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 immortality.
"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 speak Japanese."
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 family."
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.' "