Come back, Daddy, all is forgiven

They fight. They write. They're part of a $1.5bn industry that has America in a stranglehold. And the Rock and his band of greased-up heavies are coming here to do their damnedest to wrestle your children away from Pikachu and the Pokémons...

It is 4pm in Madison Square Garden, New York, and three professional wrestlers are posing for photographs in the middle of an empty area. The Rock is wearing a $500 Versace shirt and $200 sunglasses, Cactus Jack is wearing a black and yellow Cactus Jack T-shirt with "Wanted: Dead" printed on it, and Chyna is in her normal outfit of leather boots, leather bra and leather knickers.

The photographer and a couple of stylists ask them to ham it up the way they know best: the Rock raises an eyebrow and looks mean, Cactus Jack points his fingers like a gun and mouths the word "Bang!", and Chyna smiles like the Devil's own pussycat. Within minutes, the photographer has a picture that will grace the cover of next month's World Wrestling Federation (WWF) magazine.

In truth, the photograph has another destination. Commissioned by the American Library Association, the picture is designed to encourage teenagers to read. The wrestlers selected are not your usual testosteroned knuckleheads, but international literary sensations.

The Rock's autobiography, entitled The Rock Says..., is topping The New York Times bestseller list, while Cactus Jack's life story, incorporated in Have a Nice Day!, the autobiography of his alter-ego Mick Foley, has also got to number one, and Chyna's own road to glory, due from HarperCollins in June, is a bestseller on advance orders alone.

Only in America, eh? Well, no. Here in Britain, too, these unlikely authors are storming the bestseller lists. Since last month, they've been up there in the exalted company of Delia Smith and Beowulf. Deranged individuals from a world once considered lower on the cultural ladder than bear-baiting are out-selling the works of Frank McCourt and Dava Sobel.

The Rock calls his success "a humbling experience", while Cactus Jack is looking forward to his first massive royalty cheque. Foley says that writing his book was "cathartic", which used to be a big word for a wrestler, but is now par for the "coarse".

Four hours later, the Rock will do what he's really good at, tearing strips off a man called the Brooklyn Brawler. The Rock, who is 27 and known to his mother as Dwayne Johnson, loves this line of work. He used to be a professional footballer, but found it to be a sport that didn't respect his supreme acting skills. So he followed his father and grandfather into wrestling, and now earns hundreds of thousands of dollars every year performing moves such as the Rock Bottom and the People's Elbow.

Like all the best entertainers, he has some knockout catchphrases: "Do you smell what the Rock is cooking?" and "Know your damn role - and shut your mouth!" The Rock is one reason why, last October, the WWF launched itself on the New York stock exchange with one of the most spectacular flotations in years.

In recent months it has been rare for a new company to make a splash on Wall Street without being part of cyberspace. But the WWF is a rare company, a "sports entertainment" empire combining comic-book heroes (the wrestlers), a ruthless tragedian who likes to mess with concepts of good and evil (the owner), and super-siliconed sex goddesses fond of exposing as much of themselves as they can on entering the ring (Chyna, Tori or Miss Kitty).

You don't mess with them, or their financial performance. The WWF is valued at about $1.5bn. Last year, it made $170m from its TV shows and live events, and an additional $81.5m from its T-shirts, videos and plastic championship belts.

This year, it projects a rise in profits to $340m. It has one of the most lucrative e-commerce sites on the internet, the best place to purchase candles endorsed by the Undertaker if you can't make it in person to the WWF store and theme café near Times Square. Its TV programmes are broadcast in 120 countries, and the wrestlers' witty epithets are translated into nine languages (the Danes are still having a little trouble with the Rock's phrase "You candyass Jabroni!").

In the United States, the WWF is the most popular programme on cable, and attracts pay-per-view audiences to rival those for boxing. In Britain, the WWF used to be shown only on Sky, where it reaches about 600,000 teenagers and their disapproving parents, but now also livens up sleepy Sundays on Channel 4.

