The grandest stage of them all: Why we still care about WrestleMania

Ricky 'The Dragon' Steamboat gets kicked by Chris Jericho at WrestleMania 25 - Getty Images

You're six years old and flipping through the channels on a Sunday morning. You normally go to church but you stayed home today for whatever reason. When you get to the USA Network, you freeze.

Without warning, you're staring at two huge men in face paint, roaring at the camera. They step into a ring surrounded by cheering fans. As you watch, these men toss two smaller men in bright tights around without effort. Finally, one of the men in face paint drapes one of the men in bright tights across his knee, while the other man in face paint climbs the ropes. You wonder what's going to happen for only a second before the man on the ropes leaps off and lands with his elbow across his victim's throat, flipping him off his partner's knee and onto the mat. There is a pinfall, a three-count and a celebration as the bell is rung.

You're in awe. You wonder, what in the world is this?

Soon, you puzzle out from the announcers that:

  • This is professional wrestling
  • You're watching a federation called the WWF
  • Those men with the face paint are a fearsome tag team called Demolition
  • It's a program called All-American Wrestling

In short order, you discover an unreal, Technicolor world that you never would have dreamed of. You see stables of villains, loud-mouthed twerps with megaphones and back-alley thugs that will cheat to win. You see sequined jackets, fun-loving tough guys who might think they're an actual dog and people bringing all manner of animals to the ring with them. You develop favorites and you find out that sometimes, you hate someone so much that you enjoy hating them. You fall headlong into this world that's like a comic book come to life.

You're hooked.

Star-divide

On May 23, 1999, a professional wrestler named Owen Hart fell from a catwalk and landed in the ring (off-camera) during a live pay-per-view. He died shortly thereafter. Owen was supposed to rappel from the rafters as part of his ironic "Blue Blazer" superhero gimmick, but his safety harness failed. The pay-per-view continued.

On July 16, 1999, the small plane that John F. Kennnedy, Jr. was piloting was reported missing. On July 21, Kennedy's body, along with the bodies of his wife and his sister-in-law, were found and identified.

Owen got a few passing mentions on evening news programs and SportsCenter immediately following his death. John F. Kennedy, Jr. graced the cover of newspapers and magazines and was the lead story in countless news magazine shows for the better part of a year.

Where were the paeans to a man who sacrificed his body night after night in the hope of personally entertaining me?

At the time, I didn't understand the disparity. I felt it was unfair that the death of someone who dedicated his life to entertaining people, 300-plus days a year for almost his entire life, was scarcely mentioned, while someone who (to the best of my limited knowledge) was famous for having a beloved father and being rich was openly and endlessly mourned. Where were the paeans to a man who sacrificed his body night after night in the hope of personally entertaining me (and you, and anyone else who might be in attendance or tuning in)? There weren't any, because he was a professional wrestler.

Of course, now I understand that John F. Kennedy, Jr. was far more than just a lawyer and socialite with a famous dad. For millions of people, he was the little boy saluting his father's coffin. He was a living, breathing American icon, one who simultaneously represented the loss of a nation's innocence and the shred of hope that we might learn to be great again. Of course there was going to be a disparity between the loss of these two lives.

But especially because one of them was a wrestler.

Star-divide

You're 12 years old and you're watching WrestleMania. You know that this is the biggest event of the year. The night where anything can happen (but most likely, Hulk Hogan will eventually draw on the power of all the Hulkamaniacs and defeat his nefarious opponent with the big leg drop). You can imagine yourself there in front of all those people (or perhaps among them), defending the Intercontinental title, stretching yourself to the limits of human endurance until, finally, with the last of your remaining strength you hold the belt aloft, victorious.

You've been told for years that this is what it's all about; that any wrestler who's ever lived has dreamed of making it to WrestleMania and fighting in front of the entire world. It's the Super Bowl of professional wrestling. It's pomp and circumstance and celebrities and guest timekeepers and sometimes it's Robert Goulet showing up to sing the Canadian national anthem. It's the night when grudges come to an ultimate end and comeuppance is dished out in heaping ladlesful. It's the night when good triumphs and adversity is overcome. At WrestleMania, anything is possible.

You're hooked.

Hulk-hogan-1000_medium
Getty Images

Star-divide

In 1993, Vince McMahon was indicted for allegedly selling and distributing steroids to WWF wrestlers. The case went to trial in 1994, during which time McMahon stepped down and made his wife, Linda, CEO of the WWF. Hulk Hogan took the stand and admitted to a career of anabolic steroid use, but testified that McMahon did not encourage him to take steroids, nor did he provide steroids to wrestlers. McMahon was acquitted and returned to the company, although Linda remained CEO. Hogan began working for WCW.

Four years later, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa began hitting home runs in droves and reignited the country's love of baseball after being jilted by the 1994 strike-shortened MLB season. This was the beginning of a new golden age in baseball, headlined by stars like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez. It was an age of spectacle and unbelievable heroics; an era defined by cartoonish villains, larger-than-life heroes and plucky underdogs who overcame all the odds to defeat their nefarious opponents.

In 2007, the Mitchell Report was released, exposing the flaws in Major League Baseball's drug prevention program and naming 89 players who were alleged to have used performance-enhancing drugs.

That same year -- since steroids were once again on everyone's minds -- Vince McMahon found himself in Washington, D.C., giving testimony to the Waxman Committee on oversight and government reform, regarding allegations of steroid use in professional wrestling. Since McMahon had already been put on trial once for running a steroid ring and had beat the rap (allegedly spending $5 million of WWF money in order to do so), he and chief counsel Jerry McDevitt swaggered into the nation's capital and spent several hours basically inviting the committee to kiss his entire asshole. The real crooks you want, he suggested, are in baseball and football. I run a legitimate operation here.

