WrestleMania: 25 and Still Runnin' Wild

Jeffrey Miller had not watched pro wrestling regularly for a long time. Surrounded by pictures of his wife and child in his cubicle, the thirty-something-year-old TV producer was no longer a kid. Life had gently nudged aside one of his favorite pastimes.

But one mention of WrestleMania, World Wrestling Entertainment’s premiere annual extravaganza, changed all that.

The wide-eyed, squeaky-voiced kid in Miller was suddenly reawakened. He was amazed that WrestleMania will celebrate its 25th anniversary in front of approximately 70,000 fans at Houston’s Reliant Center and millions more on pay-per-view this Sunday,

“Wow, WrestleMania’s in its 25th year, really?” Miller asked, smiling. “That’s amazing.”

Miller then paused and stretched his arms out wide. He folded the fingers on both his hands into the “I love you sign.” As best as he could, he emulated the trademark pose of a wrestling legend beloved by fans worldwide.

“I remember Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka. He was one of my favorites,” Miller said. “He used to do that Superfly leap off the top [of the ring] … he was one of my favorites.”

You may find pundits who will debate the significance of pro wrestling and WWE and WrestleMania in society. You may also find those who won’t even entertain the discussion. After all, pro wrestling isn’t everybody’s cup of tea – the matches are choreographed and scripted.

One thing is certain: Those who thought that WrestleMania was just a passing fad when it made its debut in 1985 are still eating crow. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised at WrestleMania’s enduring appeal.

“Wrestling has enjoyed a strong core audience for more than one hundred years,” said Chad Dell, associate professor of communications at Monmouth University in New Jersey and author of “The Revenge of Hatpin Mary.” “In fact, we're coming up on the 100th anniversary of the match between Iowan Frank Gotch and George ‘The Russian Lion’ Hackenschmidt, who battled before nearly 40,000 fans at Chicago's Comiskey Park in 1911."

“Wrestling has had its ups and downs in terms of attendance,” Dell continued. “It's really a cyclical business, with peaks and valleys that have occurred about every 20 years. But it has a strong core audience that sustains it.”

The WrestleMania was not the first wrestling supercard, but it took the industry to new heights.

WWE Chairman Vince McMahon may not have clearly envisioned what WrestleMania would become when he conceived it and presented it to the masses on March 31, 1985. At the time, his flagship star was Hulk Hogan. McMahon used Hogan's showmanship, feuds with "heels" (villains) such as Piper and Bob Orton, and celebrities such as Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper to bring pro wrestling to the MTV generation and into mainstream pop culture.

The day after the first WrestleMania aired on closed-circuit TV, images of Mr. T hoisting Piper in an airplane spin in New York City’s Madison Square Garden were in newspapers nationwide. Two years later, WrestleMania cemented its place as WWE's – and the professional wrestling industry's – greatest extravaganza when it attracted more than 93,000 fans to Detroit's Pontiac Silverdome, setting a world indoor attendance record for a sports or entertainment event.

And perhaps most importantly, it became more than a wrestling spectacle; it became an anticipated event in entertainment. Aretha Franklin, Liberace, Burt Reynolds, Pam Anderson, Jenny McCarthy, Lawrence Taylor, Pete Rose, Mike Tyson and John Legend are just a few of the laundry list of celebrities who have appeared at WrestleMania over the years. This Sunday, the Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger, Kid Rock and Mickey Rourke, the Oscar-nominated star of “The Wrestler” are expected to help celebrate WrestleMania’s silver anniversary.

Movie stars and singers aside, the wrestlers are the core of WrestleMania. And perhaps no two individuals have shined more at ‘Mania than two of WWE’s longest-tenured stars, The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, who will face each other this Sunday.

Undertaker is undefeated at WrestleMania. Michaels’ death defying matches at WWE’s grandest stage have made him legendary in both the locker room and the industry. Although he appeared at his first WrestleMania in 1989, the thrill never grows old for Michaels.

“We do 12 pay-per-views a year, sometimes 13 or 14, but there will never be more eyes on you within the industry and outside the industry obviously worldwide than at WrestleMania,” said Michaels, 43. “As a performer, WrestleMania is something you look forward to all year as a performer. It’s a make or break for any young guy and veteran.”

Michaels, a lifelong wrestling fan, was barely more than a teenager at the time of the first WrestleMania. His wrestling career was in its infancy and he was taking matches wherever and whenever he could.

“I remember hearing that WWE was putting on what was going to be the biggest show in the industry,” Michaels said. “I had just broken into wrestling. I was in Oklahoma City that afternoon and in Tulsa that night. I just remember wondering what it would be like to be part of it. I was 19 years old at the time and it was nothing more than a dream.”

That dream became a reality for Michaels and he has become synonymous with WrestleMania. (He has been dubbed “Mr. WrestleMania.”) However, fellow WWE Superstar, Kofi Kingston, is new to the WrestleMania stage.

Kingston, a 27-year-old Kingston, Jamaica native, will appear in his first WrestleMania match this Sunday as one of eight participants in a “Money in the Bank Ladder Match.” He grew up watching Michaels and many other legends and is thrilled to part of WWE’s biggest event of the year.

“This is a dream come true, the fulfillment of a lot of hard work,” Kingston said. “I have some butterflies – I am nervous, but in a good way. I have a few ideas on what I want to do out there.”

Kingston isn’t too surprised that ‘Mania is still around after so many years – he is more impressed by its growth. For example, it’s not just a one-day event anymore; it’s a five-day festival that gives fans a chance to participate in various events and meet their favorite WWE Superstars.

“It just keeps growing bigger and bigger every year, all around the world,” he said. “The brand continues to grow and build upon itself each and every year.”

But what fuels WrestleMania every year? Maybe it’s pro wrestling’s old-fashioned gladiator mystique: Some wrestlers are like superheroes and super villains brought to life, gathered in arenas to settle a grudge before thousands of screaming onlookers.

Maybe it’s just as simple as Professor Chad Dell’s explanation.

“Wrestling is fun!” he said. “It’s great entertainment.”

It’s also escapist entertainment. Yes, the pro wrestling industry in general has endured some dark clouds in recent years – a long list of wrestlers who have died prematurely, the Chris Benoit murder-suicide and steroid rumblings (which have gone for decades). But the masses will always need to be entertained – and WrestleMania has always delivered.

Sometimes an escape from the every day isn’t so bad, especially when news on TV always seems to be so bad. Just ask Jeffrey Miller. Besides sparking memories of Jimmy Snuka, the mere mention of WrestleMania inspired Miller to revisit one of its most famous moments.

“The other day, I watched Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant from WrestleMania III on YouTube,” he said. “When Hulk picked Andre up and slammed him in front of all those people – it was just awesome, dude.”

Whatever the reasons, WrestleMania is in its 25th year and still running wild. Whatcha gonna do, brother?!?