Lies, Truth, Trust & Reality

[Warning that there are gifs in here of Sami’s match with John Cena, which he fought with a legit injury.]

My father was known for approaching life with teasing irony.  Nothing was as it seemed on the surface.  “Oh, these cupcakes are terrible, let me save you from them,” he would say while pretending to steal them away, to be thwarted by giggling shrieks of protest.  “Santa got lost this year, so there are no presents,” he would sigh before producing a shiny package with exactly what one had asked for within.

One day, when I was quite small, he was working on repairing the hot water faucet in the kitchen sink.  Letting the steaming water run into the sink, he looked me in the eye and said seriously, “Now, that water will be very hot, so keep your hands out of it.”

Laughing at the joke, I immediately jumped up and stuck my hands into the scalding water, then yanked my burned fingers back.  Staring in shocked betrayal at my father, I started weeping: “I trusted you, I trusted you!”

“What do you mean?” my father said, dumbfounded. “I told you not to touch it!”

Through tears of pain and outrage, I screamed at him:  “You never say what you really mean! I trusted you to be lying!”

All of which is to say: maybe being a fan of wrestling wasn’t the wisest choice.  I admit that, I own that, that one’s on me.  But one of the fun things about discovering wrestling late in life is that you can be self-aware and thoughtful about every mortifying, cringe-inducing rookie mistake you make as a fan, so here it is: the story of how I broke my own heart by trusting Sami Zayn in exactly the wrong way at precisely the wrong time. 

It’s mid-2015, and Sami is gunning to get his NXT championship back from Worst Friend Ever Kevin Owens at the next TakeOver special.  Nine days before that match, John Cena, the current U.S. Champion, issues an open challenge in Montreal to fight anyone for his title, and when Sami shows up, the roof practically comes off the arena.  It’s deafening: the crowd is going crazy, their hometown hero is here at last on the main roster to challenge John Cena for his title, and they’ve never been happier.  On his way into the ring for his first televised match, Sami pauses on the stairs, looks out at them as they scream with joy, throws his hands in the air to acknowledge them–and although the camera switches to focus on Cena, on the far side of the screen Sami winces and grabs his shoulder. 

It’s such a small thing, such a tiny little thing that I didn’t even notice it at the time, but there’s a hasty cut to commercial and when we get back the match has started.  It’s clear that something is off, though.  Cena rolls out of the ring and Sami does one of his signature moves, where he responds to his opponent moving out of the way by bouncing back off the ropes and landing in a taunting pose–and wobbles just a bit on the landing.

The crowd roars in delight while Sami shakes his head–at Cena, mocking him, but there’s an edge of frustration to it too.  He’s done this move a thousand times and stuck the landing for more than a decade, but tonight–  

Watching him, I feel unease creep into the pit of my stomach.  He’s favoring his shoulder, and after a couple more moves Cena insists on stopping the match and having a trainer check it.  There’s a long conversation with the trainer, and then the match continues, through Sami is clearly in a lot of pain.

The story of the match was probably always going to be “John Cena learns to respect this scrappy indie wrestler with more heart than sense of self-preservation,” and the injury works perfectly into that story, raising the stakes as Sami continues the match on his damaged shoulder.  Cena is clearly reluctant to fight Sami and risk making it worse.  He hesitates, signalling to Sami that maybe it would be better if they called the match off:

And Sami furiously swipes at his cautious hand, a fierce curt motion that telegraphs don’t fucking condescend to me, John as clearly as Kevin’s powerbomb on the apron will do in more dramatic fashion next week.  The match begins in earnest then.

It’s an excellent match, and Sami gets to show off all of his best moves and his unconquerable heart for his deliriously loving hometown.  Even though I know he has to go back to NXT to try and regain his title from Kevin, part of me thinks maybe, maybe he could show up at TakeOver with the U.S. championship on his shoulder?  Maybe?  There’s one moment where Cena hesitates before doing his signature taunt, and Sami lashes out and rolls him up in a schoolboy pin, and for one irrational split second I truly, truly think that maybe–

But no, Cena kicks out, and my anxiety builds, watching Sami wince in agony after moves involving that shoulder, watching him try to stay in control of his damaged body.  If this is a bad injury, he might not be able to fight next week at all.  If this is a really bad injury, he could be out for months.  He could miss Brooklyn and SummerSlam.  If it’s even worse than that, he could miss Wrestlemania.  If it’s even worse than that…

He fights through the entire match on a dislocated and torn shoulder, and when he loses despite his best efforts, John Cena helps him to his feet and raises his uninjured hand in tribute, then vacates the ring so he can receive the ovation of the crowd:

But Sami is clearly angry and in pain, holding his shoulder and cursing under his breath as he cautiously gets out of the ring.

