*Fair warning. I’ve never been friends with any WWE Champion.*
When I first got out of college, I was hard up for work and needed to get my foot in the door of the radio industry. I wasn’t really qualified to do much of anything else at that point, but I needed an “in.” Luckily I had a friend and former classmate who had been in my same situation a year earlier and had landed at a conservative political talk radio station in Los Angeles. Soon enough, thanks to a little help from her, I was the early morning and weekend master control engineer (fancy radio speak for sounds board guy) on a talk radio station.
The weekdays were a little boring, but the weekends are where I had the real fun. On the weekends the station broke from its usual ultra-conservative political talk format and covered a wide spectrum of topics. I worked on a fishing show, a legal advice show, even a show hosted by the owner of an all-natural supplements and vitamins store that would give out suggestions to cure what’s ailing you. The most oddly specific show was one aimed at women suffering from Alopecia, hosted by a former soap opera star. She was a very nice woman who was also completely bald. She took such pride in it, though. She also baked me treats. How could I possibly dislike her?
Something else that happened on these morning shifts, more during the week than the weekend, is celebrities would come in to do interviews via satellite. They’d come in, we’d set them up in an empty studio, and go about our day. It was always a bit strange watching my coworkers flutter around the building preparing for someone’s arrival. Being starstruck was never really something that occurred to me. At the end of the day, they were just people after all. However, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t happen once.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a professional wrestling fan since I was a kid. As those things go, it has waned over time, but it’s still something I enjoy from time to time.
The champion during that time was a man named John Layfield. Layfield had a good career as a tag team wrestler in one of my personal favorite duos, The Acolytes. One day that all changed, though. His character dramatically shifted and instead of being a beer-swilling bully for hire, he evolved into professional wrestling’s version of J.R. Ewing from the television show “Dallas”. And he was good. Good isn’t strong enough. He was amazing. It was so easy for the big, rich Texan to get us lower lifeforms to boo him for flaunting his riches and physical prowess in front of us. He craved that negative reaction and we craved giving it to him. That’s the thing about professional wrestling that not a lot of people realize, the good guys don’t matter nearly as much as the bad guys. The good is only as good as the evil it opposes in that world. Whereas the bad guy can easily feed off of the audience. Truthfully, the character of JBL wasn’t as much of a stretch for Layfield as one might expect. In reality, Layfield was a financial whiz. He would regularly appear on news programs to give stock advice and when he did it was always a little surprising. He was a well-spoken, educated man. Not exactly what you expect from a professional wrestler.
Eventually he went a step beyond appearing on shows and was given his own syndicated talk radio program heard around the country on Saturday mornings. As he was constantly on the road with the WWE wrestling in different cities nearly every day, he would wind up broadcasting his show from local affiliates in whatever town the company was running in that day. It just so happened that when the WWE made their trips through the Los Angeles region several times a year, he would broadcast out of our studios.
When someone told me “a wrestler” was coming in to host a show and I had to prep the studio, I was floored. I wasn’t sure who but I had an inkling it’d be him. Then I thought to myself, “Please don’t let him be a dick. Please.” That’s the thing. You can’t set yourself up expecting someone to be awesome because the truth is some people just aren’t cool. Additionally, everyone has an off day or may simply not be in a good mood. The morning he came in, however, he couldn’t have been a cooler guy. He was super laid back, seemed appreciative that there was a fan in the building and whereas some hosts that did shows out of the building once in a while were less than pleasant to deal with, he was gracious and humble.
After his broadcast he mentioned that the next time the WWE came through town he would make sure to save a couple tickets for us. I thanked him, but didn’t expect anything to come of it. You hear things like that from time to time, but they often don’t come to pass.
Once I took a look at the calendar I was positive it’d never come to pass. WWE’s next trip through town would be for their annual Wrestlemania weekend. Wrestlemania is akin to the Super Bowl in the professional wrestling world. It’s their biggest show every year for nearly the last thirty years. I’ve watched every single one on Pay Per View for the last 12 years. Even when I’ve fallen away from the product, I always made sure to come back for that one show. It’s tradition. There’s no way he’d give up tickets to some radio guy he didn’t know. Sure the talent got an allotment of tickets for family and friends, but I was neither and that was that.
