(March 18, 2016) – After last night, I just had to get this off of my chest: I am a wrestling fan. And, yes, before I continue, I am well aware that wrestling is staged/fixed. We all are. I know that the outcomes are predetermined. It doesn’t stop me from watching movies or TV (or reruns on TV, where I know the episode line for line ahead of time), and it doesn’t stop me from enjoying wrestling.

Wrestling, or sports entertainment (depending on whose side you’re on), is something that I was a fan of as a kid right on up until somewhere in middle school. I loved Bret Hart, The Steiner Brothers, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, and the rest of the typical early-90’s good guys. I was a MASSIVE fan of Stone Cold Steve Austin, Goldberg, the nWo Wolfpac (yup…I liked the knockoff nWo) and D-Generation X during the WWE (then WWF) Attitude Era. And I lived the Monday Night Wars, holding lengthy debates over whether Goldberg or Austin would win one-on-one or whether DX or the nWo was better.

And then I kind of dropped it. My parents didn’t like the violence and I no longer watched it. My wrestling figures, taped shows, shirts and CDs were all either sold or thrown out. And so I just moved on to other things.

I stayed away for a pretty long time. I’d peek back at a show if I had heard someone I really liked was coming back (like Bret Hart’s return to WWE) or when I heard that something major was about to happen (like Kane’s unmasking), but, for the most part, I stayed away, and I honestly didn’t really miss it very much.

Things changed when I graduated college and got a job in Tupelo, Mississippi. One of the guys I worked with who simply went by “Franchise” (if I was going to write his legal name here, I’d honestly have to look it up to double-check) was a big fan. The Sports Director at my station, Jim, was also a fan of it, but infinitely more casual.

Franchise finally got me to watch an episode of RAW after showing me this clip from a show the night before. You could say that the video of his return left me…electrified. (I know, bad pun…moving on…)

If The Rock was back, I was back.

The raw emotion (more puns!) of the crowd in the building, even just by seeing it on video on an ancient computer monitor in the newsroom reminded me of what I loved about wrestling. And I was hooked once more.

Until I wasn’t.

About a month or two later, WrestleMania XXVII was over and The Rock announced that he would finally return to the ring to take on John Cena in a match…the following year at WrestleMania. The next three pay-per-views were all headlined by Cena, but taking on the likes of The Miz, John Morrison and R-Truth. Nothing wrong with any of those three guys because I find each very entertaining in their own way (and The Miz was WWE Champion at the end of WrestleMania XXVII), but nothing about those shows gave me nearly the same feeling that hearing The Rock’s music hit does. And so, after the RAW episode on June 20, 2011, I removed the show from my DVR queue.

One week later, Franchise comes to me with another YouTube video. It took The Rock to bring me back the first time, and now a guy wearing a Stone Cold Steve Austin shirt brought me back for good. With few exceptions, I have been a weekly viewer of WWE’s flagship program ever since.

It’s now 2016. The Rock pops in semi-annually now (including at the RAW show I attended in Miami earlier this year), and CM Punk (the wrestler in the previous clip) is long-gone, but still I stay.

I’m no longer in it for the nostalgia like I was when Bret Hart confronted Mr. McMahon in 2010 or when The Rock came back in 2011. Guys like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan and other competitors gave me a new reason to stick around.

I decided I wanted to be a sportscaster in middle school. For years I had loved going to baseball, hockey and football games, playing Little League or just messing around after school with my friends. In middle school I decided that I wasn’t going to be an athlete, but I knew I wanted to do something in sports. Talking about sports had always been something I loved, with the detailed stats and history, the prospects and the superstars; I could talk about any sport for hours (or debate with someone on why I didn’t like a particular sport). That’s why I’ve taken the career path I have.

When I’m watching wrestlers like Dean Ambrose, Sami Zayn, Dolph Ziggler, Bayley and Triple H compete, the passion for their profession is obvious. These are people who grew up, like I did, knowing what they wanted to do and working at it relentlessly until they got it and then worked even harder to keep it. These are people who work meticulously on every little detail to make things work.

I’ve had people ask me why I’d watch wrestling instead of “real” fighting like UFC/MMA, and I have two responses. The first is I (jokingly) like to say that I like to be guaranteed a 20-minute fight, but the serious response is that I love the storytelling.

