by Lang Whitaker

When I was in the seventh grade, I somehow qualified for a program at my middle school called “Challenge.” This was a class for kids who had either tested well or made good grades, a class for “advanced kids.” I suspect that there were/are like programs with similarly optimistic names at schools all over the country. Instead of going to a social studies class once a day, I went to Challenge. There we did mental exercises and puzzles, we studied books in depth, we grew an indoor herb garden in order to study germination. I suppose this was progressive stuff at the time, though looking back, I’m not exactly sure what we were supposed to take away from the class.

Midway through the year, our teacher, Ms. McQueen, who looked a lot like Lily Tomlin, informed the class that we would each have to conduct a research project as a midterm exam. The paper would have to be at least 10 pages long and it would have to show our ability to conduct proper research. (Google didn’t exist yet.) Could we work our way around a library enough to ferret out as much information as possibly on our topic?

We were allowed to choose our topic, and I chose the WWF. I was, at the time, consumed with professional wrestling. Every Friday night, Channel 36 in Atlanta aired an eight-hour block of wrestling shows called “Superstars Of Wrestling,” and I watched as much as I could stay awake for. Hulkamania and the initial ’80s wrestling explosion had ended, and pro wrestling had become more about feuds and factions and violence instead of kid’s entertainment. Well, maybe not G.L.O.W., the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Looking back now, I realize that was straight T&A.

On “Superstars of Wrestling,” most of the programs aired were from obscure regional wrestling promotions around the South. My favorite match of all time might have been a tag team cage match I watched that was broadcast live from Birmingham, Alabama. The two teams climbed into the ring and then, for reasons that remain unclear, were locked into the ring with something like two dozen handcuffs, which were all allegedly interconnected and supposedly impossible to escape from. As soon as the final lock was clicked and the bell rang to start the match, one of the teams ripped open the canvas and pulled two extra team members from underneath the ring. Then, as the match organizers frantically rang the bell and tried desperately to undo all the handcuffs, the four guys beat the crap out of the two guys for about 10 minutes until they could open all the handcuffs and stop the match.

My favorite organization was the WWF, which not only had the highest production value but also had the funniest storylines and the best athletes. I made sure I tuned in every week to see the guys I really admired, and I even bought Wrestlemania III on pay-per-view. I liked The British Bulldogs, Jake The Snake, Koko B. Ware, Jimmy Snuka, Big John Studd, Junk Yard Dog. I was outraged at the sheer audacity of that rascal Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. I also really liked Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, until “Macho Man” Randy Savage hit him in the throat with the ring bell and put him out of action for an extended time.

(For my research paper, I wrote about the history of bad guys in the WWF in the 1980′s. I received an A, but the next year I was not asked to rejoin the Challenge program. Truth.)

I eventually got into basketball and lost interest in wrestling. In the late ’90s, my friends and I got into the Atlanta-based WCW. With the battle between the WCW and WWF, wrestling experienced a renaissance. At the time I was working for Creative Loafing, Atlanta’s weekly paper, and I wrote a long cover story about WCW. While reporting the story, I spent a day running around Atlanta with Goldberg, the WCW champ at the time. We met up in the morning, and then a limo took us around all day. We went to an autograph signing, had lunch at a Houston’s, did an appearance on a local talk show, then the limo took Goldberg to the airport so he could leave for a match the next day. At one point, while we were stuck in Atlanta traffic, Goldberg pulled out a can of Copenhagen and stuck a pinch in his mouth. He turned and offered some to me, as if every person he offered Copenhagen immediately partook. I’d never used chewing tobacco, but I thought it might make for a more interesting story, so I grabbed and pinch and jammed it in. We didn’t have anything to spit into, so we used champagne glasses from the minibar. Five minutes later, the car felt like it was spinning and I thought I was going to vomit all over Goldberg. What a story that would have been.

Since I moved to New York in 2000, I haven’t watched wrestling much at all. There was a few-month run when I tuned in just to watch The Rock give his speeches, but otherwise, I just lost interest a long time ago. These days, from what I remember, every wrestler looks like a superhero, a video game character. I don’t know the backstories, don’t know the fueds and factions. Plus, it seems like there’s so many pay-per-view events that being a true fan would quickly become very expensive. Mostly, I haven’t had any reason to tune in.

Until tonight. When I heard Shaq would be hosting “WWE Raw” tonight, I actually got kind of excited. I thought at the very least there was potential to spend an interesting two hours. And since Shaq is part of it, I figured I could get away with liveblogging it. FTW!

