Wrestling for votes? Nope. Just wrestling

Hartford — Down on the Connecticut shoreline, a crowd waited for an address from the president. In the ring at the XL Center in Hartford, to the screams of the crowd, the Big Show administered slaps to the waxed chests of his assailants, then sat on a man’s face.

It’s Election Day for Linda McMahon on Tuesday, but it is Fan Appreciation Day today for her former company, World Wrestling Entertainment, which lowered usual ticket prices to $10 and $20 apiece, drawing fans from all over the Northeast.

The event was all about wrestling for the vast majority of those in attendance, but it was also framed by the company as part of an elaborate public relations effort to rebut harsh criticism of WWE’s programming and work conditions.

As the XL Center slowly filled up, promotional videos urging fans to “stand up for WWE” played on the arena’s projection screens. Worker testimonials praised the WWE’s corporate environment, and celebrities such as Bob Barker praised the politeness of its employees.

There was little overt mention of the Republican candidate in the early going, and the Senate race was of little import to the many out-of-state fans who came to Hartford to see the combat.

Then, about one hour into the performance, Vince McMahon appeared, to loud cheers.

“You may think I am here to talk politics,” Vince McMahon said, “but nothing could be further from the truth.”

His purpose, he said, was simply to say “thank you” to the WWE’s fans.

But in the process, McMahon won his biggest cheer by encouraging fans to vote, and to wear their WWE gear to the polls — a reference to the uproar and quick backtrack triggered recently by Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, who said such apparel might not be appropriate at the polls. Bysiewicz’s office quickly clarified that WWE apparel would be permitted.

The WWE has been subject to “outright lies by some politicians,” said Vince McMahon, as well as “distortion and equivocation by some members of the media.”

As of mid-afternoon, as WWE Champion Randy Orton took a controlled fall into a corrugated metal staircase, to the delight of a row of small boys in Section 115, Linda McMahon herself had not made an appearance in the arena.

(“My dad could beat you up,” one of the boys screamed at the heel who was, temporarily, pinning Orton to the mat.)

By the concession stand near the corner of Church and Ann streets before the show, Cooper Merli’s Uncle Brett was festooning the grinning boy in the logos of WWE star John Cena: a T-shirt, cap, wristbands, plastic necklace and a headband too large for his 3 1/2 year-old head.

Peter Merli, Cooper’s father, looked on, smiling. They drove in from Newburgh, N.Y., he said, for Cooper’s first live WWE event.

“I think it’s funny,” Peter Merli said, “and he loves it.”

Asked his favorite wrestler’s name, Cooper replied with a grin, “Shawn Michaels.”

Peter Merli had heard about the political controversy over WWE’s programming that McMahon’s run for the Senate has triggered. Democrats, including her rival Richard Blumenthal, have criticized the company’s portrayal of female characters, along with some of its most violent and risque storylines.

The company’s TV programming has all been rated TV-PG since 2008, but Merli said some of it is off-limits.

“He’s a little young for the divas,” Merli said, referring to the company’s female performers.

The first performance of the afternoon was greeted with loud cheers: a 24-man battle royal eventually won by The Big Show, who prevailed through 20 minutes of preening and simulated melee before flipping his final adversary over his back and out of the ring.

The second performance was announced as a special surprise from the “anonymous RAW general manager” for the benefit of the fans, and perhaps demonstrated the defiance of a company whose critics have seemed to expect voters to be turned off by its tastes.

The event was a “diva dance-off,” which eventually devolved into a multi-woman brawl. The crowd went wild.

t.mann@theday.com

 

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