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Wrestlemania Is Back With Fans In The Stands

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"WrestleMania" is back. The two-night annual event opens tonight with fans allowed back into the seats. Alfred Konuwa is a wrestling columnist. He joins us from Los Angeles. Alfred, thanks so much for being with us.

ALFRED KONUWA: Thank you for having me, Scott. Good to be on again.

SIMON: Fans excited? You excited?

KONUWA: I'm excited knowing that "WrestleMania's" going to have a crowd. I mean, when you say fans excited, the answer is actually no because a lot of people have been very critical of how WWE has presented a lot of these storylines leading up to "WrestleMania." But I am now sensing the excitement because this will be the first WWE event with an actual crowd, which is the lifeblood of WWE - are the fans and the way they react to things.

SIMON: So who's under the mask of The Fiend?

KONUWA: Oh, who's under the mask of The Fiend? Great question. His name is Bray Wyatt. He's one of WWE's top stars - very creative individual. He's actually the source of a lot of the criticism. But I think he's a brilliant guy. His father used to play a character named IRS. (Laughter). His name is Mike Rotunda - was his father, who's - a guy whose gimmick was that he was a tax auditor who would go around taking people's money.

SIMON: Listen. Tell us about some of the controversy because this - for example, older episodes of "WrestleMania," which were always on the WWE Network, have been moved to Peacock, which is the NBC streaming service. And they've made some edits, right?

KONUWA: Absolutely. And that's kind of overtaken the narrative as a big story going into "WrestleMania" - is WWE just signed this billion-dollar deal to air the WWE Network on Peacock, which means all their pay-per-views are now going to be streamed on Peacock. At the same time, NBC has standards and practices it has to adhere to. So when it came out that a lot of the content on WWE is going to be edited off, a lot of people kind of got concerned because nostalgia is a huge part of pro wrestling. And wrestling's two biggest periods were in the '80s, which was very tone-deaf, and in the '90s, which was all about shock value.

So when it came out that standards and practices was going to be reviewing a lot of WWE content, there's not a lot of clarity as to what that means, as to what exactly wouldn't qualify. A couple of WWE's moments have already been scrubbed off the network, namely those where wrestlers wore blackface, which - again, in the '90s, it's more of a shock value thing. And I will admit that a lot of people have fond memories of a lot of the more controversial moments because in that zeitgeist, it was all about shocking people, and they weren't really looking at it the way that you would in 2021.

SIMON: I've got a favorite WWE wrestler I want to ask you about - Apollo Crews.

KONUWA: I'm a little bit nervous about Apollo Crews because they're really switching up his character. He's finally getting that shot to be on "WrestleMania" and have that singles match and have that spotlight. But, you know, we talked about the controversy and things that are getting removed from Peacock. So in some ways, WWE is moving forward into the future by getting rid of a lot of the stuff that was seen as controversial and racist in the past.

But here we are in 2021, and Apollo Crews, your favorite wrestler, is going to be wrestling in what's called a Nigerian drum fight, which - he's going to be wrestling another Black man named Big E. And WWE has not really specified what exactly that means. But he's doing a character right now where he's going back to his Nigerian roots. He's speaking in an accent. And at first, I believed it was very entertaining. But now we're kind of starting to get to the part where it's a little bit more of a cartoon. I am a little nervous that, you know, middle-aged white men are writing this character, so it doesn't seem like it's really in touch with nuance in the culture of Nigeria.

SIMON: What are you looking forward to?

KONUWA: I'm looking forward to seeing who gets the biggest reactions. WWE - they're kind of control freaks. They like controlling the narrative. And they've really kind of liked pushing the button and controlling who cheers for what WWE superstars. You know, when somebody comes out and the company wants you to like them, they'll push the cheer button. And those aren't necessarily the actual fan reactions. So I'm looking forward to seeing when there's 25,000 people in the building, who is actually going...

SIMON: Yeah.

KONUWA: ...To get those positive reactions 'cause wrestling fans have a mind of their own. They don't like being told what to do. They don't like being told who to cheer for. So I'm guessing a lot of the reactions are going to be different in person with actual people in the stands than they are for when WWE is controlling them.

SIMON: Alfred, what do you think are the odds of a wrestler being named after B.J. Leiderman, who writes our theme music?

KONUWA: (Laughter) Well, if B.J. Leiderman can get in contact with one of the writers, who knows? What usually happens sometimes with these wrestlers is they'll name a wrestler - like, maybe if there's a wrestler that Vince McMahon doesn't like - if there's somebody that Vince McMahon doesn't like, maybe Vince will name the wrestler after that person and make them, like, a guy who loses all the time. So, B.J., I would advise he does something, tweets something to make Vince McMahon angry. And then Vince will maybe name a wrestler B.J. Leiderman, and that person will lose all his matches. But B.J. Leiderman will have a name in WWE.

SIMON: All right. OK. And then he'll get thrown across the ring. I - you know, there's no better way to be famous. Alfred Konuwa, wrestling columnist, what a gig. Thanks so much.

KONUWA: Thank you. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.