"I saw Richard Burton in 'Hamlet' in 1964 and I've been waiting for a similar event ever since," said Jay Power, a waggish, bespectacled man who works for the AFL-CIO, as he eased into an uneaseful chair in a packed ballroom at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. "And this is it."

The event was WrestleMania, an extravaganza staged yesterday in New York's Madison Square Garden and cablecast to two dozen foreign countries and hundreds of locations across the nation, including the D.C. Armory and the Sheraton, where Powers and more than 3,000 others plunked down a double sawbuck to watch celebrated grapplers wheel and deal in the Squared Circle.

"I said it before," said Jesse (The Body) Ventura, who narrated the epic along with Gorilla Monsoon. "Woodstock was to rock 'n' roll what WrestleMania is to wrestling."

The crowd of parents and children, blacks and whites, elegant silver-haired ladies and good old boys with Harley T-shirts and fatigue pants, sat enthralled before an array of five projection television screens as King Kong Bundy, the 458-pound dark side of the Pillsbury Dough Boy, crushed S.D. (Special Delivery) Jones in a record nine seconds. And rock pheenom/wrestling manager Cyndi Lauper ushered her prote'ge', Wendi Richter, to victory and the women's title.

All of this, though, was only a preliminary for the instantly legendary grudge tag-team match pitting Rowdy Roddy Piper and the egomaniacal Paul (Mr. Wonderful) Orndorff against champion Hulk Hogan, a towering surfer man-child, and none other than Mr. T of "The A-Team."

"T! T! T! T! T!" chanted the crowd.

Muhammad Ali served as guest referee; Liberace, after a brief kick-line routine with four Rockettes, kept time; and former Yankee manager Billy Martin assumed the ring announcer's chores.

"Eye of the Tiger," the theme from "Rocky III," blasted into the ballroom, and Hogan and Mr. T, who appeared in that movie, entered the ring, unleashing a half-ton of mayhem that brooked no bounds.

Also, they won.

This is wrestling today, a phenomenon cross-marketed with prime-time television, Las Vegas, MTV, legitimate sports, and rock 'n' roll. Four of the top 10 shows on cable are wrestling shows; live wrestling draws about 10 million people a year. According to Gloria Steinem, Tina Turner, Diane Keaton, Andy Warhol, Geraldine Ferraro and David Letterman, wrestling is in. Which can only mean one thing.

Wrestling is out.

Wrestlers are literally larger than life, most of them standing over six feet and weighing between 250 and 300 pounds. Hogan, the champion of the dominant Worldwide Wrestling Federation (which sponsored WrestleMania), is 6-8 and tips the scales at 302; the aptly named Andre the Giant stands 7-5, weighs 463 pounds and, as Sports Illustrated once illustrated, can lose a can of beer in his hand. Historically, the largest wrestler was the fabled Haystacks Calhoun, who was said to sneak 700 pounds into his overalls each morning.

"What is portrayed by wrestling," wrote French critic Roland Barthes, "is an ideal understanding of things . . . wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible."

Wrestling is like ballet, an intricate choreography of head butts, heart punches, suplexes and superplexes, figure-four leg locks, body slams, bear hugs, eye gouges, headlocks and hammerlocks, atomic spine crushers and atomic elbow drops, sleeper holds, cobra clutches and Boston crabs, in which hero and villain seem to trade an expression of horrible suffering. Who could fail to be moved yesterday by the sight of Hogan, crawling kicked and battered across the canvas, while Mr. T stood by helplessly, waiting for the tag? In wrestling, the action is not as important as the pauses in between, filled with anguish, trembling, the stalking of the hunter, pleas for mercy and appeals to the attendees. Junk Yard Dog, a wrestler who entered the fray in chains, loomed above Greg (The Hammer) Valentine, pinioned against the turnbuckle, and gestured to the crowd for its verdict.

"You got to do it, brother!" said a woman at the Sheraton, 250 miles away.

And he did. The Etiquette of Wrestling

The division of Good and Evil is not as easy as you might think. Wrestlers are either good guys (also known as "fan favorites") or bad guys (also known as "hated rulebreakers"). But a villain can reform -- Gorilla Monsoon, yesterday's announcer, began as a hirsute Manchurian madman who spoke only four words of English ("I'll break his back"), but later shaved his beard and became a highly articulate spokesman for the Good. Hulk Hogan, too, started as a hated rulebreaker, only to mellow and become the champ. Likewise, good guys sometimes turn bad.

There are certain subtle rules of etiquette. A bad guy breaks the rules from the opening bell. This means anything from inflicting a blow with a fist to bashing an opponent with a ringside chair (a blow Piper dealt Hogan in WrestleMania). A good guy will do these things only when he Gets Really Mad, which he invariably does. A bad guy might lacerate his opponent with a "foreign object," a twopenny nail or a can opener secreted in his trunks; a good guy never does this. A bad guy uses tactics that send other wrestlers, after quick examination by the ringside doctor, on a stretcher to the hospital. Good guys don't want to end other wrestlers' careers; they just want to run them out of town.

