Mike Randalls and Troy Windham both lay next to each other on the wrestling mat, sucking for every last bit of air, the United Center crowd on their feet in amazement. It was already the greatest match in New Frontier Wrestling history, but it was not over.
The two had been doing battle for nearly an hour. But more than that, they had been doing battle for three decades. Mike Randalls was a man’s man, a wrestler’s wrestler. The only thing fellow professional wrestlers feared more than one of The Wolf’s lethal submission grips was his death stare, honed in the dojos at which he had studied across the Far East. Troy Windham, for his part, was professional wrestling’s premier bad boy. He openly bragged about using the industry to gain a toehold in Hollywood and called himself professional wrestling’s only true icon.
The duo had hated each other forever; yet, somehow, they had never faced each other in single’s competition. But their paths were bound to collide. Troy Windham and his cohorts—collectively known as The Windham Clan—had invaded New Frontier Wrestling in order to stage a hostile takeover. They were successful, as Troy and his conniving right-hand man JJ DeVille did their best to ruin the morale of the roster. But league president Eddie Mayfield had an ace to play. That was Mike Randalls’ phone number, Mayfield brought him in to take out Windham once and for all.
This match was for more than just bragging rights. It was a retirement match, and the loser would have to hang up the boots permanently.
If all of this sounds fake, it is. But it’s not.
Welcome to the world of fantasy wrestling, also known as e-fedding. It’s a cross between pro wrestling and Dungeons and Dragons, where hundreds—hell, probably thousands—of (otherwise quite normal) people create wrestlers, write matches and craft storylines in the vein of World Wrestling Entertainment.
I know this world well. I spend a lot of time there.
It was a rite of passage for any geeky middle school kid in the very early ‘90s. The sound of the school bell terrorized me, but the objectively harsher sound of the scratchy 2400-baud modem connecting to a computer server was heaven’s own music.
I’m not sure how it happened, but my parents signed up for Prodigy, one of the first companies to launch online services, when I was in eighth grade. Prodigy was built around message boards and introduced many people to e-mail and chatting. Prodigy’s executives didn’t have the foresight to bombard Americans with spam CDs and notional free hours, and so went the way of Candlebox—it’s a reference contemporary to the era—as AOL conquered the marketplace.
I found the pro wrestling message board almost immediately upon logging onto Prodigy for the first time. Then I discovered a sub-topic within this group called fantasy wrestling, where dozens of leagues of fully made-up wrestlers existed, feuded and fought.
The first character I created was The Mighty Impala, an African chieftan from Burkina Faso hell-bent on protecting and displaying his honor. He was immediately cast as a jobber—a character who loses all the time. There was a hierarchy in place and both characters and handlers—the rather grandiose name for those who roleplayed these characters—had to find footing before rising up the ranks.
I soon gained traction with a character named Pestilence, a cross between The Undertaker and Sid Vicious (the Sex Pistol, not the roided out wrestler) from Liverpool. Just as soon as the 6’10, 405-pound brawler who mastered The Black Plague tombstone piledriver finisher won his first title—the NGEN’s Mr. Vicious Title, a belt given to whoever could survive anarchic Road House-style brawls the best—a figure emerged from the background and crushed his throat with a chair before piledriving him into oblivion.
It was Famine, his younger brother, a man somehow even more violent than his sibling. Famine’s handler was my younger brother, Chris, who crafted this plot behind my back when I was at Boy Scouts.
Mind you, this was in 1990, years before The Undertaker and Kane would begin their feud and Extreme Championship Wrestling introduced wild hardcore wrestling to the masses. It would not be the only time that “real” pro wrestling aped something the fantasy world created long before.
I’m now 35 and have some semblance of self-identity (although no concept of self-consciousness, as writing about roleplaying wrestlers proves). It’s easy to see why I fell in love with pro wrestling and, especially, fantasy wrestling.
Professional wrestling creates an entire universe within the one that exists. I knew it was fake/staged from the start—my wrestling-hating father made as much clear repeatedly—but I also knew it was awesome. Wrestling, like the other forms of entertainment that work best, is an escape from reality; choose that means of escape, and you are choosing to believe what it gives you to believe.
Geeky weirdos time immortal have made this bargain, rolling 12-sided dice in order to spelunk caves and save the princess and live in a world of their own creation, where they could, for once, be the hero. But The Hobbit never really took for me and I’m only now just getting into Led Zeppelin. But “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and Sting? It just worked. It still works.
On top of being able to create a wrestler and have a sense of control, I also found a community. These weren’t just other wrestling fans; almost all of the other handlers were in their early teens whom were also purged from the playground into the spare bedroom.
But I’m now, as I mentioned earlier, 35. And I still do this.
So: JJ DeVille marched down to the ringside. He had been Troy’s henchman for years. He initially joined Troy’s side when he had just turned pro. Back then, JJ was a be-mulleted, Daisy Duke-wearing pantywaist who cried upon physical contact, loved bringing his opponents to small claims court and idolized Troy to the point where he boasted about being his manservant.
But over time, JJ had grown into his own man. He proved a capable wrestler, having developed an ability to steal his opponents’ specialty moves. More importantly, he had shown himself to be a true mastermind.
He was the last man standing in the 5-on-5 match pitting The Windham Clan against Eddy Mayfield’s handpicked team of NFW All-Stars, and so won the invaders 50% ownership of New Frontier Wrestling. He also was willing to do the paperwork and boardroom power plays that Troy—now in a supporting role on a USA Network drama—found beneath him. JJ used this to do things like reveal the Social Security numbers of his enemies.
