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Wrestlemania XXX, considered

April 6, 2014

wrestlemaniaxxx

Tonight is WrestleMania XXX — that’s “30,” not a signifier that pro wrestling is going the hardcore porn route — and this is a grand mile-marker for the squared circle’s biggest showcase. Thirty. 3-0. Professional wrestling has been around a long, long time, and exhibitions of mano-a-mano physical strength have drawn in people far and wide, including Abraham Lincoln, but the product that we know today, the national, nay global industry that’s on television constantly emerged from its pupal stage in the 1980s. That was when the World Wrestling Federation, now Word Wrestling Entertainment thanks to that other WWF, changed the game with a little something called WrestleMania — the WrestleMania that would have a Roman numeral I appended to it as the event was replicated in subsequent years.

What’s become “The Showcase of the Immortals” is no longer young. For those of us old enough to remember the first one, it’s another of the piling up reminders that we aren’t either. It’s also as good a time to pay ruminate about a dopey industry that’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Several weeks ago Vince McMahon’s baby launched the WWE Network, a remarkable bit of joy that’s Exhibit A in how far the art of professional wrestling has journeyed since its origins. It’s no longer just an arena product, held at local civic centers, sportatoriums and cow palaces — and it hasn’t been just that in a long while. Now the WWE, rasslin’s megalithic frontrunner, is a global brand at the cutting edge of entertainment dissemination, with the network a gateway to the enormous video library that WWE has amassed over the years. (Not only did the company acquire its only national rival, WCW, in 2001, it’s purchased the IP if almost every promotion of consequence. WCCW? AWA? Mid-South? It’s in there.) One of the best articles about how wonderful the network is can be found here on Grantland, as Bill Simmons and company mark out for the newest time-devourer. Any wrestling aficionado who’s fallen down the well of watching YouTube videos of classic matches knows what a time-devourer it can be, and now McMahon and Co. have finally found a way to monetize it over the web, cheap enough and easy enough for the masses.

The $9.99 monthly fee for access also includes the regular pay-per-views, a great value for the most devoted of the company’s fans. The first PPV coming up is none other than the biggest of them all. Not just WrestleMania, the thirtieth event to bear that name, and maybe the most subtle but most telling sign of what a different world it is came a couple of weeks ago, something tied into that show from so long ago. Recall that way back in the first WrestleMania one of the main attractions was Mr. T, at the peak of his A-Team/B.A. Baracus fame. (The T-Force was a long ways off.) He teamed with Hulk Hogan in the main event, which saw the two squaring off against Rowdy Roddy Piper and “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff. It was a feud that grew out of the classic Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection angle, in which Cindy Lauper tried to present Captain Lou Albano with an award, Piper interrupted, all hell broke loose, Piper kicked her in the head, and Hogan charged in as the white knight. (See what I mean about the rabbit hole? You can yak about this stuff for hours, and every tangent you go off on branches off into ten more. Bodyslam infinitum.)

The point is, those were the days when wrestling was eager, maybe overly so, to associate with more famous music and movie stars, to, if we use some of the wrestling carny lingo, “get the rub.” Wrestling was the outsider climbing the pop culture ladder, an arriviste at best. But a couple of weeks ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up on Raw to promote his new movie Sabotage, and shared the ring with Hogan (now re-employed by the WWE as sort of a huge, orange Wal-Mart greeter). Granted he wasn’t involved in an angle, it was just a chance to hawk his film, but it was striking in that there was no doubt who was the supplicant in this cross-promotional event. Sure, Arnold isn’t what he once was, and WWE had duly promoted his appearance as that of a big star, but it was striking. Hogan and Arnold are both wrinkly old men now, but there was no doubt which side needed the other more. That wasn’t so much the case in standard def prehistoric olden times.

This sea-change isn’t just on a pop culture meta level, but it’s also seen in the way WWE handles its stars — and in this way it’s the new technology that’s driving the company, not the other way around as it is with the network. WWE’s biggest star is a wrestler that they don’t want to be their biggest star: Daniel Bryan. WWE brought back old hand Batista earlier this year — Drax in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy — and he was penned in to headline the main event of WrestleMania. But wrestling fans have taken up Bryan as their cause celebre, and will brook no attempt to foist a cookie cutter been-there/done-that star of old. They reacted with vitriol at the Royal Rumble, the major PPV that each year mints the WrestleMania challenger for the title in the eponymous battle royal. Batista won, and the fans booed lustily (the Twitter hashtag #bootista was born) — and were doubly pissed that Bryan wasn’t even an entrant. They hijacked the event, booing when they were supposed to cheer, calling for someone who wasn’t even booked to appear. And this has been going on for a while, as Bryan was shunted to the storyline side time and time again, and fans’ bewilderment grew and grew. They took to Twitter to vent, and chanted Bryan’s name at whatever inopportune moments that they could, disrupting that stories that the WWE was trying to tell.

The first big product of the internet age, Bryan rose to fame in a time where clips from rinky-dink promotions could be watched on YouTube, going viral like the best cute puppy videos out there. And his did. A good worker who can carry less talented opponents to entertaining matches, his signing to the WWE was a big deal to wrestling fans, who’ve subsequently felt a proprietary feeling for the not that tall, not that big, not at all tan, shaggy-like-a-goat Bryan. And when he developed his defiant “YES” chant, in which the word is repeated over and over again as both arms are raised over his head, a megastar was born — a crossover megastar, judging by the goofy appeal of the Yes Movement. Even when he was as heel, someone who they were supposed to boo, fans couldn’t resist joining the chant. So the WWE finally had to concede, rework their plans and incorporate Bryan into the top of the card.

What all this means is that there’s a strange dichotomy in pro wrestling today, more specifically in the one company that really matters. Going into the thirtieth WrestleMania WWE has an internet product in their Network that’s the envy of the entertainment industry, one that has boosted the company’s value in ways that can and can’t be measured. But the other side of that coin is that the internet has also become a brake, one that can change courses more easily than ratings numbers. The age of Twitter and Facebook and whatever other social platform comes along is a head wind, one that can make the good ship McMahon change course against its will, one that fans the fires of fan discontent. The world has changed a lot in thirty years, and so has wrestling, in weird ways unimaginable back when the Hulkster and Mr. T were tagging. Wrestling isn’t as popular as it was in the Hogan or Steve Austin/Rock days, but in many respects it’s bigger than ever — and bigger in some ways that are hard for the WWE to handle.

Happy Birthday, WrestleMania. Hope we can do this again in thirty years.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 6, 2014 3:04 pm

    “…not a signified that pro wrestling is going the hardcore porn route”- I laughed hard.

    I used to watch wrestling during the Attitude Era but stopped watching a while back. I have always meant to get back into it, but I’ve never really had the time for it. It is massively entertaining though :)

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