If you are a fan – if you used to be, or are even a non fan reading this and think you might be one in the future – of professional wrestling, sports entertainment, or whatever you want to call it, you must take in a “WrestleMania Weekend” experience at least once in your lifetime. I was a party of one on my journey through what the WWE had to offer the NYC/New Jersey market this past April and it was an amazing weekend. I spent a lot of time I had on a WiFi network following what the crew from the F4W/Wrestling Observer Board were up to and it seems like “The Empire” had a great time… but this isn’t about them, this is about me.
Let’s flashback to WrestleMania XX for a moment – “Where it All Begins Again”. The idea being that Madison Square Garden, home of the 1st and 10th big event, was now ringing in a new decade of Mania shows… but there’s a bit more to meet the eye there. WWE Axxess began in New York City in 1994, just prior to WrestleMania X. Back then it was simply the “WWF Fan Fest”, but its origins are rooted firmly there with the Dunk Doink tank. 10 years later, when it “began again”, the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony was brought back from it’s untelevised hotel conference room roots in the 90s – it was still in a small venue, but made it to DVD and since then the HOF has been a cornerstone to the WWE’s Mania weekend line-up. Lastly, WrestleMania XX represents something of a lost moment for me. I think it would be a bit dramatic to refer to it as “the one that got away”, but as a younger, more idealistic Stephen Gray, I thought this would be the WrestleMania I attend after watching wrestling for 13 straight years at that point. This is why I suffered through King of the Ring 1995! This is why I watched Raw every week, hoping just once in 1997 they could beat WCW Nitro in the ratings war while Bret Hart and The Hart Foundation made Canadians like me proud to be watching the WWF. The Attitude Era was over but I was still wantingto go not just to WrestleMania, but a WrestleMania held in the arena that Bret Hart proclaimed at Survivor Series 1996, “wasn’t a church, but was holy ground”. The dream of performing at a WrestleMania and wrestling at Madison Square Garden may have become a reality for Ultimo Dragon on March 14, 2004, but the dream I had of being there to see it had to wait.
It’s 9 years later. I’m on year 22 of being a fan of this crazy thing we call wrestling. I’ve attended WrestleMania 23 in Detroit in 2007 and had an awesome time but Hall of Fame tickets sold out in about 5 seconds for the small Fox Theatre and Fan Axxess is now… well, it isn’t what the video packages of the last several WrestleMania’s indicated. It’s Hillbilly Jim standing around at various shopping malls with a small commentary station, a mock magazine cover, and a few glass booths with some memorabilia in them. I got to be at a WrestleMania, but I always felt I was missing something. On April 6, 2013, everything changes. I’m going to be inside Madison Square Garden for a WWE event! It’s not WrestleMania, but it’s part of the big weekend and something about the Hall of Fame just feels special this year. Is it Bruno Sammartino? Is it Mick Foley? Is it The Garden? Whatever it was, the “wrestling fan energy” permeating Secaucus/East Rutherford, NJ and Manhattan was amazing.
Madison Square Garden, 1 Day Before the Hall of Fame
Just spending time in the city walking around town on Friday night was a great feeling – it seems at least every 5th person I see is wearing some form of wrestling shirt! Hell, just checking in at the La Quinta (which was incredibly nice with easy bus access and incredibly friendly desk and shuttle staff – I cannot praise these people and this location enough) I could see people lounging around in the lobby in WrestleMania XXVIII hoodies. These are the hardcore fans and they’re in town for some fun. As I continue walking through NYC and causally hear some people chatting outside a deli about how they’ve been hearing Axxess is “no good with the arena set-up”, I think, “wow, I’m overhearing random people talk about wrestling!” then also thinking, “Oh, that doesn’t sound good for me on Sunday”. Even heading back to Jersey, people on the bus can be heard talking about their weekend plans.
As many wrestling fans as I thought I saw on Friday, Saturday was amped up that much more. The buses into Manhattan were full of them – one of the stops between the hotel and the Port Authority was WrestleCon, which was a big base of traffic for bus pick-ups and drop-offs. During dinner it hits me – the boyhood dream has come true, I will be sitting with a group of rabid wrestling fans inside The Garden. On my way from 42nd to 33rd along 7th Avenue, I see several identifiable wrestling fans, and many young 20 somethings dressed to the nines in their dress shirts and ties. Are they out for a town of fancy clubbing in The Big Apple? Of course not, the Hall of Fame is coming up! The greatest site I saw in this 9 block walk was a father and son combo, running to MSG, in suits and lucha masks. The father was wearing a Mil Mascaras mask while his son wore a Sin Cara mask. That combined awesome, cool, and adorable.
