Katie Roberts realises a lifelong ambition and experiences WrestleMania week.
My earliest wrestling memory involves a 10-year-old me and my battered WrestleMania VIII VHS, glued to the screen by the crazy eyes of Rowdy Roddy Piper and the cool menace of my favourite (and early crush) Bret Hart; the impossible glamour of Sensation Sherri and the all-round creepiness of The Undertaker and Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts.
I didn’t get my first live wrestling experience until 10 years later – my parents were more than happy to take me to ‘real’ sports events but didn’t get the pro-wrestling thing – but up until April, with dozens of live wrestling shows under my belt, the annual spectacle of WrestleMania seemed magical, otherworldly, unattainable.
But attain it I did this year, as a good turn from a very good friend sent me on my way across the pond for my first ever live WrestleMania, staged in the impressively huge MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, a stone’s throw from that fabled wrestling mecca of Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Attending a pay-per-view event is surely every WWE fan’s ultimate dream, but with the pro-wrestling circus that is WrestleMania Week, you have the makings of a non-stop mindfuck of an experience, bringing together the world’s best performers, legends of the business, and a record-breaking quantity of replica belt-toting superfans.
The last few years have seen an increase in indie wrestling activity feeding off the ‘Show of Shows’ frenzy, and so it came to be that my first ever pay-per-view wasn’t in fact WrestleMania, it was the latest from Gabe Sapolsky’s co-owned Evolve, taking place in a soulless convention centre in New Jersey’s Secaucus as part of the second annual WrestleCon.
It’s perhaps surprising, given his ruthless reputation, that Vince McMahon publically endorsed the multi-promotion WrestleCon, even allowing WWE Hall of Famers such as Bret Hart to appear for meet and greets, but watching the stars of tomorrow put their bodies on the line in gasp-inducing matches, Vince’s motivation becomes a little more clear. Sami Callihan, who wrestled three times during this one show as part of Evolve’s championship tournament, is reportedly on the brink of signing up for the big time and heading down to Florida’s developmental unit. Dean Ambrose, currently enjoying main event matches against the likes of the Undertaker and John Cena, was one of Evolve’s biggest draws in his previous incarnation as Jon Moxley, and Daniel Bryan, Antonio Cesaro and TNA’s Austin Aries and Zema Ion are all Evolve alumni.
Only time will tell if newly crowned Evolve Champion A.R. Fox and arguably their biggest name (and Dragon Gate USA champ) Johnny Gargano will follow in their predecessors’ footsteps, but if the show they put on that sunny Friday afternoon is anything to go by, they’re on the right path. More visually spectacular and fun than the super-serious goings on at Ring Of Honor, Evolve and Dragon Gate USA’s working relationship is cultivating plenty of engaging storytelling which can only work in the favour of all involved. Their performers are professional risk-takers, not afraid to take a serious bump in the cause of eliciting a “holy shit” chant from the hundreds of fans in attendance.
You could almost feel the sting of the chops as they echoed off the convention centre walls.
Their set-up is professional enough to broadcast a decent quality live stream, but ‘indie’ enough that you can hear every stiff move, witness welts bruise purple before your eyes and have the pleasure of shaking your favourite wrestler’s sweaty hand after the show. I was back in Secaucus again before the weekend was out, this time for Sunday’s Dragon Gate USA pay-per-view which saw the hilarious and multi-talented stable of the Kentucky Gentleman demonstrate to WWE how the crazed patriot gimmick should be done, and to witness indie darling Johnny Gargano’s shocking heel turn. With the addition of several of Dragon Gate’s Japanese stars, the wrestling on display was second to none, and so real you could almost feel the sting of the chops as they echoed off the convention centre walls, but once again, the real appeal was in the commitment to good old fashioned pro-wrestling storytelling.
As awe-inspiring as my experiences at WrestleCon were, it wasn’t indie wrestling that got me onto a none-too-cheap seven hour flight to New York. WrestleMania Saturday was my first chance to immerse myself in the WWE circus, after being titillated by the promotional posters on lampposts and billboards around New York City since the day I arrived.
Due to their insistence on calling this year’s Wrestlemania New York/New Jersey, the inconvenient trip from the WWE package hotel in the centre of Manhattan over to Axxess in New Jersey required a 6am start. But arriving at the Meadowlands Complex as the early morning sun glinted off the MetLife stadium was enough to get anyone in the mood for meeting wrestlers, and when the Izod Centre doors opened there were a couple of hundred wrestling fans dedicated (or stupid) enough to pour in.
