In a vacuum, professional wrestling has always been treated as an entertainment genre that's a little bit different, oftentimes figuratively placed on its own shelf for its fans to defend its uniqueness and for its detractors to point at and poke fun.
But every genre of entertainment and sport at some point dips its toe in the mainstream water, and wrestling is no different. Back in the '80s, when wrestling went from a regional, souped-up carny endeavor to a national product, largely under Vince McMahon's WWF banner, it did so by partnering with the music industry — MTV, Cyndi Lauper, Rock and Wrestling, all roads leading to the first Wrestlemania.
Back then, while wrestling became more chic to watch and admit to watching, there was still a separation of church and state when it came to wrestling and "real" sports. The partnership with the music world was enough to move McMahon's and the WWF's needle.
Today, WWE (the current name of the WWF) is more about making its product feel "real," despite the fact that we all know the outcomes of the matches are predetermined. This is born partially from a smarter fan base (All hail the Internet!) and partially from the rise of MMA in the combat sport realm, a sport that, aesthetically at least, resembles WWE.
To that end, WWE has found a willing partner from, of all places, the self-declared worldwide leader in sports — ESPN. For the past year or two, WWE superstars have been making regular appearances on SportsCenter to do Q&A segments, and not just the big names — last week, Kevin Owens was on the 8 p.m. edition of ESPN's flagship show, and while WWE fans may contest that Owens is indeed a big star, he is not someone the average ESPN viewer would know.
SportsCenter has done live shows from Wrestlemania and Summer Slam, and has even run results from those pay-per-views on the crawl at the bottom of the screen later those nights. The high point of this loosely arranged partnership between ESPN and WWE occurred last year when Brock Lesnar announced his WWE contract extension live on SportsCenter, massive at the time because there was legit speculation that Lesnar would be returning to UFC.
That was the high point, that is, until Thursday, when it was announced that 15-time WWE heavyweight champion John Cena would be hosting ESPN's annual ESPY awards show. Cena becomes the first professional wrestler and third athlete (after LeBron James and Lance Armstrong) to host the network's tribute to itself disguised as an awards show.
According to ESPN.com, Cena was asked last week and accepted:
"They asked, and of course I said yes," Cena said. "It goes without saying it's a tremendous honor. The prestige of the show grows every year. It's unbelievable. I obviously accepted, but it doesn't go without its share of nerves. I just want to do the show justice. I'm going to do my due diligence and hopefully we can have a great show."
While it will be difficult for any WWE superstar to achieve the crossover fame of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who makes $15 million per movie in Hollywood, Cena is most certainly the biggest crossover celebrity on the current roster, with credits (and positive reviews) for performances in the movies Trainwreck and Sisters....
Cena has been recovering from January shoulder surgery, but will return to WWE's flagship show, Monday Night RAW, on May 30 after co-hosting NBC's Today Show that morning.
So, yeah, mainstream.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
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