I’ve been to a handful of WWE shows in my lifetime. I attended a couple of events as a child, a few more as an adult. The best likely being the time I got to sit with a good friend and watch Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho, widely considered two of the very best in the business, wrestle for 45 minutes on live TV. As someone who enjoys the art of a great wrestling match far more than any storyline, it was quite a sight to behold. Wrestlemania had never been in the cards for me, though. Even when it was coming to LA, I knew I couldn’t afford the tickets, so I didn’t let myself entertain the idea.
Then word came down that Layfield would be doing his show out of our studio again. I thought that was cool, but still didn’t expect tickets out of the deal. When he arrived, I was stunned.
“Hey, I’ve got Wrestlemania tickets for you guys.”
Not only did he remember, but the tickets he had for us weren’t for some random event – they were for Wrestlemania. The thing about Wrestlemania is that it has blossomed from an event to a week of events. There’s the Hall of Fame, several public gatherings, a fan expo, all kinds of crazy stuff.
Layfield was golden to us, though. He told us where to get the tickets, whose name they were under, and what time to stop by to get them. We made our way to a ritzy Beverly Hills hotel, gave the name to someone in the lobby, and were handed an envelope marked “Layfield.” It felt very top secret and cool. Then we were off to the Staples Center.
I was going to Wrestlemania.
Wrestlemania 21 will most likely be remembered as the birthplace of John Cena as the face of the modern day wrestling industry. He’s this generation’s Hulk Hogan. He’s the squeaky clean role models kids can look up to and at the time that’s the image the WWE wanted to project. He was facing Layfield for the WWE Championship that night and ultimately won the match and the title belt. It began the first of his more than ten reigns as champion.
It was a great match, the highlight of which, in my mind, was when Layfield made it literally rain money throughout the Staples Center as he was escorted to the ring by the LAPD. It was the perfect picture of excess that fit his character to a tee.
There were many great things that happened on that show, and one sadly tragic thing: It was the last Wrestlemania that the legendary Eddie Guerrero ever got to wrestle on as he died later in the year. He opened the show having a fantastic match with one of his best friends, Rey Mysterio.
The match of the night for me, though, was getting to see the ‘Heartbreak Kid’ Shawn Michaels one more time as he faced off against Olympic Gold Medalist Kurt Angle. Throughout his career Shawn Michaels has earned the moniker among wrestling fans of Mr. Wrestlemania. No matter who he was facing, his matches always highlighted the show. Whatever match he is in is the unofficial main event. That year was no different as it was his first match with Angle, who was also held in high regard for his abundance of talent. It was the match everyone at the show paid their money to see. After a half hour of hard work from both men, Kurt came out on top. However, they’d both won over the audience.
I had the pleasure of watching all of this, not from the cheap seats, but from the wrestler’s family section. Not at all what I expected, and better than I ever could have hoped for.
I regret that I didn’t have my camera that day to take a picture of my vantage point, but it turns out guests of the wrestlers get treated pretty damn well. It pays to know the champ. As the show was happening in the entertainment capitol of the world, the place was crawling with famous people taking in the show. It also happened to be crowded with some who were not-so famous. People like, say, Brooke Hogan.
Brooke Hogan was in my section because the night before her dad, Hulk Hogan, had been inducted into the Hall of Fame. I had assumed he’d be part of the show, but the five year old in me came to life halfway through the show when the Hulkster stormed to the ring, theme song and all, to save the day when two bully types were picking on a smaller guy. He beat them up, tore his shirt off, flexed his biceps, and the crowed at it up like candy. It was Hulkamania for crying out loud.
As cool as that was, as a kid I was far less a Hulk Hogan fan than I was a Rowdy Roddy Piper fan. He was who I wanted to be in the 80s because he was allowed to say whatever he wanted and got away with it every time. For a kid who probably talked back a little too much, the man was a hero. That’s why, even though Michaels/Angle was the match of the night, it’s not the memory I hold onto the most. That night I got to be there when the loudmouth of the 80s, Roddy Piper, went toe-to-toe with the loudmouth of the 90s, a man named Stone Cold Steve Austin. I won’t forget that moment when Roddy stepped up to Austin, welcomed him to Piper’s Pit, and promptly slapped him across the face. That’s one of those moments they replay the video of whenever Wrestlemania comes around because it’s a moment that will live on forever in that world. And I was there for it.
This was a really long way of saying that though that wasn’t my favorite job I’ve ever had, there’s always a silver lining if you look hard enough. I got to do stuff like that, I got to meet a few people I admired, and it ultimately led me to the job I have now. And I dig the people I work with now, so that’s kind of a cool thing.
Not as cool as going to Wrestlemania on the Champion’s dime, but whatever.