Surrounded by Talented Tarantulas: I Take an Awkward Tour of the WWE Performance Center

“Go on without me,” I say faintly.  It’s 2015, and outside the car windows, the parking lot shimmers with late-summer Florida heat.  “Just…go on without me.”

“I did not win a charity auction and get us a tour of the Performance Center just to leave you to die of heatstroke in the car,” Dan says.  

He has a point, I have to admit.  Still…  “What if I trip over something? What if I say something stupid?  Or rude?  Maybe I just won’t say anything at all.  No, that would definitely be rude.  I think maybe I should just, uh, be as quiet as possible.  You’ll talk for both of us, right?  You’ll tell me if I’m doing something wrong?”

“You’re not going to do anything wrong,” Dan says, getting out of the car.  “Just relax.”

I join him, turning those three most useless syllables in the English language over in my head. Relaxing is not my strong suit. “I’m not sure this was a good idea,” I say as we head toward the door.

“I’m just sorry you won’t get a chance to meet Sami or Kevin,” Dan says.  Kevin has been promoted to the main roster and has moved back to Montreal; Sami is still out with an injury.  Neither of my favorites is going to be hanging out at the Performance Center.

“That’s okay,” I say fervently.  “I don’t know if I could handle that.”

Dan looks at me.  “You’d be fine.”

“I am never going to find out,” I say, unsure if I’m relieved or disappointed by this.

We’re at the door.  There’s a keypad and a buzzer.  Dan talks to someone on the other side and they say they’ll be right with us.  The intercom falls silent, but the door doesn’t open.  We look at each other.

As we stand, uncertain, someone walks up behind us.  “Can I help you?” he says.  It’s Dustin Rhodes, or Goldust in the ring, and he’s very tall, and while he doesn’t look angry, he doesn’t look particularly welcoming, either.  This is when I remember that just a couple of days ago a knife-wielding fan attempted to break into the Performance Center and the police had to shoot him.  Dan explains that we’re here for a tour while I do my level best to appear completely unthreatening and unimportant.  From the expression on his face, I am succeeding!

Yay!

“Okay,” Rhodes says as I attempt to become one with the concrete wall, “I’ll tell them you’re here.”  He keys himself in and the door closes behind him.  We look at each other some more.

“You’re doing fine,” Dan says.

I nod.

“No one thinks you’re a crazed stalker,” Dan says.

I nod.

“You might want to take a few breaths,” Dan says.

I nod and drag in a little air.  I’m still not sure this was a good idea.  At the moment it feels kind of like suggesting an arachnophobe confront their fears by throwing them into a pit of tarantulas.  Large, talented, acrobatic tarantulas.  I wipe sweat from my brow and try to stay calm.

The door opens up.


By 2016 or so, the process of giving tours will become routinized at the Performance Center and they’ll start giving regular group tours, but at this point in 2015 Dan and I are one of a few dry runs of the system, so it’s just the two of us.  We go into a small lobby, where the current NXT tag team champions, Aiden English and Simon Gotch, are waiting for us, along with head trainer Matt Bloom.  English and Gotch have taken the time to wear suspenders and bow ties, which is amazingly charming.  Bloom takes up approximately half of the room, which is somewhat alarming.  All three of them are polite and gentle as introductions are made.

Besides the receptionist’s desk, there is exactly one (1) piece of furniture in the lobby, a small modular couch.  I immediately try to get out of everyone’s way at once and trip over it.

We move from the lobby into a conference room which is currently bustling with a startling variety of wrestlers who work backstage now.  I recognize Terry Taylor, Billy Gunn, Adam Pearce.  Funaki wanders through.  Dan speaks some Japanese to him and they have a quick, friendly conversation.  I trip over a rolling chair and run into a table.

Next is a side conference room with videoconferencing set up to communicate with Stamford.  I walk in and–  Look, just assume that every new room we enter, I manage to trip over some piece of furniture or equipment, it will save both of us a lot of time.  After the videoconference room, we make our way down a hall past a medical bay, and Gotch and English explain that the Performance Center has actual on-the-spot immediate medical attention when wrestlers get injured.  They are patently delighted by and proud of this luxury, and in my overwrought state this happiness at having basic medical care strikes me as the saddest fucking thing I have ever heard.  I think about what this implies about life as an independent wrestler, getting banged up and injured and having to just deal with it or drag yourself to the emergency room if it’s unbearable, and I sniffle quietly to myself as we make our way down another hall to the rehab center, full of shiny machinery and benches and equipment.

