Yesterday, we had our first chance to indulge in the Wrestlemania hype, as THQ put on their 7th annual Superstar Challenge at Reliant Stadium, site of the 25th Anniversary of Wrestlemania. It's a 16-wrestler video game tournament for the superstars of the WWE. They were playing THQ's new title, The Legends of Wrestlemania. While the tourney was pretty cool (youngster Kofi Kingston took the thing down), most of us were more excited about the access to the real legends of Wrestlemania. We had a chance to interview "Mean" Gene Okerland, "The Million Dollar Man" Ted Dibiase, Sgt. Slaughter, Dusty Rhodes, and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. Some noteworthy tidbits:
-Gene Okerland mentioned how strange it was that certain superstars have not yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame, most notably Bruno Sammartino and "Macho Man" Randy Savage.
-How did he get his nickname, "Mean" Gene? Okerland says that he used to work interviews with Jessie "The Body" Ventura, and he used to start interviews with Okerland by asking him who he'd been hanging out with the night before. In one interview, Ventura told Okerland he'd been hanging around with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and when Okerland wasn't impressed, Ventura said, "you're mean, Gene." And the rest, they say, is history.
- Ted Dibiase, rather than sit down at one of the seats set up in front of the press junket, looked so happy to be able to stand in front us. He never sat down. Obviously, he's most proud of his son, who's going to be involved in the show on Sunday in some capacity, but he also revealed the origins of his character. Vince McMahon came up with a bunch of ideas early on in the company, but plenty of other people came up with ideas, too. Turns out "The Million Dollar Man" was thought up by Vince himself. "I wish I could take credit for it," said Dibiase, "but that's a Vince McMahon original." He auditioned for the part, and when he realized that the character was basically what Vince would play, if he would ever wrestle, he knew he had to accept the job. "Basically, it was Vince's alter ego," he added. And the laugh, that famous cackling laugh? Dibiase did it in an interview early on, just as Vince was walking by. The sound stopped Vince in his tracks, who instantly turned around, pointed at him, and said, "THAT'S the Million Dollar Man," instructing him to use that laugh before and after every interview.
-Sgt. Slaughter got into the most controversial character in his career. After winning the title in the early 1990s, with the U.S. inching closer to war with Iraq, Slaughter was asked to play an Iraqi sympathizer character. Fans, loaded with nationalism at this difficult time in our history, took exception to the storyline, and legitimately threatened his life. Slaughter dealt with bomb threats and death threats numerous times throughout that character's storyline. In fact, the FBI actually spent some time at his secluded house, guarding his family from some fans who couldn't seperate the story from the actor.
-It was a pleasure to chat with Dusty Rhodes, even if we only had a couple of minutes with him at the junket. Clad in a cowboy hat, white button up and Texas-style buckle, "The American Dream" still looked the part, and he told us a few great old stories about wrestling the Funks, who are going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame tonight.
-Last, but certainly not least, was "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, who took all of collective breaths away. We were told we could go down to the floor to go check out the finals of the video game tournament, or wait around for Piper. Obviously, we waited around for Piper, and it was incredible. Not to get all cliche on you guys, but Piper very much realized how many people had given their lives to this business to get the company to the point it is today, on the 25th Anniversary of Wrestlemania in a stadium that seats 70,000 people. Many wrestlers that came up with him are no longer with us, and Piper's had some health trouble in the past. Gracious and courageous, he detailed all the bad news he's gotten over the last few years, and when he got to being diagnosed with lymphoma, he put his head back, put his arms out to his side, and boomed, "bring it on." Absolutely chilling. He got choked up at points, pausing to collect himself, and we all got choked up, too. Here was a man who'd spent his life in the business, getting a chance to shine once again, and he really appreciated it. Shook every one of our hands. "Without you guys, we're nothin'," he said. When he left the room, we'd all agreed we'd seen something really special.