By Pete Sweeney
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - The Shanghai crowd howled with delight as half-naked giants in glittering briefs strutted into the ring and began slamming each other to the mat.
The audience had come from all over China to watch muscle-bound foreigners with odd names like Rey Mysterio, Jack Swagger and The Big Show kick, punch and pile-drive each other.
It was likely the first time that many of the crowd had ever seen U.S. professional wrestling in the flesh but they clearly knew the script.
Some wore Mexican wrestling masks others carried signs with messages for their favorites. They chanted "You suck! You suck!" in English at the villains.
"I'm here for the hot guys," said one woman carrying a sign with an invitation for a champion known as Sheamus to visit Sichuan province.
Ed Wells, senior vice president for international operations at Stanford, Connecticut-based WWE (originally World Wrestling Entertainment), which specializes in choreographed violence by big men in tights, said fans were the same the world over.
"They watch us every week, they know the characters, they know the phrases and they are very ready to participate."
Stephanie Wang, an organizer of a WWE fan club, said she got interested in American pro-wrestling while channel-surfing on her satellite television.
"Boxing is boring but professional wrestling has a plot," she said.
The show, billed as the WWE Smackdown, first passed through China in 2010, when it gave away free tickets. Saturday saw its first full-fledged commercial spectacle in China.
Tickets started at the not-insignificant price of 300 yuan ($47.17) and went up to 1,500 yuan for a ringside seats.
The stadium was not sold out but thousands of noisy fans packed in to the more expensive seats.
The WWE moved into China in 2007, signing distribution agreements with 10 provincial television stations and video sites Tudou and Youku, giving it nationwide reach. Wells said growth in China has consistently been in "double digits".
One Chinese microblog dedicated to WWE has more than 30,000 followers, and a search for WWE on Tudou returns more than 50,000 clips, some viewed more than a million times.
Pirated downloads are also popular to get past squeamish censors. "It's got more violence," one young man said.
A question for the WWE is whether it needs a Chinese star for success. Does pro-wrestling need a spandex-clad version of basketball star Yao Ming, credited with making that sport one of the most popular in China?
"We'd love to have a Chinese star and we're certainly open to working with Chinese talent," said Wells though adding he didn't believe fans were particularly looking to root for fellow countrymen.
"John Cena, one of our top superstars, may be more popular than the local talent anywhere he goes," Wells said.
Lu You, manager of a WWE fan club, agreed: "Of course it would be better if there was a Chinese star but John Cena is my favorite."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)