TAMPA — In the pro wrestling world, John Cena is the New York Yankees.
He is the high-paid face of World Wrestling Entertainment and a merchandising gold mine fans love or hate; there is no middle ground.
Cena was stirring a buzz Tuesday night even before the doors opened at the Forum downtown for the weekly national television recording of “SmackDown,” a premier pro wrestling event that travels from town to town like the circus.
People of all ages, nationalities and demographics were involved, playfully letting one another know on what side of the Cena fence they stood. His loyal fans got in the faces of those who hate him and displayed their Cena hats, T-shirts and replica championship belts. Those against Cena retaliated by showing off paraphernalia backing one of his foes.
The opposing fans were neither angry or volatile, just passionate. And yes, not counting the small children who still believe in Santa Claus, most of the loud fans were well aware it wasn’t a real competition.
Still, it inspires the kind of reaction many real competitors long for.
“I hate when people say it is fake,” said Cecil King III, a 33-year-old Tampa man who said he can’t remember a time in his life when he was not a professional wrestling fan.
“It is scripted, but it is not fake. They get legitimately hurt. It is hard. Those guys give their bodies for the fans so they can entertain us.”
“Entertain” is the word of the night. When pressed for why they love professional wrestling, the grown-up fans rattled off a number of reasons — athleticism, larger than life characters, storylines and scripted brutality. They would then all take a breath and say, “It’s just entertaining.”
For years, professional wrestling has been described as a “male soap opera” because its crazy storylines mirror those of the popular daytime shows. Professional wrestling plots have run the gamut over the years — love triangles, power struggles, amnesia and even dognapping.
The scripted winners and losers of the matches are secondary to the plots. A wrestler can lose a match but win the battle by earning back a love interest from his foe.
Unlike the soap operas to which it is compared, however, professional wrestling has a live studio audience — one made up of thousands of screaming fans.
Once the fans hustled into the arena, the outside buzz become an inside roar.
“It’s fun to watch on television, but nothing beats the energy of a live crowd,” said Keishan Moore, who as a child watched professional wrestling with her grandmother and now does so with her son, who was by her side for the “SmackDown” taping.
Families abounded in the Forum crowd, in fact — matching the number of single fans at Tuesday’s broadcast taping.
“My son started watching six months ago and loves it,” Shawn Parker said. “It was his birthday recently, so this was his treat.”
Asked to identify their favorite, Parker’s son and daughter quickly responded, in unison, “John Cena”
Moments before the tapings began, Cena’s name and face appeared on the arena’s big screen announcing he would be part of the show. A deafening mix of cheers and boos ensued.
Did he wrestle? Did he win?
It all becomes clear at 8 p.m. Friday on the Syfy network.
But in the world of professional wrestling, it didn’t seem to matter.
The fans went home happy, whether they loved Cena or hated him.