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When Smackdown Came To Town 

A night of classic American theater

"Wooo!" Ric Flair really should get a copyright for his distinctive howl. Even though the man didn't make an appearance, the cry of "Wooo!" could be heard every few seconds from the thousands of bellowing wrestling fans at last Tuesday's WWE Smackdown. For the uninitiated which included me until last week Smackdown is a professional wrestling match between the "sport's" biggest names. Guys like Ric Flair, The Rock and, well, some other guys in brightly colored spandex. My buddy, who was just as clueless about wrestling as I, had scored some free tickets, so we decided to go take in a night of sophisticated, wholesome entertainment.On the way to the Charlotte Coliseum, I was surprised to see a "Repent or Burn in Hell" sign-waving dork in the parking lot. Professional wrestling's fan base consists mostly of working-class middle Americans who seem the least likely candidates for needing their souls saved. In fact, the crowd was much like the one I experienced a few months ago in Rockingham during my first NASCAR race -- rowdy and enthusiastic, but good-natured and friendly. And while there were plenty of cap-wearing good old boys and big-necked gym rats (and at least one Elvis impersonator,) a fair amount of families and young women also attended -- I even saw a few Britney Spears lookalikes as we settled into our seats.

A giant fist punching through a wall loomed above a platform and ramp that led down to the ring. Two giant TV screens bookended the platform, which showed slick, frenetic, MTV-style videos showcasing each of the wrestlers as they emerged from beneath the giant fist amid a blast of thumping rock music, smoke and lights.

Two women wrestlers started off the fighting one of them dark-haired and vaguely tomboyish, the other with long blonde hair, big white teeth and massive torpedo breasts. As she made her way down the ramp to the ring, near-pornographic images of the blonde bending over and cavorting in various stages of undress flashed on the video screens.

"I'd like to wrestle her anytime," said the beer-guzzling dude seated in front of me. He kept coming up with urbane zingers like that for much of the night.

After the T&A bout, there was a lull as a procession of lower-level wrestlers came out and did their thing, including Ric Flair's son, David Flair, and two blonde pretty boys who came prancing out in red tights and matching headbands. Wrestling rumor has it that they're extremely close (wink wink, nudge nudge). The duo took on a pair of wrestlers who looked like they'd stepped out of the pages of a superheroes comic book, complete with capes. One of them, called the "Hurricane," looked suspiciously similar to the Green Lantern.

"Smack the female out of him," urged the same witty fellow seated in front of me as Hurricane repeatedly stomped one of the blonde pretty boys. His girlfriend laughed like this was the funniest she'd ever heard.

As for the actual wrestling, I don't want to shock anyone, but I suspect the matches may be staged and choreographed. Nonetheless, there were some mighty impressive athletes and gymnasts out there. And the crowd booing, cheering and "woooing" as the forces of good and evil slapped, kicked, flipped and punched each other -- loved every minute of it. In fact, they're a big part of the show.

When they finally started bringing out the big boys, you could feel the energy level go up a few notches, and as the night progressed, the skill, sophistication and complexity of the matches also increased. As these guys launched themselves off the ropes and slammed each other onto the mat or out of the ring, I kept expecting to hear the snap of a femur or the sickening crunch of an impacted spinal column, but it never happened. Sure, the matches were fixed, but these guys definitely took and gave some real beatings, and I imagine they woke up Wednesday morning mighty sore.

The first big name to enter the ring was Kurt Angle who, it turns out, actually won a gold medal in freestyle wrestling during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Apparently Angle is a bad guy, because his presence brought a raucous "You Suck" chant from the crowd. As Angle grabbed a mike and began to berate the crowd, the "You Suck" chant turned into "What," apparently a remnant of ex-WWE wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's shtick. As Angle and the crowd were going at it, lo and behold, out stepped none other than Hollywood Hulk Hogan to the soaring guitar of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile." Even if you detest pro wrestling, you've heard of Hogan, who all but defined the business during most of the 80s, and made Sylvester Stallone look like a pipsqueak in Rocky III. Although the man has got to be in his mid-50s, he's still remarkably fit, but in that same lumpy kind of way as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hogan and Angle went at it in a battle of the titans, and after a long, valiant fight, Hogan, although hobbled and winded, emerged victorious. The crowd went wild.

Other highlights included the appearance of Brock "The Next Big Thing" Lesnar, a man with some truly alien-like trapezius muscles. His neck and upper back are so freakishly over-developed, he looks like he's had shoulder pads surgically implanted under his skin.

Rikishi, a 400-pound Samoan wrestler, also had quite a night. His trademark move is the "stinky face," which consists of him rubbing his disturbingly large, meaty and cellulite-ridden ass in the face of his opponents hey, no one said this was opera.

The female wrestler Nidia, who first showed up on MTV's wrestler-wannabe program Tough Enough, also made an appearance. The WWE says it's Nidia's "sharp athleticism and solid work ethic" that earned her a contract with WWE. I don't know about all that, but she did have the opportunity to show off her tongue stud as she shoved it down one of the announcer's throats and rubbed her breasts in his face.

When there weren't any matches going on in the ring, the two giant TV screens broadcast the ongoing soap operas backstage. The sexy, sassy and bitchy Stephanie McMahon, daughter of WWE President Jim McMahon, was the ringleader. With a malevolent gleam in her eye, and wearing a tight business suit and heels, she oversaw and instigated much of the backstabbing and infighting.

The final match featured the two-man tag-team featuring The Edge -- who looks like a cross between Tarzan and the singer for an 80s big hair band -- and The Rock, burgeoning action movie star and probably the country's most popular pro wrestler. (And apparently a big-hearted do-gooder, as he visited an 84-year-old cancer victim in Mooresville the day before Smackdown). It was a mighty, mighty battle, but in the end The Edge and The Rock came out on top over their hapless opponents, whoever they were.

I won't be going to any more wrestling matches, but I have to admit there were times when I got caught up in the craziness and excitement of it all. Pro wrestling is such an absurd, over-the-top spectacle that to criticize it is missing the point, much like complaining that the Three Stooges lack a narrative cohesion in their short films. Events like Smackdown are entertainment for the MTV generation loud, fast, flashy and stupid, with lots of eye candy. As far as claims that it contributes to the crassness of today's society or encourages kids to be violent, well, who knows? In some ways it probably does, but then again, some folks have said the same thing about Bugs Bunny cartoons. And let me tell you something -- I'll be damned if I let them take away my Looney Tunes. "Wooo!"

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