McGuire’s Mondays: Thank you, Windham Rotunda


By Colin McGuire, Staffer (@McGMondays)

I’ve mentioned it in this space before, so I’ll keep it brief: If it wasn’t for the 2014 Royal Rumble in Pittsburgh, I wouldn’t be watching pro wrestling on a regular basis and I certainly wouldn’t be writing about it. I was visiting friends and was set to leave town to head home to Maryland that Sunday. Before I left, we were sitting around and someone jokingly said that the Royal Rumble was in town. It had been years since any of us had watched and/or cared about wrestling. I joked that we should go if we could find tickets under $20 on the secondary market. I checked StubHub.

There were tickets under $20 on the secondary market.

So, we went. None of us knew anything about the current product, but the Rumble was always my favorite pay-per-view anyway because of the Royal Rumble match, so even if we were in the dark, we knew we’d have fun counting from 10 to 0 every couple minutes. I didn’t know who any of the wrestlers might be, but I held out hope that a legend or two might come back to spend a few minutes in the Rumble itself. We grabbed some beers after we got to the arena, settled into our seats and here I am almost 10 years later more invested in pro wrestling than I’ve ever been all because of that night.

Or, well, not just that night. More specifically, I’m probably more invested in pro wrestling than I’ve ever been because of the match that started the main card. Two wrestlers I had never heard of – Bray Wyatt and Daniel Bryan – took center stage and from that instant, I needed to go read everything I could find about those two guys because I was clearly missing something. I remember Bryan being fairly popular with the live crowd, but what I recall the most was the lights going out, a weird cult-like video playing on the big screen with quick snap-edits and a group of swamp people. Then some music hit and suddenly a rocking chair appeared at the bottom of the ramp. Bray Wyatt was in that chair.

I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but boy did I love it. It was creepy, unsettling, weird. It reminded me of how legitimately scared I was to see Papa Shango on television when I was a kid. In fact, this new guy in this rocking chair on that night in Pittsburgh inspired some of those same uneasy feelings, even though I was a grown-up. He was captivating. I believed him. I knew it was all a gimmick (right?), and that pro wrestling characters weren’t actual people (right?), so there was nothing to be creeped out by (right?). But damn it if I wasn’t all the way back in when it came to pro wrestling – and all in on the Wyatt family. So much so, in fact, that a friend gifted me a Wyatt family shirt some months after that. I had never owned a wrestling shirt and I had never planned on owning a wrestling shirt, but it still sits in my closet and I’m happy I have it.

All of this is why, when I got a few text messages Thursday evening telling me that Windham Rotunda had passed away, it hit harder than I could have anticipated. Without him leading that faction on that cold night in Pittsburgh, I wouldn’t have this wild, weird, infuriating-yet-perfect form of entertainment to lean on sometimes when things don’t feel great in life. I owe him a few words of appreciation, even if they aren’t much. I never met him and I could never pretend to speak like I knew him, but watching from afar, as a fan of his work, there is reason for a salute, even as a stranger, as a former lapsed fan.

Thank you, Windham, for making me a former lapsed fan and not a current lapsed fan.

Thank you, Windham, for taking chances. There’s a difference between attempting a 450 splash and cultivating something so weird, so odd, and so compelling that even when it doesn’t make sense, you can’t take your eyes off it. Both are chances that people take in the pro wrestling business, but the latter is far more emotionally taxing and courageously vulnerable than the former. If your moonsault doesn’t look pretty, but your dropkick does, fans can overlook the deficiencies; if you’re trying to consistently entertain large audiences by rarely having to throw a punch, the ridicule comes faster and harsher in this world than it does in others. This was a man who wasn’t afraid to fail.

Thank you, Windham, for that mind f— of a WrestleMania thing you did with John Cena. Drugs can be a lot of fun sometimes, but there isn’t a trip out there that could compare to that fever dream. It doesn’t matter who loved it or hated it – even if it seems like those have since been the only two choices out there – all that mattered was that you did something nobody will soon forget.

Thank you, Windham, for leaving behind a trail of fan interactions that appear to have profoundly (and quietly) moved people. For figuring out how to be such a weirdo on television, you sure did seem to have a big heart – a heart that seemingly accepted everybody and a heart that never ran out of love to give. Compassion isn’t as prevalent in a lot of humans as it once was; you seemed to know exactly how to embody it.

And thank you, Windham, for saying this: “Wrestling is not a love story. It’s a fairytale for masochists, a comedy for people who criticize the punchlines, a fantasy that most people can’t understand, and a spectacle no one can deny.” Because you were right.

