“Damn, how long do you think this line is?”
My friends and I patiently waited at one of the many Levi’s Stadium merchandise hubs as beads of sweat dripped down my back. The glob that was the waiting queue combined with the sun’s relentless rays reminded me of Disneyland ride lines. I turned for just a moment and gazed among the crowd of middle-aged men, children and other creatures surrounding me, each sporting a shirt or costumes to support their favorite wrestler. Every few minutes, we’d all shuffle forward, an inch closer to spending a few twenty dollar bills to add to our collection of WWE memorabilia.
Suddenly, a murmur from few rows over. A murmur that quickly grew into a cheer, and finally culminated into a full on screams and howls.
Someone was proposing in the merchandise line.
As the lucky fan popped the questions, the throngs of fans began one of the many chants that has become iconic in the WWE universe: “Yes! Yes! Yes!” We all began to yell without hesitation, as our arms thrusted into the air and our fingers pointed towards the heavens. The woman hesitated for just a moment, only to hold back her tears, and finally complied to the masses. She accepted the ring and the crowd saluted the new couple with raucous applause.
“Dude, did that guy really pop the question?” my stunned friend asked while laughing. I chuckled for a second before responding.
“Well, I guess if you’re going to propose at a wrestling event, it might as be at WrestleMania.”
“The grandest stage of them all.”
I was twelve years old the first time I ever heard that phrase. That afternoon, I had taken a small portion of my birthday money, walked to mall across the street and purchased a VHS copy of WrestleMania XV for $26.99. For the next three years … all right fine, for the next six years … I’d wake up on Saturday mornings, pour myself a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, pop that tape into my VCR and watch those matches over and over again, until I could recite Jim Ross, Michael Cole and Jerry “The King” Lawler’s commentary verbatim. It’s an odd weekly ritual I had as a child, but it’s a memory to which I imagine many wrestling fans can relate.
WrestleMania is the Super Bowl of the WWE, but it’s not nearly as accepted as “cool” in real life. It’s a spectacle, a performance, a show on the grandest stage imaginable for wrestlers. Outsiders prefer to describe the event as “fake,” while I like to think of it as improvisation by world class athletes to the highest degree. It doesn’t matter though, not for the haters.“You know it’s not real right right?” It’s a argument that every wrestling fans hear, and one that really only has one proper response, according to legendary WWE manager Paul Heyman.
As my friends and I entered the gate of Levi’s stadium, we knew we had found our sanctuary. “Let’s go Cena / Cena Sucks!” rang among the sea of fans as we waded the masses towards our seats. My friends and I even gave it our own shot, starting a Hacksaw Jim Duggan chant to pleasantly surprising success.
It’s almost unfair to call wrestling a subculture just because it’s not accepted as a major sport. Ask any professional wrestler: the fan base is arguably the most dedicated, passionate, and critical group of individuals. They’ll blog, chant, and rant just so the world can know how they feel about the WWE at any given time. Yet regardless of how they might feel about the product at any given time, they’ll go to the ends of the earth defend their fandom. So as we finally found our seats, we realized that we wouldn’t have to answer any more questions about why we still watched wrestling as grown adults. There was no need to explain ourselves, not for the next six hours. We were just five of the 70,000 representatives of the WWE universe ready to watch the final episode of this year’s wrestling season. We were with our people.
“You still got it!” (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap)
It happened after “The Vigilante” Sting landed a drop kick on Triple H. It seemed like an oddly appropriate cheer for the 56-year-old. Though the mystique he built in WCW has remained a legend in wrestling, Sting had never actually wrestled in the WWE. It was something many had waited their entire lives to see. Sting was finally in a match, in the WWE. This was surely a moment to be remembered.
It was a #WrestlemaniaMoment.
You see, while fans of the WWE have become accustomed to explain their love of wrestling to outsiders, it’s become an increasingly tough internal struggle to justify their love. Storylines have been muddled, wrestlers we love often get very little shine, and there are numerous gender and social issues the WWE often fails to address.
But that’s just the start of it. The minute we walked into the arena, it felt like one huge commercial for the WWE. Around every corner, there was a merchandise store with John Cena hats and ‘WrestleMania 31: I was there” shirts. Even the logo on the Titantron this year had a play button, as if fans needed one last reminder to purchase the WWE Network (for just $9.99 a month!).
I was right: WWE isn’t a subculture at all. It’s an ever-expanding brand that has engulfed millions (and millions!) of wrestling fans. Everything is planned, executed and branded to the point where it can be suffocating at times. Whether it’s the numerous trending hashtags on Twitter, the celebrity appearances, or the merchandise forced down your throat, it makes one question whether you are a fan, or you’ve been programmed to be a fan.
History, or perhaps folklore at this point, reveals that the WrestleMania was not meant to succeed. Vincent K. McMahon emptied his own pockets and them some to fund what he hoped to be a WWF showcase. But he didn’t just limit the talent to wrestlers. He pulled big name celebrities into the ring, names like Muhammad Ali, Mr. T and Cindy Lauper. He had a vision, one that was more than just a major wrestling event. He wanted people to attend something they’d never seen before, and to walk out completely entertained and satisfied.
I can’t stress enough that WrestleMania isn’t just the biggest wrestling show of the year. It’s more than that. It’s the biggest show of the year, period. The writers, producers and show creators weave a perfect amount of nostalgia, high-level wrestling and surprises to appears fans and have them walking away gabbing like school girls about how great the event was. Video packages, entrance music, and fan reactions make the event worth the hundreds of dollars we spend on tickets alone.
If you’re willing to look past the often dated storylines, the often inexplicable decisions by management, and the globalization of WWE as the iconic brand in sports entertainment, you can be reminded of the magic of wrestling. For me, that happened when former wrestler movie star The Rock made his triumphant return to talk during WrestleMania 31 to talk some smack to Triple H and Stephenanie McMahon. An tween sobbing into her Justin Beiber poster would have looked tame compared to me when the music hit and “The most electrifying man in sports entertainment” walked out. But my child-like reaction was genuine, one that had been molded over years and years of my own fandom.
WWE remains popular because of its social media influence and marketability. But WWE became popular because it’s always tried to push the envelope to produce a great show at the exact right time. WrestleMania had it all, in my mind. Whether it was the never-before seen curb-stomp reversal finish to the Randy Orton match, the random “Yes!” chants, the unexpected marriage proposals, The Rock inviting MMA’s biggest star Ronda Rousey into the ring, or Rollins unpredictably walking away the winner of the main event, there were an array of magical moments for every single type of fan in attendance that left everyone trying to scrape their jaws off the steps of Levi’s Stadium.
At some point you give into that inner child, the one that lives inside of you because of everything you recollect from your first days as a wrestling fan. Those everlasting periods of time that you escaped into the squared circle when the doubters came chanting, telling you how your fandom was pointless. Sure the moments I’ll remember from Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium may have been planned, but the memories of my WrestleMania 31 experience were not forced. Instead, it was simply Vince McMahon and the entire WWE team flexing their creative muscles and reminding everyone that can put on one hell of a show. That they can leave you wanting more after a spectacle of that proportion.
That they’ve still got it.