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After returning to WWE in front of a Joe Louis Arena crowd, Shane-O-Mac is ready to give back to Detroit on Sunday

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It’s February 22, 2016, World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Monday Night Raw” is live at Joe Louis Arena, and Shane McMahon is about to make his first WWE appearance in almost six years.

He’s in the building, but his presence is cloaked in secrecy so as to preserve the surprise. That is not an easy thing to do in this day and age, what with the internet rumor mill constantly spitting out spoilers and speculation. But this one has been locked down, and only a select few insiders in WWE’s upper ranks know what’s about to happen.

McMahon arrived in town earlier in the day on the company’s private jet. He exited the plane wearing a trenchcoat and hat, and upon his arrival to the Joe he was taken to a closed-off holding area in the bowels of the building, far away from the talent and backstage workers.

“I felt like a secret agent,” says McMahon, Shane-O-Mac to fans, and son of WWE head honcho Vince McMahon.

Thirty seconds until go-time. McMahon, wearing blue jeans, a white button-up shirt and a crisp blue sport coat, takes his spot in the backstage area just behind the entrance ramp, called the “Gorilla position,” named for the late WWE announcer Gorilla Monsoon. One of the first guys to see him is the Big Show, WWE’s 7-foot, nearly 400 pound behemoth, who greets McMahon with a bear hug that nearly cracks his ribs. Then Shane’s music hits — the “here comes the money!” intro line hasn’t been heard on WWE programming since 2010 — and McMahon shoots through the curtain, shuffling his Air Jordan-clad feet like a boxer dancing in the ring, to the shock of the 15,000-odd fans in attendance and the millions watching at home on television, live on the USA Network. The electricity is palpable.

“That crowd went crazy,” says McMahon, recalling the incident last week during a phone call from New York. The cheers and chants went on and on, continuing for three uninterrupted minutes. “I feel that!” McMahon can be seen mouthing at one point, as fans erupted into a spontaneous chorus of “this is awe-some!” Vince McMahon, in the ring along with his daughter (and Shane’s sister) Stephanie McMahon, briefly broke character as a smile crept across his face. Shane wiped a tear from his eye. The Joe was as loud as it had been during any Red Wings celebration or blockbuster concert, and it’s an occasion that gives McMahon chills to this day.

“It was humbling, it was truly a magical moment,” says McMahon, who returns to Detroit on Sunday for the Hell in a Cell Pay-Per-View, WWE’s first live event at Little Caesars Arena. “I’ve been around this business my whole life, and — not to pat myself on the back in any way, I’m not trying to come off like that — but I’ve never, ever heard or been around a reaction like that. It really blew me away.”

It was quite a homecoming for McMahon, who had made a conscious decision to step away from the never-ending grind of pro wrestling to spend time with his three young sons. He knew what it was like growing up with a father who was constantly on the road, and he wanted to be there for his kids, “especially in their formative years,” he says. He calls it the greatest decision he’s ever made.

In his blood

McMahon, 47, grew up in and around pro wrestling; Andre the Giant would come over to the house for dinner, and McMahon wanted to be Andre’s tag-team partner when he grew up.

“I would always say to my dad, ‘I’m going to grow up to be big like Andre, not small like you,’ and my dad would use that for years to make me eat my vegetables,” McMahon says with a laugh. “Not until you get older, obviously, do you realize he’s a giant and that’s not going to happen. But my dad had a good run of making me eat my vegetables using that line.”

McMahon started out in the business as part of the ring crew. In his late teens he began refereeing matches and worked in various backstage capacities before taking on an on-camera role in 1998. He wrestled his first match, against masked oddity Mankind, later that year.

“I always thought I would only have one match,” says McMahon, who namechecks “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels as the greatest wrestler of all-time. “So I was like, let me kind of just go for it, and let’s see where it goes.”

One match became two and so on, and McMahon would up the ante for himself each time, eventually gaining a reputation as a fearless in-ring performer. He would jump off the top rope, fly from one end of the ring to the other, get smashed through tables and panes of glass and fall from absurd heights. As the boss’ son, he had more to prove than the rest of the guys in the locker room, and he always wanted to earn his respect.

