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Friday, 27 April 2007

The Not-so-Hardcore Diary - a guide to the WWE in England

So what do you want to know about first? My drinking and shooting the shit with Celebs? The T-shirt that Mick Foley personalised? Working for the biggest paper in the country? Or maybe the first time I’ve met someone in person who was familiar with Ref365? Even if it did turn out that I was at the same Uni as him, even the same course as him, for 6 months.

Well, actually, you’ve probably come here because you are a wrestling fan, so I’ll try to stick to the action in the arena, and just occasionally embellish this with personal tales of enjoyment.

Today is Wednesday, 25 April 2007, and I am writing this on a train heading back to my native Devon, having spent two days in that there London place, Earls Court specifically, taking in WWE’s three flagship shows, RAW, SmackDown and ECW, being recorded.

On the train on the way up, and in breaks in my stay, I read Mick Foley’s latest offering, The Hardcore Diaries (little did I know that about 6 hours after I picked up the book I would meet the great man) so I think it’s probably best I offer a series of diary entries of sorts, I order to maintain some sense of linearity. So here we go.

Monday 23rd April (St Georges Day)

Despite following the world of Pro Wrestling, Sports Entertainment, or whatever term you lovingly refer to this little niche world as, for over 15 years, I’ve actually only attended one live show prior to this week, and that was a rather tepid house show in Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena (NIA) in November 1996.

I have been working with Simon Rothstein, Showbiz editor of the Sun Online, who moonlights as Simon Lilsboy on the Sun’s Wrestling page Over the Top Rope. Having had some past experience of writing Wrestling columns for various websites in the past, Si has allowed me to try out my skills within his pages, and has kindly organised press tickets for each night’s tapings.
So with the combination of the two paragraphs above, you might be able to understand how conflicting my emotions are. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all positive, but on one hand a fan, feeling about tens younger than my real age (I’m 23) feeling all excited about seeing the cream of Sports Entertainment (and Kevin Thorn) but on the other side of the equation I am a professional, plying my trade for Her Majesty’s Gutter Press (cf Mike Parry, Talksport) so need to keep my emotions in check.

The train from Newton Abbot station, about 15 miles from Exeter, is late. Quelle surprise. I’ve planned ahead and got here half an hour early, and now find that works in Cornwall have delayed me leaving this platform until at least 10.30am.

We finally get moving (although we will pick up another hours worth of delay on the way) and I settle into 23a (prescient considered today’s date’s significance) to be greeted by two very nice, but very middle class, ladies. Mother and Daughter, they are travelling from Truro to London to see the Sound of Music. They will later be joined by another daughter at Taunton. I curse letting the batteries in my iPod run out, because as pleasant as these ladies are, their incessant talk of break-ups, jobs, and…….woman’s issues (I refuse to talk about menstruation…….period). Effortlessly they segue from talking about ‘times of the month’ into what they watched on TV. I only just resist the urge to do a ‘period drama’ joke to two unknown women I met less than 20 minutes previously.

I’ve got stuck well into the new Foley book, and am struck at how different the tone is to Mick’s previous two non-fiction efforts. He has become more cynical; with Wrestling, with Vince McMahon, and with the world. Reading about the anatomy of this angle is something I am looking forward to, but thus far, Foley’s opinion of the angle is greatly different to my recollections.

The third lady for whom the Hills are shortly to become Alive joins us, and resembles Judith Chalmers and David Dickinson at their most vivid hues. Once again a well-spoken middle-class lady, she causes consternation in her familial coven group as she produces Heat magazine as an accompaniment to the collection already on the table which includes a Marks and Spencers catalogue and Prima.

The matriarch of the trio expresses her scorn for said magazine. Her contempt lasts about 4 minutes, as she then begins to express her dislike for Charlotte Church’s suitor (or otherwise) Gavin Henson and Britney Spears, then explains how she would like to read Kerry Katona’s new book.

And they call wrestling fake?

We roll up to Paddington station, after the Von Trappy family fawn for about 20 minutes over a small dog (I’m crap on breeds, but it may have been a Yorkshire Terrier.) before the dog’s owner explains that he hates having to bring his dog from Plymouth to London like this, but it’ll be the last time, because he is travelling here to dump his girlfriend.

