We were in a dive bar when Geoff said, “Pro wrestling? I hate pro wrestling. My dad wrestled for real in college. Pro wrestling fans actually think that garbage’s real.”
“Nobody thinks wrestling is real.” It’s a sentence I’ve said dozens of times, a sentence you’ve probably said too if you like pro wrestling and mention this to someone who didn’t grow up on the Undertaker, Kane, Giant Gonzalez, or David Arquette winning the WCW world title—gimmicks so absurd that nobody watching would question the reality of the fiction any more than they might wonder if Star Wars is real. After closing our tab, I decided to show Geoff something that would once and for all prove that no wrestling fan actually believed it was real. I used to pick random buried alive matches or maybe the time Big Boss Man broke into Big Show’s dad’s funeral and stole the coffin. But no longer. Now, I queue up The Final Deletion, Broken Matt Hardy’s over-the-top postmodern masterpiece.
In the mid-nineties, Matt Hardy debuted on Monday Night Raw jobbing for heels like Nikolai Volkoff and Crush. Very few of the matches lasted longer than five minutes, and Hardy rarely if ever got his own theme music or any kind of characterization beyond the fact that he was destined to get squashed. “Matt Hardy got a letter in the mail today from the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes. It says, ‘You may already be a loser,’” Jerry Lawler cackled before a brief encounter with Triple H. He was repackaged and paired with his brother Jeff, both prodigies in the North Carolina indie scene, but this incarnation of the Hardy Boyz still didn’t connect with the audience. Decked in neon pants and bandanas, the Hardys already possessed a high-flying moveset that popped the crowd, but it wasn’t until they were reborn as nu-metal/goth kids that they really struck a chord with fans.
As a nerdy fourteen-year-old, I was captivated by their first major feud with Edge and Christian. My favorite wrestlers before the Hardys were the Rock, Stone Cold, Mankind, Shawn Michaels, and the Undertaker, titans as far removed from my life as Spider-Man or Super Mario. They were power fantasies through and through. And so were the Hardys, but in a different, more relatable way.
In 1999, Matt Hardy was 25 but could pass for 18. He and Jeff wore black shirts, crosses, and tent-sized JNCO jeans. They dressed the way I wanted to in my buttoned-up Catholic school uniform, and it was easy picturing them listening to the same terrible bands I loved—Slipknot, Static-X, Powerman 5000. I couldn’t imagine myself as redneck Steve Austin or demented Mick Foley, but I could project myself onto the Hardys. They felt realer to me, like jobbers who through pure will of imagination had moonsaulted themselves into pay-per-view matches.
I followed the Hardys through WrestleMania 2000 where they had a legendary triangle ladder match with the Dudley Boyz and Edge and Christian. If you’re looking for a quick hit of vintage Matt Hardy before his radical late-career transformation, begin here. Some credit this match for transforming the tables, ladders, and chairs stipulation into an art form, and although it had been done before, there’s enough death-defying spots here to make any jaded fan pause. But by the end of WrestleMania 2000 and its infamously lame McMahon in Every Corner match, I was ready to let pro wrestling go. Despite the efforts of the Hardys, the product didn’t feel edgy anymore. I was getting into Weezer and J.D. Salinger—pretentious teen totems—and suddenly Slipknot and frog splashes off the top turnbuckle weren’t cool. I dropped wrestling the same way I abandoned comic books and Pokémon. I didn’t expect to see any of them again.
Literary critic Roland Barthes once wrote, “The virtue of wrestling is the spectacle of excess. Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of the ancient theatres.” Born in France in 1915, Barthes nails why pro wrestling has reached the outlandish heights of WrestleMania in his essay “The World of Wrestling” collected in his 1957 book Mythologies. Although Barthes is typically associated with structuralism, he zeroes in on the postmodern “grandiloquence” that has defined pro wrestling for decades. Pro wrestling is a truly meta postmodern art form. Audience members attend shows in arenas or bingo halls fully aware that the fighting is staged, the victors predetermined. Yet, they cheer and boo as if the show is real. Both wrestler and audience are in on the joke. Like Barthes wrote, “What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself.” The heart of pro wrestling is this grandiloquence, the “spectacle of excess,” the campy, the over-the-top.
It’s this “spectacle of excess” that brought me back to pro wrestling in my thirties. I caught WrestleMania 31 on a whim and was shocked to discover that so many of the wrestlers I remembered from my youth—Hogan, Sting, Triple H, Big Show, Kane—were still active in some diminished form or another, vamping around on even bigger stages. I ventured from WWE to the indies and fell in love with comedy gimmicks like the Estonian Super Thunderfrog and Space Monkey. The absurdity was a release for me, and maybe this is why I waited so long to look up what happened to the Hardy Boyz. Why search for camp in wrestlers who once seemed so real they might as well have been my friends?
