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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Brands vs. brawn at the WrestleMania announcement press conference

Posted By on Tue, Jan 10, 2017 at 7:42 PM

click to enlarge Longest-reigning WWE Tag Team Champions The New Day kick off the press conference
  • Longest-reigning WWE Tag Team Champions The New Day kick off the press conference

WrestleMania is the biggest event in pro wrestling and one of the biggest entertainment events in the world. On April 8, 2018, WrestleMania will be back in New Orleans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The press conference formally announcing this, held in the Superdome's Iberville suite, was a joint presentation by the pro wrestling behemoth WWE and representatives of our city, our state and their various sporting and event organizations. Watching the gears interlock was fascinating. It was a node of interaction between two gigantic institutions— the "New Orleans brand" and the WWE brand, cuddled up like two different, specialized cells passing a molecule of money across their membranes.

If one can differentiate the steak from the sizzle, the sizzle was all team WWE. The press conference was awash in the cutting-edge high-end audio-visual production that WWE lavishes on everything it touches: multiple overlapping video screens, special effects, star power, and booming entrance music for each speaker.

The audience for this spectacle was a mix of press, PR, facility and event executives, politicos (Johns Alario and Bagneris, Billy Nungesser, J.P. Morrell) and #TeamNOLA players of the Barry Kern echelon.

Before the conference began, the stage area hosted a video loop of slickly produced WWE propaganda — WWE wrestlers hugging soldiers, WWE wrestlers hugging disabled kids, WWE wrestlers hugging disabled soldiers. Then the flipside: WWE wrestlers interacting with high-profile non-wrestling sports figures and actors. What was once a corporate obsession with mainstream legitimacy born of insecurity over "rassling's" low-brow stigma has become over the years merely a facet of WWE's relentless self-promotion, an endless and unselfconsciously frantic all-fronts effort at brand advancement which, in this age of social media, seems far less crass than it used to.

click to enlarge Mayor Mitch Landrieu
  • Mayor Mitch Landrieu
By the suite's entrance, four wrestlers — WWE Superstars, in the corporate parlance — were available for pre-conference chats and photo ops. The two men, Mark Henry and the Big Show, were mainstays of WWE ambassadorship; both are (even relative to other wrestlers) head-turningly gigantic. They're physically anomalous, literally embodying the WWE shock-and-awe approach to entertainment. Mark Henry, billed as the strongest man in the world, is a two-time Olympian who still holds multiple unbroken powerlifting records. The Big Show, also remarkably muscular, stands a legit seven feet.

They were accompanied by women's division staple Alicia Fox and the diminutive spitfire Alexa Bliss, the Smackdown Women's Champion and a recent addition to WWE's main roster. While all four were jocular and charming, Bliss struck me as someone who hadn't yet had all her edges sanded off, and that's not criticism. For a long time, many of the WWE's top female wrestlers, seen in street clothes, looked more like very beautiful bartenders than professional athletes. Notwithstanding her earnest glad-handing and glamorous smile, Bliss looked like trouble. Even standing still, she seethed with undomesticated vigor. She seemed someone likely to start fights — someone an experienced bartender would keep an eye on.

This is the tension between wrestlers-as-wrestlers and wrestlers-as-fan-friendly-celebrities. It's a tension WWE has synthesized into their overall presentation, one they continually navigate even as they try to convince attendees of events like these that everyone's in on the joke. It takes a genuinely tough and possibly crazy person to do what these wrestlers do. Though they've taken pains to distance themselves from pro wrestling's carny roots, WWE still travels relentlessly. Their employees, including many executives, are on indefinite year-round tour from one city and event to the next. Despite the outcomes of the matches being predetermined, the risks wrestlers take night after night and the injuries they sustain are quite real.

click to enlarge The logo for WrestleMania 2018
  • The logo for WrestleMania 2018
Watching the local press and politicos take fan pictures with the wrestlers, few would have struggled to discern which were the locals. To be fair, anyone would look dumpy compared with these luminous living action figures, but 2017 Billy Nungesser looks less like a person and more like the anthropomorphization of an obscure and gustatorily challenging regional food, the costumed mascot for some dish rural Cajuns might have resorted to a few generations back.

The press conference got underway. Each speaker was introduced by the event's capable host, WWE Vice President of Special Events John Saboor, who had the avuncular sales-pitch swagger and timelessly no-fashion suit common to successful Sports Executives. He was delighted that WrestleMania was returning to "the iconic Mercedes-Benz Superdome in beautiful New Orleans, Louisiana." The program alternated WWE talent with members of Brand NOLA, sharpening again the contrast between the charismatic video-game-perfect pro wrestlers and the mere humans representing our state and city's side of the deal.

Some readers may be tired of the adjective "folksy" as applied to our elected officials, but Governor John Bel Edwards in person has a strong folksy appeal. He comes across as someone who could capably gain and hold Louisiana office in any decade of the last century. Edwards opened by informing the assembled that today was National Oysters Rockefeller Day, news which in at least one attendee kindled painfully unrealistic expectations regarding the post-press-conference buffet.

