Jake "The Snake" Roberts is eating a hamburger. He's sitting down, slouching a bit to his right, maybe, but you can tell how tall he is. His fast food takeout bag is wadded up on the table in front of him, on top of his 8 x 10 glossies. He grins to himself between chews. A fan approaches for a photo — one that he'll pay probably $20 for — and Jake leans in, nods kindly at whatever reminiscence the fan shares with him, and then they pose together, comically stone-faced, while a buddy takes a picture on a digital camera. Jake is still holding his hamburger.1
It's around this time that I think to myself, Good god, I'm really at WrestleMania.
Not literally, of course, not at that moment. I was at WrestleReunion, a non-WWE-sponsored pro wrestling autograph convention held in a hotel conference room in Miami Beach. It was 85 degrees and sunny outside, the sort of day in which tourists normally crowd the beach, and yet hundreds of out-of-town fans were crammed into the hotel lobby waiting to meet their childhood idols. Wrestlers of all vintage were there — old Georgia guys like The Masked Superstar,2 Stan Hansen, Nikita Koloff, Larry Zbyszko, and Kevin Sullivan; ECW guys like Tommy Dreamer, Sabu, and Rhino; WWF guys like Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake, "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff, Kevin Nash, and Ahmed Johnson, who I suspect gets trotted out at these events as a grim spectacle of obscene weight gain. For galling weight loss, fans pivot left, toward Lex Luger, who has become diminished and atrophied by a stroke and subsequent paralysis.3 Bobby "The Brain" Heenan's face has been ravaged by cancer surgeries, but fans so desperately want to meet the man who functionally introduced humor and snark into the WWF that there's no feeling of "stunt-booking," as they say in the biz.
To Heenan's right, behind a cluster of anxious thirtysomething fanboys, was a table of "divas," as WWE calls them — Torrie Wilson,4 Mickie James, Daffney, and Diana Hart Smith,5 who for some reason was wearing a pageant dress and sash. "Was she Miss Canada or something?" I wonder aloud. The guy next to me, in a CM Punk shirt, shrugs his shoulders and goes back to ogling Mickie James.
In the back of the room, Gangrel, a wrestling vampire of Attitude Era prominence, was asleep sitting up. Or meditating, I guess. A fan approached him tentatively, not quite sure what to do, and Gangrel sprang to life, like somebody pulled the cord in his back. A table over, Valentine sat glumly next to his wife, with his bleach-blond tresses a dangling frame around his boxer's mug. In his glory days, he'd wear a sequined robe to the ring, but Saturday he sported a white T-shirt and looked like an aging roadie. To his left, Beefcake posed with a fan, letting her hold his infamous candy-striped hedge clippers. Without the shears you might not even recognize him; his hair was close-cropped and lighter than in his heyday, and his skin was dark and reddish, like a dockworker's.6
A gigantic man with a reddish-grey goatee and a Kangol hat walked through the crowd with a rolling suitcase. It was Vader, and despite his size, nobody noticed him. Away from the big stage, these guys look surprisingly human; without the folding table and the glossy photos, nobody notices you at all. If WrestleMania is where history is made, as WWE often says, WrestleReunion is where history hangs out on sofas in the hotel lobby.
I had my picture taken with the New Age Outlaws — god, Billy Gunn was huge — and gawked at Shelly Martinez, and ended up talking with Colt Cabana. Cabana is probably the most famous indie wrestler in the world, although this is certainly up for debate. He's a buddy of CM Punk who had a short and ill-fated run in WWE as Scotty Goldman, the wrestling Jew. He now tours the world, working in indie promotions like Ring of Honor, and he records one of the Web's great wrestling treasures: the Art of Wrestling podcast. He chuckled over my shoulder at the specter of Jake Roberts — who had arisen from his folding chair and looked more or less like a beer keg on stilts — hitting on some woman. Another day, these sights might have seemed sad, but this was WrestleMania weekend, and Jake is a legend. I got to see him hit on a woman and eat a McDonald's hamburger, and that's more than I could have hoped for.
