In the Grip of Fun : When Ultimate Warrior Pummels Mr. Perfect, Legions of Wrestling Fans Know It's Fake butCan't Resist Rooting for the Good Guy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's Wednesday night in suburbia as 8,000 fans bustle into the Anaheim Convention Center for this, the pastime with a half nelson on America.

Surfers and Cub Scouts, suntanned sorority sisters, old ladies puffing Marlboros and worn-out men with diamond pinkie rings have sold out the arena near Disneyland. The atmosphere is downright Vegas.

The show: Superstars of Wrestling, three hours of bodacious camp that is part burlesque sport, part soap opera performed to bombastic rock music.

"I can't wait," announces Michael Mejia, 8, of La Verne, his voice trembling. The lights dim. A spotlight strikes the ring. Little Leaguers, their forehead veins bulging, shriek for the Ultimate Warrior, reigning World Wrestling Federation champion.

But they'll have to wait.

First comes the Red Rooster, a guy with a maroon Mohawk, bobbing like a chicken around the ring. This hokum is followed by the Bushwackers, a toothless pair straight out of a comic book. Then the singing Rhythm and Blues, a couple of wrestlers who can't hold an Elvis tune.

By the time Warrior beats a curly haired beefcake named Mr. Perfect, the crowd is in a frenzied standing ovation.

Just another night at the theater that is professional wrestling.

"They know it's fake and they love it anyway," said Sue Lowery, who sold T-shirts at the arena while her sons, 11 and 14, watched the match. "It's good family entertainment. Kids still need heroes. If kids are going to have role models, they might as well be good ones like Hulk Hogan. It's like cowboy and Indian movies. You know who the good guys and bad guys are."

From Anaheim to Los Angeles and nationwide, wrestling, the onetime Liberace of sports, has come of age, romancing Middle America as, perhaps, only the circus and the Ice Capades can. With a seemingly magical combination of clearly defined heroes and villains who perform in flashy costumes, the pastime, at arenas and in living rooms, has captured a huge audience.

Each week more than 18 million viewers--roughly the population of New York state--watch syndicated TV wrestling programs, according to Nielsen ratings.

Such shows as the World Wrestling Federation's "Saturday Night's Main Event," which airs on NBC six times a season in the "Saturday Night Live" time slot, consistently outscore the comedy stalwart.

And wrestling--like professional boxing--has proven wildly popular among viewers willing to pay to watch matches.

"It's the only hit in the new pay-per-view market. It just seems no matter where you put this thing . . . it just seems to go like wildfire," said Tom Shales, Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic for the Washington Post. He once called wrestling "Morton Downey without words."

"It's baffling in a way," he added. "On the other hand, you gotta hand it to them: It's a lot of savvy showmanship."

Now "Wrestlemania VII," the Super Bowl of the industry, is coming, on March 31, 1991, to the 100,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Already, 20,000 tickets have been sold for the event, still nine months away, say Coliseum managers, who spent $10,000 to produce a five-minute video to woo Vince McMahon, president of the World Wrestling Federation, to the venue. The video worked.

From ticket sales (ranging from $150 ringside to $10 "end zone"), the Coliseum expects to gross $3.3 million. Add $1 million from sales of refreshments and such merchandise as Hulk Hogan sweatbands and Bret (the Hitman) Hart sunglasses.

There is also a planned week of pre-"Wrestlemania" hoopla, guided by visions of Super Bowls past.

"There isn't anything I can think of besides the Super Bowl that sells tickets a year in advance," said Peter Luukko, general manager of the Coliseum.

"Wrestling has gone from a really male-oriented event to a family event, and marketing it as family entertainment has proved brilliant," he said. "We're (hosting) 10 wrestling events a year and every one sells out. We consider pro wrestling on the par of a major NBA franchise. Aside from professional sports teams, there is no other product that can consistently do the business."

Professional wrestling has not always been so vaudevillian, replete with live birds and snakes and sequined 300-pound men.

Older spectators may remember when wrestling first aired on television in 1948, appearing as part of the Tuesday night lineup that included "The Milton Berle Show" and "Kukla, Fran & Ollie."

It was a popular staple of live network broadcasts during those years; wrestlers such as Gorgeous George and the Mighty Atlas were household names.

Over the years, wrestling's appeal faded and returned. But never was there a comeback like the one in the 1980s.

Enter Vince McMahon, the promoter who has called himself "the Walt Disney of wrestling." McMahon's grandfather promoted the sport in the early 1900s and his father took over the World Wrestling Federation in the 1950s.

