Recapping WrestleMania Weekend
SI.com's Arash Markazi traveled to Chicago
and chronicled WrestleMania weekend. Here's his diary of the scene.
Thursday, March 30, 3:30 p.m.
So maybe covering WrestleMania isn't as glamorous an assignment (depending on whom you ask)
as covering the Final Four (which I should actually be at), and I have to allot a few seconds for my colleagues to laugh each
time I tell them what I'm doing, but I don't mind. They have no idea what they're missing. They can say what they want about
WrestleMania, but it's one of the few events that is easily recognizable by its very name the world over. I should know, after
watching three of the last four WrestleManias on television while in Toronto, London and Hamburg, respectively. While I had
to explain what the Final Four was to most folks in Germany, they were the ones lecturing me when the WWE came on the screen.
So there I was, at the Rosemont, getting ready to talk to the Big Show instead of
Big Baby and discussing the attributes of Triple H instead of the triple post. My guide during this wild and
crazy journey was Gary Davis, the WWE's vice president of corporate communications, who met with me as soon as I got
to the hotel, with a 21-page itinerary of all the activities that the WWE had during the days leading up to WrestleMania on
Sunday. "Let me know what you want to do," he says. "We have more than enough to keep you busy."
The first event we headed to was the fourth annual THQ Superstar Challenge, a competition designed
to decide the best video-game-playing wrestler, at the House of Blues in downtown Chicago. We arrived around 4 p.m. to find
a line of more than 500 fans waiting to get inside to watch wrestlers go head-to-head in a Sweet 16 bracket tournament that
crowned the THQ Superstar champion. Intercontinental champion Shelton Benjamin, who was one of the best amateur wrestlers
in the country before coming to the WWE, has won this event the past three years.
Benjamin is skilled on the controller because he spends most of his off time mastering
all the new games that come out -- he beat Call of Duty in less than a week -- but he makes no bones that he is far
from the best gamer on the planet after testing out his skills online against other players. "Some people need to get out
of their basements and see what's going on outside," he says. "These people know every little thing as soon as a game comes
out. I'm not playing Halo online anymore. I died like 50 times in a minute. It's ridiculous. There's no reason someone
should know that much about one game."
On this night Benjamin, who wore his Intercontinental belt on his right shoulder the whole time,
was as good as he needed to be in making quick work of his competition, completing the four-peat in less than 90 minutes in
defeating Johnny Nitro. "What did I tell you," Benjamin said. "I told them to give someone else a chance, but they
didn't want to listen to me."
Friday, March 31, 7:30 a.m.
The day began early with a trip to Robert Morris College in Chicago, where the WWE was holding
its first Big Time Reading Challenge. Students were asked questions about the book Athletic Shorts, by the author Chris
Crutcher, Benjamin and Rey Mysterio while Jimmy "the Mouth of the South" Hart served as emcee as
students competed for WrestleMania tickets.
The "greenroom" for the event was one of the administrative meeting rooms at the college, and
when Mysterio, Benjamin and Hart walked in, everyone in the office stopped what they were doing to greet the wrestlers. Mysterio
was probably hard to recognize, not because he is one of the most diminutive guys in the business at 5-foot-4, 170 pounds,
but because he had traded in his signature mask for a cell phone earpiece (he later put it on when he was introduced
to the students). "I don't always have to wear it," said Mysterio. "I'm going to the museum after this with my family and
I'm not going to wear it there."
Benjamin was still celebrating being a four-peat video-game champion and was still carrying
his title belt. I asked if he always carries it around since I've never seen him without it. "I'm responsible for it as long
as I have it, but I don't carry it around everywhere," he said. "I actually bought one to put up in my house, though, so I'll
have one at home no matter what happens."
Friday, March 31, 11:30 a.m.
After the reading challenge, I headed over to Carmine's with a group from the WWE, including
Hart and Sue Aitchison, the manager of community relations, who's been with the company since 1986. As soon as he walked
into the restaurant, Hart, who was wearing his customarily loud jacket with "Jimmy Hart" plastered on the back and hearts
and musical notes everywhere, was mobbed by a few fans who had flown in from Vancouver for WrestleMania. Hart talked with
each fan and signed autographs before joining us.
Meanwhile, I spoke with Aitchison, a feistier, more attractive version of Judi Dench,
who has a sweet Welsh accent and a heart of gold. She told me about visiting countless hospitals with wrestlers for the Make-a-Wish
Foundation and how she recently came to tears when she saw a young female soldier, who had lost both her legs in battle, smile
when she got to meet with some of her favorite WWE wrestlers.
