WWE Raw Live: A night among wrestling nuts in Brooklyn, New York
A visit to WWE Raw with a pro-wrestling virgin
Around three minutes before the doors of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, are due to open, the crowd outside had reached fever pitch. Chants of "let us in" are being wailed by the hundreds - maybe thousands - standing outside. Men, women, and children of all ages, draped in t-shirts bearing their favourite wrestlers and holding replica championship belts wait in the freezing cold until they're allowed inside. A bemused passerby asks, "Is there a pop concert on tonight or something?" Nope, this crowd is here for WWE's weekly live show, Raw.
This isn't my first live wrestling event, so I'm reasonably certain of what to expect, yet I'm blown away once I make it inside the Barclays Center. As well as the many food stands, serving pared-down menus from some of Brooklyn's most well-loved favourites (including the excellent Fatty Cue) there's a branch of the Fellow Barber, for anyone who just has to have a haircut and wet shave before shimmying along to MGMT or cheering on the Brooklyn Nets.
I've brought along a friend who claims to have never watched wrestling in his entire life, so I'm ready to do a lot of explaining, but I also fear that he may not enjoy it or even find himself bored. I shouldn't have worried at all. By the time we find our seats, he's fidgeting with excitement. The atmosphere from outside has carried on into the arena, despite scores of empty seats as people still make their way in. "This reminds me of Liverpool vs Cardiff", he says.
Some crowds are more highly thought of than others by wrestling fans, due to the atmosphere of the shows in that city, and Brooklyn is known as home to some of the loudest and rowdiest. That's certainly the case tonight and they're making their presence felt as Raw goes live. A four-way bout kicks off the show and an audience member behind me is in danger of peaking too soon, imploring his favourite Superstar to first "break the legs" of his opponent, then pleading with him to "break his neck" and finally - just nine minutes into the live broadcast - to "kill him". That said, he's just one of the many passionate fans who are totally immersed in the action. Every pinfall is counted along to by the crowd and every clothesline is met with a distreíssed "oh!" - while the chants are increasingly loud as the night goes on.
The friend I've brought along sizes up the audience and points out that everyone sitting around us is disappointingly normal. I'm not sure what he was expecting, but he also points out that there's a lot of children here with their parents, which is true; it's unashamedly aimed at kids, though the WWE prides itself on being accessible to anyone. This factor is most patent when it comes to John Cena, the face of the company.
Every shot of Cena on one of the Barclays Center's huge screens is met with either jeers or screams of delight. Fans go back and forth with chants of "let's go Cena" or "Cena sucks" - the latter delivered at a much lower pitch than the former. On this particular night the majority of Brooklyn WWE fans are against the former WWE Champion and as such, are behind his opponent, Luke Harper. One of the moments of the night comes when Luke Harper and the Wyatt family are making their way to the ring, a huge number of the crowd clapping along to the theme tune and lighting up the dark arena with their mobile phones as if in a trance. It's an incredible moment and one which makes you realise that seeing a show like this live is all about the atmosphere, created by both the WWE's production team and the fans who've paid the money to get in.
In some ways that's both the beauty and the downfall of watching WWE Raw live: it's a TV show. It's well produced, everything is very slick and everyone knows what they're supposed to be doing, but it can feel like it's geared towards the viewer at home. There are multiple, frequent breaks which are unannounced in the arena, with the only indication it's an ad break being the lights, which are dimmed. You don't get the commentary that the fans at home get, either, but whether or not you see this as a negative is down to the individual. You're also at the mercy of the hard camera, so most of the action is pointed towards one side of the arena. If you're on the other side it can feel almost like sitting behind a stage while the actors face the audience, losing some of the nuances of the performance. Overall, a small price to pay for the atmosphere in the arena, but it can leave you feeling like you need to watch it all again when you get home, just to make sure you didn't miss anything.
Even without an appearance from Daniel Bryan, who a lot of the fans at Barclays Center were there to see, my friend came away impressed. Is he a WWE convert? Well, maybe - he did admit he's looking at tickets for the next time they visit Brooklyn, just a few months away.