Battle of Brawn : Professional Wrestling Maintains Its Hold on Middle America

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a Wednesday night in suburbia as 8,000 fans bustle into 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 pinky 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 8-year-old Michael Mejia of Laverne, his voice trembling. The lights dim and a spotlight strikes the ring. A Little League team, their forehead veins bulging, shrieks for the entrance of the Ultimate Warrior, reigning World Wrestling Federation champion. But they'll have to wait.

First come guys like the Red Rooster, his 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 between them.

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 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 throughout the country, the one-time Liberace of sports has come of age, romancing Middle America like perhaps only the circus and the Ice Capades. With a seemingly magical combination of clearly defined heroes and villains who perform in flashy costumes, professional wrestling, at arenas and in the living rooms of America, 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.

The World Wrestling Federation's "Saturday Night's Main Event," which airs six times a season on NBC during the "Saturday Night Live" time slot, consistently out-rates the comedy stalwart. And wrestling--like only professional boxing--has proven itself wildly capable of attracting 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, the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic, who once called wrestling "Morton Downey without words."

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

Now Wrestlemania VII, the Superbowl of the industry, is coming to Southern California, scheduled for March 31, 1991, at the 100,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Already, Coliseum managers say, 20,000 tickets have been sold for the event, a show that is nine months away.

So eager were they to host Wrestlemania VII, Coliseum managers spent $10,000 to produce a five-minute video bid for the event, wooing World Wrestling Federation President Vince McMahon out to survey the venue. The video worked.

On tickets alone ($150 for ringside down to $10 for the "end zone"), the Coliseum expects to gross $3.3 million. Add another million in refreshments and sales of merchandise like Hulk Hogan sweatbands and Bret (the Hitman) Hart sunglasses.

Then there is the entire week of pre-Wrestlemania hoopla that is planned, guided by visions of past Superbowl fanfare.

"There isn't anything I can think of besides the Superbowl that sells tickets a year in advance," marveled Peter Luukko, general manager of the Coliseum and the Los Angeles Sports Arena. "Wrestling has gone from a really male-oriented event to a family event, and marketing it as family entertainment has proved brilliant.

"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 profes!ional sports teams, there is no other product that can consistently do the business."

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

Older spectators may remember a simpler era 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 and Ollie."

It was a popular staple of live network broadcasts during those shining years of television, and wrestlers like 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, a promoter who has called himself "the Walt Disney of wrestling." McMahon is a third-generation wrestling man, whose grandfather promoted the sport in the early 1900s and whose father took over the World Wrestling Federation in the 1950s, when it controlled the sport in the U.S. Northeast.

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

McMahon signed Hulk Hogan, the John Wayne of wrestling, and other flamboyant body-building types and cast them in a series of story lines that fans follow on television shows and in wrestling-match programs. The grudges fueling 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.

Performers named "the Earthquake" threaten to "squish" their opponents with moves like "the temblor." Brutus (the Barber) Beefcake beats his opponents and then, adding further humiliation to defeat, shaves their heads in the ring.

From coast to coast, the low-brow comedy has sold like ice cream in Death Valley. The World Wrestling Federation Television Network, broadcasting to more than 300 stations, is the largest syndicated network in the world. 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 publishes three magazines, the largest boasting a paid circulation of 350,000, according to company spokesman Steve Planamenta. It has produced two wrestling albums (McMahon sings the title song on "Piledriver," which Planamenta claims went gold in Canada).

WWF gross sales from merchandise--T-shirts and refrigerator magnets and lunch boxes--reached $200 million last year, according to Dave Meltzger, a weekly columnist for the National and publisher of the Wrestling Observer, a 4,000-circulation subscription newsletter that covers the industry. That figure, Meltzger said, includes sales of more than 80 WWF videos.

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

Now 43 and termed "easily a centimillionaire" by Forbes magazine, McMahon declined through a spokesman to be interviewed. Planamenta explained that his boss is a "behind-the-scenes" kind of guy who prefers to remain "low-key."

It's a muggy Sunday night at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, and some of thousands of fans are hollering insults at a fem 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 derogatory 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" of wrestlers comprising Bret (the Hitman) Hart and Jim (the Anvil) Niedhart, gets beat by the Demolition, evil-looking thugs with painted faces and black spiked hoods and boots. Hart and Niedhart, a former all-American shot-putter for UCLA who grew up in Newport Beach, are the clearly cast good guys, wearing pink spandex tights with black hearts on them.

The crowd is disappointed, but they'll come back for the grudge rematch one of these days soon.

"It seems to me rather trite to just attack it, so I tried to understand it," said the Washington Post's Shales. 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 to this because of "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 (who crossed them), 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 Arsenio Hall's talk show (he's a fan), is tossing insults like a tomahawk in a pre-match exchange with opponent Jake (the Snake) Roberts. Brown is billed in the arena 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," says Brown. "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," rejoins Roberts.

OK, so it's not Masterpiece Theater. Some might argue that it's not even entertaining. But professional wrestling is definitely big business.

"The masses love it," says one industry watcher. "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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