The showcase of the immortals. The granddaddy of ‘em all. Take whatever grandiose catchphrases and surround them in pyrotechnics, because Wrestlemania is finally upon us.
Truly American in its sense of spectacle, what is basically WWE’s season finale is compared to the Super Bowl for a good reason. (The fact that this makes the following night’s Monday Night Raw the company’s season premiere does nothing to take away from it, in fact, it adds a must-see urgency to both nights.) Whether it’s making us cry tears of joy as youngsters when Shawn Michaels won his first world championship at Wrestlemania XII (that was me) or making us cry grown-man tears when Daniel Bryan won his at Wrestlemania XXX (yeah, me again), this is the day where unshakable memories are first burned into our brains.
Whether it’s a genuine Wrestlemania Moment, one replayed on highlight videos for all of eternity, or the atmosphere of the room (or arena) you watched the matches in, everybody who has seen a Wrestlemania remembers something from it. We’ve corralled a few members of our staff to offer their experiences watching Wrestlemania, whether it was in the thick of a thousands-strong crowd or in the comfort of their living rooms. It’s an exciting, occasionally bizarre, and truly unforgettable rite of passage for many Americans interested in this appropriately weird sector of pop culture. Wrestlemania is a circus, cycling well past its logical endpoint from its roots in carnival culture.
Thankfully, it’s not difficult to enjoy the show.
— Douglas Martin
There is nothing that Vince McMahon loves more than to inform the public that the WWE is not in the business of wrestling. Vince McMahon is fond of telling fans that WWE is in the business of stories. WWE would rather the fans remember the mythos of Hulk Hogan body-slamming Andre the Giant for the first time ever at Wrestlemania III (not true by the way) than the technical mastery of Savage vs. Steamboat that stole the show at the same event. WWE has always consistently undersold the “sports” in “sports-entertainment,” rather choosing to underscore the episodic stories that drive fan interest in the product.
More than just mere storytelling, WWE is in business of selling nostalgia. At times it seems they want you to sell you on the warm feelings of time passed more than the product they are putting on the screen. They parade their aging stars in the ring for ratings, they produce documentaries about their corporate approved version of history, they even created an entire network around the purpose of watching their entire library of old pay-per-views. The WWE can be a bigger mark for themselves than their own fans.
There is one particular period in their over 60-year history that the company has a glowing nostalgia more than any other period in their time – the vaunted Attitude Era. The late 1990s were a golden age for the product. With record ratings, massive ticket sales and a higher profile in pop culture than any time in the company’s history, the Attitude Era has cast a shadow over everything the company has done in the fifteen years since its unofficial demise. Older fans clamor for the profane language, increased violence and adult stories of the period which the WWE has been far too willing to sell you on, often to the expense of the current product.
The era is unofficially bookended by a pair of Wrestlemanias three years apart – Wrestlemania XIV and Wrestlemania X-7. While the former saw the official coronation of the company’s biggest star in history, Stone Cold Steve Austin, it’s the latter that is perhaps the most important event in the history of professional wrestling. Wrestlemania X-7 is a masterpiece of the genre in terms of storytelling, in-ring work and historical importance. It was the culmination of everything that the Attitude Era came to represent and a signpost for everything that would follow.
Death-defying stunts? There is the triple-threat tag team TLC match that reinvented spectacle in professional wrestling. Technical classic? Angle and Benoit deliver a grappling clinic. Cartoonish, idiotic violence? The hardcore title match delivers a dumpster full of enough weaponized mayhem to satiate the sadists at the ECW Arena. McMahon melodrama? Vince and his son Shane brawl in a match better than it has any right to be.
The night’s main event remains arguably the most prophetic match in WWE history, though. Stone Cold met The Rock, the era’s most important and visible stars, in a match that literally changed everything. An increasingly desperate Austin turned to the services of his most hated rival, Mr. McMahon himself, to conquer Rocky and finally recapture the WWE Title at the expense of his morals. The match itself was an instant classic – a true masterpiece of in-ring storytelling – but Austin’s turn towards the dark side had greater consequences than the company could possibly have foreseen.
The fans didn’t reject “Stone Cold” Steve Austin as the bad guy as so much as yawn at it. The Attitude Era was built upon rebellion – the middle finger, the crotch chop, the Stone Cold Stunner to an authority figure – and the biggest rebel of them all was joining up with everything antithetical to that mission. Fan interest in the product dwindled and it’s profile in popular culture never recovered. The ending of Wrestlemania X-7 symbolically was as if the company had run out of stories.
The formal death of WWE Attitude™ at Wrestlemania X-7 wasn’t just an end of an era but cast a hovering shadow upon the product that persists to this day. The totems of this period are lurking beneath the surface but the spirit is subverted. Violent gimmick matches are promoted but lack danger. 90s Legends sporadically appear for cheap pops but do nothing of consequence. Hell, what’s more adjacent of the Atittude Era than a smiling, corporate superhero, John Cena, idly rebelling against the same McMahon family that relentlessly promotes him?