Axxess is one of those events which could go drastically wrong in less organised hands, but if there’s one thing the WWE team is good at, it’s making sure things happen in the right place at the right time. There’s a hell of a lot to see and do at Axxess, from Fruity Pebbles foam wrestling rings for the kiddies, to the randomly placed items of WrestleMania memorabilia for the veteran fan. But what Axxess does best is what it says on the tin, it provides the kind of access to WWE Superstars that you’re never going to find anywhere else… short of being the kind of creeper who hangs around airport arrivals.
Over three Axxess sessions, my friend and I squeezed in hand-shaking and photo-posing opportunities with an impressive amount of Superstars, including a supremely orange and fully in-character Damien Sandow, an adorably sweet Antonio Cesaro, and a chatty and charming Cody Rhodes. Brief encounters with the likes of Tamina and the Prime Time Players also occurred, and we managed to make an ex-pat feel a bit more at home with our accents at Wade Barrett’s signing session.
With the queuing system for all sessions allowing you to wait it out in the main arena seats, we also got the chance to watch some of the WWE’s brightest young hopes in action in the NXT ring – something which is pretty much impossible to do anywhere else, unless you happen to be a student at Full Sail University. Creepy heels Bray Wyatt and Corey Graves fought it out alongside popular Royal Rumble contestant Bo Dallas and the ridiculously entertaining Xavier Woods, and we Brits were represented by Diva hopeful Paige and Geordie tag champ Adrian Neville. We even got the opportunity to see the artist formerly known as El Generico compete under his new WWE name Sami Zayn, although it was news to me to learn from an obviously knowledgeable lady sitting in front of me that he is, despite his newly-revealed ginger facade, “from Mexico”.
In addition to the many attractions for general ticket holders at Axxess, WWE hosts a number of pricey VIP sessions over WrestleMania weekend, offering fans the chance to meet the most elusive main eventers. Tickets for all the VIP sessions sold out in minutes, but by some bizarre combination of beginner’s luck and sheer fangirl determination, my friend and I secured two tickets to meet Randy Orton.
A $95 VIP ticket gets you slightly early entry into your chosen Axxess session, a signed photo and professional picture with your chosen Superstar and, for the first time this year, a tour around a cleverly staged Raw backstage area and a photo at the top of the famous Raw ramp. I’ve met lots of wrestlers over the years, and plenty of celebrities in my line of work, but I have to admit to being more than a little queasy with nerves over meeting my favourite. Would I manage not to be sick on him? Would I manage to say anything at all? Would he fall in love with me at first sight and instantly propose? There were just so many variables that led to me being an unattractively sweaty-palmed mess upon being ushered in front of the man himself.
The same question has been asked again and again of my experience meeting Mr Orton: “Is he that orange in real life?” The answer is no. Randy is definitely more of a brown, which I would attribute to his preference for sunbeds rather than the Sandow method of self-tanning, and unfortunately for me and every other girl in that queue, he really is that attractive up close. What he is also, is charming and quite lovely. He makes eye contact, he asks you questions, he engages like the professional the WWE has bred him to become, and yet at the same time I don’t feel as if I actually met him. It’s a bizarre environment in which to meet someone you admire so much, to be another hand to shake in a long line of people, when what you really want to do is sit down over a bottle of Jack Daniels and pick his brain for anecdotes.
That surreal experience was immediately followed by another as we embarked on the Raw backstage tour and witnessed a less-than-coherent X-Pac being helped out from behind a curtain by his missus. Following his infamous anal injury a few weeks prior, the DX legend (and one of my Attitude-era favourites) was clearly in a lot of pain, but he insisted, possibly without being asked, upon posing for photos with everyone present. I was left with the impression that he’s a genuine good guy who deserves much better luck in the health department.
Following Axxess was a rushed trip back to the city for a quick beautifying session in preparation for WWE’s annual back-slap-athon – the Hall of Fame ceremony. Having planned our outfits several months in advance, it was a relief as we walked through the hallowed doors of Madison Square Garden to see that the majority of wrestling fans present had foregone their accepted uniform of Tap Out t-shirts and baggy wrestling tees and made some attempt at red carpet glamour. One beautiful statuesque blonde, whom we overheard had travelled from Sweden, was given the intended compliment of looking “exactly like Kelly Kelly”. She looked perturbed.
Hall of Fame itself was, I’m afraid to say, a tedious affair. The WWE editing team are much-celebrated for their ability to put together stunning promotional packages, but I feel they deserve some kind of special Golden Globe for managing to put together a watchable tv show out of the endless mutual lovefest inflicted on the uncomfortably-attired audience.
