J. R. Henry discovered professional wrestling as a child growing up in 1983 in Brigantine.

Henry lost interest in it during his teenage years. His desire to watch the larger-than-life entertainment returned like a masked combatant creeping up from behind to launch a sneak attack when his stepson, Robert Snoke, 15, was a child and again with his youngest son, George Henry III, 4.

They watch the current stars on cable TV and footage of wrestling from the 1990s on the World Wrestling Entertainment channel on Comcast.

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"It's entertainment. I think it's a little bit of an escape from an average day. It's just fun. It's fun to watch. It's fun to watch the boys enjoy the same thing I did as a kid. I enjoy that right now as much as watching it, if not more," said Henry, 34, of Brigantine.

As people stream into Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City on Saturday to see popular wrestlers such as John Cena and Chris Jericho, the audience will be more than parents dutifully taking their preteen sons to the arena to see the spectacle. Some girls, women and men enjoy the battle of good versus evil played out in the ring between shirtless men with gleaming muscles.

The WWE returns to Boardwalk Hall for the first time in five years with wrestling neither at the height of its popularity nor at its depths. These days, an airing of "WWE Monday Night Raw" can draw close to 5 million viewers. In 1988, a broadcast of the World Wrestling Federation's "The Main Event" drew 33 million viewers, setting a ratings record for wrestling.

Wrestling was huge during the 1980s with such colorful characters as Hulk Hogan, "Macho Man" Randy Savage and The Iron Sheik. It died down in the early 1990s and rebounded during the mid-1990s and early 2000s during what was called the "attitude era," when World Championship Wrestling, Extreme Championship Wrestling and the World Wrestling Federation, the predecessor of WWE, all competed for attention.

Wrestling may not be at that peak now, but there are still popular wrestlers, such as Cena, who will be coming to Boardwalk Hall.

There also are local wrestling shows, such as Grounds for Conflict on April 27 at Rollway Skating Ring in Hammonton and a wrestling match last month in the gymnasium at Barnegat High School.

John "The Tank" Toland is a professional wrestler who worked for the WWE.

A health and physical education teacher at Atlantic City's Uptown Complex elementary school, Toland's character, "The Tank," has been a good and bad guy over the years. He also wrestles locally.

Most people boo you when you portray a bad guy. They love to cheer you when playing a good character in the ring, Toland said.

"I've never had a bad experience," said Toland about meeting fans outside of the ring. "I think you could say that for most people. You always have really good interaction with the fans. They are always very appreciative to say hi, to meet you to take a picture with you, to ask for an autograph."

Even though it is more exhibition than competition, it is by far the hardest thing Toland has ever done physically, emotionally and mentally sports-wise.

"You walk out, and you are who you are. You are your persona, and you have that crowd in the palm of your hand. That's one of the best possible feelings you could have. It's an incredible, natural high," said Toland, who added the downside is he was still in pain from slamming his hips on the outside of the ring four days earlier.

Scott Reilly, now 33, was enthralled by wrestling at age 7 when his brother, who was 10 years older, introduced him to it.

Superstars from the 1980s, such as Hogan, Savage, Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, and Jake "The Snake" Roberts captured Reilly's imagination. He would wait for wrestling to come on after the Saturday morning cartoons.

Reilly remembers touching Andre the Giant when his father took him to see the popular wrestler take on the Ultimate Warrior in 1989 in Philadelphia.

"I think he stood 7 feet, 2 inches tall. He was a monster, and I remember I hit him in the arm. He went and grabbed my hand, and he tried to intimidate me because he was a bad guy, so he grabbed my hand and scared the hell out of me and let it go," Reilly said.

Reilly's interest was revived when he had a son and his boy reached age 5.

The co-host of "The Morning Edge with JoJo & Scotty" radio show from 6 to 10 a.m. on WMGM-FM 103.7, Reilly will be taking his son, Alex, to Boardwalk Hall to see wrestling as a 10th birthday present.

Reilly has talked about wrestling on the air.

"I talked about how I was a fan back in the day and how now, I'm a fan. This is why having kids is great. I get to hide behind my son and have this fun affair again with wrestling," said Reilly, an Egg Harbor Township resident. "It's literally soap opera and action. It's goofiness, and it's a lot of fun to watch. I would much rather him watch a wrestling show than him watch the Kardashians."

Doreen Campbell, 28, of Cape May Court House, grew up watching wrestling with her brother, who is eight years older than her. It was fun watching it with him and his friends when she was 5 in 1990, but her interest faded away.

"When '(WWE) Raw 1000' aired over the summer, I watched it," said Campbell, who added her nieces and their friends told her about it. "It was their big anniversary special. A lot of old wrestlers were supposed to be returning. ... It brought back a lot of memories from when I watched it with my brother. Since then, I have been watching 'Raw' every Monday night. I watch 'Smackdown' when it's on."

Campbell likes wrestling because it is a lot of fun to watch and entertaining.

"I get criticized by a lot of my friends, 'Oh, it's fake, none of it is real,'" said Campbell, who will be in Boardwalk Hall with tickets won by her sister-in-law from WAYV-FM 95.1. "I think the best part of it, knowing that it's like that, they can take what their talents are with wrestling and put on a show for people. ... They are real athletes, but they can still put on a show and perform and do crazy antics and hilarious stuff at the same time."

Frank Caltabellotta, 24, of Northfield, used to watch wrestling with his family when he was 3 years old in the early 1990s.

"My grandmother, who was from Sicily, when she would watch it, she thought it was 100 percent real. She always used to cry when the good guy would lose," Caltabellotta said.

Caltabellotta said he will spend one or two hours weekly watching "Raw" on Monday nights on USA and look at DVD collections of older wrestlers through Netflix. Caltabellotta will pay to see the major pay-per-view wrestling events with his younger brother, who is 18. He said wrestling is the longest running soap opera with a storyline. Everything is staged and fake, but he still likes it.

A 2007 Mainland Regional High School graduate, Caltabellotta is studying to make his living as a button-down accountant. He doesn't believe he will give up wrestling just because he will be making his living at a white-collar job.

"It's just something entertaining. It's something to watch on TV. I would rather watch that than another stupid show about people falling in love with vampires," said Caltabellotta, who added he never grew out of his nostalgia phase with wrestling. "I don't think I'm ever going to stop (checking out wrestling). There's always new things to watch."

Contact Vincent Jackson:


WWE Presents Road to WrestleMania Supershow

Held 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Boardwalk Hall, 2301 Boardwalk, Atlantic City. Tickets are $15, $25, $35, $50 and $95 and are available at the Boardwalk Hall box office and Ticketmaster.

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