Are You Ready to Rumble?

TNT's "World Championship Wrestling Monday Nitro Live" is basic cable's leading weekly prime-time series, watched by 10.4 million viewers in the United States alone. Those of us who spend Monday nights at Melrose Place or with Ally McBeal can't possibly understand -- and neither can the TV ratings experts. But Rey Mysterio Jr. knows exactly why professional wrestling is so popular: "It's like a soap opera for men." Women get into it because "you got the young, good-looking guys with good physiques," and kids like it because, well, with giant, long-haired monsters running around in fantastic, funny-looking costumes, how could they resist?

Believe it or not, the story lines of professional wrestling have more bizarre plot twists and cliffhanger endings than any drama that's ever aired on Fox. WCW has even got its own magazine to help you keep up. There are bad guys, called "heels," who fans love to hate, and good guys, wrestling's "babyfaces," who fans want to be like. There are superstar alliances like the Wolfpac, rivalries between old-timers and new blood, and revolutionary groups like the New World Order -- started in 1996 by then-babyface "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan to be a thorn in the side of WCW's billionaire boss, Ted Turner.

And then there are the wrestlers' individual stories. Mexican-American babyface Mysterio grew up wrestling; his uncle was the original Rey Mysterio. In the proud tradition of Mexican wrestling, Rey Jr. fought for years as a masked man -- until last month's unfortunate tag-team grudge match that pitted Kevin Nash and Scott Hall of the Wolfpac against Mysterio and fellow Hispanic wrestler Konnan. Lex Luger, Nash's usual partner, was replaced by Hall because Mysterio had slammed Luger's arm in a limousine door in a prebout scuffle. Now it was personal.

Ritual humiliation was the name of the game. If Mysterio and Konnan won, then Miss Elizabeth, a valet girl associated with the other side, would have to shave her head. If Nash and Hall won, Mysterio would have to take off his mask and shamefully show his face for the first time. The young Mysterio and Konnan handled the old pros pretty well until Luger nearly KO'd Konnan from his ringside seat. Then the conniving Miss Elizabeth "distracted" the referee so he wouldn't see Mysterio holding Nash in a pin. She didn't want to lose her hair.

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In the end, a very handsome Mysterio stood stoically as his partner slowly removed the mask. Nash -- not to be mistaken for a gracious winner -- then disrespected tradition and his opponent by putting the mask on his own head.

Was the whole match scripted? Of course. "We don't go up there to hurt each other," says Mysterio. "I guess that makes it an unreal sport." On the other hand, he points out, professional wrestling is not a cushy job. It's physically draining, there are no time-outs, and every time you hit the mat, you hit it for real and you hit it hard.

The Nash-Hall fight was tough on Mysterio as both an athlete and an entertainer. "Now my whole outfit is completely different," he says. He's gone from the historic mask to a hip-hop style, with loose shirts, baggy jeans and knit beanies. "The boxers obviously come out from the jeans," he adds. Obviously.

Seems like a dangerous look for a wrestler -- one can only imagine the elaborately staged wedgies. But the acrobatic, bantam-weight Mysterio isn't worried: "It's pretty hard for them to catch me."

-- Lauren Kern

Rey Mysterio, Konnan, Goldberg, "Hollywood" Hogan, Lex Luger, Bret "Hitman" Hart, Diamond Dallas Page and Kevin Nash battle it out at the Astrodome for a live broadcast of WCW Monday Nitro on Monday, May 31, at 6:30 p.m. For information call (713)799-9555; for tickets call (713)629-3700. $15, $20, $25 and $35.

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