I sit in mute agony, trying to make sense of this, but there is no sense to be made.  Sami being injured now is too unfair, too horrible, it would derail his story into limbo for months just as he was either about to become the first two-time NXT champion or as he was about to come up the main roster, and that’s intolerable.  Yet there it is, right there on my screen.  It’s real.

It’s real.

Faced with this unbearable reality, I pull off an amazing feat of willpower and denial:  this has to make sense somehow, so I will force this to make sense.  In a moment of pure inspired desperation, I scramble through some narrative trap door in my mind and emerge with relief into the merciful sunlight of complete and total self-delusion.

I stand up and cheerfully announce that this is a great story, don’t you think so, Dan?  It’s a great story.  Dan looks stricken as I explain brightly that see, it all makes sense:  Sami is not really injured.  He’s not!  This is all part of his story with Kevin!  Kevin believes that he’s got Sami psyched out, and so Sami is pretending to be injured in order to psych Kevin out in turn.  Didn’t he say in his interview with Michael Cole last week that “sometimes you have to fight fire with fire”?  See, look!  Right here!  I was paying attention, I remember!

Kevin is a notorious liar, so Sami is just fighting fire with fire here, it’s only fair.  Next week, Kevin will underestimate him and then Sami will reveal that he’s fine, haha, surprise!  And Kevin will be shocked and thrown off, and he’ll lose.  It’s brilliant.

There’s a pause while Dan absorbs my incredibly astute analysis.

“They don’t… usually cross-promote NXT and the main roster that way,” he says after a moment.

“That’s why it’s brilliant,” I hiss, narrowing my eyes.  “No one will be expecting it!”

“He seemed to be in a lot of pain,” Dan says tentatively.

But I’m ready for this one, there is no fooling me.  “Sami is the greatest in the world at dramatic suffering,” I say triumphantly, pointing at him.  “There is no one better at making people think he’s injured, at making us worry about him.  Isn’t he amazing?  He really had me convinced for a while there, I admit it.  But everything is going to be fine, I’m not worried, there’s no reason at all to be sad.”

“If he is injured, you’re going to be really upset next week,” Dan points out.  

“No I’m not,” I say, clear-eyed and confident.  I have complete and total faith in Sami Zayn, and Sami Zayn is one of the best liars in the world.  “I’m not going to be upset, because it’s going to be great.  You’ll see.”

With increasing desperation, Dan points out that never in the history of wrestling has the hero gotten injured all by himself during his entrance, but in vain: in my mind the very senselessness of it is proof that surely it will all make sense, it will all make sense, it will.  And so I make my way cheerfully through the next nine days, certain that all will go well.  God help me, I do something I have never done before and I argue with people onlineif you can even call it “arguing” to come into forums where people are sadly discussing Sami’s injury and chirp that everything is going to be okay, you’ll see, you’ll all see, before disappearing again in a puff of smug.  

It’s actually a very enjoyable nine days for me!  I am impervious to all grief, secure in my superior understanding.  I’ve got this whole wrestling thing figured out, I’m a genius, I am playing fourth–no, fifth-dimensional chess.  I am in fact the wrestling fan epitome of this:

Yes.  This is fine.

As it turns out, this is not fine.

Everything starts to fall apart right away in the NXT title match when Kevin doesn’t target Sami’s “allegedly” injured shoulder, as he would have to for my brilliant theory to come to pass.  Kevin doesn’t go after Sami’s shoulder, and so Sami cannot reveal that he’s fine and that everything is fine.  Instead, at about the seven-minute mark, Sami is on the offense and the crowd, full of hope, is chanting “NXT” when Kevin catches him off-guard and gives him one of the more careful powerbombs I’ve seen onto the ring apron:

And that’s basically the end of the match in any practical sense: the referees gather around to check on Sami, but scatter when Kevin comes back in to keep attacking him.  They push Kevin away, and Kevin backs off, but then returns, seemingly unable to let the match end.