He sought to destroy the locker room.
The WWE has a team of writers and “bookers” who plan out storylines and interviews, with company linchpin Vince McMahon—and ex-champion and current son-in-law Triple H, supposedly—yielding veto power over any and all decisions.
WWE’s flagship show is Monday Night Raw, one of the highest rated cable programs of all-time. That, along with the lower-tier but still important Smackdown, broadcast the storylines. The storylines are largely completed at one of the monthly pay-per-view events, which are the main profit center for the company.
Fantasy wrestling works largely in the same way, albeit with a more socialist approach. Leagues are hosted on various message boards; many of the longest running leagues—one of which, the CSWA, predates even Prodigy—are on fwrestling.com, which has existed in some format since 1999. Other leagues exist in other online circles that have also spawned over the years.
Leagues are run by “fed-heads”—virtual Vince McMahon types who determine the outcomes of matches. The fed-head will collaborate, in secret via e-mail or IM, with the handlers who roleplay characters in the league to determine the various storylines and plots.
A “card” will be set-up. For instance, New Frontier Wrestling has two primary cards—Brawl and Reloaded—that alternate. The fed-head will pit foes against each other, as with Troy Windham and Mike Randalls above. The two handlers will then roleplay their characters against each other.
How to write roleplay is the neverending Civil War amongst e-fedders. The traditional style has been to write roleplay like a teleplay, complete with things like FADEIN and CUT TO. The theory is that wrestling is essentially a television show and we’re writing our own version of it. However, over time, other styles have emerged—people write roleplays as short-stories or in a weird hybrid or in other ways. Many, many, many conversations/online fights have started over e-fed writing style. I am a strident member of the latter camp, which is to say that I have just freely confessed to writing screenplay fan-fiction.
How the matches are determined varies league-by-league and handler-by-handler. A lot of times, a fed-head and the handlers will collaborate “behind the scenes” via e-mail or IM to determine how a storyline or match will work. But sometimes, the handlers will fiercely compete with each other. The fed-head then has to pick the winner.
This, too, has created many fights. I was engaged in one myself recently after Troy Windham, my main character, was upset in the Sweet 16 of The Ultratitle, a 128-character annual March Madness style event. In the Ultratitle, a team of judges determine who wins each match. However, they can choose or not choose to explain why they voted each way. In the opening of the tournament, I had blasted people who did not write their roleplays in screenplay format. As most of the judges write their matches in styles I find abhorrent, it wasn’t exactly the best strategy on my part.
After the roleplay deadline is met, a fed-head then goes on to write the card. Most fed-heads assign matches and locker room encounters and Piper’s Pit-style interview segments out to various handlers who gladly volunteer to do the aforementioned. The fed-head will then attempt to sew all the segments together to create an entire fake wrestling show in one cohesive style.
Some cards are more important than others—some simulate a regular TV show like Raw, while others have the bigger, blowaway matches ordinarily found at WrestleMania. But, mostly, they’re all the same.
So, why do I still do this?
The primary reason is personal: I’ve gone through many life changes, and this is the one constant in my life since my pre-teen years, save for my family. No matter what, I’ve always known I can log on and find people who I’ve been friends with for well over two decades.
I haven’t even always had to log on to meet them. One night in college, I was returning to my dorm. The guard who checked ID cards stopped me and asked if I was Gregg Gethard. I was. He introduced himself to me. He was Eddy Mayfield’s handler. He was, later, an attendee at my wedding and one of my closest friends. But it goes deeper than that.
I’ve always been a creative sort, but I’ve always been afraid of being creative professionally. I’ve literally written fake screenplays since the age of 12; obviously, I have some interest in TV and moviemaking. I’m also frequently told by people that “I should write a book” after I tell them whatever horrid thing just unfolded in my life, although I am obviously not alone in that.
But I’m also a grown man, and a pragmatist. I have grad school debt. I own a house. I’m married. We’re planning on having kids. Financial stability is always at the forefront of my mind. This isn’t a tragedy, or a bad thing, so much as it’s growing up being what it is.
So, I’ve settled. I’m now a business journalist, which wasn’t exactly my dream after I saw Pulp Fiction but is, finally a great balance—I get to write for a living while also having a company that provides a 401(K) match. I’m not going to write the Great American Novel. I’m not going to sell a screenplay. But I still get to write about heroes and villains and the battle between good and evil for a captivated audience. I get to entertain them, and myself. We’ve all agreed to believe the same things at the same time; we all help each other make this possible.
JJ DeVille sauntered out to ringside as the crowd booed. The match had been so competitive and perfect—arguably the two greatest stars going at it with the highest of stakes.
Ever the opportunist, JJ stroked his goatee and waited until Windham, Randalls and the referee all collided simultaneously. He sauntered down to ringside and grabbed a chair from the ring announcer. He slid into the ring and stood over Mike Randalls, smirking.
JJ DeVille and Troy Windham had been at odds. But JJ was still Troy’s right-hand man and his protégé. He, no doubt, was about to destroy Troy’s greatest foe.
He held the chair high above his head. But, to the shock of the United Center crowd, he instead crashed it against Troy’s skull. And then once more. He then grabbed Randalls and threw him on top of Windham and woke up the ref.
JJ DeVille ended his mentor’s career. A new chapter in e-fedding was born. Not every story needs to end.