In brief remarks, Mayor Mitch Landrieu called New Orleans both "the soul of the nation" and "the most soulful place in America," which served to call attention to the fact all of the local speakers were white men.

click to enlarge RAW Women's Champion Charlotte Flair
  • RAW Women's Champion Charlotte Flair
71-year-old Vince McMahon, WWE CEO (and husband of Linda McMahon, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to head the Small Business Administration), was present but remained behind the scenes. Currently on crutches as he recovers from a torn quadricep, this consummate showman left the limelight on this occasion to younger generations. His daughter Stephanie McMahon, WWE's Chief Brand Officer, used her speaking time to emphasize WWE stars visiting host-city hospitals and chipping in to local charity efforts. Still, there was overall less attempt than one might have expected to emphasize WrestleMania's positive economic impact, a talking point (however true it is or isn't) usually more prominent in these sorts of galas. In this press conference, the emphasis was on WrestleMania's prestige, on what a "championship city" New Orleans is.

The first half of the conference was weighted towards what a great job our team did pitching New Orleans as the site of another WrestleMania; the second half slid smoothly and reflexively into WWE Superstars praising the opportunities, magic, and majesty of their employer. In case you're someone who might mistake WWE for an enormous and ruthlessly aggressive money-making entity, we heard about the ways WWE makes dreams come true, puts smiles on faces and produces memories that last a lifetime — all of those verbatim, and all more than once.

click to enlarge Paul "Triple H" Levesque
  • Paul "Triple H" Levesque
Though much was made of 2018 being New Orleans' tricentennial year, WrestleMania has coyly stopped mentioning its age. Not unlike a friend of mine who's been celebrating her 29th birthday for multiple years, WrestleMania quit appending numbers to events after number 30, the WrestleMania held here in 2014. Superdome GM Alan Freeman, who seemed a tad daunted by the driving hard rock music marking his arrival onstage, struck a similar defensive note: "Anybody telling you the Superdome is too old, lacking this, lacking that — you can put that kind of talk out to pasture," he said. "You can disregard that."

There were a lot of big WWE names. RAW Women's Champion Charlotte Flair stood out; she's constructed like one of the aliens from Avatar, except more buff, and has immense innate star power, like a swirling personal pressure system; you expect papers set near her to flutter telekinetically. "Female superstars inspire and empower women," she said, or rather, declared.

Prettyboy wrestler Roman Reigns did everything that might be expected of him, but seemed robotically on-message. He had the strained, closely guarded quality of a chastened pro ballplayer trying to come back and move on from tabloid embarrassment. By contrast, veteran villain The Miz hammed it up, playing to the crowd in a style perfectly in keeping with his fame-hungry wrestling persona, while his real-life wife Maryse, another on-air performer, remained true to her personal brand by appearing bemused and slightly contemptuous. The Miz used the press conference as an opportunity to simultaneously advance the assigned narrative (how WWE has let him live his dream) and to perform as his provocative spotlight-chasing character. It was impressive. He and Maryse then traded gooey compliments — also a staple of their act— and Maryse, who is Quebecois, took the mic to praise New Orleans in susurrant French that sounded like water running over rocks.

The last scheduled speaker was Stephanie's husband and Vince's son-in-law, "Triple H" Paul Levesque. Levesque is WWE's Executive Vice-President of Talent, Live Events and Creative, which seems like a lot of titles until you consider that during his wrestling career he held the WWE World Heavyweight Championship 14 times. His entrance music is by Motörhead. "On your knees, dog!" Lemmy bellowed as Levesque smiled over the crowd. Triple H still looks like a bruiser, suit be damned, and exudes an air of dominant and distinctly masculine menace even when he's delivering corporate platitudes. His speech about how proud WWE is to partner with the inspiring city of New Orleans had the tone of a grizzled ex-con lecturing wayward youth in a "scared straight" program. There is still, thank God, something of the outlaw to him.
click to enlarge A surprise entrant
  • A surprise entrant

As emcee John Saboor was winding down, a gong struck and the whole suite's lights went out. The subset of the crowd that had chanted the wrestlers' catchphrases — mostly the TV station camera crews — exclaimed in excitement. Manufactured mist poured onto the stage, sending WWE's VP of Special Events into an overstated pantomime of disbelieving terror.

"What's that mean?" the elderly woman next to me demanded, with a note of genuine alarm. "What's happening? What's it mean?"

"It's the Undertaker," I told her — and there he came, in his long black coat and eyeliner and tombstone hat, the iconic last holdout of the old ways, a wrestler who, to preserve his mystique, generally eschews events such as these. It was at WrestleMania 30, here in 2014, that his legendary 21-match WrestleMania winning streak ended, appalling the record Superdome crowd and deeply traumatizing some WrestleMania attendees. If you're a fan, being so physically near The Undertaker is a very intense experience. Judging by the reactions of those around me, he makes a powerful impression even on non-fans.

"I guess there's nothing left to say," The Undertaker growled into the mic, "except ... Let the good times roll." He strode slowly offstage, the fog thinned, and the spell was broken. It was a superb conclusion — the boosterism, back-slapping and boilerplate giving way, at last, to the hokey but undeniable primitive magic that makes the art form of pro wrestling so compelling.

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