APPRECIATION: The Meadow in the Mecca, or, Hope Lives Forever

This piece also appears on Cageside Seats.  I apologize for it being a little scattershot, but I hope the general idea gets across well.  If you’ve never seen the music video for “No Rain” by Blind Melon, be warned: its plot is referenced in this column.

The hardest thing to be is a fan attached to a person, team, or league that not only isn’t doing well, but hasn’t done well for ages on end. In sports, it becomes a pain that can’t be dulled by temporary success, since the worry of the next fall is just around the corner. You don’t dare change teams; they are a part of you. But you feel ashamed, almost uncomfortable as things fall apart. When longtime rivals pity you rather than mock you, it stings all the more.

I can relate; I was that fan. Sport has seen dynasties, but it’s also seen doormats.

Sure, there will always be those who have no hope of competing for national titles, but to them, conference championships and winning records are understood goals. They are your local or regional wrestling promotion, happy when 200 people show up and hoping to keep that number so that they can stay in business. They can be your Division III school, unable to give out even scholarships but happy to knock off their rivals from across the state. Maybe they’re a minor league baseball outfit, filled with guys either going up or going out, whose only contact with a true star will be the one or two games they stop by to rehab an injury.

But then, there are the programs of pity. They honestly should be in a position to do better than they are; heck, with their money and connections, winning the biggest prize is a reasonable goal. But not only do they not achieve it, they’re rooted to the bottom of the table, the back of the pack, unable to move forward without tripping over their shoelaces and knocking themselves out. Imagine being a fan of such a program.

Now let me tell you what it’s like.

I matriculated to the school of my dreams, Duke University, in the fall of 1998. At the time, the men’s and women’s basketball teams were powerhouses. The men’s team still is one of the big names in the sport. But football was on its way to dying. For the next ten seasons, Duke’s record was 0-11 or 0-12 three times and 1-10 or 1-11 two more. In fact, between 1995 and 2007, Duke’s combined record was 22 wins and 125 losses. Duke was a flat-out joke.

I bring this up because to root for a team that is the laughingstock of what it does can be frustrating. You want to hide. You feel like the bee girl at the beginning of No Rain, just searching for a place where the laughter goes away. You’ve pretty much given up on respect – you just want comfort. You don’t have evidence, you don’t have pride, you don’t have success; you just have hope.

And hope can be enough.

In wrestling, hope takes many forms. For most mainstream fans, hope is that their hero will make the comeback, finish the bully, reign supreme. But all of us also have a deeper hope: that someone down at the foot of the mountain will make his way to the top, and we can follow it and experience his meta-story as it concludes. To many lifelong wrestling fans, the names Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, Dallas Page, and Daniel Bryan mean much more because of their long journey, each needing at least 8 years to go from low-level debut to king of the world.

The same can apply to your favorite team or, in wrestling’s case, league. Sure, for most of us, the local promotion at the VFW is content to stay there, but sometimes they get featured – on a website like ours, on local TV channels, or via a video package when one of their stars breaks through to the next level. The small victories, the steps up in credibility, become victories not just for the show or the wrestler, but for its fanbase too. It makes following the group from Day One seem worth all the struggles.

The past few years have seen some incredible stories fit this billing. In men’s basketball, a half-sized program in Wichita punched above its weight to make the Final Four before returning the next season and entering the tournament undefeated. In the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers finally took the last step and won the championship. The English Premier League saw Leicester City win the title, a feat relatively equivalent to Rey Mysterio’s 2006 Rumble triumph. Even Duke football has had its time in the sun, winning its ACC Division in 2013 and getting a nationally televised game with Florida State.

When a long-suffering group – a Cleveland Cavaliers, a Chicago Cubs, a Leicester City – shakes off the doldrums and produces brilliance and success, it’s a feeling like no other. But what if it doesn’t happen?

What if, instead of the Cubs, you’re the Padres? What if, instead of the Buccaneers, you’re the Browns? What if, instead of Leicester City, you’re Leeds United? Teams that have no business causing suffering to their fans… but that every year perform badly. And you know you’ll hear about it from the talk shows, the forums, and everything in between. You’re the bee girl without a field.

