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PHOTO: Joe Putrock

Bad Dudes

Pro wrestling at the Pepsi Arena: adult-themed entertainment for kids of all ages

By David King

‘Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard is blasting from a outsized black sport-utility vehicle that is parked in front of the Pepsi Arena. Ripped denim and black T-shirts that either hang off the wearer like a garbage bag or ride the waves and folds of bulging flesh just a bit too tightly dominate the wardrobe on the sea of bodies that swarm the steps of the arena.

I feel like I’m in another world, in another time. I feel like I’m in 1989, to be specific. That’s the year I might have been one of the blonde, spiked-hair-sporting 8-year-olds willfully trying to keep up behind a friend’s large, hairy father as he walks hurriedly toward the pulsing radio-promo SUV. When I could have been one of the many boys systematically catching up and falling behind their group, the excitement of the event distracting them into frenzy.

They wear shirts that read, “If you want some, come get some,” and “You can’t see me.” They carry shiny gold wrestling belts on their shoulders, sometimes more than one to each kid. They can be heard bickering back and forth, furiously insisting that “Rey would kick Cena’s butt!” On the sidewalk, mothers stand fussing over countless children, who sit on exposed dirt next to a garbage can, each dangling oversized slices of pizza over their not-quite-big-enough mouths as white cheese and red sauce pour down their chins and onto the depictions of their favorite wrestlers emblazoned on their chests. Before things can get too Disney, groups of hefty teens with chains, agonized-over goatees and dyed hair, draped in loads of black and smelling slightly of pot, clamor toward the arena entrance, shouting, “Cena sucks!” and “ECW!”

A young boy in a Cena shirt looks up at the passing teens. “Jerks!” he blurts out, and flips them the bird. And I am suddenly reminded of how I watched wrestling grow up too quickly for me back in ’89. When I was 8 or 9 years old, Hulk Hogan was my hero. That is, until I went to see Hulk in a movie called No Holds Barred. I talked my mom into taking me, and later cried my way out of the theater after Hogan’s love interest was sexually assaulted. (I later learned that my tears also had saved me from seeing my hero electrocute his nemesis.) However, the damage was done.

I make my way past a group of red-faced 40-somethings (who are arguing over who will buy the next round of beer and explaining that the date on the back of the wrestling shirt someone is wearing “actually meant they were there in that building that night!”) and get my seat in time to catch the beginning of the first TV show taping: Friday-night Smackdown. I watch in horror as one of my childhood heroes is viciously assaulted. Tatanka, a chief with a headdress and tomahawk, prances around the ring. I wonder briefly how his character made it past the PC police again, and my question is soon answered when Tatanka’s match is interrupted by the Great Khali, a 7-foot-tall “monster” who clubs Tatanka out of the ring. The PC police are definitely not here.

For the finale of the first TV taping, the underdog, mask-wearing hero, who is only slightly over 5 feet tall, defeats a 500-pound weightlifter with speed and skill, and the kids go wild.

That’s when the fathers in the crowd start nervously looking back and forth at each other. That’s also about when the teens and 20-somethings in the crowd start fervently chanting “ECW” and “Cena sucks!” Youngsters with Cena shirts lash back at no one in particular: “ECW sucks!”

You see, this generation’s Hulk Hogan is Cena, a square-jawed, white rapper who speaks about the honor of battle and who overcomes the odds again and again. Or he did until recently, until the teenage-to-adult male fans in the crowds started booing him like mad and began carrying signs that read “If Cena wins, we riot!”

Perhaps it is that sort of reaction that made the WWE decide to bring back some of its more adult-themed wrestling brands that were popular in the ’90s, particularly ECW. The second TV taping of the night, featured Extreme Championship Wrestling—the brand that is known for the use of barbed wired, fire, and tables and chairs in its matches, as well as for its fans’ creative, expletive-laden chanting.

A couple of dads in the row in front of me discuss whether it was a good idea to bring their kids to an ECW event as fans chant, “She is a crack whore!” at a female wrestler. Then a character dressed as Nacho Libre (but instead called Macho Libre) is beaten with a cane by an angry man drinking a beer. When John Cena, the kids’ hero, finally makes his appearance, a cheer of young voices goes up over the arena, only to be drowned out by the catcalls and chants of “Cena sucks!”

As the show comes to an end, after all the greased-up men are done pretending to hit each other, when they are done really bashing each other with chairs and smashing each other through tables and the women are done stripping, the dads and younger fans seem annoyed at the rowdy teens, and the teens seem unsatiated, still calling for more violence. Some of the angrier teens storm off quickly toward the exits, pushing and shoving one another. More of the fathers and their kids stay, seemingly to let the angry horde pass.

Then a 7-foot-tall behemoth makes his way to the ring, prompting the kids to stand on their toes. He is followed by the aforementioned evil, bone-crushing, 500-pound weightlifter, and the kids grab their fathers’ hands. Then a bell tolls, and the 7-foot-tall Undertaker, one of wrestling’s most famous and most prominent veterans, strolls towards the ring.

There is no more question of who is good and who is bad, whom to cheer for and whom to boo. The dads take their kids up on their shoulders or pick them up and stand them on a seat. The remaining crowd is finally united, cheering the old-time hero as he outwits and outwrestles the bad guys.

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