Rock in the hardest place

Politics enters the ring for a nation in the grip of WWF

The biggest hit on Broadway at the moment is studiously choreographed, skil- fully scripted and has all the compelling ingredients of soap opera: drama, intrigue, comedy, tragedy and revenge. Plus a sizeable dollop of ham acting. In the old Paramount Theatre, New York, on the corner of 42nd Street at Times Square, where Frank Sinatra famously did it his way, giant screens portray images of huge men piledriving and pulverising each other while the audience bite into burgers, swill the cold beer and care not a jot that it is all a fixed freak show.

The biggest hit on Broadway at the moment is studiously choreographed, skil- fully scripted and has all the compelling ingredients of soap opera: drama, intrigue, comedy, tragedy and revenge. Plus a sizeable dollop of ham acting. In the old Paramount Theatre, New York, on the corner of 42nd Street at Times Square, where Frank Sinatra famously did it his way, giant screens portray images of huge men piledriving and pulverising each other while the audience bite into burgers, swill the cold beer and care not a jot that it is all a fixed freak show.

The world's first wrestling theme emporium occupies the prime site five blocks down from Madison Square Garden, where the pinfall wizards have taken over from boxing as the main attraction. Last month a sell-out crowd of 19,530 paid a record $500,000 for an event called Smackdown, a baby-oiled jamboree of muscle and mayhem of the sort that can be seen nightly on television across America, where its pay-per-view ratings are presenting a serious challenge to the NFL, as well as the real fight game. "The trouble with boxing," says Vince McMahon, owner and orchestrator of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), "is that it lacks credibility."

Some gall. But then McMahon is used to putting his tongue firmly in his cheek. The WWF are now valued at about $1.5bn. Last year it made $170m from TV shows, now screened in 120 countries, and live events, plus $81.5m from the sale of T-shirts, videos and souvenirs. This year they project a rise in profits to $340m - partly due to a flotation on the New York stock market - together with one of the most lucrative websites on the internet and the highly profitable showpiece restaurant at the bottom end of Broadway where, you might say, wrestling has finally found its rightful home as a piece of illegitimate theatre.

Unless you have been there to witness it, it is hard to imagine the grip wrestling now has on America where the biggest name in sports entertainment - which is what the WWF call their product - is The Rock, aka Dwayne Johnson, a 28-year-old ex-footballer who has become the Tiger Woods of the mat, half Samoan, half Afro-American and unassailable world champion.

Everyone knows about The Rock. It was his ring antics that Maurice Greene and the US sprint relay team aped when they strutted their stuff in Sydney after winning the Olympic gold medal. Now and again The Rock will drop in at the WWF's New York eatery to mingle with the fans and watch with them the reruns of some of his more spectacular encounters with Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker, Triple H (one Hunter Hearst Helmsley), Cactus Jack and The Big Show, so called because he is 7ft 2in and 35st. The Rock, who bills himself as the coolest thing since the other side of a pillow and earns around $5m a year, says: "We are trying to take people on an emotional roller coaster. We are essentially a two-hour movie, minus the credits."

Like the other 110 grapplers who perform under the WWF banner, The Rock makes no pretence of being anything other than a superheavyweight ham, engagingly hoodwinking the gullible - and perhaps the guileless - in the world ofmuscle-bound make-believe, where the routines are rehearsed and played out to a script. The WWF regularly get higher ratings than the top American soaps and that is, according to McMahon, because they have better actors. The Rock is preparing for his Hollywood debut at the moment. The Mummy's Return is one of the movies mentioned.

Meanwhile The Rock and his entourage have moved into the political ring. He appeared on the podium at the Republican convention and with the WWF female world champion, Chyna, addressed a fringe meeting at the Democrat convention. What the wrestlers want to see, they say, is a debate about the issues affecting American youth between Al Gore and George W Bush with the Governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura, himself a former WWF wrestler, as moderator.

Both political parties are aware of the influence that The Rock and Co have on the 14,000,000 eligible voters who watch them every week, particularly those who will be going to the polls for the first time. But there is also an underlying reason why the WWF have allied themselves to the youth vote.

Several US politicians are pressing for reforms that would restrict the violence in wrestling, which they say is having an adverse influence on children to the extent where there have been injuries - and deaths - among youngsters imitating the holds used by the WWF stars. Perhaps more significantly there are also moves to bring wrestling in from the world of show-business and under the aegis of state sports commissions, where drugs testing would be enforced. The wrestlers, some of whom are reputed to have more steroids pumped into them than a regiment of Bulgarian weightlifters, are ready to campaign vigorously against any politician who supports it.

"Leave our wrestling alone", is the message on the WWF website to both the politicians and the parent groups who complain that Smackdown is the most vulgar and violent programme on TV, embracing contests such as The Stinkface, where the winner is the first to sit on his opponent's face. A companion pay-per-view show features a "Thong-ass on face match" between women. There is also a good deal of blood on the mat these days, and some of it is real. Wrestlers conceal miniature razor blades in their palms and "nick" their own or their opponent's scalps and ear lobes. The Rock, they say, is a particularly good bleeder.

The WWF deny accusations of excessive violence. "We prefer to call it aggression," says Jim Byrne, senior vice-president of marketing. "We never depict the use of guns. We have no murders, robbery or rape. What we have done is contemporised the product."

And so wrestling mania escalates, endlessly fascinating yet remorselessly tasteless. "It bothers me when someone uses the word fake," says The Rock. "What we do is theatricality at its absolute best." You'd better believe it. Millions do.

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