While Aitchison admitted she hadn't known a thing about pro wrestling when she moved to
the States, she nudged me and said, "But you know I've been in the ring before. I even have a wrestling card." I laughed,
thinking Sue was playing a joke. "No, no, I'm serious. I was the Duchess of Queensbury in Chicago five years ago at our Backlash
pay-per-view. I made up the rules for a match between Chris Jericho and William Regal and Chris actually put
me in the 'Walls of Jericho' hold." Amazingly, Aitchison, who has been on television several times in a variety of roles,
is one of several WWE employees who've made it in front of the cameras throughout the years, as doctors, lawyers or in other
roles. "If you're around the offices long enough," says Davis, "there's a chance you'll get on at some point."
When Hart returned it was quickly apparent that we were traveling with a bona fide celebrity,
as the manager of the restaurant came by and greeted Hart, exchanged our lunch menus for a larger dinner menu and bought the
table a couple bottles of wine. A few fans even asked a waitress to stop by our table and ask Hart if they could by him a
drink. "Oh, thank you so much, please tell them I don't drink but I appreciate it," said Hart, whose unmistakable Southern
accent and charm has made him one of the most popular managers in wrestling history.
When I told Jimmy he had more energy than anyone I had ever seen, he smiled. "It's funny you
should mention that, baby, because I have an energy drink coming out soon," said Hart, whose Mouth of the South High Energy Drink will be sold at participating 7-Elevens later this month.
Saturday, April 1, 10 a.m.
After I had teased Davis that he had to drive around in an SUV while the wrestlers got
to roll in limos, he picked me up from my hotel in a stretch black limousine with wrestlers Ron Simmons and Chris
Nowinski in tow. "I hope you don't mind," Davis joked as we drove to the Hyatt Regency O'Hare for one of three Mid-Day
Madness autograph sessions taking place for fans who purchased travel packages to WrestleMania through the WWE.
When we got to the hotel, Simmons, a former All-America defensive lineman at Florida State,
and Nowinski, former defensive lineman himself at Harvard, were mobbed as soon as we walked into the lobby. Fans were
yelling "Farooq," one of the characters Simmons played during his career, and asking Nowinski when he would be back in
the ring (the 27-year-old has been out of action since suffering a severe concussion three years ago). "Boy, does it
hurt when they ask," said Nowinski, who now serves as the WWE's political correspondent and travels the country for the company's
Smackdown Your Vote program, which encourages fans to vote. "I wish I could get back in the ring, but I don't see that happening
any time soon."
We then walked over to the hotel's grand ballroom, where hundreds of fans were lining up to
get autographs from not only Simmons and Nowinski, but Kane, Eugene, Victoria, Booker T and his
I had a chance to chat with Victoria, and when I told her I had some good Chicago pizza the
night before, she told me that if I wanted to have some real good pizza I should stop by her new restaurant, Fat Tony's Pizzeria in Louisville. "It's the best and I'm not just saying that," she said of her nine-month-old establishment.
"I try to be there twice a week when I'm not on the road, talking to customers and meeting fans."
That was a perfect segue for Davis to gather up Simmons, Nowinski, Hart and myself for lunch
at Maggiano's Little Italy. While we ate, Hart and Simmons told some amazing stories from the road. Hart told one tale
of being held up at a gas station by a convicted felon and being saved by The Ultimate Warrior. I won't ruin any of
the stories in case there's some type of stories-from-the-road book in the future, but needless to say these guys have
enough tales to fill a few phone books.
Saturday, April 1, 5 p.m.
After changing into a suit, Nowinski, who always dresses to the nines, got me from the hotel
lobby, and we hopped back into the limo and headed to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Rosemont Theatre with
Simmons and Hart. On the way there I teased Hart, because he was scheduled to sit next to Shawn Michaels and his
wife, and I told Jimmy Hart that Bret Hart, whom Jimmy had managed and who was being inducted into the Hall of
Fame, didn't want Michaels to be there and had threatened to leave if he saw him. "Oh, boy, I don't want to get in the middle
of that," Jimmy said. "I don't know if he's even going to be there if there's going to be heat between them."
As soon as the limo pulled up to the theater, we spotted Bret getting out of his limo and hopped
out to say hello, with Jimmy giving Bret and big hug. As Nowinski helped Bret carry his suit from the back of his limo, I
thanked Bret for talking to me for nearly two hours for the story I did on him last week. "No problem," he said. "Thank you."
A definite hush came over the place as soon as Bret walked in -- marking his first appearance in
a WWE dressing room since leaving the company in 1997. Bret, who was wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and a Calgary Hitmen hat,
shook hands with most of the guys in the back, including Verne and Greg Gagne, before being called into Vince
McMahon's office for a discussion everyone would have loved to eavesdrop on.
I spotted "The Fridge," William Perry, who was being inducted into the celebrity wing
of the WWE Hall of Fame, and asked him what he was doing these days. "I teamed up with big-ass fans," he said, wearing a Crocodile
Dundee-looking hat. "I think they're calling it a waste of time." I was confused, too, before I was shown what he was
talking about. To be honest, though, after checking out the site, I'm still confused.