It goes without saying that the fights are fixed, but fair sporting contest has long ceased to be the point. When Big Daddy heaved his monstrous belly around British rings in the Eighties, there was still an element of mystique about wrestling: no wrestler worth his snarl would dare to admit publicly that his fights were as scripted as EastEnders. These days, there is no pretence.

In their books, the Rock and Foley talk candidly about pre-fight planning and their dependence on good writers. Ask them what makes the WWF better than their competitor, World Championship Wrestling, and they will say that the WWF has better plots. Like other long-running sagas, it combines all the top soap-opera elements: greed, envy, revenge, double-crossing and tragic accidents.

"What we do is theatricality at its absolute best," says the Rock, a man who bills himself as the coolest thing since the other side of the pillow. "We try to take people on an emotional rollercoaster. We are essentially a two-hour movie, minus the credits rolling at the end." The Rock says he puts baby oil on his torso before he enters the ring, to heighten his Adonis elements. He is currently reading scripts for real Hollywood action movies.

In person, Cactus Jack likes to talk as his real persona, Mick Foley, not least because he says that, as of the day of our interview, he is officially quitting after 15 years in the ring. (About a month later, he is back in the ring, losing once again to Triple H, aka Hunter Hearst Helmsley).

Last night, he was beaten in a bloody battle against Triple H, and has genuine stitches in his forehead to prove it. He says his retirement will not be temporary, and he will not return, either as Cactus Jack or his other characters, Mankind or Dude Love. "It's becoming harder to do simple things - like walk," he says.

Despite the scripted elements of his shows, Foley's injuries have been numerous - the result of bad leaping or over-enthusiasm from his opponents. Two-thirds of his ear has been ripped off, he has broken most of his bones, and he boasts of more than 325 stitches. "But now I'm all through being a tough guy," he says. "I'm going to go home, relax, and prostitute my name signing lots of autographs."

He has a theory about the success of his organisation. "I know that in our country most people work hard and need a couple of hours to escape, and right now the WWF television show is a better escape than anything else on the air."

The frenzy is not limited to America. The Rock and his strange friends will be "laying their smack down" at London's Earl's Court in May. Tickets for the show sold out in a day. On their last visit in September, 10,000 people queued for hours in Oxford Street to catch a glimpse of the Rock and the Big Show, a man who is at least 7ft tall.

How did our children come to idolise these men? The story has its roots in three generations of the McMahon family. Jess McMahon began promoting in New York in the Thirties, followed by his son Vincent J McMahon, and then by his son and the present owner, Vincent K.

Until the Eighties, wrestling in America was still a seedy, disorganised regional affair, with about 20 promoters battling each other for territory and the best fighters. Vincent K changed everything. He bought out the competition, and secured exclusive deals with his wrestlers and the television companies. Above all, he created new characters, heroes and villains with acting skills equal to their brawn.

The more spectacular the WWF becomes, the more successful it gets, but progress has not been seamless. In the mid-Nineties, audiences seemed to be getting bored with it, the merchandise wasn't selling, the characters were stale, and there was serious competition from WCW, Ted Turner's company that had stolen some of its biggest names, such as Hulk Hogan and Razor Ramon. Then there was a lengthy court case in which the WWF was accused of supplying its men with bodybuilding steroids (one of the defence arguments was that they simply ate a lot of chicken).

Three years ago, however, something strange happened: McMahon had some powerful new ideas. One of them was a man called Steve Austin, also known as the Texas Rattlesnake. Austin didn't have much of a gimmick - no sequins, no gold leotard - but he seemed to represent something for people on a base level. He drank beer in the ring. He said he hated his boss. He was white, hard and angry, and he just wasn't going to take it any more.

Another idea of McMahon's was to include himself and his family in the action. He arm-wrestled Austin, while his son, Shane, enjoyed eventful bouts with the Rock and Mankind. Then his daughter Stephanie, who despised Shane, was kidnapped by the Undertaker. Something new had been unleashed: it was as if Alex Ferguson and family had suddenly started playing up front for Manchester United.

