Letters to Holly

Wednesday, March 29

The Hard Sell: WrestleMania

The big one. The first one. The granddaddy of them all. In 1984, when the WWF announced WrestleMania, it was to be the first national wrestling showcase in North American wrestling. Before, companies would build to a big show to end a feud or change character allegiances, but you had to be there to see it. And you would only know about it by watching the syndicated small-market weekly TV show or reading and ad in a wrestling magazine. WrestleMania was different. It was national, not regional, and that was the WWF’s big idea: combine talent from the nation’s wrestling territories and go coast-to-coast as one big company. Compared to this, you could watch regional territories like Texas wrestling, Mid-Atlantic, Memphis, Northwestern, Minnesota, etc.

The NWA already used a similar system to trade talent across the country, but they had no national TV deal; the WWF did, locking in with the USA Network to broadcast taped shows. Those taped shows, however, were filled with the lower-level talent and sparse appearances by the main-eventers. The big stars also rarely fought each other. It happened maybe once every four months. Compared to the current weekly match-ups between main-eventers 52 times a year, this was like jet airliners to stagecoaches. WrestleMania was bringing everyone together for one big show, and finally the hated rivals would get their hands on each other. And you could watch it at home or a local bar, and you could see the whole thing live. No week-long delays between the show and airtime.

It’s hard to believe wrestling at one time was a national pastime. You got dressed up for the show. It was as legit an escapism as going to the movies. But it lost luster and became a carnival attraction, marginalized as a fringe genre when folks started playing smart and dismissing the obviously scripted events. Of course it was scripted. Of course it was choreographed. But the athleticism was rejected as well. And people ignored the showmanship, storytelling, and sheer spectacle of it.

The WWF reached for a mainstream audience on the shoulders of Hulk Hogan, the cartoonishly sized and energetic patriotic warrior. He was known to the outside world through Rocky III, playing Thunderlips the Ultimate Male. He was a charismatic guy, very little like the stereotypical wrestler: thuggish, swarthy, stupid, brutish. No, Hogan brought wild-eyed energy and a million-dollar smile. He was the most popular wrestler since Gorgeous George, known and marketed to kids and adults as a good role model, and wrestling could be family fare again.

I grew up with wrestling. It was a constant presence in my entertainment world. Posters for local shows were always displayed at the corner gas station, and the local NBC affiliate aired wrestling every Saturday morning. When you dropped off the trash at the junkyard, the attendant had it on TV. When you went to the flea market, the folks selling their fresh veggies had it playing in their booths. And my older friends in the neighborhood watched it. So I did. It was a currency you exchanged to debate who was more entertaining, why the bad guy was bad, and why the good guy was so gullible. It was a preteen soap opera. And here was WrestleMania, dropping down from the heavens like the first Super Bowl. Of course, we all watched it. Of course we loved it. It was action and simple drama.

So, flash forward to now. I’ve missed maybe five of thee shows. Most live up to the hype as the biggest, hottest show of the year. Some have outright sucked. But it’s fine show for the money. I’m definitely watching it this year. Here’s the card, just in case you want to watch on Sunday. Be warned: It's four hours long.

WWE Champion John Cena vs. Triple H
Cena has held the title for a year, winning it at last year’s WM show. He’s a young, powerful kid playing a white hip-hop character. Triple H is a ten-time WWE world champ, a thug, an inveterate cheat, and he looks just like Boromir. This show marks his sixth title match at a WM and his fifth consecutive. That’s a bit much. It’s unusual for a good guy to take the belt into a WM. Normally the previous months] of weekly shows build up the challenger against the bad guy champ. This feud has been marred by low momentum. Triple H wants the belt; there is no personal angle to this, and Cena is outclassed as a performer. That’s why I’m rooting for Triple H to win despite his constant presence in the title picture. This should be a classic-style pro wrestling match.

What to watch for: The crowd will be evenly split if not outright rooting for Cena to lose. Cena’s gimmick has polarized the audiences into those for him (the young ones and gals) and those against him (every guy over 15).

World Heavyweight Champion Kurt Angle vs. Randy Orton vs. Rey Mysterio
The two championships are confusing. The WWF (now WWE) split into two rosters: Raw and SmackDown. There are two main titles so WM now has two Big Championship matches. Champion Kurt Angle is the hero of the Atlanta Olympics and currently playing the no-nonsense technical wrestling machine. Randy Orton is a third-generation performer and an arrogant punk. Mysterio is the wildcard: a tiny masked lucadore, pound-for-pound the best in the business. Many are rooting for Rey as he would be the smallest champ ever in a company that loves to push big muscleheads. This match will involve some nice choreography and could steal the entire show. These three are gold in the ring.

What to watch for: Rey will magically fly all over the place.

