'Botchamania' blooper reels pull back the curtain on pro wrestling
Twelve years ago, in the waning moments of WrestleMania XIX’s main event, Brock Lesnar staggered to a corner of the ring and began climbing to the top rope. This was unusual. Lesnar was and is a world-class athlete, a former NCAA wrestling champion who would later earn a training camp invite from the Minnesota Vikings and win the UFC’s heavyweight championship. But in the year that he had been on WWE television, the audience had not seen him attempt aerial maneuvers.
His opponent in the match, Olympic heavyweight wrestling gold medalist and WWE legend-in-the-making Kurt Angle, lay prone on the mat below. Lesnar panted during his ascent, his face blank with focus and glistening with perspiration, until finally he reached the third turnbuckle and stood. The TV announcers were incredulous. “This ain’t Brock,” one said. “What the hell is this?” his partner barked. The crowd rose to its feet, anticipating the apex of the bout’s narrative. Camera flashes dotted the stands. For the grand finale - in the showcase match at the industry’s premier event, with 54,097 fans at Seattle’s Safeco Field - Lesnar was going to do the spectacular. As Angle later explained in a Canadian TV interview, “It was supposed to be the greatest moment in WrestleMania history.”
It was not. Lesnar’s goal was a Shooting Star Press, a move in which he would leap forward while backflipping 270 degrees to ostensibly land torso-to-torso on Angle. Unbeknownst to most viewers, Lesnar had successfully executed the move while in the WWE’s developmental program. With Lesnar’s hulking, nearly 300-pound frame, the acrobatics made for a tremendous sight. This time, however, he double-pumped as his foot slipped on a rope wet with sweat, undercutting his leap. Rather than fully rotate and come down on Angle, stationed some 20 feet away, Lesnar crashed head-first just short of Angle’s side. The crowd let out a collective, falling “ohhhh” that seemed part shock, part disappointment, part concern. Lesnar, lucky to have avoided breaking his neck, was badly concussed. And the planned finish to the match was botched.
Warning: Botchamania videos contain explicit language
Where traditional sports and entertainment have bloopers, professional wrestling has botches. While the term is certainly not unique to the wrestling world, miscues can offer a valuable window into wrestling’s distinctiveness as a performance art: a live-action theater of athletic performance - “sports entertainment,” in WWE parlance - where the unusual relationship between show and reality can become unusually tangled.
The wide range of errors under the “botch” umbrella also illustrates the variety of variables within a wrestling show. Matches are generally a balance of choreography and improvisation that vary with each iteration, often with minimal or even no actual rehearsal before the performance in front of a live audience. Thus in addition to basic physical mistakes - slipping from the rope, missing a kick, losing hold of one’s opponent mid-maneuver - botches can be anything that throws off what is ideally a flowing performance: fumbling when one wrestler attempts a move their opponent is unprepared to receive, hesitation when they are unsure what is to come next. That is to say nothing of the potential follies offered by live television and web broadcasts, from flubbed speeches to failing technical equipment.
Essentially, botches are instances in which “there’s that sense of, ‘I’m not supposed to be seeing or noticing this,’” says Matthew Gregg, a 27-year-old British wrestling fanatic. Gregg would know. Over the past six years, he has established himself as the Internet’s preeminent botch connoisseur through his series of “Botchamania” video compilations, published under his nom du net, Maffew.
Begun in 2008 while Gregg was a film media student, the videos - now at 274 installments and counting - have gone from being emailed among a dozen friends to racking up hundreds of thousands of hits apiece across YouTube, Vimeo, and Dailymotion. (Because of the questionable legality of compiling so much copyrighted footage, he has cycled through at least nine YouTube accounts in the process. The most-viewed surviving upload to the site, Botchamania 112, has been watched 339,000 times.) The videos, which cull material ranging from WWE pay-per-views to small independent armory shows, are a portal into a world in which seemingly everything goes wrong. Wrestlers audibly call out directions. Ropes snap. Tables break before a wrestler can be slammed through them, or not at all once they are. Microphones cut out. A debuting behemoth trips and falls while breaking through a wall, his plastic mask-helmet tumbling onto the floor.
