A trip down MemoryMania

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Seth Rollins holds up his newly won WWE World Heavyweight Championship belt at WrestleMania 31 in Santa Clara, Calif. (Mike Mastrandrea/SLAM! Wrestling)

 

Words such as awesome, unbelievable, unreal and amazing have become overused and almost cliché in this day of social media dominance.

So frequently are they used that they have lost their significance.

As such, my search for words to convey how I feel has begun as I reflect on what I can only describe as the single greatest trip I’ve ever went on. Ever.

Interestingly, it all came together in very short order, too.

Just over three weeks ago, I threw a hail Mary inside my boss’s office at The Kingston Whig-Standard. I asked him if there was anyway our parent company, Sun Media, might send me to California to cover WrestleMania, the single greatest wrestling event in the world year in and year out.

He well knows my history with professional wrestling both as a fan, which dates back to my early childhood, and as a writer. I covered my first WWE event as a college student in 1998 and I debuted a long-running weekly column in the pages of the Whig in February 2000. I still write about it in the pages of the Whig today.

So selling him on why this is something that interests me was not necessary.

While he didn’t sound confident that such a trip could come together in such short order, he assured me he would give it the old college try.

So he threw his own hail Mary.

To everyone’s surprise, a couple of hours later, that hail Mary was caught for what I can only now describe as the Super Bowl-winning touchdown as the clock expires in a game in which you’re down by five points. It turned out that there was an opportunity for someone from Sun Media to attend WrestleMania, and that person, I was told, could be me if I was interested.

To describe my excitement that day would, again, likely involve the use of at least three of those aforementioned words. So let’s just say I was pumped.

Now, I wouldn’t be a Murphy if the proverbial Murphy’s Law didn’t come into play.

After accepting my assignment, it dawned on me I had exactly fewer than three weeks until I would be leaving and I was at the time in possession of a damaged passport, which I damaged returning from a wrestling show in Philadelphia late last year. To make a long story short, I put my shower scrunchy in the same side pocket as my passport. That’s right, a shower scrunchy.

My excitement quickly turned to concern. Would my damaged passport cause me to miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime?

Thankfully, no.

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Daniel Bryan celebrates after winning the WWE Intercontinental title at WrestleMania 31 in Santa Clara, Calif. Photo by Mike Mastrandrea/SLAM! Wrestling

 

After emailing Kingston and the Islands member of Parliament Ted Hsu, he assured me his office and staff would help me see to it I made this journey.

What followed was a trip to his office, to fill out the forms, a trip to Walmart for passport photos, a trip to see my mother , who would be my guarantor and two Monday morning drives to Ottawa and back, one with my best friend, to deliver and pick up my passport. All of that happened over the course of roughly 15 days.

In the meantime, I had to plan for this epic journey, both at work and at home, where I have a wife and two young children. Thankfully, fulfilling one of my lifelong dreams came with the full support of my family and my boss.

I also had to apply for media accreditation and come up with a plan for coverage while I was there, to make the entire trip worthwhile for everyone.

If you’ve followed my career at the Whig at all over the years, you’ll know my life has been an open book in print. I’ve written on my kids, my struggles with my weight and, as mentioned, professional wrestling. You may also remember that I have issues with anxiety, having written about my panic attacks and the grip that anxiety has had on me over the years.

To be completely honest, five minutes after I committed to this journey, my anxiety over having to fly set in. I just chose to suppress it amid the chaos and scrambling to pull this all together. I also convinced myself that my newfound control over my anxiety, thanks to several sessions of neurofeedback, would make things different.

But with each passing day as my journey neared, my anxiety crept in, and it began to consume me a little more. I mostly kept it to myself, though I did confide in a few friends and my wife about my nerves.

I would have a great day, where my confidence would soar, leaving no doubt in my mind that I could overcome my anxiety. The next would be a day with my stomach tied in knots. Two more good days, three bad ones. So on and so forth.

