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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 April 2019

Wrestlemania 35: From Japan to Kuwait, meet the fans who travelled all the way for WWE

The WWE's global outreach is impressive, as Evelyn Lau experienced firsthand at her first Wrestlemania weekend

WWE fans from Australia, China and Chile attend Wrestlemania weekend in New York and New Jersey. Photo by Evelyn Lau
WWE fans from Australia, China and Chile attend Wrestlemania weekend in New York and New Jersey. Photo by Evelyn Lau

What does a wrestling fan look like? While it might be easy to draw from stereotypes, it is a question that is proving to be increasingly difficult to answer.

Growing up, Wrestlemania was the event to attend if you were a wrestling fan. It featured big stars and big matches as well as growing hype for the show. Fast forward to today, and it has evolved into an entire weekend loaded with wrestling activities and events that can be appreciated even if you're not that into wrestling.

As I headed to my first Wrestlemania, my jam-packed three day weekend included NXT Takeover (NXT is another promotion under the WWE umbrella), the Hall of Fame ceremony, Wrestlemania and Wrestlemania Axxcess sessions (which are essentially a meet and greet for the fans). These were also prime spots to meet the most diehard ofWWE fans.

The media converging on the event were equally as diverse: from Mexico, Germany, the UK, South Africa, Portugal, China and Japan.

Japan has a particular love affair with wrestling

It was here that I met Japanese comedian and former wrestler Makoto Izubuchi. He particularly caught my eye, as he was dressed up as John Cena with a convincingly matching bright green hat and wristbands. When I asked why he decided to dress up like the former WWE champion, he gave me a simple response: “I love John Cena.”

Japan’s love affair with pro wrestling shouldn’t be a surprise, as they have a long affinity with wrestling, including their own successful promotions outside the WWE.

In fact, there were plenty of Japanese fans in attendance.

Masa Akao and Kensuke Yokoyama were at Wrestlemania Axxcess dressed up like WWE stars Jimmy Hart and “Road Dogg” Jesse James.

“Wrestling is entertaining so it’s very fun to me. Other sport isn’t as entertaining as WWE,” says Akao, who has been a fan for close to 20 years. He cites his favourite wrestlers as John Cena and Chris Jericho, and shows me a photo from his iPad of himself and Cena in 2005.

Getting to Wrestlemania can cost a pretty penny

WWE caters to their international audience by offering a tiered all-inclusive travel package, aside from flights. This year’s Wrestlemania travel packages ranged from $1,175 (Dh4,315) to $6,940 (Dh25,488).

Ahmad Hussain and his friends flew all the way from Kuwait to attend Wrestlemania weekend. Between the hotel and flight, as well as the tickets for the shows, they estimate they spent around $7,000 (Dh25,700). But for them, it was worth it considering they'd loved wrestling since their childhood.

Ahmad Hussain and his friends travelled from Kuwait to attend Wrestlemania weekend. Photo by Evelyn Lau
Ahmad Hussain and his friends travelled from Kuwait to attend Wrestlemania weekend. Photo by Evelyn Lau

“Actually it was back in the 1990s, wrestling was really popular and a cool thing to watch,” said Hussain, who had floor seats at Wrestlemania. “Also, WWE back then had several shows in Kuwait that included a lot of legends such as Shawn Michaels, Diesel, The Undertaker, Bret Hart and Vader. It had a huge impact on me.”

And now, fans are coming for the females as much as they are for the men's events

The WWE has always held a strong male fan base, but it was women who headlined the main event at its flagship Wrestlemania show on Sunday.

Luka Kesto and Tanja Hallikas came from Finland to attend the weekend festivities. It was their second time attending Wrestlemania.

“It’s so fun, it’s like a soap opera,” says Kesto. The duo decided to don outfits matching the newly crowned WWE women’s tag team champions Billie Kay and Peyton Royce, also known as The IIconics.

The WWE has put hard work into building its women’s division. One of its biggest stars, Becky Lynch, closed out Wrestlemania by winning both championship belts in a winner-takes-all match.

Rosemari Martinez, from Los Angeles, was dressed up as Lynch during the weekend to show her support for the Irish wrestler.

As the WWE puts more focus on its female stars, it is evident that it’s paying off. I noticed a number of little girls wearing “The Man” t-shirts (a moniker Lynch has given herself), which shows the important message of female empowerment being sent to young women.

This year’s Wrestlemania featured three women’s matches in total: a women’s battle royal, a women’s tag team match and of course, the main event.

For international fans, the distance they travel may be far, but it seems resoundingly worth it from anyone you ask. Chris Emmanouil came from Australia to attend his fourth Wrestlemania. He says watching wrestling brings him back to his childhood.

For many people, it's about nostalgia

“I’ve been watching wrestling since I was three years old. My earliest memories are sitting with my grandfather watching wrestling,” he says. “I remember watching Hulk Hogan winning the championship and defending it day in and day out. [Wrestling] literally makes me feel like a kid. This is my outlet, this is my escape.”

I could understand the feeling of being transporting to a simpler time, as I watched the weekend unfold. Wrestling storylines aren’t difficult concepts to follow and if it’s a good enough story, it can make for a magical moment for fans.

Wrestler Kofi Kingston provided one of them as he won his first WWE Championship after being with the company for 11 years. He became just the second African-American in WWE to hold the title.

While people may point out the pre-determined outcome can be off-putting, fans don’t see it that way.

“I’ve been debating my whole life with people talking about wrestling being fake. Every time you watch a movie, you know it’s fake but you get into it anyway,” says Felipe Muller, from Chile.

I concur: when a story is told well enough, it is absolutely captivating to follow that journey. Wrestlemania 35 provided plenty of feel good moments, especially from Lynch and Kingston.

Wrestling may not be for everyone, but at the same time, it can be as the event evolves. Gone are the days of male-dominated matches consisting of the same top guys. Today we have a women’s main event, and an African-American WWE champion, and a feeling that things are changing. It really is an exciting time to be a fan.

Updated: April 11, 2019 06:13 AM

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