If you're a diehard fan of professional wrestling, chances are you haven't been waiting for the main event of WrestleMania 34 in New Orleans on Sunday.
And you haven't had to.
Since Thursday, WWE Fan Axxess at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center has offered a full-immersion experience for those who want to get closer to the ring.
In one booth, fans could cut their own promos and trash-talk opponents just like the real WWE superstars.
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Or they could ape the ring entrance of their favorite wrestlers, complete with music and video presentation. (The powerful, 6-foot, 9-inch Braun Strowman is a fan favorite.)
This kind of thing has become the norm at major sporting events like the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four. Ahead of last year's Wrestlemania in Orlando, more than 25,000 fans visited Axxess from all over the country.
Anthony and Nicole Antonelli from San Francisco arrived in New Orleans on Wednesday, and they planned to spend some of each day at the event, paying to attend meet-and-greets with some of the WWE stars.
“We’re going to meet Goldberg,” they said, referring to the former champion who will be inducted this year into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Nick Giacobbe, a recent high school graduate from Staten Island, New York, carried a book full of enlarged photos of wrestlers carefully secured in clear sleeves, determined to brave long lines to get them all signed.
He runs a podcast devoted to one of this week's signature events, “NXT Takeover: New Orleans,” which occurs Saturday night and features performers trying to earn spots on the WWE’s main roster. “We love NXT, and I think we do a really good job of covering it,” Giacobbe said.
Axxess provided a preview of that show as NXT performers wrestled in a ring set up in the back of the Morial Convention Center hall.
Sunday night at Wrestlemania, Smackdown Live Women’s Champion Charlotte Flair will defend her belt against Asuka, but she started in NXT, and in 2014 she performed in the same ring in the Convention Center.
Flair said she has fond memories of wrestling at Axxess. “At my first Axxess, the fans sang me ‘Happy Birthday,’ ” she said.
Twelve autograph stations give fans a chance to meet their favorite stars.
Liv Morgan and Sarah Logan of the Riott Squad posed for photos with fans in the imposing cage used for the WWE’s Elimination Chamber matches, but most of the wrestlers sat at tables on stages or stood in front of backdrops. Lines to meet emerging stars were easily managed, but when Samoa Joe took a seat, fans ran to queue up.
Kimmy Law’s husband Brian checked out the Samoa Joe line while she watched to see who would be up next at another table, hoping it would be Nia Jax.
Brian ended up with autographs from the tag team The Revival and Miztourage member Bo Dallas, while she got one from former Women’s Champion Natalya.
“Natty really took time to personalize it,” Kimmy said. “She took a photo and put it on her Instagram. She took video of the crowd. That shows that it means as much to them as it does to us.”
Kofi Kingston of the tag team the New Day said he always looks forward to Axxess, which runs through Sunday. “People are coming from all over the world, and some tear up, some will get emotional, some will get happy, and it’s awesome that they’re coming to see me,” he said. “Not just me, obviously, but it’s a pretty cool feeling.”
WWE superstar Roman Reigns prefers that fans hold off on the crying, however.
“Please don’t cry,” he pleaded, half-joking. “Then I have to hug them, and then it becomes open season for hugs. I’ve seen a girl try to fake cry. The crying makes me sad.”