Thomas Jay Hayes headed to NJPWxAEW: Forbidden Door this weekend. Here he is giving us his thoughts and feelings on the weekend and what it means to be a wrestling fan.
Sometimes, loving professional wrestling can feel like living on an island. “Oh that Hulk Hogan stuff,” says the woman who will not be calling me again. “Hey, The Rock,” says a family member before shifting the conversation to literally anything else. “You know it’s fake right?” No, I don’t, because I’m a moron and also have been living in a cave in the woods for the past twenty years.
These are the types of conversations I am are used to. They tend to invoke a sense of vaguely uncomfortable familiarity, similar to the weird inappropriate aunt or uncle who drinks too much and ruins holidays with stories from their high school days. When as a community we are able to come together, these conversations evaporate, as does any sense of being on an island. I see someone in a Bullet Club tee and immediately feel relaxed and know they are probably cool, even better if it’s an Okada shirt (wink wink)!! I went to Chicago this weekend to chase that feeling and also see some of the best professional wrestling on the planet.
Forbidden Door felt like a dream since its inception. A one-night event featuring a series of dream matches designed to bring a self-disclosed wrestling nerd like myself to a higher plane of fandom. Kazuchika Okada, Shingo Takagi, Jay White, Hirooki Goto, Will Ospreay, and on and on. Despite a series of injuries and knowing I was not going to hear the CM Punk Chicago pop, I traveled to America with a real sense of optimism and wonder in my heart.
The travel itself was a comedy of errors worthy of Steve Martin and John Candy (lost vaccination cards, missed flights, etc). That aside, the magic began as soon as we boarded the plane. Kenny Omega t-shirts, little knowing nods, connection. We arrived, and went in search of both the Bean and dipped beef. I highly recommend both.
During our travels, we continued to occasionally see members of our tribe. Identified by shirts, sometimes carrying belts (both I.W.G.P. and AEW), and generally being awesome. I had a lot of trouble sleeping Saturday. I tweeted a lot (got followed by Kevin Kelly!!) rolled around on the shitty pullout I was on, watched some matches on my laptop, and eventually fell asleep.
Sunday I woke up and went to the gym at the hotel to lift and get centered. After training my friend and I went to Portillo’s for the sacred hot dogs. If you ever have a chance to go here, please do. Order one with “everything” some onion rings and a large soda, nothing else. You will thank me. The meal was so good my friend and I had to tactically retreat to the hotel to regroup. Later that day, after all the travel nonsense and anticipation, we headed to the United Center.
The United Center, The Perfect Stage For NJPW x AEW: Forbidden Door
The United Center is a church, a place of worship, a haven. Michael Jordan won 6 rings while playing there. The Chicago Blackhawks have won Stanley Cup(s) plural there. CM Punk won titles there, he returned to wrestling there. It is a building similar to Madison Square Garden. You can feel the history and see it in the banners that hang proudly from the rafters. I bought two tee shirts and we headed for our seats. This is where things went south.
Sitting behind us were a group of “men” (I use this term loosely) who seemed to have made it their priority to say every simple-minded disgusting thing they could yell. Topics included Chris Benoit (including at the end when Brodie’s kid came out off the air), “yellow people”, that Vince should come out during a match and assault a woman etc etc et fucking cetera.
This may come as a complete shock (not really) but they were dressed and looked exactly how you are picturing them. 10 beers deep, not a lot of time spent looking after their bodies, jean vests, and the like. I sat there in this temple of human achievement having my ears assaulted by men who on their best day couldn’t lace Brit Baker’s boots.
Again knowing glances were exchanged but this time with the kind of eye-roll that seems to suggest this is part of the deal. That is a truly depressing concept. FTR won the I.W.G.P. Heavyweight tag titles. A monumental achievement. I love FTR however at that moment all I was thinking about was at my age can I win a fight with six guys (I can’t). Thank god for Kazuchika Okada.
He is probably my favorite wrestler alive and someone I plan on writing about for Lace ‘Em Up. That coin dropped. Then something magic happened. The gaggle of knuckle draggers behind me forgot that they were awful and just became fans again. Became kids again. Became that wonderful thing that binds us together, love. “OKADA, OKADA, OKADA”. The chant rolled through the arena like thunder. The building came unglued! He walked out in that goddamn white and golden robe.
A star, an icon, a force of nature. The man who doesn’t need to speak English to captivate a stadium full of wrestling fans. He can do it with a tilt of his head. I am not ashamed to say I started to cry. I had goosebumps. In that moment, every inconvenience became worth it, a fair price to pay for being part of that energy. I walked through the Forbidden Door.
The match itself was a banger. Kind of an odd finish but as we later learned an injury is to thank for that. I have so many thoughts about the experience however what is most prevalent is a question, why? Why do some of us forget that love? Why do some of us feel the need to say revolting things, it happens every day on Twitter. Cowardly keyboard warriors using dummy accounts to say shitty things to people. As professional wrestling fans we are already marginalized, why do it to each other?
I wrote this to hopefully share a small amount of the magic but also as a gentle reminder. We are all united by this crazy love of wrestling. We should all try to be better. Try to hold each other up. Try to find our similarities, not our differences. It is a big scary world out there, spread as much love as you can, and as always, lace em up.
By Thomas Jay Hayes | @thomasjayhayes | Twitter