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Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Wrestlemania Week, Day Two: My Wrestlemania experience

As part of my quest to give you a blog each day before Wrestlemania 27, I thought that today I would give you my story of the only Wrestlemania that I have seen in far.

If you have stumbled across this blog by accident, a quick catch up on who I am. I am currently the lead wrestling writer for top UK newspaper The Sun's website. I have been writing for the site for around five years, and started under the stewardship of Simon Rothstein, the Wrestling editor, who now works in PR for TNA.

Simon got to visit many Wrestlemanias, and was expected to go to the 25th incarnation of the Sports Entertainment phenomenon in 2009. However, he was invited to TNA Lockdown, which is typically scheduled near Mania, and could not justify a second trip to the States in a short space of time. I had been with Simon to TNA Bound for Glory the previous October, and was delighted when he said that I could attend Mania in his place.

Wrestlemania took place that year in Houston, Texas. I was delighted to learn when my travel details arrived that Joel Ross was also attended. For the uninitiated, Joel is one half of TV and radio duo JK and Joel. These days he is my co-host on The Sun's Wrestlecast, but this was long before I took Simon's place on that show. I had met Joel and his lovely girlfriend, Kat, on several occasions, so it was nice to know they would be attending, too.

Sadly, though, Joel inadvertently played a part in lessening my experience to a certain extent, though no blame ought to go to him or Simon, whose Wrestlecast with Ken Kennedy weeks before Mania hurt my trip from a work perspective.

Mr Kennedy - or Mr Anderson as he is now - joined the boys in the Wrestlecast studio and said one or two controversial things, as he is prone to doing. I like Ken; he's an interesting guy to chat to, and I've enjoyed meeting and interviewing him on several occasions, but he did say one or two things in that interview which were questionable, including some things about the Wellness Policy. Now if WWE don't like him saying that, then that's their issue to take up with Ken. As it was, they requested that The Sun edit out some of the more controversial statements. Simon - quite rightly, in my view - refused, and WWE prompted decided that we were to have our rights to interviews such as this taken away.

Of course, I stood by Simon's editorial decision. Not out of loyalty, but because I felt it was correct. However, this did me no favours. I was now travelling to Houston and staying in a very nice hotel on WWE's buck, but they were not allowing me any interviews while I was there. I don't really understand to this day why they did not pull the plug on my visit entirely. It would have saved them a few quid. Anyway, I'm not complaining.

I met Joel and Kat at Heathrow on the Thursday and we headed to Texas. I was delighted that my seat with my requested extra legroom was nice and roomy - but my TV didn't work. Thanks British Airways. They told me I could claim compensation. I never did get any money for that.

We arrived in Houston to blistering sunshine (I've spent just under three weeks in America, and I've yet to see it rain) and found Houston to be...........well, rubbish frankly. It's a bit of an urban, nondescript functional entity, really. However, I found my hotel to be very nice (The Hilton, if you must ask.) and noted it was directly opposite the arena for Raw and adjacent to the convention center where Ring of Honor and a Booker T wrestling convention were situated. After a pleasant evening where I was taken to dinner by our PR, along with a couple of guys from Sky Sports, Thursday was over. Mania weekend started in earnest on the Friday.

I met up with my good friends Richard and Matt Parr, who had traveled over as fans for the show. (Matt is a brilliant magician - - and would occasionally, during the weekend, entertain us all with close up tricks) Together we went into the Booker T convention, taking in some of the stands inside and watching as some great names from wrestling's past signed autographs and interacted with fans and each other. The atmosphere was great, and it was clear that Mania fever was in the air.

It was here that I met James Caldwell for the first time. James is the assistant editor of the Pro Wrestling Torch site (, a good writer, a great wrestling mind and most importantly a really nice guy. Now this meeting happened to be two media guys, but it does encapsulate the great thing about Wrestlemania in that you know that literally thousands of people are in close proximity being wrestling fans. There is a actually a liberating feeling about being able to express yourself as a true fan, sometimes. I'm sure many of you find in life that you aren't able to truly talk passionately about wrestling lest someone looks down on you or, perhaps worse, laughs at you. Here, it was total freedom. James and I spent a great while talking about all facets of wrestling, and have kept in regular touch since. I've been fortunate enough to participate in the PWTorch Livecast, an excellent radio call-in show, twice as a guest host. It's a great site.