Jim Byrne, senior vice-president of marketing at WWF, says that one of the most successful storylines has been a romance between Stephanie and a performer called Test. "In one episode, on the day that she was to be married on TV, the storyline had it that she was hit by a garbage can and now has amnesia," Byrne recalls. "She doesn't remember her relationship with Test and, as a result, the wedding was indefinitely postponed."

So far, so preposterous. But there followed an even more surreal event. Byrne began getting phone calls from financial analysts who had been following the WWF in advance of its public flotation. They wanted to know if Stephanie was feeling better, and whether the marriage would take place. Byrne had to tell them that the show was entirely fictitious, and some hard-bitten brokers took the news badly. A few weeks later, Stephanie "married" Triple H.

I asked Byrne about the increase in sexual content and violence. He doesn't like the word "violence", and prefers "aggression". "We never depict the use of guns," he says proudly. "We have no murder, robbery or rape. What we've done is contemporarised the product."

Accordingly, the evening broadcasts of WWF carry a "no under-14s" rating. "Seventy per cent of our audience are over the age of 18. The younger members of the household below 14 should really be watching with a parent who can point out what works and what doesn't, socially speaking."

The WWF stock-market prospectus says there are 110 performers on its payroll. "Our creative team develops a character for each performer," it explains. "Once a character's traits have been formulated, we work to define and emphasise those traits through various accessories, including costumes and entrance music. We own the rights to all of our characters."

Inevitably, the path of WWF's success is littered with casualties, wrestlers who can hardly walk, who were once great stars but now only speak ill of the company and its tactics. The most prominent is the Canadian wrestler Bret "Hit Man" Hart, for 13 years a huge box-office attraction with black, straggly hair and a pink leotard. Hart believes the WWF treats its fighters "like circus animals", ready to discard them with no thought for their future.

Hart left the WWF almost two years ago, and feels bitter about how he was forced to turn himself from good guy to baddie before his contract was ended. Some of his complaints may be sour grapes. At 42, he has been replaced by younger, faster men with newer gimmicks. But there is another reason for his anger: the death last May of his younger brother, Owen.

Owen Hart, aka the Blue Blazer, was the victim of a sensational aerial stunt that went wrong. The plan was to lower him into the ring from the ceiling of an arena in Kansas City, but the wrestler fell 78 feet when the quick-release on his harness opened too early. The police ruled out foul play, but Hart's widow, Martha, sued the WWF for wrongful death. She said she was "outraged and repulsed" that the show continued after his demise in front of 17,000 fans. The case has yet to come to court.

The Rock says he thinks about Owen Hart daily, claiming that his death has made him appreciate his own fortune. Behind him, a flaxen-haired wrestler, Chris Jericho, is rehearsing moves with his opponent for that night's fight. He throws himself out of the ring into his foe's arms, groans on the floor and ends with his speciality move, the Walls of Jericho.

"Any time someone uses the word fake, that really bothers me," Jericho says. "This is a contact sport, not a ballet. It's not as if some stuntman is in the ring getting the bumps, and we just come in at the end to get the glory. That said, it is about entertainment: you can be the greatest technical wrestler in the world, but if your can't entertain, you'll never be a superstar."

Jericho wrestles up to four times a week, and is making a name for himself by doing what the writers tell him. "Yesterday, most of the good guys lost," he says, "and one of the writers talked about it as the Empire Strikes Back of pay-per-views - the Star Wars film in which all the good guys get flattened. So the idea is to get people saying, 'Wow, I can't wait to see the next one in which the good guys get their revenge'. And that's what will happen at the next pay-per-view. It's all about business."

Jericho pauses for a second, considering the frankness of his conversation. Then he adds: "Of course, it could be that some of the bad guys get even badder."

WWF Insurrection is at Earl's Court, London, on 6 May, 0207 385 1200, and will be shown live on Sky Box Office

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