Something I would have discussed earlier this week, were it not for my commitment to my BfA review series, is an interesting topic for me – and one that allows me to take one of my favorite semi-frequent indulgences on this blog.
The topic is hope.
This last Sunday, WWE held their annual Royal Rumble event in Houston, Texas. Attended live by over 40,000 people (it was held in the Astros Minute Maid Park, rather than the standard hockey/basketball arena), the event is a typical high spot in the wrestling calendar for the year. It marks the start of the annual “road to Wrestlemania” the biggest event of the year for WWE. The Royal Rumble kicks off the storylines, plot developments, and matchups that will be built to and teased from the event through to early April. The signature match of the Royal Rumble, which shares the event’s name, is a 30-person battle royale where people enter in numbered sequence every 90 seconds (okay, in reality, 90 seconds is fiction, as the entrance intervals are spaced out based on the action in the ring and the story being told). There is a women’s match and a men’s match (since 2018 when the women’s rumble began) and the winner of each gets a championship match of their choice at that year’s Wrestlemania, making the winners of these matches locks for the main event of the biggest show of the year.
The rumble matches are usually fun affairs, since they have large numbers of competitors, and they aren’t as physicaly rigorous as a normal 1v1 match for a performer who enters for just a few minutes, so they are great for surprise entrants – usually former wrestlers who’ve been retired, sometimes celebrities (Drew Carey was in the 2001 edition, for example), and other times, they make a launching pad for someone to return unexpectedly to full-time competition or to debut with WWE (AJ Styles, who built his reputation outside of WWE, made his debut in the 2016 match to a big ovation).
The 2020 edition of the men’s rumble had a massive surprise of that sort – the return of Edge.
Edge (real name: Adam Copeland) is a 46-year old Canadian wrestler and actor. He came up through the wrestling business in the 90s, training in Canada, touring independent promotions there, before being brought into WCW as Sexton Hardcastle (the most wrestling name there could ever be). He mostly worked as a jobber – a talent whose role was to make the higher-card talent look good by putting on a competitive, but losing, effort. Eventually, he was signed to the then-WWF in the late 90s, and debuted as Edge, a silent, brooding character who was partnered with his longtime friend who performed as Christian and a character named Gangrel (licensed from White Wolf due to the name’s origins in Vampire: The Masquerade) as The Brood, who had one of the best entrance themes of all time, in my opinion.
Edge was a solid-enough worker, but his character was definitely the type of thing you would earmark for someone who was never going to break through. He was a heavy for Gangrel, and his matches were usually tag-team affairs with Christian. Eventually, they struck out as simply “Edge & Christian” and became goofy heel characters – they’d be vain and do 5-second poses for the audience (“for the benefit of those with flash photography”) while making fun of the local audience – wearing fake bad teeth in Kentucky while holding a banjo, etc. This gimmick worked because it was fun, and they eventually became well-received face characters, now doing the 5-second pose to the adulation of the crowd.
Eventually, the two split (as all tag-teams tend to with few exceptions), feuded with each other, and then it became clear Edge would move on to success. He won the WWE’s King of the Ring tournament in 2001, went on to the Intercontinental Championship (the number 2 title in the company at that point), and then spent a lot of 2002-2003 in a new tag team with his childhood hero and arguably the WWE’s most well-known performer, Hulk Hogan.
He was, however, derailed with the first of many critical injuries, a neck problem that required spinal fusion surgery, as the condition had progressed so badly that his arms were beginning to atrophy from the nerve damage done by his mangled spinal column. He was out for a large part of 2003 and a majority of 2004, and returned later in the year, going back to singles competition and presented slightly more seriously. It didn’t really work as well as they probably hoped, until a critical real-life detail leaked – Edge had cheated on his wife with Lita (a fellow performer) who was also the real-life girlfriend of wrestler Matt Hardy. The company fired Matt for leaking it (WWE is, to put it mildly, very strangely petty about things like this) but then also leaned into the story, making Edge a heel and pairing him with Lita on-screen. This was the right combination of factors to really light his career up, and coupled with a feud against a rehired Matt Hardy later on, his career took off towards the main event.
He became the “Rated R Superstar,” often doing weird things (a “live sex celebration” which would have only been exciting if you were 13 when it happened) but also becoming a bona fide main event talent, having multiple championship runs through iconic feuds with performers like John Cena and the Undertaker. His career largely remained at this level, with varying character alignments, until 2011.
After Wrestlemania XXVII in 2011, Edge had some bad news – due to spinal stenosis and the amount of damage his neck and back had taken from almost 20 years in the ring, he was forced to retire, as an evaluation after his match at that event showed a high possibility that his next bad bump could cripple, paralyze, or kill him.
