Indulge me while I get a bit personal about wrestling. I’d like to tell you about the one time, long ago, that I watched wrestling with my father, and the time last year that I nearly stopped watching with my son.
First, a quick history of me as a wrestling fan. I began watching WWF wrestling as a teenager in the weeks leading up to WrestleMania V. Until a little bit before WrestleMania VII, I was all-in for the WWF. I had a couple of friends that would watch Saturday Night’s Main Event with me, but none that were ordering those great purple Macho Man shirts and orange bandanas or those regrettably awful Bret “Hitman” Hart sunglasses along with me (I think I wore mine once).
By the time the WWF was betting everything on the jingoistic storyline of Hulk Hogan battling Sgt. Slaughter for the soul of America, I was ready for a break. My son Gavin is now at about the same age I was at that time, and wrestling is one of his most talked-about and digested interests.
As my wife likes to (mostly) tease me: that’s all my fault.
My son has always been the singularly-focused type. His first obsession when he was young was Thomas the Tank Engine, whose roster of characters he devoured with encyclopedic intensity. As his interests wound their way through various other arenas — dinosaurs, Yu-Gi-Oh, hockey, Star Wars, and more — he always approached them with 100% focus and engagement.
At the same time, I was back into wrestling and hesitant to expose him to the weird sport/spectacle that I had grown to appreciate much more than when I was younger. I’d had a return to pro wrestling in 1994, leading up to Survivor Series, thanks to friends that had shown no previous interest in the WWF but were suddenly watching Viewer’s Choice adverts on loop at their university homes and dorms.
The gonzo Bob Backlund, putting chicken wings on anyone who crossed his path, had captured their attention, and I rejoined the fold. I was something of the old sage of my group for the next few years, providing the history behind the staples of the sport and the wrestlers that were still going strong since I’d last watched. I was also developing some new favourites — Goldust, first and foremost.
I was drawn to Goldust due to the way that the character thumbed its nose, ironically or otherwise, at the testosterone-fueled nature of everything about the WWF. I draw a very distinct line between my enjoyment of violent behaviour and action in wrestling, films, TV, comic books, or whatever else, and my intrinsic dislike of violence in any form in terms of actual conflict resolution.
I have always enjoyed wrestling expressly because it’s staged. It’s why I don’t watch boxing or any kind of MMA. Without the theatrics of wrestling, I’m not interested in what’s left over.
I was slow to introduce wrestling to Gavin. I wanted him to be old enough to recognize the false pretenses of the action. It wasn’t so much that I was concerned about him emulating moves — I mean, kids wrestle whether they watch it or not — but I wanted him to understand the complexities of how wrestling is, ideally, about keeping your opponent safe and that there are other ways to settle an argument than by, for example, having a street fight.
On the one hand, I recognize that it was a bit silly to have introduced him to Star Wars at the age of 5 (blasters, loss of limbs, and all) while worrying about how wrestling might influence him. On the other hand, part of what makes wrestling so fascinating is how it dances in between theatre and real life. Maybe I just wasn’t sure about which side he’d latch onto the most.
His entry into wrestling fandom finally came about when he left hockey to try judo. He stayed in judo for three years, and the focus on respectful competition based on winning, but not through intent to injure, was exactly the philosophy that I was looking to instill. The timing seemed right, and so began Gavin’s wrestling education. I took him through the earliest matches that I had available, mostly through the WWE-produced DVDs such as The History of the World Heavyweight Championship, and we watched all the way through to nearly present time — skipping The Attitude Era, mind you. I had skipped that, too.
I mentioned how Goldust appealed to me as he was the antithesis of macho sensibilities; well, I simply wasn’t in the demographic that The Attitude Era targeted. So, I had taken another break in between WrestleMania XIV and 21.
All the while, Gavin was applying his customary laser-focus on wrestling as a subject (he was poring over encyclopedias in my library and creating his own manuals of characters and federations), but we still weren’t watching current TV or PPVs.
I figured that it wouldn’t be long until he would jump in and follow the current wrestling scene, and, as it turned out, the WWE schedule presented the perfect entry point as Survivor Series came to Toronto in 2016. As I was going to be in attendance and writing a crowd report for Slam Wrestling, the stars were aligned for Gavin to take in his first live show.
From that point on, his devotion to wrestling content only expanded. With access to relentless new content every week through YouTube, TV, and the WWE Network, Gavin soaked up everything he could. He left games such as The Legend of Zelda largely behind for the WWE 2K series, made playlists of entrance themes, and turned our trampoline into the home arena for his own federation (mostly featuring battles between himself and a four-foot-tall stuffed teddy bear).
He had reached a peak point as a wrestling fan, as I had done when I was at his age. Instead of 2K-whichever, I was playing Raw is War for the Super Nintendo. Instead of making an iPod playlist, I was making mixed tapes of entrance themes recorded off of the TV.
The briefcase, to borrow a phrase, had not fallen far from the ladder, and I was loving sharing the world with him. I had never experienced that in the other direction.
As I mentioned off the top, in all my years as a wrestling fan I never sat and watched a whole show with my father. He and I connected on baseball and movies, but never wrestling. He did try one time, and it was memorable.
Maybe he noticed that I was watching it and thought he’d see what it was all about, or maybe he just ended up in the room by happenstance. Regardless, he came in to see Goldust taking on Barry Horowitz. At the end of the match, he saw this:
Neither of us said a word to each other during the segment, and when it was over he simply got up and left the room again. And that, for whatever reason, was that! I never watched or talked wrestling with my dad again.
For Gavin and I, though, it was a whole different story. We have similar outlooks, so we usually came down on the same side of those we supported (and even when we didn’t, we had fun cheering against each other).