Arriving at the Garden for the Hall of Fame
Before entering MSG, I take a quick photo – some strangers ask if I need one of me and the sign visible in the shot, but I inform them it won’t be necessary. We strike up a conversation about where we’re from, how we traveled, why don’t I sound like a stereotypical Canadian (for the record, I think I do, but maybe they were thinking of the Alberta type Canadians who I think the heavy accent stereotypes are based on – it was decided it’s because I live in a border city). After wishing them well, I headed inside.
I’ve made it! I’m in MSG!
So, my seats weren’t the greatest, but I’m really only there to listen to speeches, not see any wrestling or so I thought.
Mick Foley, Chris Jericho, and CM Punk In An Awesome HOF Moment.
I got to see Mick Foley pin Chris Jericho with CM Punk counting the pinfall. It was a crazy moment, and honestly I’d recommend buying the WrestleMania XXIX DVD/Blu-Ray for this alone. It was one of the better Hall of Fame ceremonies in recent years and I highly recommend the entire thing, but Foley’s speech was really, really good. Terry Funk also did an excellent job inducting him too. Stephanie McMahon sounded very robotic inducting Trish Stratus but did okay. Trish seemed nervous or overwhelmed at first but quickly got into the swing of things and delivered another great speech with some laughs, including her list of “people to thank”:
This is the best time to bring up both the most amazing part and worst part of the ceremony – the crowd. For the record, I loved being part of a New York wrestling crowd, but they can be a rough bunch. I actually found people booing Trish mentioning her husband Ron to be funny – it was tongue in cheek (as one guy in the row in front of me put it to his girlfriend, “we’re just giving him a New York welcome, it’s cool”) and I sensed no malice behind it. I hope there was none, anyway – I booed too! (Sorry, Trish!). Now, maybe the third time she tried to talk about him being the love of her life and her inspiration, it was being kind of rude, but Ron was redeemed by with chants of “RON! RON! RON! RON!” when Trish announced her pregnancy. It was also hilarious when, during the Booker T video package where WWE aired the infamous “we’re comin for you…” promo, they cut the funny part of the promo but the entire arena burst out laughing anyway. Stevie Ray and Booker T, by the way, also did a very good job – not as many laughs, but very heartfelt and touching speeches from both men. The crowd became really ugly when Maria Menonous (who unlike the crowd at this point, was quite pretty) tried to induct Bob Backlund. Did she run long? Perhaps, but she wasn’t even given a chance and many people in my section would yell things like, “who are you” and “what are you doing here?” – appropriate for those in the business of frame re-nudging, but not giving Hall of Fame induction speeches. Bob Backlund was just plain confusing at times which also led to some murmurs from the crowd in my section, but some people were also really into “Crazy Bob”. Donald Trump took his negative reaction in stride and WWE should have expected that one. Vince did a good job inducting him, and when he mentioned that he may have been one of the “ugliest bald men ever”, someone yelled out “HULK HOGAN!”. Great timing from that audience member, and it made us laugh, but all Vince did was apologize for “that unfortunate Hogan mention”. Lastly, Arnold did a tremendous job inducting Sammartino, wondering where the capacity crowd was when his latest movie opened in January and noting he can still move 400 pounds… because he picked up Chris Christie. Bruno just told his life story, and it was interesting, and then he wrapped it up since it had been 3.5 hours and he figured people wanted to go.
Capacity Crowd on hand for the 2013 Hall of Fame
Overall, this was a fantasticstart to the 3 events I attended over the weekend. I’ve mentioned it many times in this article, but the fan energy all over the place was amazing and I can’t imagine any fan of wrestling not enjoying so many people “outing” themselves to the public as fans of the business. As for MSG, it was everything I thought it would be – old chairs (but padded so we’re a step above Joe Louis Arena), that weird looking roof, and shut down escalators that somehow equaled 7 sets of stairs to walk down – and I loved it. I even had my own Ultimo Dragon moment – as everyone was exiting the arena, I had a misstep on one of the cement stairs and did trip, but luckily I retained my balance and didn’t fall.
Next time in Part 2: WWE Fan Axxess and the big one itself, WrestleMania XXIX – thanks for reading!