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WWE's WrestleMania is the Super Bowl of sports entertainment


Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, left, with Vince McMahon, and WWE star John Cena at a news conference at Radio City Music Hall for WrestleMania 29 at MetLife Stadium. (April 4, 2013) Credit: AP

The Rock triumphantly stood on the turnbuckles, his right arm stretched toward the Miami sky in victory as 78,000 wrestling fans went wild for their returning action star in his WrestleMania homecoming.

John Cena sat crestfallen on the ramp, nodding his head at his opponent, as the face of World Wrestling Entertainment faced the music -- or at least listened to it as The Rock's theme song blared in the stadium -- that he was pinned in the biggest match of his career.

WrestleMania 28's final emotional scene may as well have been ripped from the pages of a Hollywood script.

Well, you know what we mean.

Just like in Hollywood, there must be a rematch. It's time to break out the pyro and do it again.

For three decades, the WWE has billed WrestleMania as the Super Bowl of sports entertainment. For now, the annual extravaganza will at least take place at the site of next year's Super Bowl.

Toss away the brackets. Who says only college basketball has a bear hug on March Madness?

Much like the NCAA tournament is advertised as the road to the national championship, the WWE has billed the last month as the Road to WrestleMania, but instead of slam dunks and Final Fours, it's body slams and figure fours.

It all leads to WrestleMania 29 on Sunday and a sold-out crowd of 75,000-plus at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Don't expect to find WWE champion Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson vs. John Cena on too many office pools, even if it's the No. 1 seed -- make that, the main event -- at World Wrestling Entertainment's showcase event.

"It's the biggest market in the world," Johnson said, "and it's the biggest WrestleMania of all time."

Those are some 24-inch-python-sized expectations from an event known for Hulk Hogan's bodyslam of Andre the Giant, Shawn Michaels superkicking Ric Flair into retirement, Randy Savage holding open the ropes for Miss Elizabeth, Mike Tyson counting the 1-2-3 for "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

The current crop of good guys and anti-heroes try and top it Sunday.

"Does it get old for me? Absolutely not," 7-foot-1, 450-pound WrestleMania veteran The Big Show said. "I still get butterflies in my stomach every time my music hits."

Former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar returns to WrestleMania for the first time since 2004 when he wrestles "Triple H" Hunter Hearst Helmsley. Helmsley must retire with a loss. Performing in tribute following the recent death of William "Paul Bearer" Moody, The Undertaker puts his 20-0 undefeated streak at WrestleMania on the line against C.M. Punk. Punk, the Chicago-made superstar, is arguably the WWE's biggest star and was the longest-reigning WWE champion of the last 20 years before he lost the belt to The Rock at the Royal Rumble in January.

WrestleMania isn't the wildest spectacle going simply because of the super-sized matches. Sean "Diddy" Combs will perform a medley of songs and the band Living Colour will play their hit, and Punk's theme song, "Cult of Personality," for his ring entrance. Donald Trump, Snooki and Jimmy Fallon are among the celebrities serving as WrestleMania social media ambassadors.

Trump, the reality show star and billionaire businessman, has WrestleMania roots back to the 1980s. The Donald had front-row seats when Trump Plaza hosted the fourth and fifth Wrestlemania. Trump helped shave McMahon's head in a "Battle of the Billionaires" scrum in 2007. For all his support -- and for once taking a Stone Cold Stunner as punishment -- Trump will be inducted into the celebrity wing of the WWE Hall of Fame.

C'mon, you didn't think the WWE wouldn't have a Hall of Fame, right?

There's no physical structure or bronzed plaques of giants and junkyard dogs, but some of the company's greatest stars will be honored Saturday night at a sold-out Madison Square Garden. Hardcore legend Mick Foley, who launched off a steel cage while helping launch the WWE into a mainstream phenomenon in the late 1990s, headlines a class that includes 1970s champs Bruno Sammartino and Bob Backlund. The ceremony will air Tuesday night on the USA Network.

With WWE saluting its past, and relying on part-timers like Undertaker and Lesnar to headline the card, Johnson hoped a touch of that greatness rubbed off on today's future stars.

"For the guys in the locker room, it has to be more than just, 'I'm ready to carry the company,' " Johnson said. "It has to be, 'I'm ready to carry the company and then I'm ready to carry the company to places it's never been.' That's hard to do considering the precedent that's already been set."

It's no wonder cities now bid for WrestleMania the same way they would for other major sporting events.

Ron VanDeVeen, the senior vice president for events and guest experiences for MetLife Stadium, said stadium officials made a WrestleMania pitch to WWE officials in 2009.

"We always want to see if the economics can work, if the stadium can make money, and see what it means to the region," he said. "This one's up there with the best of them."

The stadium ditched the Giants and Jets apparel and converted its main merchandise store to WWE gear. He said about 230 fans were in line when the store opened Thursday.

"Every seat that's available sold out," he said. "Every seat available for the Super Bowl will sell out. It think it's a huge economic impact."

After holding last year's event in Miami, the WWE has the same weather concerns as the NFL does about its winter Super Bowl. Fans better bundle up in their 'Mania hoodies. Temperatures are expected to dip into the low 40s late into the card.

"I want snow. I want Lambeau Field conditions so we can get that weird voiceover and everything's in slow motion," Cena said. "That would be a hell of a day. It would be cold and tough for everybody, but I think it would make it fantastic. The fans will stay warm. Shirtless Cena freezes."

Like the Final Four, the event has outgrown arenas and WWE made the full-time shift to football stadiums in 2007.

WrestleMania Sunday has blown into a full week of festivities.

WWE joined with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Hollywood celebrities and professional athletes to launch Superstars for Sandy Relief. Joe Buck led an auction Thursday night with all proceeds benefiting the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City and the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund.

There were military meet-and-greets, anti-bullying rallies, a public news conference at Radio City Music Hall, and four days of autograph signings at the Izod Center.

It all culminates with Rock-Cena II.

For a Hollywood heavyweight who always comes out on top when the credits roll, WrestleMania has been cruel to Johnson. He lost the WWE title twice before, at WrestleMania 15 and 17, both times to "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

While Johnson played coy about a return for WrestleMania next season, it's hard to imagine he'd pass up the limited schedule, hefty paydays, and main events as long as his bustling movie schedule was clear.

"I'm WWE for life. I look at it like that," he said. "I'm always looking for just opportunities and ways that I can give back."

New York Sports