Mr. McMahon vs. Shawn Michaels (No Holds Barred Match)
Vince McMahon is the real-life owner of the company, and he plays a caricature of himself onscreen as a dirty old man who likes to flex his corporate control over the performers. Currently, he’s targeted Michaels, a guy who’s been with the company for about 15 years. Vince is a bodybuilding freak at 60 years old. Shawn is getting along in years but is as reliable as showman as you can ever hope to see. Because Vince is involved, this feud has been given larger focus than any other. This will be a garbage match with no rules. Expect some fancy stunts and blood. There is also growing consensus that retired performer Bret Hart will be involved, and here’s why that’s important: Shawn, Vince, and a referee conspired to fix a match against then-champ Bret before he could end his contract and take the belt to a competitor company. Bret lost his title and ended his long WWF career on a major PPV against his greatest rival in his native Canada (where he is Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan), and he wasn’t in on it. This was 1997. If Bret comes out at this show to get involved in a Shawn/Vince match, the roof will quite possibly shatter from the sonic explosion. This would be a nine-year payoff to the most infamous event in pro wrestling history.

What to watch for: If Bret comes out, you will never ever hear a louder crowd in your life. If he doesn’t, you will never ever hear an angrier crowd in your life.

Money in the Bank Ladder Match
Here’s the premise: Six guys try to use ladders to grab a suitcase dangled over the ring. The guy who grabs it gets a guaranteed shot at the world title of their choosing whenever they want it. The participants this year include 60-year-old Ric Flair, a cheating hotshot, a stoner martial artist, an inhumanly big bodybuilder, a goth rocker, and an Irish thug. Again, some good stunts are expected, but Flair is the sentimental favorite.

What to watch for: People falling from great heights in lots of ways.

Undertaker vs. Mark Henry (Casket Match)
Undertaker is the most consistent of the 1980s cartoon characters (he thinks he’s a zombie biker), and he’s never lost at WM. Mark Henry is the reigning world’s strongest man. The loser is the guy shut inside a casket at ringside. Don’t hope for more than punching, kicking, and bearhugs. This might be your best chance to go pee and grab nachos.

What to watch for: Taker’s entrance. Dry fog, druids, pipe organs, and purple lights. It’s as if Spinal Tap were playing church music.

Edge vs. Cactus Jack (Hardcore Match)
Edge is the Rated R Superstar, a lanky skater dude who never gets enough respect. Cactus Jack is wrestling’s hardcore freakshow, a man with one ear, missing teeth, and shaggy hair who will crash through flaming tables, bleed, and plummet from atop cages for your amusement. There are no rules. This might steal the show, depending on how much they can take. Expect blood by the buckets.

What to watch for: Cactus Jack will DIE for you.

United States Champion Chris Benoit vs. JBL
Champ Benoit is a small, angry Canadian. JBL is a huge, bully Texan. They will beat the crap out of each other. This is all you need to know.

What to watch for: Benoit’s intensity and comically short arms.

World Tag Team Champions Kane & Big Show vs. Chris Masters & Carlito
Kane and Big Show are giant guys. Towering men. Masters is a bodybuilder who looks facially just like Your Brother. Carlito is the classic weasel bad guy. He’s funny and can throw some good moves in the ring. This one should see the smaller guys win.

What to watch for: Seriously, that’s Your Brother in the ring.

Women's Champion Trish Stratus vs. Mickie James
A common story in women’s wrestling sees the challenger develop an obsession with the champ. Mickie has been Trish’s cheerleader for months on end and has finally turned the corner to go full-on nutso. Trish started out as a fashion model brought into the WWF to be simple T&A. But she trained to become a wrestler and has since become the best female wrestler I’ve ever seen. So many gals slap and pull hair and clumsily throw what can only charitably be called punches or kicks. They don’t bother to learn wrestling because they could get hurt and ruin their faces or figures. Not Trish. She’s in there to work. Trish has held the belt for more than a year, mainly because there are no other wrestling women left in the company. Virtually everyone else is T&A the company tries to sell to Playboy. Trish has to lose the belt so we can watch her chase the belt for a few months until the big summer PPV.

What to watch for: Can Mickie work a match without falling on her ass? I say no.

Torrie Wilson vs. Candice Michelle (Playboy Pillow Fight)
And here’s the T&A in action. These gals (both have been in Playboy) will have an honest-to-God pillow fight in a ring made to look like a satin-covered bedroom. They will wear lingerie. It will be horrible for all except those male fans who have yet to turn 21.

What to watch for: How many ways can two women stick their asses in the air?

Boogeyman vs. Booker T
Boogeyman is a throwback cartoon freak character. This isn't a KC and the Sunshine Band type of Booogieman. This is the "ooh, I'm gonna getcha" type. He’s a garish, spooky guy who chews on worms and smashes a giant Flavor Flav clock on his head. Booker, accompanied by wife Sharmell, is playing the cowardly bad guy. This will be played for laughs until Boogeyman hits his big move: a face-first body slam.

What to watch for: Booker T’s genius comedy work.

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