I then consider whether he will do this with an RKO sparking a vicious heel turn. My God my mind is corrupted.

I’m now in my hotel room, 516 in the Hotel Ibis (I thought it was 316 for a second which would have been amazing) overlooking both Earls Court arenas, literally 5 minutes walk from the building in which John Cena will Wrestlemania rematch against Shawn Michaels tonight, and just another short sojourn round the corner to Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge where Jose Mourinho’s side will take on Liverpool on Wednesday. Jose is supposedly attending RAW with his kids tonight, maybe I’ll get a few words with the Special One. Maybe I’ll butter him up with ‘Man U don’t give away penalties’ rhetoric.

After a travesty of joke of a Sirloin Steak (“if that is medium, then so is Viscera’s shirt size,” I comment to no-one) I get to Earl’s Court to see at least a hundred people already queuing, and the doors don’t even open until 6pm. Seeing grown men in John Cena shirts, hats, camouflage trousers and replica belts is a sight I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing.

Helpful security men refuse me entry, displaying scepticism of my journalistic credentials, presumably because the official WWE invite to pre-show drinks that I have looks a little home-made (or maybe he’s read 365 and thinks I’m not very good). By 5pm a suited gentleman with an official WWE badge arrives, and I, along with various other invited guests, am granted entry. By this time my Sun colleague Simon has joined me, and immediately starts firing off stories from Wrestlemania in Detroit and a few rumours about some WWE personnel that I absolutely cannot repeat. When (if) it becomes public, knowledge, I will immediately edit this entry to suggest I broke the story!

I’ve opted to celebrate St George’s Day in the correct spirit…… drinking several bottles of German beer. (It is called Becks, though, so a homage to a past England captain). My disappointment with the (mis)steak is subsiding with every little delicacy the waitresses bring us, including…….well I don’t know names, but Lamb and Chicken, on sticks with dips and stuff……….I may cancel that interview with Good Food magazine.

Simon and I have been joined by journos from Front, Sky Sports and then Radio 1, as DJs Joel (as in “JK and”) and Ferg and a producer join us (embarrassingly, I’ve forgotten the producers name. Sorry mate. But he was a top bloke).

In all honesty, Joel initially strikes me as a flash so-and-so, with his WWE jacket embroidered with various WWE finishing moves. I’ve pegged him as a Johnny-come-lately wrestling fan, blagging trips to shows on Radio 1’s name, and a slap in the face to real wrestling fans who would kill for a ticket.

However, he then drops a Flair/Steamboat reference, and goes on to mention various superstars and matches I had enjoyed, forgotten or never even heard of. This bloke is a fan, a real fan, and I feel like a fool for doubting him. He’s also a cracking bloke. I even make him laugh with a suggestion that Richard O’Brien is returning for a wacky new gameshow “The Crystal Meth”. He’s a jolly nice chap into the bargain, as is Ferg, and between us we speculate who will be occupying the table which we have all been ordered to keep vacated by WWE officials.

“It’ll be someone like Scotty 2 Hotty.” Says Joel. “They won’t give us anyone of any note……..”

Simon and I take our places in the crowd, directly to the left of the hard camera, and in line with the top of the RAW ramp. Seated in the row behind us is former QPR and Spurs manager Gerry Francis, and during the evening reports reach us that Bruce Jones (Les Battersby from Corrie) Doug Williams (British wrestler) and John Salako (terrific footballer, crap pundit) are in attendance. No Jose yet though.

You want to know to know what? Who came to the table. Oh no-one really, just THE HARDYS AND MICK FOLEY. Simon, who interviewed John Cena today, notes surprise at the quality of guests but stays cool. Joel, Ferg, Rich from Sky and myself basically mark out, grab our souvenir Wrestlemania Revenge t-shirts and get in line.

In a moment which impresses me more than having a beer (well he had wine) with a radio one chart show host, Mick remembers Joel from an interview they did, and then knows Rich also. Cool stuff. He looks at me to see if he recognises me………and he face draws a bigger blank than Rolf Harris illustrating a Torquay United scoresheet.

I’m determined to have a Foley moment, though, and decide on a clever line (ok, obvious, and not at all subtle, but all I could think of) based on the T-shirt’s subject matter.

