Wrestlemania 33 Diary
Earlier this year I got to spend some time with WWE Superstars in Orlando Florida. This is my diary of the few days my two week vacation intersected with their biggest event: Wrestlemania.
FRIDAY - WWE HOTEL
When my wife, Úna, and I got in the elevator at the WWE hotel I was reading an email on my phone. I didn't even notice there was anyone else in there with us until she whispered, "Jesus" under her breath. Now, Úna isn't the "Jesus" kind, as she's not particularly religious or easily startled, but when I looked up to see what prompted her utterance I involuntarily said, "Jesus" too.
"What's the word?" Roman Reigns asked.
"Uh..." I replied. I think he was using a cool turn of phrase to see what floor I wanted. And it was in that instance that I got it. I saw why Vince was so adamant. I too was suddenly a Roman Reigns fan. Maybe his biggest fan of all time. I'm saying he's a stupidly handsome man.
"Eh...20th floor please," I finally answered.
And off we went, on a short trip upwards with Roman. I liked the symbolism. We smiled awkwardly at each other for 19 floors, before my stop arrived. When we got out Úna whispered, "he's gorgeous." Never before in nearly twenty years had my wife ever talked like that about another guy. Never. But The Big Dog does that to people. And she was right. He is gorgeous.
Down the hallway we went and found the number we were looking for. The room of WWE Superstar, Becky Lynch. She opened the door and her happy orange head instantly made me smile. The girl who started out as a teenager in Ireland as Rebecca Knox was heading for her second Wrestlemania--but there was a difference in her; a confidence. Even though we talk all the time, I hadn't seen her face-to-face since Dallas the year before--and the contrast was striking. A calmness. A poise. She had been been to the mountain before, and she couldn't wait to get out there and scale it again. Her costume was picked, her game-plan was nailed down and her focus was sharpening.
It was quite the sight to see her switch backwards and forwards from friendly host to determined competitor. All her training, travelling, bruises, injuries and sacrifices had lead her back to Wrestlemania again. But she wasn't 'comfortable' or 'content.' "I want to take over the world, Paul," she said as we all sat down. And I believed her. All the signs were there. Her mental game was different this year; her unique charisma was bouncing off the walls. I could see she was a woman who was different than all the other women in her division.
Wrestlemanias, movies, TV apperances, hosting, presenting and anything else she wants to do. It was clear in her hotel room filled jokes, unpackaged luggage, charm, determination, skill and tenacity that Becky was in the right place--but willing to work even harder to get higher.
I've always believed, but never more so than that day, that Becky Lynch is an absolute star; the heart and soul of the women’s revolution. It’s hard to put your finger on what it is about her until you spend time with her. Some people just have ‘it.’ And those people usually need to have a Wrestlemania-grade spray tan the day before the show. So Úna and I finished catching up with Becky and I walked her down to the lobby as she split for beautician's place.
As much as I fangirled for Roman and Becky, it was the old man walking towards me that really made my day. It's hard to see Dory Funk Jr in the flesh for the first time, and not be a little bowled over. So much history and tradition under his cowboy hat; especially when you're a wrestling dork like me.
"Hey, I know that guy," I thought as another guy walked past.
And so surfaced my dilemma for the whole trip. "Hi, we follow each other on Twitter," is just about the worst opening to meeting a person as you can get. So even though X-Pac (much taller than I imagined) and I do follow each other on Twitter, and we've 'talked' a few times, I didn't want to bother him as he went about his day.
Outside the hotel, Zack Ryder, who I'm pretty sure I'm best buddies with because of last year, passed me by. The sun must have been in his eyes or something cause he didn't recognise me. Then came Curt Hawkins and then Apollo Crews (who has done a video for me.) And as if on cue, Larry Zbyszko came wandering out in his pink tie, ready for the Hall of Fame.
I was kinda already regretting my decision not to go the HOF this year--but seeing Zbyszko already hydrated, in his shades and waiting for the bus before anyone else was even dressed, made me want to get my suit. I was tempted but knew I had a big day ahead of me the next day.