Yet, to both curator and audience, Botchamania’s success comes from a place of love. “It’s not for someone to go, oh, this is fake!” says Gregg. “It’s for wrestling fans.”
But why? Gregg’s definition of a botch doubles as testimony to a key part of its appeal: a glimpse behind the proverbial curtain. Owing to its genesis in early-20th Century carnie hucksterism, pro wrestling has long held an institutional preference for insulation from the public. This began with “kayfabe,” the insistence - unnecessary in, say, football or TV sitcoms - that its matches were genuine athletic competition, its storylines legitimate, its performers’ personas true to life. While the audience was in on the act much earlier than generally believed (see Roland Barthe’s midcentury Mythologies,or The New Yorker’s coverage in the 1930s) it is only in recent decades that kayfabe began to truly die. An autopsy would begin with WWE kingpin Vince McMahon’s 1989 court testimony that his shows are scripted and grow to include the advent of tell-all interviews and books, online gossip, and easier access to inside reportage. Even WWE officials and performers, in company-produced documentary DVDs and outside media appearances, speak openly about backstage machinations and wrestling's artifice. The openness has only stoked fans’ desire to feel in the know.
Still, aside from select attempts to creatively blend the staged and the legitimate, the performance itself has largely remained sacrosanct; to outright break that fourth wall in the midst of the production, particularly by acknowledging an opponent’s complicity in a maneuver, would undermine the premise of the entire operation. In turn, the botch - by definition an in-show occurrence - has remained a taboo, a sort of last bastion charade for the know-it-all observer to see through. “It’s like the psychology behind, ‘Don’t look at that,’” Gregg says. “Because it’s withheld from you, you’re gonna be like, ‘Oh, now I do wanna see it.’”
In competitive sports, the blooper can be laughed off as earnest effort gone awry. This is more difficult in pro wrestling’s idealized presentation of combat, in which ostensibly devastating blows can be recovered from within minutes and weakness is demonstrated solely to advance the match’s story. In certain contexts, however, a botch might still be explained away within kayfabe. In the case of Lesnar’s misfired Shooting Star Press, here was a gigantic man attempting a highly difficult, unfamiliar tactic after exerting himself for 20 minutes. (All of this is, of course, true.) That it might backfire is entirely reasonable. Chris Jericho, a 24-year veteran and six-time world champion in WWE, tells the story of how he and his opponent both accidentally toppled from the top rope while setting up for a move in a match in Japan. The spot looked and felt so legitimate that he recreated it in later matches for an added dose of verisimilitude. “When it looks like a sport and not all choreographed or according to formula,” says Gregg, “there’s realism to it.”
A botch can also lend insight into craft otherwise taken for granted. At its best, wrestling is seamless: Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat’s graceful rage, Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio Jr.’s balletic seesawing. For all its narrative focus on competition, professional wrestling is highly a collaborative form; every move given must also be taken as both workers labor in the name of telling the same story. To see wrestling in its worst moments—with basic exchanges or transitions bungled or an opponent outright ruining a move’s execution—can serve as reminder of all the coordination necessary to pull off a merely adequate performance, as well as an appreciation of how smoothly most wrestlers operate.
None of which is to argue that botches are a net positive. Even in today’s largely post-kayfabe environment, the goal of the wrestlers is to reward the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief by presenting a match that makes sense within wrestling’s internal logic. Noticeable botches are disruptive and jarring, calling to the forefront the contrivance at hand. When reality and fiction awkwardly collide, often neither survives intact, undermining the performance on both levels. “The whole aura of professional wrestling, of getting invested in characters doing battle,” says Johnny Gargano, a 27-year-old independent wrestler from Cleveland. “That’s gone.”
Hence the void Botchamania has filled. While WWE has become increasingly comfortable with self-deprecation over the years via snarky YouTube series and retrospective “worst of” lists on its website, it and other wrestling companies have understandably stayed away from publishing true blooper reels. Botches are most often ignored, sometimes edited out of taped shows or rebroadcasts. Before sleuthing fans began finding and sharing them online - and especially before Gregg’s series gave them a go-to repository - wrestlers could take solace in botches being relatively ephemeral in an industry that traditionally authored its own history.
