A WrestleMania XXVIII Preview for the Former Wrestling Fan and a Stroll Down Memory Lane
By Joseph Williams
When I was in middle school, it was right after the Monday Night Wars broke out, with WCW Nitro and Eric Bischoff battling eternal top dogs in ratings and history, WWF (now WWE after the World Wildlife Foundation got all litigation-happy on them) Monday Night Raw led by Vince McMahon (before his wife ran for U.S. Senate). These were the golden days of wrestling. New superstars like Bill Goldberg, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and The Rock were breaking out, taking ratings and popularity to never before seen levels, while legends from the dawn of WWF in the 1980s spread throughout both organizations, rewriting their characters and storylines, mixing with the new guys, and leading the second Golden Age of professional wrestling.
For about two years, I was glued to the old tiny TV in my parents’ room, watching WCW Nitro each week. At the time, I convinced my mom, who was a skeptic, that WCW was the more family friendly of the two shows. I first started watching in Spring 1998 not long after the Wolfpac formed, creating two alliances within the nWo, New World Order. Right after the calendar ticked over into the new millennium, I started barely following wrestling. The last pay-per-view I ever ordered with friends was January 2000’s Souled Out, with a controversial win by controversial wrestler, Chris Benoit. For just under two years, I watched Nitro. I sometimes watched Thunder (usually read recaps online). I read and participated on message boards debating storylines, wrestlers, and spoilers. Three or four times a year, I’d get together with my cousin and some friends to split the cost of buying the pay-per-views, order some pizza and wings, and enjoy a Sunday night of elite pro wrestling. What first hooked me was a free trip for my baseball team to the Saturday morning local wrestling show at NBC News Channel Five’s studios in midtown Memphis. My friends at church had started following WCW and I helped them start an nWo Wolfpac tribute website. We were 11 and 12-year olds, fascinated by this whole new world and the splitting of this thing called a new World order.
I became a student of history. I had always played wrestling video games at my friends’ houses. Now I was learning that Diesel and Razor Ramon are now called Kevin Nash and Scott Hall. The yellow-and-white Hulkamania was now black-and-white Hollywood Hulk Hogan. Macho Man was slammin down a Slim Jim, eating Chef Boyardee in trees, and dropping flying elbows on unsuspecting victims. Sting was propelling from rafters. And a new former football player named Bill Goldberg was starting what would become an unbelievable undefeated streak, spearing and jackhammering all the little people along the way to the big dogs.
I kept up with WWF on the message boards and websites. I learned Cactus Jack from video games was now Mankind, The Rock was the People’s Champion, and everyone loved Stone Cold Steve Austin. Wrestlers bounced back and forth between the businesses and I became fascinated with the behind-the-scenes drama of the ratings wars, who left what company when and why, and the real-life friendships between these businessmen and professionals.
Years later, while reading a Bill Simmons Mailbag (hint: Google dead wrestlers), I learned even more about the tragic early deaths of so many of these wrestlers. I’d watch some documentaries about the dark side of this sort of entertainment. It became another world I’d chuckle at and wonder what I ever saw in committing so much middle school time and energy into such a silly thing. I forgot all about wrestling as I went through high school, college, Teach For America (absent some of my students occasionally discussing it and me saying, “HE STILL WRESTLES?!?!?”), and most of the first semester of law school.
Flashback: Summer 2011 – My wife and I’s world-traveling honeymoon took us to the orphanage where she had worked a couple summers during undergrad and lived/served for a year between undergrad and starting law school. We lived and loved at the orphanage in rural South Africa for a month. Aphiwe, who lived at the orphanage at the time and is now my new brother-in-law who has come to be a part of our family in the States, was watching TV one day. South African TV is terrible. It’s a mix of South African soap operas that are like what you’d find on Cinemax late at night in the States and terrible American TV imports. So there’s a lot of professional wrestling and Pamela Anderson’s VIP on.
Now, coming back to January 2012. I had no connection to professional wrestling. But, when on a family trip with Aphiwe to Florida and having some epic wrestling matches, it was revealed that Aphiwe knew A LOT about professional wrestling. He knew John Cena’s entrance and talking points. He knew Shawn Michaels’ finishing move. He knew who every wrestler was, what they did, what they said, and who they fought. I now had a 12 year-old little brother who had been watching wrestling for many of the years I had left. And, as if there was a date with destiny, there had been a year-long hyping (what wrestling does better than anything else!) of what promised to be the GREATEST WWE WRESTLING MATCH OF ALL-TIME! A MATCH SO BIG THAT IT HAD TO BE ANNOUNCED AND PLANNED MORE THAN A YEAR IN ADVANCE AND PITTING THE GREATEST SUPERSTAR OF THE LAST FEW YEARS AGAINST THE GREATEST SUPERSTAR OF THE PREVIOUS GENERATION!
