Good vs. evil at Wrestlemania 34 in New Orleans has fans believing their lying eyes

WWE wrestler Roman Reigns, center, fights against Big Show during WWE Live India Tour, in New Delhi.
WWE wrestler Roman Reigns, center, fights against Big Show during WWE Live India Tour, in New Delhi. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Pro wrestling plays a tricky game.

You know the human body can’t take the kind of punishment apparently dished out in the ring, and years ago the WWE gave up the charade that wrestling is real. Still, all WWE programming, including Wrestlemania 34, which takes place Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, acts as if the matches are real, and if the performers do their job, the crowd responds as if they are.

How intense can it get? This time last year, WWE Superstar Roman Reigns defeated beloved veteran The Undertaker at Wrestlemania, and the next night on “Raw,” the crowd let him know how it felt. “The disdain they had for me!” Reigns recalled. “The chants, the things they said to me as a collective. There were children yelling these things. If the sold-out number was 15,000, collectively they were all against me. I know it was the loudest segment I’ve ever been in.”

The results are predetermined, and some storylines go on for months. Reigns’ 2017 took a circuitous path to get to Sunday’s main event match-up against WWE Champion Brock Lesnar, but it seemed all year like we were always going to get here. On the other hand, Rusev joined the “fatal four-way” bout for the Smackdown U.S. Championship two weeks ago.

Getting fans to believe their lying eyes is partly a physical matter. WWE Legend “Nature Boy” Ric Flair practiced throwing a punch at a thread hanging in a doorway until he could touch it without moving it. Just as important is finding an identity fans can recognize and connect with.

Kofi Kingston is enjoying a career peak as a member of the tag team The New Day, and it’s because he, Xavier Woods, and Big E took ownership of their characters. “We do pretty much whatever we want to do,” he said.

Such nutty inventions as Woods playing a one-note trombone to rev up the crowd bought The New Day the ability to pursue other ideas that make them laugh. The current gimmick, throwing pancakes to the crowd, came when Woods joined a lumberjack match and acted the part — down to the lumberjack’s breakfast.

“We’re always trying to push the envelope.”

Kingston spent part of his childhood in New Orleans on Panola Street and attending Lusher Elementary School, and his in-ring persona is an extension of a guy with specific roots. You can draw a direct line between Carnival’s sense of play and The New Day’s current gimmick.

“We want to be us,” Kingston said. “The whole New Day persona consists of being yourself. We go out there in pink and blue. We wear unicorn horns. We come out swiveling our hips, throwing pancakes, making these jokes. Really, what we’re doing is going out there and being ourselves.”

Charlotte Flair is the Smackdown Women’s Champion, and she’s the daughter of the legendary Ric Flair. For much of her career, she performed as simply Charlotte because WWE executives worried that such a revered name would invite unfair comparisons that she wasn’t ready for. Last year, she officially became known as Charlotte Flair. As with most things in the WWE, it was a group decision, and one that reflected well on Flair.

“Adding the last name meant that I wasn’t just Ric Flair’s daughter anymore, that I’d carved my own path,” she said. “It felt really good that they thought I’d grown that much as a performer that I could carry that weight.”

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