One thing is clear when old lords of the ring gather for a Hall of Fame induction: Like spandex, the memories—and the appeal—of pro wrestling's graying stars forever hold their shape
This is an article from the July 6, 2015 issue
THERE ARE no guidelines for induction into the WWE Hall of Fame—no eligibility rules, no formal voting process. And although each year's incoming class is celebrated onstage in front of thousands of people, an eccentric red-carpet event that is always a much-anticipated highlight of WWE's WrestleMania weekend, no building houses the Hall. It is another facet of pro wrestling, like Hulk Hogan's hair and, yea, the matches themselves, that is not exactly real.
The first inductee, in 1993, was the verifiably peerless 7'4", 520-pound Andre Rousimoff—this Hall of Fame, in other words, was built on the shoulders of a Giant—and 22 years later, there is no surefire way to assess a candidate's chances of joining a madcap membership that now numbers more than 100 (from Abdullah the Butcher and Bobo Brazil to Yokozuna and Larry Zbyszko). But this much, at least, seems certain: If you are a wrestler of enormous heft, if your hair is bleached blond and your ring costume is a nod to '70s sex-club fetish wear, if your signature move involves lowering your terrifying rump (a pair of massive gelatinous haunches split by a slender thong) onto your helpless opponent's face, well, then you are a WWE Hall of Fame shoo-in.
"The Stinkface started one night down in Mobile, Alabama, in 2000," says 49-year-old Rikishi, né Solofa Fatu Jr. The 6'1", 425-pound former Intercontinental champ began his wrestling career in 1985, and now he is speaking in a corporate office at San Jose's SAP Center, a few hours before he will clamber onstage and officially join the Hall's class of 2015 along with the unbearable Bushwhackers, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the late and indisputably great Macho Man Randy Savage. In the backroom with Rikishi are his considerably more slender twin sons, Jimmy and Jey Uso (their wrestling names, dude), who are pursuing careers as a manic, face-painted tag team and who are very proud of their old man.
"So I'm working a match with Big Boss Man, the late Ray Traylor," Rikishi continues. "I clothesline him, and he's slumped in the corner against the turnbuckle when I hear this little old lady call out with her Southern accent, 'Hey, Rikishi! Turn around and put your ass in his face!' So I decided to do it! I started slapping my ass, and as I took my time walking toward Boss Man, there was an energy from the crowd like I had never felt. When I sat on his face, the whole place just popped!
"The next evening, on Monday Night Raw, I officially debuted the Stinkface. I knew that when Vince McMahon"—the then and present hands-on chairman of the federation—"saw the move, he would set everyone up to get one, and he did. Even him. That Raw show was the biggest night of my career."
WWE Raw, as the three-hour live program is now called, debuted in 1993, and WWE creatively (and at least somewhat accurately) categorizes it as "the longest-running weekly program in U.S. prime-time history." Longer than Lassie. More episodes than The Simpsons. Although the show, along with the sport, has evolved over the years, moving away from hard-edged story lines toward more family-oriented productions (no blood, less cussing), Raw is, at its essence, the same show it was on Day One.
Rikishi's sublime ridiculousness, combined with his genuine physical presence, gets to the heart of wrestling's appeal, the things that endure, "Then. Now. Forever," as one WWE slogan has it. A good Stinkface, much like a figure-four leg lock or a smack with a folding chair, will never go out of style. The success of WWE today—and by some metrics it has never been stronger—stems directly from the 1980s, when WrestleMania debuted, when Hogan appeared in Rocky III and on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, and when McMahon announced what everyone of even the most modest intellectual means already understood: The matches were scripted, the whole wrestling enterprise more a show than a sporting event.
McMahon's disclosure was made largely for business reasons, to help the federation (then known as the WWF) avoid paying fees to certain athletic commissions. But it also put into play pro wrestling's existential dilemma. "If you don't want to believe in kayfabe even a little, you can't be a wrestling fan," says Stu Saks, the longtime editor and publisher of Pro Wrestling Illustrated, referring to the industry's term (derived, perhaps, from pig Latin) for made-up things being passed off as true. "The kayfabe era has taken a very long time to unravel because not everyone wants it to. You have to want the illusion. Of course you know it isn't real—how could it be?—but you suspend disbelief. We find ourselves straddling the line, thinking, Well, maybe that one part of it is real.... Or is it?"
"Growing up, I always wanted to believe in the story lines so I could be emotionally involved," says Big Show (given name: Paul Wight), who won this year's battle royal at WrestleMania. Show, who goes 7 feet, 450 pounds, came into pro wrestling in the mid-1990s and was initially billed as the son of Andre the Giant, a backstory he has long since shed. "There's a part of me that wants that magic. Just like watching Breaking Bad when Jesse goes off on a tangent and you're like, What is with this guy? You think about him as a real person. In wrestling, you want to buy in enough that the soap opera has your attention."
