Community at AAW

It takes a community to build a wrestling promotion.

We have been going to AAW shows now for over a year. We have been to see them in the various venues they use in Chicago — Logan Square Auditorium, 115 Bourbon Street, the Berwyn Eagles Club, and Joe’s Live at Rosemont. We have watched some video clips of matches that go back throughout the 13 year history of the promotion.

What amazes me is how often I see the same faces across these different venues and spanning that stretch of time.

As part of my ongoing series reflecting on my time with professional wrestling, seeing the loyalty and dedication of some AAW fans got me thinking about the role of community in this promotion. With any fandom, community is immensely important. One of the reasons people self-identify as fans is because they want to bond with like-minded individuals over the passions that they have. Seeing your passion reflected back by another helps to validate your passion and worldview. And knowing that you share the same passion helps you to geek out or squee (pick your term) over just how worthy that this is to geek out or squee over.

Now, as I have mentioned, I am relatively new to this fandom. I don’t have the lifetime’s collection of knowledge to geek out over it. After our panel at C2E2, a lovely fan came up to me and another panelist and wanted to ask about what match we liked best, what wrestler we liked best, and so forth. Luckily the other panelist I was with was a lifelong fan and could properly geek out over past matches. I feel my fandom right now is more about squeeing over amazing physical performances and character work (I still love you, The Traitor Known As Tommaso).

I am starting to get into the community: I can start to recognize the moves and call them by their right name; I know some of the history of big names and matches to work into conversations; and I know to hate Vince McMahon and think he has no idea of how to tell a good wrestling story. But I also know that I am still a newbie, and I am happy to sit quietly, listen and observe to soak it all in (man) to learn what I need to learn.

And one thing I am learning is just how important a community is to a independent company like AAW. Indeed, it may be more important with AAW then the big dogs like WWE because it is smaller and needs to have a loyal community who will financially support it. At the same time, the community I see at AAW does not exist independent of the largely professional wrestling community. A porous membrane connects AAW to other promotions, like WWE, because that membrane is made by the people (fans and wrestlers) who move back and forth, in and out of different promotions.

That is to say, some bonds function to unite people together as professional wrestling fans, and those bonds become visible through certain actions. Other bonds work to unite the people of this region as AAW fans. All of these bonds work to help the promotion.

To explain, I am going to reflect on AAW Epic 13th Year Anniversary (4/8/17) and AAW Thursday Night Special (TNS) at Berwyn Eagles Club (5/25/17), and link these two more recent shows to previous ones I have attended.

Community between fans is perhaps the most important way that bonds are developed and maintained at AAW. AAW draws in a small crowd — perhaps 200 to 600 people, depending on the venue. The Berwyn Eagle’s Club venue, where it all started, is very small. There is barely enough room for three rows of chairs to fit around the entire ring, and then there is little standing room only space. Even the ceiling is low, making it hard for wrestlers to draw upon their entire repertoire of moves.

To use the metaphor of being packed in like sardines is not a stretch. If you did not like the people you were squeezed in with, then it would not be a pleasant experience. But there never seems to be any real, lasting animosity between fans at these spaces. My partner, Chris, has a good time chatting up other fans, and has made several new friends in the process.

The fans engage in the formation and maintenance of temporary social bonds because of their passion for and enjoyment of the matches. Chants or claps will often be started and built upon, easily rippling through the crowd to add energy to the match. Shouted jokes will quickly catch on as new chants or cause a burst of laughter from elsewhere in the crowd. During one match at TNS, a man started shouting what I presume are Spanish curses, and everyone either laughed because they understood the curses or they just enjoyed his proclivity to let loose with them. Chris often has fun making jokes and shouting them out. He will even respond to other fans’ perhaps less progressive chants with a counter that never seems to rile anyone. At Epic, someone started chanting that Kongo Kong “sucks dong,” to which Chris responded with a question as to why that was an insult.

Everyone seems to be having a good time. That enthusiasm extends online. Fans will often share their pictures, videos, and thoughts online, and those who could not be physically present can at least experience some of the excitement from that night. Such as this interaction from TNS: https://twitter.com/MediaOracle/status/867896164536004608

I have yet to see a fight break out among fans at one of these shows, despite copious amounts of alcohol being consumed. Competing chants do not lead to fisticuffs, and I believe they also do not lead to hurt feelings. Now, that could be because they are happening where I cannot see them.

But it could also be that the fans police themselves rather well, such as Chris responding to the “Kong sucks dong” chant. Quite often a fan will say or do something that is “wrong” in the eyes of the community. Fans will have their actions jeered if they say the wrong thing about a wrestler or if they become obnoxious in what they do as a fan.

Most of the time it seems to be just good-natured ribbing, such as at Epic, when the heavily Chicago-based fans jeered the New England Patriots fan who won the nightly lottery. Because, seriously, “fuck that guy.” At other times, this policing “fuck that guy” chant is used to point out that a fan is doing something wrong. At TNS, before the doors opened, people who paid extra were let in to have a special meet-and-greet with The Artist Formerly Known As Jack Swagger, who was making his first indie appearance after being future endeavored by the WWE. One fan, waiting to get in just to see the night’s matches, took umbrage with this special treatment and wanted to be let in. For this, others in the line started the “fuck that guy” chant to try to draw out his better, more patient nature.

