Lights, Camera, Snooki: Wrestlemania XXVII Goes Hollywood
The distinction used to be clear: professional wrestling was for the fans, and its flagship event, Wrestlemania, was their night. A celebration of their icons, their stories, their commitment. It had some pop culture clout, sure (how do you think Ray Charles ended up singing “America the Beautiful” at Wrestlemania II?), but by and large, it was something generally intended for fans of the WWE – then WWF – a kind of grand spectacle to honor their commitment as well as the wrestlers (or “superstars”) involved.
This past Wednesday, current WWE superstar John Cena called the original vision for the event “the biggest night in sports entertainment.” But, as the saying goes, that was then, and this is now.
Now, what Wrestlemania has become is an event of the utmost extravagance and pedigree, one that isn’t so much threatening to break out of the WWE world as has already done so, to deafening applause. The inclusion of Dwayne Johnson, back in WWE character as The Rock, and Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi from MTV’s Jersey Shore has given the latest Wrestlmania (the 27th) a reach beyond the ring, establishing foothold in demographics it never used to have. To put it simply, the WWE is opening the doors of its once-exclusive clubhouse and letting new blood in. And, as it turns out, there were a lot of people who wanted in.
It’s not just Snooki, who’s scheduled to wrestle a six-man, mixed-gender match alongside heroic John Morrison and Trish Stratus against the villainous Dolph Ziggler and female tag-team Lay-Cool. A better sign might have been the WWE’s press conference in New York City this past Wednesday, where fans and members of the media were invited to see the superstars promote Wrestlemania, some in character and some not, and to get a glimpse of the fan base at its most passionate. An invitation, in essence, to peek inside the clubhouse’s formerly impenetrable doors.
And all of the superstars at the press conference seemed to echo the same sentiment, in one form or another, that this is the biggest Wrestlemania ever. They did so in the most media-friendly way possible. Vignettes highlighting the WWE’s philanthropic contributions (the “Wrestlemania Reading Challenge” and Cena’s considerable contribution to the Make-a-Wish Foundation) ran before the event; and even Michael Cole, a ring announcer with a villainous onscreen persona, broke character to address the media and explain that the WWE was “all about a show,” lest they worried that an unruly fan would toss a steel chair up and incite pandemonium in the crowd. The name of the game on Wednesday was to hype the event and present the WWE as a media-friendly, easily accessible group who could, if given the chance, assert itself as a dominant force outside of its own sports-entertainment niche.
Certainly, Wrestlemania has always been the WWE’s most extravagant event (it’s the only special to take place in a stadium as opposed to an arena; custom stages are designed every year), so it would make sense that it was the vehicle of the WWE’s extension. And they’re certainly going all out with the planned matches, if nothing else.
For one, the company has been heavily hyping Wrestlemania’s four biggest matches: a WWE championship bout between John Cena and Mike “The Miz” Mizanin; a World Heavyweight Championship contest between fan-favorite Edge (born Adam Copeland) and rising villain Alberto Del Rio; a singles match between longtime commentators Jerry “The King” Lawler (himself a retired superstar) and Michael Cole, refereed by WWE legend Stone Cold Steve Austin; and finally, a match between veterans Triple H and The Undertaker where no titles are at stake, but rather The Undertaker’s fabled Wrestlemania “streak” (he has never lost a match in eighteen appearances at the event).
Still, it’s the WWE’s decision to instill The Rock and Snooki as the event’s marquee guests that speak the most as to the direction they want this Wrestlemania to take.
“This is one of those moments…Wrestlemania has always been the biggest event in ‘wrestling,’” said Cena at the press conference on Wednesday. A hulking street hustler whose head looks carved out of granite, Cena strikes an imposing figure with or without his shirt off, but being the company’s most accessible superstar, he stepped into the role of media ambassador with minimal difficulty. “Wrestlemania XXVII, with The Rock being involved, with Snooki being involved, all the buzz that’s around here; Wrestlemania XXVII will be the best night in entertainment.”