My final move to triumph over my fears (of flying, of freaking out while alone, of planes crashing, of being so far away from anyone I knew) was to visit my family doctor, who prescribed what I like to call my flying pills. These, he said, would a last line of defence in my battle with anxiety.

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The Rock acknowledges the Santa Clara Crowd at Levi’s Stadium during WrestleMania 31. (Mike Mastrandrea/SLAM! Wrestling)

 

Armed with my belief that my panic attacks are ancient history, my flying pills and the full belief that this opportunity was far too great to pass up, I made my final arrangement. I called family in Toronto to arrange to spend the night before my flight, with them, so I could shorten the journey to San Francisco, where I would be flying into. They graciously offered me a place to stay, and to drop me off and pick me up at the airport.

After a final few good day-bad day days, I found myself packing and forging ahead.

In my head, a more than five-hour flight, alone, would push my nerves to the max, but the opportunity to go and meetin some of the friend I knew only through covering the business and to experience WrestleMania was too much to pass up over my nerves. By the time the morning of my flight arrived, my stomach was in knots, as expected.

As boarding began, I popped a “flying pill” and hoped for the best. A young female passenger sitting nearby could sense my nervousness and talked to me, which proved a nice distraction. A friend also called to wish me well.

After boarding, I kept it together long enough to get in the air. There was no turning back. I began binge watching movies and TV show episodes to pass the time. Surprisingly, the time passed rather quickly. I popped a second flying pill midway through the flight and I made it. San Fran, here I come.

After catching a ride with my friend and pro wrestling Tommy Dreamer to my hotel, 45 minutes away, I was excited at the prospect of what was lying ahead. I had overcome my biggest obstacle and was facing what I believed would be a memorable weekend.

I arrived at WrestleMania week in the Silicon Valley with an itinerary that was to include covering WWE’s Fan Axxess event, international media day events, the vaunted 2015 Hall of Fame induction ceremony and the big event itself, WrestleMania 31 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

I have always enjoyed a good relationship with WWE media relations, and as such, I was excited at the prospect of what was to come.

In my experience, typically when you have such high expectations for something, they’re difficult to meet. Perhaps something goes wrong, or you overshot your expectations, or the weather doesn’t pan out, or any number of things.

In this case, I’m thrilled to report that not only were my wildest dreams met, but they were exceeded. Far, far exceeded.

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The Undertaker walks the ropes during his match against Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 31 in Santa Clara, Calif. (Mike Mastrandrea/SLAM! Sports)

 

I could not have predicted how indescribably incredible the entire experience would prove to be. Not in my wildest dreams would I have conjured up anything close to what I would experience over the course of five days.

Day 1 was arrival, so after checking in, I some advanced writing for Sun Media and SLAM! Wrestling, which was also using my coverage, along with providing me with one of the most likable and talented photographers I’ve ever worked an event with, Mike Mastrandrea.

As relaxed as Day 1 was, Day 2 was anything but. It started with a 5:15 a.m. (that’s right, that’s not a typo) departure from the hotel to the media meet-and-greet event in San Jose.

Two busloads of international media were bused to the gathering, where we were set up at tables to await the arrival of the WWE talent.

When the time came, several big-name WWE stars appeared, including Paul Heyman, Finn Balor, Damien Mizdow, Paige, Stardust, Bray Wyatt, Eva Marie, Bad News Barrett, Heath Slater and others. One by one, they spent a few moments with media, answering any and all questions, over the course of a couple of hours.

Midway through, the man himself, Hulk Hogan, appeared to do a few interviews, lighting up the room as only he can. I was able to get my copy of the first issue of WWF Magazine signed by Hogan, a keepsake that I will treasure forever.

Over those two-plus hours, I would have the privilege to speak with Eva Marie, Barrett, Mizdow, Canadian Sami Zayn, Paige, Balor and someone whom I’d been chasing an interview with for a while, Wyatt.

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Jan Murphy interviews WWE superstar Bray Wyatt during WrestleMania Week media interviews in San Jose, Calif. (Mike Mastrandrea/SLAM! Wrestling)

 

During those interviews, I got to ask those talented folks about WrestleMania, their careers, their passions outside of wrestling and more.

