Age 7: Ric Flair
It’s hard for me to relate when my friends talk about being a fan of a baseball team for life, growing up around the game, their dad taking them to the stadium. In my family, we watched pro wrestling.
We often gathered on Sundays at my grandma’s house in West Bay. Young cousins darted around the yard, tiny sneakers slapping against marl. Inside, foil trays brimmed with rice and peas, oxtail, and jerk chicken. We ate and laughed and congregated in front of the TV as wrestlers did battle.
At that time in the Cayman Islands, there was no cable and no broadcast TV. You either were rich enough to buy a satellite dish or you rented bootleg videos from someone who had one. We fell in the latter group. Most weekends, I’d drive with my dad to the little shop overlooking Seven Mile Beach behind an Esso station and grab the newest wrestling tape: Wresting Challenge, World Championship Wrestling, Clash of the Champions, Saturday Night’s Main Event.
My grandma pretended not to like it, but she knew just about every wrestler.
She thought Ted DiBiase was pure evil. She marveled anew each time she saw Andre the Giant. Every time The Bushwhackers came out, she’d say, “Those idiots again?”
Like the stereotypical old woman who once was a staple in the front row of every wrestling event, my grandma detested all the heels. Ric Flair especially irked her. “All he does is cheat,” she’d gripe.
As for me, I was always in awe of him. His stage presence filled up the screen. He captivated while just walking to the ring. His robes glittered in the spotlight. And I thought he was the smartest man in all of wrestling.
Every night, the babyface would have him on the ropes and Flair would somehow outthink him. Maybe it was a pair of brass knuckles pulled from his tights or a foot on the ropes, but he would always find a means to escape.
Flair, the slick-dressed leader of the Four Horsemen, embodied the pageantry of wrestling, showcased the power of charisma, and told great stories in the main event time in and time out. He also had the attribute that most mattered to me at that age—he was cool, the coolest to be exact.
I was hooked on this crazy sport.
Age 9: Ultimate Warrior
I never liked Hulk Hogan. Maybe I was born a little smark or maybe it was just my preference for darker characters, but his ‘real American’, ‘say your prayers; eat your vitamins’ act always grated on me. I got tired of seeing as WWF champion, the center of the show, the same script playing out.
For a time, the way to my heart as a wrestler was to oppose The Hulkster. I rooted for Bad News Brown, for Big Boss Man, for Jake Roberts, anyone I thought had a chance to end Hogan’s reign.
It didn’t seem that anyone could keep him down. No matter how big or vicious you were, Hogan would just feed off the crowd’s energy, shake off his pain, and vanquish his foe.
Then came Ultimate Warrior blasting through the competition.
I loved his percolating energy, his colorful tassels flapping from his biceps, his blow-you-away power. He was a musclebound whirlwind, a comic book hero come to life. Best of all, I was convinced this was the dude who could take down Hogan.
At WrestleMania VI, that premonition came true when Warrior beat Hogan to become double champ. To that point, that main event was the most I had ever been invested in a match. My new favorite had dethroned the guy I had long rooted against. My heart was full.
It was sometime during this period when I heard an Ultimate Warrior-headlined show was coming to Cayman.
You have to understand first our little island hosted almost nothing, especially back in the ‘80s. REO Speedwagon was there one year. And that’s it. Now, all of a sudden, a top WWE star was headed to the Lion’s Club? I was giddy for weeks.
In the bleachers with my parents, I watched wrestlers I’d never heard of collide in the ring. The main event came and there I stood with tightened fists and thumping heart waiting for him to sprint out. Instead, a far thinner man ran to the ring. “His opponent…Ultimate Warrior II!” the announcer called out.
I scowled for the rest of the night. I still can’t decide if I felt more betrayed then or when I found out it was my mom eating the cookies we left out for Santa Claus. After the show, I made it a point to ask for everyone’s autograph except the Ultimate Warrior knock-off.
As for the real Warrior, my interest in him faded after Hogan was out of the way. I was getting older and the rope-shaking hero got left behind for new idols.