Not wrestling, mind you. Not sports entertainment (the go-to euphemism for professional wrestling). Entertainment. As in, everything with a camera, a script, a crowd and a celebrity. After years and years of living in its own world, the WWE seems to be positioning this Wrestlemania as its foothold into entertainment as a whole.
The signs were there long before, really. It began, in all honesty, with The Miz. A former contestant on MTV’s The Real World who was also a wannabe pro-wrestler, Miz rose through the ranks of the WWE over the later half of the 2000s, through anonymity and undercard status, to become its champion. Since capturing the title in November 2010, he’s been a regular on talk shows and late-night TV, schmoozing with the likes of Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien to tell his (pretty incredible, all things considered) story. Suddenly, for the first time in a long, long time, the WWE found itself with a crossover champion who held appeal outside of the meathead circle; Mizanin has yet to star in an action movie as Cena and The Rock have, but his appeal definitely extends beyond the “WWE Universe,” as the fanbase has come to refer to itself.
It does help that Mizanin fancies himself an entertainer above all things; when he received word he’d be sharing a bill with The Rock and Cena, he confesses, “I was just thinking about how I could upstage them.”
The WWE’s expansion continued on Valentine’s Day 2011, when Johnson returned, as The Rock, to announce his position as the “host” of Wrestlemania. During his return, which included live appearances and/or taped segments that aired every other week, Johnson introduced little variations in the Rock character – incorporations of the real-life Dwayne Johnson, which were never present in earlier incarnations; altering his nickname from “The Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment” to “The Most Electrifying Man in All of Entertainment” – that, again, spoke volumes as to what the WWE was trying to become. He also inserted himself into the Cena-Miz feud under the pretenses of re-establishing his own dominance in the ring, thus making his return feel more organic and less of a stunt than it might have.
Later, on March 14th, Polizzi appeared as the “guest host” of Monday Night Raw (the show’s first in several months) and immediately brawled with the Lay-Cool team, was challenged to and accepted a Wrestlemania match. The ensuing clip of Snooki leaping through the air and mauling her prone opponent on the mat instantly became an Internet sensation. Unlike The Rock’s return, this clearly was a publicity stunt, but against all odds (WWE fans are a fickle bunch with a sharp eye for BS), it seems to have worked so far.
This perfect storm produced what is, undoubtedly, the WWE’s most prolific pop-culture moment since the early 2000’s “Attitude Era,” famous for pushing the envelope with its storylines and creating larger-than-life characters – The Rock chief among them – who found their appeal stretched beyond the walls of Vince McMahon’s kingdom, to big-screen roles and hosting gigs on Saturday Night Live.
Perhaps not incidentally, Wrestlemania XXVII will feature no less than seven Attitude Era holdovers in prime spots: The Rock as host; Steve Austin as guest referee for the Cole/Lawler match; Triple H and Undertaker in their own match; Trish Stratus as Snooki’s teammate; and Kane and The Big Show in an eight-man tag team match alongside current fan-favorites Santino Marella and Vladimir Kozlov, all of them facing a team of villains named the Corre (yes, with two R’s). The message potentially being that, as the WWE moves forward, it also calls attention to its last dominant era, perhaps to entice fans from the Attitude years who left the company once it turned to more family-friendly programming.
But even so, the Attitude Era was then, and this is now. Now, the WWE has a chance to break out; to join the pop-culture stratosphere in a way it never could before; to shed the “sports” from its moniker and become truly an entertainment entity.
If it fails? Not the end of the world; the WWE always has and always will survive on the commitment of its fans. But if it succeeds, it will undoubtedly be a watershed moment in the history of the company; the day the WWE gained total legitimacy in the eyes of the entertainment community.
The moment is close now, closer than anyone thinks. It all hinges on Wrestlemania. And if it succeeds? Well, listen close and you can almost hear The Rock’s victory speech now, amidst the cheering crowd. It will probably begin as his speeches often do, but this time, it will mean so very much more. He’ll grab the microphone, tilt his head skyward, take a deep breath, and as the crowd goes quiet, he’ll say it:
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