In the rehab center I’m introduced to a young wrestler who goes now by the name Kona Reeves.  He’s sitting on a bench, and he smiles up at us, and I actually manage to make a few words of tentative small talk.  Yes, we live in Japan.  No, we’re also visiting relatives, we didn’t fly halfway around the world just to come here.  Not really.

Halfway into a sentence, I realize that Sami Zayn has walked into the rehab center.

Of all the exquisitely awkward moments of the tour, the only one I actually regret is this one, where I freeze so completely that it becomes clear to Kona Reeves that I am no longer entirely aware of his presence.  With a wry look, he extricates himself from the suddenly-defunct conversation, and it dawns on me that there’s no way not to interact with Sami, as the path through to the weight room goes right by him.

“Just relax,” Dan says in an undertone to me as I stumble across the room and am introduced to my favorite wrestler.

He’s having his shoulder checked by a trainer.  He looks tired and distracted, and with an awful jolt it hits me that no one told him that there would be total strangers in the rehab room as he got his shoulder checked to see when he’ll finally be able to wrestle again, that he had no idea he’d suddenly be called upon to be Superstar Sami Zayn.  They say that in wrestling you have to turn yourself up to eleven, and he’s doing his best, but at this point I think seven is about his max.  Since I’m currently clocking in at roughly negative two hundred sixty-seven and dropping fast, I’m impressed.  Small talk happens.  The trainer teases him about his haircut.  Matt Bloom gently suggests we move on into the weight room, and I am more than ready to get out of everyone’s way again, until I realize I’ve forgotten how my ankles work.

I have no fucking idea how my own ankles work.  

It’s actually a shockingly complicated system!  If you think about it (and I wish I hadn’t), there are muscles, and bones, and tendons, and nerves, and they all have to work together at the right time, and I cannot remember how that is supposed to go.  If I could make a gif of my brain at this moment, it would be nothing but static interspersed with desperate diagrams scrounged up from my junior high science classes and flashing at random: joints and phalanges and little tiny shrieking synapses failing to make any connection at all.  With a delusional clarity born of panic, I am suddenly absolutely certain that if I try to move I’m going to topple forward and collide headfirst with Sami’s injured shoulder.  He might miss WrestleMania!  I could end his career!  What the actual hell was I thinking, coming here, it was a tragically terrible idea and now I’m surrounded by charismatic talented tarantulas who can do moonsaults and my ankles don’t work anymore and–

Dan puts a hand on my elbow and tugs me gently until I stagger sideways and thank God, there are my ankles, my long-lost ankles, returned to me at last.  I could kiss them, if I were a lot more flexible and, you know, not in some kind of panicked fugue state at the moment.

“You’re doing fine,” Dan says as I stumble into the weight room, clutching his arm.  The weight room is crowded with wrestlers; on the wall is a board with the weekly records.  All of the women’s records for the week have the name “Lina” next to them:  she hasn’t made her WWE debut yet, so Nia Jax’s real name means nothing to me at this point.  There’s a great deal of high-tech equipment.  “See, look,” Dan says as my feet try to decide which of the many available options I should trip over.  “It’s Finn,” he says as though pointing out the presence of a new tarantula were somehow reassuring.

Utterly numb at this point, I actually manage to talk a little with current NXT champion Finn Balor about the summers in Nagoya (consensus: humid).  It’s practically a relief to interact with someone who’s maybe only my fifth or sixth-favorite wrestler in the world.  Dan–reserved, introverted Dan, who nevertheless loves the spotlight and will light up with glee at the chance to dismantle some idiot in debate, whose office overflows with Lego, who wanted to be an astronaut as a child and reveres NASA, and who admires Finn Balor to an extent he usually reserves only for very important people, like scientists–carries most of the conversation, though.  I smile politely and contemplate giving up, evading my guides and making a break for the door, but that would take me back through the rehab room and that is a hard no-go right now.  

Finn asks if we often go to New Japan shows.  When Dan confesses that we’ve never been, he is politely horrified.  “Oh, you have to go,” he says with mock-severity.  

