BOOS! and WHOOP-DOOS!: Backstage at WWE Monday Night Raw!
Walking into the darkened Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio seconds before WWE Monday Night RAW went live was a euphoric flash of screaming colors. The white-hot intensity pouring off the crowd infused my skin with goose bumps. It was unlike any sporting event I'd ever attended. The scene was gladiatorial in nature. A buzzing electricity bounced off this wall of painted skin with a lacerating vibe. Not even the rowdy hooligans packed into the Brazilian World Cup could muster this sort of enthusiasm. A swarm of diehard WWE fans were on their feet, cheering against a ring of neon green. Entering the mob scene from the top and walking down into this madness was akin to an out of body experience. It all seems like a hazy dream that never really happened. I rode this wave of rapture to the center of the floor. A thousand pumping fists inflating my fervor to unimaginable heights.
My WWE ticket was soon soaked with sweat, crumpled in my thick fist. The excitement of the moment crawled into my ribcage and made me an instant fan of this mob scene. As I made my way to the ring, the WWE's far stretching demographic of loyal followers soon became quite apparent. Grandmas and Middle-Aged men raised their hand-written signs of encouragement alongside ten year olds decked out in bright orange Cenation gear. There were sexy blond girls in over-sized T-shirts screaming for their favorite Superstar. There were thuggish dockworkers that seemed, at the time, a little too old to be screaming in unison with a five year-old. Most of them knocking two glows sticks together in the form of an X. I felt a bit like royalty stepping into my seat: A6. Directly behind the commentators. A ringside treat that offered a once-in-a-lifetime moment of pure adrenaline-fueled cocksureness. Though I was being prominently featured on TV sets across the country, I felt no sense of self-awareness. My dignity knew no bounds as I leaned over the railing, cheering with my teeth barred. A high school senior in face make-up and a trench coat joined in this revelry beside me. As soon as I sensed the camera's lens, I waved five fingers in front of my face, screaming, "You can't see me!" In honor of John Cena's upcoming bout with current WWE champion Sheamus.
The stage was a spectacle of twinkling lights. A flashing wave of red and green neon bulbs mesmerized my psyche. It was awesome in every sense of the word. The jumbotron monitor was busy showing a D-Generation X fight montage. It loomed over the crowd like a whip-crack of lightening descending from the heavens above. The all-consuming screen distracted my inner-reality. For a few moments, I didn't realize that Triple H and Shawn Michaels had entered the ring in real-time. They rode the turnbuckles, jutting their crotches at some of their most loyal fans. They tossed more glow sticks into the audience. Fireworks ripped through the enclosed arena with a gut punch of fire and noise. This was a hell of a way to open a show. As D-Generation geared up to battle The Legacy, there was a tap on my shoulder, "Hey, jackass! Can you sit down? There are little kids behind you that paid good, hard earned money to see them wrestle. Not the back of your enormous head."
That killed the buzz real quick. I took my seat behind the announcers. And soon realized that the wrestling seen on WWE is, indeed, "fake". Big surprise. Sitting in close proximity of each thrown elbow, it becomes obnoxiously obvious that the moves are staged. That every hard knockout is nothing more than a bit of old fashion acting. This is playground shenanigans, offered on an elevated level. Its sort of like watching contained fight choreography. Maybe that's why my eyes kept fleeing back to the giant TV hovering above the ring. Though the action was taking place right in front of me. On the screen it looked real. As though physical contact was actually being made. I could believe in it. And I certainly got swept up in the momentum of this fast paced show. Admitting one's affinity for professional wrestling is akin to admitting you have a drug habit. Both men and women over a certain age feel ashamed to claim their love for this theater of the absurd. But really, there may be nothing better than being a closeted WWE fan.
The theatrical influences seen in professional wrestling aren't brought on like a revelation. The WWE has long acknowledged the soap opera aspects of its popularity. This is a constantly unfolding, never-ending story. And a captivating one at that. It airs 53 days a year, once a week, with no breaks. It's easy to see how and why anyone would get swept up in this grandiose fairytale. Its One Life to Live for the muscle bound set. It's a live action cartoon with real-life superheroes. And it's geared toward a wide range of individuals. Its biggest fanbase being young children and middle-aged men who have reverted back into the fold due to their children's affinity for the sport. It's an interactive movie. One that allows you to step into this world and cheer along with it. WWE Monday Night RAW is transcendental on many levels, and its escapist fare that offers boundless levels of entertainment. Whoop-doo!
