Tucked inside the curtained confines of Glendale Studios, marked by a boisterous yet intimate gathering on a clear California afternoon, sat a time machine.
A four-sided DeLorean, if you will — marked by turnbuckles, an apron, inhabited by misunderstood and underappreciated gladiators and surrounded by vocal and loyal fans — is at the center of it all.
Therein lied my younger days.
I can't remember how young I was when my Dad took me to the Fabulous Forum to see NWA Wrestling. I vaguely remember standing in the aisle, pointing at Lex Luger, telling him how much he "sucked," my Dad laughing uncontrollably next to me and Luger pointing straight at me and motioning that he was going to break me in half. It was the first of many trips.
And on a Sunday in Glendale I got to take a trip down memory lane, only this time I got to go behind the curtain.
Just about every month "NWA Championship Wrestling from Hollywood" tapes its weekly television shows at Glendale Studios, cramming roughly four hours and four weeks' worth of action and storytelling into one crazy afternoon.
Most reporters, sports writers or not, could probably care less about such a story. Clearly I'm not one of them.
For me, it was an odyssey into the past.
Gone for the most part are the days of kayfabe, when wrestlers held steadfast to their characters, the heels (bad guys) always acting the part and never seen with their rival babyfaces (the good guys). So, as the second-story locker room hustled and bustled, I was fortunate to get real answers from real people.
It's hard to get to know somebody in a few minutes, but if you listen well enough you can to a certain extent.
I walked in not exactly sure what my story — or stories as it is now — would be, deciding that I'd let the experience lead the way.
When publicist Marc Kruskol motioned me over to talk to James Morgan, I wasn't even sure I needed to interview him. Truth is I probably didn't, but I was glad I did. A conniving heel on television, Morgan is about as nice a guy as you'll ever meet. On top of that, he busts his butt hoping to one day make it to the big time in the wrestling business while also working 12-hour shifts as a nurse.
Morgan was emblematic of the notion that while I'm certain most naysayers would characterize all professional wrestlers as fitting into the same category, most are very different, all owning their own stories.
Adam Pearce is a world champion who, with all his fiber, believes the NWA championship belt should truly mean something. But it doesn't mean jack to him when it comes to his family — a notion likely hard to believe when most stories told in the mainstream of wrestlers and their families are marked by tragedy.
Colt Cabana is living his childhood dream of becoming a wrestler.
He was just like me and Jose Pool, Aaron Wood, Kevin Martin and Jon Tapia. It's likely you have no idea who they are, but they were my friends — still are — through the years of being closeted wrestling fans, not wanting our other friends and most particularly the fairer sex to know that we were following the nWo, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Mick Foley.
Aaron was the one who would continuously bring up what happened on TV the night before even if we were around girls, which was a no-no in my book and most every other self-respecting high school-aged guy's that watched wrestling.
Jose was the one who tried to pull off every move he saw, once losing half a tooth at a party taking a clothesline and then proceeding to tell everyone that walked through the door exactly how it happened.
Kevin and Jon were right there through it all as the "Attitude Era" — which marked a time roughly between 1997-2000 when wrestling, particularly in the then-WWF hit its popularity peak thanks to realistic characters and adult storylines — changed how everybody viewed wrestling, if only for a small bit of time.
For me, it was one of the best times of my life. Wrestling was as mainstream as it could be. You could talk about it at parties. You could go to events without lying about where you were going. I had a gorgeous girlfriend and I could talk about it with her, too — a rare circumstance in the world of wrestling geekdom.
Shaun Ricker, a 29-year-old who's seemingly a star in the making, was the one most responsible for the nostalgic value of the day. A wrestling fan born of the aforementioned "Attitude Era," Ricker was a drum major, who became a college cross-country runner, who bulked up into the current 6-foot-2, 230-pound budding grappler he is. Truth is, what started as an interview simply fell into a back and forth about the glory days of the industry that had brought us both to a side room at the Glendale Studios among a throng of wrestling fans pining for autographers and T-shirts.
"That was one of the most incredible times," Ricker said. "That's what cemented it [for me].
"I wanted to be Steve Austin, I wanted to be the Rock."
Just after Ricker and I were done recalling the good ole days, I did my last interview. It was with the brilliantly beautiful Shelly Martinez. Thus, I ended the day talking to a gorgeous woman about pro wrestling. Indeed, it was one last reminder of the best of times.
As the day's matches begin to conclude, more and more fans migrate to an adjacent room in which merchandise clutters a table and out-of-character wrestlers congregate. Some are trying to get a meal in, some, if you're Joey Ryan, are trying to watch a Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim ballgame and all are there to talk to the fans. Make no mistake, a good deal of the fans are a little out there. But there's plenty more who are regular old Joes and Jills, working their 9 to 5s and escaping reality on a Sunday afternoon — just like those in the ring they're cheering on, for the most part.
Of course there's more like me who still watch from time to time from afar.
But on this particular Sunday, I was right there, closer than I'd ever been. My Dad has been gone for nearly two years now, but on this sunny Sunday I thought about him as if he was right next to me, watching me cheer and boo my childhood heart out. It's been a long time since I'd even been to a wrestling card, but on this day, I wished Jose and Aaron and Kevin and Jon were right there with me — though unfortunately they don't have beer at the Glendale Studios. All in one day, I felt like a kid, a teenager and, now, a sportswriter, I'm sure unlike most in my profession, who is pretty damn happy that I spent a Sunday with a bunch of dudes wearing tights.
That's just the way I see it, playing second string.