Are you ready to rumble?
Famous words, to say the least. And words that were proposed to me as I boarded a plane recently bound for Orlando, Fla., where World Wrestling Entertainment was hosting its annual Royal Rumble, one of its marquee events and the one that officially kicks off WrestleMania season.
Yes, yes, I thought, I am ready to rumble.
I was, after all, part of a small contingent of international media afforded the opportunity to experience the Rumble weekend, along with a tour of the WWE’s state-of-the-art Performance Center, where it trains its future talent and nurtures its current crop of stars, among other things. The weekend was to see us get a private tour of the facility, attend the television tapings for the company’s hottest wrestling product, NXT, and then attend the Royal Rumble.
To say I was excited would be akin to calling Wayne Gretzky a decent hockey player.
So after boarding my plane in Ottawa, I was off.
Friday brought with it the busiest day of the weekend, with the media gathering Friday morning at the hotel to set off to for the Performance Center, where we would get a personalized tour led by the centre’s head coach Matt Bloom. Bloom, for the wrestling aficianados out there, is a nearly lifelong wrestling talent himself, having portrayed the likes of A-Train, Albert of Test & Albert (T&A in the edgier Attitude Era) and most recently Tensai. Bloom is a hulking man, standing well over six feet tall and owning the room like few others. But he’s also eloquent, friendly and well spoken.
He greeted us upon our arrival. What followed was a total tour of the facility, complete with a green screen room for promos, a fitness centre devised by WWE legend and current executive Paul (Triple H) Levesque, seven rings, a staffed medical facility and live camera feeds into the offices of WWE Chairman Vince McMahon and Levesque.
If the brain stimulation of what you’re witnessing isn’t enough, adorning the walls around the facility are photos of legendary wrestlers that would motivate even the laziest of wannabes. Pictures of Ricky Steamboat, The Undertaker, Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, along with posters of pay-per-views, are no doubt strategically placed as motivation for the aspiring wrestler. There’s even the original ring bell from WrestleMania 1 at Madison Square Garden hanging above the door to the lunch room area.
As Bloom leads us from room to room, describing in vivid detail the intended function of each room at the facility, a group of a dozen or so wrestlers-in-training are being put through the paces inside one of the rings, either an intentional display put on solely for the purpose of the international guests or a nice coincidence. The pounding of bodies on the canvas, over and over and over, at times challenges even the very audible Bloom.
To our delight, one of the WWE media relations people arranges an impromptu visit from Levesque himself, who was, little did we know then, having a workout in preparation of his appearance (and subsequent victory) in the Rumble in two days time. Media gathered around the man known as Triple H to pose for a group photo, then individual pics, before he resumed his workout.
Bloom explained that what was happening in the development centre could all be seen live via camera in the Stamford, Conn., offices of chairman McMahon and Levesque, no doubt added incentive, and stress, for any talent who steps inside an NXT squared circle.
Before the conclusion of the tour, media were offered the chance to make their WWE entrance debuts thanks to a makeshift ramp entrance, complete with curtains. One by one, we took turns making our entrances, as Bloom and the aforementioned trainees either chanted, cheered or booed from inside the ring. A WWE photographer took pics as we all came out, some as babyfaces (good), others as heels (bad guys).
When my turn came, Bloom urged me to be the first to attempt a heel entrance. I summoned by inner bad guy and burst through the curtains, to a chorus of boos from those in the ring. They booed, I cursed them, a good time was had by all.
At the conclusion of the tour, media met with Bloom, trainer (and Manitoba native) Sarah Stock and the NXT women’s champion Bayley for a Q&A, followed by one-on-one interviews with NXT talent from our respective countries. For me, I talked to Montreal’s Sami Zayn.
Later that night, we attended the TV tapings of NXT, along with a boisterous crowd. The nearly four-hour show was highlighted by the debut of Austin Aries (someone I’ve personally known for a while) and appearances by Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Zayn and Neville. It was easy to see why the product is so popular among fans as the matches were top notch.
Saturday was a quieter day, and cool and overcast in Orlando. Despite that, a throng of us media types set out for Universal Orlando, where we took in the tourist sites, a few rides and where I waited some 30 minutes for the best coffee I would have during the entire trip (Starbucks).
Sunday was Rumble day. Media gathered at the hotel to set out for the Amway Center, home of the Orlando Magic of the National Basketball Association. We arrived early in order to hold a media conference with WWE superstar Rusev and his manager Lana. Rusev had been something of a Rumble stud since debuting at the event two years ago and being among the finalists last year.
Lana and Rusev answered questions for about 20 minutes on various topics from the Rumble to their personal relationship (in real life, they’re engaged). Before leaving, they posed for a group photo and set off.
We then enjoyed some of the WWE’s fine catering, learning that company employs its own catering company that travels with it from show to show week in and week out. The food was tremendous. Afterward, we were given a tour of the venue, complete with a comprehensive guide to all facts WWE related.
We then took our seats for the big event.
As I wrote running copy for Postmedia and Sun newspapers, I tried to stay on top of the action. I’ll admit, in an event that sees a new competitor enter every 90 seconds and various competitors eliminated suddenly, it was difficult to keep track while writing, snapping pics and re-topping my copy.
One of the big highlights of the event included the debut of AJ Styles, one of the most popular wrestlers in the world outside of the WWE until that moment. Other highlights included a great showing by Canadians in the event. Winnipeg legend Chris Jericho entered at No. 6 and lasted until the final five. B.C. native Tyler Breeze made his Rumble debut. Zayn also appeared, as did his fellow Quebec native Kevin Owens. Owens and Dean Ambrose had one of the matches of the year earlier in the night to kick off the show.
The outcome – No. 30 entrant Triple H, at age 46, won the event and captured his 14th WWE World Heavyweight Championship – was a bit puzzling to me, but given he has always been one of my favourite characters in history, I found myself caught up in the celebration.
Monday was departure day, and I had a boatload of free time to reflect on my journey and the experiences that came with it.
Say what you want about the WWE product you watch on television every Monday, or that you don’t. That is the product that it puts out there to be judged, fairly or unfairly. But the company is as professional and as well oiled a machine as you’ll find anywhere on Earth.
From its sharp and friendly media relations people to its catering team to its NXT coaches and its trainees, no one does it better, or more professionally. You see the wrestlers who walk out those curtains, in front of the cameras, the fans, the world.
I’ve seen a small glimpse of a small part of what goes on from the ground up. And it’s awesome. There really is no other word. In fact, I’m ready to rumble again.