I felt a bit like George Peppard’s character Hannibal from The A-Team; I had carefully mapped out a path for Gavin to join me in a world that meant a lot to me, and I just loved it when a plan came together.
Fast-forwarding a few years, Gavin was as big a fan as ever, but he was starting to talk about something that I never anticipated: becoming a wrestler himself. I can honestly say that in all my years as a fan and as a reporter, I’ve never once yearned for getting in the ring myself. It’s not all that surprising; I’m not, as I mentioned before, an aggressive guy. My sports are baseball, tennis, golf for a while … all of them non-contact games.
So, “whatever,” I said to myself. Maybe I was wrong, and when I was a teenager I did have some fleeting fantasies about being a wrestler myself and I just don’t remember it. When Gavin talked about it would just nod along and let it pass.
His wrestling antics on the trampoline were actually getting pretty sophisticated. He was also landing a lot of slams, using the bear, of course, on our basement floor with just a carpet below. It was impressive. We would mostly wrestle around in the pool and, naturally, he kept getting stronger and stronger.
And he kept talking about becoming a wrestler.
Now we’re actually getting into his later high school years and starting to talk about post-secondary education and some possible career ideas. As we’re coming up on Survivor Series 2019, three years after taking him to his first live show and about five years after first welcoming him into my beloved world of wrestling, I found it challenging to talk about it with him.
I was afraid to feed into his ideas of following the path he was eyeing; I no longer found his all-encompassing interest in it a continuation of the same mindset that had him memorizing the names of all the trains on the Island of Sodor, but rather an alarming sign that I had done something wrong.
Worst of all, around that Survivor Series weekend, I simultaneously failed and succeeded as a father when I told him frankly what I thought about his dreams of wrestling.
Gavin knew that I had been showing less interest in talking to him about the goings-on in the ring; I had been casually pulling back and hoping that his talk of getting into the business was fleeting and would fade away.
It wasn’t, and so we had to talk about it … and I didn’t want to.
I didn’t want to tell him that I couldn’t support him in his plans to get into the business now or in the future. I didn’t want to tell him that because that was the failure I was afraid of: that my son would tell me what his dream is and that I would tell him “no.”
On the other hand, of course, that was also a successful moment as a father. I was telling him not to get into a business that is brutal and dangerous. It’s hardly the only job like that, but it has a proven track record of chewing up those that enter, and I wasn’t about to pave that path for him.
Failure, and success at the same time … but I ultimately felt rotten about it. I love him so I want to protect him, and I love him so I want to support him.
Mostly, I felt guilty about feeding an interest that all of a sudden seemed to be going sideways. Had he said he wanted to be a commentator, a writer, a booker, an interviewer, even a manager who would inevitably take a bump or two, I think I would have perhaps reacted less than enthusiastically, but I wouldn’t have been completely opposed to it.
Just a couple of notes, here: I’m writing about myself, but this was not simply a father/son thing. My wife and I brought these concerns to him together. He’s not foolish, either; he asked us if he wanted to be a cop, then would we have the same concerns? Also, none of what I’m writing here is news to Gavin. There won’t be any surprises because we’ve talked through all of this.
So the next few months featured no shared wrestling consumption for Gavin and I. The only thing I could think to do was go as cold turkey as possible. I was still writing for SlamWrestling, but there wasn’t any joy in that for me. I was still running a fantasy wrestling tournament on Facebook (now-defunct due to the changing Facebook platform), but only because I felt obligated to.
I wasn’t enjoying it.
Gavin kept on going, though. He wrestled the bear, he watched tons of wrestling online, he ordered Tessa Blanchard and CM Punk shirts with Christmas money … and he was even presented with an opportunity to start writing for Slam Wrestling.
So now I was feeling really stuck. What was once joyful, to watch or talk wrestling with my son, is now mostly awkward and still guilt-ridden for me. I did try and put my full support behind his writing for Slam, because I still wanted to feed his passions in a way that I thought was best for him. So, we reviewed some shows together and I helped him get started in reviewing SmackDown, we came out of the cold turkey phase, and it became a little less awkward.
I came to a realization very recently that aiming for protection by not watching wrestling with him had turned out to be more of a punishment for myself. He hasn’t stopped watching, so the only thing I’ve been missing over this past year is watching with him.
He says he’s no longer determined to become a wrestler, but whether he’s saying that for my benefit or whether it’s true is almost inconsequential. From the very outset of trying to hash this problem out, I told him that if it was something he desperately wanted to do, then nothing would stop him from doing it. If he’s meant for it, then it will happen.
A lot of this last year is on me for panicking when the prospect of my oldest child finding a career and moving on from this at-home stage of his life is ever-increasingly becoming a reality. And I have come to understand what seems so obvious from the outside of a parent-child relationship: the more control I try to wield control over my son’s future, the less likely it will end up as I imagine it. I’ve had enough lessons as a father, finally, to get that.
I know it’s easy to attach extra meaning to anything through confirmation bias, but it seems like a lot of things coming together for this November’s show. Survivor Series was the last PPV I watched in 1990 before taking a break, the first I watched in 1994 in coming back, the last again in 1997 before a longer break, the first live event that Gavin saw, and the last show I watched in 2019 before all of the above went down.
So, we approach Survivor Series 2020, and Gavin and I will review the show together for SlamWrestling. It feels like a fresh start, once again, all wrapped up in this strange American Thanksgiving tradition.
Maybe Gavin still ends up in the ring, maybe he doesn’t. All I can say is that I’m not going to punish myself or him anymore for either his dreams or my fears about the future, because the cost of that is too much lost time in the present.