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Wrestlemania: A first-timer's backstage voyage through wrestling heaven, pt. 2

Snoop Dogg

Editor's Note: Paul O'Brien has been well-known to wrestling fans for some time due to his successful wrestling-themed crime novel series, Blood Red Turns Dollar Green, and that he's been co-writing Jim Ross' autobiography. 

But an interesting twist to Paul's wrestling fandom was that he had never been to a Wrestlemania...until this year. The following is a two-part recounting of Paul and family's first trip to Mania weekend, complete with some pictures and relatable tales. In case you missed part 1, read that first.

Note that an abridged version of this piece first ran on Fox Sports. 

When we last left off, Paul and family had just got to the WWE Hall of Fame....



When we walked out through the curtain, the American Airlines Arena was empty except for a few ushers milling around, and the stage crew making last minute adjustments. I was so overtaken by the size of the place that I didn't even notice the Hall of Fame set was right behind me and...wait, that's Ric Flair.

"Dad," my daughter said.


"You're staring."

"What, honey?"

"You're staring at Naitch, Dad. Stop it."

"Ok, that's fine. Have you got enough money?"

"Dad," she whisper shouted. "Pull yourself together."

Now, I will say that I was kind of staring, but in my defense, I've only ever had one single poster on my bedroom wall as I grew up. While other guys had Pamela Anderson or Reservoir Dogs posters, I had Ric Flair -- a shot of him on bended knee in a dirty ring wearing purple trunks, boots and knee pads. Oddly, I didn't get many dates back then.

And now, I watched as my poster walked right past me. I say walk, but he paraded past me, clearly excited to be himself. It didn't matter that it wasn't showtime, didn't matter that there were no fans in there yet, didn't matter that no one, save a hairy writer from Ireland and some waiting reporters, were staring at him. Naitch lit up just strutting around.

And can I just say at this point how cool my daughter is for calling him 'Naitch'?

"Do we know where we're sitting?" my wife asked. I had no idea. The only thing I did know was that we were sure to be at the back, sixty rows or so away from the stage. Up front was for legends and current talent, right?

"We're here," my daughter said.

"Where?" I asked.

"Here," she said sitting down four rows from the front.

The chairs were all laid out with the talent's names on them. Ours were marked 'Becky Lynch' -- three for us and one for Becky. If that wasn't cool enough - and it was - the seat in front of us was marked 'Bruno Sammartino,' beside us was 'Pat Patterson', and behind us was 'Hacksaw Jim Duggan.'

Inside my head, a scream went off like a fourteen-year-old girl at a Bieber concert.

I was afraid to sit in case this was an episode of Swerved where my chair would be electrified and then I'd pee myself and everyone would laugh.

Strangely enough, none of those things proved to be true as I carefully lowered myself down into the sitting position like one does in an airport restroom.

The room began to fill a little more. A line of media formed in front of the stage and people who live in my TV began to appear everywhere. The NWO, Miz, Paige, Sheamus, Fit Finlay, Stone Cold, Shawn Michaels, HHH, Shane McMahon, Stephanie, Linda, Ryback all milling around shaking hands and telling stories. It seemed like everyone knew everyone -- except us.

Larry Zbyszko, wearing shades and looking very 'happy', sauntered up and down the rows. "You see my seat?" he asked me as he passed.

I didn't have time to answer before he was asking Hacksaw's family in the row behind me the same question. He didn't wait for an answer there either.

"You see my seat?" Larry asked Arn Anderson, who was sitting in the middle of Hacksaw's row.

Arn shook his head.

"You sure?" Larry asked again.

"You ever think they don't want you here?" Arn asked with a deadpan face.

Larry laughed and moved on but I could hear a school-like titter behind me. It was Hacksaw himself. I followed his line of sight -- no easy task -- and saw Arn now smiling too.

"Am I in there with you?" I could hear Larry ask someone else as he walked further and further away from the stage.

And as I turned my head back towards the set, the seats in front of me were filled with a sea of bald heads.

