Culture

Retired wrestlers help me fall asleep

Listening to former tough guys talk lovingly about their glory days has a wonderfully therapeutic effect.

Culture

Guys being dudes

Culture

Retired wrestlers help me fall asleep

Listening to former tough guys talk lovingly about their glory days has a wonderfully therapeutic effect.

I write and edit music news at night, a job that requires an external monitor and occasionally my phone. Sometimes just before my shift ends, I have to report on a surprise new album by some massive artist where I have to quickly dissect the credits for big name guests. When I log off, there’s no commute that helps gradually set the job aside; my office is just one room over from my bed. The adrenaline of instant-reaction news coverage is real, and instead of drifting off, I lie awake.

The voices of retired professional wrestlers have become my most reliable sleep aid.

At the height of their careers, wrestlers like Kevin Nash, Mick Foley, Bret Hart, and Shawn Michaels became TV stars by screaming into microphones and punching each other in the face. Now, they qualify for the senior discount, and their once-booming and authoritative voices have coarsened into a soothing bedtime rasp. With their days of catchphrasing into a camera every week long behind them, they sit with other wrestlers in front of podcast microphones to thoughtfully reminisce about their careers.

In 2019, the “wrestlers talking about wrestling” industry is bottomless. The “shoot interview” — when wrestlers break character (or in wrestling parlance, “kayfabe”) and discuss behind-the-scenes events or their true feelings about a co-worker — has been around nearly as long as the wrestling business itself, but the internet has taken the format borderline mainstream. Tons of wrestlers host their own podcasts and regularly air their opinions on social media. Search any wrestler’s name + “shoot interview” on YouTube and you’ll likely find hours of footage either by them or about them.

Naturally, with an ocean of content to explore from this industry that’s all about literal flexing, it’s hard to find stuff that’s conducive to dozing off. In the process of scrolling through options in podcast apps and YouTube, I’ll skip monologues from excessive shit-talkers, wrestlers recapping present-day wrestling matches, phone interviews with patchy audio, or live events where shouting fans distract from the storytelling. The optimum template is simple: one wrestler talking to another wrestler in an intimate setting.

For a while, my go-to bedtime listen was any audiobook by the author Ross King, an art historian who’s written about Leonardo, Michelangelo, Monet, the Paris Salon, and more. The stories were interesting, and he was talking about things that happened a very long time ago, with practically no obvious relevance to the present day — a great counterbalance to the anxiety that builds from staring at a screen and waiting for breaking information, which is a lifestyle that applies to pretty much anybody who has notifications turned on their phone. Old wrestlers’ stories occupy a similarly chill, peaceful space, but the difference is that I’m more familiar with the characters and the context. I was a West Virginian pre-teen whose favorite weekly TV show was WCW Monday Nitro. I had a collection of action figures. My mom bought me an NWO Wolfpac shirt from Kmart. My dad semi-regularly took me to a pizza place downtown where they showed the pay-per-views.

So it probably makes sense that if I’m restless, I go back to a recent podcast interview with Diamond Dallas Page. In his prime, Page was an unlikely top star of Nitro — a later-in-life rookie (he debuted at age 35) who won crowds over with his grinning, faux-outlaw charisma opposite established legends like Hogan and Flair. His entrance theme was a very bad ripoff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he tag-teamed with real-life celebrities like Jay Leno and Karl Malone, and his Diamond Cutter finisher was legitimately sick.

Page is now a fitness and self-help guru. He’s the face of DDP Yoga — a cardio and yoga-based fitness program. He just released a new self-help book called Positively Unstoppable. There’s a 2013 episode of HBO Real Sports that shows Page helping top WCW star Scott Hall and wrestling legend Jake “The Snake” Roberts, two men who struggled with addiction and pain. Page’s present-day voice, friendly and pure gravel, is deeply comforting.

I’m lying in bed while Page talks to Chris Jericho, a wrestling icon who, you guessed it, hosts a podcast. Page loves telling stories, and he asks Jericho if he’s ever told him his Thanksgiving story. When Jericho acquiesces, he gleefully revisits his rivalry with “Macho Man” Randy Savage. In 1997, Savage was mostly past his peak as a headliner, but was still a top star, and he gave Page some of the biggest wins of his career at that point. The resulting momentum helped drive Page toward ascendent stardom — he’d eventually win the top heavyweight belt, a relatively amazing event considering his late start in the business — so on Thanksgiving, Page called Savage and left the following message:

Listen Randy, it’s gonna sound kind of corny, but I’m getting a lot of beeps from guys thankin’ me for helpin’ ’em out. And I’m thinkin’, “Who am I thankful to that maybe doesn’t know it?” I got a feeling you don’t know. I just want you to know that I know I’m not in this position in my life right now without you. And dude, I will never forget it. Happy Thanksgiving, bro.

