When Wrestling Is 'Physical Theater,' Fans See Art In The Ring

Nov 14, 2017
Originally published on November 17, 2017 1:29 pm

Jeff Melton is an unabashed fan of professional wrestling.

As part of Morning Edition's exploration of how fandoms help shape identity, our producers spent a night amid the smoke, strobes, spandex and screaming fans at a pro wrestling match with Melton, 40, and his friend Adrian Rohr, 42, who had traveled four hours from Charlotte, N.C., to Atlanta.

For Melton, wrestling offers not only an escape from stress but also a way to connect — with other wrestling fans like Rohr as well as with the storylines in the ring. Here, Melton, in his own words, shares how wrestling has been a part of his life since growing up as a Jehovah's Witness.

This has been lightly edited for clarity.

I started watching as a kid about 6 years old. The first time I saw it on TV, the first person that I remember is Chief Wahoo McDaniel, and he was a big, huge character who came out with a huge Indian headdress, and that immediately caught my attention.

They were just losing their minds on the TV screen and that really appealed to me.

Growing up as a Jehovah's Witness, that type of entertainment strictly wasn't allowed. You go to school, you're not allowed to partake in anything. I wasn't able to do any sports, of course, they don't believe in birthdays or holidays, so you always had to ask to be excluded from the class when that stuff is going on.

I went to church four to five nights a week, and also on a Sunday. But definitely if the parents had to be out running errands or out paying bills or something [and] you definitely had a chance to get to the TV, you definitely took an opportunity for it.

I grew up in a very blue-collar kind of family. It's definitely escapism, whether you're working a crappy job or you're going to school and you're having a bad day at school. There's definitely a lot of escapism into it.

If you've had a bad day at work or a bad week at work you can go there and just let all your stress out.

People are cheering and booing for everyone and saying things they probably wouldn't say in front of their moms.

There's a lot of stories that go through pro wrestling but usually the favorite ones that I had were not necessarily the good versus the evil but maybe the bossman versus the worker. Especially when I started in to the workforce, if you're low- or medium-income, you're just constantly clocking in and clocking out — not really willing to say what you need to say. There's been times I've wanted to punch my boss, but in real life you can't do that. But if you see somebody doing it on TV or in a live arena, that's awesome to me.

I have been pushed around a lot in life. So that's probably why the storylines in wrestling appeal to me.

Vince Pearson is a producer at Morning Edition. Tyler Hill is a news assistant for Morning Edition.

Digital News producer Heidi Glenn adapted this story for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right, so some people are into wizards and hobbits. Other people live for their sports team. Others love musicians. We're all fans of something, right? Well, fandom can play a big role in a person's life. It's the foundation of friendships. If you dig a little deeper, it can really reflect something personal.

This week, we're doing a series of stories about this, asking fans why they like what they like. And today, we're going to meet Jeff Melton from Charlotte, N.C. His passion is professional wrestling. He and his friend Adrian Rohr drove more than four hours to watch a regional pro wrestling event that was being taped for TV, and that's where our producers met up with him.

JEFF MELTON: Hello, my name is Jeff Melton.

ADRIAN ROHR: This is Adrian Rohr.

MELTON: And tonight, we're at Ring of Honor Wrestling at Center Stage in Atlanta, Ga.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting, unintelligible).

ROHR: We're just here for the night just to see this one show and meet up with friends. That's really what wrestling has become for us. It is just a way to build our friendships.

MELTON: The experience is like none other. We just enjoy the action, and we love making as much noise as we possibly can.

(CHEERING)

ROHR: When I'm watching a wrestling show, I just sort of disconnect from the stresses and worries of the world and just be consumed by what's happening in that ring.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED WRESTLER: (As character) Whoa, whoa, whoa, golden boy, I know you're so used to getting everything you want.

MELTON: I believe that it's an art form - just a different interpretation of a form of art. People might - may be more familiar with theater. I prefer to call professional wrestling physical theater.

(APPLAUSE)

MELTON: Well, I've personally been into wrestling - I started watching as a kid about 6 years old. Yeah, the first time I saw it on TV - just the first person that I remember is Chief Wahoo McDaniel. And he was a big, huge character who came out with a huge Indian headdress, and that immediately caught my attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Listen, Wahoo, you and I are good friends, right?

EDWARD MCDANIEL: (As Wahoo McDaniel) Jones (ph), we used to be good friends. Don't put me on that plateau with you anymore.

MELTON: They were just losing their minds on the TV screen, and that really appealed to me. Growing up as a Jehovah's Witness, you know, that type of entertainment strictly wasn't allowed. You know, you go to school, you're not allowed to partake in anything. Like myself, I wasn't able to do any sports. Of course, you know, they don't believe in birthdays or holidays.

So you always have to ask to be excluded from the class when that stuff's going on. I went to church four to five nights a week and also on a Sunday. But definitely, you know, if the parents had to be out running errands or out paying bills or something, you definitely had a chance to get to the TV. You definitely took an opportunity for it.

(CHEERING)

MELTON: So right now, we're going to watch Chase Brown. And he's on the first TV episode taping tonight.

ROHR: OK, so Chase Brown is from the North Carolina area. He's sort of carved out a niche for himself with a very unique character. He had a little bit of the cauliflower ear that comes from wrestling and kind of ran with that. And actually, he comes to the ring with cauliflower and sort of uses it to give him power during the match. And so if he's down and he gets a hold of that cauliflower, he might eat some of it. He might use it as a weapon against his opponents.

MELTON: The cauliflower is the same as spinach for Popeye. He uses it as a power-up (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Weighing 205 pounds - Cauliflower Chase Brown.

MELTON: Chase Brown, woo (ph).

I grown up - I grew up in a very blue-collar kind of family, myself, personally. It's definitely escapism. Whether you're working a crappy job or you're going to school and you're having a bad day at school, there's definitely a lot of escapism into it.

All right, well, the match just started, and it's Chase Brown versus Silas Young. And right now, Silas Young is working a headlock on Chase Brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAM)

MELTON: And Chase just eats a huge shoulder tackle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Yelling, unintelligible).

MELTON: (Booing).

If you've had a bad day at work or a bad week at work, you can go there and just let all your stress out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAM)

MELTON: And a huge monkey flip by Chase Brown.

People are cheering and booing for everyone and saying things they probably wouldn't say in front of their moms.

(BOOING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Unintelligible) You suck.

MELTON: Yeah, there's a lot of stories that go through pro wrestling, but usually, the favorite ones that I had was usually not necessarily the good versus the evil but maybe the boss man versus the worker, especially when I started into the workforce. If you're lower, medium income, you know, you're just constantly clocking in and clocking out, you know, not really willing to say what you need to say. You know, there's been times I've wanted to punch my boss.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAM)

MELTON: But in real life, you can't do that.

Hold on, mayhem has erupted here on Center Stage.

But if you see somebody doing it on TV or in a live arena, you know, that's awesome to me.

Whoa, they're going after the ref, security, everybody else.

I have been pushed around a lot in life. So that's probably why the storylines and the wrestling appeal to me, myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAMS)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) One, two three. (Cheering).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG BOSS MAN")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Big boss man, can't you hear me when I call?

GREENE: Those were wrestling fans Jeff Melton and Adrian Rohr.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG BOSS MAN")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Big boss man, can't you hear me when I call? Can't you hear me when I call? Well, you ain't so big. You know, you're just tall. That's all. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.