Dave Bautista was set up for a triumphant return to the ring. But the fans just weren’t having it.
The D.C.-born professional wrestler — a six-time world champion known simply as Batista to World Wrestling Entertainment’s millions of fans — returned to the company in January after a four-year absence. In his first match back, he won the Royal Rumble, an endurance test featuring 30 contestants. The writing staff that booked Batista to win — spoiler alert: professional wrestling outcomes are predetermined — expected this victory to be greeted with hearty cheers and for those to carry all the way to the main event at Sunday’s Wrestlemania 30, where more than 60,000 fans will fill New Orleans’s Superdome. (Millions more will watch on pay-per-view and the recently launched WWE network.) But the boos rained down from the fans in Pittsburgh that winter night and have followed Batista around the country in the two-plus months since.
“They told me that I was going to come back and be this huge babyface,” says Bautista, using the industry term for fan favorite. He’s speaking in the Verizon Center a couple hours before the cameras start to roll and a sold-out crowd packs in for a live taping of WWE’s flagship program, “Monday Night Raw.” “I said, no, it’s not going to work,” he continues. “They said, no way, they’re dying for you to come back. I said, that’s going to last two minutes, just watch. And sure enough it did.”
Why would the fans jeer a charismatic returning champion who uses his brute strength and patented Batista Bomb to vanquish opponents? Isn’t that the classic formula for a wrestling hero? Yes, but professional wrestling — in particular its most visible and dominant entity, the WWE — is currently engaged in something of a battle of wills with its own fans. And Bautista is caught in the middle.
In professional wrestling, it used to be very simple. There were good guys and bad guys, with clear delineations between the two camps. Then things got a little more complicated. Good guys started to take on the qualities of bad guys — think “Stone Cold” Steve Austin — but it was still pretty easy to figure out who the fans would cheer for and against. That has changed. Over the past year, crowds featuring large segments of young, vocal, spotlight-hungry fans have brought a definite contrarian streak to WWE events. Turn on “Raw” and there’s a good chance that company golden boy John Cena will be lustily booed. That same episode, the sometimes-uncomfortably xenophobic tag team dubbed the Real Americans will draw favorable chants.
For his part, Bautista has no problem soaking up the boos in the ring.
But pre-show, out of character, in a T-shirt and jeans, you won’t find anything to hate about the 45-year-old whose almost every visible inch of arm space is covered in tattoos. He claims to be “not all big and jacked up anymore,” yet you look at his bicep and realize it resembles your thigh much more than what passes for your own bicep. The company’s Web site lists him at 6 feet, 6 inches and 290 pounds, so take off a few inches and a few dozen pounds of standard WWE exaggeration and you still have an intimidating mountain of a man. He’d make a perfect bouncer, which is exactly what he did before becoming a wrestler. And in fact, we’re right near his old stomping grounds.
“A lot of the clubs I worked at were two blocks away, 9th and F,” he says. “Pre-pre-Verizon Center,” he adds, noting the gentrification and development of the past two decades. He reels off some of the other vintage D.C. venues where he worked: Dome, Zei, Blackie’s, Lulu’s, Library Lounge. He was born in 1969 and grew up on K Street SE near the Washington Navy Yard; that neighborhood in 2014, with Nationals Park and its surrounding establishments, barely resembles the one he called home. (He now resides in Tampa.)
In the ring as Batista at the Verizon Center, the hometown wrestler got a bump, drawing almost equal cheers and jeers. (It probably helped that he walked to the ring wearing a throwback Patrick Ewing Georgetown Hoyas jersey.) And while he’s fine getting booed, he does have some issues with a certain segment of the fan base.
“They used to want to interact with the show,” Bautista says. “But now the crowd almost wants to be the show.” He pauses and you can almost see that “u” disappear from his name as Dave Bautista momentarily gives way to Batista. His voice rises. “Well, if you wanna be the show, take your a-- to wrestling school, just like I did, just like everybody else here who is busting their a-- and actually become part of the show! Don’t just sit in the audience and try to randomly steal the show.”
This phenomenon Bautista complains about is absolutely the most defining feature of the past year in the WWE. Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer newsletter and the industry’s most respected reporter, says this element has always been around but has never been as pronounced. Now fans are more informed — some would argue misinformed — thanks to Web sites that report on backstage gossip, politicking and future storylines. And fans are taking it upon themselves to reverse the power dynamic.
“The people who were writing [the show] were able to lead the crowd — and they still are,” Meltzer says. “But now a lot of the writing is reacting to the crowd as opposed to being ahead of the crowd. They’re ahead of you and they’re manipulating you and you’re manipulating them back. It’s almost like a weird game between the writers and the crowd over who’s in control and who’s got the upper hand.”
This battle is best personified by Daniel Bryan, a bearded, vegan, relative runt of a wrestler (at least compared with Batista) who fans have basically willed to main-event status by chanting his name and catchphrase — the shockingly simple “Yes!” — at almost all times, regardless of whether he’s in the ring. Bautista is a huge fan of Bryan (real name Bryan Danielson) and appreciates the crowd’s overall enthusiasm, but he finds that sort of behavior misguided.
“If you just chant his name for no reason during everybody’s match — it takes away from the show, you’re missing a lot of good entertainment and it’s disrespectful to a lot of really good performers who are putting it on the line,” Bautista says.
“Some people in wrestling don’t like that those fans exist,” Meltzer says of the extremely vocal minority that often becomes a majority at the company’s biggest events. He notes that this outspoken fan base — which buys up tickets and packs arenas — has forced storylines to change.
If Internet reports are to be believed, the challenger Batista was set to regain the championship at Sunday’s Wrestlemania, but that’s now in jeopardy thanks to Bryan’s upstart status. (Batista will face current champ Randy Orton and a third opponent who will most likely be Bryan, provided that Bryan defeats the dastardly Triple H earlier in the evening. It’s complicated.)
No matter how his alter ego fares on Sunday in the ring, Bautista has another big moment on an even bigger scale coming later this year. After starring in a handful of direct-to-video movies, then scoring supporting roles in the martial arts flick “The Man With the Iron Fists” and sci-fi vehicle “Riddick,” Bautista will star in the August superhero film “Guardians of the Galaxy,” based on the popular Marvel comic.
Bautista plays Drax the Destroyer and shares billing with established Hollywood stars Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana and Vin Diesel. Bautista went through a series of auditions to land the part and confesses to plenty of nerves throughout the process and also through filming, which is admittedly odd coming from someone who has spent much of his career performing intensely physical, choreographed drama in front of live audiences.
“Acting is so intimate, it’s almost claustrophobic,” he says. “It’s a scary thing, man. When someone says ‘action’ and everyone goes quiet. Then I start overthinking everything. Where’s my mark? Where do I have to look? Where do I have to stand? What are my lines? What are their lines?”
But at least nobody from the crew is booing.