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Leafs fans have to settle for WWE
By LANCE HORNBY - Toronto Sun


Randy Orton before his match at WWE Raw. PHOTO GALLERY: 18 pictures by Mike Mastrandrea



Starved for entertainment, with no stomach to see the Senators in the Stanley Cup final, a sellout crowd of 14,000 people opted for Toronto's favourite comfort food in the squared circle.

"There's no Leafs, so this is a good second choice," said Steve Diamantopoulos, who shelled out for his family of four to watch WWE Raw last night at the Air Canada Centre.

In some alternate universe, the Leafs could've been opening the final at home last night (there were pyrotechnics, a Wade Belak sweater in the front row and MLSEL boss Richard Peddie was seen working the room), but unlike playoffs, fighting was encouraged.

Fired up for both an NBC Saturday night pre-tape (SNL is on summer hiatus) and a regular show for the night cap, Toronto showed its love affair with wrestling has not waned.

After Maple Leaf Gardens opened in 1931, the first non-hockey event was wrestling and ever since, grappling has been a unifying force for the city's Anglo Saxon base and it's multicultural sweep.

Mississauga's Kelly McOuat and Waterloo buddy Jack Fritzley were at Wrestlemania 23 in Detroit last month and recalled their first road trip in the late 1980s, long before they were old enough to legally knock back the beer they enjoyed before last night's main event.

"They keep trying new twists on things they did when we were kids," said McOuat, a 25-year-old accountant. "It has always been a fun atmosphere.

"We were in Detroit, which is a quick trip, but there are fans who will drive to Chicago or any place three to five hours from Toronto."

Fritzley sported an old Hulkamania t-shirt and like every third person in the place, had a day-glo sign.

His was designed to diss new WWE icon John Cena, hoping for a camera close-up.

"I go back to Jake 'The Snake' Roberts and the telecasts on CHCH," Fritzley said. "I think it still has an appeal."

Diamantopoulos, wife Kathy, sons Anthony, 9, and Demetri, 7, make it a family affair in front of their TV in Ajax every few weeks and splurged for the live show last night.

"It's funny," Steve said. "I just ran into a buddy of mine in the lobby, whom I haven't seen in 15 years since high school. We were both wrestling fans then, watched Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant and now here we were, back at wrestling both of us bringing our kids."

Kathy sees wrestling as much a part of the Toronto experience, as taking them to the Jays, the Marlies or the Ex.

"The kids bring home all the action figures," she said. "They were talking about coming to this all week."

It you haven't been to a match since the days of Tiger Jeet Singh, Bobo Brazil and Haystack Calhoun, there was a loud marriage of wrestling and rock and roll in the mid 1980s and costumes are now 10 times as outrageous as The Love Brothers' flower power jeans.

Young women, including the one last night with the mutilated Edge tank top and matching fishnet stockings, weren't in the crowd as I recall.

And if 'wrestling divas' such as the buxom Ashley and Kristal had been introducing I might have changed my opinion of the dastardly Sheik.

There weren't any Lord Athol Layton t-shirts at the ACC, but if you want to buy one to support your favourite grappler today, you get something akin to a biblical proclamation or the kind of hieroglyphic that the artist formerly known as Prince used to record under.

Wrestling's three pro brands -- Raw, Smackdown and Extreme Championship -- face a new challenge this century from the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a mixed martial arts discipline that takes a chunk out of the 18-34 male demographic.

UFC was a recent cover story in Sports Illustrated and according to a recent Associated Press story, has matched WWE in pay-per-view revenues and boxing on HBO.

"It was a killer year," UFC president Dana White told the AP.

But you won't get die-hards such as McOuat to change channels.

"UFC has its attraction," he said. "But I don't know if it will catch on with everybody.

"You still want to come to see what gimmicks they're going to try."

RELATED LINKS

  • Photo gallery: 18 pictures by Mike Mastrandrea
  • Live report: Toronto shows no love for Cena
  • Raw TV report: Lashley & Cena can't overcome odds