tongue out, celebrating his new belt. "He cashed in at the perfect time," I thought, as the fan in front of me, still standing on his chair, held his hands on his head in astonishment.
Now, this is how you celebrate winning a belt pic.twitter.com/fzsJCqaSAU— Jonathan Bradley (@Jon__Bradley) June 20, 2016
Wrestling is fake and scripted. But so are my favorite TV shows and action movies and there was something I enjoyed about a theatrical version of a combat sport. Every fight had a somewhat compelling storyline, the Nevada State Athletic Commission certainly won't be getting involved about the two refs that were trampled during matchups and USADA does not care how Sheamus and Apollo Crews got so huge.
There are certainly bumps and bruises and sore body parts, but that pales in comparison to the broken eye sockets, shattered noses and stolen consciousness often seen in the wake of a boxing and MMA event. I enjoyed that relatively carefree aspect of professional wrestling.
I entered my first live WWE experience open-minded but skeptical that my opinion of the sport would change. I left with a new appreciation for its entertainment value and a deeper understanding of how it's successfully reached the masses for decades. Not to mention they let me take home my seat as a keepsake.
I likely won't become the fan that buys every PPV, but I wouldn't be surprised if a few episodes of Raw showed up on my DVR.