ON THE ROPES
My Bizarre Day at WrestleMania: Is the WWE in the Midst of an Identity Crisis?
It was a night that saw The Rock and Ronda Rousey flex, LL Cool J lip-lick, and Jerry Springer mug for the cameras. WrestleMania is a strange beast—but then so is the WWE.
“The Rock would never hit a woman—but I have a very good friend who would be happy to… I just have to tell you what that look means. That look means that if you keep running your mouth, she’s going to reach down your throat, pull your insides out, and play jump rope with your fallopian tubes.”
Thus declared one of the biggest stars on the planet, with a playfully macho pinch of socially acceptable menace, in one of the most legendary moments of the eyeball-searing and pretty much epic WrestleMania 31.
Never mind the fact that the Super Bowl of wrestling happened to coincide with the release of The Rock’s new movie, or that his scowling Furious 7 co-star Ronda Rousey was waiting ringside to thrill the audience in one of the best-timed surprises of the night.
In the span of five minutes, Rousey sent the WWE’s resident overlords packing and arm-barred her way into the hearts of wrestling fans everywhere, and not once did anyone have to utter the words “Fast” or “Furious.” The 76,976 fans in attendance and millions more watching at home smelled what The Rock and Ronda were cooking, all right: mainstream corporate synergy.
It was the glue that tied WrestleMania 31’s seamless production together and a canny strategy for the WWE, which this year pulled out the kitchen sink of pop culture for its biggest televised event. Current stars shared the bill with aging legends—Arnold Schwarzenegger and an army of Terminators, a military tank, endless pyrotechnics, and a motley crew of recording artists from LL Cool J to Aloe Blacc to Skylar Grey, Kid Ink, and Travis Barker. Even Jerry Springer got a shout-out when the company used one of its own commercial breaks to promote its new slate of reality TV-centric shows. What a strange, randomly assorted cast of characters.
On the ground for my first WrestleMania, I joined thousands of fans spilling into Levi’s Stadium, the shiny new Silicon Valley home of the San Francisco 49ers. Some wore Zubaz—zebra-striped pants invented by The Road Warriors, and the preferred duds of wrestling diehards—or cosplayed as their favorite rumblers, drunkenly aping ring moves in the parking lot as families sporting WWE gear streamed by. The universal language of WWE fanatics rang through the air in call-and-response chants of “Whooo!,” “Yes! Yes! Yes!,” or the catchphrase of whoever was on your shirt that just walked by.
But loyal fans will always be in hardcore wrestler-worship mode. Nowadays the publicly traded WWE, whose demographic reportedly skews one-third female and growing, is stretching its brand in every which way as Vince McMahon and Co. throw darts at the wall. They couldn’t avoid a repeat of last year’s post-WrestleMania stock slump, when shares fell steeply after the debut of the streaming WWE Network; this year shares dropped 14.6 percent the Monday after a record-breaking WrestleMania, with skeptics eyeing an inconsistent subscriber base for the year-old WWE Network.
The WWE is struggling to remain relevant amid an entertainment climate that’s more liable to tune in to YouTube highlights the following day versus shelling out top dollar to scope the bizarre spectacle in the flesh. So the pro wrestling company is busy exploring various avenues in order to not only stay current, but also expand its millennial fan base. Their “everything but the kitchen sink” marketing strategy, however, seems more than a little unfocused. Where else on Earth would Jerry Springer, Travis Barker, and The Rock rub shoulders with one another?
The Rock is, of course, the most famous star to ever emerge from the world of pro wrestling, and some of wrestling’s most mainstream-ready stars have tried tracing The Rock’s footsteps in search of crossover success—with and without the WWE. Twelve-time World Heavyweight Champion (and resident rapper) John Cena may be boring fans to tears with his heroic ring shtick, but the WWE Studios franchise-starter who’s starred in mostly-humorless WWE action flicks The Marine, 12 Rounds, and Legendary just earned notice at SXSW for flexing his comedic chops in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, playing an exaggerated, highly effeminate version of star Amy Schumer’s wrestler ex Dolph Ziggler.