JOHN CENA vs. THE ROCK.
The heir to The Rock’s legacy once The Rock went Hollywood (or as a good friend who has a disdain towards pro wrestling but is tempted to watch WrestleMania this Sunday with me because The Rock is both “an acting superstar and cultural icon”) versus The Rock himself.
In Miami, The Brahma Bull’s hometown and where he played college football.
Yes, wrestling is fake (although still involves some impressive athletic displays, at times… thanks Rey Mysterio, Jr.). Yes, many of the biggest superstars lead unfortunately tragic lives. Yes, many pro wrestlers have had many personal and at times life-ending struggles due to steroid use. Yes, there seems to be no reason why I would want to return to watching it.
But the 12 year-old boy in me sees the excitement on Aphiwe’s face when I gave him a John Cena action figure and WWE Championship replica belt for his birthday. He wore it around Dave and Buster’s and talked about how he’s the champion. His smile was my smile.
And that smile brought me back to my youth. I started perusing Wikipedia, WWE.com, and YouTube clips. I went back to watch some clips from before I watched wrestling, when I watched wrestling, and since then. I watched some highlights with Aphiwe of more current wrestlers like Cena, Orton, and CM Punk that I had never seen before. I learned a bit about each of them. Then, I realized what had to be done.
Inspired by former pro wrestling fan himself Bill Simmons’ buying WrestleMania XXVI and writing a running diary for ESPN, I decided it was time to get the gang back together. I decided that I had to watch WrestleMania XXVI with Aphiwe and any of my other friends who wanted to order some pizzas and enjoy a walk down memory lane. So we got a motley crew together. I found out some of my best friends used to love wrestling back in the day. Some of my other friends had Wolfpac t-shirts like I did. Some even went to live Nitro shows and WWF pay-per-views.
So with excitement for WrestleMania XXVIII…
Hoping The Undertaker goes 20-0 and Shawn Michaels does something awesome.
Hoping Chris Jericho (a WCW representative from my day) shows CM Punk who the boss is.
Hoping Kane (another one from my time) takes out this Randy Orton fella.
Hoping The Giant (now known as The Big Show) claims the Intercontinental Championship.
Hoping Booker T dominates in his return to the ring.
And hoping that The Rock shows John Cena who the True People’s Champion is.
But most of all, I’m hoping for some good laughs, some crazy good performances, and some fun twists. Hoping that the walk down memory lane with friends and wrestling fans from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s goes well. After all, it’s the Show of Shows.
But if you’re still not convinced, let me provide you with the…
TOP FIVE REASONS YOU SHOULD BE EXCITED ABOUT WRESTLEMANIA XXVIII
1) When my other brother-in-law Seth recently asked me what makes pro-wrestling entertaining, my response was simply this:
“There are two things that make wrestling great. First, a superstar 20 years ago can still be a superstar today. There’s very little outside of Hollywood (and it’s rare there) that this can happen. Second, because of its scripted nature, the most ridiculous thing that COULD happen almost always does.”
What’s not to love? Don’t think of it as fake sports, but think of it as a bizarre movie with athletic components.
2) There are few things greater than a classic heel turn. Perhaps the greatest heel turn of all time came at Bash at the Beach 1996. The most beloved hero of pro wrestling for more than a decade all of a sudden turned into the most wonderful villain who had sold out to the bad guys. Great stuff. You just never know what you’re going to get.
4) Every once in awhile, a wrestling pay-per-view is the perfect combination of hype, superstar power from past and present, fun story lines, exciting matches, and jaw-dropping wrestling. For me, that one was back in October of 1998 at Halloween Havoc, when Goldberg put his titles on the line against Diamond Dallas Page and Hollywood Hulk Hogan revived a rivalry with The Ultimate Warrior. Here’s hoping WrestleMania XVIII will be as good! With The Undertaker vs. HHH in a cage with Shawn Michaels as the referee and the main event headliner, I think it will be. (That’s not even including any of the matches for championship belts!!!)
5) The Rock. He took Fast Five to another level. He’s provided us with a myriad of family-friendly movies and non-stop action flicks. Carrying on the legacy of The Governator himself, The Rock has become a bonafide movie star. But let’s not forget where he began… as the People’s Champion who never got enough love and worked his way up to Superstar status. Now, he’s back, in his hometown, paying off a year-plus of hype, taking on the next generation’s version of himself. More than 12 years after winning one of the best Royal Rumbles of all time, he’s back. And there’s just no way I can’t watch.