You don't know about Wrestlemania. You might know it's coming to New Orleans in April (April 6, to be exact), and you might know it involves "professional wrestling," the intensely physical narrative art form in which athletic showmen settle personal grudges through combat, but nothing can prepare you for Wrestlemania's scale, its spectacle, or the power it holds over those of us who love pro wrestling.
The Super Bowl was big, but Wrestlemania is bigger: More pageantry, more pyro, more people flying in from all over the planet— a larger crowd, because a wrestling ring takes up less space than a football field, allowing arch-promoter Vince McMahon to pack the Superdome more tightly with paying customers.
The first stop on the road to Wrestlemania was Champions Square Friday evening, where fans could buy Wrestlemania tickets and meet some pro wrestlers at "the official Wrestlemania XXX On-Sale Party." Alas, the On-Sale Party was strictly PG; the three Xs denote it being the 30th Wrestlemania.
The crowd at Champions Square wasn't rowdy. Those getting tickets up at the Dome's ticket windows were excited, but the several hundred down in the Square were sanguine, shading into lethargic. We stood in long lines, in dusk and drizzle, waiting for a chance to get autographs from WWE wrestlers. The On-Sale Party's M.C. paced the Champions Square stage, trying to warm up the crowd.
"Anyone here like JOHN CENA?" he wanted to know. He named several other popular wrestlers. "How 'bout them SAINTS?" he asked eventually. "We got any Who Dats here tonight?" We did, but they weren't exuberant. People weren't paying attention to the M.C. The crowd only cared about two things: meeting the wrestlers they saw on TV each week and getting tickets to Wrestlemania.
Dom and Frank, twenty-somethings in hooded sweatshirts, had arrived two-and-a-half hours early to secure the best possible tickets. It had been years since either of them had watched pro wrestling, but they were amped for Wrestlemania. "This is the big one," Dom said. "Wrestlemania is what I dreamed of when I was a kid. And to have Wrestlemania here, in my hometown? I have to be there. I can't miss that."
"It's gonna be great," Frank said. "For me, it's like getting to go back and relive the sweetest part of my life. Wrestlemania feels like Christmas."
Not everyone in Champions Square was planning to attend Wrestlemania; many had come out just for the chance to meet the wrestlers. Similarly, Wrestlemania week will bring with it a plethora of other events. Friends of mine from out-of-state who can't afford 'Mania tickets will still be in New Orleans all Wrestlemania week long, attending the parties, panels, wrestling Hall of Fame inductions, wrestler meet-and-greets, and WWE-unaffiliated independent-league matches all over the metro area.
Outside the Dome's ticket booth, I'd talked to Daniel and Matt, Disney co-workers who'd driven ten hours from Orlando. Matt and I swapped tales of being kicked out of pro wrestling events, a near-inevitability for any dedicated pro wrestling fan: sometimes a bad-guy wrestler is so angering and infuriating you just can't restrain yourself. In Orlando, as elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, there are smaller, regional wrestling federations for those who will seek them out, but in the twenty-first century, the WWE (née WWF) defines what pro wrestling is. Having achieved monopoly, the billion-dollar publicly traded company behind Wrestlemania doesn't just set the terms for its industry, it almost single-handedly constitutes it.
As the sun set, Mayor Landrieu came onto the Champions Square stage and flubbed his way through a long anecdote in which he repeatedly (even after being corrected by the M.C.) fucked up the names of the internationally famous wrestling stars we all were waiting in the drizzle to meet. "We've had the Super Bowl," Landrieu said, "but you're not really the big-time 'til you get the Wrestlemania! Am I right?"
"Keep the lights on," someone shouted.
The M.C. took back the microphone. "Let's make some noiiiiiiise for MAYOR LANDRIEU!"
A lot of the crowd was parents with kids. Would you wait in the rain, hectored by an over-amplified goof, for a chance to meet your favorite actor? What if it wasn't only your favorite actor, but your favorite actor permanently in-character as your favorite of their roles? Imagine your kids had a chance to meet not just Daniel Radcliffe, but the one and only Harry Potter himself, to shake Harry's hand and tell him what his adventures meant to them. Are you out in the drizzle with me yet?
Pro wrestling is dramatic. It plays to the cheap seats, as populist theater has always done, and by most of the same means: scatology, double entendre, triumphing underdogs, humiliation of the high-and-mighty, sexy bodies, scary monsters and slapstick humor involving hyper-amorous "little people" — elements seen on all of the 5th century B.C.'s most popular frescoes and amphorae. Like those vases, however, and like all great drama, professional wrestling done right is also compellingly beautiful. It examines, satirizes and re-affirms the anxieties of its age, and once you're hooked, nothing else will scratch the itch.
Sir Saint, Gumbo the Hound and a few smiling, harlequin-attired stilt-walkers roved through the thinning crowd— and when I say crowd, I mean the five different lines waiting to meet wrestlers. It was dark, it was raining, and everyone not standing in a line had left. The lines weren't moving, because the wrestlers we were waiting to meet hadn't shown up yet.
Meeting the WWE wrestlers was the only activity at this Party that didn't cost a bunch of money. The T-shirts ("I'm Going to Wrestlemania!") started at thirty dollars, the beers at five. "The newspaper said free food and drink," grumbled one of the women behind me in line. For the hungry, there were food trucks. The On-Sale Party was quintessential WWE: a festival the whole point of which was everybody giving WWE money. Even the few non-WWE vendors, like the food trucks, had paid WWE to be there. As the rain intensified, a local band came onstage. They were called Band Camp and played rock music.
A few of the Pelicans Dance Team wandered by. I asked them dumb questions about Pierre— what his favorite foods were, whether he was bothered by the team's Chevron and Shell sponsorships— and the Dance Team very politely responded they couldn't give interviews unless cleared in advance by the office. Band Camp played a Def Leppard cover.
It was, on one hand, a depressing event. Hundreds of people waiting in lines in the rain in the dark is intrinsically kind of depressing. But we suffered as the faithful suffer, as pilgrims suffer, and our suffering redeemed us. We got to meet the wrestlers, who were gigantic and beautiful and gracious to us. It was worth the wait.
These contemporary pro wrestling superstars are the public faces of an international business concern: they are its mascots, its product and its spokespeople. Massive charisma is part of their job description. In person they seem intensely, unusually alive and present, as if they exist in an additional dimension that most of us can barely perceive.
They have a luminosity, the same quality that allows them to command live audiences of tens of thousands. You hate the bad ones, but the heroic wrestlers are who you want to be, or be parented by, or sleep with. They're the friends you want fighting for you when things aren't going your way. They are larger, stronger versions of our best selves, what a child dreams adulthood could be like: wild struggles, great power, big muscles, no limits.
There was no time to pose for a photo or ask the wrestlers questions; we were hustled through the line. I told Kaitlyn and Booker T how excited I was to see them at Wrestlemania, and shook their hands. They smiled warmly back, with eye contact. I knew they understood me, in the same deep and slightly schizophrenic way that my teenaged self knew Kurt Cobain was on my side.
It was dry under the tent where the wrestlers were, but I had to go back out into the rain-soaked and rapidly emptying On-Sale Party. It had been worth it. All the hype, the bullshit, the high prices, the rain, the corporate cheesiness, none of that was important. The pro wrestlers were what was important, and I'd met them, gotten to touch their hands and received their autographs. Wrestlemania, where they were going to put on the biggest show of the year, was important... and I was Going To Wrestlemania. In a soggy bag marked with the WWE logo, I had the $30 t-shirt to prove it.