From a shove to a shave

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Hair has been at the center of some of the biggest stories in pop culture this year: Why did Britney shave hers? Could Sanjaya have lasted this long on American Idol without his? But the most awaited hair affair may come tonight in Detroit, during the annual pro wrestling pay-per-view spectacle known as WrestleMania.

Donald Trump, whose outsized identity is defined by his comb-over, has wagered that he will get his head shaved if his favored wrestler loses to a wrestler backed by Vince McMahon, the chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment and a blustery bloke himself. If McMahon's wrestler loses, his own pompadour is on the line. As with virtually everything involving Trump and McMahon, both billionaires, the wager is about money, not makeovers.

In a textbook example of cross-promotion, the stunt is designed to boost the sagging ratings of Trump's The Apprentice TV show, now in its sixth season, and the number of subscribers willing to shell out $49.95 to watch WrestleMania 23 on pay-per-view TV. NBC Universal is the parent company of both NBC, which carries The Apprentice, and the USA Network, the exclusive broadcaster of WWE Monday Night Raw, the wrestling broadcast that is typically one of cable's highest-rated programs.

As for what to expect tonight, there's probably a better chance of Rosie O'Donnell becoming the next Mrs. Trump than there is of Trump having his head shaved.

McMahon already has proved that he will sacrifice for his art - and his buy rate. On past pay-per-view shows, McMahon has not only allowed himself to be bloodied and battered by some of his top stars, but he also has wrestled his son and daughter.

Nevertheless, the infinitesimal prospect of a bald Trump will be catnip for many people.

"I don't think this will change the history of wrestling, because there's no competition anymore [for WWE], but I'm betting that, on a worldwide basis, it's the biggest WrestleMania of all time," says Dave Meltzer, editor and publisher of The Wrestling Observer Newsletter.

In Detroit, the site of last year's Super Bowl, The Free-Press described the event as "the blue-collar Super Bowl" and estimated an impact of about $25 million for the host city. More than 70,000 are expected to attend WrestleMania at Ford Field.

Celebrity juice

Past WrestleManias have featured the greatest rivalries the genre has to offer: Hulk Hogan vs. Andre The Giant, The Rock vs. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. But Trump vs. McMahon is generating comparable buzz. The two heavily hair-sprayed sexagenarians won't actually be wrestling one another, of course. Like the men of means that they are, McMahon and Trump have each selected a WWE star to do the fighting for them.

McMahon's man goes by the moniker of Umaga, a large, wild-eyed, tattooed Samoan who gives new meaning to the term corporate headhunter. Trump's representative is Bobby Lashley, an up-and-coming wrestler with a huge, sculpted physique that comic book superheroes would envy.

Former WWE superstar Austin has returned to officiate the bout -- not so coincidentally, just several weeks before the release of his WWE-produced movie, The Condemned.

The use of mainstream celebrities such as Trump to spice up pay-per-view shows has become as much a staple of pro wrestling as clueless referees and steel-cage matches. Mr. T, Mike Tyson, Jay Leno, Jesse Ventura (when he was the governor of Minnesota), pro football Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Taylor and former pro basketball stars Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone all have preceded The Apprentice star into the world of scripted mayhem.

The involvement of Mr. T and Tyson, in particular, dramatically affected the wrestling industry.

Mr. T, who was Hogan's tag-team partner at the inaugural WrestleMania in 1985 when he was one of television's biggest stars, helped establish WWE and Hogan as pop-culture phenomenons.

Tyson's appearance as the guest referee for Austin's match at the 1998 WrestleMania - nine months after Tyson chomped off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear - was instrumental in Austin surpassing Hogan as wrestling's top attraction. It also led to WWE overtaking World Championship Wrestling in a bitter ratings war and eventually purchasing the rival company.

Then things got hairy

As for how the latest clash of titans came about, here's the story line as played out on WWE programming over the past couple of months -- try to keep up:

In an attempt to capitalize on Trump's public war of words with O'Donnell on ABC's The View, McMahon staged a match between Trump and O'Donnell look-alikes on an episode of WWE Monday Night Raw.

Trump took offense, telling McMahon that the wrestling audience didn't want bad skits, what they really wanted was cash. He then upstaged McMahon by dropping thousands of dollars (real bills, not funny money) from the arena ceiling onto a frenzied crowd in Dallas on Raw.

In wrestling vernacular, every feud has to have a "babyface" (a good guy) and a "heel" (a bad guy). While Trump and McMahon are both natural heels, giving away money to the fans was a successful - if not subtle - device to make Trump the hero.

After weeks of verbal sparring, the match was made, with both men agreeing to put their hair on the line. Things got physical during the official contract signing last month at Verizon Center in Washington, as Trump shoved McMahon over a table, and again at a news conference Wednesday in New York, when Trump slapped McMahon.

The real story behind the "Battle of the Billionaires" is less dramatic. McMahon and Trump both have acknowledged that they've been friends for years -- Trump played host for the 1988 and '89 versions of WrestleMania at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City -- and they recognize when a deal is mutually beneficial.

As shrewd a promoter as McMahon has been, however, The Wrestling Observer's Meltzer points out that the P.T. Barnum of wrestling might have unknowingly missed out on what would have been the ultimate celebrity death match.

With Kevin Federline having appeared on several WWE broadcasts toward the end of last year, McMahon could have put together a truly hair-raising bout if only he had known that K-Fed's wife, Britney Spears, was willing to adopt the retro-Sinead O'Connor look.

"Can you imagine if Britney Spears had her head on straight and really wanted to shave her head, she could have gotten $1 million for it at Mania," Meltzer wrote in his newsletter in February.

K-Fed vs. Britney, with the loser getting a shaved head, Meltzer gushed, "would have been the biggest mainstream Mania moment of all time."

kevin.eck@baltsun.com

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