For someone who attended Wrestlemania VI as a child and only ever wanted to be a wrestler, this would obviously be very devastating, and you could see that. It is, in fact, one of the things that makes wrestling work for me as an entertainment medium to this day – the character Edge obviously hated to be stepping away from competition, retiring as the World Champion, but the person Adam Copeland hated it even more, and what you could see at that announcement was the synthesis of the two, then Edge giving way to the person underneath the character. It was heartbreaking, presented on a show with fictional narrative but the real truth underlying it undeniably shown – a man who was devastated to have to stop, but understood the risk that forced that decision.
In 2012, Edge was inducted to WWE’s Hall of Fame, and he continued to make interview appearances sporadically for the years between his retirement and this last Sunday. When he appeared on camera during this time, you could tell it was a real mixed blessing – getting to be involved with the business he loved, but also, a sort of sadness – almost a 1,000 yard stare of sorts. Segments with physicality often had to go to painfully obvious lengths to not hurt him, and the few times he was even involved with them, it often involved him being placed onto the mat like a child being tucked in by their parents.
However, in August 2019 at Summerslam in Toronto, something interesting happened – Edge hit another wrestler with the Spear, a signature move of his and remarkable as the move is basically a head-first tackle (okay, in wrestling, it usually looks like a guy hugs another guy to the ground, but there is still a very real head and neck impact involved). It seemed curious, but was also strangely discarded fairly quickly – it had been 8 years since his retirement, and being cleared to hit one move does not a reborn career make.
The rumor mill of wrestling exploded at that point – if he had hit a spear on WWE television, it means a doctor evaluated Edge, approved the move, and WWE knew it. A report came out that Edge was signed to a new contract with WWE – not the Legend contract from the Hall of Fame that allows video game licensing, merchandising, and the like – a performer contract. Edge would come back at the Royal Rumble and resume wrestling on a regular schedule – not the full, brutal WWE schedule of 3-4 matches a week, but maybe 1-2 a month as a featured attraction.
Edge shot these down every time in the vaguest ways possible, tweeting things like, “I’m not and I won’t” without specifically referencing anything, but it always happened when one of the publications that report backstage news would drop tidbits about him being contracted, so it was fairly obvious what he meant even as, crucially, he didn’t mention what he was referencing.
So Sunday came, and the men’s Royal Rumble had a first half that was unique, with 13 men individually eliminated by Brock Lesnar before he was then eliminated, which opened the field for a more competitive match. As the buzzer ticked down to number 21, the familiar opening sample for Edge’s entrance theme, Alter Bridge’s Metalingus, hit, and everyone lost their minds.
Out strolled Edge, obviously struck with a lot of emotion, but it was a pretty happy moment, and again something only wrestling can really deliver. Edge the talent was back, and the number of possible dream matches with modern members of the WWE roster that allows is fantastic, plus despite being 46, he’s in probably the best shape he has been for his career and looked like he never left in terms of comfort in the ring. But the bigger thing is what that moment meant to Adam Copeland, the performer behind that character.
You can see it etched on his face, the explosion of a ton of emotions. Regret over not being able to retire on his own terms fading away, nervousness over the match and quality of his performance, excitement that the fans remembered him fondly enough to freak out as they did, and you get to see all of that processing happen in real time before he fully puts on Edge the character, hits his entrance pose and pyro, and dashes off to the ring.
The next night on Raw, he gave a great promo that made the implicit theme of the story with him explicit – hope. Losing something you love to a condition largely out of your control sucks, and it can put you into a pit of despair that threatens to consume you. The interim years between Edge’s retirement and return were filled with moments where he publicly tried to grapple with it – accepting his life as an actor, moving on with that as his new career, but unlike many who move on to a new career, he obviously could not leave wrestling behind. He found comfort in his family, but even that can be hard – his wife is a former WWE Women’s Champion and currently is a commentator for their weekly NXT show (she also was in the women’s rumble match this year), and much of his life and identity are built on what he did in the ring. His acting gigs bill him with his ring name in addition to his real name, and that eventually gave way to him hosting a wrestling podcast with Christian and a legitimately funny comedy sketch show on the WWE Network.
There was a big chance that under the conditions of his retirement, he might never have returned, and that is a scary thing for a lot of people to grapple with – having the dim light of hope (modern medicine, simple natural healing from time spent away from the ring) able to be snuffed out in a second if anything goes wrong. It required a second neck surgery and more rehab and recovery for Edge to even be able to make this return, and if those go wrong, the whole thing would have been for naught.
In the end, it leads me to a weird sort of solidarity – in terms of life condition, Edge and myself couldn’t be more different. I can’t even imagine what living with his material circumstances would be like, because it is vastly different from my own. But I have felt despair, worked to overcome it, felt hope when it looked like I was pulling myself out of the pit, and felt the overwhelming flood of emotions when you finally do pull yourself out successfully – and that kind of relatability is the stuff that the most powerful storytelling is made of.
And, crucially, that synthesis of reality and fiction is something that only pro wrestling manages to pull off, and it is why I still enjoy it to this day.