Stand Up, Be Brave

(Quick warning for some bloody imagery below.)

Some moments in wrestling are staggeringly momentous, huge enough to fill a stadium with emotion, so titanic that the audience’s reaction becomes itself part of the moment: the Miz winning the world title; the breaking of the Undertaker’s streak. Some are smaller, more intimate, shared with a group of hundreds at a small show or a live event. Some are so fleeting and personal they may only touch a scattered handful. But whether big as the Silverdome or small as a church basement, if they touch us, we carry them with us always, folded up in a quiet corner of our heart.

Kevin’s year-long program with El Generico is jammed full of moments, piled up one after another in a wild frenzy of storytelling:  fraught staredowns and brawls, chairshots and blood and anguish. But there’s one moment that particularly stands out to me as I make my way through it years after the fact: an exchange in a match about halfway through the feud, in July. At this point, Kevin’s hatred extends, naturally, to fans wearing replica masks to show their support of the luchador, and during this match he spots a guy, a kid (his age is hard to determine; I think he’s got some scruff on his chin, but he’s younger than me, so he’s a kid as far as I’m concerned) wearing a Generico mask in the front row. Early in the match, Kevin seems to mistake the kid for Generico and tries to grab him in his rage, only to be stopped by the luchador.  Later, when the action spills inevitably to the outside of the ring once more, Kevin drags Generico over to the kid and props him up against the barricade for a confrontation.

Dazed and hurt, Generico paws at the masked face in front of him as if bewildered to see a mirror image of himself, driving home the connection between them as Kevin asks:

Now, I cannot stress enough how legit fucking scary Kevin is at this point in his career. He isn’t some kind of cool, controlled scary like Brock Lesnar or Randy Orton: he’s erratic, unpredictable, unsettling. He lurches, he looms; you never know if he’ll laugh or ignore you or scream at you or try to kiss you. He skitters around and lashes out and leers:

He has a tendency to lick the camera lens, as if to slobber on the whole audience at once.

He’s a bloodthirsty bully—and I mean literally bloodthirsty; more and more of his matches are crimson-soaked and he’ll lick blood off his enemies’ skin or his own with relish, or rub it onto his face in an ecstasy of bloodlust.

There are increasingly imaginative and blasphemous uses of blood, like when Kevin gets his hand wet with Colt Cabana’s blood in order to slap Generico across the face:

These gruesome desecrations both thrill and alarm even the relatively hardcore Ring of Honor fans, who despite themselves seem to find his violent brutality intimidating. Chants of “you sick fuck!”–in tones of mingled admiration and horror–become more and more common. People laugh when he crashes into the barricades near them, but it’s a nervous rictus smile. You can nearly see them visibly reminding themselves that this is an actor, someone they are paying money to be scary, even as another, more instinctive part of their brains yammers “Danger danger bloodsoaked predator danger run hide.” They go stiff and awkward as they struggle with the fight-or-flight impulse, they laugh in nervous relief when he moves on at last. I wasn’t really scared, their faces say to their friends, to the world, after he’s safely past.

(They’re lying).

So this kid in the Generico mask, he isn’t even trying to hide it: he’s grabbed on to the barricade in front of him, shaking with fear and anger. The people around him have those careful this is a game, this is an act smiles on, but this kid is all in and he is not backing down, even as Kevin screams at him:

And Kevin doesn’t threaten him, no, here’s the worst part–he’s going to keep hurting Generico until the kid takes off his mask. So if he stays true to the spirit of Generico he makes the body of the wrestler suffer. It’s a cruel, cruel choice, but wrestling is all about staying true to the spirit despite physical suffering, so he not only stands his ground, he escalates the confrontation:

The perfection of that random voice in the crowd suddenly putting it into the simplest terms: “Take it off, he’s hurting him!” The whole confrontation is only about thirty seconds long, but it’s like a scene in a movie, or a tableau in a painting, just a condensed focused clash of wills until it’s Kevin who blinks and turns away:

Only to find that Generico has miraculously gotten his strength back, inspired by the courage of his double, and the luchador goes on the attack once more to continue his year-long struggle against his former best friend.

After watching this match on DVD, I find myself haunted by this scene, by the kid in the Generico mask; my mind keeps coming back to it over and over, fretting over it, gnawing at it. I’m distressed by my intuition that if it had been me, I never would have stood up to Kevin. I would have removed the mask, ruined the moment, failed the test. I’m sure of it. Because I am a… timid person, is perhaps the most polite word. The defining characteristic of my personality is fear, and the list of things I am afraid of seems almost infinite. I almost failed home economics because, as my teacher put it, I was “obviously terrified of the sewing machine.” I never did well in swim lessons because I was afraid to put my face in the water. Articles about insects in a childhood science magazine gave me nightmares for weeks; learning about the infinite emptiness of space triggered a panicked existential crisis. I dread conflict, avoid confrontation; I seem to live my life somewhere between “anxious” and “terrified” at all times. There’s no way I would have said fuck you to a furious Kevin Steen. There’s just no way.

