Trying to understand the mania

I spent my Sunday in a truly surreal world.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected to encounter when I made the trip from Manhattan to MetLife Stadium for WrestleMania XXIX, my first live professional wrestling event. And as I prepare to follow a crowd of 80,676 fans out to the Jersey Turnpike, I’m still having a tough time processing everything I witnessed — from the parking lot to the concourse to my seat, tucked away in the most lawless, boisterous press box I’ve ever had the pleasure of being in.

But this much I know: The WrestleMania experience was as rowdy as advertised. It was crazy, it was riveting, it was weird and it was downright fun. It was at times funny, spooky, random, predictable, touching and nauseating. This one-of-a-kind event made me want to spring up from my seat as often as it made me roll my eyes. It made me truly appreciate the athleticism that these performers exhibit throughout their violent dances in the ring, scripted as they may be, and it helped me understand why this sport — this show — has the insatiable following that it does.

And, though a wrestling fan I’m not — despite everything I saw — I’m glad I had the chance to take it all in.

The adventure started early in the afternoon, when I arrived at MetLife more than four hours before the pre-WrestleMania match between The Miz — you may recall him from The Real World: Back to New York — and Intercontinental Champion Wade Barrett. I pulled into the parking lot the same way I have for countless Jets and Giants games, but it was clear from the get-go that this wasn’t a football crowd.

Sure, there were barbecue grills and blaring music to add a sense of familiarity, and as per usual, there were thousands of fans making certain they were properly inebriated before the price of beer jumped to $10 each inside. But unlike the football crowds I’ve encountered so many times, these people took their fanhood over this juvenile activity to a new level — this is coming at a stadium where a man has become famous for showing up to games in a fireman’s hat.

As I circled the parking lot searching for a spot that was far enough from the building to get the full experience on the way in — but close enough to be able to get the hell inside quickly if things got weird — I was stopped by more grown men in plastic championship belts than I could count, and what felt like a million luchador masks, smothering sweaty faces in the mild spring weather.

I saw a boyfriend and girlfriend making out, dressed like Mankind and the Ultimate Warrior — you can guess who was who. I saw more than a few Undertakers, urns by their side, and more than one woman dressed as Hulk Hogan. And then there were the Ric Flair “Woos” coming from every direction, the mating call of the WWE fanbase.

After I’d had my fill outside, I scampered in, where there was a pre-event news conference with some of the WWE superstars. It was definitely one of the strangest pressers I’ve ever been a part of, because I couldn’t help but feel like this, rather than a place for real reporters to gather information, was just an extension of the show to come. John Cena, Sheamus, CM Punk, Brodus Clay and Dolph Ziggler all made their way through, in succession, and I never could tell if they were supposed to be in character, as they all fluctuated between genuine answers and bravado.

All I knew was that I wasn’t going to ask a question, for fear I’d inadvertently out myself as utterly unfamiliar with my surroundings. Others more daring than I didn’t hesitate to fire away, though — with serious questions, analytical questions, questions about approaches and game-planning and preparation, as though someone hadn’t informed them that this was all fake.

That unique journalistic experience carried over into the press box, which was unlike any media workroom I’ve ever been a part of. The box, which is usually a quiet, sacred place, where cheering is prohibited and noise in general is poo-pooed, was anything but. It was an amalgam of legitimate reporters, fans posing as bloggers, and wrestler friends and family. There were beer and snacks — the snacks I’d seen before, the beer, not so much — and there was enough hooting and hollering to make up for the fact that the press box was sealed off from the outside world.

These reporters were going absolutely bananas seemingly every time a sweaty man hit the canvas mat, making me thankful I wasn’t on a hard newspaper deadline. And I found myself frustrated that I wasn’t sharing in their enthusiasm, which was likely my fault for not being well-versed enough with regard to the athletes and their storylines. But whatever the case, for most of the first couple hours, the event just wasn’t a whole lot of fun.

Something called The Shield won a 3-on-3 tag team match that made lots of people upset. There was another tag team fight with the creatively named Team Hell No — featuring a childhood favorite of mine, Kane — against Dolph Ziggler and Big E. Langston. I struggled to hold my eyes open through a match between Mark Henry and Ryback, two massive men who were apparently beefing over some kind of weight room snafu.

WWE legend Chris Jericho lost in spectacular fashion to a flamboyant, dancing machine named Fandango. And there was true American Jack Swagger and his unabashedly racist anti-immigration manager Zeb Colter, who retreated to the locker room with their tails between their legs after losing to Mexican star Alberto Del Rio and his manager, Ricardo Rodriguez, who had a broken ankle stemming from a previous run-in with Mr. Swagger.

Somewhere in all that, we found time for a Diddy performance, which felt out of place at best, as well as an appearance by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a shout-out to Snooki and a recap of the previous night’s Hall of Fame festivities. But none of it did a whole lot to get me going, even with the madhouse around me urging me on. Then the Undertaker came out, and everything changed.

I already knew this was a big match, what with Undertaker, one of the few stars I recognized from my childhood, bringing a 20-0 Wrestlemania record into the event, perhaps his last as a pro. And I knew Punk — who shared before the event that he had been listening to the Gremlins 2 soundtrack on the way in — had only egged him on with his belligerence since the death of Paul Bearer in recent weeks. I had heard of the awesome, ominous creepiness that defines the Undertaker’s persona, and when he came out to the ring, he lived up to the hype.

It started with lightning bolts, then moved to flames, shooting up from the Brooklyn Bridge replica of a stage so hot you could feel it through the press box glass. Amid smoke, the ‘Taker emerged, with some neat light-play making it appear as he was crawling out of a sea of dead bodies. His slow stroll to the stage was perfect, sinister and as dark as the reputation he carried with him — and he had me hooked, right then and there.

The match that followed was just as good, with Undertaker running his record to 21-0, overcoming a smash to the face with Bearer’s urn, and winning with his second tombstone piledriver of the match. It was so good, in fact, and his walk back to the dressing room so eerie, that the rest of the show — an uninspiring no-holds-barred brute-fest between Triple H and Brock Lesnar, and an unoriginal, gag-worthy farewell bout between The Rock and Cena — paled in comparison. Triple H won to avoid a forced retirement and Cena came away victorious, but allowed The Rock to go out in style, but none of it really mattered. I’d already seen everything I needed to see.

And so, too, had most of the fans, who were just as enthusiastic on the way out to the car — and in the parking lot, where they partook in more postgame tailgating than I’ve ever seen at an NFL game — talking smack and shouting unprintable words at each other as they fought over the night’s pre-determined results while a logjam of cars honked and crammed their way to the exit.

All told, these fans made this WrestleMania the highest-grossing event in WWE history, and also the highest-grossing entertainment event in MetLife Stadium, bringing in $12.3 million. (The previous high for MetLife Stadium was a 2011 U2 concert, which grossed $8.9 million.) And I’m sure they’ll break that record again this weekend next year, when the WWE takes over the Superdome.

As for me, I don’t know that I’ll be back for more when WrestleMania XXX comes around, but I was sure glad I got to see it for myself at least once. They’ve set the bar high for next year’s Super Bowl in this very same building, and if that game is half the experience this was, the NFL will have done a heck of a job.

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