By Shirley Brady Linda McMahon is the opposite of her muscle-bound stars. No, it isn’t that she’s petite and chic. It’s that she’s no phony: She’s in charge. The CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment was backstage at Madison Square Garden taking meetings and overseeing WrestleMania XX, while WWE stars such as Undertaker and Kane towered over her as they got ready for their "Back from the Dead" rematch. She may not be physically imposing, but she was clearly running the event, which was attended by a sell-out crowd of more than 20,000 fans. "This is our Oscars, our Super Bowl," McMahon said amid the carnival-like atmosphere that included the likes of Donald Trump and Pete Rose. Her wish? Not only that there would be no injuries as a result of the frenzy in the ring and in the stands that evening-a nearby hospital gurney served as a reminder that it’s not all scripted fun and games-but that the event would mark a turning point in the company’s fortunes and permanently restore the buzz that was generated in the buildup to the show. Her luck held out that night. The worst non-wrestling tumble may have been the Garden ticket-taker who wiped out (but recovered) as she made her way off-duty with her cash till in hand. And the event itself grossed more than $2.4 million in ticket sales, making it the highest-grossing event WWE has held at the Garden. Whether it was a complete smackdown for the brand remains to be seen. WWE needs to create new breakout stars like The Rock, who made a guest appearance at WMXX and literally overlooked the Garden from a billboard promoting his movie, Walking Tall. Another challenge: Its international business has been booming (particularly in the U.K.), but it needs to expand its U.S. business-not easy for WWE in these post-Nipplegate times. The event started out on a sentimental and patriotic note as the Boys’ Choir of Harlem harmonized against a flag-waving salute to our troops, but it quickly shifted gear to its stock in trade: violence (albeit scripted and cartoonish) and stereotypes both ethnic (Latino wrestler Eddie Guerrero’s slogan: "I lie, I cheat, I steal") and sexist (the undie-clad match featuring a trio of WWE femme fatales and Playboy’s Sable). It’s not for the politically correct or faint of heart, and is a potential turnoff for many prospective fans. WWE’s distribution partners would be thrilled if the evening gooses PPV performance and TV viewership after three years of less-than-knockout performances by the franchise. McMahon’s also eager to monetize the company’s massive wrestling video archive (first up: SVOD) and expand the live tours and PPV performance abroad. With so much riding on the outcome of this night, it’s no wonder WWE invested in the yearlong $5 million-plus "Road to WrestleMania" marketing push. "This is as well-promoted and as well-marketed an event as anything in our history," McMahon said during an evening that featured the return to the ring of crowd-pleasers The Rock, Mick Foley and Stone Cold Steve Austin. She’s ready for the heavy lifting that follows, being every bit as tough as the he-men-and-women from the Raw and SmackDown crews tumbling beneath the pyrotechnics. McMahon honed her own moves while steering the global empire that her husband, Vince, started in 1982. The matriarch of WWE marveled that night at how far they had come since he purchased what was then called the World Wide Wrestling Federation from his father, Vincent Sr. McMahon admitted with a chuckle (that was part groan) that she and Vince had returned to their hotel room at 3 a.m. that morning after attending the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony; among the 10 inductees were former wrestler and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura and baseball legend Pete Rose, for his appearances at three previous WrestleMania events. And forget any Sunday morning lie-in: the McMahons rose early for a "Bacon, Bagels and Biceps Brunch" attended by 2,900 fans. McMahon said that the Hall of Fame tribute to wrestling legend Bobby "The Brain" Heenan was particularly poignant. "These folks have been our family over the years, and it was great to have the younger generation there, too." A new generation of McMahons is now coming up. Declan, grandson of Vince and Linda (and Shane’s infant son), was hoisted proudly by granddad in the pay-per-view’s opening video montage. The toddler also had his first photo shoot that morning, hours before the event that is his family’s legacy to popular culture. "We sat him on the ring, so you could see the WrestleMania logo," said his proud grandmom. He also brings a whole new meaning to the event’s future-looking tag line: "Where it all begins, again."

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