• Honestly, the last time I watched wrestling was probably two years ago. I’m not even sure who’s in the WWE these days. I’m guessing Vince McMahon will be involved. And Shane. Possibly Linda. And maybe the daughter who got surgically enhanced.

• The broadcast opens in Washington D.C. with Jerry “the King” Lawler in the ring introducing tonight’s guest host. Lawler is wearing a black t-shirt featuring a King playing card made out of rhinestones, which is awesome. He introduces Shaq, who receives what seems like a mostly polite reception. He’s wearing a black dress shirt and black slacks, an oddly muted ensemble.

• I don’t know who the television play-by-play announcer is, but he’s yapping away like a small dog, his voice dripping with inflections and affect. Anyway, he explains that as tonight’s guest host, Shaq has unlimited power and can basically do anything he wants. I hope Shaq does something involving Fu Schnickins.

• Shaq tells the D.C. crowd, “My new teammate LeBron James told me to tell you hello!” Everyone boos him, and Shaq gets a huge smile on his face. Shaq was born to do this.

• Shaq announces that tonight they will find an opponent for Randy Orton at Summer Slam. They will do this by having a five-man playoff, with the fastest winning time advancing to face Orton. That doesn’t make any sense, I know, but that’s what Shaq just announced. Jerry Lawler repeats this, as though him explaining this the exact same way will somehow clarify things. It doesn’t. No idea what they’re talking about. How will five guys fight each other? Regardless, the five guys competing to advance will be Triple H, MVP, Jack Swagger, Mark Henry(!) and John Cena. I didn’t know Mark Henry, who I recall as Sexual Chocolate, was still wrestling. When they showed a still photo of John Cena, he was wearing sweatbands that read “FanNation,” which is of course a website, and which makes me a little sad to have to realize that advertising has now penetrated the wrestling sweatband market. I’m blaming Jimmy Traina. And Arash Markazi, just because.

• I had never heard of MVP before the moment Shaq announced his name and his picture flashed on screen. He’s an athletic guy with braids, wearing a black warm-up suit and a headband with a matching unidentifiable logo on them. He is also rocking a black Breathe-Rite nasal strip. I’m actually kind of surprised more wrestlers don’t wear Breathe-Rite strips; seems like that would be commonplace by now. Oh, except for how YOU CONSTANTLY GET HIT IN THE FACE!

• Shaq seems to be ending the segment by getting the crowd pumped up, when all of a sudden there’s an explosion at the end of the arena and…Chris Jericho comes walking in wearing a suit! Jericho was my friend Matt’s favorite wrestler during the late ’90s solely because of his skill on the mic. I learned to appreciate Jericho, if not as a wrestler then as an entertainer.But I figured he’d have retired years ago. This is getting a little depressing.

• As Jericho struts down to the ring, Shaq and Lawler look confused, as though they had no idea Chris Jericho would be coming down the ring at this exact moment. Shaq sells disbelief pretty well. After all, he’s been doing it to refs for 15 years.

• Jericho climbs into the ring and stands toe-to-toe with Shaq, who glares way, way down at Jericho.

Jericho says, “When I heard the most dominant player in NBA history was guest-hosting RAW, I automatically assumed it was Kobe Bryant.” I laugh out loud.

• After some back and forth, Jericho and Shaq are about to square off when Jericho announces that he wants Shaq to meet his tag team partner, and following the perfunctory light show/fireworks/theme song, The Big Show emerges. Another guy who’s an O.G. in this wrestling game. I’m surprised he can even walk. He gets into the ring and goes toe to toe with Shaq, and they’re actually about the same height.

After a staredown, The Big Show tells Shaq that he has a better chance of making two free throws in a row than he does intimidating him. Thus, The Big Show concludes, Shaq should leave the ring. Shaq calls The Big Show “fat,” then challenges The Big Show to a match on the spot. Seeing as how The Big Show is wearing a three-piece suit, a fight right now seems unlikely.

• The Big Show then reasons aloud that if they fight and if he injures Shaq, David Stern and the NBA will be “down my neck.” So he doesn’t want to fight Shaq. Shaq announces that he anticipated exactly such a maneuver, so he hired a tag team to fight The Big Show and Jericho. Two guys come running to the ring, dressed in Timberlands, tank tops and designer jeans, with ridiculous rap music blaring. Their name seems to be “Cryme Time.” I’m sure they have a deep back story, but I’m not inclined to look it up right now.