In 1982, Vince McMahon, who had worked for the federation for 14 years, bought out his father. At the helm of Titan Sports, parent of the WWF, he was soon buying local television time to air matches and revamping the shows.

McMahon signed Hulk Hogan, the John Wayne of wrestling, and other flamboyant bodybuilding types. He cast them in a series of stories that fans follow on the television shows and through the programs at live matches.

The grudges that fuel rivalries are fabulously silly: One wrestler is in a stink because his wife's face has been silk-screened on his opponent's rear end; another threatens to bounce his rival's head like "a basketball" for sending him a rubber snake.

The Earthquake threatens to "squish" opponents with a move called "the temblor." Brutus (the Barber) Beefcake beats his opponents, then, adding humiliation to defeat, shaves their heads.

From coast to coast, the lowbrow comedy has sold like ice cream in Death Valley. The World Wrestling Federation Television Network is the largest syndicated network in the world, with shows on more than 300 stations.

Titan Sports produces several other shows, including four pay-per-view events a year. One of them, "Wrestlemania," has ballooned in scope and profits each year.

The WWF also publishes three magazines, the largest with a circulation of 350,000, said Steve Planamenta, federation spokesman. It has produced two wrestling albums; Vince McMahon sings the title song on "Piledriver," which went gold in Canada, Planamenta said.

The federation's gross sales from merchandise--T-shirts, refrigerator magnets and lunch boxes--reached $200 million last year, said Dave Meltzger, a weekly columnist for the National and publisher of the Wrestling Observer, an industry newsletter.

That figure, Meltzger said, includes sales of more than 80 different World Wrestling Federation videos.

But live shows are still the meat and potatoes of wrestling. And the bonanza is "Wrestlemania," which grossed more than $30 million last spring, a big chunk of it in pay-per-view fees.

Now 43 and termed by Forbes magazine "a centimillionaire," McMahon declined through a spokesman to be interviewed.

Planamenta explained that his boss is a "behind the scenes" guy who prefers to remain "low key."

It's a muggy Sunday night at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Some of the thousands of fans holler insults at a femme wrestler wearing a gold cap and gown.

The Genius prances up to a crimson-faced man in the front row who has been jabbing his fingers in the air and shouting sexual barbs. The man's son is near tears, tugging on his father's hand, pleading with him to sit down and be quiet.

Later, the Hart Foundation, a "tag team" composed of Bret (the Hitman) Hart and Jim (the Anvil) Niedhart, are beaten by the Demolition, evil-looking thugs with painted faces and black spiked hoods and boots.

Hart and Niedhart--the latter grew up in Newport Beach and became an All-American shot-putter for UCLA--are clearly cast as good guys, wearing pink spandex tights with black hearts on them.

The crowd is disappointed when they lose but will return for a grudge rematch one day soon.

"It seems to me rather trite to just attack it, so I tried to understand it," said Tom Shales, the television critic.

The appeal of wrestling, he said, seems to be the "simplistic clash of good and evil, and the eventual victory of the good guy. Usually, when the good guy loses, it's because the bad guy cheated. " And the fans relate this to "whatever dirty deeds have been done to them in their lives. And while they may never conquer their ex-bosses or ex-wives or ex-husbands, they can see this fabulous ritual where good does conquer evil."

Adds Meltzger: "Sure it's exaggerated, but I think part of the appeal is the violence."

Bad News Brown, a black wrestler from Harlem who appeared recently on "The Arsenio Hall Show," is tossing insults like a tomahawk in a pre-match exchange with opponent Jake (the Snake) Roberts.

Brown is billed in the program as the "terror of the ghetto." Roberts, who is white, wrestles with his chief accessory, a python named Damian, and is described in the program as "emotionally unassailable . . . so deep nobody will ever answer the question" of why he provoked Brown by sending him a rubber snake.

"You slimy cockroach. You lowdown reptile. You messed with Bad News Brown. You tried to rag on me, to play your fool head games. Now, I'm gonna play games on your skull. I'm gonna take your head to the schoolyard and bounce it around like a basketball. I'm gonna get a broomstick and use that ugly head of yours for stickball. I'm gonna have some fun in the streets with you, Roberts."

Oh yeah?

"Bad News Brown, you are afraid of something and I will find what it is. Maybe it's the DDT. Maybe it's Damian. And maybe it's me. For you, I may be fear itself."

OK, so it's not "Masterpiece Theater."

Some argue that it's not even entertaining.

But professional wrestling is definitely big business.

"The masses love it," says one industry observer. "It's like country-Western music. Nobody wants to admit they like it, but everybody seems to know the words to a Willie Nelson song."

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