During the rough times of Duke’s 10-year stench, I wondered if anyone thought of me – being a fan of the team – as anything but a curiosity. Indeed, the question “Why?” was hard to answer, usually because it was “Why follow the team when the other sports are winners?” But I felt connected to them, so I kept looking. When I found Devils Illustrated through Rivals, there was a place I could read others’ thoughts, others with hope. If I was the bee girl, I’d found the meadow with all the others dressed like me, free to dance as I saw fit.

Finding people who like what you like, who hope for the success you do, can be uplifting. It can be comforting. It’s especially welcome in today’s Internet, where it’s not enough to win but the other person must lose in humiliating fashion. We can talk about bubbles all we want, but to love something that suffers and to hope for its betterment doesn’t mean you’re in denial. It means you have hope.

All of which brings me to the point of this column.

Within the online wrestling world, TNA has been for many years that laughingstock. While no one will admit to taking delight in its misery, many people abandoned it altogether as it went from misstep to misstep on-screen and off it. Through almost 15 years, the company’s ambition out-stepped its ability, and although the performances in the ring were as good as anywhere else – sometimes better; they hosted the best US match of the ’00s – they could never grow as they wanted, and at times even became smaller than where they were a year prior.

The many bizarre decisions, whether regarding personnel hierarchy, mismanagement of funds, or weak leadership, left many wrestling fans to sum up the whole company with “LOLTNA”. It wasn’t worth getting involved to them; any positive wasn’t met with joy, but with cynicism. While “how will they ruin this” is a joking refrain thrown at just about every wrestling company – the people who run wrestling are dealing in inexact science even at the best of times – the question always had an air of sincerity when asked about the Florida-based promotion with the hexagonal ring.

Now imagine you are a fan of this promotion. Maybe it’s because you live in Florida and can attend the shows. Maybe you want to catch on with a group that isn’t the WWE-sized dynasty. Maybe you saw a wrestler you liked there and got hooked. The reason doesn’t matter; the fact is, they are your brand. And your brand is suffering so badly it becomes almost a mark of shame to admit it. You love talking about the industry, but behind the anonymity of the web, no feelings are spared by those who think you naïve or even mentally deficient. Who would ever root for them? Why can’t they just die and make the world better through their absence?

Those bees found their meadow in TNAMecca, though. It’s not much of a site – basically a series of threads like our own Daily – but there was a rule of optimism through it. Those who would show up to spread negativity were quickly sent away. While fandom sometimes took optimistic leaps of faith, such a miscalculation is welcome, even enjoyable, because it shows hope in your brand. You won’t give up on them if you truly think the impossible can happen.

In late 2016, TNA was put under new management. The person who was mostly responsible for the ills and mismanagement had been replaced by a TV-friendly crew that wanted more material for their network. A clean slate was coming. Optimism followed it. But to the rest of the wrestling world, it was a moment of joy as well – the long-suffering TNA fans had their reason to believe it was all worth it, that first “winning season” moment in years. No one felt better about it than TNAMecca.

This week, the founder of that website passed away from cancer at age 45. He lived through the founding of the company in 2002, its sale to the Bad Boss the next year, a spate of self-centered decision making onscreen and a slew of backfiring moves off of it. He lived through statements of personnel on food stamps despite being on national TV, the company being kicked off their home channel twice in two years, paychecks being missed, claims of insolvency, and worry that TNA as he knew it may truly cease to exist. And he got to live just long enough to see the sign of hope.

Now, in the small corner of the internet he created, there is that hope and optimism springing wildly. If the company can make payroll, talent will look to stay. If they look to stay, they’ll gain popularity. If they’re more popular, a bigger network will ask for the show. More eyeballs. More cash flow from merchandise. Maybe even demands for a live tour. Everyone starts somewhere – it’s a journey of 1000 miles to the top, but maybe, just maybe, TNA took its single step to start.

And somewhere in Heaven, a fan with a TNA shirt is enjoying his nirvana – where the Citrus Bowl is packed for their signature event, Bound for Glory. And he hopes, someday, his Heaven will come to pass on Earth.

In memory of Chris Regal, 1971-2017. Recquiescat in pace.