“I have such reverence for our talent, for ‘the boys’ and what they do, and I wanted to make sure that I did it right, that I honored it,” he says.

McMahon wrestled semi-regularly throughout the 2000s, even holding several titles, then left the business shortly after the birth of his third son, Rogan, in 2010. (His other sons are 13-year-old Declan and 11-year-old Kenyon.) It was perhaps unavoidable that he would come back to the business he had been around his whole life, and that Joe Louis Arena return led to a showdown with the WWE’s resident undead living legend, the Undertaker, in a Hell in a Cell match at WrestleMania 32.

In WWE lore, there is no match more grueling than Hell in a Cell. It’s not just a cage match, it’s a cage match taken to the next level, with the ring and its surrounding area encased by five-ton chain-link roofed steel structure that measures 20 feet in height.

Inside the cage, McMahon says he and Undertaker were commenting to each other about the “sonic boom” of the audience’s cheers. Then McMahon found himself at the top of that cage, staring down at the Undertaker below, as more than 100,000 fans — including his three sons, who had never seen him wrestle in person before — rooted him on. He was about to go airborne.

“For me, it was a very surreal thing. I think of it like a movie, when things get hyper-focused,” McMahon says. “I just block everything out, and everything gets whisper-quiet.”

He knew he had to be precise, that his safety was on the line. As he stepped to the edge of the cage, he measured everything and focused on hitting “as right as possible,” as he puts it. He crossed his chest, took a deep breath, and leapt.

Gasp.

Crash.

Roar.

“It’s not the flight, it’s the sudden stop that gets you,” he says, describing the sensation of smashing through a wooden table from 20 feet high (wouldn’t you know it, the Undertaker moved out of the way at the last second). “The flight’s okay! But the abrupt nature of having your whole body halt, it’s rough.”

He could see and hear, so that was good. After getting his bearings, he performed a systems check, wiggling his fingers and toes, making sure everything was operating properly, taking little breaths — “like a guppy,” he says — to get oxygen back in his lungs. Everything hurt — his ribs, his hip, his shoulder — but the rush was like an “electrical disruption” to his body, he says. There was still more match to go, but at that point it was all Undertaker, who threw McMahon over his shoulder, tossed him in the ring, sent him home with a piledriver and pinned him in the middle of the ring.

Keeping it real

McMahon describes that night as the highlight of his life, but not because of his high-flying leap, which he couldn’t bring himself to watch for two weeks. It was because he came down to the ring that night with his three sons at his side.

“I had to catch myself from laughing when I was going out there, just smiling with pride, because they took to it like a boy band,” says McMahon, who surprised his sons with the invitation to join him 10 minutes before they hit the ramp. “I was like, ‘look at these little dudes!’ It was the greatest thing ever, just to watch them.”

The moment transcended wrestling’s performative nature and tied into true emotion, the way wrestling does at its best, he says.

“That’s what’s really magical and wonderful about our business,” says McMahon, currently a part of WWE’s “Smackdown” roster, which will tape live from Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids on Tuesday. “We get to tap into reality, we get to tap into make believe, we get to tap into all of it, because we’re not bound by anything. I don’t pretend when I’m out there, I feel. I don’t hide my emotions at all. I just let it all out there.”

That’s what happened during his big return at Joe Louis Arena, and the crowd response that night is one of the reasons he’ll be in the ring on Sunday, facing off against Canadian smartmouth Kevin Owens in yet another Hell in a Cell match.

McMahon, who hasn’t wrestled a match since April, has been doing two-a-day workouts to prepare for Sunday.

“We’re planning on ripping the house down,” he says, some of the old McMahon salesmanship coming through. “This I promise: I’m gonna give you everything I’ve got to make sure this is a very indelible moment in time, and to give back to that audience in Detroit.”

As for his future? What big stunt can he pull off next, does he have another WrestleMania match in him?

“Who knows? I’m enjoying every ride,” he says, diplomatically. “Let me get through this one first.”

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

WWE Hell in a Cell

7:30 p.m. Sunday

Little Caesars Arena, 2645 Woodward, Detroit

Tickets $30-$505

Ticketmaster.com or (313) 471-6611

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