For myself at the moment–overwhelmed, battered with a dozen emotions and fifteen distinct kinds of panic–his words have the force of an incontrovertible command.  If he’d told me he strongly recommended drinking bleach, I may well have asked him if he had a preferred brand and requested directions to the nearest Home Depot.  I nod in agreement, grateful that Finn is not the kind of person to tell random fans they should go jump off a bridge, and we are gently extricated to move through the weight room into the training area.

After that it’s somewhat easier, mostly because the fear has been burnt out of me into complete disassociation.  Yeah, sure, pit teeming with tarantulas, whatever.  There are seven practice rings, all empty at the moment as wrestlers are on their lunch break.  From the way the the Vaudevillains and Matt Bloom talk as they show us around the room, it’s clear this is basically a pro wrestling paradise:  specially constructed practice rings and equipment all focused on teaching and honing skills.  We are invited to enter a practice ring (I cling to the ropes like a child in a swimming pool, as if I’ll drown if I let go).  Aiden points out that there are webcams connecting the rings to headquarters in Stamford that can be accessed any time, and I decide to clear out of the ring rather than risk hearing a disembodied voice demanding to know what the hell I’m doing there.  

Aiden and Simon let us hold their titles as we have our pictures taken on the practice entrance ramp, and then we are steered back to the greenscreen promo room and invited to cut a promo against them.  I stare in silent, goggle-eyed astonishment at Simon at the very idea and hide in the corner as Dan has a quick debate with Aiden.  At one point he interrupts the tag team champ by reaching out and plucking the mic out of his hands.  Aiden’s eyebrows go up but he plays along, eventually graciously selling his defeat to Dan’s superior debating skills.  Simon and I play the appreciative audience and I applaud, full of quiet second-hand pride.


I drop the car seat down and stare upward, contemplating the day’s events as Route 4 blurs past outside.  Dan glances over at me from the driver’s seat.  “You okay?”

I nod.  “We have to figure out how to buy New Japan tickets,” I say.

“Of course,” Dan says as if I have noted that we should probably figure out a way to continue breathing.

Having established this essential point, I go back over the tour moment by moment, every piece of tripped-over equipment and every inarticulate interaction bright in my memory.  I suspect I should be embarrassed, but somehow I’m not: my awkwardness was so epic that it has apparently charged through “humiliating” and straight on into “amusing” in my brain.  It was an day of great excitement: I saved Sami Zayn’s career by holding very still!  Finn Balor saved my life by not suggesting I drink bleach!  It was all very dramatic, even if the drama was almost entirely between my ears.  And most importantly–

I sit bolt upright.  “I had a conversation with Sami Zayn,” I announce.  “Can you believe it?  Anything is possible in a world where I actually had a conversation with Sami.”

Dan says nothing; I look over to see a familiar expression on his face: the Time to Tell Some Hard Truths expression.  He chews his lip for a second, then takes the plunge: “I think for it to count as a conversation, you kind of have to… well, say something.  I think you might have just looked down at your feet.”

“My ankles,” I correct him mournfully.  Casting my mind back, I have to conclude he’s probably right.  I sink down in my seat, deflated.  The Disney World exits slide by, with their promises of Adventureland, Fantasyland.  Tomorrowland.  

“Still,” I say eventually with hopeful resolution, “I think I’ve really turned a corner.  I think I’ll do a lot better the next time I meet a wrestler.”

(The next day we will go to an NXT taping and I will attend my very first meet and greet.  I’ll walk up to Tyler Breeze and discover he’s even more good-looking in person than on television, and when he smiles at me I will feel as if someone has punched me hard between the eyes.  My vision will go gray around the edges, and in a desperate bid to get out of the way while Dan talks to him, I will try to sidle behind him, only to be informed in no uncertain terms by a security guard that this is Not Okay Behavior.  I will avoid getting tackled by the guard by fleeing the scene to hide somewhere and catch my breath).

“I’m sure of it,” I say, nodding, my determination slowly coming back to me.  “I think I’m really making progress.”

(A year from now we will go to a sponsored breakfast at SummerSlam and I will line up to meet the Usos.  From nine to nine-fifteen I will rehearse saying “Have a good match tonight” over and over until I finally arrive in front of them, at which point I will stammer, go utterly blank, blurt out “GOOD NIGHT!” and slink away to drown my shame in maple syrup).

“Yes,” I say that September day on Route 4, full of the bright optimism that comes from having a conversation with– from almost having a conversation with Sami Zayn.  “Yes, things are going to be better.  I know it.”

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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.

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