Ryback was the owner of one while two others escaped me. But, the one beside them I certainly did know: Bruno Sammartino, the longest reigning heavyweight champion in WWE history. Even at 80 years old,  he looked like he could handily slap me off the ceiling if he wanted to. I don't know why he would want to, but he most certainly could if the mood took him. His ears looked like chewed up footballs and his neck was wider than my leg.

"Ricky, are you sure I'm not in there with you?" Larry asked Steamboat, as he continued to walk the aisles.

It was all happening fast now. The arena was filling up and the familiar faces were everywhere. The crew were frantically sweeping down the carpet on set and people with headsets appeared from nowhere.

"Mr. Sammartino, my name is Paul. Pleasure to meet you, sir." I looked where the voice was coming from and it was a huge man standing beside me in the aisle. The Big Show, with his huge hand outstretched, introduced himself to Bruno. I absolutely wanted to listen, but with a voice like Show has, even if I didn't want to, I really had no choice in the matter.

He was an absolute gentleman, and very kind and sincere in his words to his very appreciative elder. Also, Big Show is an apt name because he is indeed big.

"Anyone know where my seat is? The lady told me it's in this row," Larry said to no one in particular as he breezed by again. Hacksaw cackled towards Arn.

The arena was now almost full. As someone who never stood on the floor of an arena before, it was quite the sight. My family were smiling at my open-mouthed wonderment, knowing that I was in the middle of something very special. For me, it was like Santa opening his workshop or getting a tour around Parts Unknown. My wife likes wresting, my daughter loves wrestling, but they both know that I have been obsessed by wrestling my whole life.

We all took a second to soak it all in together; to look around; to covertly point out various wrestlers we'd spotted, past and present. Most importantly, we were there to enjoy an amazing experience.

In the corner of the room, by the backstage entrance, there was a commotion. Chris Jericho had walked through and the fans at that side of the arena booed him on cue. As Jericho faced them, he gave them the full performance. He shouted mild abuse, acted above them all, and walked away in disgust. The second he knew they couldn't see him, his face, demeanour and walk changed like Keyser Soze in reverse.

He too came to pay his respects to Bruno. It really hit me that it was the two longest-serving members of the roster who came to talk to Sammartino with no egos and no problem in introducing themselves. Just two stand-up guys who wanted to say thank you to a pioneer in their business. It was really cool to be just a couple of feet away, observing it.

As Jericho walked back to his seat, I heard Bruno tell the gentlemen beside him how much it meant to have Jericho and Big Show come over to visit him.

"Arn, are you sure...the lady backstage said I'm supposed to be sitting in there?" Larry was back, shades still on, tan still teak-colored and still looking awesome.

"She did?" Arn replied. Both men were talking over and across several rows.

"I counted the seats she told me to. I'm supposed to be where you are," Larry said.

Arn took out a piece of paper from under his seat that said, 'Larry Zbyszko' on it. "I was hoping you'd take the hint and go home," Arn said as Hacksaw finally burst out laughing.

"Always busting my balls," Larry smiled and muttered as he made his way to his seat.

"Are you sure you're meant to be here?" Arn asked him as he stood and moved one seat to his right.

The lights went down, and the arena filled with the electricity of anticipation. Becky still wasn't back from her signing so her seat was empty as we went live on TV. Hacksaw's tall, pretty wife kicked me in the butt cheeks as she tried to cross her legs behind me. "Sorry," she whispered.

"It's okay, no problem," I whispered back.

In our brief exchange, I was tempted to tell her that when I was 10 years old, a friend and I went to a pay phone in Ireland and made a collect call. We asked the operator to put us through to a 'Jim Duggan in Glens Falls New York' -- which she proceeded to do.

When 'Jim' answered his phone, he asked me what he could do for me. I told him I was a fan from Ireland, and he said, "Sorry kid, I don't know you" before I chickened out and hung up. Jim was my favourite wrestler at the time, and now 25 years later and 4000 miles away from where I tried to contact him, I was a foot away from him. I wanted to introduce myself, but I chickened out again. So if you're reading this, Hacksaw, was it you I got on the phone that day? Also, hello!