In all of this, the referee is no help. When he's not simply ineffectual, he's busy enforcing the rules against the good guys while the bad guys pursue their depredations in the other corner. In yesterday's spectacle, a ref frantically restraining Mike Rotundo didn't see the Iron Sheik borrowing the cane of his manager, "Classy" Freddie Blassie, to cosh Barry Windham, the happy hellraiser from Sweetwater, Tex. The Russian Nikolai Volkoff smothered him the way the Russian winter smothered Napoleon, and the tag team belt changed hands.

"Cane?" Blassie said. "What cane? I don't have no cane!" 'They're Real Stars'

Spring has come to Atlantic City, and with it Lou Albano (The Captain), manager nonpareil to 15 tag team champions, who saunters through the lobby of the Resorts International Hotel in a fog of bay rum.

"I got enough money to last till the rest of my life -- if I live till tomorrow," he says.

And: "I weigh 300 pounds of sweet poetry in motion. Got the body that women love and men envy."

And: "The Captain believes he wouldn't be nothing without the Good Lord."

Built like a bowling ball, Albano has long been wrestling's craziest comic presence. His long hair frizzed around his head in a demonic halo, the spikes of his beard gathered by a rubber band echoed by more rubber bands dangling from safety pins stuck in his cheek and left ear, Albano used to be Middle America's nightmare of what the counterculture was really about.

The Captain is a good guy now. He blames his past excesses on a "calcium deposit on the medulla oblongata." Last year he and cochairman Cyndi Lauper raised $4.2 million to fight multiple sclerosis. His hair is groomed. The beard is gone, revealing a face that 700 stitches have turned the texture of parchment, the legacy that wrestling, rigged or not, has left him.

Lou Albano is not in Atlantic City to gamble. Or listen to Anthony Newley. Or stroll the boardwalk. He is here to be a movie star.

"We were looking for a rather large guy," says Brian De Palma, a rather large guy himself and director of the upcoming "Wise Guys," who watches the Captain from his director's chair with Olympian bemusement. "He had to be really big. He was supposed to be very large. So we turned to wrestlers. Because they're used to doing all this performing for their wrestling matches, and playing bad guys in a very overblown sense, they're real stars. Lou's just larger than life, like a movie star is."

"Wise Guys," which also stars Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo, is a comedy about two small-time hoods who get tangled up with the big-time mob, including a hit man named Frankie the Fixer, played by Albano. The film is due for release later this year, and the advertising will be targeted, in part, at a wrestling audience.

The scene is set, the camera rolls. Watching Albano walk is like watching time-lapse photography of continental drift. In the scene, he harangues the hotel's desk clerk. The whites of his eyes grow large and rattle like eggs in a fast-boiling pot. His growl fills the room. At the climax, he reaches over the desk and grabs the clerk, an actor named Anthony Holland. De Palma calls "Cut!" The crew cracks up.

"It's like some nightmare come to life," says Holland. "I feel like a child." The Changing Villain

What's endlessly pleasurable about wrestling is the seemingly effortless way it keeps current. Take politics. German and Japanese villains were a staple of wrestling after World War II. These days, the archvillains are the Iron Sheik and Volkoff. The Iron Sheik, a bald, swaybacked colossus with curly-toed boots out of the Arabian Nights, entered the ring first yesterday, holding aloft the Iranian flag; his crew-cut partner seized the microphone and sang the Soviet national anthem through a storm of paper cups, after which the Sheik proclaimed, "Russia: Number One! Iran: Number One! U.S.A.: haaach -- ptui!" Then their opponents entered to the tune of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

Lately wrestling seems plugged directly into "Nightline." After the Iranian crisis, Sgt. Slaughter, a mean-spirited Marine who was originally a hated rulebreaker, entered the hearts of the fans. Even the Japanese villain has been updated. Mr. Fuji, for example, before wrestling for the championship with his partner, Mr. Saito, addressed a crowd of 5,000 unemployed steelworkers in Allentown, Pa., by saying, "We have eclipsed you in technology. Next we will take the belt."

Vanity and ego are the worst sins a wrestler can commit -- that's why "Luscious" Johnny Valiant and Paul (Mr. Wonderful) Orndorff are so hated (the monikers say it all). And there is a tremendous fear of an id gone completely amok -- hence the Animal, or Abdullah the Butcher, who has been known to eat live chickens while spectators watched aghast.

What's interesting about all this is the way it stretches into the world outside the ring, in prematch speeches or televised interview segments. Fake feuds stem from fake locker-room arguments or jealous competition for a woman, which is presented as real. "There is no distinction in wrestling between the play world and the real world," says David Marc, the author of "Demographic Vistas." "It's not like 'The Tonight Show,' where the comedian gets up and does a stand-up routine, but then sits down and talks with Johnny about his so-called 'real life.' Instead, the Iron Sheik of Iran steps out of the ring and he's more the Iron Sheik of Iran out of the ring than he is in it."