After wishing the Fridge luck with his fat-ass fans, I walked with Simmons, Jimmy Hart and Nowinski
to the catering tables next to the stage, where Hulk Hogan, Ted DiBiase and "Mean" Gene Okerland were
sitting and talking about the good old days. After grabbing a bottle of water and a plate of cheese and crackers, I sat down
with the guys and congratulated Gene on making the Hall of Fame after 35 years as a wrestling announcer and asked him a question
I'm sure he's heard a million times: How did he get his nickname? "It's a good question," said Gene, who's also one of the
nicest guys in this business, if for no other reason than his graciously relaying this tale one more time. "I was with Jesse
"the Body" Ventura, and he turned to me and said, 'You'll never guess who I was out partying with last night -- Tom
Petty and the Heartbreakers.' And I told him that was nice, and he asked me if I knew who they were, and I said of course
I did. Tom Petty, he's the race car driver right? He looked at me and said, 'You are so mean, Gene.'"
Hogan, who was wearing nothing but Ed Hardy, was looking especially good. He has been hitting the weights and no doubt saying his prayers
and eating his vitamins, preparing for the next season of Hogan Knows Best. "It's an ego thing, brother," he said.
"We're going to be filming in Miami and I'm going to be taking my shirt off and I want to look good. I ran into LL Cool
J the other day and I told him that I had the same body he had but I've got about 40 pounds of fat covering it up. I have
to get in LL Cool J shape. I've never had a six-pack, I've always had the one-pack thanks to the beers, but I'd like to get
another kind of six-pack going on down there."
Hogan admitted he was in weird spot being backstage the night before the big show. "This is
the first time I've been here where I'm not going to be a part of WrestleMania. It's a funny feeling," he said. "I tried to
get them to put me against Stone Cold [Steve Austin] at WrestleMania this year but they didn't want to do it
for whatever reason, so I'm going to be in Long Beach on Sunday with [son] Nick since they don't need me."
When I told Hogan that it might be better to do Hogan and Austin at WrestleMania 23 next year,
since it will be at Ford Field in Detroit on the 20th anniversary of him body slamming Andre the Giant at the
Pontiac Silverdome, he perked up. "How many does that place hold?" he asked. "I think 65 to 70,000 for football," I said.
"With a ring?" he asked. "I don't know, maybe 80 to 85,000, tops," I said. "Damn," he said, sounding disappointed. "It'll
still be huge."
Hogan was hoping to break WrestleMania 3's North American indoor attendance record of 93,173. That
figure has often been disputed, and Ford Field might hold as many people as the Silverdome did that night if the WWE didn't
have the kind of set-up and production they do now, compared with 20 years ago when it was simply a walkway to the ring.
Hogan's biggest news, however, is his latest business venture. "Brother, I'm reading
to knock out George Foreman's ass," he said. "I'm getting to launch Hulk Hogan's Ultimate Grill next month and it's
going to be poetic justice. True story. About 10 years ago, my agent Henry Holmes calls me up and leaves a message
that he wanted to talk to me and George about a grill and a blender. I get home late and call Henry to see what was up with
this grill and blender. By this time George had already agreed to do the grill, leaving me with the blender and the rest is
history -- 400 million bucks later, George is sitting pretty and I've got this blender. The truth is I made about 400 grand
off it, but it was this little machine where you put eights ounces of protein and water and it blended and then after a couple
times it would take a fart and would never work again."
After wishing Hogan luck with his grill and show, I walked back to the dressing room and ran
into Sensational Sherri getting her makeup done, Steve Austin working on his speech and Triple H and his wife, Stephanie
McMahon-Levesque, talking outside her father's office. I told the very pregnant and very beautiful Stephanie that she
looked great and she said, "Thank you so much, but these heels are killing me. I have to sit down soon."
Before the show began I went over to the open-bar reception for the talent. It was interesting
to watch all of the wrestlers looking their best in dapper suits or lovely dresses, talking about the show tomorrow, and the
regular gossip that goes on in the back. It was also nice to see some of the older guys like Ricky "the Dragon" Steamboat,
Dusty Rhodes and Arn Anderson mingle with the younger guys and give them some advice. I also had a nice chat
with Mick Foley, quite possibly the only best-selling author/hardcore wrestler, and Nowinski about the trips the WWE
has made to Iraq and Afghanistan to perform live in front of the troops.
I'll spare you the rundown of all the Hall of Fame speeches, but if you care about any of the
inductees, do yourself a favor and get a DVD of the show, because the USA Network chopped it up real good when it finally
aired, trimming Bret Hart's long yet entertaining 36-minute speech to six minutes. "That's a shame," said Jimmy Hart, who
said there were no problems sitting next to Michaels and his wife even though Bret did glance their way once. "They cut Bret's
speech to make room for a Law & Order rerun or something."
