How It Began
In 2002, a student of mine walked in during my office hours. At the end of our
long conversation about race, politics, and sociology, I asked for his e-mail and he
handed me a business card which stated, Tommy T—The Enforcer. I asked what this
title meant and he stated matter- of-factly, “Oh, I do pro wrestling promotions.” I had
more or less forgotten about this staple of the American cultural diet. Only then did
I begin to rethink pro wrestling.
I recalled this exchange a few months later, when taking an ethnography seminar
with Javier Auyero. I looked on the Internet for pro wrestling and, as it happened,
there was a training school for aspiring pro wrestlers near my own university. I
learned that on the following Sunday it would be staging a show at a community
center about a thirty- minute drive away, so I went to it. This, it turns out, became
the unofficial beginning of my fieldwork.
At the intermission a short guy in his early twenties with a goatee and a big smile
approached me. Enthusiastically he said, “Hey man, how are you?” At first I was
sure he was talking to the guy behind me, but he asked what I had been up to and
mentioned that his name was Ryan, perhaps realizing that I was having trouble plac-
ing him. He kept talking—where was I living now, what had I been up to? I didn’t
even think to correct him because he seemed so glad to see me. I told him I needed
to go to the bathroom. “It was great to see you!” he said, just before giving me a big
hug and parting.
The bear hug resulting from a case of mistaken identity revealed several things.
First, fans and wrestlers made up a rather tight- knit community. Contrary to the ste-
reotype of pro wrestlers and their fans as tough degenerates “who beat their wives,”1
I had witnessed a congenial and caring group. The boundary between performers
and fans was unclear; many fans were connected to performers by acquaintance of
some kind (friendship, family, work, etc.). So I experienced a shared community
very unlike professional sports or professional theater, where the audience usually
has very little means of tangible interaction.2 Second, although I really didn’t know