Age 13: Shawn Michaels
At this point, I was dead serious about becoming a wrestler myself. I watched matches over and over, taking notes in a Mead notebook, trying to absorb what made the great ones great.
I made my parents’ bed my practice area, elbow-dropping and clotheslining pillows.
One time, trying to mimic some 2 Cold Scorpio move, I flipped around the bed until I crashed into my dad’s weight bench. My foot hit the stacked weights and I kneed myself hard in the mouth. It was going to be tough explaining to my parents why my front tooth was caved in.
On occasion, I convinced my younger sister Sara to take the pillows’ place.
Sara was fully on Team Bret Hart while I loved Shawn Michaels. I borrowed his teardrop suplex and did an elbow drop as close to his as I could. One of the only times she won one of our matches was when she cranked on the Sharpshooter until I was in tears.
My sister loved Bret because she thought he was a nice guy. Michaels appealed to me, much like Flair, because of his bad boy charisma.
But I was at an age, too, where I was appreciating the in-ring aspects a lot more. I was starting to take notice of the smoothness of counters, the infusion of lucha-inspired moves, crisp execution. The larger-than-life characters pulled me into the medium; the workhorses deepened my love for the art.
Micheals’ matches wowed me over and over.
His Intercontinental Championship defense against Marty Jannetty on Raw in 1993 and his work as one half of The Rockers caught my attention. But the ladder match against Razor Ramon at WrestleMania X truly blew me away.
As Michaels dove around the ring, steel banging against flesh, the limits of what wrestling could be were changing right before my eyes.
Age 17: Stone Cold Steve Austin
Right as I was finishing middle school, my parents split up. My mom moved us to Houston in a hurry afterward, and before I could process anything, my sister and I were sleeping on the carpeted floor of my uncle’s apartment a thousand miles from my dad, my cousins, my grandma, and my home. I suffered a bad bout of culture shock going from small island to big city, too.
Combine those life changes and the explosive blend of hormones surging in my lanky body, and the result was an angry teenage boy who pushed back against authority.
When the mud hole-stomping, beer-chugging version of Steve Austin came around, he resonated with me on a deep level. I’d loved his work in WCW as the TV champ and teaming with Brian Pillman, but this Austin was larger, more electric. His swagger, his fuck-you attitude, his courage to take on authority was everything I wished I could be at the time.
I played as Austin in video games, trying to win the Royal Rumble from position one. I wore an Austin 3:16 T-shirt to school. I watched Raw mostly to see what he would do next.
For a moment, in a high school play of all places, I was able to borrow a bit of Austin’s magic.
Our school put on a production of the musical Bye Bye Birdie and I landed the small part of Hugo while my friend James played the lead, Conrad Birdie.
In my big scene, I was jealous of the cocky, charming singer and was supposed to ruin his big night by attacking him. The stage directions simply said to hit him. And on many nights, we faked one big punch and that was that.
During a performance only for the students, though, I proposed something a bit different. I convinced James to let me nail him with a Stone Cold Stunner. He didn’t know a thing about Stone Cold but thought it sounded cool and went along with the plan.
Those few seconds feel like they happened yesterday. A kick to the stomach, a grab of his neck and boom, a stunner a la Stone Cold. James sold the hell out of it, flopping face first on the stage. An absolute eruption from the crowd rumbled through the place.
Age 25: Kenta Kobashi
The people that told me a liberal arts degree was worthless sure seemed right when I went from college graduate to cashier at a Whole Foods in Berkeley. I followed a girlfriend out to California right after college looking for newness and adventure. It didn’t take long before the girl was gone, and the real world pushed adventure to the side.
The cherry on top was that my shoulder was dislocating all the time thanks to an old injury. I could be doing something as banal as wiping down a table with a rag and it’d pop out. I collapsed each time and jammed my arm back into place.
Eventually, I had no choice but to get surgery. A long recovery felt far longer with few friends and no family in California.
I spent a lot of that alone time playing video games, writing, riding the BART, and eating veggie burgers at Smart Alec’s. Somewhere during my wandering around the Bay Area in a sling, I discovered a tape of All Japan and fell in love with what Kenta Kobashi did in a wrestling ring.
