In previous entries in this series, I’ve talked about the lumbering colossus that is World Wrestling Entertainment. Since its transformation from disjointed territory wrestling only watched by hicks at county fairs into the unstoppable behemoth it is today, it has fine-tuned itself into a ravenous monster devouring everything in its path. Never slowing down for a moment as it barrels across the American countryside towards oblivion. Wherever that journey will eventually end is anyone’s guess but for now, WWE’s main focus is the biggest annual event on its books. The grandest stage of them all: Wrestlemania.
Every April, WWE holds an event that can only be compared to the Superbowl, Olympic Games Opening Ceremony and Princess Diana’s funeral wrapped into one. They book a massive stadium years in advance, put on around a dozen matches, maybe a couple of special guest segments and after roughly 7-8 hours, everyone is completely exhausted.
By all accounts, this event should be an ironclad clusterfuck. Crowds of near 100,000 gather to watch dozens of wrestlers in their own matches that each require precise timing and pacing to tell a satisfying story. Months of hype on WWE TV shows (hopefully) builds towards the culmination of feuds between these wrestlers and also kick off new ones. In between the weeks of preparation in the chosen city with logistics that would terrify normal event managers, there’s guest appearances, media interviews and a huge fan-access event with several matches of its own. Not only that, they hold a Hall Of Fame ceremony two nights before which is yet another massive undertaking.
Somehow, they mostly keep it all together. Just by a percentage basis, some matches are inevitably underwhelming or downright tedious but it’s a miracle everyone just comes out alive when its all over.
But what purpose does it serve? Even though it has been somewhat painted as the grand final of wrestling, it doesn’t really need to happen when it comes to telling in-ring stories. You could bring these feuds to a conclusion in any of the other dozen or so pay-per-view events that happen throughout the annual WWE calendar. Over the years however, Wrestlemania has become the one day where you see the biggest stars, the most fabulous outfits and probably – the craziest moves. WWE puts everything on the table at Wrestlemania.
For example, here’s 48 year-old Shane McMahon jumping off a 20-foot high cage into an announcer’s table at Wrestlemania 32:
Jeff Hardy receiving a mid-air spear from Edge at Wrestlemania 17:
This extraordinary corkscrew moonsault by Charlotte Flair at Wrestlemania 33:
And finally, Rusev arrives for his match at Wrestlemania 31 IN A TANK while his proud (real-life) wife Lana looks on:
These stunning moments of athletic prowess, absurd magic or near-death experiences are all saved up to be used on this one day. That’s why it’s consistently the most watched WWE event every year. People who never watch wrestling watch Wrestlemania. Wrestlers appear on major TV talk shows because of Wrestlemania. Mainstream news outlets place wrestling above anything else in their sports section on this day because of Wrestlemania. And to WWE, this widespread exposure is precisely what they so desperately crave.
That’s why every year, there’s celebrities in the front row and sometimes even in the ring. Whether it’s tired old Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pitbull delivering a song or that vacuous nothing Jimmy Fallon being a waste of space, the higher ups at WWE will do whatever it takes to not only put on a good show for the fans, but also shout from the rooftops “Hey world, look at us! Accept us, you bastards!”.
Everything outside of the matches is where most of the problem lies, which is something that’s true for WWE in general. The wrestlers themselves only have to concern themselves with their in-ring responsibilities whereas everything in between is blanketed in non-stop advertising of sponsors, forced celebrity appearances and any number of awkward segments that stretch this thing out all day. Even the pre-show section clocks in at a ludicrous two hours.
Back in 1985, the very first Wrestlemania at Madison Square Garden was attended by 19,121 fans and had a total of nine matches. And yet, the celebrities were there from the beginning. Cyndi Lauper, Muhammad Ali and Mr T were all involved in various ways to get those all important headlines the next day. Say what you will about WWE’s shameless promotion over the years, it works. Couple that with the inevitable “Holy shit did you see that?” moments in the modern day version of the event, and you have a recipe for ratings gold.
However, despite decades of throwing flash-in-the-pan TV or movie stars at the camera and hoping people will give a damn, the most stunning few minutes in the history of Wrestlemania came from the simplest of things: a wrestler winning a match.