“Hey Mick” Seriously, I said that, in the biggest attempt at a disguise of discomfort in my whole life. He begins to sign, and I refer to a pretty foxy diva who happens to be featured on the shirt “I guess anything with the beautiful Melina on, has got to be worth having, huh?” Mick stopped signing, looked up at me, and laughed. A genuine laugh, and here it comes….HOKEY THUMPS UP! I refrain from performing a one-man cheap pop, and watch as not only does Mick sign my shirt, but the Hardcore legend then tells me that this deserves a special embellishment, and draws a speech bubble from Melina’s mouth, with her saying the words “Wow, I sure do like Mick Foley.”

Mick then shows Matt Hardy, and shows him the unique marking (the shirt, not me fawning). Matt Hardy (what version are we up to now? V2? V8? Vista?) exclaims“Wow, that’s pretty special,” before putting his own Twist (of fate) on the garment.

So that I don’t get carried away, Jeff greets me with the same kind of apathy I get when I try to talk Wrestling with my Mum, and signs while he displays an eerily similar expression to a tramp I saw at Paddington a little earlier.

But two out of three ain’t bad, and this will be a treasured possession…………….until my Nan finds it and washes it, probably.

After some promo videos on the Tron, which is cleverly centralised within a structure resembling the Union Jack, then ring announcer Todd Grisham who explain some matches will be taped for Heat, we are greeted by a familiar “Woo” as the legendary Nature Boy himself is the first out to greet us. Ric Flair is over like grover in Earls Court, and he assumes the responsibility of telling us that the WWE superstars love England, thanks us for coming and tells us to enjoy the show.

Talk in our section centres mainly over Randy Orton’s misdemeanour in Milan last week, which has seen him sent home, even though he is still billed for this show. Simon has heard that Cena v HBK will be an Iron Man match, but when he asked Cena, the Champ denied this knowledge. We’ll see.

*I’ll stop doing the timed entries for a bit, because to be fair I didn’t keep tabs throughout.*
First up for heat we have Kenny Dykstra against that apathetic signing, hair braided son of a gun, Jeff Hardy, who despite my petty disappointment at not joining in my light-hearted banter which no doubt Matt Hardy and Mick Foley will talk about for years to come I love Jeff Hardy in the ring, and he takes the opening contest via a Swanton Bomb in short order, with all moves you would expect to see, including a Whisper in the Wind which is extremely impressive up close.

Diva time next, as Victoria emerges for a contest with the lovely Mickie James………………………………………………………………………………………………………………sorry, just needed a Mickie moment. I allow myself one a day. No not that.

And the first chant of the night? “We want puppies”. Ironically Crufts was at the NIA arena I believe this year. Why would adolescent males want to see small dogs though?

Alexis La-renamed wins with a jumping spinning DDT, after taking one hell of a bump. I say bump, Mickie took a Victoria punch and fell into the splits. Haven’t seen that one before.
Our first pyro of the evening signals the arrival of the winner of the 2006 John Major award for outstanding charisma, Chris Masters. His opponent will be Val Venis, They both win. And both lose.

In an extremely nonsensical finish, Masters wins with a Full Nelson slam out of the Masterlock, and is retreating to the back when Venis grabs the stick, and challenges Masters to get back in the ring. The Masterpiece does so, and the Big Valbowski beats him in like a minute. Why? What was the point?

I can time check this because it was important and I looked. Midway through the above match, we get word that Jose is indeed here, and may feature in an angle with Shane McMahon during the show.

Out come Cryme Time, because London so needs more petty criminals. Their opponents are Haas and Benjamin (I cannot call them The World’s Greatest Tag Team. I’ll compromise with WGTT) emerge to a surprisingly warm reception. Shelton is particurly over, eliciting a “Lets go Shelton” chant with morphs into “Lets go Cryme Time”.

Shelton looks the most impressive in this match by absolutely miles, making you wonder why the hell he is only doing a tag team match on Heat.

The big guy in Cryme Time (sorry, I don’t recall which is Shad and which is JTG) does a Hogan at one point and rips his shirt open in a manner resembling the days of Hulkamania. No one is fooled, as there is clearly no resemblance. Cryme Time are black, whereas Hogan is Orange.
Oh, Cryme Time win by the way.

