My Road to Wrestlemania 31

SANTA CLARA, Cali. – This past Sunday, WWE held their annual global spectacular known as Wrestlemania at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, home of the San Francisco 49ers. Being a man child myself who grew up on a steady diet of suplexes and arm bars, I was lucky enough to be invited by the WWE to attend the event.

My personal trek began when a person I was chatting with at Sky Harbor Airport learned where I was going and responded with a hearty laugh, followed by him asking me “They still do that?” This was a common theme amongst non-wrestling fans who learned about my journey.

For those who don’t understand, the WWE and Wrestlemania specifically is a global wide phenomenon. Last year’s event in New Orleans, LA generated $142.2 million in direct, indirect and induced revenue from spending by visitors. Per WWE,  79% of fans that attended WrestleMania were from outside the greater New Orleans region and stayed an average of 3.7 nights.

It may sound absolutely crazy, but the impact on New Orlean’s economy derived from WrestleMania and supplementary events held by WWE the week of Wrestlemania was equal to the creation of 1,662 full-time jobs.

So to answer the question, yes, they’re still doing that.

This year’s event included WWE RAW on USA the Monday following Wrestlemania, WWE Axxess, which is an interactive event similar to the NFL Experience that accompanies the Super Bowl, as well as a very exciting NXT show for the first time at Wrestlemania Week.

For those unfamiliar with NXT, it is WWE’s developmental system where wrestlers can first gain exposure to appearing on WWE television as well create a new name for themselves under the WWE brand. I use that phrase because a considerable amount of wrestlers in their developmental system have already created a name for themselves performing for smaller independent companies all over the world.

NXT, along with their current stance on acquiring the top wrestling free agents and talent, is arguably the most exciting and promising creation the WWE has had in the last 20 years. This year, they brought NXT to Wrestlemania with a live show at The Event Center at San Jose State University on Friday night, and it did not disappoint

Wrestlemania Week for me included taking in all the WWE and the wrestling world had to offer. In one week, I experienced the entire business. From a smaller indy show with 500 people to the biggest sports entertainment spectacular in the World with over 76,000 people. And everything in between.

My smorgasboard of squared circle action that began with a trip to WWE Axxess Thursday where we took in the history of the industry and saw current stars signing autographs and taking pictures with fans. I learned that if you ask former Intercontinental Champion Big E to smile for a picture, the results will be hilarious. I also learned that NXT newcomers Enzo and Big Cass have a bright future in providing charisma for this company. The entire event was well structured and put together nicely. Plus, I got to stand inside of the Elimination Chamber, which was pretty amazing. And no, I wasn’t the dummy who got arrested trying to climb up the side of it.

Axxess was followed by a trip to see Evolve 39 on Thursday, which was a smaller indy show held by Dragon Gate USA, and Wrestlecon on Saturday, which is a wrestling signing convention and indy show. It’s hard for me to explain an indy wrestling show other than to say it is a fan’s chance to see the stars of both the future and the past in a very intimate atmosphere that you may never get to see them in again. It’s like catching the Rolling Stones in ’62 in a dive bar that seats 50 people. Much like the Stones, remember the names of guys like Ricochet, Uhaa Nation, and Johnny Gargano. These are the independent performers of today that will soon become the household names of tomorrow.

Nestled in between those two shows was essentially WWE’s version of an indy show, the aforementioned NXT. This brand of WWE has a ton of buzz because of the talented roster they are currently presenting and the exciting matches they’ve put on. Every male and female member of their roster stood out at this show, and it gave me a warm fuzzy feeling that the future of WWE is in good hands.

After all of that wrestling excitement, Sunday was finally the day for the big show….and The Big Show too. Although tired from walking an average of 10 miles per day around San Jose and still a bit hungover from sharing a few 30 packs of Bud Light with Brutus the Barber Beefcake at Wrestlecon, my excitement drove my weary body to board a light rail to Levi’s Stadium.

We broke out in chants along the way, mostly disparaging Roman Reigns, and soaked up the moment. It was finally time to arrive at our destination: Wrestlemania 31. I parted way with my crew from TheSteelCage.com, most of whom had traveled from around the World to converge together for the event, and I made my way to the media check-in.

Although I’ve picked up many media credentials before in my career, this one got a little emotional. Memories of my father taking to me my first WWF event and seeing RAW live for the first time rushed through my mind as I stared down at this gift that was given to me.

Pro wrestling is one of the few forms of entertainment that can still invoke this kind of sentiment in an adult. As I made my way to ringside, I ran into some of the most popular people in sports reporting who are also wrestling fans, including Bill Simmons and Michelle Beadle. And every single one of them was as excited as I was to be there.

Levi’s Stadium looked gorgeous with the Wrestlemania stage setup. As fans on the closer floor sections approached their souvenir seats, they found autographs from superstars attached to their chairs, which was a nice touch. As a special personal treat, I’m a huge fan of Aloe Blacc, and he just happened to open up the show with an amazing rendition of America The Beautiful. And with that, everything was right in my world.

The event lasted six hours, and for most in attendance, it could have lasted another six hours. The matches were phenomenal, and many of the outcomes were unexpected. We saw fan favorite, Daniel Bryan, walk away with the Intercontinental Championship after a hellacious ladder match. We also saw perennial winner John Cena take down Rusev for the U.S. Championship. And at last, we finally got to see D-Generation X do battle against the NWO during Triple H vs Sting, which is something I’ve been waiting for since forever.

One of the most talked about segments of the show was when The Rock arrived before his millions – and millions – of fans around the world to confront Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. After being told there was no way he would hit a woman by Steph, The Rock retreated to the ringside seats and enlisted the help of his friend and well-known badass Ronda Rousey to even the numbers. This confrontation will hopefully set up a possible tag team match between the foursome, maybe at next year’s event or even sooner.

The entire card from top to bottom delivered. The main event saw “The Beast Incarnate” Brock Lesnar and his manager, the brilliant Paul Heyman, take on the Samoan Adonis, Roman Reigns. The match was brutal and fun to watch, with both of these men delivering some pretty stiff hits to each other in what is supposed to be a “fake sport”. Standing ringside as Brock was bloodied constantly reminded me that what these athletes do in the ring is far from “fake”.

The end of the match saw a big surprise, with Triple H’s proclaimed golden boy, Seth Rollins, entering the match using a contract stipulation he won last year known as Money In The Bank. This allowed him to enter the match as a third competitor and take out the two monsters after they had already beaten each other to a pulp, thus stealing the championship title from both men. It was great storytelling.

That’s what the WWE and Wrestlemania is. Great storytelling with the excitement of a live show and the athleticism of parkour ninjas mixed with fireworks and musical performances. It was an amazing night put on by an amazing company who will essentially pack it all up and do it again next week. The logistics that go into coordinating something like this is mind boggling, yet they pull it off every single year.

As I left Levi’s Stadium, I walked and spoke with Holger Boschen from WWE’s German Announce team. We talked about our love for this business and the enjoyment for the show we both just saw. Even though he works for the company, he professed to me that it never gets old watching Wrestlemania and it still amazes him how they do it every year.

Again, that’s what pro wrestling and the WWE is for so many of us. We watch it, we enjoy it, and we even excessively criticize it. But it is always growing and ever changing. We love it, it still amazes us, and it will never, ever get old.

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