In fact, Windham was so right in saying those words, that those words were used by Renee Paquette to kick off AEW’s “All In” pre-show on Sunday. And now that “All In” is in the books, I worry that the wrestling world has moved on too quickly from Windham’s death. The headlines today are more focused on CM Punk backstage drama or Adam Cole and MJF not splitting up at the AEW pay-per-view. As I write this, Rotunda died four days ago – and, let’s not forget, Terry Funk’s death was reported only one day before that.

But the former Bray Wyatt was only 36 years old. Funk, as big an icon as the pro wrestling business has ever seen, wrestled for more than 50 years – at least a decade longer than Windham was even alive. To say it’s sad is beyond an understatement. You can say all you want about Windham’s wrestling ability, his imagination, his gimmicks, his best matches and his worst matches. Hated him. Loved him. Didn’t care about him. None of that matters because we can all agree that 36 – with four children, mind you – is too young.

On top of that, he didn’t have an easy go of it. Windham was never shy about his struggles with mental health. Just look at this social media post he penned only a couple years ago:

“You are stale. They ruined you. He is boring. I hate his matches. My life is art. My art’s successes and my loved ones are the only exit I have from my mental health. You have no idea how much a simple, thoughtless comment on social media can directly affect the person you are sending it to. With great power comes great responsibility. The negativity in our world is astonishing. And mental health is at an all time decline. Be better … it could save a life. They saved mine.”

It’s that precise vulnerability that made Windham Rotunda mean so much to so many. He took his art seriously. It was, by all accounts, his life’s work. It wasn’t the work of a truck driver, the work of a banker, the work of a waiter, the work of an electrician. Those are fine jobs, of course, but they don’t command you to open up the deepest parts of your mind for the sake of entertaining others. You can deliver a load of materials a day late and everyone moves on. If you throw all of your emotional capacity into an artistic endeavor that ends up being categorically rejected by an audience, not only does it sting, but it also makes you doubt every inch of who you are.

And, speaking selfishly, without Windham Rotunda choosing the line of work he chose, I’m probably not afforded the beautiful escape of pro wrestling whenever I need a beautiful escape from this silly life. I have long been diagnosed with a couple mental illnesses that have continued to ride with me for decades and they make most days a struggle. The amount of times I’ve started a “pro wrestling saved my life” column for one of these Monday pieces has been more than I’d like to admit. But by the time I get going, I can never bring myself to finish it. It’s too scary. It’s just too much to even try.

Windham Rotunda took those fears of his own and turned them into an art that both polarized and united people, depending on who you talk to. The fun part was that no matter who it was you were talking to, they more often than not wanted to talk about Windham’s work. Some couldn’t stand it. Some couldn’t get enough of it. But most had things to say. And that’s the ultimate achievement a pro wrestler can earn. If people are talking about you, you’re doing something right.

I hope Windham had a chance to embrace that success. To digest it. Allow it to wash over him, even if it felt like it was fleeting. Getting into discussions about “deserve” is tricky when it comes to a life. I’m not sure anybody deserves anything – good, bad or indifferent. We have our blessings, we have our demons. Some we can shake, some we can recognize, some we can appreciate, some we can wish never existed. And yet even if “deserve” is an impossible idiom, I can’t help but think that Windham Rotunda, his wife and those kids deserved better. 36 is hardly a life, let alone one that, from afar, felt so affecting, so pure, so inspiring. Windham was cheated – cheated out of a future, cheated out of the beauty of growing old. It’s enough to make onlookers as angry as they are sad.

And that sadness intensifies as something like this resurfaces …

“I will make sure your son knows the incredible man you were,” Windham wrote in the wake of his friend Brodie Lee’s passing a couple years ago. “Not the legends people will tell, but the real you that very few people got to see. I promise I’ll put him over clean in dark matches when he’s old enough, just like I promised.”

Windham Rotunda didn’t just have the whole world in his hands; he had a lot of hearts, too. And now, with his passing, they’re left to wander like fireflies through the night, lighting up skies with memories of Bray Wyatt as their guide.


Readers Comments (1)

  1. Thanks for taking the time on this Colin.

    It would have been easy for focus on All-In or other things as Windham had been well covered to avoid sharing something that can be difficult to express.

    Personal stories can be easy to tell but being prepared to offer up personal issues is not. The struggle can be real but so is hope.

    Your description of Bray Wyatt hits right in my eyes. He won’t be forgotten by anyone of the generation who got to witness him.

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