Convention over with, Rich, Matt and I wandered upstairs to where Ring Of Honor was being held that night. Sadly I never got to see either of the ROH shows held that weekend due to scheduling conflicts, but the guys that did go gave the shows rave reviews. Perhaps my only regret of that weekend is that I didn't go to ROH instead of Axxess (we'll come to that).

We met Bryan Danielson as he was arriving at the building, and had a brief chat. He was very friendly, although didn't remember meeting me a few months previous. I mean, we were drinking together in a cricket club in Wolverhampton for goodness sakes. Who forgets nights in glamourous surroundings like that?? I also had a chat with D-Lo Brown, who I'd met previously when he was working with British fed VPW and was booked with ROH that week. D-Lo is a class act, and I've encountered him many times since in his capacity with TNA. A real gent.

Friday night saw a media dinner at the very swanky House of Blues establishment. As we were leaving our hotel in a convoy, a familiar face appeared at the front of our group. Think "Here comes the money" and you may have an idea of who I mean. It was of course Shane O Mac, and he showed, depending on your perspective, a sense of making young fans happy or a sense of seeing an opportunity in front of media folks as he dashed ahead of our group and chatted to a family or two emblazoned in WWE merchandise. I never got the chance to chat with Shane personally, but he seemed another class act throughout the evening.

On arrival in our exclusive bar, Joel and I asked advice on what WWE International head honcho Andrew Whittaker (nice guy, ridiculous slicked back haircut) was drinking. He called the beer "Dos Equis" (which I think means two horses) as the best beer, so Joel and I set about drinking the bar dry of it. (This was before I was Gluten Free, of course)

Now I can't remember what the topic of conversation was, but I know at some point I was talking to Joel and I mimed a headbutt. At exactly that moment, the beautiful Natalya (and she really is beautiful - TV doesn't do her justice) and Tyson Kidd approached us. They introduced themselves as Nattie and TJ, and we spoke with them informally for ten minutes or so. Nattie said she could tell I was British because of the headbutt. Flamin' cheek!

TJ was a little quiet, even shy, but Nattie was very sweet indeed. Could be a great interview someday. Carlito was also in attendance, but we never got to chat to him. Shane and other did short speeches thanking the international media, and then we ate. Well, we drank and there was some food around. I recall trying to eat prawns and forgetting to shell them. It was a good night.

On Saturday I did some of the less glamourous stuff which occurs on Mania weekend. In the morning I was at the finals of the Wrestlemania reading challenge, at which Layla, MVP, Mark Henry and Matt Hardy did their bit, and Linda McMahon was in attendance. I won't lie to you - the morning spent in the Houston Library for this event wasn't the most exciting I've ever had, but it was still cool to see kids (and parents actually) starstruck by some of their heroes, and learning at the same time. WWE get a lot of flak for certain things (sometimes by me, and sometimes quite rightly) but they do a lot of things which are for the betterment of their fans and society which they do no need to do.

In the afternoon, as a unit (which by then included then XFM DJ and now TV star in his own right Alex Zane) we went to Axxess. It was fine for what it was, but I'm not sure it was worth paying a great deal for. I've obviously got a nerve, because I didn't pay a penny, and maybe it's because I've always been a different type of fan, but I didn't find the selection of stalls (and the staggering hike in price of the food and beverages) all that interesting. There was quite a cool interview someone (Lillian I think) did with Randy Orton in a set up ring (they had some Velocity level matches in it) where he broke character a little, but on reflection I may have bunked off this and gone to ROH.

On Saturday evening we took our seats in the Toyota Center for the Hall of Fame. One of the first things that struck me was that the dress standards in the building was a little less than I would have liked. That might sound a bit stuffy, but TV's Joel Ross (I like calling him that), Kat and I had all popped on a whistle and flute or an appropriate dress (you can decide who wore what) for the occasion (Joel did buy the Stone Cold HOF shirt, though) and I liked the idea that it could feel like a formal occasion.

That aside, it was a nice night, seeing some major legends of wrestling (and Koko B Ware) inducted into the Hall, although the huge countdown clock did take some of the sheen off things, where you could see that certain talent were being forced to keep it briefer than they would have liked. That said, Michael Hayes, who was inducting The Von Erichs, did not seem all that concerned about time constraints!