Becky slipped into her seat during a break and leant in. "I'm like the old lady in 'There's Something about Mary,'" she said. It was dark so I couldn't see what she meant. When the lights came back up, I could definitely see what she meant. Let's just say she had her tan on. Way, way on.

"You ready for tomorrow?" I asked her.

I can't repeat what she actually said, but she was ready indeed. People talk about the "eye of the tiger", but that night with the wrestling business all around us, I saw it.

On the stage, it was easy to see just how the wrestlers who made the most connection with the crowds over the years were also performers. They were charming and funny and had amazing timing. They were natural storytellers, eager to be the center of attention. They were warm and happy to be there. Above everything else, they were happy to be there.

Me too.

And then, I ended up in the best selfie of all time. Snoop Dogg came out for his award and before he began, he turned and took a picture of himself with the crowd over his shoulder. Look at my face. Look how happy I am.

Snoop Dogg

The Hall of Fame ceremony was an amazing night, I honestly could have stayed for another ten hours, but we had a lot more to do in Dallas before the adventure was over. Backstage, we met with Charlotte and her brother David, who were both cool people. We walked down the ramp to the bus with Christian in front of us with Alicia Fox walking the opposite way.

We said our goodbyes to Becky before my family and I got back on the bus, and she split to get her costume finished for Wrestlemania. Then it hit me. Even after all this cool stuff, we still have Mania Sunday. What a trip!

The next morning, we Ubered our way to Arlington and the sight of the AT&T Stadium appearing on the horizon was a lasting image. It was like a crashed UFO just sitting there dormant. We got out and made our way into the stream of wrestling fans heading towards the huge stadium.

As we moved closer, I could see the WWE graphic above the grand entrance. Becky was one of the few on the roster that made it on the marquee. My family and I nearly used up all our phones' data memories by just snapping her giant orange head from 25,000 different angles. We knew no one deserved it more.

As we walked into the stadium, the noise and scale was overwhelming. It's hard to prepare your brain for what 100,000 people might look like under one roof. We had no real idea where to go or what to do first. Hot dogs first? Find our seats? Buy merch? Even though I was about 20 years too late, I WANTED a yellow foam finger so badly.

As we stood, the crowd kinda just swelled around us. Moving left, right, upstairs, downstairs. And then like a majestic rare bird, I saw Corey Graves' father above everyone else. He knew where he was going. He was walking like a man with a purpose. And chances were he was going where we were going too -- the Friends and Family section.

"Follow that man," I said with conviction.

"Dad, can I get a drink first?" my daughter asked.

It was too late; I was pulled into the Graves tractor-beam. And just like John McClane used an ambulance to cut through traffic in Die Hard 3, we used Mr. Graves to power through hoards of screaming, excitable fans to make it to our destination. As he sat in his seat, he didn't even know why I gave him a high-five, but now I hope you know sir. The truth is finally out there.

Now we were inside and the place was MASSIVE. People over the other side didn't even look real. The set was amazing and the atmosphere was hard to describe. We took our seats and waited for the show to begin. Well, truth is, we took our seats and I eyeballed everyone to see who they were since we were in the friends and family section.

For instance, I knew I was behind Paul Heyman's friends and family because when he came out with Lesnar, they went berserk. I also think I inadvertently ended up in a 'Paul Heyman Girl' selfie as the young lady in front of me was snapping all night.

Down beside Mr. Graves was Mrs Bella, Mrs. Paige, and a host of others who I saw at the Hall of Fame. We were on smiling terms now. People who had seen each other around and nodded and waved at each other.

I was in the clique. Possibly. Maybe not. OK, I wasn't.

And then came the match we were waiting for: the triple threat for the Women's Championship. My phone beeped and I saw a text from an amazing lady who worked for WWE. She had helped us over our stay to find whatever we needed, get us tickets to stuff, and just be generally awesome. Her text read: Where are you?

I messaged her back our seat number. When I looked up, I could see her scanning the rows for us so I gave her a little wave.

She messaged: Becky would like you ringside. I squealed. Actual girl sounds left my voice box.

I replied: OK. You know, because I'm cool like that.