You’ve probably heard of a wrestler called The Undertaker. He’s been around since 1990, has gone through many different incarnations and is generally regarded as the best ‘character’ that professional wrestling has ever created. Throughout the 90’s and 2000’s, his name became synonymous with Wrestlemania for one important reason: he never lost on this day. Every year at Wrestlemania, no matter who he stepped into the ring with, he walked away the victor. As such, his ‘streak’ became one of the most reliable things in the business when April rolled around. Taker always came out on top.
By 2014, his victories had become stale and it was a foregone conclusion that he would always win. If the streak would ever be broken, it would have to be done by a megastar and probably years from now. Everyone looked past his match with Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania 30 as something just standing in the way of the more exciting main event later that night.
So when Brock beat Undertaker half to death and actually won the match, nobody was ready. As predetermined as wrestling is, this was legitimate global astonishment. Fan apathy towards Taker’s streak was immediately shattered as they realised what had happened and it was brought about by a brash UFC fighter that nobody really cared about at the time. After twenty-one years, The Undertaker lost.
It was a genuine surprise that not a single person expected in a million years and fans still talk about it today like it was the Kennedy Assassination. As an attention-grabber and yet another reason to make Wrestlemania a must-watch, it was absolute genius.
Wrestlemania can be used as a great shorthand as to what is currently going on in the insane world of this business. Who do the fans hate at the moment? Who the biggest star and the biggest villain? Wait, Randy Orton is still wrestling?
In the past, it’s also been a good indication of what kind of views WWE holds at that point in time. Go back only a few years and you’ll see women wrestlers in ‘bra & panties matches’ and Samoan men presented as Japanese competitors. In all of entertainment media, WWE is probably the last in the race when it comes to the Not Being Scumbags 100 metre dash. These days, they try their best to look and act like a respectable multi-million dollar company and immediately respond when one of their wrestlers is arrested for sexual assault or has a girlfriend who is also a Nazi. That’s not to say all their problems are gone.
For example, on 12th March this year WWE announced a new match type for this year’s Wrestlemania. An 9-women battle royal is set to take place and was initially named after The Fabulous Moolah, a wrestler who died in 2007 at the age of 84. ‘The Fabulous Moolah Memorial Battle Royal’ was a name that was met with immediate anger from fans because of Moolah’s well known history of legitimately exploiting other female wrestlers both financially and sexually throughout her career. The announcement, accompanied by the claim of her being a ‘trailblazer for women’s equality’, was universally scorned.
However, fan outrage did little to change WWE’s minds. Only after Snickers, Wrestlemania’s major sponsor, expressed concern about it did the company reverse the decision and rename it to the ‘WWE Women’s Battle Royal’. Despite trying to make it look like a response to their loyal fans, WWE made it crystal clear that money was more important than their audience and more importantly, sponsors took precedence over their current women’s roster being forced to honor a monster. As I said, problems with this company remain steadfast in 2018. And trust me, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
This year, Wrestlemania 34 is in New Orleans on the 7th April and judging by the match card has the potential to be one of the best ever. Popular new wrestlers and returning favourites are injecting a true sense of excitement by catering to all types of wrestling fans. Two superstar Japanese wrestlers (who are actually Japanese this time) are in big championship matches and the women competitors in general are being highlighted like never before. On the surface, it seems like the decades of a dozen white American meathead dudes overshadowing everything are starting to finally come to an end and the future of this business inside the ring is becoming truly fascinating and unpredictable.
Essentially, WWE is Wrestlemania. If they fuck it up, there’s less chance of those new people who are watching this annual event for the first time deciding to stick around next week. So they throw everything in their arsenal at this one day in April. No matter how much it costs or how many hours it takes: it must succeed. It’s the driving force behind every moment at Wrestlemania and it shapes the next few months of storylines within the company. Which in turn, can make or break WWE as a publicly-traded company for years to come. Some fans still say they’ve never topped the spectacle of Stone Cold Steve Austin vs The Rock at Wrestlemania 17 and in some respects, they’re right.
That’s Wrestlemania. There’s a LOT more information and history and controversy involved but those are the basics. It’s a huge extravaganza of sweat, fireworks and watching millions of dollars burn on live TV. It’s the most important date on the WWE calendar but also can be rendered meaningless at a later date if the company decides to ignore what happened. It’s both vital and pointless in equal measure. It’s the engine that keeps this company going. Lumbering out of control across the American countryside towards an inevitable end that has not yet taken shape.
This weekend, millions of people will be watching this next chapter in the insane journey of a global company. Because anything could happen. Maybe even some good wrestling.