By Bryan Robinson, Fox Nation
For a spectacle that packs arenas nationwide and captures the imagination of 6-year-old boys, their 40-year-old fathers and everyone in between, professional wrestling sure does get the Rodney Dangerfield treatment as national pastime.
You all know the looks those two openly proud wrestling fans in your office get when they talk about WWE, Total Nonstop Action Impact Wrestling, Ring of Honor or any other independent promotion in the United States or around the world. You’ve seen the eye rolls, the smirks, the shaking of heads – you may even be shaking your head right now while reading this very sentence.
To the critics out there who thumb their noses at pro wrestling – don’t hate, appreciate. To the timid and not-so-timid fans out there, keep your chins up. Thousands of screaming men, women and children who packed a sold-out Madison Square Garden in New York City recently can’t all be wrong. Pro wrestling – also referred to in some circles within the industry as “sports-entertainment” – has had its ups and downs since its beginnings on the carnival circuit scene in the 19th century and pivotal role in TV’s infancy in the 1950s . Its “respectability” has often been determined by its “in” factor, how much crossover appeal it has at any given moment in the mainstream media and on other entertainment platforms.
But whether wrestling been the hottest item on the hot-o-meter or a favorite punchline for budding comedians, one annual event in the industry has been a must-see for hardcore and casual fans for almost 30 years – WrestleMania . And on April 1, the American tradition and international phenomenon will continue when WWE presents its 28th annual WrestleMania before more than 70,000 fans at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium and millions watching on pay-per-view worldwide.
So how has a “sport” where wins and losses are predetermined – and its most famous event – survived all these years?
“WWE knows how to entertain,” said WWE star John Cena. “We do that better than anyone. In a legitimate sport, it’s always a coin flip. Here, with WrestleMania, you’re able to build up an event for an entire year. WrestleMania has built a reputation as being a wonderful event, whether it be through the outside celebrities we bring in or the internal Superstars. It has delivered year after year. Whoever takes in the event is always talking about it the day after.”
Cena will headline this year’s WrestleMania in a highly-anticipated showdown with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is taking a brief break from his Hollywood movie career to return to his squared-circle roots. This is a dream match for all wrestling fans. Cena vs. “The Rock” is akin to bout between Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, a battle that can only happen in video games. The face of today’s WWE is colliding with a larger-than-life, eyebrow-raising matinee idol from from its past. Cena has been WWE’s marquee star for the last 10 years while “The Rock” has steadily built a solid film career over the last decade. This is a WrestleMania match is so epic that WWE has promoted it for an entire year.
Excited? Cena, 34, sure is – as a lifelong wrestling fan and a WWE star.
“I never thought it would happen,” he said. “I just never thought he would come back. Dwayne Johnson had had so much success here in WWE and then had so much success in Hollywood. Being here 10 years, I’m excited as a fan and as someone who performs in WWE.”
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One thing is certain: Those who thought that WrestleMania was just just hype and a passing fad when it made its debut in 1985 are still eating crow. WWE Chairman Vince McMahon may not have clearly envisioned what WrestleMania would become when he conceived it and presented it to the masses on March 31, 1985. At the time, his flagship star was Hulk Hogan, a quintessential “babyface” (hero). McMahon used Hogan’s showmanship, feuds with “heels” (villains) such as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “Cowboy” Bob Orton, and celebrities such as Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper to bring pro wrestling to the MTV generation and into mainstream pop culture.
The day after the first WrestleMania aired on closed-circuit TV, images of Mr. T hoisting Piper in an airplane spin in New York City’s Madison Square Garden were in newspapers nationwide. Two years later, WrestleMania cemented its place as WWE’s – and the professional wrestling industry’s – greatest extravaganza when it attracted more than 93,000 fans to Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome, setting a world indoor attendance record for a sports or entertainment event.
And perhaps most importantly, it became more than a wrestling spectacle; it became an anticipated event in entertainment. A who’s-who of entertainment and sports, such as Donald Trump, Aretha Franklin, Liberace, Burt Reynolds, Kid Rock, Muhammad Ali, Pete Rose, Snooki, Mike Tyson and so many more have appeared at WrestleMania over the years. On April 1, “Extra” host Maria Menounos will become the latest Hollywood personality to get ‘Mania fever when she steps into the ring in women’s tag team encounter.
So, WrestleMania has become a must-see event for loyal fans and celebrities alike. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised.
“Wrestling has enjoyed a strong core audience for more than one hundred years,” said Chad Dell, associate professor of communications at Monmouth University in New Jersey and author of “The Revenge of Hatpin Mary.” “Wrestling has had its ups and downs in terms of attendance. It’s really a cyclical business, with peaks and valleys that have occurred about every 20 years. But it has a strong core audience that sustains it.”
But what fuels wrestling audience? Maybe it’s pro wrestling’s old-fashioned gladiator mystique – the allure of the mano-a-mano encounter, even if it’s scripted. Maybe it’s our love of larger-than-life characters and comic books. Some wrestlers are like superheroes and super villains brought to life, gathered in arenas to settle a grudge before thousands of screaming onlookers.
Or maybe it’s just as simple as Professor Dell’s explanation.
“Wrestling is fun!” he said. “It’s great entertainment.”
WrestleMania broke the mold of the professional wrestling industry. McMahon didn’t see his performers as just wrestlers. They weren’t just “stars.” They were WWE “Superstars” and “Divas”who transcended the ring and could cross over to various other entertainment platforms. There have been plenty of wrestlers within and outside WWE who have starred in movies. At one time it appeared Hulk Hogan would become a full-fledged Hollywood star. But that never really happened, perhaps because there wasn’t much difference between the roles Hogan played and his “Hulkster” persona.
However, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson succeeded where Hogan and others failed. A third-generation wrestler, Johnson will never be mistaken for an Oscar-caliber actor. Still, he was able to leave the squared circle entirely and parlay his WWE success into a flourishing career in Tinseltown. That’s why WWE dubs him “The most electrifying man in all of entertainment.” That’s why his WrestleMania matchup with John Cena is such a dream for the company.
Cena has also dabbled in movie-making. But he insists he has never wanted to be a movie star.
“No, no,” he said. “This [performing for WWE] is all I’ve ever wanted to do. Whenever you’ve seen me do other things, like with music or with movies, it’s been more to elevate the WWE brand, not myself.”
Wrestling as a form of sports-entertainment has come a long way since Frank Gotch and George “The Russian Lion” Hackenschmidt battled before nearly 40,000 fans at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1911. Yes, the industry in general has endured some dark clouds – a long list of wrestlers who have died prematurely, the Chris Benoit murder-suicide and steroid rumblings (which have gone on for decades).
Still, professional wrestling continues to be a draw. The masses will always need to escape and to be entertained – and WrestleMania has never disappointed. Cena hopes ‘Mania will continue to live up to its reputation on April 1.
“I just hope it delivers,” Cena said. “The Rock’s in his physical peak; I certainly am. WrestleMania’s going to be a big day. It’s been known for moments that can change the direction of the company for certainly the next year. I kind of like where we are now, but if something happens, we’d be fools to ignore the tide.”
So, if you’re wrestling fan, secretly own (and even occasionally wear) a replica championship belt or are just fascinated with WrestleMania and afraid to admit it, remember this: You are not alone. Hoist your championship belt high; wear your favorite wrestler’s T-shirt proudly. Millions worldwide are in your corner. Even the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin has shown professional wrestling and WrestleMania some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.