By Mike Mooneyham

April 3, 2005

It’s a rare, often surreal, moment when one finds oneself on the brink of something truly special. The kind of once-in-a-lifetime moment in professional wrestling that has made legends out of names such as Hulk Hogan, The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.

It’s just that kind of moment for WWE phenom Batista. The eyes of the wrestling world will be on the Staples Center in Los Angeles tonight for the sports-entertainment spectacle that is Wrestlemania. And the most closely watched match on the show, the one fans have been clamoring for, will pit Batista against former mentor Triple H for the world heavyweight title.

“It doesn’t seem real. Maybe it’s just starting to hit me,” Batista said last week, admitting he had a bad case of the nerves that was likely to get worse before getting better.

Dave Batista

Dave Batista

The rich history of the extravaganza is certainly not lost on wrestling’s newest superstar. Wrestlemania is the top-grossing annual event for WWE, and it’s the one event a year that transcends the company’s day-to-day business.

“I’ve known I was going to be in the world title match at Wrestlemania for some time now, but I really hadn’t thought much about it. But it’s starting to kick in. I don’t think I’m going to be sleeping much when I get out to L.A.”

Few insiders anticipated Batista’s rapid ascension in the pro wrestling ranks. Jim Cornette, who oversaw Batista’s training in WWE’s Ohio Valley Wrestling developmental territory, was the exception, and boldly predicted five years ago that Batista would headline Wrestlemania within five years. “That’s nuts, because Chris Jericho just brought that up to me the other day,” notes Batista. “I’ll have to be honest and say I never saw this coming.”

With his chiseled, bodybuilder’s physique, the 6-4, 285-pound powerhouse thought he could make a living in the business, but had no idea he’d make such an impact in so short a time.

“I certainly didn’t get into it thinking that I was going to be world heavyweight champion and be in the main event at Wrestlemania,” he says. “I got into it because I loved it and just wanted to be part of it. I was really fortunate to have gotten some really lucky breaks and then fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of Triple H and Ric Flair. Lately they’ve given me the ball, and I’m just trying to do my best with it. I’m still learning a lot and taking it as it comes.”

Although Batista (real name Dave Bautista) clearly feels the pressure to have a solid match that lives up to the lofty expectations for a Wrestlemania main event, he’s trying hard to put things into perspective. “Triple H gave me some real good advice, and that’s to enjoy the ride. That’s just what I’m trying to do – enjoy it.”

The biggest question mark surrounding the former bouncer, who grew up in Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Va., is that he’s untested as a champion. His in-ring shortcomings thus far have been overshadowed by an entertaining storyline that has portrayed him as Triple H’s massively muscular enforcer-turned-adversary.

“I’m physically able to do a lot more stuff than I’ve done in the ring, but I don’t know that it would fit my character,” he says. “I don’t know if I need to. The things I do, I feel I do them well. That’s also some advice from Hunter (Triple H): Pick a few things, do them well and that’s all you need to do. It’s more of the ring psychology that I want to perfect rather than the moves and all that stuff.”

Batista, who is on the cover of this month’s Flex bodybuilding magazine, was given the Wrestlemania main-event position when his popularity skyrocketed and fans embraced him as the roster’s top babyface. Franchise player Randy Orton initially had been penciled in for that slot, but his good-guy turn backfired and was largely rejected by the discerning WWE audience.

A close friend and former Evolution cohort, Batista feels the 25-year-old’s mega-push may have been rushed. But he’s confident Orton’s time in the sun will come.

“There hasn’t been a strain on our relationship. We still talk a lot,” says Batista. “I’m actually a lot closer to Randy than most of the guys in the locker room. We came up together and we’ve always shared very personal things. Randy is still so young. I can’t tell if he’s hurt by not having that responsibility or it’s a relief to him not having that responsibility. I wouldn’t wish that responsibility on anybody his age. I don’t think he was prepared for that at all. Now that he’s had a taste of it, maybe if it returns to him he’ll have a better view of it and will be able to handle it a little better.”

Batista, who turned 36 in January, also feels the timing just wasn’t right for Orton vs. Triple H.

“A lot of times I don’t know if I bought him being in the ring with Triple H. It always seemed like a boy in there with a man. And that’s not putting Randy down. That’s just where he was in his life. I don’t know if people really bought into it. He’s the most naturally talented professional wrestler I’ve ever seen. I’ve said that since day one. The kid has got it. He just needs that maturity.”

– Lex Luger (Lawrence Pfohl) was released from Gwinnett (Ga.) County Detention Center on Tuesday after being detained 19 days for his arrest on contempt of court charges. Luger, 46, was arrested March 10 due to a warrant that was issued when he failed to appear in court due to unpaid alimony and child support.

– George’s Sports Bar, 1300 Savannah Highway, will air the Wrestlemania pay-per-view tonight at 7 p.m. Only valid ticket-holders will be allowed after 6:30 p.m. Cover charge is $8.