SATURDAY - RINGSIDE WITH JIM ROSS
"You're a good man, brother," Tony Schiavone said to me backstage. It was then I knew this was going to be the greatest trip of all time. How often do you get called "brother" backstage with a tonne of wrestling guys around? I immediately wanted to run to my rental car and wear the fanny pack that I bought. There's something about wrestling guys saying "brother" that makes you want to do a double bicep or grow a moustache.
Everyone backstage was cool to me as I introduced myself to people. Plenty more of 'hey, we follow each other on Twitter' opportunities not taken. There were former WWE writers there, IMPACT people--even my favourite podcast duo, Conrad Thompson and Brue Pritchard were in the green room.
Tony couldn't have been nicer to me, the complete outsider, as we were about to share the stage together. I knew my assignment was going to be a tough one in that no-one in the audience, or backstage would know who I was. Or what I was saying. The fans were there to see the legends they grew up with, not some bearded writer they've never seen with a thick Irish accent they couldn't understand.
As I walked on stage I got what could only be described as a smattering of applause. My wife clapped and someone at the back of the room dropped their phone, which I took as a clap for me also. Tony came out next and got a wild ovation. Within seconds I got to see two pros in Tony and JR bat barbs, wordplay and 'inside' jokes backwards and forwards. Not a line rehearsed, not a word spoken beforehand. After a little while, we were joined by Bruce Pritchard and Karen and Jeff Jarrett too.
I was sitting in amongst over a hundred years of combined wrestling experience. I listened a lot, spoke when I could, but basically took in the sights and sounds of being onstage with my childhood/teenage 'TV characters.'
As cool as it was to share the stage with Tony, Bruce, Jeff and Karen, it was Jim Ross I was there for. He invited me, he made the call. And in between that call and this show, his wife Jan passed away. But he was there. Hat on, tears in his eyes, wiping them away to meet fans, smiling, greeting his guests, taking time on his own. I've been on-stage and backstage at a lot of shows over the years, but watching Jim Ross taught me a lot. On stage he was charming, funny, full of energy, honest and grieving. Backstage he was just grieving. But he wanted his fans to have the best. He explicitly told the promoter to make sure everyone left with more than they expected.
He was thinking of the people who travelled and paid. He was thinking of the guests he invited on stage. He was thinking of his wife, Jan.
Sunday - Wrestlemania
WWE rented the whole Skybox floor in Camping World Stadium; a full corridor of suites, boxes, bars and rooms all looking down on Wrestlemania 33. I didn't know that when I took the Camping World elevator, with Úna, to level 3. The doors opened and I walked into Natalya, who was striking in her ring gear and full make-up. She was passed by Scott Dawson who was dressed business casual and Lana, Summer Rae and Kelly Kelly who sparkled and glowed as the glided along the hallway. I, on the other hand, was dressed in a four-year-old tee-shirt which had a drooping neckline--and a new pair of Walmart shorts that grew more and more static-y as they rubbed when I walked.
It happened again. I entered into WWE land ill prepared and mightily underdressed. Last year in 'the friends and family' section, there were no WWE Superstars; just people dressed in everyday clothes cheering on their aunts, cousins, brothers and parents who were performing in the ring. This year the open doorways into the various Skyboxes were stocked full of WWE Superstars as they joined their aunts, cousins, brothers and parents in watching Wrestlemania. I mean everyone was there. I mean not literally everyone, I didn't see The Goon for instance, but it sure seemed like most everyone was there.
"As a guest of WWE, please feel free to use the complimentary bar and buffet before enjoying the show," said a member of staff, who could clearly see we were lost.
"Which seat is ours?" I asked, showing my ticket.
"Anyone can sit wherever they want," he replied. "Just pick one of the boxes and find a seat."
The elevator doors closed behind us and my wife grabbed my hand. It was the kind of grip that said, "why didn't you tell me this was formal wear you son-of-a-bitch?" There we stood like two sunburned (which we were) tourists (which we were) who had stumbled in from the theme parks (which we had) to someone else's formal work function (yep.)
My wife had just ditched her purse in the bin downstairs too, because of the clear bag policy, so she stood there clutching a clear plastic bag that held keys, sunglasses and an orange.
