My day began much earlier than I expected when I called to reserve a taxi in advance for later in the day and was told “If you don’t go now you’re probably not going and it may already be too late.” It was five hours before the event. Every taxi in the city was booked that solid.
Wrestlemania, for those who don’t know, was in a very disreputable neighborhood of Orlando called Orange Blossom Trail, known both for its adult entertainment options and for its run down housing projects. Locals came out and stood in the doorways of their apartments to stare at the tourists parading loudly through their neighborhood to spend fortunes on luxurious vacations, while children rushed your car with signs offering to let you park on their parents’ front lawn for $20. There were no restaurants or sports bars, only a closed gas station and a Travel Lodge, and my taxi driver warned me repeatedly not to stray from the direct vicinity of the Citrus Bowl. It was an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved because it didn’t feel safe at all but it also didn’t feel respectful for fans to be hawking platinum ringside seats for obscene amounts of money while using these impoverished people’s lawns as their storefront.
There were scattered tailgaters parked outside the building, many of them blasting WWE theme songs out of their stereos. Some were playing a carnival game trying to toss bean bags into a hole, while most were relaxing with beers and alcohol cups in their hands and talking in detail about wrestling. One group I was standing next to was talking about how pumped up they were that Ric Flair had given a shout out to Chris Benoit at the Hall of Fame, and how loudly they’d cheered. “I was so glad he stuck it in Vince’s face. You can’t talk about The Horsemen without talking about Chris Benoit.”
Security let people into the building around 4:20 PM, two hours before the dark match, but a lot of that time was squandered because of over zealous but uninformed security and outraged fans. Gate B, Gate C and Gate D seemed to be spoken unclearly, as fans waited in long lines at each only to be told they were in the wrong one. Some went back and forth from B to C to B to C until they were about ready to strangle someone. Security made me throw away a backpack I’d had throughout most of college and the year’s since but couldn’t provide me with any explanation as to why that was necessary other than the redundant one. “Because you’re not allowed.” I wasn’t sure if they’d consider my cloth signs to be banners so I ended up stuffing them up my jacket sleeves and in the brim of my pants, and filling my pockets with affordable refreshments before barreling past them fast enough they couldn’t say anything. It only got worse when you went inside as there were huge backups of people caused by the fact that they had to re-examine each person’s ticket every time they wanted to go get a hot dog. The security guards inside, meanwhile, would start shouting during the most dramatic and emotional moments of the matches because the crowd was trying to push up against the entrance ramp guard rail. Ric Flair would have Shawn Michaels in the figure four and, apparently having no idea who was in the ring or what it was about, they would want to stop and have a conversation about stadium policy. Fans became agitated to say the least, which only prompted further warnings. The refreshment options were extensive, including giant ham hawks and Monster energy drinks.
“Hacksaw” Jim Duggan was the most popular man in the battle royal, and you could tell he was touched. People were screaming “Hooooooooooo!” and “U-S-A!” for him the whole time.
The workers really struggled with getting MVP’s inflatable ramp operating, leading to a very extended entrance for Mr. Kennedy. I don’t know what was going to happen if they couldn’t get it put together in more than about another ten seconds.
The crowd was absolutely wild for the Money in the Bank match and it was even more breathtaking up close than it ever is on TV. John Morrison’s moonsault in particular defied reality and left people screaming obscenities at the top of their lungs and jumping up in down. So did Carlito’s back cracker off of the ladder, and the three man combined suplex and sunset flip. The outcome, however, was not popular at all, at least in my section. He was the only man in the match who wasn’t over.
I literally missed Kane vs. Chavo. I hadn’t managed to take my seat yet and was staring off into space thinking about something for nine seconds. It was practically over before I’d realized it had started.
