Reader Henry Jenkins reporting…

Last night I went to the WWE RAW taping at the Amway Arena in Orlando, Florida, marking the official end of Wrestlemania weekend. I’m exhausted but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Saturday’s Hall of Fame ceremony feels like it must have been a week ago, not just 48 hours. I cannot say with any certainty what I have or haven’t witnessed this weekend. What I can say is that Sunday I walked away feeling like I’d seen one of the two or three greatest moments in the history of Wrestlemania (“I’m sorry. I love you,”) and last night I walked away feeling sure I’d seen one of the greatest moments in the history of wrestling. Was it? Let me come back to that.

The night started out with some very small time but enjoyable wrestling – a Snitsky squash match, a DH Smith heel turn. Charlie Haas had a perplexing match in which he disappeared under the ring and a man emerged wearing a mask with new strength and vitality. No one could figure out quite who the masked man was. But when he the mask came off it was still Charlie Haas. Why did he put on the mask in the middle of the match? Don’t ask me. I almost wonder if the mask came off by accident and it was supposed to be a mystery, since I never actually saw how it ended up on the mat.

The RAW crowd was much more uninformally anti-Cena than the Wrestlemania crowd, perhaps because the average age seemed to skew towards 20-somethings as opposed to the full spectrum of old men, mothers and children that were there last night. It’s interesting how Triple H has come to be the favorite again despite being an 11 time champion of recent memory and neither the freshest nor the best underdog.

One of the more entertaining parts of the evening was that there was a group of six or seven big guys behind me who kept singing at the top of their lungs all night in an effort to get on camera. “There’s only one Randy Orton, only one Randy Orton. Walk’n along, sing’n a song, walk’n in an Orton wonderland.” Every time Orton was in the ring they sang almost continuously. The crowd was red hot for the Matt Hardy and Randy Orton match and never saw the ending coming. I thought the RKO was very well played.

There was a noticeable gender divide in the Maria and Santino Marella feud. The men were laughing hysterically at Santino Marella and giving him a big round of applause for lines like “Women oughta be in the kitchen making pasta and babies.” The girl in front of me was just seething. Then the men gave a genial pop when the women tore Santino apart and the girl in front of me seemed to be eating it up. Then the mood shifted again when Maria drove her head into Santino’s crotch. Someone shouted without a trace of irony “I’d give anything to be Santino right now!” She had been laughing at Santino but then turned around and scowled at the fan.

The advertised John Cena and Chris Jericho vs. Randy Orton and JBL main event, which had then been changed to Cena and Finlay vs. Orton and JBL, was canceled without explanation, but no explanation was really necessary. It would have been anti-climactic. Flair had to end the show. In a fit of whimsy I texted a friend who was watching at home to say about Flair’s Farewell Address, “Best moment in wrestling history” and he corrected me. “Great segment.” That seemed a little conservative – they have great segments a lot of weeks – but I’ve since realized why we were both right. For one thing, the full experience could not have translated to television. For another, the television cameras cut off about ten minutes before I thought they did and a number of the best moments were lost.

John Cena gave Flair the Marine salute. The Undertaker came down to the ring and lowered himself in respect, bowing his head down in submission. The Undertaker doesn’t lower himself before anyone. That’s like Bret Hart tapping out. It was a big statement. Vince McMahon came down to the ring and raised Flair’s hand. Flair called his family into the ring for one last pose, then led the entire crowd back up the isle, waited while they went through the curtain, turned to the crowd and gave one last “Woo!” and a kiss before disappearing behind the curtain. I think they lost a lot by cutting all of that.

The part that doesn’t translate – that can’t – is the energy in the air. We screamed, and screamed, and screamed, and our throats hurt and our voices broke so we found a register that we could still scream in, hoarse, ragged, exhausted, absolutely unwilling to stop as a matter of pride and respect. We didn’t have to save our voices for Wrestlemania the next day. We were willing to go without talking much for 24 hours if need be. Not as many people in the crowd cried as after the retirement match, likely because the emotion was less one of tragedy and more one of celebration, but there were still plenty. We became this impossible age, old enough to fully appreciate who JJ Dillon was, or why it was special to see Flair hugging Steamboat, but young enough to completely mark out and not to feel ashamed about it.

Walking to the taxi a group of men in their late twenties were trying to sum up what they’d just been through. One of them said, “Wrestling has been our lives since we were little kids. We’re celebrating our lives.” It’s time to turn the page. The time for celebrating Ric Flair is over. He cannot wear out his welcome through overexposure the way that Rey Mysterio did two years ago. He must not become overrated or canonized as a saint. It’s time for Matt and Jeff Hardy, Randy Orton, MVP, John Morrison and CM Punk to shine. But the time for celebrating Flair was here and it was great.

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