Interviewing Balor, who was generous with his time and thoughtful with his answers, was a treat as he was very obviously soaking in and enjoying his own first WrestleMania. He’s also a guy I see as a top talent in the not-too-distant future.

But the highlight of the media session was the few moments I spent picking the brain of Bray Wyatt, an extremely talented young star for whom the sky is the limit in wrestling.

We talked about WrestleMania, his opponent The Undertaker and his own rise to prominence in the WWE. Wyatt is the son of Mike Rotunda, who is best remembered for his time as Irwin R. Schyster in the WWE. He’s also the brother of current WWE wrestler Bo Dallas and his wrestling family roots run deep as his grandfather and uncles also wrestled for a living.

To listen to Wyatt passionately explain his own struggles following his demotion to NXT after a failed run with Nexus was to hear a man who is completely caught up in the tide of success he’s currently enjoying, and not taking even one second of it for granted.

When we were done, he put his arm around me and posed for a photo.

If all that access to high-end talent wasn’t enough, it got better. A lot better.

Media were then shuttled by bus to San Francisco, where we were delivered to the ritzy Fairmount Hotel, for another media opportunity. There, we joined domestic members of the media out in the streets and were told to grab a spot and prepare for a treat. A trolley would soon pull up, carrying in it Hulkamania himself, Hulk Hogan, Roman Reigns, John Cena, the Bella Twins and Daniel Bryan. After a couple photo ops, we were escorted up to the presidential suite, divided by our particular discipline and told we would have a chance to interview the big names we had just seen, and WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon.

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WWE superstar Paige, right, is interviewed by Jan Murphy at international media day during WrestleMania 31 events in San Jose, Calif. (Mike Mastrandrea/SLAM! Wrestling)

 

What a treat, indeed.

First up for our room (print media) was McMahon herself. She gave thoughtful and insightful answers, flashed a little of her charm, a lot of her savvy and left the room buzzing.

One by one (well the Bellas came together) the media got to interview Reigns, Cena, Bryan, the Bellas and the man himself, Hulk Hogan. I personally asked each at least one question, I even managed a couple of questions on a few occasions.

Listening to McMahon talk about the reacquisition of Brock Lesnar, or Hogan talk about his mortality, or Bryan speak passionately about Connor “The Crusher” Michalek, or Reigns about how many family he would have in attendance for the big show … was nothing short of riveting and a real highlight in my career.

That day couldn’t possibly get any better could it? Well, after going back to the hotel to write up as much as I could from what I had gathered that morning, you bet it did.

We were next delivered to an international media appreciation dinner at a very nice restaurant in San Jose, which the WWE had closed to the public for the evening.

Delicious foods, drinks and a chance to meet some of the WWE staff was highlighted by the appearance of a half dozen or so WWE stars, including Hall of Famer Sgt. Slaughter, Rusev and Lana, Sheamus, Cesaro, Paige and others.

Not only was media able to mingle with the stars, it was encouraged.

From there, we headed over the NXT show nearby. An incredible first day concluded by watching the future of the WWE dazzle a sold-out San Jose crowd.

Tired, but bolstered, I headed to the hotel for some much-needed shut eye.

Day two’s agenda featured a trip to the incredibly busy Fan Axxess event. That trip was highlighted by meeting wrestling artist extraordinaire Rob Schamberger, and his lovely wife Katy. While there, I purchased a few reprints of some of my favourite moments.

Next up came what I expected would be the highlight of the entire trip, the WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony. With my photo partner off to shoot the red carpet ceremony, I decided this was one I simply wanted to soak in.

I had a seat six rows up from the floor, to the right of the stage, not far from where Michael Cole and Maria Menounos filmed their pre-show coverage.

As the crowd filled in, chants for beloved superstars would emerge as they arrived into the arena. Cole asked fans to refrain from interrupting the service with chants or wrestling-related material as the inductees were there to be honoured.