While delving into the WWE live experience for the very first time in my life, I was also allowed an unprecedented look behind the scenes. The WWE organization is a close-knit traveling family. One that can easily be compared to the Barnum and Baily Circus of Old. And one that doesn't often (if ever) allow the media unprecedented backstage access to their pre-show warm-up. Running through the rules of Fight Club is a cliched narrative go-to when describing any underground activity not to be discussed in an open forum. But that ol' Palahniuk conceit rang true as we made our way through the catacombs of Columbus' Nationwide Arena late last Monday night. The first rule about WWE is that you don't talk about the WWE. In any way, shape, or form.
The WWE does acknowledge their writing staff, and that there is a writer's room. Just like on any televised series. But the writers are completely off-limits. They are made to sound like reclusive hermits dug into the thick cement walls of any given Arena. Their only human interaction stems from passing script pages through a crack in the basement floor. Who are they and where do they hail from? That's not important. And neither is where the WWE team eats. Though everyone is treated to a gourmet buffet, with main courses that are switched out three times a day, we're asked to not take photos of or discuss this banquet. It's a day-long delicious meal plan prepared by a traveling culinary team that accompanies the WWE on the road. These fine dining accommodations are slightly above the average catering seen on most film sets. The scene offers nothing scandalous or gossip worthy. Its just good food. Served at lunchtime. Despite that, one of my traveling companions was pulled into a darkened corridor for tweeting about Randy Orton's polite nature in the chow line. "Can I 'snake' in here", The Vipor asked before grabbing a biscuit. This still-image was frozen in time, typed out in one hundred and forty characters before being shot across the ever-widening expanses of the Internet. It was just as soon wiped from memory as the WWE requested (or rather, demanded) that it be removed from Tweeter. Why all the secrecy? Its not as though the WWE is a cult locked away on some compound, being hounded by the police and media alike. Is Randy Orton's outed politeness a scandal in the making?
It's all in the mystique of the operation. There is an esculent aura surrounding each and every one of these pro-athletes. The WWE doesn't want to spoil the rich fantasy of this franchise with told memories of The Viper grabbing a biscuit in a rather mundane buffet line. Like I said, these guys are real life superheroes. The WWE wants to keep it that way. There is no exposing of the Superstar Id. There are no mundane bathroom break scenarios to be shared. With so much supposed secrecy going on, you'd half-expect to find pure bacchanalia in the shadows of this Oz-like operation. Maybe an orgy of flesh, with the Superstars engaging in torrid Diva love affairs? Alcohol spouting out of a fountain in the floor, with drugs in every dressing room? John Cena on a circular bed, being fed grapes by a bevy of buxom blondes? Nope. That idealized daydream couldn't be further from the truth. Not a whole lot is going on backstage at a WWE show. There are beautiful woman milling about, but they are all gearing up for the night's events. Too preoccupied with putting on a great show for the kids to worry about anything else. These are the Divas. They immediately grab your attention upon entering the retrofitted, short-term WWE headquarters. There is nothing about the way they present themselves in person that breaks with the allure of seeing them on a television screen. Except that they're, maybe, more beautiful and awe-inspiring in the flesh.
It's nothing short of surreal to find Sheamus standing behind a thick, black drape waiting for his cue to emerge in front of a cheering crowd. The man is enormous. His pale flesh was greased, and he stood like a Greek God, his championship belt flung over his shoulder. If anything, seeing him here, posing in urgency, waiting for his title bout against Cena, looking just as he does on WWE Monday Night RAW, only added to the intimacy the show offers as a live event. Again, there was nothing noteworthy or salacious about this brief moment in time, which now sits like a Polaroid in my mind's eye. Traipsing to the toilet, I also bumped into the diminutive Hornswoggle, who was gearing up to attack the crowd with a T-shirt bazooka. With his pith helmet on, he had no time for a minor interaction with an outsider such as me. Again, no starling revelations here. The most telling moment came from watching The Miz walk in a small circle while practicing his lines before heading out on stage. That didn't surprise me really. The Miz actually runs the junket scene, and I once followed him during a Maggie Gyllenhaal interview. But who knew he practiced his lines before walking the plank? Not me.