Sunday, April 2, 9 a.m
Before WrestleMania, I was invited to an exclusive WWE Business Partner Summit at the Westin
O'Hare, which is similar to the NBA's Tech Summit (which has been held the past six years during All-Star Weekend).
It's no surprise that one of the main figures behind the event is Donna Goldsmith, the senior vice president of consumer
products for the WWE, who worked at the NBA for 10 years. "Believe it or not, in some ways Vince McMahon and David Stern
are very similar," said Goldsmith, who has a future on Broadway if she ever decides to leave her current post. "I think both
probably wouldn't like to hear that because they think they're so different, but they're not."
The event was attended by Vince, Linda McMahon and Shane McMahon, only hours before
the family would be performing at WrestleMania. "The character I play on television is haughty, arrogant and has no respect
for anyone but himself," said Vince, who would soon take off his suit and step into the ring with Shawn Michaels. "That's
the character I play on television. As the chairman of this company, I'm handsome, charming and a demanding SOB."
Before we left the Westin, which was on lockdown during WrestleMania weekend, as the WWE bought
out nearly all 525 guest rooms and gave out special silver WrestleMania room keys for its guests to get past the security
at every entrance, we picked up Jimmy Hart from the greenroom located in one of the hotel's ballrooms, where the company was
essentially stationed for the week. The huge room had a catering area and an area where wrestlers could check their itineraries
on a number of boards, which also had the number and location of a tanning salon and a chiropractor.
As we were walking with Hart, Ric Flair walked out with his fiancÚ and introduced her
to Hart. "Jimmy, c'mon, sing a couple notes for her," Flair said. Hart, who was in a band called The Gentrys in the 1960s
that had a million-selling album, Keep on Dancin, then started crooning a few notes from his one hit song. "Oh, yeah,
baby," Flair said. "The Gentrys."
Sunday, April 2, 4 p.m.
We left for the AllState Arena with plenty of time to spare before the show. As soon as
we got there, driving past thousands of fans waiting in the cold to get in, we checked out the ring as Destiny Child's Michelle
Williams, wearing a sweater and jeans, was doing a dress rehearsal for God Bless America. After she sang the final
note before retiring to the back to change, she screamed into the mike, "Let's wrestle!"
Backstage, we walked past many of the wrestlers, who were ready to take the ring for the opening
match, an 18-man interpromotional battle royal, before getting to the catering area -- yes, it's all about the food -- where
the WWE had three large WrestleMania ice sculptures surrounding a large table of chicken and beef skewers, crab cakes, potstickers,
cheese, crackers, vegetables and a desert tray featuring a flowing fondue fountain with strawberries and marshmallows.
After grabbing some food and saying hello to Tommy Dreamer and Eric Bischoff,
Nowinski and I went to the large family and guest room backstage, which had a big-screen TV showing WrestleMania to a crowd
of about 100. Many of the wrestlers stopped by the room, which also included food and a complimentary beer-and-wine cart,
before and after their matches to sit and watch the show with friends and family. Some of the guys who've been hurt, such
as Val Venis, who had a sling on his right arm, also hung out in the room, along with legends like the Gagnes, the
Blackjacks, Bobby "the Brain" Heenan, Tatanka, Goldust and others.
After watching the first half of the show backstage, I rolled out to the arena floor to watch
most of the rest of the show from my seats and was interested by the fans in Chicago, who turned on the "baby faces" and cheered
the "heels" on quite a few occasions, most prominently booing champion John Cena loudly and cheering the "heel"
Former wrestler Greg Gagne, son of Hall of Famer Verne, told me that Cena had asked him for
his advice about the crowd, which was as hostile toward him as any I've seen against an athlete. "Sell," Gagne said. "Just
sell and they'll turn. But that's Chicago for you. They're always hot and they always cheer for the heel."
I watched the main event from a monitor in the back with Kurt Angle, Viscera,
Mark Henry, Benjamin, John Bradshaw Layfield and his wife, former Fox News reporter Meredith Whitney,
and Candice Michelle's husband, Dr. Ken Gee Ehrlich, who flew out from his West L.A. office, not only to be
with his wife, who was on the cover of Playboy this month, but to serve as the chiropractor that night. After Cena
finally won, a few guys in the back gave golf claps and were shocked at how loudly Cena was getting booed. "They can pump
up that music as loud as they want," said one wrestler. "But you can't hide those boos. There's no mix in that reaction."
Monday, April 3, Midnight
After four days of professional wrestling, I was ready to pull a Triple H and tap out, as I
got ready to catch up on some sleep and go to Indy this afternoon for the NCAA championship game between UCLA and Florida.
Now if I can just figure how I'm going to pull this off next year with WrestleMania in Detroit and the Final Four in Atlanta.