by Ed Symkus

Over the past few months, a brief video clip has popped up on various World Wrestling Federation broadcasts. It shows WWF chairman Vincent K. McMahon looking right into the camera and saying, "We make movies," as if someone had asked him what his sports entertainment company -- as it's come to be known -- actually does.

McMahon is most likely right on the mark. What was once an hour-long broadcast of big men supposedly beating each other senseless, with a few interviews in between, has become TV's most successful soap opera. With complex, almost operatic storylines between a plethora of "superstars" -- they're not even called wrestlers anymore -- now taking center screen, the fights themselves only show up as temporary ends to the stories.

These are two-hour mini-movies, presented live on TV every Monday night (Monday Night Raw), taped on Thursday night (Smackdown) and about once a month as Pay-Per-Views. And this Sunday, the WWF, featuring Chris Benoit, the Dudley Boyz, Rhyno, X-Factor and more, comes to the Spokane Arena.

Since wrestlers have morphed into something on the order of actors who do all of their own stunts, many of them have taken that leap into acting in other kinds of movies, the ones made in Hollywood and shown on big screens. The most recent crossover attempt is by Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock, who costars as the

Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns. The movie industry has high hopes for Johnson, as he's almost through filming a sequel about his character for release next year.

But he follows a long line of wrestlers who have tried before him -- and failed. Roddy Piper has only made direct-to-video films since They Live. Terry Funk hasn't been seen in a theatrical drama since Road House. Paul Wight's (The Big Show) film career went only as far as Jingle All the Way. And the less said about Hulk Hogan's dismal box office failures, the better.

McMahon's ideas of movies are different from those of the Hollywood machine. He doesn't plunk his superstars down on a movie set for a couple of months; he takes his show on the road, with truckloads of equipment and riggings arriving weekly at arenas all over the country. At a typical Raw broadcast, about 100 people make up the ring crew, lighting crew, sound crew and pyro crew. A gigantic video screen is hoisted up, a huge lighting truss hangs from the ceiling, the ring is erected (with plenty of chairs and tables and other "weapons" stashed underneath) and floor seats are moved in on fork lifts.

And though the WWF's superstars are paid well and only work four-day weeks, they don't enjoy seasons off like other athletes. This is a year-round job, full of hardships, as unique a profession as that term sports entertainment suggests. Yet there are very few complaints coming from anyone wrapped up in it. Their wrestling movie has become their life.

Mark Lomonica, who plays Buh Buh Ray Dudley, the larger member of the Dudley Boyz, is in his 11th year of grappling. He started out with a series of small independent wrestling companies, worked his way through Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), and arrived in the WWF almost two years ago. Lomonica, 29, seems to be proud of his battery of injuries, listing them off as if they were badges of honor.

"I've had seven doctor-verified concussions," he says matter of factly. "Thirty-five stitches in my head; a countless number of lacerations on my head that have not been stitched, but were put back together with Krazy Glue; my nose has been broken three times; I've had broken ribs; I have a shattered ankle; and I have a lot of bone chips in my elbow. Pain has become so secondary, because you learn to deal with it every day. It's not horrible pain where you can't go out there and perform. It's just nagging pain after awhile."

Lomonica is convinced that the public doesn't care that matches are pre-determined and refers to wrestling as classic good guy versus bad guy.

"I still like to sit in front of the TV and watch pro wrestling," he admits. "And I really get off on the fact that I sometimes find myself calling a bad guy a scumbag or sitting on the edge of my seat watching a guy do a move, because they're entertaining me.

"But the planning of a match depends on who you're working with," he adds. "If you're working with guys you've never been in the ring with before, there's a certain amount of discussion that needs to go on, because you want to be safe with one another. Any combination of the Dudleys, the Hardys or Edge and Christian, we don't have to say a damn word to each other before we go out there. We know each other's thoughts."

Lomonica's point is proven when on the afternoon of a recent Raw broadcast, Paul Wight and Paul Levesque (who plays Triple H) climbed into the ring to work out a few moves they would perform on TV later. "Harley used to do this thing," said Levesque, referring to wrestling legend Harley Race, while putting a hold on the towering Wight.

Chris Benoit (his real name) is 33 and has been in the business for 15 years, performing in his early days in Mexico and Japan as the Pegasus Kid, before moving over to ECW, World Championship Wrestling and, last year, the WWF.

Asked to explain what else goes into a match besides knowing who's going to win, what the final move will be and how long the match is supposed to take, his answer feels slightly guarded.

"All of that is a very minute part of a match," he says. "I think that's what a lot of the people don't understand. There's a lot of athleticism involved. When you watch a match and it looks easy, it's because the guys that you're watching are extremely good at what they're doing."

Benoit takes his job quite seriously and remains very conscious about taking care of himself and keeping a home life.

"We get three days off a week, and I like to spend those with my family in Atlanta," he says. "When I'm working, I make the effort every day to get to the gym, and a big part of it is diet. I try to eat the right kinds of foods and feed my body with the right kinds of minerals and supplements."

He's also quick to admit that it's tough work, but he's doing exactly what he's always wanted to do.

"I believe you've got to love it," he says. "You know, the beatings that our bodies take, and the time spent away from our families and on the road. It seems very glamorous when you watch it on TV for that five, 10 or 20 minutes that we're on. But there's a lot more behind the scenes. All of us in the pro wrestling business make tremendous sacrifices in our lives to be able to do what we do. So you've got to love it. I've never wanted to do anything else, and I love what I do for a living. Without a doubt, this is an extended family."

The World Wrestling Federation comes to the Spokane Arena on Sunday, July 1, at 7 pm. Tickets: $15-$40. Call: 325-SEAT.

American Inheritance: Unpacking World War II @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

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