What is the measure of success in wrestling? Ticket sales, television ratings, merchandise numbers… it all leads to one cause, the popularity of the men and women in the ring plying their trade. Fans don’t tune in if they don’t care about the wrestler. People don’t buy tickets to see people they don’t want to watch. You definitely are not going to wear a t-shirt for someone you aren’t entertained by… well, unless you’re one of those kids that wears anything sold at Hot Topic, regardless if you know what is emblazoned on the front of it or not.
When it comes to the popularity of the wrestlers, there is one aspect that those backstage at shows put a lot of focus on…. the pop. That explosion of sound from the crowd when there’s a huge win, a near fall or a huge announcement. Entrances are often looked at as an indicator of the popularity of a star (mostly babyface, but heels can get pops too). It isn’t unusual for those behind the curtain, especially those who have in the business for a long time, after a huge pop to remark “Road Warrior” to others. The “Road Warrior Pop” a reference to the huge ovations Hawk & Animal would receiver in their primes, is seen as the goal. A building-rattling burst of enthusiasm from the audience.
I thought it would be fun to list the five biggest pops I have experienced. Please note, this is a personal list of pops I was physically present for. Live in-person, not something I watched on television. Feel free to let me know the biggest pops you’ve been present for.
April 2, 2017 – The Hardys return to WWE at Wrestlemania 33.
The building was shaking. Literally. When The New Day, after teasing that they would be joining the World Tag Team Title Ladder Match at Wrestlemania 33, instead brought out Matt & Jeff Hardy, Camping World Stadium literally shook as 75,000 fans lost their mind. This nuclear pop was a testament to the enduring popularity of the Hardys, who had been off WWE television for eight years. The fact the Hardys would win the championships was icing on the cake, but it was the thunderous reaction in Orlando to their entrance that people still talk about as being the highlight of that Wrestlemania.
October 23, 1999 – The Sandman returns to ECW
It can be hard to keep things quiet in professional wrestling, so sometimes a little misdirection can go a long way. Leading up to the October 1999 ECW Arena show, it was teased that a former ECW World Champion would be returning to the company. In the opening match of the show, Mike Awesome successfully defended the ECW World Title against returning former champion Mikey Whipwreck. So, there was your return… but it wasn’t the only one. At the end of the show, as Raven & Tommy Dreamer faced Justin Credible & Lance Storm, The Sandman made his first appearance after a year in WCW. While many have talked about Sandman’s entrance at the first One Night Stand event, and rightfully so, it doesn’t match the manic energy from this return.
January 27, 2008 – John Cena returns at the Royal Rumble
In my life, I’ve gone to probably over a hundred wrestling shows at Madison Square Garden, and heard a lot of pops in the most famous arena in the world. The 2008 Royal Rumble had some great moments, from The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels starting the match, to Roddy Piper and Jimmy Snuka having one last staredown in the middle of the ring. However. Cena, who had been sidelined with a torn pectoral muscle, got the reaction of the night with his return at the end of the match. Cena can be a very polarizing figure in wrestling, but you can’t dispute the reaction he got here. Live it was amazing, and it came across well on TV as well, thanks to an incredible Jim Ross call.
January 4, 2003 – Antonio Inoki’s entrance at the Tokyo Dome
Antonio Inoki, alongside Rikidozan and Giant Baba, are arguably the most important individuals in the history of professional wrestling in Japan. However, you don’t realize how incredibly popular Inoki is until you’ve experienced the reaction of the fans to him in person. There’s just something different about the way the fans respond to Inoki, and at the Tokyo Dome in 2003 I was in attendance as Inoki took to the ring and address the fans. He also gave the “fighting spirit slap” to baseball’s Hideki Matsui, who had just signed with the New York Yankees. However, it was the way the usually reserved Japanese crowd reacted to Inoki just coming out that stuck with me.
June 4, 1985 – Barry Windham & Mike Rotundo entrance vs. The Iron Sheik & Nikolai Volkoff
Sutter Gym in Staten Island, New York was packed with 800 fans for a show that, until the main event, was highlighted by Tony Atlas squashing Terry Gibbs with a press slam and a splash. Then WWF World Tag Team Champions The Iron Sheik & Nikolai Volkoff emerged and the heat shot up. Garbage was tossed into the ring, fans booed and shouted insults, and then it changed into a gigantic roar as the U.S. Express, former champions Mike Rotundo & Barry Windham came out to try and reclaim their gold. No music, no fancy lights or special effects, just fans going nuts for their heroes heading into battle. It was the first pop I ever heard, because this was the first wrestling show I ever attended live. For 10-year-old me, it was incredible and I still remember it as one of the biggest pops I ever experienced… and ever will.