Storytelling in wrestling isn’t just the soap opera-esque storylines used to set up matches and feuds. It’s a part of it, for sure, but it’s only a small part. The storytelling that really makes wrestling outstanding is what happens during a match.

The wrestlers themselves are incredible athletes, and some of the fast-paced, aerial and downright physical moves that they can pull off is a marvel to watch. But doing flips or delivering stiff forearm shots is impressive for a YouTube video montage, but it needs more to it than just “look what we can do”. Cirque du Solei without a theme or storyline would still feature some incredible stunts, but wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable and would simply turn into a collection of unorganized chaos rather quickly.

In late 2014, NXT (WWE’s developmental brand, based out of Orlando, Florida) put on a PPV show called “TakeOver: R Evolution” (not technically a PPV because it was shown only on the WWE Network, but there isn’t a new name for this kind of show). The main event match was between NXT Champion Adrian Neville and Sami Zayn. Leading up to this match, Zayn had held a few opportunities to win the championship, but always had it slip through his hands. Neville had tricked Zayn into thinking he was hurt, using the distraction to gain a pinfall victory, and the big storyline was that Zayn wasn’t willing to do what was necessary to win the big one.

During the championship match – highlights here – Zayn had opportunities to take advantage of a distracted referee to gain an edge (among other situations), but the “nice guy” refused to budge and take the easy path. In the end Zayn, won it his way and cemented himself as not only a great competitor, but also as the guy who fans knew him to be.

In 2015, NXT ran a similar show in Brooklyn (called simply “TakeOver: Brooklyn”) and featured one of the single greatest wrestling matches I’ve ever seen as Sasha Banks faced Bayley for the NXT Women’s Championship. In the match – again, highlights here – Sasha targeted the hand of fan-favorite Bayley, playing off of a storyline formed three months prior. The entire rivalry itself was over two years in the making. You could watch a two-minute promo video for the match (no one makes them like WWE) and be caught up enough to understand every little detail of the match, but that’s not to say that it’s all simply on the surface.

The more you know about the wrestlers themselves, the more you appreciate their work. The less of a stranger someone like Finn Balor is to you, the more you enjoy watching him make a special entrance for a big match. When you see just how much these people enjoy what they do – like when Bayley did a Finn Balor impression when Balor was hurt and couldn’t perform for a show (and how Balor then returned the favor when he was better) – it’s hard not to become fans of the people involved.

Wrestling is basically a really good reality show, combined with a powerful drama and Cirque du Solei. The only difference here is, unlike in most reality shows and in all TV dramas, the fans can actually have an impact on how things go down.

At the end of 2013, WWE decided to merge their two top-tier championships: the WWE Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship (they are basically equivalent, but were created at a time where they treated their two weekly shows – RAW and SmackDown – as separate entities) in a match between Randy Orton and John Cena. They held a major ceremony ahead of the match, where many former champions were brought into the ring to look on as the match between Orton and Cena was hyped up. Except the fans weren’t into it.

Fans wanted their hometown product, Daniel Bryan, involved in the championship picture after he had been given the WWE Championship for all of 10 minutes (not a joke) over the summer, only to be seemingly pushed to the side once more. So, with Bryan standing in the ring, fans chanted only for him. Triple H tried to move ahead with the planned ceremony, but the fans didn’t relent (oh, and if you’re wondering where the “YES!” chants were made insanely popular, albeit not born, Daniel Bryan is the guy).

The fans didn’t relent when Bryan was moved into a feud with Bray Wyatt and farther from the title picture, until Bryan broke away and received one of the loudest reactions in years from a RAW crowd. And when Bryan was held out of the annual Royal Rumble match (the winner of which, Batista, earned the challenger’s spot in the WrestleMania WWE Championship Match), fans turned on all involved.

In a TV show, if fans didn’t like the direction a show was headed (The Walking Dead, anyone?), nothing could be changed for at least an entire season. In this case, the fans were 100% responsible for getting Bryan into the title match at WrestleMania that year.

It happens on smaller scales, too.

