I arrived at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City with a little trepidation and a good amount of dread. I was walking into my first-ever professional wrestling event, expecting a series of clearly rehearsed and absolutely fixed matches at best, grotesque displays of violence at worst.

Until Friday, my knowledge of the professional wrestling world was only tangential — I knew the sport existed because of the celebrities whose careers had been borne of it: Movie stars like Andre the Giant, Dave Bautista and John Cena. Pop culture figures like Hulk Hogan. Politicians like Jesse Ventura, who served as governor of Minnesota. And perhaps most importantly, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, an absolute juggernaut celebrity.

I assumed these men must be ashamed of their embarrassing beginnings prancing around in sparkly underwear and throwing fake punches and must feel grateful to have moved beyond wrestling into real fame.

But then the WWE SmackDown came to town.

When I entered the arena, I found 15,000 wrestling fans, some of whom had paid hundreds of dollars to be there, screaming as intricate strobe lights alternated colors behind the wrestling ring, and a large screen ran a promo for the two wrestlers about to fight. One of these wrestlers had an impressively long mullet, and the other had a baby face and wore a very small pair of briefs. Judging by the response of the crowd, one wrestler, the baby face, was a known hero and the other, the mullet, a villain.

Their display in the ring was a mix of gymnastics, choreography, boxing and circus acrobatics. They would bounce off the rope, weave in and out of each other’s punches and pin each other down, escaping until just before the count of three, when the match would be won. Although the winner of the match was predetermined, the crowd did not seem to know or care. The three 9-year-old boys sitting behind me cheered for the hero in the briefs and booed loudly at the mullet. The man in front of me wearing a Stone Cold Steve Austin T-shirt yelled tips at the fighters until the match was eventually called.

After that first match (wrestle-off? fight? dance? performance?), the screen showed a few promos, timed to line up with the commercial breaks when the SmackDown aired on Fox. One of the promos showed a car parking outside the Delta Center, and a huge, bald man in sunglasses getting out of the car and walking into the venue. My heart quickened as I realized who that large man was.

“Wait, is The Rock here?” I asked my husband, who had more than willingly agreed to accompany me to the event that night.

“I guess?” he responded as he shrugged his shoulders.

A few more matches followed, one I can best describe as “doubles,” wherein two teams of wrestlers fought each other; another where a woman named Naomi wearing a neon wig and neon boots fought a woman who carried a staff and had the flames of hell as her intro video; and one with YouTuber-turned-wrestler Logan Paul, who, much to my surprise, gave one of the most athletic performances of the night.

In between each fight were promos for what was coming next, and many of those teased the presence of The Rock and his alliance with his wrestler “cousin” Roman Reigns (they’re not actually related). One promo showed the two men walking the back tunnels of the Delta Center with one finger held to the sky in what my husband explained to me is the symbol of “The Blood Line.” During that particular promo, the man in front of me held both middle fingers up at the screen, and many in the crowd booed. “He’s a heel now,” my husband explained, as though I would have any idea what that meant.

A few more matches followed and if I’m being completely honest, the actual fighting didn’t interest me much. But the preambles to the fighting had me on the edge of my seat, pumping my fists in the air.

Smoke! Pyrotechnics! Special effects! Orchestral swells! And cheers and jeers from the crowd so loud that I’m sure we triggered a seismological event. Many fans held signs with references to wrestling lore that they waved at the row of cameras next to the ring. I was sorry I did not have the same encyclopedic knowledge of the event and its characters as everyone else there seemed to have.

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson gets rights to his nickname
Hulk Hogan was just baptized

Then, at about an hour and a half into the proceedings, the screen turned blue, fireworks shot from the sides of the stage, and the words “The Rock” appeared as that huge, bald man in sunglasses and a golden vest appeared.

The crowd erupted — half in cheers, half in boos and profanity. The Rock stepped forward and, without saying a word, commanded our attention like only the most accomplished conductors command their orchestras.

View Comments

Then he roasted us into oblivion.

He called us “the biggest gathering of trailer park trash The Rock has ever seen,” and made reference to our 50 wives and 600 inbred grandchildren. Which, yes, polygamy and inbreeding jokes are tired and offensive, but what do we expect of our professional wrestling villains if not being cliched and offensive? And it wasn’t what The Rock said, but how he said it — confident and proud, his lines met with both ear-shattering applause and riotous laughter — that made me truly believe he might be the greatest villain of entertainment history. He was doing a job and doing it well.

As The Rock glowered at the crowd, I realized the Hulk Hogans and John Cenas and Dwayne Johnsons of the world did not become some of our greatest entertainers in spite of wrestling. They became some of our greatest entertainers because of it.

I have rarely been more riveted, amused and joyful than I was that Friday night at the Delta Center. Whether actual wrestling took place was irrelevant, just as an actor reciting a scripted line on stage is irrelevant to our emotional response. These people were performing feats of athleticism while keeping a crowd enthralled with theatrics. The WWE SmackDown was about the personalities and the performances, and the impossibility of untangling the two, and I could not have been more entertained.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.