WrestleMania Sunday is always one of my favourite days of the year, but waking up knowing I was going to be sat in that stadium in the late afternoon sun, rather than sat in my best friend’s front room at midnight, was a feeling to cherish.
If myself and Randy Orton were to be joined by inductees Mick Foley and Booker T over that aforementioned bottle of Jack Daniels, I imagine I could listen to their stories of glories past well into the small hours. But as it happens, I was sat in an unfeasibly tight dress in a cold arena without so much as a wee dram to lubricate the evening thanks to my purse being too small to keep ID in, so Foley’s 45-minute-long acceptance speech soon became an indecipherable tangle of anecdotes, with the beginnings and ends indeterminable from one other. There was the fun element of seeing WWE Superstars outside of their usual setting, dressed in good and bad suits and dresses and struggling with their various children/other halves, but with the big event itself a very brief night’s sleep away, I’m ashamed to say sleep won out and I never got to see the true ninth wonder of the world: Donald Trump’s gravity defying hair.
WrestleMania Sunday is always one of my favourite days of the year, but waking up knowing I was going to be sat in that stadium in the late afternoon sun, rather than sat in my best friend’s front room at midnight was a feeling to cherish. After yet another Axxess session and a brief trip over to Secaucus for the aforementioned Dragon Gate USA show, my friend and I were stood amongst a melee of equally excited wrestling fans, waiting for the MetLife Stadium gates to open. We had time to catch a glimpse of the American phenomenon of ‘tailgating’ (turning up to events early and getting a BBQ going), and witness just how poorly American men handle their beer, before we were squeezing through the gates in our thousands.
I’ve been to more than my fair share of big-time stadium events, but stepping out from the concourse into the stadium staging WrestleMania was a sight to behold. As we discovered our better-than-expected seats, I tried to take in the finer details of the well-rendered New York set, complete with a replica Statue of Liberty and multitudes of sky scrapers. It wasn’t until the light started to dim that I even noticed the spectacularly-lit mini Brooklyn Bridge on the main stage, such was the scale of the immense stadium.
Watching wrestling from inside such a large venue was a very strange experience, made stranger by the fact that a few hours previously I had been sat ringside at DGUSA, narrowly avoiding being hit with wrestler spittle. Our seats were relatively close to the action and despite being able to see well, the stadium completely swallowed up all but the most impactful of bumps, meaning we were effectively watching WrestleMania on mute. The show itself was everything I hoped it would be. WrestleMania is never the best pay-per-view from a storyline or results perspective, but is rather a sports entertainment showcase fit for viewing by the most casual of pro-wrestling fans, and it certainly delivered on spectacle.
Chris Jericho’s flashy light show whipped the crowd up into a midshow frenzy; and The Undertaker’s entrance, while low key by his overblown standards, hit just the right note of otherworldly menace. Even the inevitable P Diddy performance was just long enough to pay tribute to the great city of New York without outstaying its welcome. The main event proper was a chance for me to fulfil a long-held ambition: I finally saw The Rock wrestle live, and it didn’t disappoint as he and John Cena managed to put together a tense final 10 minutes despite the foregone conclusion. As the final fireworks faded into the New Jersey sky, I took a moment to take in the dying atmosphere and appreciate the fact that I’d actually made it here for my very own WrestleMania moment.
Perhaps it would have been better if the experience had ended there, but there was still the trifling matter of the post-Wrestlemania Raw to get to; a Raw which has become known as the night the fans took over. It had started so well, with not one but two title changes and the extremely rare cashing in of a Money in the Bank briefcase. I’m no Dolph Ziggler fan, but the way that crowd came undone as he sprinted to the ring with his curvaceous valet… and AJ, brought goosebumps to my flesh.
However, shortly afterwards the crowd descended into the kind of beer-fuelled idiocy I’ve never witnessed in 25 years of attending football matches. The WWE have expertly spun the crowd chaos as exuberantly ‘international’, but sitting amid several hundred boozy men demonstrating a mass epidemic of testosterone poisoning with a “we want puppies” chant was not the way I envisaged my trip of a lifetime ending. Still, it was New Jersey.
As I queued to board my flight home, mentally praying to the gods of wrestling that the Fandango theme would one day leave my brain, I realised enough will never be enough. Not now I’ve been to WrestleMania, immersed in the centre of the world I dedicate most of my energy and limited funds towards. But the great news is WrestleMania happens every year. And next year it’s the 30th anniversary… anyone want to give me a flight to New Orleans?