Lawrence Taylor will walk through a tunnel tonight, his game face intact. He will hear the buzz, the muffled cheers and perhaps he will remember.
It has been more than a year since Taylor played his last football game, nearly 15 months since he last felt the kind of adulation that comes so easily to Hall of Famers.
And maybe, even if only for a few seconds, he may forget where he is and what he is doing in Hartford, Conn. - donning tights and wrestling a bald, 360-pound behemoth named Bam Bam Bigelow, all in the name of money.
Taylor will make a guaranteed $1 million for taking part in Wrestlemania XI, and the former New York Giants linebacker could stand to make quite a bit more if pay-per-view receipts gross as high as the World Wrestling Federation hopes.
But no matter how well he fares in the ring, Taylor stands to lose something in the way of respect.
“I guess it’s harmless fun, but deep down, I wish he wasn’t doing this,” said John Bush, a lifelong Giants fan and an assistant editor of The Giants Newsweekly. “But he’s never been the kind of person who gives a damn about what other people think of him.”
Since Taylor announced his wrestling debut, he has been the target of abuse from fans, columnists and sportscasters, who say his venture into the circus-like world of professional wrestling takes something away from his considerable football exploits.
Not so, said Taylor’s business manager.
“He’s not doing anything wrong,” Bobby Cupo said. “It’s not like he’s robbing a bank. All he’s doing is making a living. And you can’t buy the kind of exposure he’s getting.”
The same can be said for wrestling.
The Sheraton-Hartford Hotel, where the WWF wrestlers are staying, has sold out all its rooms for the event at the nearby Hartford Civic Center.
The record for pay-per-view wrestling events is held by Wrestlemania VII, which took in $22.9 million in 1991 - the 10th-highest grossing pay-per-view event of all time.
Yet the following three Wrestlemanias saw its viewers and profits drop steadily. Wrestlemania VIII earned $18.5 million; Wrestlemania IX earned $15.5 million, and Wrestlemania X made $14.7 million.
In the midst of the WWF’s decline in popularity, the Stamford, Conn., company also survived a potentially devastating trial. WWF President Vince McMahon was charged with three counts of conspiring to distribute steroids. He was acquitted last July, but his and the WWF’s image did not emerge unscathed.
McMahon needed to boost interest in the WWF, which also was losing viewers to Ted Turner’s rival wrestling league.
He needed a gimmick, so he reached back into his bag of tricks and pulled out Taylor.
This certainly has garnered a lot of mainstream publicity,” said WWF spokesman Steve Planamenta. “We’ve hit on something that has captured people’s imagination.”
On Tuesday, a public workout in Times Square turned into a public pile-on, with Bigelow, Taylor and other wrestlers mixing it up for the crowd and cameras.
Taylor has not learned any textbook wrestling moves, focusing his practices on getting comfortable inside the ring, bouncing off the ropes and learning how to absorb a fall.
Taylor will be accompanied to the ring by his “All-L.T. Team,” which includes Reggie White, Ken Norton Jr., Rickey Jackson, Chris Spielman, Steve McMichaels and former teammate Carl Banks.
WWF officials would not confirm speculation that Taylor would win the match. But according to the WWF’s statement of principles, “somehow, in the end, good will conquer evil.”