They don’t call it the Road to Wrestlemania for nothing. Wrestlemania 31 itself may be the proverbial main event, but the days leading up to it are filled to the brim with tertiary events that may or may not have induced a light panic attack in me. Wrestlemania weekend is code word for wrestling SXSW, and the first thing I had to accept (not unlike at SXSW) is that I will be missing something. The last thing I need to do is get swept up under the spell of the Wizard of FOMO.
WrestleCon is taking place at the airport-adjacent San Jose Garden Hotel’s banquet hall. An independent convention with no official ties to WWE, walking inside the hall felt like a pure strain subculture event occurring in any airport-adjacent hotel banquet hall. A human automat of wrestlers and wrestling personalities past and present, legends and indie-darlings sat at tables, surrounded by DVDs, 8×10 photographs, and t-shirts. Money exchanging hands in order to get a a chance to gush about to Mick Foley himself about how his Hell in a Cell match against Undertaker completely changed your life and get a photograph signed by him. In the back, a wrestling ring is set-up. Tonight, former tag-team champions the Hardy Boyz take on ECW veterans Sabu and RVD as part of WrestleCon’s own main event. Yesterday afternoon the ring is used as an impromptu stage where comedian Marty DeRosa (host of the Wrestling with Depression podcast) held a Wrestlemania trivia competition and an audience member was able to successfully recite (in order, naturally) all of twenty-one Undertaker’s Wrestlemania streak wins. You try doing it without Googling it.
One does not simply walk into the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose and ask where the John Cena Pizza Party is being held. You will got funny looks from the employees. WWE and Make A Wish’s annual Wrestlemania weekend party this year flew out twenty-five kids and their families representing over twenty Make A Wish chapters across America to the Bay Area for the weekend. And yes, there was pizza, and soda, and cakes, and John Cena. WWE Superstars Big Show, Mark Henry, and Tamika along with members from the 49ers warmed the crowd up, providing opportunities for meet and greets for the crowd before John BY GOD Cena came out to this theme music and the kids went completely bananas. I’ve been able to rationalize John Cena’s pull with kids, but getting to witness it live (albeit with a small sample size) was wonderful. Cena inducted the kids into the WWE’s Circle of Champions and presented each kid with their own plaque, but not before exchanging a few meaningful words with each of them. Cena had a presence about him, and the whole event made it impossible not to have our own personal pan sized pizza hearts expand into party sized stuffed deep dish pizzas.
NXT was positioned as the developmental league for the WWE, a rebranded Florida Championship Wrestling in Orlando. Its objective was to be a farm league for stars to come out of ready for the main roster of RAW and Smackdown. What ended up happening is that NXT became the hands down best thing they’ve put out in years. Friday’s sold out show at the Event Center on the San Jose State Campus proved this. I can’t quite articulate it, but as someone who watched wrestling as a kid, NXT shoots straight into the part of your brain that made you feel like when you were a kid again and first fell in love with wrestling. And what if you know someone who doesn’t watch wrestling? Because NXT’s ability to tell a logical story well with defined character motivations (harder to come across, especially in the mainstream WWE product nowadays) combined with the scary talent of its roster, NXT is what you show that person that wrestling is more a little person dressed up as a bull pinning a woman. Wrestling is storytelling. It’s acrobatics. It’s skill. It’s emotion.
Drinking in the scale of the sold-out event center had to take a little bit to get used to, as NXT’s weekly show (broadcast on the WWE Network) shot on the Full Sail University campus seats only about 150 people. It still comes across that NXT is like that hidden coffee shop that nobody knows about, though that’s far from the truth. Given NXT’s presence at this year’s Axxess convention, and NXT wrestler Hideo Itami competing in this year’s Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royale, NXT isn’t just the direct line to getting on the WWE main roster anymore, NXT is Vertigo to WWE’s DC.
The show started at 10pm, and didn’t let out until 1am, but the audience was engaged and enthusiastic and raucous the entire time. Shitty app companies wish they had the rapid fans that NXT had. “N! X! T!” chants boomed throughout the night, and if it could be chanted by a group and clapped after, it was chanted and clapped after (notably a preemptive “Better than Mania” surfaced towards the end of the night). Showcasing much of the roster, the audience went wild for hometown hero Bayley’s return to San Jose, and Hideo Itami finally reclaimed his original Go To Sleep finisher he used while wrestling in Japan (the move was used by former WWE Superstar and current UFC Fighter CM “Phil Brooks” Punk). Complete strangers in the audience high-fived each other. Charlotte and Sasha Banks wrestled in perhaps the best match of the night (and a contender of match of the year). Triple H, the man who runs NXT, surprised the capacity crowd and proclaimed half of the main event roster (including Vince and Stephanine McMahon) were watching and thanked us, the audience for making NXT what it is today. Also legendary commentator Jim Ross in his sitting ringside in his trademark cowboy hat, taking it all in.
NXT’s tagline is that the future is now. And I always thought it was marketing doublespeak. But it’s correct. There is nothing developmental or putting money in the bank for later about NXT, because what we’re watching right now is special.
After the show let out, about 20 fans stood outside the Event Center in a circle all performing their favorite promos from their favorite wrestlers, which turned into mimicking the Heartbreak Kid’s Sweet Chin Music or the Rock’s People’s Elbow on each other, as if we were all back in elementary school all over again. If for eight days this group of people continued to cut promos, it would have been considered a Wrestlemania miracle. But looking at this emotional connection wrestling has with people, inspiring them to recite tag-team favorites Enzo Amore and Colin Cassidy’s SWAFT promo with complete strangers at 1:30 in the morning in San Jose, you can’t say wrestling is fake.