Lang’s World: How the Whitakers body-slammed WrestleMania 34 into a family event 4.12.18
“Can we watch RAW?” my wife asked me Monday night, just minutes after we’d put our son to bed.
She quickly followed her question with a statement: “I never thought I would say those words.”
I never thought she would say those words, either, and it was all I could do not to break into a Daniel Bryan, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” celebration. My wife and I have known each other going on two decades now, and she had always regarded my own interest in wrestling with her own, at best, disinterest. But as The Rock might have said, finally, my wife had come to wrestling.
To be honest, I understood her reluctance, because wrestling can be an acquired taste. I’ve been all-in since I was a kid. I stayed up late on Saturday nights so I could watch “Saturday Night’s Main Event” on NBC; I spent weeks successfully convincing my parents to allow me to order Wrestlemania 3 on Pay Per View. I bought wrestling magazines, came home each afternoon and watched AWA matches on ESPN. I even did my seventh-grade challenge class research project (complete with a tri-folding foam core board visual presentation) on the various cabals and factions within the WWF and WCW.
Perhaps it was understandable that my love for wrestling would wax and wane over the years, particularly as my life accumulated certain responsibilities that required massive amounts of time, such as, you know, having a job and a child. But for me, there still remains a great pleasure in watching a man get angry and toss another man into a steel ring post, even if I know it’s scripted and the post probably isn’t even steel and it was all fake.
My son got interested in wrestling thanks to the Memphis Grizzlies, where the rich wrestling history of Memphis is regularly reflected in the game night presentation. A few months back, when Jerry “The King” Lawler was attacked at halftime of a Memphis Hustle game and had his Grizz Championship Wrestling belt stolen by a dastardly villain, my son was furious. He fell asleep in the car on the way home, and when he woke the next morning his first words were, “I can’t believe that bad man stole Jerry Lawler’s belt.”
After we got him off to school, my wife asked me if we had some sort of obligation to explain to our boy that it was all a show. Precisely the opposite, I explained. This is the time in his life when he’s supposed to believe that it’s all real, that the bad guys are mean and the good guys are friendly and at the end of the day, the good guys will somehow surmount the odds and figure out a way to win. I let him start watching bits of “RAW” and “Smackdown,” and he immediately fell in love with The New Day, or as he refers to them, “The Pancake Guys
What I’ve realized during my most recent wrestling resurgence is that, as my friend Jason recently put it, wrestling “meets you where you are.” If you allow it to, wrestling works on multiple levels, all at the same time. My son doesn’t know that wrestling isn’t real, but that is irrelevant -- he can sit down and watch a match and be enthralled. I know that wrestling isn’t real, but I can tune in and marvel at the athleticism and the storylines and the presentation.
So when Jason recently mentioned that he had a lead on some tickets for WrestleMania 34 down in New Orleans, I told him my family was in. I knew The New Day would be taking part, so my son would be interested. And my wife went to Tulane and loves the Big Easy, so I knew she’d be up for it. As for me, I’ve been to a Super Bowl, a World Series, a Final Four and to more NBA Finals games than I can remember. One of the last events remaining on my sports bucket list was a Wrestlemania. It was time to check that box.
We rolled into N’awlins last Saturday afternoon. New Orleans is a magical place, a town that seems like it was designed by Disney Imagineers and then, left to its own devices, turned sentient. Walking the streets of New Orleans, which is currently celebrating its 300th anniversary, you feel a history unlike almost anywhere else in the United States. There are buildings in New Orleans older than entire American cities. New Orleans feels grimy and worn-in and special in all of the best ways.
As my wife and son and I waited patiently in line for hot beignets at Cafe du Monde on Sunday morning, the group of people in front of us turned and asked if we were in town for Wrestlemania. (That my son was holding a plastic heavyweight championship belt probably gave us away.) They were also on a family vacation in town for the event, as were dozens of other families we met along the way. The word “Wrestlemania” may invoke thoughts of he-men and hormones for some, but on the whole, the Wrestlemania crowds we met all over New Orleans seemed much more diverse and inclusive than I anticipated them being.
And for a family activity, Wrestlemania makes a lot of sense, particularly financially. We bought three tickets to the event and had two nights in a nice hotel room for less than the face value of my one upper-level ticket at Super Bowl LI.
Finally, the time came. As our Uber inched toward the drop-off spot outside the Superdome, we saw hordes of people in costume making their way toward the gates. Some folks carried championship belt replicas that probably cost more than my nicest headphones. Two men in front of me in the security line were dressed like members of The Shield, although it was unclear which two. My personal favorite costume was the dude I saw wearing a red graduation cap and gown, in what I assumed was a tribute to the great “The Genius” phase of Lanny Poffo.
Perhaps the grandest thing about Wrestlemania is just the sheer scale of everything. The set that the wrestlers entered through was about the width of a football field, with a runway to the ring that was probably 40 yards long.
From our spot in the club level, the ring looked like a toy, so we mainly studied the high definition TVs hanging overhead.
Some parts of the spectacle translated even from a mile away. The entrance of Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, who rode in on motorcycles and illuminated by green lasers, was stunning. And as far as the wrestling, there were many memorable moments. Charlotte Flair and Asuka turned in what was probably the best overall match of the night. The moment AJ Styles beat Shinsuke Nakamura, our entire section started rooting for a heel turn from Nakamura; when he went below the belt we all erupted. And the funniest moment of the night was probably when Braun Strowman chose a 10-year-old named Nicholas from the crowd to be his tag-team partner, and then they actually won the Raw Tag Team belts.
Everyone was thrilled when The Undertaker finally answered John Cena’s requests to come forth. The dome went dark, lightning flashed, and when the lights briefly went up, Taker’s hat and coat were in the middle of the ring. Moments later, they had disappeared. It was simple and obvious, but my son was so amazed by this bit of trickery that he wasn’t even scared by Undertaker’s incredible entrance
, which for a lifelong wrestling fan like myself was worth the cost of the entire weekend.
As the bell tolled and Taker ambled down the runway through thick swirls of fog, my wife whispered, “So what’s his story?”
“Well,” I explained, “I think he’s actually dead? I know his brother burned down the family funeral home a few decades ago, and killed their parents. They call him the Dead Man. He also used to have a manager who carried around an urn filled with ashes who was named Paul Bearer.”
It was as Nakamura entered the ring to his signature theme song that I realized how cheering for wrestlers is more like rooting for musical artists than athletes. Wrestlers go through phases and identities, each distinct and carefully crafted, almost like artists position each album release. We cheer them as they step onto the stage, then sit patiently as they bang out the songs nobody’s heard before, just waiting until they finish each performance with their greatest hits. And if we get some entertaining talk on the mic in between songs, it’s an added bonus.
By the time the final match between Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar came around, roughly seven hours after we had arrived, we were all exhausted. My son was snoring in my lap, and the crowd was way more into a beach ball methodically working its way around the lower bowl than they were into watching Lesnar throw a series of sloppy suplexes around the ring. The match wasn’t very engaging, and after Reigns’ head got slit open, the fight wrapped up quickly, and we all filed out into the dark, drizzly bayou night.
The following morning while driving back to Memphis, my wife peppered me with questions about the storylines she’d stumbled upon the night before. I chuckled as I explained half of the stuff, but expressed appropriate amazement when my son once again marveled at how The Undertaker’s hat and duster had somehow magically appeared in the ring.
I had successfully made my family a wrestling family. If you don’t want to watch, that’s fine. But my crew has found our connections on the levels where it works for each of us.
Wrestling may not be all things to all people. But if you give it a chance, it sure is close, brother.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Lang Whitaker are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.