Yes, believe it or not, some of the show is rehearsed. But not in ways you might imagine. The Superstars (rule number 2 of WWE: you never call them wrestlers, especially to their face) do not run their lines, with the exception of maybe The Miz, or their moves prior to heading into the ring for live television. Despite that, we were still not allowed to go near the stage during practice. What happens during rehearsal is a run through of hitting specific marks. And a generalization of what the script entails as far as dialogue. While there are written passages, the Superstars themselves are held responsible for riffing and curbing their own storylines. A later showdown between Cena and McMahon proves this to be true, with John, who is becoming quite an accomplished actor in his own right, revealing a bit of heart and pathos in his speech against McMahon's recent abhorrent attitude towards the legacy of former Superstars. These guys are all great ad-libbers. And I, for one, believed in the words that were coming out of their mouths. Much more then the fists being throw from their muscle-bound shoulders.
Anyone who's ever considered John Cena nothing more than a monosyllabic slab of meat need not spend more than ten minutes with him to find a riffing, well-spoken intellectual shuffled into a shit brick house of a man. While backstage, we were offered the change to watch him run through both a live webcast to promote his appearance on Psych, alongside that show's star Dule Hill, as well as a couple of WWE Monday Night RAW interstitials that were shot with great calm and patience just moments before Raw went live on air. The guy is great at improvisational comedy. When asked if he's ever going to star in a wicked adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with his much smaller doppelganger Matt Damon, the man is quick to quip, "I get that all the time. I look like Matt Damon. If I ate Matt Damon." He's funny and personable. And he doesn't opt for a wardrobe change. Instead of hitting the dressing room, he hits the ring in the same clothes he's had on all day. And then strips them off and tosses them to kids in the audience. Before battling Sheamus , Cena also took some time out of his seriously busy schedule to entertain a couple of Make-A-Wish kids. John is the most requested Wish asked of the foundation, and he loves lending his hand to those in need.
The one thing John didn't have time for was an interview. The WWE Superstars don't like to engage with the media on an intimate level. Unless they have something outside of pro-wrestling to promote. Cody Rhodes lied when asked to speak with us, telling the publicist that he'd already spent his time in the trenches. Before settling into the arena to watch our live show, we were eventually graced with two sit down chats. Both Santino Marella and Ted DiBiase, Jr. had side-projects that they wanted to discuss. And they didn't mind dispelling some of the more rampant rumors about their chosen profession in the process.
In recent months, Marella has become the go-to cutup for comedy relief. Though a two-time Intercontinental Champion, his new signature move in the ring is slapstick. He wanted to meet with us to reveal an important piece of information, "They feel I am the next one to cross over. I am going to be a big Hollywood star outside of wrestling. The WWE is getting me warmed up by allowing me to interact with a lot of big Hollywood stars." He then leaned in to drop the big news, "The scoop is I have shot the first few episodes of the Santino Marella sitcom. The first season will air on WWE.com. Then we will take it to network television. It is about the home life of Santino Marella. It's like Seinfeld. My girlfriend is Beth Phoenix. And my best friend is Vladimir. It doesn't tie into Raw it all. It will focus on the two days of the week that I am at home. It is about our home life, in Tampa, Florida." For the duration of this schpill, it seems that Santino is putting us on. "It's not a reality show. Unless you consider WWE reality. Then maybe." It is soon pointed out by one of my peers that Marella is actually an actor named Anthony Carelli, and that Marella is his wrestling stage name. Even in print, he doesn't drop the accent. He never lets us in on the real guy behind the wrestler. But his sitcom is quite real. Interestingly enough, Santino warned us, "A personal goal of mine is to make everyone break character on live TV by making them laugh. I've had some success. Kane was one, I made him laugh. John Cena, too. Batista once. I try all the time." He ended our short chat by revealing that he never watches TV. At all. "Maybe the news. But that's it."
