An Englishman's pilgrimage to WrestleMania Week
For some, WWE and Pro Wrestling will always have the negative stigma of being "too" entertainment; they are absolutely right, I am thoroughly entertained by it on a daily basis. The number of times I have heard, "yeah but you know it's fake, right?", could fill Bart Simpson's chalkboard millions of times over.
I have known wrestling was "fake" since an early age but yet have grown up with it throughout the many ages; Golden Age WWF (Hogan, Jake the Snake, Macho Man, Ultimate Warrior), Attitude Era + WCW (Rock, Austin, DX, Sting) and now the age of the Indy (Rollins, Omega, Scurll, Ospreay, Balor) as well as the main events (Cena, Reigns, Undertaker, Goldberg).
I was enamoured with the characters, the stories, the entrances and the moves. I didn't care if it was fake, it was real to me. So, at the ripe old age of 30, I decided to fulfil a dream and take a trip from the South of England across the pond to Orlando, Florida, the home of WrestleMania 33.
I wanted to know if the years of being a fan were warranted and whether WrestleMania really was the greatest show on earth, the ultimate thrill ride. It was the Pro Wrestling trip to end all trips.
Aside from the obvious heat and space of the Floridian countryside, Orlando and the surrounding areas were fully ready for 'Mania. Poster after poster adorned the streets near the Amway Centre in downtown Orlando to promote the main show, as well as NXT Takeover and Monday Night Raw. It seemed as if wrestling was taking over the city!
I started my four-day journey through wrestling at the PROGRESS wrestling noon show on Friday. Being from the south of England, I have adopted PROGRESS, as many others have, as my home promotion.
This show featured many of my favourite talent from the promotion like Jimmy Havoc, Zack Sabre Jr, Travis Banks, Pete Dunne, Tyler Bate and Matt Riddle, as well as amazing US-based wrestlers like Shane Strickland and Sami Callihan. The crowd lapped up the UK PROGRESS chanting and really embraced the wrestlers they may not have known so well. The matches were insane and I truly thought at that point that I wouldn't see better matches that weekend. I was wrong...
Later that evening brought the WrestleCon Supershow at the Wyndham resort. From a table match with John Morrison through a brutal Low Ki vs Shane Strickland classic, we found ourselves watching a Battle Royal that featured Marty Jannetty, Gangrel, Billy Gunn, Joey Ryan, Colt Cabana and the returning and conquering Sandman, who came out to Enter Sandman and rose through the crowd to bash his temple with his beer can directly in front of me, much to the delight of 13-year-old me.
I also witnessed what can only be described as a mental 10-man tag featuring Team Ospreay (Drew Galloway, Marty Scurll, Ryan Smile, Will Ospreay & Lio Rush) vs Team Ricochet (Sami Callihan, AR Fox, Dezmond Xavier, Jason Cade & Ricochet). Jim Cornette would have had kittens at the sight of it.
One armed Spanish Flies, shooting star presses and 10 different stunner/cutter variants; a final albeit short match between the Hardy Boyz (My OG favourites) and Penta OM/Fenix rounded off a riotous evening that blew my mind!
One day in and I had already seen the top Indy wrestlers in the world, plus some returning Attitude Era favourites, and I hadn't even seen any WWE yet! What would Saturday bring me? Aside from eating my weight in meat for lunch, we hit the Amway Centre for NXT Takeover.
A five-match card was on offer that seemed light on the face of it, but by the end, I was spent! Seeing Drew Galloway make a surprise appearance the night after seeing him wrestle in the 10 man, a mental triple threat tag match featuring ladders and announce tables and Aleister Black's debut, followed by seeing Shinsuke and Bobby Roode's dramatic entrances, capped a blistering evening and the perfect mix between Indy and WWE.
Triple H should take all the credit in the world for putting together exciting matches that mix storyline and storytelling, with the right amount of exciting moves and spots. A great end to a Saturday that also included three portions of buffalo chicken... don't judge me.
Sunday. Sunday's funday. Sunday is Mania day. The day had finally arrived. Hitting downtown Orlando for food and mixing it up with fancy dressed fans aplenty, we hopped on shuttle buses and made our way to the Citrus Bowl, or the now commercially named Camping World Stadium.
The place was huge, it was excruciatingly hot in the sun and water was $7. However, after taking our seats and seeing the set up for the event, words were lost and jaws were dropped. Everything was huge. First match up, Aries vs Neville. This match was awesome, set like an Indy match on the big stage, and it really delivered.
The stadium was already pretty full even two hours before the main card so the crowd really got behind the two Cruiserweights.
Battle Royal next, no Gangrel or Hornswoggle this time. We did get a Killian Dain and Braun appearance though, and some dude called Gronk helped Mojo win after hitting Jinder Mahal (little did we know...) Great filler wrestling as we sweated some more in the sun.
The third match was IC title time. I forgot this match was on, so went to the restroom, and before I could come back, Dean Ambrose had won. Well done Dean, I'm sure it was solid.
I missed the American national anthem and found my seat just as the AJ Styles vs Shane McMahon match was starting. This match was wonderful. There were times I prayed that Shane wouldn't be climbing the inflatable ring above the ring, and he didn't. He did miss a shooting star press, which at near 50, is noteworthy. And AJ is just AJ. The best.
There were so many matches on this card and having sat in my seat for close to nine hours by the end I moved in and out of each match as they progressed. Jericho made me want an inflatable list and Charlotte reminded everyone why she's genetically superior.
What I did do, however, was lose my mind when the Hardy Boyz returned. My favourites were back where they belonged and everything was OK in the world again. I still get goosebumps now when thinking of it. Triple H's entrance was cool; Bray vs Orton was odd.
Brock Lesnar vs Goldberg was amazing for two reasons; one - it was Brock vs Goldberg; two, they gave everything they had to make it entertaining, and showed us again why the WWE would have thrown money at both of them for their runs. Brutal and satisfying. Brock was Champ once again.
Finally, it was Roman Reigns vs Undertaker. I'm a Reigns fan. He doesn't have bad matches, in fact, he rarely has average matches. Yes, the action hero pose before the Superman punch is annoying, but when he's left to actually fight someone (see Reigns vs Braun/Cena/Joe/Brock) he's incredible.
This match was away to say goodbye (at the time) to The Deadman. I looked past the botches and realised I had seen an entrance, a match and an exit of someone I have legitimately been watching and admiring for 25 years, since I ate my breakfast off an Undertaker placemat at age 5. The hat and coat at the end was too much. I wiped away a tear.
Monday came along and I had one day left in Florida. After eating more buffalo chicken and topping up the tan, we hit the Amway Centre one last time for Monday Night Raw, the most raucous night of the calendar year. It so was.
Beach Ball Mania was running wild, Mr McMahon arrived, Teddy Long became GM and promptly handed over to Kurt Angle. Roman Reigns delivered the greatest promo of his life, and we, the crowd, chanted "Thank You, Taker," for five minutes solid before the credits. Raw closed out with a tag match between Joe and Owens, and Seth and Balor; Samoa Joe and Kevin Steen vs Tyler Black and Prince Devitt. Indy wrestling at its finest.
So, I finally got to do WrestleMania in person. Rating out of 10? 10. Each experience was different and gave me a lasting memory. Every match had something to it, and I got home wanting to book Mania 34 straight away. It was the boyhood dream come true for me to attend and I loved every single minute. Pro Wrestling is so much more than the fake fighting. I watch UFC, I like fighting. Pro Wrestling is Pro Wrestling. It's exactly what I make it. Oh, it's true, its damn true.