Legitimate professional athletes are some of professional wrestling’s biggest fans

They like to watch: legitimate professional athletes are some of professional wrestling’s biggest fans

Chad Johnson

DALLAS MAVERICKS GUARD Steve Nash lives the life. He’s young, wealthy, and one of the best point guards in the NBA. Heck the guy has even been rumored to date former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell and actress Liz Hurley

Still, every time the WWF rolls through Dallas, Nash and his little buddy and fellow All-Star Dirk Nowitzki are ringside.

“It’s entertaining,” says the 28-year-old Nash. “I can’t really describe why I like it. I guess because I’m just like most guys my age that grew up with wrestling and really got back into it when I was in college. I have a blast at those events. It’s just a lot of fun.”

It’s so much fun that Nash, Nowitzki, and several teammates make sure their schedules are clear for WWF events. Same goes for Detroit Red Wings forward Brett Hull and Dallas Stars forward Mike Modano. Cincinnati Reds first baseman Sean Casey and pitcher Danny Graves always have their tickets. Los Angeles Lakers forward Robert Horry is so addicted to wrestling that he has a WWF arcade game in his house.

Wrestling has become so popular among pro athletes that some players wear wrestling T-shirts under their jerseys. For instance, former Stars tough guy Brent Severn used to wear a Stone Cold shirt under his sweater And Texas Rangers pitcher John Rocker still occasionally dons the Goldberg T-shirt he wore during the 1999 playoffs against the New York Mets.

Wrestling catchphrases are also popping up in the most unlikely of places. “I was watching an NFL pre-game show one morning,” the Rock recalls. “It was a feature that showed some locker room footage. All of the sudden I see this guy cut another player off and say `It doesn’t matter what you think.’ I was, like, `Wow, it’ll turn up anywhere.'”

Wrestling moves are also showing up in weird places. Pro bowler Pete Weber uses the RVD-like thumb point to celebrate stringing together a few strikes. Former Dallas Cowboys running back Herschel Walker, who says he’s “glued to the couch on Monday and Thursday nights,” once celebrated a kick return for a touchdown in a game with Diamond Dallas Page’s Diamond Cutter.

Even Nash has gotten into the act. Earlier this season, Nash was ejected from a game for fighting with the Golden State Warriors’ Vonteego Cummings. As Nash left the court, he turned toward Cummings and made the old New Age Outlaws proud. “Looking back on that, it probably wasn’t the right thing to do,” Nash says, “but as I was leaving I gave him the DX [sign].”

Maybe not the right thing, but certainly the “in” thing.

The entertainment business and the sports world have always have had a strange marriage. Jack Nicholson is almost as famous for being a Lakers fan as he is for acting. Spike Lee never misses a New York Knicks game. Bill Murray is a regular at Chicago Cubs games.

The association also goes the other way. Athletes love to mix with Hollywood types. And the Rock, is among the few that has had success malting the transition.

But while Nicholson, Lee, and Murray can identify with pro players when it comes to income, no one is going to get them mixed up with Tim Duncan. The Big Show, however, looks like he could be on an NBA roster.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that a lot of [wrestlers] are good athletes,” Casey says. “That’s probably part of the attraction. Some wrestlers have actually been pro or college athletes and can identify with us somewhat.”

Among the top wrestlers in the business, several have genuine athletic experience. The Rock played college football at the University of Miami and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin played at North Texas State. Kevin Nash, Bull Buchanan, and Wight were college basketball players. Kurt Angle won an Olympic gold medal in 1996. Faarooq and Bradshaw of the Acolyte Protection Agency both played professional football and Goldberg, of course, is a former Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams player.

Casey and other pro athletes say they respect wrestlers’ athletic abilities, but admit athleticism is not the primary attraction of pro wrestling. The shows offer athletes a genuine form of entertainment, an escape from their everyday competitive lives. At wrestling events, most say they are rarely bothered for autographs and few have had a bad experience.

Because of the atmosphere at the arenas, when the opportunity comes to get involved in the show or a chance to meet a wrestler arrives, athletes act like any other fan–they take advantage.

Before being bought out by the WWF, WCW always jumped at the chance to involve local sports stars in their regional shows. At a “Nitro” taping in Buffalo just after the Bills were eliminated in the NFL playoffs by the Tennessee Titans and the Music City’ Miracle play, Jeff Jarrett, wearing a Frank Wycheck Titans jersey, got in Bills nose tackle Ted Washington’s face. As part of the show, Washington stood toe-to-toe with “the Chosen One.” Later, Washington jumped the railing and knocked Jarrett out of the ring. At a “Raw” taping in Dallas when Hull was still part of the Stars, he joined Modano and the Rock in the ring for a sing-along after the show went off the air. The Rock then asked Modano how he was doing. Modano cautiously answered “fine.” Facing Hull and almost breaking character, the Rock asked Hull how he was. As Hull began to answer, the Rock, to the delight of the crowd, let Hull know that it didn’t matter how he felt.

“How great was that?” Hull asked later. “I got the `It doesn’t matter’ from the Rock. That was pretty cool.”

Getting that kind of praise from Hull means a little. Among the other things Hull considers “pretty cool” are a Stanley Cup championship and over 600 goals. But wherever the WWF goes nowadays, that sort of praise and admiration from legitimate pros seems to follow.

Mavericks guard Nick Van Exel says he hasn’t had a chance to go to a WWF event in Dallas yet, but before he left Denver he was one of several Nuggets players that asked to meet Goldberg before a game one night. When the former WCW champion walked into the locker room, Van Exel got right in line for an autograph.

“I remember standing there thinking how cool it was that I was actually getting to meet Goldberg,” Van Exel says. “I was like a kid in a candy store. Actually meeting him put things in perspective for me. It made me realize that the way I looked at him was the way kids probably look at us.”

The fascination factor, like Steve Nash says, is partially because of the age of current athletes. Athletes in the their 20s and 30s grew up in the wrestling boom in the early to mid-’80s. Hulk Hogan was a mainstream star. There was the Rock-n-Wrestling Connection. There were even Saturday morning wrestling cartoons.

“Wrestling was a part of growing up for me,” says Titans linebacker Randall Godfrey. “I always watched it as a kid, but got away from it in high school. I really got back into it when I was in college.”

Adds Walker: “I’m a little bit older, but being from Georgia I was really into the old Saturday night shows on TBS. I watched Gordon Solie and all the Armstrong boys when I was a teenager. And of course I got into Hogan, the Warrior, and “Macho Man” Savage when I was in college.”

Godfrey is a reflection of the general wrestling audience. In the early ’90s, he drifted away from it, but slowly got drawn back in when WCW “Nitro” became so popular in 1996, much because of the Hulk Hogan heel turn and the NWO angle. He now watches or records every pay-per-view and is a fixture in front of his television on Monday and Thursday nights.

Though ratings and live-event attendance has gone down somewhat, athletes still jump at a chance to get involved in WWF events. Toronto Raptors Tracy Murray and Alvin Williams were guests at the WWF fanfest, Axxess, in Toronto during the WrestleMania X-8 weekend in March. And every time the WWF rolls through a college town like Columbus, Ohio, or state College, Pa., you can bet several athletes will be on the front row.

In the end pro athletes, just like most fins, love wrestling because it’s a great way to blow off steam. For instance, when asked about his life away from the fink, the Boston Bruins’ Joe Thornton admits that like many pro athletes, he craves downtime.

“I like to stay home and eat,” he says. “I stay in the house a lot and watch, TV. I like to watch wrestling–the Rock’s my guy.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group