Wrestling with the legacy of Hope

WWE stars take their entertainment to the men and women in the service

December 17, 2009|By Kevin Eck | kevin.eck@baltsun.com

Over the years, World Wrestling Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon has been compared to everyone from P.T. Barnum to Walt Disney, not to mention "a guy with horns and a pointy tail," he says. These days, the pro wrestling ringmaster is being mentioned in the same breath as Bob Hope.

Following the legendary comedian's lead, McMahon and his band of men and women in spandex have made a commitment to entertaining the men and women in uniform overseas.

Earlier this month, WWE traveled to the Middle East for the seventh consecutive year, visiting forward operating bases in Iraq over three days and putting on a wrestling show.

The trip is chronicled in "WWE Tribute to the Troops," an annual holiday special airing at 9 p.m. Saturday on NBC. Included on the broadcast will be a video message to the troops from President Barack Obama.

A war zone might seem like an odd place to set up a wrestling ring for a televised event, but it makes perfect sense to McMahon.

"Bob Hope left a tremendous legacy, but I don't know that his type of humor and entertainment would play well today with the 18-to-24-year-olds. We certainly do," McMahon said at a WWE show two weeks ago at 1st Mariner Arena, hours before he and the rest of the crew headed to Andrews Air Force Base and departed for Iraq.

The idea of doing a wrestling performance for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan was pitched to McMahon by former WWE wrestler John "Bradshaw" Layfield after he had visited the Middle East on two occasions. McMahon concluded that it should be an annual event.

"I thought it was a great opportunity to give back to the kids - and they really are just kids over there," McMahon said.

Because there is some element of risk involved, WWE performers are not required to go on the trip, but every year there are more volunteers than there are spaces available.

"I've made it clear in the past that I'd be willing to go, but this is the first time that I was asked if I wanted to go," WWE wrestler MVP said. "I have no trepidation whatsoever. I know how much it means to our troops over there to have us come over and show them support."

Seeing what life is like for the troops has been an eye-opening experience for WWE performers.

"You get to see what they do hour after hour, day after day ... these people are stir-crazy," WWE wrestler Mike "The Miz" Mizanin said. "There's nothing for miles away. This one camp we went to didn't even have running water. Can you imagine living without running water for months? Years? But they're in such high spirits. It's amazing."

WWE "diva" Kelly Kelly has performed on three straight "Tribute to the Troops" shows, the first time when she was 20. "I was meeting guys there who were my age," which hit home, she said. "It's incredible to see what they do for us."

In 2004, the USO of Metropolitan Washington presented WWE with the first "Legacy of Hope" award, which goes to organizations "carrying on the tradition of Bob Hope by supporting our troops." The often bombastic McMahon plays down any comparisons between him and Hope, however.

"It's not really me being compared to Bob Hope; it's WWE," McMahon said. "My job definition, as well as everybody else's in our company, is to put smiles on people's faces the world over. No place will you ever see bigger smiles or more appreciative smiles than Iraq or Afghanistan."

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