• I don’t know who Lillian Garcia is, but she’s overrated.

• OK, so now I get it: There are going to be five separate matches for each of the guys Shaq mentioned earlier. Whoever wins their match in the fastest time wins…whatever the prize was. Oh, fighting Orton at Summer Slam. Those five guys are not wrestling against each other. I’m not sure why Shaq and Lawler has so much trouble explaining this. Well, actually, I guess I’m not too surprised they had so much trouble explaining it.

• Mark Henry is introduced, weighing 392 pounds. His opponent is Carlito, who looks exactly like Anderson Varejao. Carlito is announced as being from “The Caribbean.” Seems a little vague.

• I like how Mark Henry still calls himself “The World’s Strongest Man.” He was a competitive weightlifter in the mid-’90s. Things have probably changed a little since then. But I guess we can’t take it away from him. Or maybe it’s like being the President, where even when you’re out of office they still have to call you President.

• Four minutes into the match, Mark Henry attempts to sit on Carlito, which actually seems like wise strategy. Carlito manages to roll out of the way.

• Seven minutes in, Carlito comes off the ropes and Henry catches him, lifts him into the air and body slams him, then gets the pin. Weak finishing move, if that was it. Henry’s winning time to beat is 6:49. Noted.

• During the commercial break there’s an ad for new sandwiches at Subway, where you could also win Nickelback tickets. I bet there’s a lot of wrestling fans who just saw that ad and got a little excited.

• Uh-oh, the WWE Divas. A six Diva tag team match, no less! Gail Kim, Kelly Kelly and Mickie James skip to the ring. Kelly is wearing a Caron Butler jersey. I think Gilbert Arenas just died a little inside.

• They’re fighting against three women who were already standing around in the ring and don’t get a proper introduction, which means they have no chance.

• Yeah, they didn’t have a chance. Gail Kim dropkicked some girl from the top rope and ended it pretty quickly. Two of the girls didn’t even get in the match.

• We get a cutscene with Shaq in his “office,” when a dwarf in a leprechaun outfit runs in, gives Shaq a hug, then tries and fails to dunk a basketball. Then we get a commercial. This isn’t the WWE I remember.

• Now it’s time for MVP to wrestle. He actually looks a lot like Ira Newble, receding braids and all. His opponent is Chris “The Masterpiece” Masters, a well-built guy who’s main schtick seems to be ominous ring music. He only has to last longer than 6:49 to keep MVP out of Summer Slam.

• After a relatively even first few minutes, Masters and MVP both end up outside the ring on the floor. As the ref slooowly counts to 10, Masters holds MVP out of the ring until they’re both counted out and disqualified. So Mark Henry remains in the lead in this weird time race Shaq came up with.

• The play by play announcer is Michael Cole. Jim Ross craps bigger than this guy.

• The next match pits The Brian Kendrick against Kofi Kingston, who is allegedly from Jamaica. I guess his last name just happens to be Kingston. And how hard must it have been for the WWE marketing guys to create this character without making references to…you know.

• The bell rings to start the match, and Kingston runs over and kicks Kendrick in the face, then immediately pins him. At least that was over quickly.

• As Triple H steps out of his dressing room under the stands, someone runs by and hits him in the knee with a metal bar. The story here is that this could harm Triple H’s chances of participating in his fight tonight. I’m more excited that the wrestler who hit him appears to be named DiBiase, which I assume means he’s related to Ted DiBiase. That’s royalty, right there.

• Turns out Triple H can fight, so he’s going up against Cody Rhodes. That last name rings a bell so I google him and…sure enough, he’s the son of Dusty Rhodes (and the godson of Magnum TA!). It’s immediately obvious who got the looks in the Rhodes family.

• Meanwhile, Triple H doesn’t seem to have showered since I last saw him wrestle, seven years ago against The Rock. Triple H has 6:49 to beat Rhodes.

• With about 2 minutes to go, Rhodes puts Triple H and his bad knee in a figure four leg lock. Triple H is able to reverse it by rolling over, which was always one of my favorite wrestling conceits. An intricate, painful submission hold in which the pain is completely neutralized and then totally reversed simply by rolling over?

• Triple H manages to knock out Rhodes just as the clock expires, but he can’t get the pin. Mark Henry remains in the catbird seat. I bet that sentence has never been written before.

