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culture: Prince not amused, but others fall for tombstone piledriver; Ten thousand people will pack the region's biggest venue tomorrow. Neil Collins and Richard Castle (it takes two) investigate the extraord inary appeal of American wrestling.

THE weird and wonderful world of WWE will rage through the Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle tomorrow night.

Exciting, unpredictable and often controversial, the commercial success of World Wrestling Entertainment in its native USA and abroad is simply immense. It is now televised in more than 130 countries.

The mix of breathtaking athleticism and bizarre pantomime has gathered a cult following in Newcastle.

Unsurprisingly, this is not the first time it has been featured at this venue.

On June 7, 2003, 10,000 people - the same as tomorrow's crowd - packed the arena for a three-hour extravaganza called Insurrextion which was televised live.

In the main event, Triple H defeated the seven-foot monster Kevin Nash to retain the heavyweight championship.

At Summerslam 1992, more than 80,000 fans watched the British Bulldog defeat Bret "the Hitman" Hart for the Intercontinental title at Wembley Stadium.

Former world boxing champion Lennox Lewis accompanied the Bulldog to the ring, holding a huge Union Flag.

That event attracted the second largest WWE audience ever seen.

Founded in 1952, when boxing promoter Roderick McMahon and wrestling pioneer Raymond Montz created the group, it was originally called Capitol Wrestling Corporation.

Vince McMahon bought the company from his father in 1982 and transformed the small wrestling organisation into a global phenomenon. The federation's income was nearly EUR500m last year alone. It has gone through a series of unlikely transformations over the years, changing names and personnel constantly.

The company's success in the late 1980s was largely thanks to Hulk Hogan, star of comedy film Mr Nanny in 1993.

Millions of youngsters were enraptured by Hulkmania and tuned in to watch him overcome the bad guys each week.

His advice for children to take the vitamins, say their prayers and drink their milk went down particularly well with parents.

But times have changed. In 1998, a beer-swilling Texan named Stone Cold Steve Austin became the WWE champion, igniting what became known as the "attitude" era.

The organisation was now offering an edgier product aimed at an older audience each Monday night - in direct opposition to rival company WCW, which aired its show at exactly the same time.

Teenagers lapped up the organisation's new direction, but some felt alienated by the gratuitous violence, swearing and scantily-clad women.

But both Hogan and Austin have, seemingly, permanently retired from the squared circle, leaving behind very large boots to fill. Even the name of the company itself has changed. WWF became WWE - thanks partly to an intervention from none other than Prince Philip.

As President of the World Wildlife Fund, he became embroiled in a long-running feud over the company's name.

Eventually the World Wrestling Federation was sued successfully in 2004 after it violated an agreement not to use its initials in overseas marketing.

But the WWE is still bringing an impressive array of superstars to its Geordie faithful.

The star attraction at Smackdown Wrestlemania Revenge is wrestling legend The Undertaker.

Nicknamed "The Deadman", his sombre, spooky persona has been his terrifying trademark for nearly 20 years.

One of the most decorated competitors of all time, he defeated Edge to become Heavyweight Champion last month at Wrestlemania.

His trademark move, the Tombstone Piledriver, was banned until recently.

It involves turning his opponent upside down and slamming his head into the floor, and was deemed too dangerous even for his colossal

colleagues to take.

Undertaker's nemesis, "The Animal", Dave Batista, is also competing.

From Washington DC, Batista was estranged from both parents at the age of 17. He joined the WWE in 2002 after working as a professional bodybuilder and bouncer.

The 6ft 6in beast steamrollers everyone in his path with his fatal finisher, the Batista Bomb.

But away from the ring, he is a rather softer soul. Collecting lunch boxes is one of his hobbies and he is said to consider his 1967 Green Hornet sandwich box, sporting an image of kung-fu movie legend Bruce Lee, as his prized possession.

Also set to appear tomorrow are the "World's Strongest Man", Mark Henry, the Great Khali and The Big Show, a 7ft, 500lb giant who was famously knocked out by boxer Floyd Mayweather a few weeks ago.

It all promises to be an incredible night of entertainment.

The WWE Smackdown Wrestlemania Revenge Tour is at Newcastle Metro Radio Arena tomorrow - and it's a sell-out.

CAPTION(S):

SPECTACLE American wrestling has become a global phenomenon.; COMBAT Prince Philip has clashed with the wrestling giants.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Apr 17, 2008
Words:739
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