The WWE lady smiled and waited for us to come to the end of our row where she walked us down through the crowd. Talk about a feeling of power. Stand aside humans, as I walk amongst you. I am your overlord and...

"I hope these seats are okay?" she said as she left us at ringside. 

"You mean beside Linda McMahon?" I said as I saw the Matriarch of the McMahon family beside us.

I might have said it too loud.

I thanked amazing WWE lady and she disappeared again. Boom! Becky's music hit and I could feel in the crowd that this was special. No one was leaving for hot dogs or taking a bathroom break. This was important. This meant something. I could also see on Becky's face as she passed us that she meant business. She started in Ireland, travelled the world, sparked in NXT, and now looked totally at home in the biggest match in women's history.

Like anyone who reached the peak of their dream, she trained for it, she planned for it, she cried for it, she sacrificed for it, she fought for it, she dreamt about it, she hoped for it, she doubted it, she pulled toward it and backed away from it. She was close and then not. She assessed everything about herself, and never took the shortest road. She was hard on herself, sometimes rightly and sometimes not. She wondered and journaled and wished and actioned.

All those things carried her to where she was and where she stood: the center of the ring at the biggest Wrestlemania of all time.

When all three competitors faced off, it just seemed like they were all tangling and wrapping themselves around their own slice of history; three women who swam upstream the whole way to be seen as the best in their business. And I, with my family, got to experience it from ringside. The passion, the drama, the viciousness, the will to win, the dives, the reversals, the captured audience, the painful landings, the skill, the talent, the art, the expectation -- and finally -- the outcome.

She didn't win. She didn't get the belt. But as with everything in Becky's career, she won when she lost. And that is a lost art in and of itself.

We left the stadium when the show was over, and stood under the dark, warm Dallas night sky. Our friend from Dublin had just taken part in the best match on the biggest show in WWE history. We dissected every move, every near miss and photo we had on the Uber ride back to our apartment.

What a day and weekend it was. Our first Wrestlemania was not going to be our last.

The next day, we headed back to the site of the Hall of Fame for Raw. And it was there amongst all the chants, spectacle and controlled chaos that the theme of family returned for me. Outside, we found ourselves in line with Noelle Foley who was also picking up tickets. For whatever reason, it wasn't going smoothly and the will-call staff needed a few minutes to sort things out.

As she waited, I was tempted to talk to her and tell her about the time that I flew to Scotland to meet her father, and how he made a heckler apologise for saying something offensive to the female host; how he and I meet in Belfast in his dressing room as he told me just how much he loved the Blood Red Turns Dollar Green books and then told the audience during his set the same; how he was the first to endorse my novels; how he helped me when I was a stranger to him on Twitter.

Instead, I said nothing. I will say that her manners are impeccable, though.

We were second row, right in the middle. In front of us was a teenager was looked suspiciously like Enzo Amore without the beard and a lady who seemed excitably nervous. Both of them were wearing Enzo and Cass tee-shirts. My superior detective skills lead me to believe that they might be related to Enzo. Just call it intuition. Also beside me was a line of people who were speaking French. That narrowed down who they were here to see. The mystery was solved completely when they went bananas at Kevin Owens being shown in the opening package.

And in front of me to my left was Zack Ryder's father, who I knew because of his own internet celebrity.

As much as the wrestlers are framed as cartoon characters who don't hurt that much and are always looking their best, their families are like you and me. They worry about their husbands, wives, sons and daughters. They shout and cheer and grimace like we do. They FREAK OUT like Enzo's family did when they debut, or they stand in unison like KO's family did when he came out. They even get involved in the storylines like Zack's father did when the time called for it.

Of all the cool things I've been able to write about, and a tone of other stuff that happened that I can't, the one thing that stands out to me is just how much the wrestling business affects the families of people who do it.

I got to see that firsthand. I got to see just how much being a wrestler takes. I got to appreciate just how huge the WWE machine is. I got to see and experience things that I would never have dreamed I would get the opportunity to see.

I got to be beside people who are living their dream.

And, I got to do it with my family.