I grew up during the Golden Age of Wrestling in the 80s, when Hulk Hogan was a god, Miss Elizabeth was every schoolboy’s crush and serious debate was to be had whether or not wrestling was “real” or not. At the pinnacle of my personal fandom, a scant month past my 14th birthday, a friend of mine’s mother got us tickets to see Wrestlemania IV. The only caveat was that we had to get someone else to take us, as there was no way she was going. My father, god bless him, took one for the team and chaperoned Greg and me to one of the most bizarre events I’ve seen to this day.
To be honest, I don’t remember the actual event that much, and when I review the Wiki page on the matches, the things I thought I remembered aren’t always correct. For example, I could have sworn the Junkyard Dog won the opening Battle Royale (he didn’t; it was Bad News Brown after dropping Bret Hart with a Ghetto Blaster; gotta fucking love the 80s). Not only do I NOT recall who all the wrestlers were even with their names in front of me, I certainly don’t recall all the matches. I have the vaguest recollections of the final match, but really, it was the off-stage antics that stick with me most to this day.
For starters, it should be noted that the WWE still was perfecting its magic formula. These were not necessarily the well-scripted fights they would become. Wrestlemania IV clocked in at just over four hours. By the end of the second hour into the elimination tourney, the audience had seen essentially every move every guy had. As a result, my old man left us in our seats about halfway through the event and just started walking around the Atlantic City Convention Hall to kill time.
However, when we arrived, we still were pretty pumped, and it was within the first hour or so that the best memories were made. My buddy’s mom worked as an executive at one of the casinos, so we got decent, but not spectacular, seats. I noticed quickly after sitting down, however, that the Fabulous Moolah was about four rows behind us. For reasons I still can’t explain to this day, that made me feel pretty bad. Here’s not only a major figure in female professional wrestling, but she probably would have enjoyed the entire affair more than we did, and we’ve got the better view. I haven’t felt that bad for a celebrity since I ran into Evander Holyfield at a bar in suburban Virginia during a major boxing match being held in Vegas; the camera kept panning to former champs in the Vegas crowd, and here’s Half-an-Ear Holyfield sitting in Reston, Va., for chrissakes. Sometimes, there’s simply no justice in the world.
The far more positive memory, however, revolves around our other seatmates. Two rows in front of us, straight out of central casting, were two of the biggest wrestling dorks I’ve ever encountered in my entire life. My father to this day swears one of the guys was even wearing a pocket protector, and I can attest to at least one of the guys’ lisps. With all due respect to the great “Mean Gene” Okerlund, you simply have not lived until you’ve sat through four hours of play-by-play by two guys who probably are ejaculating every other match from the sheer awesomeness they were experiencing. “HOLY CHRITH! HE JUSTH EXECUTED A CRUTHIFIX!!! NOBODY HATH EXETHECUTED A PROPER CRUTHIFIX THINCE 1983!!! CAN YOU BELIEVE THITH THIT?!?!?!”
As luck would have it, I actually stopped watching wrestling shortly thereafter. Four hours of straight wrestling had the same effect on me as smoking an entire carton of cigarettes after you get caught smoking one butt—the overkill soured me. Plus, at that age, there were girls to bother and trouble to be had, and I followed other interests elsewhere. Every now and again, I’ll find myself curious about my former heroes, and that’s when something horrible like a “Hogan Knows Best” binge-fest starts, or, if I’m lucky, I’ll watch some Thunderlips in action and call it a night. I can honestly say, though, that to this day, I still haven’t seen anyone execute a proper fucking crucifix since then.
Tables, Ladders, and Bathing Ape Forebears: Wrestlemania 2000
by Son Raw
Unlike practically everyone else contributing to this feature, I don’t really fucks with pro wrestling anymore. I’m not a dick about it and I look back on my years going to house shows with my grandparents fondly, but like anime, silk Phat Farm shirts and first person shooters, wrestling is one of those childhood passions I don’t want to ruin with an adult perspective. For me, wrestling was never about the deeper symbolism behind the characters or the insider info debated on message boards–it was about seeing large men flung through tables at high speed, no additional layers of meaning required.
Wrestlemania 2000’s 3-way tag-team ladder match between Edge & Christian, the Hardy Boys and Dudley Boys* provided plenty of that, and was a masterful example of pacing and storytelling to boot. While the following year’s TLC 2 match featured crazier stunts, it was too much of a spot fest and an excessive amount of outside interference spoiled what could have been a great match. At WM2K however, everything clicked: the dramatic reversals, the death defying leaps, the outrageous amount of punishment, what more do you want? Going on over a decade since I stopped following the WWF (I refuse to call it by any other name), I still get the goosebumps watching this.
I’m not planning to have kids anytime soon, but if I ever do have a boy you can bet that I’ll be bringing him to see some wrastling.
*Shouts to the Dudley Boys for being a reverse Run the Jewels 20 years ahead of time. I’m pretty sure BAPE stole their whole steez off Buh Buh Ray’s camo as well.