Savage never called him back, but at the next WCW TV taping, Page was grabbed by Savage and pulled into an office. In recounting the story, Page enthusiastically falls into his best Macho Man impression:

I got your message, YEEEUH I did, and I listened to it a couple times, YEEEUH. And then I called my my dad and I played it for him. And I said, ‘Dad, did any of the boys ever do anything like this for you?’ And he said, ‘No, they didn’t.’ I just want you to know: I appreciate it.

Savage pulls Page in for an enormous hug, and the moment, as Page’s voice turns reverent in memory of a departed friend (Savage died in 2010), is poignant. That’s the thing about these guys — they spent their careers being tough at the center of stadiums, and now that they don’t have to live the gimmick, they can let their guard down and express genuine affection for their peers. This story about Savage feels particularly calming, as by all accounts, he was a legitimately intense presence in the locker room. But he was genuinely moved by a simple “thank you,” and in turn, I’m soothed by Savage being open about his feelings.

There’s a similar moment of camaraderie on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s podcast, as he interviews British wrestling icon William Regal. As wrestling characters, they’re at the far ends of the gimmick spectrum. Austin was the beer-guzzling redneck antihero who won the love of millions when he hit his boss Vince McMahon with the Stunner; Regal was a fancy man heel (a.ka. “bad guy”) who used the word “besmirched.” But these two worked together in both WCW and WWE, and at one point in the podcast, Regal reveals that Austin used to tease him with a nonsensical theme song: “Lord Steven Regal / king of the jabroni tribe.” They sing it together, and while they’re acknowledging an in-joke from years ago, it’s a shared moment of vulnerability.

These fraternal conversations about wrestling’s past arrive at an ideal cultural present. One of the most popular TV shows going is about five adult men who preach about the importance of self-care to strangers who bottle their emotions. Public figures, notably in the world of hip-hop, are opening up about seeking therapy. The stereotypical image of retired pro wrestlers — thanks in no small part to Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler — is one of broken bodies and addiction. By contrast, these tough older men are engaging in a kind of talk therapy when they sit down with their peers. Their admiration and respect for one another creates a gentle space for the listener and offers a quiet reminder of the importance of opening up.

While I’m listening to these podcasts in bed, I usually play some kind of card game app on my phone. Lately, it’s this thing called Cribbage With Grandpas. The game is simple: custom design a grandpa and then play cribbage with him. Sitting across my custom digital grandfather, I’ll listen to Dory Funk Jr. — the kind and meek Texan who whooped ass as the NWA champion in the ’60s and ’70s. I’ll listen to Dick Beyer, an old New Yorker who spent a ton of time wearing masks in Japan and wrestling under the name “The Destroyer.” I’ll listen to legends like Bruno Sammartino, Dusty Rhodes, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, or any of the dozens of performers who spent their lives on the road telling stories to kids wearing shirts with their faces on them. As these pillars of the industry — my imaginary wrestling grandfathers — tell me about working the territories, my anxieties gradually melt. As the podcast host reads ad copy and tells me to enter their offer code at checkout, I drift off.

Suggested episodes:

Bruno Sammartino on The Art of Wrestling (February 2014)

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper on The Art of Wrestling (April 2015)

Booker T on Legends With JBL (August 2016)

Pat Patterson on The Steve Austin Show (August 2016)

Stan Hansen on Legends With JBL (February 2017)

Terry Funk on The Steve Austin Show (August 2017)

William Regal on The Steve Austin Show (August 2017)

Diamond Dallas Page on Talk Is Jericho (January 2019)

Dory Funk Jr. on Talk Is Jericho (February 2019)

Rob Van Dam on E&C’s Pod of Awesomeness (March 2019)

Evan Minsker is Pitchfork’s News Editor. He writes about punk music and professional wrestling. He grew up in West Virginia, lives in Michigan, and co-manages an Instagram account for his dog.