August 25, 2004
Sheldon Kane III
A PERSONAL NOTE
I had never heard of the term "WrestleMania" until one February morning in 1985, when as an eight-year-old, I was at my grandmother's house watching All-Star Wrestling with my uncles. That morning, I can vividly recall announcer Jack Reynolds talking about "WrestleMania" prior to one of his pre-recorded interviews, and I remember thinking to myself, "What exactly is this?" I was already treating every wrestling match I saw as a big event, so what could possibly make this any bigger than the stuff I was already watching on World Wrestling Federation programming? It certainly piqued my interest, especially when I heard what the main event was going to be: World Wrestling Federation Champion Hulk Hogan teaming up with none other than Mr. T himself, taking on Rowdy Roddy Piper and "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff. I had no idea this event would end up spawning an annual sports tradition on par with the Super Bowl and the World Series. 20 WrestleManias later, I can still recall the details behind this event so well.
This main event was more or less the peak of the "Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection" phenomenon which was raging back then. Hogan and Piper had been locked in a bitter feud, with pretty much the entire entertainment world professing their allegiance to the Hulkster, while Piper had the nation calling for his head after an incident in MSG, from December '84. In said incident, which was supposed to be an awards ceremony hosted by Dick Clark honoring Cyndi Lauper's contributions to women's wrestling, Piper smashed a gold record over the head of Captain Lou Albano; kicked pop musician Cyndi Lauper across the ring; and then spiked her manager Dave Wolff's head into the mat. Piper continued his attacks until Hogan intervened, and ran Piper off. With Hogan appointed as the guy to avenge what had happened, a legendary feud was born. When Hogan and Piper fought for the Championship on MTV's "The War to Settle the Score" on February 18, 1985 (a match attended by my all-time favorite visual artiste, Andy Warhol), Mr. T--who had been watching at ringside--got himself involved to try and ward off Piper and Paul Orndorff when it seemed they were about to attack Cyndi Lauper. Things got out so out of hand that members of the NYPD had to intervene. This is what inspired the signing of WrestleMania's main event.
When I heard that WrestleMania was being shown on giant-screen, closed-circuit television at arenas and theatres across the country, naturally I begged my father to take me to the Boston Garden so we could watch WrestleMania. Truth is, my dad was already set on going, considering he had been a big fan himself since the '60s. I remember in the weeks preceding the event, I started to hear some interesting details about the main event. That being, the involvement of celebrities. I of course knew who Muhammad Ali was. They billed him as the "guest referee", and suddenly I had visuals of Ali knocking Roddy Piper's head off dancing around inside my head. Then a couple of more names were dropped; Billy Martin was named guest ring announcer. I had no idea who he was. Liberace? Guest timekeeper? In my mind I was thinking, "Who the hell is Liberace?" Of course my dad filled me in on who these two outsiders were. Martin, former New York Yankees manager, and Liberace, an eccentric pianist who I later heard commissioned a descendent of Michaelangelo to paint a replica of the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of his bathroom. And Vince McMahon Jr. wanted this guy in his ring? If I had been 27 years old in 1985, I would have probably trembled in fear from the thought of Liberace at a WWE event. I know a lot of old school fans did.
That said, let's go back to March 31, 1985, and relive the event that has become the most important annual date on the wrestling calendar: WrestleMania.
I remember sitting inside the Boston Garden with my dad, to watch WrestleMania on closed-circuit. This was my first time attending any kind of wrestling event, though my first live-and-in-person Federation event was still three months away. I recall quite a few things surrounding my experience; one, my dad went and bought me a gold Hulkamania T-shirt with a red logo, the classic Hulkamania collage poster, the WrestleMania poster with the historic painting of Hogan and T, and a Hogan foam finger. Second, I remember looking down at the Garden floor below me, and seeing a guy walking around dressed like Roddy Piper. That confused me, since I thought everyone in attendance was a fellow Hulkamaniac. And I also recall seeing my uncle Ritchie, my cousin, aunt and of course my sister Michelle (check out her columns on this site), sitting a few rows above me in the balcony. Our view was fine, though we had to bend our heads to see the screen. At about 1 p.m., the event was ready to get started, and everyone including myself was excited as hell about it.
