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How Houston set the stage for a milestone sports comeback

Eva Marie and the WWE are heading to Houston in July. Image via: NatalieEvaMarie/Instagram/Screenshot

It's no coincidence, at least it shouldn't be, that the WWE chose Houston to kick off its 25-city tour on July 16 … professional wrestling's return to life as normal. Well, as normal as WWE's rock'em sock'em brand of traveling circus can ever hope.

Since March of last year, WWE's superstars have been in lockdown in Florida, staging their signature television shows Monday Night Raw and Friday Night Smackdown from controlled studios in Florida with virtual fans on video screens.

Houston is a legacy wrestling town, starting back to the early 1900s, through City Auditorium, Paul Boesch and Friday Nights at the Coliseum, to WWE's current worldwide domination in Houston's largest and most glamorous venues. The all-time attendance record for the Astrodome sits at 67,925 for WrestleMania X-17 in 2001, when Stone Cold Steve Austin pinned The Rock with the help of WWE boss Vince McMahon. Sure it was against the rules for Mr. McMahon to smash The Rock over the head with a chair, but you can't say he's not committed to his craft. Let me know when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell blocks a punt during the Super Bowl.

When I moved to Houston, my first night here I unhitched the U-Haul from my car and went to the matches at the Coliseum to watch the Rock 'n' Roll Express battle the Sheepherders in a barbed wire cage match. A few months later, I faced the scariest moment of my life, courtesy of wrestler Jake "The Snake" Roberts.

I still wake up with night sweats.

WWE's stop in Houston will be a live Friday Night Smackdown show airing on Fox. Among the superstars scheduled to appear: Universal champion Roman Reigns, Edge, Smackdown women's champ Bianca Belair, Sasha Banks, tag-champs Rey and Dominik Mysterio, Bayley, the Street Profits, King Corbin and Seth Rollins. Tickets are $20-$120, available at Toyotacenter.com. Remember, Toyota Center doesn't use Ticketmaster as a ticketing outlet.

Professional wrestling without fans is like the sound of one hand slapping – not as exciting and not nearly as much fun. Nobody at WWE is more excited about returning to the road and performing in front of a live crowd than the No. 1 challenger for the Almighty Bobby Lashley's WWE title, the "Scottish Warrior" Drew McIntyre.

"I was so happy when I heard that we were going back on the road to perform in front of our fans. It felt like Christmas when we got the word," McIntyre said in an exclusive interview.

"We're starting in Houston, where I won the Royal Rumble last year (in January before the pandemic hit), in front of 40,000 people at Minute Maid Park."

Like most performers, whether sports or entertainment or, in WWE's case a combination of athleticism and theater, McIntyre and the WWE roster thrive on the crowd's energy.

"Our audience is such a big part of our show. They don't just cheer us on like other sports, they often drive the show. We're an interactive show. We go off on how they're responding. We go with the flow of the crowd and see where that takes us. Fans can make an average match good, a good match great, and a great match legendary."

McIntyre won his first WWE championship last year, defeating Brock Lesnar in WrestleMania's main event. He accomplished the feat in a pre-recorded match in an empty arena, a far cry from WrestleMania's typically packed stadiums with 75,000 screaming fans reveling in a hero giving a villain his comeuppance.

"Without fans we had to find ways to innovate and adapt. We always say that our fans are really the No. 1 superstar of WWE. Now we know it's true because of what it was like the past year without them in the building.

"I felt like I had to lead the charge and set an example for the rest of the roster. My mentality was, thanks to my 20-year career, I was prepared for being champion in a unique situation. I couldn't ask for advice from the legends, like Triple H, Shawn Michaels and Undertaker, because nothing like this had ever happened before. I was the first champion put into a pandemic environment, working without fans to play off.

"I embraced it. I decided to approach my role differently. I wasn't going to do interviews and pretend I was talking to imaginary fans in the crowd. I went out there and stared right into the camera and talked to the people at home, breaking the fourth wall. Instead of having to scream over 20,000 fans, I spoke in my regular voice and told deeper stories. If my character was going through something dramatic, I got more emotional. I thought it was a good time for superstars to develop their characters more, step up their game both in the ring and doing interviews. Now that fans are coming back, I think they'll know us more than before, and that's a good thing."

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