Kobashi’s magnetism was special. He came off like a mythological figure, an immortal chopping chests and cracking heads in Olympus.
It didn’t matter that I couldn’t speak his language or that I didn’t know the full context of his battles. Kobashi told a captivating story each time out that transcended all that.
I had to gobble up everything I could find of him. Every match I saw of his was my new favorite all-time match. His series against Mitsuharu Misawa was glorious. His battles with Toshiaki Kawada left my jaw dropped and buzzing.
Mr. Burning Hammer turned out to be my gateway to Japanese wrestling. While searching for my next fixes of Kobashi action, I discovered some of the other All Japan and NOAH greats, as well as the glory of joshi. It felt as though I had lived in a house for years; a place I thought I knew, only to discover a passage to an entire wing I had yet to step into.
Age 30: Daniel Bryan
2011 was quite the eventual year. I got married. I had a novel published. It’s also the year I started writing for Bleacher Report.
I had been a wrestling hobbyist before. Now I felt like I had to be an expert. People were going to be reading my thoughts on wrestling, after all. I tried to fill the gaps in my knowledge by way of DVDs and YouTube wormholes. Along the way, I dug deep into Bryan Danielson/Daniel Bryan’s catalogue.
I watched him get his ear busted courtesy of Takeshi Morishima and soldier on. He was masterful in his series with KENTA. His bouts with Nigel McGuinness were some of the best stories I’d ever seen told.
The more I saw him wrestle, the deeper I fell in love with the art. Bryan’s style is simultaneously pretty and vicious. It’s theater. It’s a mat wrestling exhibition. It’s pure, uncut emotion that bleeds through the TV screen.
When SmackDown came to the Toyota Center in Houston in October of 2011, Bryan and Tyson Kidd had a testy exchange backstage that led to a match. Bryan marched down to the ring and I stood up, roaring, hooting, clapping. Not a single person in my section made a sound, and I had the urge to talk to all of them one by one and spread the gospel of Bryan.
That December, Bryan cashed in the Money in the Bank briefcase to become World Heavyweight Champ. I pumped my fist in the air. I was thrilled. I hadn’t cared as much about a champion being crowned since I was a kid.
Bryan had intensified my already intense passion for wrestling.
Age 40: Momo Watanabe
Bleacher Report burned me out.
I was writing 15 to 20 articles a week. I watched every Raw, every SmackDown, every NXT, every PPV, every special. My editors asked me to write about CM Punk and Brock Lesnar ad nauseum. I graded and recapped matches on the spot until I developed tendonitis in both wrists.
It was a dream job in a sense, but man was it wearing down my love of wrestling.
When I left B/R in 2018, I wasn’t sure how much I’d watch now that it wasn’t required. As it turns out, a bunch. The difference, though, was that I was free to bounce around outside the WWE realm. I amped up my New Japan viewing. I popped on more indie shows. I dove headfirst into STARDOM.
I had seen a good number of Io Shirai, Kairi Hojo and Mayu Iwatani matches, but had never fully followed the promotion. When I did, Momo Watanabe made me an instant fan.
The first thing I noticed about her was her kicks. It looked like she was trying to boot her opponents through the uprights for a 50-yard field goal.
But she’s clearly more than a heavy-hitter. Watanabe’s swagger, her dramatic displays of suffering, her speed, her presence – it all screams star.
It’s especially exciting to watch her knowing that she’s only 20 and already so damned good. Who knows what her ceiling is. We could be witness to the early stages of an all-time great.
When Watanabe hits a Peach Sunrise, it sends a jolt to my heart. I feel the same sense of awe and elation as I did watching Ric Flair cling to the world title when I was kid. She is the latest larger-than-life figure – the latest badass in wrestling boots to win me over.
The beauty of wrestling is that it offers so many varied characters and artists who approach the medium in their own way. There is always a new warrior to connect to as you grow older and as your taste changes. It’s a menagerie where the human bulldozer Tomohiro Ishii exists next to the joint-abusing grappler Shayna Baszler. It’s a wild and one-of-a-kind place that I been visiting since I grew up on the stuff, just a wide-eyed kid in the Caribbean.