This match really showed up the divide between younger fans, who cheered for the face team of Cryme Time, because WWE educates them to do so, and older fans, who were clearly behind the more talented duo of Haas and Benjamin. Thank goodness the clean cut collegiate athletes got their comeuppance at the hands of the delinquents. What a good message the WWE portrays these days.

Speaking of fan divide, if they are like this for a Heat match with WGTT and Cryme Time, what the hell will happen when Cena gets out here?

Todd Grisham tells the crowd to hold signs up because RAW is about to start. The music hits and the signs go up. This is as good a time as any to fill you in on the best ones I saw. Or at least the most memorable.

Monday Night RAW – favourite signs:
“I ‘heart’ Minge”
“Eat my arse”
“FU Cena Haters” – now does mean they are saying ‘FU’ because they are Cena haters, or they are saying ‘FU’ to the Cena haters. This is very confusing until I notice that the holder of the sign has the full Cena regalia which I mentioned earlier. He’s a Cena fan.
“Vince fears IWC”
“Umaga fears Jamal”
“No Chance in Hell of Hat Hair”
“Fruity, fruity, fruity, fruity Skittles”

So Grisham insists RAW is imminent, but first Eugene and Johnny Nitro emerge to wrestle another match with the Heat regalia still around. The bottles of beer get their first fall, and I have to take a loo break. Returning, I catch Nitro polish Eugene off.

And here comes one of the two greatest announcers of all the time (The other is Joey Styles.), it’s JR. Boomer Sooner, whatever the hell that means. The King comes out to a big ‘Jerry, Jerry’ chant which I assume is for Mr Lawler and not for Mr Francis.

The show opens with Shane McMahon, dressed to compete. He goads the ringside Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, offering him the opportunity to join the Boy Wonder in the ring. Jose declines, grinning hugely at the rather hostile reception the crowd affords him.

Shane brings out British wrestler Robbie Brookside, and declares a No DQ stipulation. Within the first 10 minutes of RAW we are treated to a Shane Terminator, which is incredibly impressive in person.

Umaga and Vince get involved, and ‘Brookie’ is squashed worse than a spider Rikishi accidentally sat on.

A HBK/Cena video airs, and Cena is booed heavily by the older generation, whereas high-pitch cheering suggest the ladies and kids are behind the Champ.

As I look down to write in my notepad, the pyro goes off for Matt Hardy amusing those around me greatly as I jump out of my skin.

Matt takes on Trevor Murdoch in a follow up to Cade beating Jeff last week. Murdoch looks to botch a version of the Canadian Destroyer, as the ref throws up the crossed hands after the match (I don’t think this will be on TV, making it seem more legit) and Hardy looks hurt. He is helped to the back by several trainers.

Melina (who apparently sure does like Mick Foley) dismisses the gorgeous Maria is short order. Is that all the divas we are getting?

A very quick backstage Carlito/Flair segment is shown and so is a graphic advertising Edge v Orton. Hmmm, can’t see that happening, but how will they get round that? Maybe an extended Cena/HBK match to kid on they ran out of time for the Edge/Orton bout?

The Great Khali emerges, making Peter Crouch look like Danny de Vito. Man this guy is big!
Interesting chant as ‘Khali sucks’ merges into ‘Carlito’ chants. Khali annihilates Carlito, presumably as a punishment for Carlito slating Khali’s place on the Mania card.

A great call from Grisham which I’m sure won’t air, when he apologises for his voice because he had a sore throat – he attributes this to having ‘kissed a girl from Wales last night’. Superb.

HBK/Cena is next, and the usual mixed reaction occurs, but by the end of the bout, I defy any right-thinking person in the building to suggest the match was anything but a classic. A brilliantly paced, well thought out match, which included a brilliant blocked plancha spot.
I always measure the strength of match against how predictable it was. On this occasion, I genuinely had no idea who would win, and it was ultimately HBK after a few false finishes. The cheer when Michaels reached the ropes while in the STFU reminded me of when someone converts a penalty in football.

Michaels eventually won an absolute cracker after he kicked out of an FU, and Cena kicked out of an initial superkick. A second dose of Chin Music following, and that was all she wrote.

The night ended with a crowd going home very satisfied, and a six of 6 of us, self-confessed wrestling fans, fanatics and cynics every one of us, raving about the main event.

That’s more than enough for now, I’ll be back in the next couple of days to fill you in on how Tuesday panned out.

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