“I would have taken off the mask,” I say to Dan for maybe the tenth time after watching the match. “I would have let them down.”

My distress is so palpable that this time he stops and thinks seriously about it before answering. Eventually he says, “It would have been okay.”

“You think so?” I ask eagerly.

“When you started to take the mask off, Generico would have found the strength to jump up and protect you. It would still have been a great moment, just in a different way.”

“Oh.” He’s right, I realize. Of course they would have found a way to work with anything that happened. They would have kept me from ruining it. I’m comforted by this thought.

But part of me wishes he had answered “You wouldn’t have taken off the mask. You would have stood up. You would have been brave.”

One of the things live wrestling does is give fans opportunities to be brave and to stand up. What each wrestler defines as “brave” and what they ask people to stand up to, stand up for, stand up with can be different. The tone of the challenge can be mocking or inspiring or compassionate. But over and over again you can see audience members suddenly given chances to stand their ground, to face down monsters and come out unscathed, or to give heroes strength to stand up themselves.

Here’s one of my favorites: Kevin Owens, embroiled in his vicious feud with John Cena, is fighting Dolph Ziggler, then a face and allied with Cena. In the middle of the match, when the action spills to the outside, Kevin punches Dolph and sends him crashing into the barricade, near where a group of young fans in bright aqua John Cena caps watches anxiously.

Look at those desperate supportive hands reaching out! But alas, Dolph has fallen slightly short and they can’t reach him. You can see Dolph trying to scoot along the barricade to get closer before Kevin intervenes, dragging him away to attack him again–and this time conveniently send him staggering right into the arms of those waiting kids.

They reach out and touch him, they lay their hands on him and he comes back up at Kevin re-energized, and that’s magic, right there. They stood up for him and with him, they gave him strength, they made a difference.

WWE’s Kevin Owens does all of this differently than Ring of Honor’s Kevin Steen. There’s less chaotic lurching and a more nuanced menace, like a moment in NXT, where Kevin comes to the ring and passes a small fan who boos him but wisely waits until he’s past to unfurl her sign supporting Finn Balor–only to discover she hasn’t gone unnoticed:

It’s like watching an artist who’s always painted in the most vivid oils experimenting gleefully in watercolors. There’s no screaming or lunging: he takes one half-step back and looks at her, that’s all. And by the second time she says “Mom” she’s fine, she’s remembered this is a show and for fun–but that very first split-second? She’s all in, she’s scared. She wavers, but she stands her ground.

Kevin’s brand of challenge is mocking and taunting; especially at live events, where there’s more improvisation and freedom, he’ll respond to fans with threats and insults or simply wry disdain:

He doesn’t tend to hold back much with people who yell abuse at him at these shows (you’re not going to get the better of Kevin Owens in a battle of wits). If you just scream at him, he’s likely to lash out in kind, and with an extra helping of withering disdain. People who are supporting their favorite wrestlers are slightly more likely to be met with anger than contempt–an anger that can be braved if you have someone you’re defending. In all of the examples above the fans are people standing up for someone else: Generico, Dolph, Finn. Standing up for someone else is armor, it’s a shield; maybe monsters can be vanquished, if just for a moment, with enough faith and love.

Some of Kevin’s most brusque takedowns on Twitter are of fans who brag about how they’d beat him in a fight; he has no patience with people who bluster from the safety of their phones.

The second person can’t even stand up to Kevin on Twitter and ends up deleting his threat.

Other wrestlers inspire or threaten or demand; Kevin pushes, he prods, he jabs at people: are you going to stand up? Are you going to be brave? He shakes his head cynically, unsurprised but maybe just a little disappointed: I didn’t think so. 

When talking with a non-wrestling-fan friend about this kind of courage, I catch myself saying reflexively, apologetically: “Well, of course it’s not real, so I know it’s silly to valorize it so much.” But the connection between that bravery and “real” bravery isn’t quite that simple. Even when it’s in response to staged situations, that flash of fear and our response to it can be true. Young fans seem most able to access that authentic emotion, but at its best wrestling can get any of us to, for a moment, believe in the truth of the peril and respond to it like a real threat.