Even though we were strangers in a strange land, I wanted Úna to know I had this situation in hand, so I walked with purpose and attempted to enter one of the boxes by way of the only locked door on the whole floor.
"I think it's locked," my wife said under her breath.
"I know that now," I whispered. "Who's looking? Is everyone looking?"
"I'm too embarrassed to look around," she whispered back.
I looked up a little to see a sign on the door that said 'RESERVED.'
"Oh my god," I said. "I hope whoever is in there doesn't open the door and see us standing here. It's probably Vince or something."
A 'Plan B' quickly struck me: I pulled out my phone and looked at the screen until whoever had seen me fail so hard had moved on about their evening. When enough bodies had passed, I steered my wife into the stream of people who seemed to know where they were going. We all walked towards the end of the corridor, me Sargent Slaughter, Daria, Mandy Rose and company. I saw Nakamura in one of the open-door boxes and giggled like a thirteen-year-old girl passing Ed Sheeran.
At the end of the hallway, I recognised Steve Corino, who I knew liked the Blood Red Turns Dollar Green trilogy. He too was dressed impeccably. I wiped my hand on my static-filled shorts before introducing myself, hoping not to electrocute him as we shook hands. Steve was very polite, although I'm pretty sure he was ready to call security on me until I mentioned the books.
I then looked around and realised we were out in the Skyline suite, an open-air meeting place that was PACKED with WWE and NXT Superstars. I saw Jake the Snake, Scott Hall, William Regal, Tajiri, Matt Bloom and Aliyah before my fanboying became evident. Down in the ring, Dean Ambrose was wrestling Baron Corbin. My wife and I found an open spot on the barricade and took in the sights and sounds.
Beside us, a group of regular NXT'ers talked amongst themselves about their respect for Corbin and what he had done to get to Mania--we were so squished together, I had no choice but to hear them. There was no bullshit, no bitching, just a group of good people talking in good terms about their former roster-mate. I could hear their passion for what they do, and how much they wanted to be at the big show too.
I, on the other hand, weighed up saying hello to Regal, who was over in the far corner with all the UK Tournament participants. Regal and I follow each other on Twitter (ahem), he's endorsed my wrestling crime novels, Blood Red Turns Dollar Green and has even invited my family and I as his guests to an NXT taping before. However, I am awkward so I didn't say hello. Plus he was wearing a waistcoat, and I had been brushing my hair with my fingers for days because Úna wouldn't share her brush because my hair was so static-y all of a sudden.
I cut my loses and decided to go back inside to where the boxes were.
It was in the Sky box that I found out Jerry Lawler drinks milk from the carton. I mean I knew it from somewhere, but now I was seeing it. I also think I might have inadvertently annoyed his girlfriend by sitting in her seat. I didn't know until she was gone. I looked around and there were kids everywhere, and nice dresses and fancy suits. And us. It was like a huge wedding party where everyone was starting to open their ties and loosen their waistcoats a bit. Kane walked by. And Edge sat with his family, being presumably the nicest guy ever cause even his own relations thought he was hilarious. Oh look, Goldust. And Strowman came in and played with Karl Anderson's kids. My old pal Finn Balor was there and I spent about an hour talking to his father about Ireland and the places we knew. As the night wore on I cared less and less about who we were and how we looked. I just blended into the other normal families who had some relative that did an abnormal job.
I watched the wrestlers come back after their matches. Some looked happy, some didn't. Some looked like they were looking to celebrate, some looked like they wanted time with their kids. Myself and Úna found a place to watch the last match. In an arena full of people and a bustling backstage, we found a place where no-one was sitting. A press box, maybe. I had a feeling that my old pal, JR, could be involved someway. When his music played I could have cried for him. It was so important to him, and more so his wife Jan, that Jim come "back home" to WWE. To see Jim walk that ramp with the crowd roaring for him, and in that huge arena it was just myself and my wife watching. It was a moment that I'll never forget, from a weekend that I'll never forget.
Wrestlemania, surrounded by people I didn’t really know, looking at a sport that I loved, in a box I didn’t belong, was oddly perfect. Just my wife and I watching in silence, thousands of miles from our house, and feeling oddly at home.