Can Japan top Hulk Hogan?

WrestleMania - the largest pro wrestling event of the year, an extravaganza filled with marquee matchups and celebrity guest stars - celebrates its 20th anniversary this Sunday. There's plenty of hoopla. But the World Wrestling Entertainment Company, which stages the annual event, is worried that the pay-per-view event won't do as well as in the past. The WWE's weekly television audience has fallen sharply.

And as viewership declines for the nation's premier wrestling federation, some see an opportunity for foreign wrestling to gain ground among American fans.

Two contenders are already beginning to make inroads: Japanese pro wrestling, commonly called puroresu, and Mexican-style contests, known as lucha libre. If either can land a television contract in the United States, some industry observers say, they could begin to take market share away from the already weakened WWE.

"One way to look at this is that this is exactly what pro wrestling needs to reinvigorate the industry," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. "Pro wrestling in America was to the sport of wrestling what an episode of Jerry Springer was to a conversation, and the weight of that style is what ultimately caused it to collapse. There's something about [puroresu and lucha libre], however, that does seem a little less tongue-in-cheek, a little less bathed in the irony that pro wrestling in this country was absolutely floating in.... If you got a million people to watch [an international wrestling show], a network would be very happy with that."

Some serious fans have already made the move. Tired of the WWE's pomp, Benjamin Deng now only watches tapes of puroresu, which he buys through the Internet. "The flow of the moves is so crisp," gushes the Boston-area store clerk as he watches two Japanese men kicking each other. "The Japanese wrestlers train much harder to take much more punishment," he explains, "So when one guy punches, the other guy takes a punch.... Look! You can hear it!" he exclaims, as one of the wrestlers whips his leg into his opponent's thigh.

At $25 a tape, puroresu has limited appeal, which may have already peaked. "Anybody who's wanted to check it out has checked it out," says Michael Bochicchio, owner of wrestling merchandise retailer Highspots.com.

But some industry insiders think the sport could attract more people if a network were to air matches. "I don't think it could beat the WWE, but I think that it could capture a major audience," says Sheldon Goldberg, owner of New England Championship Wrestling. "There is a market for 'world wrestling' that, I believe, is untapped. The problem is that there's no capital for it, and no one savvy enough to do it."

The bigger draw may be Mexican-style pro wrestling, thanks to the huge influx of Hispanics. "Anyone from Mexico is probably familiar with lucha libre," says Mr. Bochicchio. "And there are cities like Dallas, Chicago, and Atlanta, places with Hispanic populations, that'll run live [lucha libre] events that will have anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people attend."

Bochicchio and others are capitalizing on the growing interest in foreign wrestling. Since 1996, Bochicchio's website has been selling lucha libre masks, puroresu action figures, and assorted videotapes. And his business grows every year, he says. "Anything we put on the site is profitable, [although] interest in Japan is waning, and lucha is growing."

Some say the market is growing because the WWE isn't producing a product that attracts serious wrestling fans. "In America, all most people see is the WWE," Mr. Goldberg says. "But the WWE's main focus is heavily on story lines. These [serious] fans like to get their wrestling from elsewhere because it's focused less on the silly stuff and more on the action."

At its peak in 1999, WWE programming was regularly viewed on some 8 million US television sets. Now, only half that number are tuning in on Monday nights.

Until a network does air international pro wrestling, fans like Mr. Deng will continue to import their tapes. "I'll order two to three tapes once every two months," Deng says. "I'm a fanatic."

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