I soaked it all in, watching one legend after another legend pay tribute to each other and the business that helped make them stars.

I won’t lie, it was an emotional roller coaster.

I laughed. A lot. I cried. More than I care to admit. I cheered. I clapped. I empathized, I hurt on the inside, I felt pride, I even got the chills. It was an amazing night paying tribute to some amazing folks. I dare you to no be touched by the love between Rikishi and his kids, or the heart and soul displayed by Dana Warrior or the inner child shown by Bushwacker Butch.

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The 2015 WWE Hall of Fame ceremony was held in San Jose, Calif. (Mike Mastrandrea/SLAM! Wrestling)

 

A lineup that I felt might not have been as strong as other years proved to be one of the best induction ceremonies ever.

Sunday brought the whole reason for this trip, WrestleMania itself.

Shortly after lunch, Mastrandrea and I drove to the arena, sitting in heavy traffic as the first wave of what would be almost 80,000 began to fill the parking lot at Levi’s Stadium. After going through security and getting our accreditation, it was off to the media box (a state-of-the-art media box, I might add) to take in the show for me, and off to the photo pit for him.

I had planned to file updates following every match back to Canada, in hopes of making the print edition of the Sun papers back in Canada. (The Toronto would run a double-page spread in its Monday edition)

As each match on the card found a way to top the previous one, I begin to realize I was watching history unfold right before my very eyes. Not one match on that card disappointed. It had something for everyone. There were surprises, guest appearances, musical performances, massive finishes, high-flying risks, huge ovations and in the end, arguably one of the great WrestleManias in history. The crowd was electric (as were a number of folks in the media box, to my chagrin, but I digress) and the superstars reacted accordingly.

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WWE World Heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar delivers an F5 to challenger Roman Reigns during WrestleMania 31 in Santa Clara, Calif. (Mike Mastrandrea/SLAM! Wrestling)

 

It’s hard to pinpoint a favourite moment as there were so many.

There was The Big Show paying homage to Andre the Giant after winning the second Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal.

There was a huge finish by Randy Orton and Seth Rollins.

There was Daniel Bryan winning the Intercontinental Championship.

There was Sting wrestling in his first-ever WWE and WrestleMania match on the same night.

There was a memorable Terminator-style entrance by Triple H.

There was the return of The Undertaker, who looked incredible.

There was John Cena recapturing the United States Championship.

There was The Rock stunning the crowd with his return, eventually bringing MMA star Ronda Rousey into the ring for a memorable confrontation with Triple H and Stephanie McMahon.

There was Rusev suffering his first WWE loss.

And there was the main event, which saw Brock Lesnar absolutely dominate Roman Reigns physically, but with Reigns absorbing everything Lesnar could throw at him and asking for more.

And of course there was the finish, with Seth Rollins cashing in his Money in the Bank and essentially stealing the WWE World Heavyweight Championship right before our very eyes.

All of it epic and all of it unforgettable.

I would be remiss if I didn’t go out of my way to pay my thanks and gratitude to the amazing WWE media relations and publicity staff, who were so clearly outnumbered by the scores of media hailing from every corner of the earth.

WWE staff were constantly being pulled in every direction, yet they handled every pull the way they always do, with class, with accommodating efforts and unflappable patience.

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Wrestling legends Hulk Hogan and Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart at a WrestleMania 31 media gathering in San Jose, Calif. (Mike Mastrandrea/SLAM! Wrestling)

 

Now that I’ve managed to write this entire piece and avoid using some of those clichéd words I wrote about some 2,300 words ago, I feel I’ve earned the right to use one, and this one goes out to the WWE, its superstars and all of its staff … guys and gals, you’re all awesome. Thank you.

Looking back, I may well have just enjoyed what will prove to be the single greatest weekend of my life. I certainly hope I have equally as good or better weekends lying ahead down the road, but if not, I will hang onto the memories of this one for the rest of my life.

It also turns out I made too big a deal about flying. Can’t wait to fly again.

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