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Beyond the Box Score: How WWE got real in 72 hours

Andrew Smith, Sports Editor

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Most professional wrestlers will tell you that what they do for a living is not fake.

Call it “planned”, “pre-determined” or “staged”, but don’t call it “fake”.

Beginning Sunday night at WrestleMania XXX inside the Mercedes Benz Superdome (not the Silverdome, Hulk Hogan) and ending late Tuesday night, two events transpired that made even non-wrestling fans take notice. One of these events was a tragedy in a somewhat comedic sense, and the other was a tragedy in the true sense of the word.

Both events were very much real.

At WrestleMania XXX, The Undertaker – an icon in the wrestling world and a performer who debuted in WWE in 1990 – put his coveted 21-match winning streak at WrestleMania on the line against former UFC Heavyweight Champion and WWE superstar Brock Lesnar. A long-running joke that floated around the wrestling world is that there are three certainties in life: death, taxes and The Streak. Simply put, The Undertaker just does not lose at the “Showcase of the Immortals”.

The Undertaker was such a lock to win the match, that some legal betting websites (yes, you can actually bet on professional wrestling) had Lesnar as a 40-to-1 underdog nearly an hour before the match. To put it another way, a $10 bet on Lesnar could have potentially won someone $400.

But during a finish that shocked the more than 75,000 fans inside the arena that night and millions more watching around the world on pay-per-view or the newly-launched WWE Network, Lesnar pinned “The Phenom” The Undertaker and the won the match. The aforementioned betting sites lost huge amounts of money. Even Daily Show host Jon Stewart took a few seconds to acknowledge what seemed like some as a national tragedy.

Yes, the outcome was planned, but no one, who follows wrestling, could believe it. Rarely is that the case with the sport.

The other event was the untimely death of The Ultimate Warrior, who was born Brian Hellwig, but changed his name to simply Warrior. The news broke of Warrior’s death Tuesday night. TMZ reported that “Warrior was walking down a hallway at the Gainey Suites Hotel in Scottsdale, AZ and headed toward his car with his wife — when he stopped, clutched his chest and went down.”

Yahoo’s Kevin Iole then reported today that Warrior’s death was caused by what “catastophic medical condition,” according to a spokesperson for the Scottsdale, AZ Police Department.

Warrior was 54 years old. He is survived by his two daughters and his wife, Dana.

Just 24 hours before Warrior’s death, the often enigmatic and intense performer made his first appearance on WWE’s flagship program Raw since 1996 to address the crowd:

“No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own. Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe their final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others and makes them believe deeper in something larger than life then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized. By the story tellers, by the loyalty, by the memory of those who honor him and make the running the man did live forever. You, you, you, you, you, you are the legend makers of Ultimate Warrior.”

“In the back I see many potential legends. Some of them with warrior spirits. And you will do the same for them. You will decide if they lived with the passion and intensity. So much so that you will tell your stories and you will make them legends, as well. I am Ultimate Warrior. You are the Ultimate Warrior fans. And the spirit of the Ultimate Warrior will run forever!”

Once again, no one could believe it.

Professional wrestling can have a profound effect on its audience. Whether people believe what these wrestlers do is real or fake is sometimes beside the point. Two events – one an unfortunate passing of a man that appears now to have been in declining health, the other, a surprising example of how much casual observers and hardcore fans alike believe some results in wrestling are a mere formality – garnered national attention for two completely different reasons, but shared in common the fact that each event had strong connections to real life.

Sometimes what happens in a business that seems completely artificial on its surface is, in fact, genuine.

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Beyond the Box Score: How WWE got real in 72 hours