WrestleMania: A Spectacle of Savage Beauty

Pro wrestling aficionados struggle to explain its appeal to neophytes and, almost inevitably, do so in terms of more familiar forms of human expression.

“It’s sports with a script” or “It’s athletic theater” or the hoary “It’s soap opera for dudes,” which completely ignores that, yes, women like wrestling, too.

While concise, these descriptions miss the point in the same way as describing architecture as “like cooking, except the ingredients are steel” or sculpture as “painting except with rocks.”

Sometimes wrestling is like a symphony or like theater or like a TV show. But it is not merely manifestations of other forms of art. It is its own art.

It is a spectacle of exaggeration. Consider its biggest event, WrestleMania, which took over SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, April 1 and 2 for its 39th edition.

Everything was bigger: an entrance ramp 200 feet long stretched to the ring from a set evoking an old-time movie palace that was too big to be real and deftly straddling the line between eye-catching and garish. And no movie palace built in the Golden Age of Cinema could have been constructed from ribbon board that allowed the stage itself to deliver visuals.

WWE always pulls out the stops for its biggest show and there is no shortage of famous fans they are more than happy to involve. Snoop Dogg served as a co-host for the weekend. Bad Bunny joined the Spanish announce team for commentary. Al Michaels was there. So was George Kittle, the San Francisco 49er gamely soaking up the boos from an LA crowd. Becky G and Jimmie Allen performed “America the Beautiful.” Lil Uzi Vert rapped a verse.

WM39 Overall Comp PR Final
(Courtesy WWE)

The money was bigger too. The WWE reported a gate of $21.6 million on two-day attendance of 161,892. SoFi Stadium said ‘Mania had the largest floor seating capacity of any event since the building opened.

The performers, too, are larger than life. Gunther, Sheamus and Drew McIntyre all look as if they stepped out of the fever dreams of a comic book artist and the trio delivered a triple threat match for the Intercontinental title that was brutally beautiful, full of chops and punches and slams and tosses.

“It’s not real,” the too-smart cynic says. The softball size welts purpling up on Sheamus’ chest mid-match disagree.

The storylines that build to these matches, which themselves tell stories, are huge and over-the-top but simple in their essence.

They are stories about jealousy and fame and pride and so many that reached their dramatic climax during ‘Mania weekend were about the most basic human story of all: family.

From a purist wrestling standpoint, the best match of the weekend was, perhaps, the battle between Rhea Ripley and Charlotte Flair. Flair is of course the daughter of Ric, widely considered the greatest wrestler of all-time. Charlotte is a 13-time women’s champ. Dad is a 16-time world champion. The never stated but nonetheless understood arc is that Charlotte is the keeper of her family legacy (she began wrestling following the overdose death of her brother Reid). Rhea is the leader of a devious faction who inveigled Dominik Mysterio to turn on his father, the legendary Rey Mysterio. Dom and Rey had a match at ‘Mania weekend, too.

Blood coursed red through each night’s main event as well. Saturday, twin brothers The Usos lost their tag titles to the team of Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, real-life best friends whose story of betrayals and reunion has stretched over two decades and through numerous emotions. The latest chapter saw Zayn trying to join the Usos and their (real life) cousins and Owens trying to convince him that he would never truly be part of that family. The Usos turned on Zayn and Owens came to save his bacon and show that the love born of the challenges of real friendship makes a deep and abiding bond. Also, there was some good ass-whipping thrown in.

Sunday’s main event involved the aforementioned Uso cousin, Undisputed Universal champion Roman Reigns, against Cody Rhodes. Rhodes is the son of the late Dusty Rhodes, a giant in wrestling who nevertheless never won the WWE’s biggest title. He also trained Reigns when he was on his way up the ladder, so part of the story is who is entitled to carry Dusty’s legacy. The two’s barnburner included subtle references to that. Cody tried to end the match with his father’s bionic elbow move. Reigns reversed Cody’s figure-four leglock (made famous by Ric Flair) the same way Dusty used to do. And on and on.

Wrestling is at its best when it tells these universal tales well enough that newbies can walk right in with a basic understanding while still engaging long-time fans with payoffs that allude to the art’s long history.

Plenty of venue vets who previously had no experience with pro wrestling were sucked in by WWE’s preposterous production and then were locked in to the matches, cheering and booing all along with the crowd. The emotion of wrestling is like a contagion.

Because that’s the other part of wrestling that makes it sui generis in live performance. The audience is a critical component. Even in an age where virtually everyone understands the matches are scripted and it’s immaterial if the two fighters legitimately hate one another (though of course sometimes they do), by agreement, the audience behaves according to a strict code: cheer the babyfaces, boo the heels. React appropriately. You’re part of the show. Don’t go into business for yourself.

One family, of course, loomed largest, as it has for the last four decades: the McMahons. It was particularly acute as pater familias Vince returned to the company after being forced out in a swirl of scandal and intrigue. The purported purpose of his comeback to the company being not to take it over, but to sell it. Indeed, the morning after ‘Mania, it was announced the WWE will merge with UFC owners Endeavor Media to form a new publicly traded company. And Vince will again lead its wrestling arm.

The only appearance by a member of wrestling’s first family was by son Shane, who has imperiled himself for WWE fans for years. Think about that: the son of a founder and major shareholder of a billion-dollar publicly traded company endangers himself annually for the company’s consumers. Why don’t all major corporations do this?

In any case, age finally caught up to the 53-year-old. His knee (legitimately) crackled during his match with The Miz. But, because wrestling is both perfect and absurd and embraces “the show must go on,” it wasn’t a total loss, as Snoop Dogg improvised, dropping an elbow on The Miz to give the crowd what they wanted as Shane was helped to the back.

Think about that sentence in its essence for a moment:

The son of the company’s founder hurt himself, so a hip-hop legend extemporaneously elbowed a guy who is, by many measures, the reality show cast member with the most successful long-term career.

And there are those out there who wonder why people watch wrestling. A better question is why everyone else isn’t watching it.