On June 1st, 2016, TNA Wrestling posted “Director’s Cut: Jeff Hardy/Matt Hardy Contract Signing for Slammiversary!” on YouTube. The clip begins with ominous drums and violins cut against aerial shots of Matt Hardy’s actual home in North Carolina. Hardy sneers, “I’ve invited all of you, the world, as well as Brother Nero into my humble abode.” Only this Matt Hardy is nothing like the Matt Hardy I remembered. Gone are the JNCOs and obvious nu-metal/goth symbols, replaced by a velvet blazer and a mane of frizzy hair with a skunky white streak running from scalp to neck. Matt’s monologue is corny and over-the-top but not in a Macho Man-maybe-on-cocaine way, more like so-terrible-it’s-amazing Tommy Wiseau in The Room. Only unlike Wiseau, Hardy is in on the joke, exaggerating each facial expression like a salivating cartoon wolf.
Over the course of five-and-a-half minutes Jeff Hardy races a dirt bike, Matt plays a piano and vamps, “Brother Nero, I knew you’d come,” and Matt’s wife hurls a fake baby at Jeff as a distraction. It’s one of the most surreal wrestling clips I’ve ever seen, and I once watched Kenny Omega wrestle a nine-year-old girl. The Hardy contract signing has been watched on YouTube over a million times, and Broken Matt Hardy shouting “Brother Nero, I knew you’d come!” was last year’s biggest wrestling meme.
Some credit the runaway success of Broken Matt Hardy to his ridiculous ongoing storyline, and there’s truth to that. Compared to the origins of more reality-based characters like the Rock or Stone Cold or even the more ludicrous Undertaker, Broken Matt Hardy is something out of a hyper preteen’s notebook. According to the storyline, the seven deities woke Matt Hardy after a brutal I Quit match and informed him his soul was thousands of years old and had fought across the centuries in a number of battle-tested vessels. The seven deities often provide Hardy with premonitions leading him to his next opponent that he must delete in order to become the greatest wrestler across space and time. Alongside Jeff/Brother Nero, Broken Matt’s joined by his Elvira-esque wife Reby, their adorable son and “Heir to the Hardy Throne” King Maxel, the Hardy groundskeeper Señor Benjamin—who also happens to be Reby’s father—and a sentient drone named Vanguard 1. By any definition, the Broken Matt Hardy saga is the campiest wrestling story going.
But the true genius of Broken Matt Hardy is how he’s removed the one postmodern constant across all pro wrestling: the self-aware audience. Although Broken Matt Hardy and Jeff eventually had a live match at Slammiversary, the contract-signing video was so popular that TNA followed it up with another taped segment in July, this one seventeen minutes long and including a full match. The Final Deletion makes the contract signing look tame by comparison. Here, we’re introduced to Broken Matt’s obsession with xylophones and running over his brother’s intricate lawn art with a riding mower. Did I mention there’s a scene where Jeff chases a drone on a dirt bike? Because there’s literally a scene where Jeff chases a drone on a dirt bike, trying to punch it in midair. The self-aware goofiness hits a crescendo during the match, staged at night in Broken Matt’s backyard. He summons his brother with an ancient violin, and over the course of the match, Jeff flips backwards off a tree, the Hardys use roman candles like guns, Matt screams, “It’s a dilapidated boat!” before hiding behind it—you can even buy a dilapidated boat fan shirt online—and Jeff is hurled into the Lake of Reincarnation where he’s transformed into a magical, cackling Joker-ripoff. As the sun rises and a violin plays, Matt lights Jeff on fire using a candle from his son’s birthday cake. The final scene is crosscut like the climax of The Godfather with moments of Matt prophesizing his brother’s defeat during King Maxel’s birthday party earlier that day. Call it Chekhov’s birthday candle, I guess.
By jettisoning the crowd, Broken Matt Hardy is able to cast off the creative shackles of what can be accomplished in front of a live audience. Tape delayed matches are nothing new in professional wrestling, and other promotions have staged bizarre crowd-less matches before. But in The Final Deletion, the Hardys embrace both reality-shattering mysticism and Barthes’s grandiloquence. The bout resembles something from a direct-to-VHS horror flick as Broken Matt constantly mugs for the camera, quick reminders that this is meta, intentional, that everyone involved realizes how truly stupid yet wonderful it is to pretend that an off-the-shelf drone is actually a sentient being capable of attacking Jeff Hardy’s home. Making the whole project even stranger is that Billy Corgan, lead singer from Smashing Pumpkins, actually pushed for The Final Deletion backstage, that we live in a reality where Corgan appeared as an onscreen TNA character named “Billy Corgan.”
