Wrestling's Italian stallion makes a play for Kiwis' emotions

By Troy Rawhiti-Forbes

World Wrestling Entertainment's performers don't get a lot of time to themselves, so when the WWE Intercontinental Champion Santino Marella spoke to nzherald.co.nz on his day off, we made the most of our moment with the Italian wrestling star.

He's sports-mad, well-groomed, loves the Old Country, and he injects a hefty dose of passion into every word he speaks. In every way, Santino Marella is your typical modern Italian man.

He's also a surprise worldwide hit with pro wrestling fans after only a year in the big league.

Dubbed the "Milan Miracle" for his heroics during one exceptional night in Italy where he won the Intercontinental title during his debut match, Marella has taken the nasty-foreign-guy role made famous by the likes of the Iron Sheik and turned it into a phenomenon all his own.

"I like to start anger," Marella says of the people he's agitated - a list which includes former WWE Champion "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. "I make them feel alive!"

"People want to see controversy," he confesses in his accented English. "It makes the money."

The 29-year-old is a globetrotter among globetrotters in WWE, having moved between the USA, Italy, Canada and Japan where he spent a number of years studying Judo. Now he holds the second-tier championship on WWE's flagship television show, Monday Night Raw. It's not the biggest banana in the bunch, but Santino has no intention of losing the title before Raw's stars travel to Auckland in July to perform for Kiwi fans at Vector Arena.

Penguins and scientists, take note: The WWE Intercontinental Champion could be bending bones in your neighbourhood soon.

"When you are Intercontinental Champion, you represent all the countries," he says. Even Antartica? "Yes! I will defend it anywhere. I am the champion of Earth."

Marella says he has no interest in pursuing Raw's top title, the World Heavyweight Championship presently held by Canada's Chris Jericho. At 102kg, Marella is more comfortable punching near his weight rather than above it.

"I'm not a super heavyweight like stupid Batista."

Batista is a multiple-time holder of the World Heavyweight Championship. He's scheduled to make his third appearance in New Zealand where the fans' adoration of him, particularly among the younger ones, is second only to Raw's biggest drawcard - wrestler, rapper and film star John Cena.

Marella is not worried about venturing into enemy territory. In fact, he's looking forward to visiting the city he saw on TV during the 1990 Commonwealth Games broadcasts. "It's a perfect opportunity to sway the crowd", he says with more than a hint of steel in his voice." (Even) If you don't like me, you must respect me."

Marella is rarely seen on WWE broadcasts without a busty woman by his side. In his earlier days it was WWE wrestler and Playboy model Maria Kanellis, but lately he has appeared alongside WWE Women's Champion Beth Phoenix. Together, the mouthy Italian and the formidable blonde call themselves Glamarella.

"It's hard to put into words," Marella says of his appeal to women. It's an attraction that spans all generations, he reckons. "When old ladies look at me like a piece of meat, I guess their machinery still works!"

Though he cannot run for the office of US President, Marella has used his web-based interview segment Santino's Casa to share his policy ideas, which include "manscaping for every man, and a woman in every kitchen." When we ask what policies he'd consider adding to the list, Marella takes an uncharacteristically serious turn.

"If you want to change the future, you must start from the children."

Marella explains that he'd like to see a national children's health and fitness initiative which sounds similar to the one championed by another immigrant muscleman who later became the governor of California. Former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura may not have delivered on his promise to put a wrestler in the White House in 2008, but could there be room at the gubernatorial level for a trash-talking Italian dynamo?

It looks unlikely. Of his post-wrestling aspirations, Marella said "I'm going to be a big movie star, bigger than The Rock! (Former WWE Champion Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.) I can do action films, comedy, romance, inspirational", and his preferred co-star would be another gentleman of Italian heritage, Pulp Fiction's John Travolta.

"We'd be like tough guys!"

A WWE media handler joins the conversation, asking us - pleasantly - to wrap things up with a final question.

New Zealanders have been watching WWE on TV for the better part of 20 years, but seeing the biggest wrestling stars in the world live and in the flesh is a relatively new experience. What can Kiwis expect from (WWE boss) Vince McMahon's pro wrestling roadshow in 2009?

Marella offers a comment delivered in crystal-clear Italian but, sensing our confusion, he is happy to clarify:

"We're going to plug into your emotions", Marella promises. "Cheer, boo, clap! Allow yourselves to be excited!"

Arrivederci, sir. We can't wait.

* The WWE Raw Live show takes place at Vector Arena in Auckland on Friday July 3rd, 2009. Tickets are available now from Ticketmaster.

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