Wrestlers from World Wrestling Entertainment are ready to body slam some cheer into U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East this holiday season.
Bob Hope never provided the kind of entertainment in wartime that WWE superstars intend for troops who will be stationed in harm's way through Christmas and New Year's, but they are following in the same tradition as the legendary entertainer. WWE wrestlers and performers are set to visit the troops and put on a special show for them that will be taped for "WWE Smackdown!" and aired Dec. 23 on UPN.
WWE stars will also deliver care packages gathered through the United Service Organizations' Operation Care Package program.
The WWE holiday visit to service members is becoming an annual tradition. Last year, wrestlers went to Baghdad, spending time with the troops and taping a special show. WWE wrestlers seem as excited about their trip as the troops they will be visiting.
"I'm just as thrilled as can be," WWE champion John "Bradshaw" Layfield, also known as "JBL", told ABCNEWS.com. "Some soldiers just got news that they'll be spending several more months away from their families. With some, morale may be getting a little low, but you'd never know it. I'm glad that we have a chance to bring a little bit of Americana to them for the holidays."
Headlocks, Wristlocks … and Blackhawks and Mortar Fire
Layfield, a 10-year veteran of WWE, has visited troops regularly at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland and on tours of military bases both in the United States and abroad. He has noticed many of the troops decorate their tents and rooms with wrestling posters. After one visit with troops overseas last year, he planted the seeds of what became the holiday shows. He wondered if WWE could perform holiday wrestling shows for the troops overseas and presented the idea to WWE Chairman Vince McMahon.
"I said to Vince, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could bring this to them [the troops], take an entire show and build it around them?'," Layfield said. "Vince made a few calls and within a few weeks we had all the arrangements we needed to make it happen."
During WWE's holiday show in Baghdad last year, Layfield remembers hearing and seeing eerie reminders that they were performing in a war zone. Several troops were sitting atop tanks so that they could see the action in the ring. He also saw Blackhawk helicopters in the skies around him and heard mortar fire in the distance.
"I remember being in the ring and thinking that this is just an extraordinary, surreal experience," he said.
A Popular Act With the Troops
Armed Forces Entertainment, which has provided free, live professional entertainment to troops and family members stationed overseas since 1951, organized WWE's holiday visits.
AFE officials field entertainment requests from service men and women and invite various acts to visit. Though the Harlem Globetrotters, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and various other celebrities and performers have visited military bases, wrestlers -- particularly WWE Superstars -- are among the most requested.
"It [wrestling] falls within that 18- to-23-year-old demographic with the troops. Many of them watch it when they're at home in the states," said Capt. Josh Anderson, AFE circuit tour manager for Southwest Asia.
Anderson said some members of the military who watched the taped show were amazed that the armed services and WWE were able to put together the program, especially in a country as volatile as Iraq. The troops clamored for another show this year, he said.
"Last year's show with the troops was such a success," Anderson said. "The troops just loved it and thanked the wrestlers for coming out to visit them. But vice versa, the wrestlers were thanking them. You could tell the wrestlers loved spending time with the troops and were thanking them for what they do. They [the wrestlers] were amazed at what they [the troops] do every day. There's been nothing but positive feedback."
Focusing on the Real Champions
Meanwhile, Layfield faces a dilemma.
On last year's tour, Layfield's in-ring persona was a babyface, or hero, and he was known just as the beer-swilling "Bradshaw," a member of the brawling tag-team APA. Since then, he has become a full-time singles wrestler, evolving his in-ring persona into the successful, yet pompous and villainous businessman JBL.
The character combines Layfield's real-life patriotism, athleticism and financial acumen. He has played professional football, written a personal finance book "Have More Money Now," and appeared as a financial analyst on both CNBC and the Fox News Network. But Layfield is uncertain about how to balance his character's pride as an American with his heelish tendencies in front of the troops.
"I'm not sure what I'm going to do," Layfield said. "I might just go along with things, see how it goes. I play a great character."
On last year's program, WWE gave several service men and women an opportunity to send holiday wishes to loved ones. It also gave the audience a behind-the-scenes look at the troops' everyday lives. The program aimed at boosting troops' morale and showed another side of the wrestlers -- babyface and heel characters alike.
Layfield said he realizes not everyone is a fan of professional wrestling, commonly referred to in some circles as sports entertainment. But he stressed that the WWE's holiday tour of the Middle East is not about its wrestlers.
"Not everyone likes our product. It's their right not to like us," he said. "We didn't get a lot of publicity for our show last year because we didn't seek it. We didn't want to look like we were looking for it and wanted to keep the focus on the troops. We're an entertainment company. Our product is the easiest form of entertainment to understand. It's about good and evil. ... For those skeptics out there, I say watch our product and look how many faces [of troops ] we put out there on television."