BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – The Mall of America is bringing the wrestling ring back to the rotunda.
The iconic Bloomington attraction is partnering with Minneapolis-based F1RST Wrestling for a "Saturday Night Nitro" event on Sept. 10.
This isn't the first brawl at the mall, and the event's name is an homage to the last time wrestling fans flocked to the rotunda. In 1995, Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan and a handful of other wrestling superstars squared off in a ring just outside of Camp Snoopy for the first episode of "WCW Monday Nitro."
Chris Grap is the mall's vice president of experiential, and was instrumental in wrestling's return.
"I work directly with events, entertainment, the A/V team. We really are in charge of working across all departments and curating that guest experience, especially in our common area spaces," he said. "I get to do all the fun stuff, and it's really just a beautiful sandbox to play in. We have a lot of fun."
Grap is also a wrestling fan, and bringing it back to the mall has been a passion project for him.
"I started at Mall of America 10 years ago and one of the things that I'd always known about this place was its place in wrestling history, with the first episode of 'Monday Nitro,'" he said. "So ever since then, I've always been kind of nudging, we need to do this, we need to get back to it, and what is it going to take? So it's been a real dream of mine and many other people who work here, and guests, to get professional wrestling back into the rotunda, and it really took the right partner to make it all click."
That partner is Arik Cannon, the founder of F1RST Wrestling and a professional wrestler himself. F1RST has hosted its annual Wrestlepalooza event at First Avenue for years, as well as other rows around the Twin Cities.
"Arik Cannon and F1RST Wrestling, they really are the right team to do this," Grap said. "The most important thing to me is his passion. He wants to be here, he loves this idea, he loves this opportunity … They really just stand atop the independent wrestling promotions. They deliver great characters, great storylines."
Professional wrestling might seem like a niche market for America's largest mall to target, but Grap's personal experience at local wrestling shows proves the audience is more varied than you may think.
"Just like everything we do, I feel like the crowd will surprise people, because there are so many fans of this art form and entertainment," he said. "It really is, it's here for everybody. That's one of F1RST's sayings is … wrestling is for everyone."
MOA and F1RST Wrestling announced the partnership at this year's Wrestlepalooza. Grap said the fan reaction was "unlike anything I've experienced before."
"It may feel absurd to people who don't understand Mall of America's place in professional wrestling history," he said. "But to hear the reaction of those fans live was like bolts of electricity running through my body."
Cannon's reaction, according to Grap, was similarly ecstatic.
"Unparalleled enthusiasm and excitement," Grap said. "I truly cannot reiterate this enough, but he is 100% the right person with the right promotion to do this right now."
You might think setting up a professional wrestling event in the middle of a shopping mall would be a logistical nightmare, but according to Grap, the hard part was finding the right partner and getting the idea off the ground. He's looking forward to all of the creative work it will take to pull this off.
"We have done outrageous and unexpected things for 30 years. Bringing the wrestling event back, getting it all set and ready, that was the challenge. But now comes the fun part," he said. "What I expect is the unexpected. The only thing I can guarantee is a good time for everybody."
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