The night before, I found myself at Ft. Lauderdale's War Memorial Auditorium, watching Ring of Honor's "Showdown in the Sun" event. Like a lot of indie promotions, ROH follows WrestleMania to town to take advantage of the concentration of wrestling fans. In pro wrestling's pre-WWF days, shows were held in VFW auditoriums and bingo halls, and that ROH event — with its old-school, NWA-meets-ECW vibe — made me feel like I'd climbed into a time machine. The show was glorious, not least because of the crowd, who, as with most ROH shows, seemed to show up primarily to take part in semi-ironic chants. Two fans behind me chattered in Dutch throughout the show, and yet they chanted louder than anybody else in perfect, unaccented English. When Maria Kanellis — former WWE sexpot and the real-life ex-girlfriend of CM Punk — sauntered out with her new boyfriend, Mike Bennett,7 the guys behind me led the crowd in a hearty "You screwed Punk!" chant. And while I don't wholly endorse the public shaming of somebody whose only offense was that she happened to have previously been in a relationship with a popular star, I deeply admire their commitment to fandom.8
The difference between an ROH show and a WWE show is profound. WWE is high-gloss, heavily produced, and entirely scripted; ROH is sometimes disturbingly realistic and sometimes broadly comical. Production values are not a guiding principle; experience is. While WWE often seems to be deliberately spiting its fans, rejecting their whooped preferences in favor of its own dictates, ROH embraces the fans as an equal partner in the show. This accounts not just for the wrestlers sometimes following crass direction from the audience — "We want tables!" — but also in their sincere concern for the grapplers when a stunt seems to be pushing the envelope — "Please don't die! Please don't die!"
There was a great moment toward the end of the card, when the much-beloved El Generico — a (deliberately) fake Mexican luchador — and resident bad boy Kevin Steen brawled out of the ring and onto the stage behind it, which held the most desirable seats in the house. The two guys threw punches under the half-lit house lights, and as they teased a devastating move9 on the stage's hard floor, you couldn't help but see even further back into wrestling history. It was the exhibitionism of the vaudeville stage. If, again, WrestleMania is where history is made, ROH was living history, an interactive time capsule that is frequently more vital than its big-league counterpart.
On Saturday night, WWE embraced its own history at its annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The night started strong with John "Bradshaw" Layfield introducing his old tag team partner Ron Simmons, the first black WCW champion,10 and thus the first black champion of a national promotion, with a poignant and hilarious speech that touched on the history of race in pro sports, in which Simmons's championship is neatly situated. He closed with a hilarious jab to the Internet era of pro wrestling. Recalling a night when he and Simmons did an 8.6 television rating (the ratings leading up to this year's Mania hovered around 3.1), he said to the contemporary stars assembled in front of him in their Sunday best, "If one of you puts up an 8.6 against the networks, I'd appreciate it if someone would tweet me."
Simmons and many of the night's other inductees — Mil Máscaras, the Four Horsemen, and even Yokozuna — existed in a pro wrestling landscape so different from the current one it's almost hard to imagine. During the Horsemen's heyday, up to half of the TV audience would watch them wail on rivals like Dusty Rhodes — who inducted them that night — in tiny television studios, where they put on morality plays for the masses. To see them honored by WWE so sincerely, and to listen to the fans inside AmericanAirlines Arena cheer them so loudly — was touching. If at WrestleReunion fans sought fleeting personal contact with the stars of their childhood, the Hall of Fame ceremony was a night to let history speak, and to shower the inductees with fame for a last time.
There were two other inductees that night: Edge, a modern megastar who was forced by a neck injury to retire immediately after last year's Mania, and Mike Tyson, who went into the often derided "celebrity wing" of the Hall of Fame. Tyson was joyous, appreciative of the attention, and, unlike other celebrity inductees, he deserved it; his role in the D-Generation X–Steve Austin feud in 1998 played a huge part in WWE getting the better of its rival WCW and surviving the Monday Night Wars. Edge's induction, on the other hand, was full of melancholy. He was forced abruptly out of his dream job, and although he seemed to take it in stride, the same couldn't be said for his (real-life) best friend Christian, who cried while inducting him. Edge, though emotional, was resolute, quoting some advice he'd heard: "Decide what to be and go be it. And I did. And I'm a Hall of Famer."
The only moment more touching than that was when Tully Blanchard, now a minister, spoke during the Horsemen's induction. "I wake up every day with a little twinge in my back, a little twinge in my neck," he said, but he wouldn't change it for the world. Not just the "limousine-riding, jet-flying" life he got to lead, but the connection with the fans, tens of thousands of whom were cheering him on as he spoke: "We are all, all of us, all the way to the top, intertwined." The audience erupted. On a night dedicated to the performers, the performers, almost to a one, dedicated the night to the fans.