On a personal note, Ric Flair vs. Shawn Michaels was noly a minute or two in before I got the strong feeling that I was witnessing one of the small handful of the greatest matches in Wrestlemania history. I was wearing a warm jacket on a hot night in Orlando but I do not use a figure of speech when I say that I was shivering when Ric Flair came down the isle for the last time. I was overwhelmingly reminded of Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat, in that the spots were for the most part not spectacular but rather the wrestling was so pure, the emotion was so high and the performances were so ‘on’ that even a series of chops, headlock takeovers and small packages absolutely glowed and entertained. The ending was perfect, in my opinion, with Flair losing but going out on his own terms, proud, strong, ready. When Flair finally returned back up the isle the big guy sitting next to me quite seriously turned to me and said “That was so sad. I could really cry,” and as soon as he said that my eyes filled with tears. I turned to look at the woman next to me and she was rubbing her eyes. It was such a beautiful experience to share, and I couldn’t help but think that we, the audience, were reliving the footsteps of another audience – that of The Macho King vs. The Ultimate Warrior. There too the camera man cut to shot after shot of fans weeping with bittersweet emotion in the audience as Savage held Miss Elizabeth on his shoulder. When I’ve shown that clip to friends in order to prove to them that wrestling has real depth they’ve burst out laughing that grown men would cry over men in tights. No one at the Citrus Bowl was laughing. No matter how many Hell in a Cell matches, or ladder matches, or Last Man Standing matches you go to nothing will ever compare to what it’s like to be there for a retirement match.
The power failure during the Bunnymania match was one of the strangest and funniest things I’ve ever seen. It could be seen but not believed. The WWE’s been bragging for a year now about their power generators. For them to get caught with their pants down in the middle of Wrestlemania seemed like an act of sabotage as much as science. We were howling with laughter at the idea that some underpaid tech worker was going to join the Kiss My Ass club tomorrow night on RAW and then hear the words “Youuuuuuuuu’re FIRED!” When the video board over the ring went out again for almost the entire WWE Title match we were commenting that Vince has some real slackers on his staff who were kicking back and watching the pay-per-view with their feet on the desk instead of manning the ship.
The crowd was very surprised that the WWE Championship match didn’t end the show but they immediately jumped to the false conclusion that The Big Show vs. Floyd Mayweather would be. No one knew who the marching band was for at first and it was met with a lot of “Huh?’s even after they played the song. All three men were really over in their own ways, Cena with his loud mixed pop, Triple H with his die hard supporters and Randy Orton with his against-the-grain support. The ending absolutely baffled us. Even after they showed the replay we still didn’t understand. From the reaction you could tell this wasn’t unique to my section – the whole Citrus Bowl was in shock that Orton won and literally had no idea how. It looked like he won with a knee drop.
The Big Show got almost no reaction at all. It was all Mayweather drawing cheap heat from the crowd. He got a lot of middle fingers and a lot of obscene names screamed at him. The crowd desperately wanted The Big Show to just waffle him. They must have had to bleep Mayweather’s return up the isle out completely. The dad sitting next to me with his little kid was getting very agitated.
I have almost never seen a crowd so blown out as this one was for the main event. I don’t know if there was a quieter match all night, just that there isn’t a quieter one on most Smackdowns. I can only speak for myself when I say that I tried to scream several times and my voice broke immediately. By the time I found a taxi to take me home I could noly be understood. I do feel like The Undertaker is wearing out his welcome with the streak even if the majority of the general public still support him. Even given the very soar throats from yelling at Cena and Mayweather back to back there just wasn’t a lot of palpable electricity in the crowd.
When the fireworks ran down the string it looked like we were practically under missile attack. I got a hot cinder in my eye and couldn’t see clearly for several minutes. There were ambulances with flashing lights parked outside but I didn’t make the connection until I got back and read reports on the Internet of a man on fire. Horrible.
There were police parked all through the city housing neighborhood with their lights flashing on the way out, and lots of police simply making their presence felt on the streets. I offered a fan fifty dollars to take me back to the hotel just so I could avoid getting stuck there overnight with no taxis. No deal. Thankfully I found all you have to do is leave the congested area and look for taxis about to enter it. They won’t want to get stuck in traffic so they’ll gladly get you.
Overall it was a very good show with one unforgettable historic match. The scene with the concrete bowl, the flags waving, the palms blowing in the wind, fire absolutely exploding all around you and the giant Wrestlemania marquee glowing green in the background created a fantasy wrestling landscape that will be instantly recognizable on highlight reels fairly permanently. Despite being rough around the edges and having some comic and some horrific technical difficulties this was a solid top to bottom show, in my opinion, and I’ll be interested to see how it ranks over time in comparison to other Wrestlemanias. Fairly high, I would think.
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