With Glitz and Glamour... Nothing
in the World beats WrestleMania!
DETROIT, April 3 — Quick, name the biggest events in
global pop culture during the months of March and April 2007..
College basketball’s Final Four? Hoops makes for nice
water-cooler talk in the United States, but do you think Florida vs. Ohio State was news in Japan? Hardly. And the start of
the baseball season gets Americans excited, but did thousands of Europeans fly over to watch the Rockies play the Diamondbacks?
Meanwhile, the eyes and wallets of millions around the world
were fixed on this unglamorous city for what is becoming a star-studded entertainment happening: WrestleMania. On Sunday,
April 1st, 80,103 people from 24 countries and 50 states packed the cavernous Ford Field stadium here while the program
was delivered via satellite to 110 countries.
Two decades after stars like Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter
propelled professional wrestling from the dank beer halls of its infancy onto screens around the globe, this smorgasbord of
hairspray, cleavage and monster body slams remains as popular as ever, even if it usually escapes the notice of coastal tastemakers.
In recent years World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., the company
based in Stamford, Conn., that dominates the pastime, has turned pro wrestling into a sort of modern-day Chautauqua, a perpetual
traveling roadshow that crisscrosses the nation while broadcasting from packed arenas 52 weeks a year. Every year more than
two million fans pass through W.W.E. turnstiles worldwide. Every week, wrestling shows attract more than 15 million television
viewers, making them a fixture among the top-rated cable programs.
Yet WrestleMania remains the pinnacle. An annual event that
began at Madison Square Garden in 1985, WrestleMania is now an almost weeklong celebration of everything wrestling, from a
black-tie induction into the W.W.E. Hall of Fame to Aretha Franklin singing “America the Beautiful” before the
final night’s matches. No wrestler is a true star until performing at WrestleMania (yes, the fights are scripted), and
any true fan must make the pilgrimage at least once. Here are some voices and scenes from a profoundly American event that
now speaks to a global audience.
Wednesday, March 28
The final round of hype begins not in Detroit but at the Trump
World Tower in Midtown Manhattan, where thousands of fans mob the atrium, hanging off at least four levels of escalators to
watch a noon “press conference” at which no questions are taken. The big twist at WrestleMania 23 is that Donald
Trump will face off against Vince McMahon, the W.W.E. chairman, via proxies in Detroit in a “Hair vs. Hair” match,
which means the winner shaves the head of the loser.
Mr. Trump’s champion is Bobby Lashley, an affable former
all-American in (real) wrestling. Mr. McMahon is represented by Umaga, a wild-haired Samoan with tattoos covering his face.
Mr. Lashley’s slogan is “I’m living my dream.” Umaga alternately growls and bellows incoherently over
a pounding soundtrack of tribal drums. There is no confusion about who the good guy is.
That night, in a bar in the Greektown neighborhood of Detroit,
Ray Paige, 51, a local lawyer, explains why even in the town that produced Joe Louis and Thomas Hearns, wrestling has become
more popular than boxing.
“They have marketed the product better in terms of providing
a morality-based story line,” Mr. Paige says. “Kids like good guys, and wrestling provides them. Boxing doesn’t.”
Thursday, March 29
Around 6 p.m. hundreds of fans throng the sidewalk for blocks
down the street from the Gem Theater in Detroit. THQ, a big video game publisher, is holding the Superstar Challenge to promote
its SmackDown vs. Raw game franchise, which has sold more than 30 million copies since 2000. The doors won’t open for
another hour, but fans hoping to watch wrestlers play the video game started lining up around 2 p.m.
Fourth in line is Jon Palmar, a tall, thin 18-year-old with
a spiky haircut who is soon to graduate from high school in Miami. As an early graduation present, his family paid $750 for
a seventh-row ticket to WrestleMania, and he has personally paid a scalper $100 for a ticket with a face value of $18 to this
THQ event. “It’s the combination of the athleticism, the showmanship and the stories that just hooks you,”
he says. “And I want to become a wrestler myself. You know, some steroids and I’ll be able to do it.”
Is he serious about the steroids?