The crazy uncle in so many sports fans' closets, wrestling taps into some of the same audience that follows more widely respected pastimes. And because it demands high athleticism (ever try backflipping off the top rope?), it draws its workforce from an overlapping talent pool: Scores of WWE performers wrestled or played football in college. Current contender Roman Reigns was an All-ACC defensive tackle before failing to catch on in the NFL. Superstar Brock Lesnar is a former UFC and NCAA wrestling champion. And yet, what WWE offers is not a sport as we know it; nor is it, to borrow Big Show's analogy, precisely a soap opera. In the end it may be most helpful to think of pro wrestling—in which overmuscled men in spandex routinely soar through the air and exaggerated fiends such as the Undertaker lock victims into coffins—as a Marvel comic book that has burst from its colorful pages and come to life.
WWE MIGHT not be quite the picture of economic utopia that its organizers would have you believe, especially given that miscalculations surrounding the valuation of its 16-month-old premium digital network helped drop the outfit's stock price by almost 50% since its fleeting high of $30.94 in March 2014. But, in terms of fan engagement and reach, pro wrestling is riding a serious wave. WWE has nearly 500 million social media followers, including 350 million across its Facebook pages and 6.4 million subscribers to its YouTube channel; numbers that outpace every major U.S. sports league outside the NBA and that top any sports media outlet. The last four Manias produced four of the top nine attendance figures in wrestling history, including the 76,976 who turned out to see the 31st edition at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., in March. WrestleMania and its surrounding events—community outreach missions, merchandise bazaars, autograph signings and, of course, the Hall of Fame ceremony—bring in an estimated 125,000 fans from 40-odd countries and can add close to $150 million to a local economy. For a city bidding to host, WrestleMania is a better investment, by a long shot, than the Super Bowl, on which Glendale, Ariz., lost money this year.
"When you do business with us, we want to make it good for us—but good for you too," says WWE executive vice president Paul Levesque, also known as Triple H, an eye-poppingly buff and often dastardly in-ring competitor. "What you make when you partner with WWE is real money. Nothing fake about it."
Even in this postkayfabe era, the persistent public characterization of pro wrestling as fake does not sit kindly with those involved. Nor is it particularly accurate. Are the outcomes predetermined? Of course. The first joy of becoming champion comes not at the moment of raising a belt before the crowd, but when the wrestler gets summoned by McMahon and told that he will raise it. Are the matches choreographed? Usually, and often meticulously. "It can be like a dance routine," says Reigns, "but no one would say we're doing ballet." Are the personalities contrived? Uh, have you seen the psychotic, inbred Bray Wyatt stalking toward the ring, oil lamp in hand, trailed by a phalanx of ghouls?
But does all that mean it's fake?
"Nine back surgeries, brother," says Hulk Hogan, lowering himself gingerly into a chair in the penthouse suite at the Fairmont San Francisco two days before WrestleMania 31. "Two knee surgeries, two hip surgeries. I had my leg broken. I had a piece of my finger bitten off. Bitten off! There is nothing fake about how you feel when you wake up in the morning."
At 61, Hogan, who still gets called upon to be involved in an occasional match, remains pro wrestling's Wayne Gretzky, its Tony Hawk. At WWE's annual business partner summit earlier this year, attending sponsors received a gift bag that included an action figure: Hogan, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with HULKMANIA 1984. "And I was a guy who knew how to work," he says of those old injuries, "how to take care of myself. There were matches when I'd go all out for 30, 40 minutes. But lots of times we'd get the crowd up where it needed to be in less than 10 minutes. I'd signal to my opponent, and then Wham! My big boot, leg drop and we're out of there. You read the crowd. They guide you."
They sure do. Consider, on a relevant note, an essential moment in American theater, from the 1954 musical Peter Pan. Tinker Bell, poisoned, is dying, her fairy's light flickering out. Peter becomes distraught—and so, by proxy, does the audience. "Do you believe?" Peter shouts. (In fairies, he means.) "If you believe, clap your hands; don't let Tink die." Sure as the Neverland moon, the crowd begins to clap, with increasing intensity, until Tinkerbell glows bright. She is indeed saved by the earnest audience members, most of whom, once the houselights go up, would concede that they do not believe in fairies at all.
In WWE, such audience influence drives story lines, as evidenced by Daniel Bryan. A B-plus character of modest success whose achievements had come mainly on a lower circuit, Bryan got elevated to world heavyweight champion following a series of improbable turns, including real-life injuries to other contenders. Bryan's reign was supposed to be a stopgap, and McMahon instructed him to act like the most excited guy in the world to have won the belt, to be annoying, even, in his jubilation. So Bryan—undersized at 5'10", 210 pounds; thoughtful and gentle-seeming; pale and lousy with facial hair—started leaping spasmodically around the ring before and after matches, shouting, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" while thrusting his arms in the air. He'd behave that gleefully even after winning a decision by disqualification. The crowds, though, did not find this annoying. They loved it. Bryan was embraced as an authentic underdog and, overnight, audiences were themselves shouting "Yes! Yes! Yes!" and clamoring for him to win. T-shirts with YES! and Bryan's face printed on them sold at arena concession stands.
