By Nick Zaccardi
May 15, 2013

The "Rumble on the Rails" wrestling extravaganza had it all. A spectacular setting inside Grand Central Terminal hosted Olympic champions, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and even a Baldwin brother. Most vocal was a pocketed yet powerful Iranian fan section -- a few dozen or so -- in the highest rows of bleachers Wednesday afternoon. They blew on kazoo-like instruments, waved flags and sounded air horns. The main concourse of workday commuters (750,000 churn through Grand Central daily) were separated by a partitioned black curtain, 50 feet of hallway and vast security (including dogs).

The setting was certainly unique. Intimate, too. Inside Vanderbilt Hall, which resembled a high school gym layout, organizers filled two sets of bleachers on each side of the mat, behind VIP floor seats, for a total capacity of about 700.

Security tried to usher the Iranian fans out of the hall shortly after their nation crushed the U.S. 6-1, but they would have none of it. They swarmed a perspiring man they described as "the Michael Jordan of wrestling" in Iran, where only soccer is cherished more, for autographs and photos.

"Our heroes are wrestlers," said Pouyan Mashayekh, 40, born in Iran but a New Yorker for the last 12 years, who cheered so hard he was still sweating bullets a half-hour after the last match. During the action, Iranian fans alternated among three traditional, rhythmic Farsi sports chants that translate loosely to American words of encouragement, such as, "we're proud of you" and "great job."

"It felt like home," supporter Reza Razavi said.

The louder cheers could be heard from within the main concourse. There, a terminal tour guide yelled out station facts over the commotion -- "Grand Central was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976!" -- to a group of about 20 Canadian high schoolers.

Told about the wrestling meet, the guide, name-tagged Brian, turned his head sharply.

"Is that what that is?" he said.

"I love that roaring," one Vancouver woman said. They continued on the tour, where Brian promised to give away Grand Central secrets at the next stop.

Save the Iran chants, the audible buzz meshed well with the normal hustle and bustle in this, the station's 100th year of existence. Passers-by paid little to no attention to the men behind that black curtain. The 4:34 to New Haven, 4:45 to Poughkeepsie and 5:20 to New Rochelle continued to run like clockwork.

Vanderbilt Hall, 12,000 square feet and marked by five glowing gold chandeliers and a pink marble surface, is no stranger to strange events. It's been turned into a bowling alley for a tournament awarding a $64,000 college scholarship. It hosts the world's largest squash spectator event every January, a crown jewel of Squash Week in New York, according to New York Squash. Even Wladimir Klitschko and Laila Ali have held public workouts at Grand Central.

Planning took months for this event, dubbed the "Rumble on the Rails" as part of wrestling's movement to avoid the chopping block from the Olympics beginning in 2020. But the setup took just one night, said Marjorie Anders, a spokesperson for Metro-North Railroad, which operates out of Grand Central.

The cost? "Twenty-five thousand to rent the room," she said.

After Iran, the U.S. grappled with Russia, whose contingent showed solidarity with matching black shirts and hats. "Wrestling, keep the dream alive," was one motto. On the side of the caps, in Russian, read, "To be continued."

The decision on the sport's Olympic future will come down in September. U.S. wrestling royalty made its presence known. 2000 Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner, now a physical education teacher, did commentary for NBC Sports Network. 1996 Olympic champion Kurt Angle, now with Total Nonstop Action (TNA) wrestling, took a microphone in between matches and voiced his support to save Olympic wrestling.

"We're in a freaking train station," Angle said. "Whoever thought of this idea was a genius. When I first heard of it, I thought it was a joke. ... I said, 'What are they going to do about security?'"

Good question.

"For security reasons, we're going to have no comment," said the supervisor of security, who wouldn't share his name.

Others did share. "There were security concerns because of who was involved, the nations involved," Anders said. "A very heavy security presence."

Non-wrestling celebrities included actors Billy Baldwin, noticeable in his 'save Olympic wrestling' T-shirt, all-access credential and bedhead, and Mark Ruffalo, in a sport jacket and dress pants.

"I'm acting as a freakin' publicist behind the scenes," said Baldwin, who listed Mario Lopez, Matthew Modine, Tom Arnold, Randy Couture and Jon "Bones" Jones as hopeful visitors for Sunday's U.S.-Iran meet in Los Angeles.

Then there was Ronnie Lott, a special guest of ESPN's Mike Golic.

"I got to meet my childhood hero, Dan Gable," said Lott, nearly welling up talking about his "bucket-list moment." The Hall of Fame safety, who once told doctors to cut off the tip of his pinky finger to keep playing, bowed down while waxing poetic about the 1972 Olympic wrestling champion Gable.

Harry Kelly, the superintendent of building services at Grand Central, walked out of his office to take a peek behind those black curtains. Since 1973, Kelly has worked his way up the terminal ladder from a lost-and-found attendant. Two days at Grand Central stand out -- Sept. 11, 2001, of course, and Feb. 24, 1980. In 1980, Kelly remembers being compelled by emotion and getting on the public address system.

"'Attention please,'" he told the terminal. "'The United States has just defeated Finland and they have just won the gold medal.'

"People stopped, dropped their bags and got louder and louder (cheering). I got tingles."

There was no such announcement Wednesday. Kelly propped his feet on his desk and eased back.

"I've been here so long, nothing surprises me, but what surprised me was the combatants," he said of seeing the U.S., Iran and Russia on the card.

The weekday afternoon won't soon be forgotten by several hundred who felt reverberations inside Vanderbilt Hall. Outside of it? Business goes on.

"It's just another event in Grand Central," Anders said. "Just another day in New York."

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