The nicest thing about The Hall of Fame was that it made the whole Wrestlemania experience feel like a festival, or at least a multi-day event. It actually feels like part of Mania, and I love the tone of it, which is to acknowledge those that have (cliche time) paved the way for what Mania has become..........and Koko B Ware.

We left, on a snazzy luxurious coach (well, when I say "luxurious coach", I mean "luxurious mini-bus". And when I say "luxurious mini-bus", I of course mean "Mini-bus") for the Reliant Stadium at about 3pm on Sunday afternoon. While I don't wish to sound like a whiner - I have to keep reminding myself this was a freebie to Wrestlemania - we did spend about an hour just standing outside the stadium, and then a further hour or so sitting around inside a suite at the top of the building. It did lend itself to a funny story, though.

A room that we were hoarded into to begin with was rather nondescript, but soon someone discovered a door which led to a small box, which in turn looked onto the arena. In turns, many of us wandered into this box to look into the arena. A great many of the talents involved in Wrestlemania were preparing for their big night. It was an interesting insight.

However, fairly soon a WWE official caught some people (not me, I was well out of it) inside the room and demanded not only that they get out, but they show any pictures taken and delete them. Needless to say this was a tedious and unnecessary process. Talk about control freaks.

The media throng gradually increased as time wore on, and I'd say there were maybe a hundred journos assembled when we were introduced to first Nicole Scherzinger (she was singing America The Beautiful - and while she may be from the former, she isn't as close to the latter as you may think. She was 50% cardboard and 50% bitch. Ok, that's a bit harsh, but she was very dull and not at all attractive) and then the combo of Mickey Rourke, Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat. Ok, that was pretty cool. I never got to ask any questions, though.

My seat for the event was a perfectly decent one, in the first balcony as I recall. Now I've been to many football matches with huge crowds, but this was an impressive sight. 72,000 people in a roofed stadium was phenomenal.

I don't need to recall the event for you. Needless to say it was a pleasure to be present to see Shawn Michaels v Undertaker. From the elaborate entrances to the match itself, it was compelling from bell to bell. When Taker flew over the top rope and landed on his head, I thought the match was over. More than once I bought a false finish. It was truly the best spectacle I've ever seen at a wrestling event.

I mentioned this in yesterday's entry, but there is just something about Wrestlemania that brings out the best in wresting crowds, and I found myself watching the crowd almost as often as the ring. A very special occasion.

On Monday, after breakfast/lunch at House of Blues, Joel and I decided that it was only right to explore the cultural history and architectural delights that Houston had to offer. About four minutes later we were in a pub which, I'm not kidding, must have had 400 taps on the wall. The beer menu was four pages of A4, in small writing. It was amazing - check it out.

After sampling plenty of the beers on offer - it would have been rude not to, wouldn't it?  - explaining Joel several times that the pink beer in the slim glass I bought him was a mistake (he drank it though) and beating him hollow on a golf arcade game, we stumbled in the direction of the hotel, which was the meeting point for Raw. A couple of swift bottles of Corona with some WWE suits later and we headed for the arena. After some dark matches, Lillian launched into a splendid rendition of the US National Anthem - so splendid that Joel and I joined in. Loudly. I thought we were bloody marvelous, offering harmony and dignity to the anthem. Apparently, others thought differently, as a WWE suit (Australian) told us to be quiet and show some respect. Even Kat told us to shut up.

Looking back now, I wonder if perhaps we were a little drunk. :-)

Raw was fun though. Batista's shock return was the headline of the night, but my enduring memory will be not only seeing Rick Steamboat and chanting for him (see yesterday for grammatical accuracy) but watching CM Punk and Jeff Hardy on the apron openly grinning and basically marking out for Ricky. A fantastic moment.

On Tuesday, we flew home, but not until late in the day. It gave us time to check out the massive mall on the edge of the city, and I gave an interview to The Fight Network's John Pollock from the windy car park, while Ross tried to put me off. Prick.

It was a tremendous experience, and I would very much hope to get the opportunity to be invited again someday soon. I will certainly envy those in Atlanta this weekend.

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