WASHINGTON — Thirty years ago this month, on March 31, 1985, mad genius Vince McMahon introduced us to the wild world of Wrestlemania.
That night, Hulk Hogan and Mr. T — recent co-stars in “Rocky III” (1982) — joined forces to win the very first main event, their hands raised in victory by none other than special referee Muhammad Ali.
Since then, the World Wrestling Federation has become World Wrestling Entertainment and pro wrestling has shifted from simple “sport” to self-proclaimed “sports entertainment.”
That is to say, it has embraced the very things that make it a unique television product — every bit as dangerous as any sport, every bit as crazy as any soap opera and decidedly more real than any movie.
This Sunday, the annual tradition continues with Wrestlemania 31, where Roman Reigns will challenge champion Brock Lesnar for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
“For me, this could be the only year,” Reigns tells WTOP. “This could be the only opportunity I ever have to main-event Wrestlemania and to fight for the WWE Championship. … I’ve had a couple little speed bumps to get past … but I’m back to where I know I should be and I’m focused.”
Reigns qualified for the Wrestlemania main event after winning The Royal Rumble, then fending off fan-favorite Daniel Bryan in last month’s PPV Fastlane to remain the No. 1 contender.
“The very first time I knew I was going to be in the Rumble, I was so excited. I had a great showing, ended up breaking the elimination record, taking that from Kane,” Reigns says of last year’s 12-elimination performance. “And then this year, I came in with an even bigger chip on my shoulder, trying to prove that I could seal the deal. … To be able to say that I won the Royal Rumble match and I’m going on to main-event Wrestlemania was just a dream come true.”
Lesnar is looking to shatter those dreams, rolling with momentum after taking the title from John Cena at Summerslam and breaking The Undertaker’s 21-year streak at last year’s Wrestlemania.
“It’s going to be a level of fight that I have to bring to him that’s going to shock him,” Reigns says. “I’m willing to go places and push myself, and whatever I have to do, I’m going into this knowing this could be my only opportunity, and as a young man, when you have that circumstance riding on your shoulders, the majority of the time you have to do everything you can do to get it done.”
It should be interesting to gauge the crowd, as bitter Daniel Bryan fans are taking to the blogosphere to rally chants against Reigns — which wouldn’t be a first for Wrestlemania, as we saw during the babyface-heel flip between Hulk Hogan and The Rock at Wrestlemania 18.
Reigns tells WTOP that sort of thing doesn’t faze him in the slightest.
“The crowd can do anything they want.,” he says. “I perform five to six times a week. I deal with a different crowd every single night. I’ve heard plenty of cheers in one night; I’ve heard mixed reactions in one night, and I’ve heard loud boos in one night. So for me as a performer, it just keeps me on my toes and I think it’s made me a lot better. It’s really added a different element to my performance.”
In the end, a great match will make believers out of any crowd.
Several stand out throughout the past 30 years, Reigns says, especially during Wrestlemania 3, when Hulk Hogan slammed Andre the Giant in the main event and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat beat Macho Man Randy Savage for the Intercontinental Title in a match that was “before its time.”
“I think that structure of match and the way they did things kind of set the tone for the way you see wrestling nowadays — that run-and-gun, hard-hitting pace, just stay on the tip of your toes, you never know what’s going to happen-style match,” Reigns says.
The in-ring evolution continued with his all-time favorite wrestler, Bret “The Hitman” Hart.
“He knew just about every wrestling move in the book and every type of hold and just such a technical, smart wrestler. … If there’s something he could do, he could tie you up in a pretzel real quick,” Reigns says. “I wanted to just be one of those kids in the front row that got the (sun)glasses from him. That seemed like the coolest thing in the world to me.”
When he wasn’t idolizing Hart, Reigns spent his childhood wrestling his second cousins, Jimmy and Jey Uso — now known as the twin tag-team The Usos — who stopped by WTOP last month.
“We first met when we were 4 or 5, and we lived just blocks away. I may have spent more time in their house than my own,” Reigns jokes. “We used to have wrestling matches that would go like the whole day. We would start in the den and then we’d move into the family room and get yelled at to get out of there, and then we’d fight through the kitchen, all the way out to the outside and into the pool. Once you get into the pool, then we all become high flyers.”
Now, decades after those diving-board flips gave new meaning to the Superfly Snuka “splash,” Reigns has turned his childhood dreams into reality. As he steps through the curtain Sunday night, he’ll have to pinch himself to believe that he’s performing in the main event of wrestling’s biggest night.
“I’m just hoping that I have like a photographic memory that can just take down all this awesome stuff that’s happening and just be in the moment and just enjoy it,” he says. “It’s hard when you have the amount of pressure and the responsibility in something as big as Wrestlemania. But if I can just calm my nerves and be in the moment, it’s going to be the best day of my life.”