Chris Brooker is a stand-up comedian and a massive professional wrestling fan. An enthusiast since his teenage years, Chris has been lucky enough to successfully combine his two loves, and was the man who orchestrated Mick Foley's sell-out comedy tours of the UK.
This year Brooker will be attending his third Wrestlemania, as the WWE Universe wings its way to Miami for what will undoubtedly be a unforgettable event. Chris has generously agreed to be our eyes and ears stateside as we build up to the 'Grandest Stage of Them All'.
This is the second installment of his blog. Enjoy.
In 1996 I watched my first Wrestlemania on live television.
It was a couple of weeks before my twenty-first birthday. In many ways my life had changed considerably since I first laid eyes on WWF for the very first time. I'd taken my GCSEs, scraped through my A-Levels on the second attempt and secured a place at the illustrious University Of Derby with my C in Media Studies. By the spring of 1996 I was already well on the way to failure at a degree in something. I barely remember what the degree was in. Might as well have been a combined honours in pottery and badger baiting for all I cared. The academic life was clearly not for me. I was drifting along, haemorrhaging my student grant. (Remember those? I'm probably one of the reasons they went away... Sorry.) Like many of my peers my only real aim was to avoid to perils and pitfalls of a proper job for as long as possible.
Since my first Wrestlemania I'd crossed the line from fandom to obsession with alarming ease. My first VHS purchase, WWF UK Rampage '92, had been quickly joined by another tape. Then another. And another. And another. By the time I moved into my halls of residence my collection of wrestling videos was the bulkiest thing I owned. An entire bookshelf came with me from Somerset to Derby so that I could have them close to hand and on display. I developed a passion for scouring markets and second hand shops for wrestling related bargain, often gutted that there was nobody around to high five when I filled a gap in my collection for a couple of quid. Nobody around to high five because, at this point in my life, I was a fan alone.
Steve, my ally in grappling appreciation, still lived in Somerset with his family. Fortunately for me he became my wrestling Red Cross, sending me letters with wrestling news as well as the occasion tape copied from Sky. His folks had made the quantum leap into buying a Sky dish so my friend found himself in the enviable position of watching as much WWF as he wanted. Thus a system emerged whereby he would watch the PPVs live and then copy the repeat broadcast for me. The first event we stayed up to watch live was King Of The Ring in 1995, a few months before I headed away. As soon as the crown touched Mabel's head I began to wish I'd opted for an early night.
Come the end of March in 1996 and we couldn't have been more excited for a Wrestlemania, than we were for 'Mania XII. So many of our favourites were either debuting or returning. Jake Roberts, Roddy Piper, The Ultimate Warrior, Steve Austin and even The Man They Called Vader. This struck us as a ludicrous moniker, “The Man They Call...”. They could have used it on anyone or, for that matter, anything. The Man They Call Bob. The Woman They Call Sandra. The Chair They Call Comfy. We never did figure out who 'They' were either. TNA were no help at all with that by the way.
The Undertaker vs. Diesel... The two big men in the WWF at that point. The Phenom vs. Big Daddy Cool. The Tombstone vs. The Jackknife. They were the Beatles and Elvis of WWF monsters at the time. You could like both but there was always going to be a preference one way or the other. Steve was a huge 'Taker fan, I found myself rooting for The Man They Didn't At That Time Call Kevin Nash. The seven-footer had discovered a mean streak of epic proportion since dropping the WWF Championship to Bret Hart, ploughing through all and sundry. The subject of his ire, The Deadman, was sure to make for a fun match even if it wasn't going to be an all-time classic.
All time classic... That would be a term reserved for the main event. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, two equally polarising gentlemen, were set to do battle for the WWF Championship in a sixty-minute iron man match. I'd loved every moment of Ricky Steamboat and Rick Rude's thirty minute iron man match from 1992 and watched it many times over. The prospect of Hart & Michaels, considered by many to be the two best wrestlers in the WWF, facing off for an hour was mind blowing. Steve was a Hitman fan, whereas I was firmly in the Heartbreak Kid camp. Camp, in hindsight, being the perfect word given his propensity for chaps, leather caps and post-match stripteases. Nothing homoerotic about wrestling, nothing at all...
Come one in the morning we were situated squarely in front of the TV in Steve's parents' living room. Snacks and beverages were close at hand and the show was about to start. The WWF ident came on, words that sent goosebumps down our arms. “The World Wrestling Federation... For over fifty years, the world's leading force in sports entertainment.” It was time to watch my first ever live Wrestlemania.