When WWE and other wrestling promotions are not doing their TV or PPV programming, they do what are referred to as house shows. These shows are just for the fans in attendance (or those watching YouTube clips like the Bayley/Finn Balor ones shared above). Independent wrestling promotions (smaller companies referred to as the “Indys”) will oftentimes charge just $5.00 admission, and may run a show in front of crowds smaller than many college classes (or smaller than that).

And that brings us to the reason behind this article. Last night, I attended NXT Live in Miami, the second time the promotion has visited Miami (and the second time I’ve seen them in Miami). I attended with three friends, two of which were very much into wrestling (and one who enjoyed it enough). I’ve gone with these two to a number of shows, ranging from WWE RAW with 15,000 fans in attendance down to a show that was literally in a school gym with about 100 fans.

This show featured a crowd on the smaller end, and it was held at the Field House attached to the University of Miami’s basketball arena. We had fifth row seats, dead center. The beauty of these smaller (and non-televised) shows is that the wrestlers themselves can hear everything being said by the crowd, and the interactions are incredible.

Sami Zayn faced a heel (bad guy) wrestler named Baron Corbin in the first match, and it didn’t take long for people in the crowd to start chants at Corbin’s expense. One such chant came after Corbin “argued” with the official over what he felt was a three-count and a pinfall victory. So the fans chanted “It was two! It was two!” drawing Corbin’s attention and a response. Later, another heel named Tye Dillinger (whose entire persona is based around him being “A Perfect 10” and rating his opponents lower than himself) faced a crowd favorite, a Mexican wrestler named Manny Andrade (formerly known as La Sombra). So, as Dillinger tried to start (and did start) chants of “Ten! Ten! Ten!” any time he hit a move, fans started to chant “Diez! Diez! Diez!” any time Andrade hit a move.

They noticed.

From that point, more situations to spark the “Diez! Diez! Diez!” chants were added to the match (and Andrade, the face – good guy – wrestler, even mimicked Dillinger’s “10” hand gestures).

But the best example came in the main event, a match between NXT Champion Finn Balor and challenger Samoa Joe. Joe’s actual birthday is on March 17 (the day of the show), and fans chanted “Hap-py Birth-day!” throughout the match. As the heel, Joe tried as best as he could to not break character, glaring at fans and yelling at them to be quiet. Then, the whole crowd broke out into song, singing Happy Birthday to Joe. This brought on something special. Joe hit a move on Zayn and walked to the ropes, turning to the crowd at the end of the song and yelling “SHUT UP!!!”…only for Zayn to pull him into a pin for a two-count.

Had the fans not been involved, the match literally would have been different…maybe not much, and definitely not the outcome, but different. Wrestlers feed off of the live crowd and the interactivity of the event is what makes it so much fun.

The NXT Live show would have been entertaining without any of the interactive chants or back-and-forth insults (one guy near me called out the NXT Tag Team Champions for not looking as traditionally-built as their opponents…which resulted in a scoff and a “Yeah, okay…should I call you the pot or the kettle?”). It would have been entertaining without being familiar with any of the performers (one match involved two wrestlers I hadn’t seen before, Rich Swan and Riddick Moss, and was outstanding). What makes wrestling truly great is the same thing that makes anything great: your approach to it.

Breaking Bad was a fantastic show. The characters were incredible, the drama was tense and the story was undeniably interesting. But no one thinks that Bryan Cranston is actually a meth kingpin. No one thinks that Giancarlo Esposito is really running a drug ring out of a chicken restaurant. They’re just incredibly gifted actors, tied together by a compelling story and script.

It’s the same way that no wrestling fan thinks that The Undertaker is really a mortician (though his former manager, the late Paul Bearer, was actually, genuinely, a licensed mortician) or that Finn Balor is possessed by a demon. They’re athletes playing different roles, many of which (particularly recently) are based on a characteristic of the wrestlers themselves (like Balor’s love of comic books).

I love wrestling, and that’s why I sat down to write this long post as soon as I got home from tonight’s NXT Live show. If you don’t, that’s fine, though I’d encourage you to give it a legitimate shot. With former (or at least semi-former) wrestlers like The Rock and Dave Bautista entertaining millions in blockbuster movies, there’s no reason to think that they wouldn’t be equally entertaining playing a slightly different role. For me, I’m going to see NXT’s show in West Palm Beach tonight, and I’m sure it’ll be among the best $20.80 I’ve spent to be entertained.