On a breezy Saturday night, Colt Cabana leans against an SUV in the parking lot behind a Brooklyn church gym. Inside, the show on which he had just wrestled, put on by the local independent promotion FWE, carries on. A 34-year-old former Western Michigan football player (given name: Scott Colton), Cabana’s 15-year wrestling career has taken him to Europe, Japan, and the WWE. His humor-intensive shtick has branched out into standup, a weekly podcast, and even a comedic wrestling commentary show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland. So it is not wholly surprising when, while holding court on the subject of botching, he brings up Gregg - or “Maffew” - unprompted. “I hope he’s part of your story,” Cabana says. “I don’t know if he gets enough credit. I think he should.”
Counterintuitive as it may seem, wrestlers have largely embraced Botchamania. Independent wrestlers, forever in the business of self-promotion, regularly record introductions to the videos; bigger stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dolph Ziggler have name-dropped it. In their case, obviously, the voyeuristic enjoyment element is gone. What remains is Botchamania’s most central element: it can be very, very funny. Not only is there a blooper reel’s staple schadenfreude, but also Gregg’s snide captions and quirky edits, which often splice familiar wrestling references into TV and movie clips. “Yes, it is my job. Yes, it is something I’ve wanted to do forever,” says Gargano. “But you’ve got to think back to yes, we are dudes in spandex tights fighting other dudes in spandex tights, so how seriously can you really take it? You’ve gotta be able to laugh at yourself.” Gregory Iron, a 28-year-old wrestler from Cleveland, likens it to the difference between being hit in the crotch and watching someone experience the same. “As long as it’s not you,” he says, “it’s okay.”
Perhaps as a result of wrestling’s long history of self-protection against the business’s exposure to a prying public, others are less sanguine to the phenomenon. “I hate the term ‘botching,’” says Jericho, the WWE star, a straddler of schools old and new. “I think it’s a smart mark term that people use trying to be clever and trying to be smartass.” Yet among wrestlers from whom Gregg has received feedback - mostly, but not exclusively, younger ones working their way up - such sentiments are an exception. “More wrestlers probably should tell me I suck, but they don’t,” he says.
Even so, those who enjoy Gregg’s videos do not particularly enjoy unwittingly appearing in them. They are a reminder that what could once be lost to the sands of time is now preserved forever, set to retro video game music and streamed across hundreds of thousands of computer, tablet, and phone screens. And where the veil of kayfabe distorts botches in a way unlike sports - these are actions by characters seen as somewhat symbiotic with their performers - the live theater aspect of pro wrestling makes it unlike most forms of entertainment. A wrestler’s miscues are part of the performance’s canon. Recovery rests solely in the hands of the performers. “There is no safety net, there is no second chance, there’s no second take, there’s no stop-and-start-over,” says Jericho. “So, yes, we make mistakes as every human being does, but how do you get out of it? How do you make it good? That’s the true art form.”
Rule No. 1 would be to simply carry on. For all the pontification about a botch’s disruption of wrestling’s central illusion, the damage’s mitigation begins as soon as the match continues. Here a wrestler’s improv skills become crucial. A green worker might panic and stall in the face of a deviation from the plan, not to mention the ruthless “you f---ed up!” chants popular among certain segments of fans. The more experienced know to trudge forward and invite the audience’s attention to move on with them, perhaps even playing off the mistake if the character and situation allow for it. “Some of the greats like Guerrero, [Shawn] Michaels - they probably covered more botches in their career that you thought were great moves,” says Cabana. Such is the somewhat apocryphal story of Jake “The Snake” Roberts’s famous finishing move, the DDT, which states that he invented it by accidentally slipping backwards while holding his opponent in a front face lock.
Thus it is worth revisiting WrestleMania XIX. In the end, arguably wrestling’s most high-stakes botch - in the climactic sequence of wrestling’s Super Bowl - served as a testament to all involved. When Lesnar slammed the ground beside him, Angle rolled away to suggest he had dodged the strike. With Lesnar legitimately stunned, Angle and the referee began to improvise and communicate a new finish to crown him the winner. Angle covered Lesnar for a pin; Lesnar was somehow cognizant enough to kick out at the count of two. The announcers lent a hand, lauding Angle’s savvy for having avoided the move’s impact. Angle staggered to his feet, dragging Lesnar up with him while giving new directions under his breath. Lesnar kicked Angle in the stomach, hoisted him onto his shoulders to deliver his standard finisher, the F-5, and pinned him for a three-count to become the new WWE champion. The show went on.