There was no overt animosity towards this impatient fan. The chant was said with smiles. The incident appeared more as the AAW community of fans policing one of their own to prevent something worse from breaking out. This policing appears to be one way that the fans work for the promotion by ensuring that everyone will have a good time. Such policing chants are also far less common than the “A-A-W!” chant that breaks out when a particularly spectacular move or set occurs in the ring. Overall, the fans’ actions are more geared towards building and maintaining pleasure during the night. Their communal bonds become visible in these chants, whether the chants are celebratory or castigating.

Another important community for AAW is the one based on the bonds between wrestlers and fans. One of the benefits of going to an indie prowrestling show is the ability to meet the wrestlers performing that night. Such meetings are done primarily in-person at merchandise tables, where fans can help financially support their favorites. These meetings can also happen in the ring, when a wrestler responds to a particular fan’s comments and/or actions.

This type of community occurs quite a bit at AAW because it is a small promotion. Sami Callihan and Trevor Lee respond particularly well to fans, as they did at Epic and TNS as two of the bigger heels working at the promotion. What is more important, however, is that the regulars and the wrestlers know each other well enough to have sweet, rather shoot (or non-kayfabe) interactions with one another, just as you would expect from old friends seeing each other again. At Epic, Kongo Kong gave out big hugs after entering to such regular.

And the promoters remember the regulars as well. We saw Phil Colvin, one of the ring commentators for AAW, at a local sub shop before TNS, and as he does every time he sees us, he chatted with us about not only the matches for the night but his day. The professionals knows the fans, and vice versa, and, again, everyone seems to like one another.

And as with the communal bonds between fans, such bonds also transcend the physical to occur online via social media in subtweets and retweets. These can be interaction to build matches and get people excited about them. But often they are also interactions meant to promote a wrestler through praise for a match, and sometimes the wrestler(s) being praised will join in the conversation.

I have loved my interactions with wrestlers like Donovan Dijak, Stephen Wolf, Brian Cage, Sami Callihan, and Johnny Gargano. Indeed, Chris can attest that some of my biggest squees in the fandom are seeing a wrestler I like liking or responding to or retweeting my post.

And, yes, much of the reason for this type of interaction would be to get or keep people interested in these wrestlers so that when they show up again, people will buy tickets and then merch. But I think these interactions are also just ways to build and maintain relationships for the simple fact that many of these wrestlers are as big of fans of wrestling as the people who come to watch their shows. So, as fans, you naturally want to geek out and squee with one another other what you love.

This ability at AAW to make these types of connections between the fans and the wrestlers again helps AAW. Like, I watched WWE first, and then Lucha Underground, before going to AAW. The reason I went to AAW the first time was because Lucha Underground wrestlers were going to be there and I could meet them. But the reason I have had physical and virtual interactions with these wrestlers is not because of the WWE or Lucha Underground. It is because of AAW. I feel very loyal to AAW because of these unique opportunities. Being a smaller promotion allows AAW to facilitate such relationships, and to be repaid for such facilitation with loyalty from fans.

Now, with all that being said, it is important to remember that AAW does not exist as its own entity, completely divorced from all of the other professional wrestling happening in the world. Mass media, and particularly social media, have helped ensure that if you are an AAW fan, then you are also a professional wrestling fan — and if you are a professional wrestling fan, then you are probably a fan of another promotion, be ith the WWE or someone else.

The overlaps in these fandoms do manifest in the actions taken by fans at AAW shows. Oftentimes some chanting or call-and-response will be based on a prowrestling meme that has been circulating in the larger prowrestling fan community. The Ric Flair chop and “woo!” is one of the oldest of these memes, but other, more recent ones have circulated. For example, Tye Dillinger’s 10 chants started showing up last fall at AAW. At Epic, the two-count, “too-sweet” response appeared.

Interestingly, neither were quite so apparent at TNS. It may be that the smaller venue and Thursday night showtime for TNS meant only the more hardcore AAW fans showed up, and those fans would be less inclined to engage in more WWE-style chants. Because they also did less “woo!” chants too — although that could be because when Keith Lee knife chops you, it is way serious. But, overall, these types of memes do connect the AAW community to the larger prowrestling community in the same way that bringing in wrestlers people know from other promotions helps to bring those fans into AAW.

I guess the conclusion here is to remember just how interconnected and thus important community is to a promotion like AAW. Community matters, whether it is the community of fans, the community between professionals and fans, or the community between the smaller and larger promotions. Community works during each match to help make the match be the best experience it can be. Community works to help a promotion put on the shows it needs to put on. Community works to maintain the enthusiasm by maintaining the relationships necessary to keep things flowing along.

And here are some 360 videos I took at TNS that shows how the AAW community — the professionals, the fans, the promotion — works together to make professional wrestling something special:

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