In the 25 years since I first saw Adrian Adonis struck, as he
entered the ring, by a potato thrown from the upper bowl of the
St. Paul Civic Center, I've had the same high regard for
professional wrestlers (who put up with pain and indignity with
equal aplomb) as I have for my brother Tom (who can still throw
an uncooked potato 300 feet on the fly).
But I never thought I could be a pro wrestler until now. "Sure,
we could do something with you," says Triple H, the world
champion of WWE Raw, while casting a shadow over the tall,
skinny, bald writer before him. "You could be...the Ballpoint
Pen. We'd put a little blue cap on you. You could go in the ring
and stain people." With a good name--Killer Kowalski, Gorilla
Monsoon, the Ballpoint Pen--a wrestler is already halfway to
"I've wrestled in Iraq, North Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia,
Kuala Lumpur, Germany, France, Finland and England," says Chris
Benoit, between forkfuls of salad before a live Raw match in
Atlanta. "And everywhere I've gone, I've heard people whisper,
'That's the Rabid Wolverine.'"
Often, it's the only English they know. A few years ago, at a
sold-out show in Yokohama, a hirsute heavyweight named A-Train
endured 15,000 Japanese chanting, in heavily accented English, a
taunt they'd learned from TV: "Shave your back! Shave your back!
Shave your back!" Alas, such pile-driver diplomacy doesn't work
in reverse. "Once, in Japan, I bought a 16-cassette series of
Learn to Speak Japanese tapes," says Stone Cold Steve Austin, the
former champion, with a doleful sigh. "I was flying home, halfway
through the first tape, when I realized I was never going to
The professional wrestlers of WWE are a tight group. Or rather, a
tights group. "I spend more time with these people than with my
own wife and children," says Benoit, who will challenge Triple H
and Heartbreak Kid in the three-way main event at Madison Square
Garden this Sunday in WrestleMania XX, in which Sgt. Pepper meets
Sgt. Slaughter. It was 20 years ago today, after all, that
wrestling returned, for better and worse, into mainstream
pop-culture consciousness, though the wrestling fraternity always
has been--as Benoit notes-- "a big but very dysfunctional
Literally so. Triple H is married to Stephanie McMahon, daughter
of WWE capo Vince McMahon, whose son, Shane, recently had his
first child. "The kid looks just like his grandfather," says
Triple H, a 34-year-old New Hampshire native whose real name is
Paul Levesque. "Has a cleft chin, just like Vince. Cries when
he's hungry, just like Vince."
As he speaks, Triple--as I've come to call him--is strolling
through the Gwinnett Arena, seven hours before showtime, as a
crew assembles the 40-foot TitanTron in-house television screen.
"I wouldn't even know where to start," the champ marvels, pausing
to watch the crew work. "I can't even hook up my VCR."
Outside the arena a crew is rehearsing one of tonight's stunts,
in which Stone Cold will drive an ATV over Vince McMahon's black
stretch limousine, while 12,000 cheering fans watch on the
TitanTron. "On one show we had to have Kurt Angle hose down Stone
Cold with milk," recalls Kevin Dunn, executive producer of Raw
and SmackDown! "And I'm thinking, Where are we going to get a
milk truck on a day's notice in Hershey, Pennsylvania?"
The beauty of sports, we are told, lies in its unscripted
spontaneity: Anything can happen. But don't tell that to Raw
cameraman Marty Miller, who also shoots major league baseball
games. "We were in Milwaukee," says Miller, "and Kevin Dunn said
to me, 'We're about to run over a brand-new Lincoln with an ATV.
Would you rather be here or at a Brewers game?'"
"Unlike sports where the game might suck and Shaq doesn't play
because he has a stubbed toe, our outcomes are predetermined,"
says Triple H. "Predetermined that it's a hell of a show. How
many times have you spent $120 and left a stadium saying,
'Goddammit, that game sucked. Stupid Red Sox.'"
In professional wrestling the space just offstage--behind a
curtain, at the top of a steel ramp--is called Gorilla Position,
in homage to grand-entrance-making Gorilla Monsoon. A wrestler in
Gorilla Position, like a skier in the chute at Kitzbuhel, is
uneasily awaiting his cue before being belched out into a raging
arena. "When you hear that music," says Chris (Y2J) Jericho, the
son of former New York Ranger Ted Irvine, "you know it's time to
make the donuts."
At the moment Vince McMahon is in Gorilla Position. When he
enters the arena, 10,000 voices chant a seven-letter word that
sounds vaguely like casserole. "You call this Southern
hospitality?" McMahon says to his paying customers. "You people
For an instant I'm allowed to stand in Gorilla Position and
entertain the notion of wrestling as the Ballpoint. I briefly
envision tag-teaming with my brother, who has become, in my
reverie, an Irish heel called Potatoes O'Gratin.
Through the curtain the crowd is baying. "We get all kinds," says
Triple H, who has met the Sultan of Brunei and the Saudi royal
family. "Those who've dined with kings and queens and those who
dine on pork and beans." It's intoxicating, standing in Gorilla
Position, with Ric Flair and Sgt. Slaughter waiting in the wings.
"Cue the music!" I want to shout. "It's time to make the donuts!"
Instead, I take a seat in the stands. It's time, I've decided, to
eat the donuts.
"We could do something with you," says WWE Raw champion Triple H
to the tall, skinny writer before him.