Ted DiBiase Jr. is currently pimping his Direct-to-DVD sequel The Marine 2, a franchise he took over from John Cena. We've talked with him about the project before, which was released on December 29th of last year. As it's a WWE production, its still being heavily promoted. It even gets the spotlight during a break in the live telecast. The DiBiase name is instantly associated with the world of pro-wrestling. Ted's father is, of course, "The Million Dollar Man", and his grandmother was a wrestler way back in the day. All of them have played the heel. Did Ted always know this was his destiny? "Definitely. I always wanted to wrestle. My dad was a wrestler. My Grandfather. My grandmother. I am third generation. Growing up, my father was pretty adamant about me not wrestling. But he changed his mind after I completed college. That was the stipulation." It's quickly pointed out that most of the WWE Superstars are educated and well-versed in other areas outside of the ring.
"What we do is so hard. You have to be away from your family for so long. It takes its toll. My dad did this for twenty-three years. When he was wrestling, it was every day. We at least get the luxury of going home for three or four days a week. My dad would be gone for two or three weeks at a time. It was a lot different then it is now." DiBiase was one of the few wrestlers willing to talk with us for an extended period. And his views were quite sobering. He was quick to point out some of the biggest public misconceptions about the sport, "Number one? We are extremely talented athletes. We're not just a couple of meatheads. Now you have a lot of educated individuals in the WWE. And they are good people. A good example? I have gotten the question a lot, 'What did you think about the movie The Wrestler?' They think that's an accurate depiction of what we do. And it's totally wrong. That movie could have just as easily been labeled 'The Football Player' or 'The Baseball Player'. 'The Business Man'. Or the drug rep. It's all about the choices that you make. I have a cool family. I have a loving wife. I have a college education. I am good with my money. I love my wife. I have never done drugs. I choose not to. What we do now is promote a family-friendly organization. It's a family product. Its cool to look out in the crowd and see so many young kids again. We went through that era where we were just going for the ratings. The Stone Cold era. It wasn't catered to young children. We've finally gotten back to what got us here in the first place. And it's exciting. We're not a bunch of steroid users. We can't do it because of the Wellness Policy, which is strictly enforced. We're not those kinds of guys anymore. We want the mainstream people to understand that. We do movies now. I just did one. There are a lot of guys in the locker room that are talented enough to bring in an outside audience not familiar with wrestling. This is a form of entertainment that we chose. And its one that we love to do."
Ted left us with that, ready for his Legacy match against D-Generation X. Our time spent backstage was fun, but not too insightful. We didn't learn any big secrets, or see anything out of the norm. It was akin to traveling the underground tunnels of Disneyland. The costume characters are walking around away from the spotlight, but seldom do they pull off their mask and actually talk to you outside the realm of their performance. They simply smile and wave, just as they do while traipsing through the park. The WWE is a guarded operation. And there isn't going to be a big reveal as close as a closed curtain. Even after the show, the group proves to be rather morose at a celebratory latenight dinner. A few of the exhausted wrestlers, including Cena, Shawn Michaels, and MVP, gather in the lounge of the nearby hotel to share drinks (mostly Coca-Colas) and stories. This isn't a party atmosphere. It's just some average shmoes enjoying a moment of rest. In baggy clothes and turned-down hats, they are easy to miss amongst the nearby partying Landscape and Gardening crowd, who are also in town for a convention. An old man approached Jerry Lawler for a photograph, ignoring the younger guys at the table. And that's as exciting as the evening ever gets.
The real excitement is found in the ring, under a million flashing lights, surrounded by a thousand screaming fans. WWE Monday Night RAW is great, goofy fun for the whole family. But there's nothing quite like watching it play out live, in an arena, enclosed within a canopy of paying customers. The experience has definitely made me a fan of the enterprise. And I'm not ashamed to admit that. If ever given the chance to attend WWE Monday Night RAW live ever again, I would go in a heartbeat. There's nothing else quite like it. It's our modern day traveling Circus. And its well worth the price of admission. The spectacle that is RAW? Whoop-doo!
Eat food! Kill Grandma! Drink the rain and watch pro-wrestling. Its good for you.