35,000,000 wrestling fans can't be wrong (or, how we learned to stop worrying and love the pile driver)

Entertainment Weekly Cover Wrestling Issue #481
Credit: EW

Wrestlemania XV‘s ”Hell in a Cell” match has just ended at Philadelphia’s First Union Center, but the bout isn’t over until the loser hangs: As the 15-foot-high chain-link ”cell” around the ring rises, The Big Boss Man, tonight the victim of the Undertaker’s wrath, awakens to find himself tethered to the cage with a hangman’s noose, much to the horrified delight of the 20,276 raving wrestlemaniacs in attendance. Is this a blasphemous spectacle of brutality? The downfall of Western culture? Nah, it’s just the hottest, most innovative entertainment pop culture has to offer.

In case you haven’t noticed, wrestling has come a long way from the days of grunting no-neck bruisers pummeling each other on cheesy weekend-morning broadcasts. In 1999, it’s transformed itself into theater-in-the-round redone as ‘roid rage, jam-packed with charismatic, monumental players, prime-time-worthy production values, and labyrinthine plot machinations (backstabbing, allegiance hopping, and the eternal quest for title belts) that make Melrose Creek, 90210 look like Teletubbies.

The forces behind these operatic shenanigans are two multi-million-dollar leagues, the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling, and one postmodern twist: Contemporary fans are hip to wrestling’s fakery, and they revel in it. They’re drawn to both choreographed pile driving and the internecine, ongoing story lines that pit rank-and-file grapplers against each other and their evil corporate taskmasters — WWF owner Vince McMahon, 53, and WCW champ/fictional president Ric ”Nature Boy” Flair, 50. ”It’s not just a bunch of men in their underwear going into a ring,” says McMahon. ”Our stories are far more complex than they ever were.”

Try to keep up: Recently, WCW’s ”Hollywood” Hulk Hogan brainwashed Flair’s son, David, into joining his renegade splinter group, the New World Order. Meanwhile, on the WWF, Mark ”Sexual Chocolate” Henry was bamboozled into receiving an off-camera Lewinsky from a drag queen; and WCW’s Big Poppa Pump kidnapped the wife of nemesis Diamond Dallas Page, then returned her by tossing her from a moving limo.

Along with these soapy scenarios — scripted by staff writers and league execs — today’s wrestling boasts a new breed of wrestler. More thespian than thug, they include WWF’s big, bald finger-flipping maverick, ”Stone Cold” Steve Austin, 34, and WCW’s big, bald Semitic avenger, Goldberg, 32. Together with the rest of the motley ensembles (including WWF’s Chyna, Mankind, and The Rock), Goldberg and Austin headline a series of peripatetic live shows as well as 15 hours of TV programming watched by an estimated 35 million a week.

But it’s not just the leagues and wrestlers that are different — so are those fans. No longer catering to just hyperactive children and dentally impaired trailer dwellers, wrestling is courting an increasingly sophisticated, upscale audience. Between 1997 and 1998, the WWF, according to the USA Network, has experienced a 156 percent increase in ratings among viewers with four or more years of college, while the ratings among households with incomes of $50,000 or more are up 111 percent. ”They’ve aimed it at an older crowd,” says MIT Comparative Media Studies professor Henry Jenkins, author of the essay ”’Never Trust a Snake’: WWF Wrestling as Masculine Melodrama.” ”They’ve created a morally ambiguous universe, with antiheroes and sympathetic villains. It’s appealing to a Pulp Fiction crowd.” Madison Avenue is taking notice; advertisers such as Coca-Cola, Coors, 20th Century Fox, and ABC are now wrestling regulars. ”Fortune 500 companies have awakened to the fact that pro wrestling has an appeal beyond the stereotypes of the past,” says Burke Stinson of AT&T, yet another blue-chip company diving into the squared circle.

Still, the question persists, why, of all things, wrestling? For sports fans alienated by the humongous egos (and salaries) of pro athletes and let down by players ready to state-hop for a bigger paycheck, wrestling's let-us-entertain-you commitment is refreshing. For viewers, it flies in the face of the networks' repeat-ridden, copycat-strewn landscape. Not only are WWF's Raw/War Zone on USA and WCW's Monday Nitro on TNT never in reruns, they're one-stop shopping for the pop-culture junkie. "The WWF is a soap, it's an action adventure, it's a live-action cartoon, and it's part talk show," says McMahon. "A hybrid of everything successful on TV, all rolled into one."

As a result of its ability to give everyone something to chew on, grappling is riding the crest of its umpteenth golden age. Last month's WrestleMania--the Super Bowl of wrestling--provided the WWF with its largest-ever pay-per-view haul, more than $30 million, thanks to at least 850,000 subscribers.

Who's to thank (or blame) for all this? Credit WWF's McMahon, who, in 1982, transformed wrestling by giving up its pretense of real competition and rechristening it "sports entertainment." The spandex revolution really intensified in 1988, when Ted Turner, 60, created World Championship Wrestling, and in '95 debuted Nitro on TNT, direct competition for WWF's Monday Night Raw. Instead of one league canceling out the other, the two have established Monday nights as a viewing "destination" for fans and in the process taken a chunk of male viewers from ABC's Monday Night Football. (Lately, WWF's Raw/War is thumping its rival.) "Think of it as a busy intersection where there are no restaurants," says WCW's actual president, Eric Bischoff, 42. "Then a Burger King opens, and people start showing up to eat. Then, across the street, a Taco Bell opens, and a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and now everybody shows up."

These days, even the Le Cirque crowd is willing--nay, proud--to own up to its allegiance. "I love the theatricality of it," says screenwriter Barry Blaustein (The Nutty Professor), who's directing Beyond the Mat, a behind-the-scenes wrestling documentary for Imagine Entertainment. "I go to wrestling shows and see the hardcore fans and think, 'Oh, man, who are these people?' Then I go, 'Wait a second--I'm here too.'" Adds Blake Norton, contributing writer at WOW, a new, self-described "thinking man's wrestling magazine": "You have to perceive it for what it is, instead of what you've heard it to be. And if you look at it with no preconceptions, it's hard not to like it."

All of this exposure has led to a maelstrom of criticism of the genre's--particularly the WWF's--increasingly violent, skanky content (Val Venis, the WWF's resident "porn star," treated viewers to a peek at his upcoming flick, Saving Ryan's Privates). As a result, WWF recently tagged Raw with a TV-14, L,V rating. "We've been pulling back anything that's gratuitous," says Bonnie Hammer, senior programming VP at USA.

But with a host of proposed ancillary endeavors in the works, don't expect either league to mess too much with success. The WWF is launching its own record label and building a 1,000-room casino hotel in Vegas; its female stars will be the subject of a UPN special April 29. The WCW is in discussions with NBC about a series of possible specials and a TV movie. Both leagues are erecting theme restaurants, developing TV series for their brawny talent, and hatching feature-film plans (WCW has a flick in the works with Warner Bros.; WWF is currently in negotiations with Columbia Pictures). And oh, yeah, three more years of Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Overkill? No way. Says McMahon, "The appetite isn't anywhere near satiated." America, prepare to let out your pants.