The image of a glassy-eyed, bloody-nosed Lesnar struggling to stand with his championship belt - and the fact that Lesnar has said he remembers none of it - are a reminder that botches carry potential consequences far beyond compromised narratives and derisive chants. Even when matches go smoothly, with participants having been trained to throw glancing blows and land in ways that minimize impact, the professional wrestler’s life is one of inevitably accrued bruises and injuries. Safety is paramount. Trusting one’s opponent is essential in the same way it is for pairs of dancers, figure skaters, or trapeze artists: it is up to them to slam you squarely, catch your fall, or help launch you to your landing point.
The list of those injured by mistakes in the ring - theirs or their opponents’ - is innumerable. A brief survey of only the more severe end of the spectrum would include fractured ruptured spinal disks, broken vertebrae, paralysis, and death. Even a casual fan would recognize the names of some of those whose careers were greatly altered by such accidents: Austin, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Rick Rude. As Iron says, wrestlers “are putting our lives in another person’s hands.” Iron has had that trust betrayed. In his first year wrestling, he was ragdolled by a pair of larger, stronger wrestlers during a match and ended up hospitalized for three days as his brain bled.
A cynical argument: to some viewers, this risk factor holds a measure of appeal, a charge familiar to NASCAR enthusiasts. Though surely only a select, possibly sociopathic few would wish true harm on performers, the idea of real repercussions in a world of largely pantomimed violence and exaggerated pain can be gripping. Imagine some mix of wrestling fans’ voyeuristic tendencies and whatever makes millions watch a man walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon on television - a cross between “wait, is this supposed to happen?” and “is he gonna be okay?”
The earliest seed of Gregg’s Botchamania series was planted by a similar strain of morbid curiosity: In searching for video of a wrestler named Sid suffering a compound leg fracture during a match, he discovered existing collections of wrestling-gone-wrong moments and found them wanting. In his own work he has largely excluded gratuitously graphic injuries. The paralyses of Hayabusa and Droz, the broken leg that resulted in Chris Candido dying of complications from surgery, the suplex that led to Japanese legend Misawa’s death - all have been deemed out of bounds. He included footage of Austin breaking Masahiro Chono’s neck on a Fire Thunder Driver and of Owen Hart breaking Austin’s neck years later with the same move, justifying it through Chono and Austin’s eventual recoveries. There are other inclusions he has come to regret and those that have divided his audience. In 2011, when the wrestler then portraying WWE’s Sin Cara ruptured his patellar tendon leaping from the ring, Gregg produced two versions of his next video, with and without the injury.
Such distinctions are left entirely up to Gregg. Botchamania’s success has in turn afforded him similar autonomy in his life. Last June, he began offering early access to the videos to donors who contributed at least a dollar through the crowdfunding site Patreon. By September, with nearly 400 supporters - some of whom pay $10 for a monthly Q&A, plus advertisers at $100 a pop - Gregg had enough income to quit his sales job at Sky Sports. He can now devote himself fully to Botchamania for hours daily, combing footage from a bottomless supply of new shows and four full hard drives of archived material in his apartment in Newcastle upon Tyne. In the past three months, he’s published 10 installments for his rabid fanbase (his Patreon supporters now number 600-plus), about whom he is effusive.
Despite spending his life mucking around wrestling’s lowlights, Gregg’s fandom prevails. Even while tweets pour into his timeline and his friends’ heads jerk in his direction at the sight of any slip-up during Monday Night Raw, he remains an optimist first and foremost. “Priority one: enjoy the wrestling show,” Gregg says of his viewing habits. “Priority two: botches.” Wrestling’s inherent chaos means rarely does he have to look far. “That’s the art form,” he says. “It’s a controlled frenzy.”
If to err is human, to botch is to wrestle. As long as professional wrestlers continue to ply their trade, using body and mouth to tell stories and entertain live audiences, they will also continue to provide Gregg material. And as that continues to present problems for performers, it will offer Gregg and his viewers an unusual way to watch what they already love. “I can’t say I like it,” he says. “But I can’t say I don’t.”