Fever Dreaming With Undead Bikers, Bloody Old Men,
and Latex Catsuits: Wrestlemania XIX
by Douglas Martin
There was a gasp, followed by a good three or four seconds of uncomfortable silence, which I presume is a tough feat to pull off with tens of thousands of people in attendance. I can’t speak for any of those vast numbers — only the skinny-ass 19-year-old in a Hulkamania t-shirt and wristbands, sitting with his little brother, his best friend, and his best friend’s future brother-in-law, in the part of Safeco Field where people usually catch errant foul balls — but there had to have been more people than just me who thought we had witnessed the end of someone’s wrestling career.
The whole atmosphere of Wrestlemania changed; I looked around and saw concern painted on every face I could see. We applauded when he stood up, even as we wondered if he’d ever grace a wrestling ring with his massive presence again. As the well-worn cliche in entertainment says, “The show must go on.” He finished the match, and I was just as much relieved as I was worried for his well-being.
Eleven years before he carried out one of the more surprising efforts in professional wrestling history by defeating the Undertaker, whose legendary Wrestlemania record previously stood at twenty-one wins and no losses, Brock Lesnar rattled our collective consciousness by almost killing himself on a botched Shooting Star Press, attempted from three quarters of the way across the ring. I thought he broke his neck, but it turns out he landed on his head and suffered a concussion. This was the emotional inverse of the fabled “Wrestlemania Moment” WWE competitors want so badly.
After the match, he walked out of Safeco on his own accord and we all did the same, shaking the remnants of potential dismay and partial relief off of us as we made our way out. What should have been the OMG WTF moment of the night for different reasons (imagine a corn-fed Midwestern monster, jacked to hell and dangerously pushing 300 pounds, hitting a goddamn shooting star press in the main event of Wrestlemania) became the quintessential “whew, that was close” exhale you couldn’t expect to have consummated even if WWE was run by Vince Gilligan instead of Vince McMahon. We left Wrestlemania with ellipses and a question mark instead of an exclamation point.
For all the excitement around being able to attend the Super Bowl of wrestling forty minutes away from home, for all the waiting in line at Rite-Aid at 8:50 in the morning for a ticket lottery (this was the age before online confirmations and pre-sales), the drive back to Northeast Tacoma after the show was all said and done was a relatively quiet trip.
But the Brock Lesnar incident was far from the whole of my live Wrestlemania experience. Everybody who considers themselves a fan of WWE knows it’s a surrealistic universe rife with hair-raising (predetermined, but still hair-raising) athletic exhibitions and oddities you explain to people staring back at you with confused stares, and Wrestlemania is the total apotheosis of that.
To non-fans, having it described to you sounds like the ramblings of a schizophrenia sufferer recounting a bad dream or a memorable acid trip. To younger and newer fans, it sounds like a fantastical story of a foreign trip or the first-half of “Losing My Edge” as interpreted by David Lynch if he were a fan of scripted combat sports. I was there for the “student vs. teacher” kung-fu movie trope played out in a masterpiece between Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels. There were people who cheered when Jericho kicked Michaels in the balls as a show of being the ultimate sore loser. I saw Rey Mysterio rock the kind of baggy catsuit Latex Lucy would probably wear as pajamas. I struggled to understand the popularity of Limp Bizkit as they played the Undertaker to the ring in the thick of his short-lived proto-Sons of Anarchy phase. (I heard they traded in their guitars for louder guitars so they could play their poorly-written songs for more people.) It was the first time I had uttered the phrase “Triple H wants to be Harley Race so bad,” which is impossible to explain in a short space, so just trust me on that one.
I was part of the crowd that gave “Stone Cold” Steve Austin a standing ovation after what was later revealed as his final match; I also gave a standing ovation during the match when the Rock wrestled in Austin’s vest. I watched two mega-rich white dudes rapidly pushing fifty (Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon) participate in a wild brawl where they beat the bloody piss out of each other, the concept of which I would definitely pay $200 to see every month if I could. To fill my dated reference quota (and to point out WWE was still pandering steadfastly to the grosser sections of their audience), the Miller Catfight Girls were there. I did the Wayne’s World “we’re not worthy” bow when Kurt Angle made his way to the ring. People thought I was crazy.
When Lesnar walked to the backstage area, we marveled at his toughness. We were thankful for his willingness, for all the performers’ willingness, to put their livelihood on the line to give us a good show worth our money. That’s the takeaway we wrestling fans get when something goes wrong and what we’re deeply appreciative of; these men and women are willing to do pretty much anything to entertain us. Sometimes that idea, that power, is terrifying. For better and worse, attending Wrestlemania is an infinitely memorable experience. For that one moment that sucked the air out of Safeco Field when people should have been going fucking nuts, I have dozens of corresponding and different images and feelings from that night permanently etched into my brain and heart in equal measure. It’s like a voyeuristic fever dream, where sometimes you see things and still don’t believe them.