There’s a reason, after all, why John Cena is the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s most popular celebrity (over five hundred children struggling to be brave through illness have requested and met with him). And it may not be a coincidence that the off-duty policeman who charged to the scene of a London terror attack to save civilians was wearing a Sami Zayn shirt as he faced down men with knives, unarmed. There’s something there, something that runs true.

Back in 2010, after the kid in the Generico mask tells him to fuck off, there’s a brief break in the action and Kevin charges back over to accost him and then kiss him soundly on the side of the head.

It’s part-assault and part-salute: well played.

Stand up, be brave, wrestling says, and maybe even the monsters can find it satisfying when we do.

Jump ahead in time. It’s March, 2016, and WWE has a live event in Minneapolis, where Dan and I will be visiting family. Time is tight, and I suggest to Dan that we skip this one.

“No way,” says Dan. He reminds me that Sami Zayn (who I still have not seen wrestle live after over a year of trying) showed up at the Royal Rumble two months ago, that his debut on the main roster must be happening any day now. “We’re within walking distance of the Target Center; if he’s at this show and we didn’t bother to attend, I don’t even want to know how you’ll react.” I get the impression he’s a little worried that if Sami ends up on the card, I may well walk to the Target Center, lie down on the ground next to it to be as close to Sami’s match as possible, and freeze to death, like some kind of wrestling version of The Little Match Girl. I feel the original story could probably be improved with some suplexes, but I allow him to talk me into going. We even decide to get VIP tickets for the first time. And on a bitterly cold Minnesota night I put my faithful Sami Zayn t-shirt on over a warm turtleneck and join Dan (in his El Generico shirt) to walk, shivering, to the Target Center.

(Sami does not get added to the card. He starts doing house shows two days later. I won’t see him wrestle in person for another five months, in Brooklyn at SummerSlam).

VIP passes mean you gather in a group and are led to a room where you all wait for a few superstars (no guarantees as to whom) to show up for photos and autographs. We get to know each other a little as we wait—the kids in their Cena gear, the young woman who drove from Wisconsin for a chance to see Dean Ambrose, the excited couple who can’t believe A.J. Styles is actually in the WWE at last. They’re a good group. We are thrilled when Kalisto, the current U.S. champion, shows up and lets us hold his title during pictures.

After Kalisto, the guide asks the group which superstar they’d really like to see, and the response is loud and immediate: most of the room really wants to see Dean Ambrose. My tentative “Kevin Owens?” remains a whisper—Dean is on the card to fight Kevin for the Intercontinental title tonight, so I’m reluctant to call attention to myself in a room full of Dean’s fans (or, well, ever). The guide grins and says she’ll see what she can do, then disappears. We wait in anticipation, then burst into happy applause as the door opens and Dean Ambrose shambles in.

He seems slightly startled at our enthusiasm, bewildered that people would be this thrilled to take pictures with him; as though he was a random roadie they grabbed and dragged to this room for some reason. A small, cynical part of me wonders if it ever becomes difficult to seem surprised by adulation after years of rooms full of awed children and tongue-tied fans. But it’s charming as hell, and by the time I get my picture taken with him (in the resulting photo we have matching bemused, slightly alarmed expressions) I like him even more than I had before. Dan tells him he enjoyed his recent Table for Three appearance and Dean snorts laughter as he signs his autograph book. Everyone—even me—wishes him luck against Kevin tonight as he ambles out the door again.

We are led down to the ring, to our seats. Dan and I are in the second row. All of us sit, enjoying the slow build of noise and anticipation as the Target Center fills up, talking quietly together. The Dean Ambrose fan from Wisconsin is still a little shaky at getting to meet him; we reassure her that she did just fine.

The music and the lights come up and the show starts.

The show is fun.  AJ Styles defeats the Miz, the New Day and the Usos have a good match. By the time Dean and Kevin take the ring we’re all energized and ready to go. Kevin is wonderfully awful, and the Dean-loving crowd is enjoying hating him. He does something underhanded or contemptuous, I forget exactly what, and Dan, nettled, yells “Olé!” at him tauntingly, then yells it again for good measure.

A moment after, Kevin wrestles Dean down to the mat into a headlock so that he’s facing our side of the ring. As he throttles his opponent, shaking his head mockingly at our anger, his gaze flicks across the seats, pausing nowhere. If he sees two people in El Generico and Sami Zayn shirts, he gives absolutely no sign as he continues to torment Dean.

