One is the queen of MTV’s Jersey Shore; the other is WWE’s resident Mexican aristocrat. One is famous for being perhaps the worst of the tanned, bouffant-wearing, gum-chomping Italian stereotype. The other invites fans’ wrath with a wink and a smile as he drives the world’s most expensive cars to the ring and insists on being introduced by his own personal ring announcer – in Spanish.
Only one entity – and one extravaganza – could bring these two very different stars together: World Wrestling Entertainment’s 27th annual WrestleMania on Sunday. Snooki will participate in a six-person, inter-gender grudge match while Alberto Del Rio will vie for the World Heavyweight Championship in his WrestleMania debut. Both promise to thrill 70,000-plus screaming fans in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
“It’s going to be the peak of my career,” said Del Rio, a native of Mexico. “My family, my entire country, is going to be proud of me because I’m going to go out there and become the new World Heavyweight Champion. I’m going to die out there trying to become the World Heavyweight Champion.”
So what’s behind the infatuation with WrestleMania? Why do fans come from around the world and dole out hard-earned money to watch this spectacle on pay-per-view? What is it about WrestleMania that makes fathers and sons and daughters jump out of their seats and grown, muscle-bound men in tights speak in hushed reverence?
Simply put, it is pro wrestling’s greatest annual event. All wrestlers who grew up as fans dream of performing in it and look forward to watching it. Even in the choreographed world of professional wrestling, there is nothing staged about the emotion and excitement from anyone who performs at WrestleMania.
“As a kid, all I wanted to do was be a wrestler,” said Del Rio. “Now that I’m here in WWE – WrestleMania is our NBA, our Super Bowl, our World Series of professional wrestling. As a wrestler, as a performer, I always dreamed of being in something like that.”
For the fan, WrestleMania’s appeal is as nuanced as wrestling’s longtime popularity. Wrestling’s magnetism goes hand-in-hand with the dawn of the television age in the 1950s, but WrestleMania took it to another level. It is a marriage of headlocks and Hollywood that began in 1985, when WWE Chairman Vince McMahon teamed up the charisma of Hulk Hogan and the diabolical lunacy of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper with the star power of Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper. This was a recipe for success as pro wrestling bodyslammed its way into mainstream pop culture. There’s been no looking back ever since.
Goodbye smoky arenas and gymnasiums, and hello domes, stadiums, glitz, and pyrotechnics.
WrestleMania set a world indoor attendance record for a sports or entertainment event in 1987 when it attracted more than 93,000 fans to Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome. World Wrestling Entertainment athletes were no longer just “wrestlers,” but “superstars.” WWE didn’t present only wrestling but “sports-entertainment.” In addition, the celebrities who have participated in WrestleMania over the years read like a who’s who of Tinseltown.
“It tells the very old story of good versus evil, but played out in a very different way,” said Adam Nudelman, co-author of “Mysteries of Wrestling: Solved.”
“That’s the root of it," Nudelman said. "It’s like a take on Shakespeare where no matter what, you’re always going to have a protagonist and antagonist in wrestling.”
This time-tested, good-versus-evil formula has made wrestlers a good fit for Hollywood, even if they’re not exactly Shakespearean-trained actors. Let’s face it: you’ll never confuse “Mr. Nanny” or “Tooth Fairy” with “The Godfather.”
But Dwayne Johnson did use his wrestling fame as “The Rock” in WWE to launch a full-time career on the big screen. (After a seven-year absence, “The Rock” has returned to WWE to host this year’s WrestleMania.)
WWE has its own film-making division. Wrestling legends such as Hogan, Terry Funk, Andre the Giant, former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura and others have all taken star turns on the silver screen. The 2005 remake of “The Longest Yard” was teeming with pro wrestlers, and 2008’s “The Wrestler” was most noted for Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-nominated performance.
Would this have happened without WrestleMania? Maybe, maybe not. But WWE’s “Grandest Stage of Them All” opened many doors, especially for stars like masked luchador Rey Mysterio and Del Rio, whose wrestling roots are in Mexico.
Lucha libre is part of mainstream culture and tradition in Mexico, whose film industry recognized wrestler star appeal back in the 1950s. Late legendary masked wrestler El Santo starred in 59 Mexican films during his 48-year in-ring career. Other wrestlers, such as Konnan and Místico (now known as “Sin Cara” in WWE), became Mexican pop icons through roles in music videos and soap operas.
Mysterio, a former world champion who battles nemesis Cody Rhodes at this year's WrestleMania, has only seen his fame explode worldwide since signing with WWE in 2002. Del Rio, whose father and uncle, Dos Caras and Mil Máscaras, are squared circle legends and who once wrestled as the masked Dos Caras Jr., hopes a similar future awaits him.
“I have been to 14 different countries since being here [in WWE],” he said. “I can say I’m writing my own story, a bright story, because I am doing incredible things in the most important [wrestling] company world.”
Del Rio’s already set to share headlines with one of Jersey Shore’s most infamous figures at WrestleMania. There’s nothing odd about that kind of success. Felix and Oscar would be proud.
Bryan Robinson is a Fox News Web producer.