Wrestlemania Headlock

Wrestlemania Headlock - Wrestlemania XX Is Coming —
What’s Behind the 20-Year Love Affair?, by Bryan Robinson
(Credit: ABC News)

March 9— Admit it. If you're reading this story right now, you're a wrestling fan, and you're looking forward to Wrestlemania XX this Sunday.

Or at the very least, you're someone who is feeling nostalgic, remembers watching Hulk Hogan as a child, and is wondering, "Wow, there have been 20 Wrestlemanias?"

If you're a fan — diehard or occasional — don't be ashamed. There's no need to stay in the closet. From Japan to London to Australia to all 50 states, there are millions of us. It's not a "guilty pleasure"; it's simply a pleasure — with a legacy that goes back to the 19th century.

But when World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly known as the World Wrestling Federation) presents Wrestlemania XX on March 14 before a sold-out crowd at New York's Madison Square Garden, the event will have a special poignancy for one of its wrestlers. WWE Intercontinental Champion Randy Orton was only 4 years old when his father, Cowboy Bob Orton Jr., participated in the first Wrestlemania in 1985. (He was the cornerman for "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff in the main event tag-team match against Hogan and Mr. T.)

Next month, Orton, 23, will make his Wrestlemania debut, and he says his match not only represents the high point in his young career, but is also a tribute to his father and grandfather, Bob Orton Sr., also a retired wrestler.

"For me to get this opportunity, and for it to mean so much, considering my lineage in the business — my dad was in the first, second and third Manias — it feels great and that's an understatement," Orton said.

"I guess you can say it's a dream come true."

From ‘Rock ’n’ Wrestling Connection’ to 2004

The first Wrestlemania was not the first wrestling supercard, but it took the industry to new heights. WWE Chairman Vince McMahon may not have envisioned what Wrestlemania would become — or that it would still be big in 2004 — when he conceived it and presented it to the masses on March 31, 1985.

At the time, his flagship star was Hulk Hogan. McMahon used Hogan's showmanship, feuds with "heels" (villains) such as Piper and Bob Orton, and celebrities such as Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper to bring pro wrestling to the MTV generation and into mainstream pop culture.

The day after the first Wrestlemania aired on closed-circuit TV, images of Mr. T hoisting Piper in an airplane spin were in newspapers nationwide. Two years later, Wrestlemania cemented its place as WWE's — and the wrestling industry's — greatest extravaganza when it attracted more than 93,000 fans to Detroit's Pontiac Silverdome, setting a world indoor attendance record for a sports or entertainment event.

IIt surprised me [that Wrestlemania has lasted as long as it has]," said Gerald W. Morton, a language and literature professor at Auburn University and author of Wrestling to Rasslin': Ancient Sport to American Spectacle.

"At the time, when Vince McMahon took such a bold step of promoting wrestling as entertainment and put aside any pretext of big sport, I would have thought that maybe he would get four or five years, tops, with that strategy. I never would have thought it would have lasted this long and become this big."

A Smorgasbord of Escapism

How is that Wrestlemania has remained so popular? Its endurance lies in part in pro wrestling's long-running appeal.

Pro wrestling has an old-fashioned gladiator mystique: Some wrestlers are like superheroes and supervillains brought to life, gathered in arenas before thousands of screaming onlookers to settle a grudge.

Maybe wrestling's magnetism is its escapist appeal. Maybe some of us believe we're living vicariously through the wrestlers, who do things we couldn't normally do, like punch out our bosses or hit our adversaries with a steel chair — even though we know the matches are part of scripted storylines. WWE — and the wrestling industry in general — began openly acknowledging that their product was "sports entertainment," not mere sport, years ago.

"This is the best stage for suspending our belief that we can experience in a drama," said Morton. "There's no more pretext that this is organized sport where the outcome is not scripted and yet the audience — which sensed this anyway — chooses to continues to participate and participate with enthusiasm."

Pro wrestling isn't for everyone. Some WWE storylines and scantily clad WWE divas have drawn criticism over the years from groups such as the Parents Television Council. But fans — and performers — see wrestling as a smorgasbord of live-action drama, comedy and sex appeal with the athleticism of a bona-fide sporting event.

"I consider what we do the ultimate form of entertainment," said Triple H, the world champion of WWE's cable program, Raw. "If you're a fan, it gives you a little bit of everything. You got the music, the pyro, the hot chicks, the athletics, the storylines — all these things rolled into one."

Thanks to the Fans

Triple H will enter his ninth Wrestlemania when he defends his title in one of the main events. However, he is as thrilled as he was during his first appearance in 1996. His wrestling character heads a heel faction that fans love to hate, Evolution (of which Randy Orton is a member). Still, the real-life Paul Levesque — a wrestling fan since his teens — is looking forward to hearing the roar of the crowd and feeding off the electric atmosphere that will likely grip Madison Square Garden that night.

"The guy who trained me, Killer Kowalski, told me to always, no matter what, to take the time to look around at the crowd in the arena," said Triple H. "Most people think that during my entrance that I'm not doing anything, that I'm just standing there. But I'm really looking around.

"I don't care what business you're in, Madison Square Garden is pretty much the mecca," he added. "It's the most famous arena in the world. … For those of us who perform, that's our back yard, that's our home. That's our biggest stage."

And Randy Orton is looking forward to being part of that stage — one his father helped build. He believes the secret to Wrestlemania's longevity is, quite simply, its fans — especially the longtime ones.

"Wrestling's always going to be popular, whether business is booming or whether we're hanging on by the skin of our teeth," Orton said. "There will always be people out there who are interested in what we do."

And the Madison Square Garden spectacular "overshadows everything else as the biggest event," he said. "These fans — these diehard fans — will be coming from around the world to be live at this event at Madison Square, not just at their TV sets. There's always going to be hardcore wrestling fans."


Official websites

ABC News

WWE Wrestlemania

WWE Wrestlemania History

World Wrestling Entertainment

Madison Square Garden

MSG Network

Other websites

Madison Square Garden - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Wrestler websites

Killer Kowalski

Bruno Sammartino

"Rowdy" Roddy Piper

Hulk Hogan (Media Man Australia profile)


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