The Lowcountry is headed for a SmackDown, compliments of World Wrestling Entertainment.
The pro wrestling juggernaut is bringing the stars of its SmackDown brand to town Sunday when WWE invades the North Charleston Coliseum for an evening of bone-crushing excitement.
The show will include a Triple Threat world heavyweight title match with Sheamus defending his crown against former champ Daniel Bryan and Christian.
Randy Orton will appear in another headline bout against Kane in a No Disqualification match.
Also among the many superstars featured on the card will be the nearly 7-foot-tall, 450-pound Big Show (aka Aiken native Paul Wight), Cody Rhodes, Great Khali and, lest we forget, the lovely WWE divas.
Part sport, part theater, those seemingly disparate worlds converge in a colorful spectacle that attracts millions of fans around the world. It’s an action- adventure soap opera: a hybrid of entertainment and sports combined in one show.
The drawing power of WWE was most recently demonstrated at its WrestleMania 28 event held last month in Miami. The show drew a sellout crowd of 78,363 fans from all 50 states and 36 countries, setting a record as the highest-grossing entertainment event in the history of Sun Life Stadium.
Grossing $8.9 million, it also was the highest-grossing live event in WWE history.
Professional wrestling has changed dramatically over the years, morphing from ’rasslin to sports entertainment, but one thing hasn’t changed:
Wrestling fans are still among the most devoted in the world.
Alan Coker, who has served as marketing director of the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center for a number of years, has seen many varied events come through those venues. But pro wrestling, he said, remains one of the most popular.
And that’s due, he adds, to the avid and loyal fan base.
“Over the years, professional wrestling events have played a very important part in the success of the coliseum,” Coker said. “Historically, we’ve had one to two professional wrestling events each year. And each one brings in thousands of excited customers. Wrestling fans are a very loyal group. They come back again and again, and we certainly appreciate their enthusiasm and support.”
Technology, he said, has changed the way fans obtain tickets.
“There are still hardcore fans that camp out for tickets when they go on sale, but most people buy through Ticketmaster.com now. And that’s the case for all of our events at the coliseum and Performing Arts Center, not just the WWE,” Coker said. “The ability to buy tickets through your computer or your phone makes it much more convenient than camping out at the box office. The tickets we sell at the box office are the same inventory you can buy on your computer or phone, so you basically have your own personal ticket window on your computer or phone.”
There are stories about some fans camping out for as long as a week before an event in order to score premium tickets.
Merely good seats just won’t cut it for this hardcore group of wrestling fanatics.
National political pundit and Hanahan native Jack Hunter, a longtime mat follower, harks back to a time when camping outside the ticket office was the only surefire way to obtain choice ducats.
He recalls a nationally televised pay-per-view event that the North Charleston Coliseum hosted in 1997, and a buddy who desperately wanted to be on the front row.
“The night before tickets went on sale, my best friend Claude Martin decided to camp out in front of the ticket office,” recounts Hunter. “By ‘camp out,’ I mean he hit the bars until last call, and then was delivered to the coliseum sidewalk to sleep it off. Looking much like a wrestler himself, Claude awoke the next morning to see someone standing in front of him in line. Claude stood up and kindly asked the gentleman to step behind him, explaining that he had been waiting all night.”
The man, however, refused to budge. That’s when his friend, Hunter said, flexed his muscles and stood his ground.
“Claude explained to the gentleman, this time more strongly, that if he didn’t get behind him, there would be a pay-per-view right there in the parking lot.
“Claude was a 200-pound-plus man of solid muscle and superior physique. Needless to say, this man found a new place in line. Behind Claude.”
The moral of the story is that you don’t mess around with a man and his wrestling tickets.
For the most part, wrestling fans are a fraternity bound together by their love and passion for this massively popular pseudo-sport.
But the new generation of fans, and the business itself, have been transformed by social media.
WWE has its own social network called WWE Universe. Much of the content is comprised of extensions of storylines that fans are seeing on TV.
Its followers are vocal and passionate, and spend much of their online time on social sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
It’s not uncommon for WWE and performers such as C.M. Punk and John Cena to be among the top trenders on Twitter.
And while not the biggest star in WWE, Zack Ryder’s usage of social media has greatly elevated his position in the company.
During live episodes of “Monday Night Raw” on the USA network, WWE consistently boasts several top trending topics.
The five-hour pay-per- view broadcast of WrestleMania 28 at one point had seven of the top nine worldwide trending topics on Twitter.
The company is a savvy, well-oiled media machine whose social media efforts have reaped big dividends.
WWE diva Natalya (Nattie Neidhart), a third-generation performer and member of the famous Hart wrestling family, is one of the company’s many social media proponents.
“Because of social media, I can communicate with all my fans and interact with them every single day. Our fans are very, very important. I’ve heard the comments that sometimes you have to keep some things private and personal for yourself, but at the same time I get a lot of support from fans. I feel like the fans kind of understand my family in some weird way that normal people wouldn’t. It’s an unusual dynamic, but it’s true.”
That type of interaction also can lift your spirit and boost your morale, offering support and encouragement, things that Natalya thrives on as a performer.
Still, she said, there’s nothing to compare with the rush of hearing the response from the crowd at a live WWE event.
There’s something magic about an arena packed with fervent fans who have come to cheer and boo superheroes and super- villains.
“It’s really something,” the 29-year-old Canadian said. “That’s the beauty of what we do. It’s never the same. We go all over the world, and there’s a difference everywhere we go.
“Go to Japan and the crowd is different, go to Australia and the crowd is different. In Mexico and Latin American countries, they’re so loud that you can’t even hear yourself walk to the ring. Their culture is so passionate, Every audience, even among the states, is really different.”
The fun part, she said, is listening to those audiences.
“One thing that I’ve learned to do over the years is to relax in the ring and listen.
“Some people are going to love the bad guy, and some people are going to hate the good guy.” she said.
“You just have to learn how to roll with the punches. And, at the end of the day, everybody loves to be entertained by a good, solid match.”
Sunday’s event marks the first of the year locally for WWE, although the company did bring a Raw show to the coliseum in November.
Coker said that fans can expect to see a nationally televised Raw or SmackDown come to the coliseum in the near future.
“The reason we haven’t had one recently is due to routing issues and the availability of dates at the coliseum more than anything else,” he said.
“The interest level in the WWE in our market has always been and remains very high.
“Over the years, some of their events have been more popular than others, but all of them were successful.”
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 937-5517, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.