First, we saw a graphic of various New York City landmarks, with the voice of Mr. McMahon declaring, "From Madison Square Garden, the World Wrestling Federation presents...WrestleMania!" Set to the tune of "Easy Lover" by Phil Collins & Philip Bailey (I remembered Bailey's name. Sad), a montage was shown of what matches were lined up for the afternoon's card, and then we were taken to ol' MSG itself, and our announcers Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse "The Body" Ventura. Right away, Gorilla takes us to ring announcer Howard Finkel--who incidentally is credited with coming up with the WrestleMania name--and he introduces the individual who is set to sing "The Star Spangled Banner". Was it Whitney Houston? Prince? Michael Jackson? KISS? Oh, who needs them when they could just go in-house; why not Mean Gene Okerlund? To be nice, Gene was adequate, although I think Jesse was being too kind by comparing him to Robert Goulet. Up next, Lord Alfred Hayes is stationed in the gorilla position, where he remains for the entire show introducing fans to each match. Our first bout is coming up: Tito Santana vs. the masked Executioner.
TITO SANTANA vs. THE EXECUTIONER
In the prematch interviews, Mean Gene professed he knew "absolutely nothing about the man." As we all know today, this Executioner in particular was portrayed by Playboy Buddy Rose, pre-"Blow Away Diet." I actually asked Buddy last year on the Kayfabe Memories boards why he wrestled under a mask and not as himself. According to Buddy, it was a move made by promoter George Scott, who told Buddy he didn't want Playboy Buddy Rose to do the job at such a large event, hence the red mask. Executioner worked over Tito's leg pretty good in this match, attempting to aggravate the injury Tito suffered at the hands of Greg "The Hammer" Valentine. It proved fruitless; Tito ended up winning this one with the flying forearm and a figure-four submission. Surprisingly good match to start things off.
WINNER: TITO SANTANA
SPECIAL DELIVERY JONES vs. KING KONG BUNDY
After looking at S.D. Jones's prematch promo, I almost feel bad he had to endure such a quick squash. S.D. looked genuinely excited about being there. Anyway, this is the infamous so-called "nine second" match, where Bundy simply catches S.D. bouncing off the ropes, rams him into a corner, gives him the Avalanche, and crushes him with a splash for the quick pin. Pssst...don't tell anybody, this match was actually 21 seconds. Anyone who bothered to time the match bell-to-bell could see that. Where they got nine seconds, I have no clue.
WINNER: KING KONG BUNDY
RICKY STEAMBOAT vs. MATT BORNE
"Maniac" Matt Borne was a great ring talent, one that made a name for himself in the Portland, Oregon area. I just wonder if he had any idea he'd one day be sporting makeup and a green clown wig. But let's not think about that. Matt Borne states in his prematch interview that Steamboat is one of the world's best, but "You're missing one quality. And that is, you're too nice of a guy." Steamboat responded by telling the world he came to the Federation to develop his "meanness." Steamboat is one of the all-time greatest and could cut a hot promo when he wanted to, but on this day he didn't quite get his point across to well on the mike. But that's okay; he more than made up for it in the ring. Matt Borne had the advantage here and there, but overall Steamboat dominated this encounter. Steamboat, might I add, is pre-"Dragon" here. Put a "W" in the win column for Steamboat after a flying bodypress. Pretty good match.
WINNER: RICKY STEAMBOAT As I pointed out earlier, Lord Alfred Hayes was stationed at the gorilla position between each match to describe each of the matches we were about to see. This was of course before the days they started doing dramatic video packages for the matches. Anyway, there were times when his Lordship seemed so nervous about doing this job that his verbiage would come out a bit mangled. Here is an example, taken ad verbatim:
"Thank you Gino. Our next bout here at WrestleMania, brings two really great stars together. One, the pompous but powerful Brutus Beefcake. And he is matched against David Sammartino. Now as we all know, David is looked after, his fortunes are guided, by his father (short, uncomfortable pause). Bruno Sammartino, ("Luscious" Johnny Valiant walks by at this point and says to poor Alfred, "Hey, wake up!"), a legend here. Somebody who has always been admired by wrestling fans, and trying to emulate his father, and achieving this very object, is of course, David Sammartino." Poor Alfred. I'm sure having Johnny V poke at him didn't help him much.
DAVID SAMMARTINO vs. BRUTUS BEEFCAKE
Bruno seconded his son David in this match, and also got one of the loudest pops of the afternoon. MSG was where Bruno had more sellouts than anyone in history, so this was a bit of a homecoming for "The Living Legend." This was not a good match by any stretch. David and Beefcake only had a few years experience to their names, and still seemed a tad greenish. Hulk Hogan's best buddy throws David outside the ring after several minutes of a slow-paced match, and Johnny V takes advantage, bodyslamming David on the concrete. It was here where Bruno and J.V. saved the match. The roof damn near blew off at MSG, and at the Boston Garden where I was with my dad (who was going nuts when Bruno intervened), the people were losing it when they saw "The Living Legend" come alive again. Bruno knocks Johnny V over the top rope and leaves Johnny swinging at air. The referee ends up disqualifying everybody. Bad match, great ending.