Meanwhile, onetime MTV Real World bro-turned-WWE star The Miz is the chosen one who’s taken up Cena’s action mantle to star in the last two Marine sequels. In the ring he wears his “Hollywood douche” persona well. “It’s easy,” he told me with a demented smile after losing WrestleMania’s pre-show Battle Royal to The Big Show in a spectacularly theatrical fashion.
Cleaned up and clothed in sharp slacks, shirt, and vest, he’d popped into the WWE Studios luxury suite to take in the rest of WrestleMania with film president Michael Luisi, who’s cast him in three WWE movies. An hour earlier, ring legend Diamond Dallas Page had stopped by, marveling at The Miz’s Battle Royal histrionics. Also rubbing elbows with the film execs: The Miz’s Marine 4 co-star and WWE Diva Summer Rae and wrestler Dylan Postl, aka Hornswoggle, the diminutive star of the WWE horror sequel Leprechaun: Origins, who breezed in together.
Action and horror vehicles are a legacy staple of WWE films, but in recent years the studio, like the larger WWE brand, has branched out. “It’s a four-quadrant audience,” said former Miramax exec Michael Luisi, whose team also hits film festivals for acquisition titles to partner on, like WWE did with Relativity and the horror hit Oculus. Ahead of WrestleMania, the studio announced its latest co-production deal to finance and produce a slate of horror films with the likes of KISS frontman Gene Simmons. They also have what he says is a fruitful partnership with Warner Bros. on animated crossovers with the Scooby-Doo and Flintstones universes. “We are TV-PG when it comes to the core programming, but we absolutely believe that in the same way that our fans can watch their favorite superstars playing different characters in the movies, they also enjoy R-rated movies and genres that might be a little edgier.”
WWE long ago learned how to strike gold by partnering outside the wrestling niche in its television programming. The unexpected pairing of Snoop Dogg and Hulk Hogan, for example, yielded a memorable moment on a recent L.A. taping of Monday Night Raw—naturally, Snoop had an album to promote—while Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s lengthy beef with Seth Rollins led to the crotch kick seen ’round the world that considerably boosted the eventual WrestleMania 31 victor’s popularity.
In Sunday’s spectacle, larger-than-life personalities like The Undertaker dazzled as they made an art of the grand entrance with breathtaking intros that engaged the high camp and operatic drama of wrestling theatrics. Even UFC expat (and NFL reject) Brock Lesnar got even buzzier after brutalizing Jason Momoa doppelganger Roman Reigns and bleeding profusely in a Monday morning watercooler-dominating blading mystery, although his best inadvertent contribution to WWE history might still be the moment that led some meme-happy genius to make a catchy and infectious “Suplex City bitch” GIF.
If all of these ingredients—Jon Stewart, Snoop Dogg, a Leprechaun sequel—seem like a strange brew, that’s because it is. The WWE is at present trying anything and everything to see if it sticks, but is still in search of a more concrete game plan.
As for me, my WrestleMania cherry was only truly and thoroughly popped hours after Seth Rollins literally stole the show, when I witnessed a downtown San Jose pub become overrun with still-whooping WWE fans. It was karaoke night, by chance. A few locals had gotten their songs in before an enormous wave of wrestlebros filled the place. But all it took was one inspired, impassioned karaoke rendition of Hulk Hogan’s “Real American” before the bar exploded in chest-thumping, finger-pointing, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” chants—and a loud chorus of boos for anyone who dared to not sing WrestleMania karaoke.
One perturbed lass took the mic, earning a sympathetic gaze from the karaoke jockey. “You guys know you’re not still in the stadium, right?” she scolded, eliciting enthusiastic boos from the room. Maybe she didn’t realize they were still inside Levi’s Stadium in their hearts and would be all night, long after the bar closed.