• Cut to Shaq backstage playing Scrabble against a guy who appears to be Iranian. Shaq plays the word Shaqzilla, but Mike Breen is not around to challenge him. Then Cryme Time runs in. Deion Sanders rolls over in his grave. One of the guys announces that for Cryme Time, “It’s all about looking fly, it’s all about those championships, and it’s all about that money-money.” They then start chanting, “That money-money,” and the crowd joins in. If these guys were NBA players, I bet SLAM would somehow get blamed for their mis-ordered priorities.

• The next match begins with the leprechaun dwarf being introduced, and his name seems to be Hornswaggle. His opponent is the normal-sized Chavo Guerrero. The ring announcer says that by order of Shaq, Chavo has to compete blindfolded. They slip a black satin sack over Guerrero’s head and begin the match. Really.

• A few minutes in, Guerrero accidentally power slams the referee. Soon after, Guerrero lifts his mask, spots Hornswaggle and drop kicks him in the face. Guerrero then tries to jump from the top rope with his mask on but comes up empty, and Hornswaggle gets the pin and the win. I just like writing the word Hornswaggle. That might have to be someone’s nickname in the NBA this year.

• OK, match number four of the five timed matches. This one pits Jack Swagger against Evan Bourne, whom the crowd seems pretty fired up about. I’ve never heard of Jack Swagger, but he looks like a cross between Biff from “Back To The Future” and Bradley Cooper. He also seems to be missing his neck.

• Not a very exciting match — at one point Cole and Lawler start talking about Scrabble. Then, with three minutes left on the clock, Swagger goes for a suplex that Evan Bourne escapes from, and he manages to pin Swagger, knocking him out of the contest.

• After a commercial break, John Cena comes out to face off against The Miz, the guy who used to be on “The Real World: Back To New York.” Seriously, this is the best Shaq could come up with? Who scheduled this, Danny Ferry?

• With WWE champ Randy Orton, son of “Cowboy” Bob Orton, sitting ringside, Cena and his jorts square off against The Miz. The announcers talk about the atmosphere being electric, but most of the crowd seems to be sitting calmly. They fight evenly until there’s about two minutes to go, when Cena gets The Miz in a submission hold and gets the win. Orton and Cena face off for a moment to preview the upcoming title fight, available only on pay per view. Where’s Shaq again?

• Oh, here he is! Shaq walks to the ring wearing a referee’s shirt — he’ll be reffing the Cryme Time/Big Show-Jericho match. Wait, actually Shaq is being called “Special Guest Enforcer.” No idea what that means, but there’s already a ref in the ring. This is probably a good thing, since being a wrestling ref is something of an art form. (Danny Davis=Tim Donaghy)

• The Cryme Time guys pretend to throw dice as they walk to the ring over a song that repeatedly claims they are from Brooklyn. And one of the guys is wearing pants that appear to have fake bullet holes sewn into them. Over the top? Yeah, but it’s wrestling. We knew what we were getting into.

• I love that Jericho’s submission hold is called “The Walls of Jericho.”

• For the first few minutes of the match, there was a good amount of ring action, including The Big Show nearly murdering half of Cryme Time, but Shaq didn’t do anything.

• The match finally ends in disarray, with Jericho knocked out on the floor, both members of Cryme Time out in the ring, and The Big Show standing alone. The ref disqualifies The Big Show because he’s not supposed to be in the ring, but Big Show continues punishing the ailing members of Cryme Time.

Finally, The Big Show beckons Shaq into the ring. Shaq rips off his referee shirt, revealing a black tank top. He actually looks like he’s in great shape. For Shaq. The two big men go face to face, before Shaq shoves Big Show.

The Big Show grabs Shaq’s throat, setting him up for a chokeslam. After initially being taken aback, Shaq grabs The Big Show around the throat as well. The members of Cryme Time suddenly and miraculously regain their strength at the same time and both kick The Big Show in the stomach. He staggers back a few steps and Shaq hits him with a football tackle, knocking The Big Show out of the ring and onto the floor. Scene and goodnight.

• Well, I made it through the entire show. But the truth is, if it wasn’t for Shaq, I wouldn’t have made it. Boring matches, boring set-ups. And I hate to say this, but it seems like wrestling has gone downhill. Perhaps it’s me that changed, but I wrestling now seems weakened, watered down. When a former reality show star is in one of your biggest matches, that can’t be a good sign. I gave the WWE a shot tonight, but it did not pull me back in.

That Shaq guy, however, he seems like he might be worth keeping an eye on.

Can you dig it?