While the villains are as interesting as ever, the heroes today aren't. What does Hulk Hogan stand for? Bruno Sammartino carried the flag for a way of life; a dour, blockish urban ethnic who fought fair but exploded when crossed, Sammartino personified church and neighborhood and the virtues of hard work. Rooted in Pittsburgh, he was an authentic local hero just like colorless, courageous Verne Gagne in the Midwest or flamboyant Mil Mascaras, the Southern California comet who was said to wear a mask even while bathing.

Hogan, on the other hand, is a guy who his fans imagine kicking back, popping a beer and turning on loud music. He is on record as liking rock 'n' roll. His archenemy, Rowdy Roddy Piper, doesn't like rock 'n' roll. The metaphysics of wrestling has been debased, at its very core, into a debate between the upstairs and the downstairs of Tower Records. And this is no accident. Selling the Sport

Wrestling has always had its ups and downs. During the Depression, wrestling "exhibitions" (as they are called in New York, by law) drew packed houses to Madison Square Garden and even Yankee Stadium. But by the end of the decade, A.J. Liebling could write, "If a promoter tried to rent the Yankee Stadium or even Ebbets Field for a wrestling show this summer, sporting people would think he had been overcome by the heat."

A renaissance came with the advent of television. Wrestling was featured on all the networks, with stars like Gorgeous George and Flying Antonino Rocca. But as the medium matured, wrestling was returned to the fringes of American life. "You could see why, in terms of advertising, the whole idea that whether it was 'true' or not was open to debate was an uneasy thing," says Marc. "If this guy could be lying about the fact that there was real blood coming out of this guy's head, maybe he wasn't telling you the truth about a Chevrolet, either."

Promotion became strictly local, with the result that the sport itself became Balkanized into separate fiefdoms ruled by dueling promoters, each with its own champion.

All of this is bad for marketing, which depends on national exposure and standardized tastes. Network television, the favored marketing engine, had largely priced itself out of wrestling's league (although NBC has recently scheduled wrestling in a once-a-month 11:30 p.m. slot).

But now syndicators have come to realize that cable, independent and UHF television can be combined to form ad hoc networks, affording advertisers network-league market penetration at lower-than-network rates. The man who has put the package together for wrestling is second-generation promoter Vince McMahon Jr. of the WWF (his father ruled the wrestling roost here in Washington for years). WWF wrestling now dominates cable -- it airs on the USA network, Ted Turner's WTBS, the Madison Square Garden network and the WOR superstation; it appears as well on dozens of independently owned local stations.

Part of McMahon's strategy is to achieve a sort of marketing synergy with other genres. When Mr. T teams with Hulk Hogan, wrestling taps into "The A-Team's" estimated 40 million viewers. The show features Top 40 hits: "Easy Lover" and "Another One Bites the Dust," as well as Springsteen and Lauper; Albano appears in Lauper's rock videos. The notion is to establish wrestling as a leisure-time activity for a new generation. Which is why Hulk Hogan fights Rowdy Roddy Piper to defend beer and rock 'n' roll. These, after all, are the stuff of the student strikes of the '80s.

The strategy has begun to work. According to the WWF, their network reaches some 20 million people and last November earned a national 9.6 Nielsen rating. Andre the Giant, Superfly Snuka and Big John Studd dolls are due in the stores this month. There is talk of Captain Lou Albano watches and Snuka beach towels and a trivia game called Cage Match. Going Yuppie

Wrestling's "Tuesday Night Titans," a sort of television equivalent of a potluck dinner, is now the No. 1 cable show in Manhattan, and that means yuppies. Wrestling, like pan-blackened Louisiana redfish and bowling shirts, has become an artifact of baby boom hip.

The essence of hip is a search for authenticity, and in baby boom culture, that expresses itself in slumming -- chowing down on chicken-fried steak, scouring secondhand clothing stores for Hawaiian shirts. It is movie star Jodie Foster decorating her apartment at Yale with plastic furniture and year-round Christmas lights, and celebrating it as "soooooo tacky."

But the baby boomers are the first generation to grow up on television, and their slumming, more often than not, takes the form of rummaging through old television shows: Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi created a hip style out of the Blues Brothers, who dressed like the Untouchables; David Letterman, the yuppie's Pied Piper, features "Mr. Science"; "Leave It to Beaver" and "Dobie Gillis," like wrestling, score nice ratings.

This isn't authenticity -- it's authentic inauthenticity. What's worse is that it recreates everything in its own image. The baby boomers see the world in 19 inches diagonal.

"TV automatically ironizes everything," says Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a critic of popular culture. "Anything intense appears a little bit ridiculous. Parody is universal now; we've arrived at a cultural moment when everything's ironized. A world in which nobody believes in anything, that consistently plays everything for a laugh."

The ironic attitude lends the illusion of being somehow apart from mass culture, all the while you're lapping it up. It's this attitude that has resulted in the rape of professional wrestling. It's been robbed of its moral seriousness, made into a joke, a parody, "soooooo tacky."

At the same time, wrestling has lost its authenticity for everyone else. In the middle of yesterday's show, an announcer came on hysterically flacking T-shirts, baseball caps and posters; at that moment, wrestling appeared in its modern form, another homogenized mass marketing vehicle. There was no sense, at the Sheraton, that you were missing anything by not being in New York. Television felt just right.