FINAL DECISION: DOUBLE DISQUALIFICATION
I remember at this point in the show there was an ad plugging the official WrestleMania souvenir program. Ah, so old school. You'd never see that at a live event today, just a guy shooting T-shirts nobody wants into the crowd.
GREG "THE HAMMER" VALENTINE (Champion) vs. JUNKYARD DOG (Challenger)
I really felt JYD was going to walk out of WrestleMania as the new Intercontinental Champion. A lot of fans did. The Dog was getting red hot in the Federation at the time, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to strap some gold on his waist. In the prematch interviews, Valentine tells Mean Gene he had dropped 16 pounds and now checked in at 248 pounds, "lean, mean, and full of fighting fury!" JYD mistakenly refers to manager Jimmy Hart as "The Weasel." Bobby Heenan probably got a chuckle out of that. JYD was still using Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" at the time, and his entrance really brought the crowd to its feet. Few guys were better at that than the Dog was. I hated the finish of this match. Jimmy Hart jumps to the apron to distract referee Dick Kroll. JYD grabs him, Valentine tries to ambush, but instead hits "The Mouth of the South", who took a nice bump on the concrete floor. JYD has the title won, but Valentine rakes his eyes, places his feet on the second rope, and gets a tainted pin. "He got away with it, he got away with it!" Jesse Ventura said...or did he? Out comes Tito Santana to tell Dick Kroll what happened. Kroll must have been very trusting of Tito's word, because he re-started the match. Valentine ended up getting counted out. What I don't understand is: one, why JYD didn't get out there and throw Valentine back into the ring, and two, why Valentine was so upset over losing by countout, considering he kept his title. A finish like this insulted people's intelligence, something apparently WWE thinks fans don't have. Finishes like this one back that up in my opinion. Still, I was only eight at the time, and I didn't think about any of this back then. I was just happy to see JYD get his hand raised.
WINNER BY COUNTOUT: JUNKYARD DOG
WORLD TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP
BARRY WINDHAM & MIKE ROTUNDO (Champions) vs. NIKOLAI VOLKOFF & THE IRON SHEIK (Challengers)
With Captain Lou Albano and his partner Mike Rotundo by his side, Barry Windham tells Mean Gene in the prematch interview, "We're on our way to the ring right now."....in his street clothes. Yep. Nikolai and the Sheik, managed by the great Fred Blassie, were getting massive heel heat thanks to Nikolai singing the Russian national anthem and the Sheik's customary proclamation of "Iran, number one! Russia, number one! USA, *hack ptooey*!" Out come Windham and Rotundo, suddenly in their wrestling gear, with Bruce Springsteen's "Born In the U.S.A." blaring. Albano really seems to love hearing cheers after decades of hearing nothing but "Albano is a bum!" chants. This is a very good tag team match, high energy, a lot of excitement. Some may say that was thanks mainly to Windham and Rotundo, but I attribute it to both teams. The cliche says it; it takes two (or in this case four) to tango. It seems Barry Windham's got it all sewn up after the hot tag, dropping Nikolai with the bulldog. Two-count, Iron Sheik breaks it up. Rotundo comes in and dropkicks Sheik out of the ring, which causes referee Jack Lotz to start admonishing the future "IRS". Sheik seizes the moment, hits Windham from behind with Blassie's cane, and Volkoff covers Windham for the pin and the titles. The postmatch promo is classic: after Okerlund tells Blassie the title win was "controversial", Blassie says, "What do you mean, controversial? He pinned him right in the center of the ring didn't he? Did he or did he not pin him for a count of three?" Mean Gene: "Where's that cane of yours?" Blassie: "What cane? I didn't have no cane!" RIP Freddie!
WINNERS & NEW CHAMPIONS: VOLKOFF & SHEIK
I believe this is where the intermission took place, I can't recall exactly. I do know this much: if a WrestleMania happened today where the WWE Championship was not defended, there would be an uproar. But in 1985, fans were happy just to see the champion show up and wrestle, whether he defended or not. That leads us into (what I believe to be) the second half of the show:
$15,000 BODYSLAM CHALLENGE
ANDRE THE GIANT vs. BIG JOHN STUDD
I love the prematch interview for this match. Bobby Heenan and Big John Studd are trying to cut their promo, and the whole time Mean Gene is trying to reach into the World Wrestling Federation duffel bag where the $15,000 cash was stored. Andre and Studd had many great wars, but this match is the most famous one of all. