WrestleMania ‘Goes Hollywood' This Weekend, But It's Facing Stiff New Competition
This weekend is WWE’s WrestleMania, the Super Bowl of the athletic fantasy known as professional wrestling, and it’s being held at our own SoFi Stadium. The event is the culmination of a year’s worth of storylines.
It comes at a time when the professional wrestling business is hotter than it’s been in years. While it deals with the same long-term downward trends in ratings as other broadcast entertainment, the WWE has been having some of its biggest live attendance numbers in years.
That includes the continued growth of WrestleMania, which moved from being just one night to two over the last few years — meaning tens of thousands of wrestling fans are about to take over SoFi this Saturday and Sunday.
The competition and the fight
That growth may also be driven by renewed competition. After WWE bought its biggest national rival — WCW, back in 2001 — the organization enjoyed two decades without serious threats to their business. But 2019 saw the formation of AEW — All Elite Wrestling, which offered a real alternative with a more athletic style of wrestling rather than WWE’s traditional focus on the athletes’ size.
Last year, it seemed like AEW could offer a true neck-and-neck challenge. But when a real-life backstage brawl between members of AEW’s roster resulted in real-life suspensions of multiple top stars, the promotion lost momentum. Meanwhile, WWE continued to rise on the back of several storylines that have captured fans’ imaginations.
“It was hard for a while, because it seemed like there was just a lot of controversy coming out,” YouTube host Denise Salcedo said.
Salcedo was at the AEW show the night that fight went down and filmed their post-show press conference, not knowing what was about to happen. At the press conference, wrestler CM Punk delivered a verbal attack against SoCal wrestling tag team the Young Bucks.
The Young Bucks worked behind the scenes to launch AEW — they’re also executive vice presidents for the promotion. Punk complained about how they handled matters behind the scenes involving several other wrestlers.
The Young Bucks went to Punk’s dressing room after the press conference, spawned by his comments, and a brawl broke out that involved fellow top star Kenny Omega and led to everyone involved being suspended — significantly hampering their shows going forward and allowing WWE to stop playing defense.
The video went on to get 1.6 million views online.
“The whole time I was thinking, ‘Make sure you’re recording,’” Salcedo said. “‘You are getting probably history in the moment, right now.’”
Ring Of Honor
Despite hitting some speed bumps, AEW’s still doing well. They recently purchased Ring Of Honor, a promotion that was once the third largest in the industry, and they’re using it to spin off a separate brand.
“I think it’s so cool. It’s got such a different feel,” former ROH wrestler and downtown L.A. resident P.J. Black said. He also wrestled in WWE as Justin Gabriel and has used the nickname “the Darewolf” due to his daring style and real-life daredevil hobbies.
In its earlier incarnation, ROH helped to popularize many of the wrestlers and the style that AEW has embraced — but it had lost relevance in recent years, with storylines fans found less compelling and much of their talent being featured elsewhere.
“I know my expectations were not too high, but it ended up being good,” Salcedo said. “People want to keep the spirit alive of what Ring of Honor is — or was.”
The new version of ROH has a pay-per-view this Friday — SuperCard Of Honor — being held live here in L.A. They’re looking to grab the eyes of fans who travel from all over the globe to go to WrestleMania, along with those paying close attention from wherever they live.
The promotion is avoiding holding an AEW-branded show here this weekend, both to keep away from competing with their ROH show and to avoid looking too much like they’re riding WWE’s coattails.
A lot of the talent that built competition like AEW came not just from other independent promotions, but out of WWE itself. That includes stars like former WWE Champion Bryan Danielson, as well as current ROH World Champion Claudio Castagnoli.
AEW’s rise has helped to improve business conditions for wrestlers, giving them more negotiating power than they’ve had in a long time.
“It’s definitely great for the fans — they have alternatives — but it’s also great for the entertainers,” Black said. “We have a lot of options. There’s places to go and more eyes.”
Black said it feels like the beginning of a new era. “Wrestling’s super mainstream again. ... All the wrestlers who adapt to this will move forward, and the other ones that don’t adapt will fall out.”
Black’s an example of why talent might leave a historically dominant promotion like WWE for an up-and-coming rival like AEW, or what’s traditionally been a more boutique promotion like ROH. While still with the company, Black asked for a release from his contract.
“That was a very, very, very tough decision,” Black said. “But as an artist, wrestling’s an art form, and it’s my way of expressing myself. And I just felt like I was being oppressed — a lot of my ideas weren’t taken.”
That same desire has led numerous other wrestlers to join AEW, which has elevated a high-flying, athletic style, and in the process pushed WWE itself to put on more athletic matches.
WrestleMania Goes Hollywood
You’ll be able to compare those products as WWE holds its first WrestleMania in the Los Angeles area in nearly 20 years this weekend. The last was 2005’s WrestleMania 21 which, like this year’s event, was marketed as “WrestleMania Goes Hollywood.”
It’s been so long since WrestleMania came to town that YouTube host Salcedo was just a tween when she rolled up to the show — back when it was just one night and at a much smaller venue, at what was then known as the Staples Center.
“Back then, [I was] this girl that was getting out of her car with sweaty hands 'cause she was going to her first WrestleMania,” Salcedo said.
This year, one of the stars looking to continue building his name is Angelo Dawkins, who’s in a WWE tag team known as the Street Profits with wrestler Montez Ford.
“We’re both really big, for being athletic. So when people see us in person, they’re like ‘Oh wait, you guys are way bigger than I thought,’” Dawkins said. “You take into consideration what they see us do on TV or live and in person, they’re like ‘Oh my God, big dudes their size shouldn’t be moving like that.’”
The team’s gone from being in WWE development league NXT to appearing on the last couple of WrestleManias.
“It was funny, 'cause when a bunch of the guys saw we finally made it, they were like ‘Dang, bro, about time man — you’ve been down in NXT since the dinosaur ages,’” Dawkins said.
While AEW was building its business largely on smaller wrestlers who could do more impressive high-flying, trained through various schools and putting in time on the independent wrestling scene, WWE has doubled down on recruiting real-world athletes and training them in-house. That includes recruiting Dawkins straight out of college amateur wrestling.
“I was one of the guys that they started with. But now they’re making it a focal point, which is cool, and getting everybody pretty much straight out of college,” Dawkins said. “Everybody’s coming from different sports, different backgrounds in college — you’ve got tennis, baseball, football, track, long jump, basketball.”
Dawkins called Ford his brother and had big praise for him. Ford has had some solo showcase matches recently — including catching attention by dropping from the roof of a steel structure onto a group of his opponents during last month’s Elimination Chamber show.
“That dude’s insanely talented, man. He’s a future world champ,” Dawkins said.
Montez and Dawkins are in a four-way showcase match at WrestleMania against three other teams.
“You just got four teams that got insane athletes, dudes that can run through brick walls,” Dawkins said. “Even the Hollywood sign’s saying 'Dang, they’re on fire. Oh my God.’”
Southern California continues to have a huge impact on the wrestling business — you could say that Hollywood’s gone WrestleMania. Several wrestlers who made their name right here are playing big roles this weekend. Local promotion Pro Wrestling Guerrilla has been a feeder in recent years for the major wrestling companies — their reputation has led to tickets often being near-instant sellouts.
AEW’s Young Bucks were regulars in PWG on their way up. So were real-life friends Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, playing both allies and foils for one another. Now Zayn and Owens are set to team up at WrestleMania as part of the conclusion to one of the hottest storylines of the past year.
Taking over the city
WWE offers a cavalcade of events beyond just WrestleMania throughout the week leading up to Mania, from an annual WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony to a Saturday morning event from the NXT brand. And it’s never just WWE putting on events.
“These shows are all competing with one another, and some of them are running against each other,” Salcedo said. “I mean, the Ring of Honor Supercard of Honor is running against SmackDown and Hall of Fame.”
It even continues after WrestleMania — WWE’s broadcasting Monday’s Raw the next night from the Crypto.com Arena.
“Mania week is usually crazy. As an indie wrestler, we always travel to the Mania city because there’s so many shows happening,” Black said. “ROH is running, Impact is running, New Japan is running a show — everyone, every single independent promotion you can imagine is running a show.”
There’s even former WWE wrestler the Undertaker doing a storytelling show, along with a book launch party for a Vince McMahon biography, the annual music-based WaleMania event — and Wednesday night’s video game tournament ArcadeMania, where fans got to compete against pro wrestlers.
Showing how close-knit the wrestling community can be, the ArcadeMania event was organized by the former roommate of current WWE wrestler L.A. Knight.
“He has the arcade machines at his house, and we always used to run these leagues — I’m top five in L.A., by the way,” Black said.
Black’s currently a free agent and plans to keep wrestling as long as his body holds up. Along with the toll of the various hard landings of wrestling, one of his other athletic hobbies — base-jumping — led to two shattered ankles that he’s had to train his way back from.
“I like having my freedom and picking and choosing, but sometimes you need that stability too,” Black said. “So I have been talking to some people, looking around — right now, it’s tough, because it’s Mania season. Everyone’s focused on that.”
So who knows what’s next for the Darewolf — though as he walked by WWE tryouts earlier this week with his morning coffee, he joked that maybe he should audition with them. A handful of AEW wrestlers have headed back to WWE — most notably Cody Rhodes, who’ll be challenging Roman Reigns for the world title this weekend in one of WrestleMania’s main events.
The big shows
This year’s WrestleMania is a big shift from just a couple years ago, when the pandemic forced WWE to film WrestleMania in their training facility rather than in front of the fans.
“It’s been unreal, man. The fans are literally a lifeline for us — they’re our electricity,” Dawkins said. “That adrenaline, that rush — the crowd roaring your name, screaming your name, chanting all the chants that they do, and just being involved in the match.”
Dawkins teased that you should watch out for the Street Profits' ring gear.
“Definitely, the gear going to be nice. We got it done. It’s going to be special. It’s going to be on point,” Dawkins said.
He also has some non-wrestling revenge he’s looking to get.
“I can assure you, right now I’m thinking about getting revenge for the Bengals for losing at SoFi, the Super Bowl a couple years ago,” the Cincinnati-raised Dawkins said.
You can watch WrestleMania streaming on NBCUniversal’s Peacock service this weekend, as well as in person at SoFi Stadium. And there are always more wrestling-related events to come — there’s another ArcadeMania already scheduled for April 20.
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