He doesn’t seem to be taking much of his usual malicious glee in hurting Sami; in fact, he looks even more distressed than I feel as he keeps charging back in again and again, ignoring the refs and the trainers as he refuses to just let it be over.

It’s only when General Manager William Regal finally shows up and informs him that if he doesn’t stop attacking Sami he’ll strip Kevin of the NXT title and make sure that Kevin’s upcoming match against Cena doesn’t take place, that he finally pauses for a moment.

But only a moment, and then the so-called Prizefighter is back, risking his shot at the main roster and all the fame and fortune it implies.  He’s risking his title, supposedly the reason he turned on Sami to begin with.  He attacks the GM, surely a firing offense, risking everything because he won’t let the match end, and the only way to keep it from ending is to keep hurting Sami.  

And–maybe oddly–it’s Kevin’s reactions that finally, finally get through to me that indeed, Sami is really injured, he’s really going to need surgery and be out for months.  Because it’s obvious that Kevin believes this is the last time they’ll fight each other in NXT, that this is the last time they’ll be in a ring together for a long time.  He seems, in his own terrible and evil way, out of his mind with grief.  He keeps attacking Sami as if he can’t bear to stop and let the medical staff take him away, as if he just refuses to accept that this is happening.  His confused anguish is a dark mirror of my own, and that finally makes it real to me.  I would never have thought I could empathize with someone’s distress at not being able to continue murdering someone, but apparently here I am.

I sit for a moment when it’s over, when Kevin has finally been chased away and the show at last comes to an end.  Beside me, Dan clears his throat a couple of times but doesn’t say anything.

“All right,” I say.  “All right.”  It’s Sunday morning in Japan and I have a whole day of class prep ahead of me; I don’t really have time for the luxury of grief.  “I’m going to set a timer for thirty minutes and have a good cry for Sami, and then I’m going to get back to work.”  And I go off alone and cry for a half hour for Sami Zayn, who tried to win the U.S. title from John Cena and failed, who tried to get his title back from his terrible friend and failed, and who’s injured and facing surgery now.  

The timer goes off and I stare at the ceiling for a moment.  Then I wipe my eyes and go back to the living room and sit down on the couch next to Dan.  I take a deep breath and say “I think…”  This is very difficult. “I think I need another thirty minutes.  Not for Sami, but for…”

There’s a pause while I struggle for words. We have a sort of agreement where we almost never use wallet names (it’s not playing the game), so I don’t have a good vocabulary for this.  

“I need another thirty minutes for… for the other guy. The real one,” I finally stammer.  Dan understands who I mean: the person I don’t actually know the way I can feel like I know Sami Zayn; the one who was perfectly aware he wasn’t winning either of those titles, and who knows that he won’t be going to the main roster for quite a while, that the story’s going on without him.  I don’t know him, not really, but I know enough to leave me sitting in wretched silence, face to face with the pain I did such elaborate mental gymnastics to avoid, the worst pain of a wrestling fan: the moments when story and character give way to the reality of muscle and bone, the brute facts of physics and the gravity that never truly forgets any of us; when entropy tears holes in the fabric of the narrative and leaves us bereft.  When your favorite wrestler’s baseball slide snags and now he’s not going to his first Wrestlemania; when someone brave and adored wins their first title and then comes gingerly to the ring the very next show to vacate it; when over and over again the price of being in the same world as our heroes and villains and demons and demigods is to see the story falter and fail while we can do nothing but watch.

“Another thirty minutes,” I say helplessly, and wait for Dan to respond with any of the completely reasonable and true things he could respond with:  You thought you were so clever or I did try to warn you or worst of all, always the worst of all, for God’s sake, it’s only wrestling. I look back over the last nine days and realize that I have been completely insufferable, and wait, burning with well-deserved chagrin, as Dan stands up and looks at me.

“I’ll reset the timer for you,” he says.

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J.J. McGee Written by:

I'm an American expat who lives in Japan and spends most of my free time being painfully earnest about narrative, character development, and slippage between kayfabe and reality in wrestling.