Watching Jake “The Snake” Roberts coming down to the ring made my night instantly. He'd been one of my favourites from the very beginning and his disappearance from the spotlight in 1992 was hugely disappointing. He teamed with Ahmed Johnson and Yokozuna to take on Jim Cornette's team of Owen Hart, The British Bulldog and The Man They Still Called Vader. I was on the edge of my seat waiting for one moment and one moment only. The DDT. My night got off to a great start when Jake drilled Owen Hart with his patented finisher. It mattered not that The Man They Never Called Leon squashed him flat for the win afterwards, I'd seen my first live Jake Roberts DDT.
The comeback streak continued as Savio Vega had a chance to extract some payback against Steve Austin for his betrayal during a tournament for the vacant and highly prestigious WWF Tag Team Championships. Championships so prestigious that the finals of said tournament took place before the Pay Per View went live. Austin won by repeatedly battering Vega with the Million Dollar Championship, on loan from his manager Ted DiBiase. It wasn't the show stealing effort I expected from the Man They Used To Call Stunning Steve. The most notable thing about the match was, in fact, my first glimpse of Austin's new look and moniker. Bald headed, goatee, going by the name of 'Stone Cold'. That, I thought to myself, will never catch on.
The Rowdy One, Roddy Piper, took on Goldust in a Hollywood Backlot Brawl. A somewhat surreal experience, this combined some rather extreme violence by 1996 WWF standards with some downright weirdness. Hot Rod spent a good ten-minutes battering The Man They Stopped Calling Dustin around a deserted studio lot, blasted him with a fire hose and appeared to punch him full on in the face. This led to Goldust fleeing in his Cadillac (Golden of course...) while Piper gave chase in his white 4x4 through LA. I wonder who thought that recreating the OJ Simpson chase would make for compellingly tasteful viewing? Murder eh? Wacky. Goldust, of course, chose to flee to the Arrowhead Pond and make his way to the ring in search of refuge. I'd have suggested maybe his hotel and locking the door but that's just me. With the rules for a Hollywood Backlot Brawl somewhat unclear Piper appeared to win when he stripped Goldie down to his bra, stockings and suspenders. They certainly played his music. No wonder Goldust wasn't fighting his best, those must have ridden up like a bugger.
The Ultimate Warrior returned and annihilated Greenwich snob Hunter Hearst Helmsley in less than two minutes, shrugging off his Pedigree finisher along the way. I assumed this meant that The Warrior was back for good and that we had pretty much seen the last of Hunter.
Clash of the titans? Irresistable force meeting the immovable object? Let's call a spade a spade, Diesel versus Undertaker was always going to really be about two massive guys knocking the shit out of each other. Wrestling offers something for everyone. Fast matches, technical matches, violent matches, even comical matches. With all that in mind I dare any wrestling fan to deny that there's a unique satisfaction in watching two massive guys knock the shit out of each other. I had fairly modest expectations for this match that were utterly blown away. 'Taker weathered all kinds of punishment including two jackknife powerbombs before tombstoning Big Daddy Cool and pinning him. These days word of Kevin Nash's imminent departure would have been all over the place, spoiling the match to some extent. Not the case in 1996. In 1996 we just sat marvelling at how The Undertaker, famous for moving slowly, had been part of such a dynamic match. With any luck, we might see a few more of those from him.
The main event arrived... The match that had divided the room squarely into two parties of one. Steve backed Bret to retain, I was convinced that this was the night that Shawn took that one last step up the ladder. We were sixty minutes away from finding out who the better man was. Thirty minutes later I was wishing that something would happen. With all due respect to the two participants, I couldn't do anything more energetic than stroll gently for an hour. Nevertheless I found myself wishing that there would be a decision or pinfall one way or the other to liven the match up. People have since described the 60 minute iron man match as the Marmite 'Mania Main Event, either loved or hated. Those that loved it hold it up as a classic in stark contrast to those that don't. I didn't hate it but I certainly didn't love it either. As the clock ticked towards sixty minutes it became apparent that this was going to go the distance without a fall either way. When overtime was called the outcome was somewhat obvious but I was still overjoyed when HBK superkicked his way to his first WWF championship. The start of a new era.
Come four a.m. we were shattered and, sacrilegious as it may sound, my head had nodded a few times during the main event. It was hard to really appreciate the celebrations taking place on our screen when exhaustion had taken over. Still, I'd just watched my first Wrestlemania live, a personal milestone in my life.
The talk on WWF television in the weeks leading up to Wrestlemania had been about Shawn's boyhood dream of becoming the champion. His success inspired me in some respects and I headed back to Derby determined to turn my academic fortunes around. A long night but a memorable one.
I've since stayed up well past sensible hours on a work night to watch Wrestlemania live. You never ever, forget your first though.