"Daniel Bryan isn't a guy you'd think we would put up to represent the company," says Stephanie McMahon, Vince's daughter and WWE's chief brand officer, as well as a nefarious on screen character whose story-line marriage to Triple H evolved into their real-life marriage in 2003. "But the crowd wouldn't let him go away. We have a focus group every night, in arenas"—WWE wrestlers typically work five shows a week, 52 weeks a year—"and on social media. They tell us what they want."
Against all odds Bryan was given a slot in the main event at WrestleMania 30. There, he overcame not one but two opponents, then held his belt aloft through a downpour of confetti as a Superdome crowd of more than 75,000 roared. Tinker Bell lives! "Without the fans, I had no chance. None," says Bryan. "I'm not a great athlete. I'm not dramatic. I have worked really hard in my wrestling career, but other guys have worked really hard too. I got lucky. The people held me up."
BRYAN APPEARED onstage—greeted by a thunderous roar of Yes!—at the 2015 Hall of Fame ceremony as he honored a boy named Connor Michalek, a WWE superfan who died of cancer at eight. Connor, who idolized Bryan, was the recipient of the first Warrior Award, named for the Ultimate Warrior (né Jim Hellwig), a 1980s- and '90s-era superstar who, three days after being inducted into the Hall in 2014, died of a heart attack at 54. The Warrior was on wrestlers' minds that night, and his widow, Dana Warrior, gave a stirring speech, but most of the event was leavened with good cheer. The Usos introduced Rikishi, and when the video screen behind the stage showed an image of the honoree's thonged moneymaker, his enormous and pockmarked behind, Jimmy Uso observed, "That right there put us through college."
Along with the paying crowd of more than 10,000, rows of former and current wrestlers were seated on the arena floor, heels and baby faces side by side. Dusty Rhodes, 69 and in one of his last public appearances before his death in June, said aloud as he sat down that he didn't miss the wrestling grind ("Forty-eight years was long enough!"), and the Miz, almost half Rhodes's age, wondered how good his favorite ball team, the Indians, would be this year. Jake the Snake Roberts arrived pythonless, but Sgt. Slaughter came wearing his camouflage and his sunglasses and his stiff-brimmed hat. Current superstar John Cena chatted with Hacksaw Jim Duggan, winner of the first ever Royal Rumble, in 1988, and Rowdy Roddy Piper leaned forward to say something to the Million Dollar Man, Ted DiBiase. Big Van Vader sat in the back row, squinting his 60-year-old eyes through his red leather mask while working his iPhone.
Hogan wore a slick double-breasted tux, and he led the induction of Randy Savage, recalling Macho Man's classic match with Ricky the Dragon Steamboat at WrestleMania III, in 1987. "I might have picked up Andre the Giant that night," said Hogan—which he did, to thunderous and incredulous applause—"but Randy Savage stole the show."
Meanwhile, on the floor, Bryan sat holding the hand of his wife, the wrestling diva Brie Bella, and Cena had his arm around Brie's diva sister, Nikki. Everyone laughed at the idiot Bushwhackers and everyone cheered when Schwarzenegger, who has cameoed in the ring over the years, was inducted. ("I just love watching the wrestling," the Governator said backstage.) When the flamboyant Nature Boy Ric Flair, a 16-time world champion whose pimped-out ring robe lives at the Smithsonian, came to the stage, his trademark "Wooo!" resounded from the near and far corners of the SAP Center.
Even after the four-hour program had drawn to a close and Rikishi and Kevin Nash and Triple H and Hogan and the Japanese legend Tatsumi Fujinami (also inducted) and others who'd been part of the night had gathered on stage for final photographs, the wrestlers on the arena floor did not want to leave. They mingled and talked among themselves. Two old-timers joked about all the froufrou food available at the weekend's gatherings—canapés, smoked fish, mille-feuille—and recalled how in the 1960s and '70s, when gnarly men like Harley Race ruled the roost, wrestlers were known to shoot blackbirds off telephone wires and then cook them on their cars' engine blocks on the drive to the next show. Dinner.
The wrestlers could have gone on talking all night about the way things were and the way things are in this crazy, bittersweet, beautiful, messed-up, brutal, nuthouse, one-of-a-kind "sports entertainment" racket that only they really know. Except that after a while some of the younger guys and some of the divas started to move off, talking about how they needed to get back to their rooms for a little rest, what with WrestleMania 31 just 18 hours away.