So he was thanked for his time and the country turned its steroids furor toward MLB.

Because it was just wrestling.

Star-divide

You're in your late teens or early 20s and you haven't thought about wrestling in a little while, but you flip through the channels again -- this time on a Monday night -- and something catches your interest. Maybe it's someone you used to love behaving in an uncharacteristic way. Or maybe you heard from a friend (a friend who didn't even grow up watching wrestling like you did) that something crazy or hilarious happened on WWF or WCW and you just gotta check it out man, you just gotta.

So you tune in again and you see that wrestling has grown up.

So you tune in again and you see that wrestling has grown up. It's turned into a burlesque show and it's developed a decidedly juvenile sense of humor. The bad guys are cool and the good guys are feuding against the actual wrestling executives that employ them. And there are a lot of people showing their butts for some reason. Still, there are exciting stars and the stakes are ramped up higher than ever before. The nWo is threatening to destroy wrestling. Mankind is being thrown off the top of a cage, then through it. A guy you used to hate starts talking in the third person. A beer-swilling redneck is flying middle fingers at everything with a pulse and then beating the living hell out of it. And somehow it all works. And it's exactly what you needed.

And there's still WrestleMania, when storylines reach the end of the road and maybe Mike Tyson or Butterbean will show up and knock someone out.

You're hooked.

Star-divide

Chris Benoit remembers Eddie Guerrero

On Nov. 13, 2005, Eddie Guerrero's heart failed in a hotel in Minneapolis, likely as a result of nearly 20 years of heavy steroid and HGH usage. The next night, Raw was dedicated to his memory and featured testimonials from wrestlers. One of the most emotional clips of the night was Guerrero's best friend Chris Benoit breaking down. In retrospect, the clip has been described as "like watching the Terminator cry."

On June 25, 2007, the bodies of Chris Benoit, his wife and their seven-year-old son were found in their home in Georgia. The next night, Raw was once again a tribute to the late wrestler, but with one significant difference: when what was now WWE made the call to air a tribute episode, officials had already received word that it was very likely Benoit had killed his wife and son before hanging himself.

When those allegations were verified, it became national news. Nancy Grace was talking about Chris Benoit and the WWE. The story made the cover of People. For once, professional wrestling was getting equal time, but it was because something horrible -- something unspeakable -- had happened. And when national reporters and journalists discussed the crime, it was with an air of tut-tutting inevitability. We should have known something like this was going to happen, was the subtext.

Because it was wrestling.

Star-divide

You lived through the "Attitude Era" and the implosion of the WWE's main competitors. You were turned off by the televised product when things became stale, repetitive and boring. Maybe you turned to the world of independent wrestling, where people were doing things that amazed, impressed, dazzled or horrified you. Maybe you rekindled your love for technical wrestling by watching Bryan Danielson and Christopher Daniels. Maybe you found an entire new world of next-level high-flyers with the Amazing Red and Jack Evans. Maybe Low-Ki and Samoa Joe taught you about strong-style wrestling and you started watching Kenta Kobashi and Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada and a score of other Japanese wrestlers. Maybe you liked watching people hit each other with light tubes.

Or maybe you just turned it all off.

Through it all, WrestleMania has stuck around and has continued to be the biggest wrestling event of the year. For many casual fans, it's the only wrestling event of the year. Every couple of years they even manage to put on a spectacle big enough, or have a big enough sports star or celebrity involved to garner national attention from the media, however fleeting. And "WrestleMania" as a concept and touchstone still holds enough cachet that every other year or so, a national sportswriter like Bill Simmons will realize he or she hasn't watched wrestling in a long time and will realize WrestleMania Sunday is fast approaching. They'll watch the pay-per-view and liveblog it, or write about it after the fact, and freely admit that they had a great time watching it.

It's easy to enjoy WrestleMania, even if you don't like wrestling. Even if you've never watched wrestling.

It's easy to enjoy WrestleMania, even if you don't like wrestling. Even if you've never watched wrestling. Because WrestleMania pulls out all the stops. There are pyrotechnics and bodies flying around. There are clear demarcations between whom you should root for and who you shouldn't. And in cases like this year and last year, there is John Cena against the Rock. There was Triple H against the Undertaker. These main eventers will take the time to tell a story in the ring that is so good, you can't decide who to root for. And by the end, you don't even care who wins any more. You just never want the match to end. That's the power of professional wrestling and that's the power of WrestleMania.

Pro wrestling is an art form wholly unlike any other. It combines gladiatorial spectacle with prize fighting, but marries it with the serial narrative of a soap opera, the longstanding grudges of the greatest sports rivalries and the structure and pacing of a fantastic action film. And it's all for the express interest of entertaining you. That's why the wrestlers do this. Because they love the sport and they want you to feel something; anything. They want you to be entertained.

If you, like me, have watched wrestling your whole life, you've learned along the way exactly how ugly and horrible and awful the wrestling business can be. You've grown cynical and jaded and grumbled at seeing the same thing again and again, griped about your favorite wrestlers being "held down" while others (whom we deem as less-deserving) get forced down our throats year after year. But you also know that during WrestleMania, none of that matters.

Because at WrestleMania, we get to be six years old again. The set will be incredible. The crowd will be electric. The storylines will come to a head and lead to a final resolution in the ring. We'll gasp at impossible moves and scream for our favorites to kick out before that three-count. We'll stand up without realizing it when we think this could be it, this could do it, we've got a new champion. And we'll smile and be entertained. Because it's fun. Because it speaks to us on some level of which we may not even be aware.

It's here every year. And it's always fantastic

Because it's wrestling.

You're hooked.

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