Walking into Sun Life Stadium, I was overwhelmed by the crowd. I elbowed my way to my seat — I was on the floor, 75 rows or so from the ring — and I turned around, feeling the masses pulse around me. It's almost unsettling, all those people amped up, standing in disregard for the folding chairs set up in rows atop what would have been Astroturf on another night. But we were all together in the mob that night. I was in league with the tattooed guy from L.A. to my left, the Irish guy in front of us, the loudmouth Kane fan to his right, and the 8-year-old girl to my right and her brother, single-mindedly determined to get his "If Cena Wins, We Riot" sign onto TV. That's the fan's meager validation in the WWE universe — they don't often listen to your chants, but if the cameras catch glimpse of you, you've made your tiny place in history.
When Sheamus came out to open the show and dispatched
WWE World Heavyweight Champ Daniel Bryan in mere seconds, the Irish guy in front of me stood up on his seat, Ireland flag draped around his shoulders, and screamed heartily. We all screamed with him. A few matches later, when Kane surprised everyone by beating Randy Orton, the Kane fan went into a seizure of ecstasy. He jumped around, fist-pumping and hugging people, until he broke his chair. (He managed through the rest of the show by sitting at a certain, careful angle.) A while later, the Kane fan's buddy got a text from his sister, who had been sitting at home monitoring the show. She saw him on TV, she said, in front of some guy's "If Cena wins, we riot" sign, and she had it saved on DVR. There it was. History.
At WrestleMania 28, the spotlight was trained squarely on making new history. The Rock and John Cena squared off in a "once in a lifetime" match of era supremacy, and the Triple H–Undertaker "Hell in a Cell" match was billed as "the end of an era." The finish of that match was hardly in doubt — the win would take 'Taker's WrestleMania record to a tidy 20-0 — but the match was so well built that it had every fan breathless. Special referee Shawn Michaels (Triple H's pal and one of Undertaker's most notable foes) fell victim to an Undertaker choke hold when he came close to calling the match to end the punishment suffered by a decimated 'Taker. Michaels later reciprocated by superkicking Undertaker, and when Triple H followed up with his signature Pedigree, every fan thought for a second that it could really be over. It wasn't. 'Taker won, and after the match, the three men helped each other back up the ramp to the back. They paused, just for a moment, at the top of the stage, and the Undertaker nodded at the crowd, and it almost seemed that the three men would take a bow. Instead, 'Taker turned and, in the most really real moment of the night, he hugged his erstwhile enemies. Cheers of thanks filled the stadium. If that was the end of the Undertaker's illustrious career, it was a fitting moment.
When The Rock and John Cena came out for their match, it almost felt like there was nothing they could do to top "Hell in a Cell" or the night's CM Punk–Chris Jericho wrestling clinic, but they did. When Cena emerged from the back, the masses booed lustily. Miami is Rock's hometown, and the sort of fans who spend good money to travel long distances to WrestleMania are exactly the kind of fans who love to hate Cena. Once the match started, however, the power of the moment overtook the jeers. There were cheers (mostly for Rock) and boos (mostly for Cena), but the greater feeling was one of being part of something important.
I don't know if that feeling conferred itself to people watching on pay-per-view; by the responses I've seen, I assume it didn't. But for the fans who watched those two icons live, the monotony of Cena and Rock's yearlong feud faded away and was replaced by pure spectacle. The consensus going into the match was that Cena would probably win — he's the one signed to a long-term WWE contract, after all — or that, if he lost, it would be due to some interference that WWE would use to set up his next feud. Instead, The Rock won cleanly, decisively, and the fans were stunned in the best possible way.
Around us, crowds were chanting: "Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!"
WWE had given us what we had asked for and what few of us were expecting. It was shocking. We stumbled out, all 78,000 of us, into the parking lot. There was no tailgate, no after-party. There was only a long drive back to a hotel room. Fans whooped with what energy they had left, dwindling howls after a long, memorable weekend.
I guess we won't know if WrestleMania 28 was truly "historic" until at least a few years have passed. But however it shakes out, we were a part of it.