MANILA, Philippines – As a lifelong WWE fan, I wanted to experience WrestleMania at least once.
I've loved pro-wrestling ever since I watched Shawn Michaels defeat Bret Hart in their Iron Man match in 1996.
I've seen WWE live before. They've been touring Southeast Asia for over a decade. In Manila, they did RAW in 2006, Smackdown in 2007 and 2009, and a recent one in 2016. I also caught them in Malaysia (2014) and Singapore (2015).
But those pale horribly in comparison to the grand spectacle of WrestleMania week.
Upon arriving at Louis Armstrong airport, I was greeted by WrestleMania banners inside the arrivals area and huge portraits of WWE superstars adorned the pillars outside the terminal.
I had doubts on why WWE decided to hold WrestleMania at the Big Easy. It's a small city. There's no direct flights from Manila so you had to enter from bigger cities like New York. My guess at the time was that maybe they wanted to repeat the nostalgia from 4 years ago – the lasting image of Daniel Bryan valiantly celebrating his championship victory. But apart from that, why there?
Right off the bat I felt the energy of wrestling in the air. Everything is central and compact that you could spot someone sporting a wrestling shirt every two minutes or so. Or you could catch wrestlers as well like WWE's Elias as he was seen performing in one of the bars along Bourbon street.
Event locations like the Mercedes Benz Superdome and Smoothie King Center are walkable from hotels and main attractions like the French Quarter. The convention center where Axxess was is also nearby, albeit slightly farther.
Next year's WrestleMania will be back at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey and while it's easier to fly to, I doubt it's as convenient to go around as in New Orleans.
New Orleans in itself is also an amazing destination from the local cuisine – beignets, gumbos, and jambalayas among others – to the mind-blowing live jazz performances.
Aside from the official WWE events of the week, there's also WrestleCon. It's the biggest gathering of WWE and non-WWE performers both old and current all under one roof. Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart were a hundred feet apart. On the same row were Trish Stratus, Lita, DDP, Sting, RVD, Booker T, and Ric Flair. New Japan Pro Wrestling's Hiroshi Tanahashi, Minoru Suzuki, Kenny Omega, andThe Young Bucks were also present. That's just day one. They run for 3 days and even have their own wrestling shows separate from the convention.
Being a purist, I went to the Hall of Fame ceremony, one session of Axxess, NXT Takeover, WrestleMania, RAW, and Smackdown. I also did a day of WrestleCon.
Despite attending several live WWE shows, I've forgotten how to participate as a fan. I watch WWE at home and seldom attend viewing parties. And when I'm shooting Philippine Wrestling Revolution, I'm not a fan. I'm at work so all my attention is on the action.
WrestleMania week changed all that. I've screamed, sung, and chanted 'til my voice nearly croaked. I'm normally reserved in public but there's something about WrestleMania that made me proud to be a wrestling fan. I've high-fived the stranger in front of me twice and the guy next to me once. I barely documented the shows and just sat and took it all in. And besides, why shoot it if it's all recorded anyway? I can just watch it all back anytime afterwards.
I did not have the best seats in the house at all shows though. I was in the last row at Takeover and while I had sixth row floor seats at Smackdown two nights later, taller folk in front with their smartphones raised for what seemed like eternity ruined the view.
Nevertheless, no matter where you're seated, the WWE is the authority in live event production design. I can't keep track how many times my eyes drifted from the ring to the huge, vibrant WrestleMania signage. Across that gorgeous stage and above the ring is an equally colossal stalactite with equidistant lines pointing towards a viewing screen at its tip. As music plays, both structures light up in harmony, as if in a graceful dance. Completing the setup are two elongated viewing screens indicating the ongoing match. WrestleMania is a visual feast for the senses – the grandest stage of them all indeed.
Ultimately, more than the actual wrestling, what made WrestleMania worthwhile was the unspoken camaraderie with the wrestling faithful. The main event was awful. We chanted it. We got a bloodied Roman Reigns celebrating behind meaningless pyro to officially end the show, but I will never forget the countless random strangers who 'too-sweeted' me on the streets and their all-too-eager acknowledgements of whatever wrestling shirt I wore. The atmosphere was electric. Cliché, but very true.
WrestleMania week is the place to be seen and heard as a pro-wrestling fan and as a fan, you owe it to yourself to experience it at least once.
Now that I've done it once, I wouldn't mind a repeat.