Like the contract signing before it, The Final Deletion was a breakthrough success for TNA, and Broken Matt used it as a platform to launch what he calls his Broken universe. Over the last seven months, Hardy’s filmed dozens of short segments for TNA—highlights include forcing Brother Nero to spar with a kangaroo, Reby playing the piano live onstage while Jeff sings the Hardy theme song, and an utterly batshit storyline where Matt suffers amnesia and wants to become a chef. TNA’s also produced three additional longer Hardy set pieces: Delete or Decay, where the heel faction Decay home-invades the Hardys and tries to kidnap King Maxel; The Great War, a pay-per-view match with Decay that turns into a taped segment midway through like The Wizard of Oz switching from black-and-white to color; and the truly excessive Total Nonstop Deletion.
Unlike The Great War or The Final Deletion, Total Nonstop Deletion aired as a full two-hour block of television The entire episode of Impact Wrestling takes place in a tiny arena in Matt’s backyard in North Carolina, and although the first half incorporates a very small audience and ring-based matches—including King Maxel’s televised in-ring debut—the second half spills out into the compound as the Hardys battle everyone from Decay to Hornswoggle to a geriatric Rock ‘n’ Roll Express. The special climaxes with a volcano erupting with fireworks, an occasion Broken Matt Hardy uses to announce his wife’s pregnancy, Señor Benjamin holding Vanguard 1 over his head like a trophy.
Despite all this, the true pinnacle of Broken Matt’s dedication to his postmodern rebirth might be his appearance on legendary wrestling broadcaster Jim Ross’ podcast, The Ross Report. This is a behind-the-scenes show where Ross interviews former and current wrestlers about the business, but Hardy records the entire interview—nearly ninety minutes!—in character, pontificating about the seven deities and how his soul battled fellow wrestler Bobby Lashley’s hundreds of years ago.
For the future, Broken Matt Hardy has his gaze set on empire. Over Twitter and in his promos, he’s begun calling out various tag teams across promotions, including the indie darlings the Young Bucks and WWE anchor The New Day. He appeared via video at Ring of Honor’s most important pay-per-view of the year, and the Young Bucks even namechecked Hardy live during their Wrestle Kingdom 11 entrance in Japan. Despite being contracted to TNA until February, Hardy has appeared in other promotions, fighting ECW legends Tommy Dreamer in Philadelphia and Bully Ray in England. The Hardys will actually face off against the Young Bucks at a Ring of Honor show in Lakeland, Florida, on April 1. This is a throwback to the territory days when wrestlers traveled from promotion to promotion honing their craft, getting the local faces and heels over. But there’s something new and unique about Hardy’s world domination scheme, the way he namechecks WWE in the same breath as smaller promotions like Ring of Honor or even What Culture Pro Wrestling. He’s somehow made the wider wrestling universe feel bigger and smaller at the same time, elastic enough to fit the Lake of Reincarnation and gender reveal volcanoes but small enough where WWE’s Wyatt Family could call out the Hardys online. His popular delete chant has already infected other promotions, often surfacing during WWE events whenever the crowd deems something boring. And obviously, Vince McMahon is listening.
Rumors have circulated for months that McMahon wants the Hardys back in WWE when their TNA contracts run out, and I have to admit I’m conflicted. The thought of the Hardys back on the biggest stage where they made their names competing against fresh talent like AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, or The New Day is enough to make me waste an afternoon fantasy booking, but I worry WWE will screw it up. Their product’s been defanged for a long time. Everything feels predetermined and drab, the opposite of Barthes’s grandiloquence. I picture the Hardys in WWE and fear them putting over milquetoast Roman Reigns or, more likely, being lost in the shuffle like the magical Wyatts or any other supernatural act not named the Undertaker or Kane.
I wonder if they’re better off in the indies where Matt Hardy has some level of creative control, where he can effectively wage war on other promotions and use pro wrestling as a delivery mechanism for totally postmodern metanarratives about burying younger talent in his backyard or Jeff playing the longest wind chime ever while Matt drones on about a magical expedition for gold. Maybe Broken Matt Hardy is exactly where he should be.
My buddy Geoff grew up despising pro wrestling and everything associated with it. We record a weekly basketball podcast, and one of the running gags is whenever I tell Geoff about some weird thing that’s happening in wrestling and ask for his reaction. It’s always disgust. But a few months after I showed him The Final Deletion, he called me and midway through our conversation asked, “Hey. Do you have any more of those Hardy clips, guy?”
“Geoff,” I said, “you have no idea. You have absolutely no idea.”
Salvatore Pane is the author of the novel Last Call in the City of Bridges in addition to Mega Man 3 from Boss Fight Books. His writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, Hobart, New South, and many other venues. He teaches English at the University of St. Thomas and can be reached at www.salvatore-pane.com or @salpane.