But when Dean finally breaks the headlock, Kevin grabs him into his move that starts off like his indie finishing move, the package piledriver, but finishes with dumping his foe off onto the mat. The first time he did it in WWE, against John Cena, Dan cursed out loud in shock and has called it the “Package Trolldriver” ever since. He doesn’t do it often, but every time he does it’s like a sudden quick kick to the ribs, a reminder that oh yeah, this is the same guy I’ve seen bathed in blood, laughing.

I’m actually literally in this gif, a pale oval smudge in the second row.*

And then, as Dean reels and tries to recover, Kevin leaves the ring and grabs a chair.

The crowd shrieks with gleeful fury, but all I feel is terror, because no one who has loved El Generico will ever be able to see Kevin wield a chair and truly keep their composure. Dan remembers that I howled “OH NO YOU DON’T” at the top of my lungs, but I have no memory of it.  My mind is playing a triple-speed infinite loop of Kevin destroying Generico, as if it’s superimposed on the scene unfolding in front of me. I’ve seen him do this. I know he’s capable of it. My heart’s pounding. I can’t breathe.

Climbing back in the ring, Kevin winds up with the chair, ready to swing it at the back of Dean’s head.

Panic seizes me by the throat, and in one cut-crystal flash of horror I know that nobody realizes the danger Dean Ambrose is in, this is a known chair-wielding maniac and nobody is doing anything, they don’t know, he is going to murder Dean right here in front of us and nobody is doing anything, nobody is doing anything–

The referee grabs the chair out of Kevin’s hands, because of course he does, there is absolutely no way Kevin is going to kill his co-worker in the ring, what a ridiculous thing to think, no one in the world would think that.

There’s cool metal beneath my fingers and I realize that my hands are gripping the chair in front of me. I look down. I have risen one inch from my seat. Just the tiniest amount, no more than you could move in a tenth of a second of pure panic.

I stare at my hands. I stare at the ring. Then I carefully sink back down onto my seat.

I am a timid person. My personality is defined by my fears, and my list of fears is infinite: sewing machines and water and raising my voice, army ants and disappointing people and the heat death of the universe. I am surrounded by thousands of screaming, cheering people, and none of them know that for one split-second, one tiny sliver of an instant, I was on my way to leap the barricade and try to save Dean Ambrose.

But I do.

I know.

The crowd noise rises and falls in waves as Kevin gets disqualified, as he takes a Dirty Deeds and retreats. It eddies around me as we clap for Dean, angry and triumphant in the ring. I stare at my applauding hands as if at a stranger’s, a stranger who would be brave enough to leap to someone’s defense without thinking, a person I never believed existed. In that moment, I find myself thinking of that kid in the Generico mask, standing up for his hero, and a vision of the future comes to me then, clear and bright. And like all of the best things about wrestling it may not be real but I swear to you it’s true.

In that vision it’s maybe fifty or sixty years in the future, in an attic somewhere, piled high with boxes. There’s a skylight that lets one shaft of dusty light fall onto a small group of young people who are sorting through the boxes, going through their grandfather or their great-uncle’s belongings. As they work they tell stories about him: times when he was kind or stubborn, funny or annoying; times he helped them, times he stood up for what he believed in. They go through the boxes, the kind we all have tucked away somewhere, filled with the little things we collect in our lives and hold on to and don’t let go of: ticket stubs and seashells, pressed leaves and love letters. The reminders of moments which became part of us and made us who we are. The things we carry with us always.

One of them opens a box and looks inside, then starts to laugh.

“What in the world–? Take a look at this,” she says as she takes out a piece of red and black cloth, white ties like streamers trailing behind it.

Smiling, she lifts the mask up so that it catches the light.

“I wonder what it meant to him,” she says. “I wonder why he kept it all these years.”

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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.


  1. Stef
    November 30, 2017

    “It May not be real, but I swear to you it’s true.” might be the best sentence I’ve read about any facet of popular culture ever.

    • J.J. McGee
      November 30, 2017

      Ah, thanks! The best art is true no matter how unreal it is, right? Wrestling just tricks us by pretending its “realness” is actually important so much of the time…

  2. Kieron
    December 1, 2017

    Did you knowingly lift that “real /true” thing from Pratchett? It’s one of his recurring themes across multiple books, but especially Hogfather.

    Another excellent article. You’re ready good at this 🙂

    • J.J. McGee
      December 9, 2017

      I did not, actually! I never managed to get into Discworld, but from what I know of Pratchett, I am not at all surprised it was a theme of his.

      I’m so glad you liked it, thanks for letting me know!

  3. Kieron
    December 13, 2017

    Read Hogfather, even if you never read another of his. I think you’d appreciate it. you have some very similar thoughts 🙂

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