Thousands hail great pretenders

EIGHTY thousand people turned off their satellite televisions yesterday, dressed up as macho beefcakes and headed for Wembley Stadium to see over-sized men with improbable muscles pretend to knock each other senseless.

The event was the Summer Slam of American wrestling, in which such characters as the Undertaker, the Ultimate Warrior and Macho Man mix sport, strength and outrageous theatre to whip audiences to a frenzy.

In two years, the World Wrestling Federation has dragged wrestling from the dog days of such flabby, pallid men as Big Daddy, Jacky Pallo and Giant Haystacks and turned it into Britain's fastest-growing spectator sport, broadcast daily on BSkyB.

The new heroes of wrestling are huge, superfit athletes who make millions by developing a persona that makes them either loved or loathed.

'They're fantastic,' said Craig Monk, eight, of Epsom, Surrey. Like dozens of children around him, Craig was dressed in multi-coloured lycra leggings, wrestling boots, a ribbon-festooned green T-shirt, white cowboy hat and mascara beard - just like his hero, Macho Man.

His brother Andrew, 12, wore black shiny leggings, wrestling boots and a pink T-shirt on which his stepmother, Clair Palmer, had sewn a flying skull motif - just like Bret 'Hitman' Hart.

Wembley was surrounded by thousands of children with painted faces, plastic wrestling outfits and large foam hands emblazoned with the names of their superheroes. Each foam mitt cost pounds 6. All day, queues built up for pounds 18 Undertaker T-shirts, popular among those taken with his habit of stuffing defeated opponents into US Army body bags.

Among the adults, the passion for dressing up like a muscly fighter seemed to be in direct proportion to the size of the beer gut.

'It's all great family fun,' said Neil Davies, an accountant from the Wirral. He had driven from Merseyside with his son Chris, eight, a boy with an astonishing memory for wrestling trivia. When asked the weight of British Bulldog (Davey Smith from Wigan), he replied without hesitation, 256lbs. Correct. 'I think this type of wrestling is popular because it combines sport with colour and glamour, and although it's macho, it's not violent,' said Mr Davies.

Millions of people in 60 countries tune in daily to see the exploits of British Bulldog, Papa Shango or Sensational Queen Sherry. The industry sells pounds 100m worth of merchandise worldwide a year; pounds 20m of WWF videos were sold last year, while costumes, stickers and badges netted a further pounds 34m. Wrestling toys are now the most popular toys among Britain's under-15s.

Steve Planamenta, director of communications for the WWF, said the success of wrestling in Britain had astounded TV executives. 'We hoped it would succeed, but we never expected this,' he said. 'You Brits have rough-and-tumble sports like rugby and soccer, and gentle sports like cricket. We think we have filled a gap in the middle.

'We call this entertainment; it is up to the fans if they want to call it sport or if they want to believe the results aren't planned.'

So who won the big title fight late last night between the British Bulldog and the American Bret Hitman Hart? 'We like to please a crowd,' Mr Planamenta said before the bout. And Wembley was duly pleased when the Bulldog came out on top.