“To accomplish my dreams I’m willing to do whatever
it takes,” he says. Inside, an up-and-coming wrestling star called C. M. Punk has “Drug Free” tattooed across
“Wrestlers, even more so than athletes in the N.F.L.,
the N.B.A. or baseball, we’re closer to being superheroes to a lot of people, especially kids,” he says. “Look
at me: I’m covered in tattoos, and you might not think just by appearance I’m a good role model. But I don’t
do drugs, I’m straight, I abstain from all that stuff, and it’s the perfect ‘Don’t judge a book by
its cover,’ and I think a lot of people can relate to that.”
Friday, March 30
The W.W.E. has rented the Fox Theater, a 1920s movie palace,
for the world premiere of “The Condemned,” an action-adventure film starring the hulking wrestler known as Stone
Cold Steve Austin.
Before it starts, Nigel Doughty, 26, an accountant from Manchester,
England, explains why he and a friend each paid $1,400 for a platinum WrestleMania travel package.
“For a wrestling fan this is the World Cup, the Super
Bowl, the World Series all in one,” he says. “We had to save up for 18 months to be able to get here, but from
the first day I started watching years ago I was like, ‘One day I’ll make it to WrestleMania,’ so this is
a lifelong dream come true.”
What makes wrestling so compelling? “As a kid watching
wrestling it’s about the costumes and colors,” he says, “but as you get older it becomes about the story
lines and the characters. It really is a soap opera for men.”
Saturday, March 31
It is shortly after noon at Midday Madness 3, a chance for
fans to get autographs and have their pictures taken with W.W.E. stars.
In the line that winds through a hotel lobby, Jackie Fairbairn
and Rebecca Richards, both 22, stand out in their “Aussie WWE Divas” T-shirts. These women from Sydney, Australia,
are accompanied by other members of their international fan crew, Tim Wood, 23, of Nottingham, England, and Kim Mattson, 24,
who works at an investment firm in Norwalk, Conn.
“I met Tim at WrestleMania 21 in Los Angeles, and we
met the Australian girls at WrestleMania 22 last year in Chicago,” Ms. Mattson says. Now they stay in touch through
e-mail messages and get together at least once a year.
“Meeting these guys is more important than the actual
show now,” Mr. Wood says. “It’s like a social occasion with friends from all over the world.”
And like the Deadheads who followed the Grateful Dead, the
crew is hitting the road after WrestleMania. “We’re going to ‘Raw’ in Dayton, Ohio, on Monday, and
then we’ll be in Fort Wayne on Tuesday for ‘SmackDown,’ and then we’ll be back in Bridgeport, Connecticut,
on April 9 for ‘Raw,’ ” Ms. Mattson explains, referring to various W.W.E. series. “Really the show
Sunday, April 1
The big night is finally here. An hour before doors open, thousands
crowd the stadium loading dock, hoping for a glimpse of the stars. Inside, the physical production puts even the biggest rock
concerts to shame. A stage and proscenium the height of a small office tower loom over the west end of the stadium, feeding
a runway to the ring in the center of the floor.
Randall Godfrey, 33, middle linebacker for the San Diego Chargers,
is sitting just a few rows from the ring. “Wrestling is definitely more punishing than playing football,” he says.
“I mean, we wear pads. They don’t. Football is hard, but it can’t compare to the physical punishment these
guys take in the ring.”
Before the hair showdown, the biggest match is a heavyweight
title fight between Batista and the Undertaker, an immense, legendary figure who has a 14-0 record at WrestleMania.
From the very last row of the very highest tier of the stadium,
each wrestler is the size of a fingernail held at arm’s length. But John Berkeypile Jr., 13, from Jackson, Mich., barely
glances at the huge video screens by the stage. Standing on his chair, his eyes glued to the Lilliputian figures in the ring,
he delivers a running commentary as he cheers on “ ’Taker.”
“ ’Taker’s doing a little old-school, coming
off the ropes,” cries John Jr., who is at WrestleMania with his father. “Here comes the leg drop, now trying a
choke-slam, but Batista gets out of it. Uh-oh, here comes another leg drop!”
The Undertaker ends up defending his WrestleMania record as
he pile-drives Batista on his head. And then, to the surprise of few, Mr. Lashley defeats the ogrelike Umaga in the hair match.
Mr. McMahon hams up his defeat, cringing and wailing suitably as Mr. Trump shaves his head. Stone Cold Steve Austin is the
guest referee. In keeping with his slogan — “Arrive. Raise hell. Leave.” — he decks Mr. Trump on his
way out, just because.
After all, it’s WrestleMania.