Lessons from the cheap seats
By NICK TYLWALK -- For SLAM! Wrestling
Vic Zhao, Nick Tylwalk and Aaron "Hank" Henry at WWF Axxcess on Saturday, March 31, 2001. -- Greg Oliver, CANOE
HOUSTON -- Things looked a little different to me at
WrestleMania this year. No, I'm not talking about a
victorious Steve Austin sharing a beer with former
arch-enemy Vince McMahon. I mean my view of the WWF's
premier pay-per-view literally looked different, since
it came from the upper deck of the Reliant Astrodome.
Normally, I would have taken in WrestleMania
along with my roommates, family and perhaps a few
friends in my home in central Pennsylvania. But the
location of this year's event offered me a unique
opportunity, since one of my best friends from my
college days at Duke University just happens to live
in Houston. SLAM! Wrestling head honcho Greg Oliver
was able to get me in to Axxess with a press pass, but
for the show itself, I was forced to use the tickets
my friends and I purchased last fall. So along with
fellow SLAM! Wrestling contributor Aaron "Hank" Henry
and my good buddy Vic Zhao, I set out on Sunday
afternoon for Section 747.
The seats in the seventh level of the Astrodome are
known to Houston natives as the rainbows, probably
because of the alternating rows of yellow, orange and
red seats. As a point of reference, the rainbows are
much, much higher than the lighting rig that hangs
over the ring. Suffice it to say, this is binocular
territory, though there is actually one more level of
seats above us. The one positive about our seats is
that despite being farther from the action than I
thought humanly possible while remaining under the
same roof, the sight lines are unobstructed and one of
the giant video screens faces directly towards our
Fans up in the rainbows are there for one of several
reasons. Perhaps they didn't want to or couldn't
afford to shell out several hundred dollars apiece for
floor seats. It's possible that they waited until the
last minute to buy tickets and the seventh level is
the best they could get.
Or perhaps, like us, they simply could not get through
on the phone lines to order tickets for the first few
hours WrestleMania tickets were on sale last fall.
Whatever the reason, the fans up here are no less
enthusiastic. One look around to see the dozens of
signs - made more for the enjoyment of their fellow
fans than a chance to get TV time, since there's no
chance the camera will ever find them this high up -
makes that fact clear.
It's also pretty clear that the Astrodome is
out of practice holding events of this magnitude. The
bathrooms are crowded, the souvenir stands are mobbed,
and I wait in line for fifteen minutes at the "Nacho
Express." When I get to the counter, the three
harried employees inform me that it will be at least
another ten minutes for nachos, due to the fact that
the nacho cheese sauce is cold.
Still, all of that is forgotten once the show
begins. Jim Ross isn't exaggerating when he says
WrestleMania is sold out - our section is packed, and
we find out later that we are part of an Astrodome
attendance record. The residents of Section 747 pop
and boo at the appropriate times, and chants that
break out in lower levels or halfway around the arena
are repeated here.
Two brothers, neither one of them older than
12, occupy the seats in front of me, and they strike
up a running conversation with me covering everything
from the pyrotechnics to The Rock's version of
Austin's Stone Cold Stunner. They both give me a hard
time for cheering on Triple H during his battle with
The Undertaker. In fact, I'm able to find only a few
allies in the adjacent rows to join me in bemoaning
the loss suffered by The Game.
The crescendo of excitement reaches its peak
for the main event. Austin, the Texas native,
receives a thunderous pop. Despite his status as WWF
Champion and self-proclaimed People's Champ, The Rock
receives a mixed reaction including a surprising
number of boos. The brothers are split on this one,
with the older one supporting Austin and the younger,
sporting one of The Rock's shirts, sticking with the
champ. When the match gets under way, the boys hang
on every move, as do all of the fans in the rainbows.
Somewhere amidst all the chaos, I have a
revelation, an epiphany of sorts. In this day and age
of monthly pay-per-views and TV saturation, it would
be easy for WrestleMania to be just another wrestling
show. The feuds for this year's version are nothing
special, most of them having come together in the span
of just a few weeks. Certainly it isn't the match
quality that sets WrestleMania apart, though X-Seven
had more than its share of highlights.
Yet there is still something that makes this
event special. It should have dawned on me when I saw
the cars in the parking lot hailing from all over
North America, many with windows covered in slogans
like "WrestleMania or bust." I probably should have
pieced it together while snapping pictures at Axxess
alongside people perfectly content to wait in line for
hours for a single autograph. But it isn't until now,
watching the two young men in the ninth row of Section
747, that it comes to me. It's the fans, especially
the ones who made the journey to Houston and paid good
money to get a much worse view than they could have
had watching TV in their own homes, that make
WrestleMania live up to the hype.
The show ends with most of the folks in the
rainbows happy despite Austin's seeming heel turn.
Aaron, Hank and I stick around to watch the excellent
video package of the night's events, but the two
brothers leave with the rest of their family. I never
do catch their names.
I plan to attend WrestleMania again next year.
I'm hoping to get better seats next time, but if I
end up in the equivalent of the rainbows in whatever
venue hosts the next show, you won't hear me complain.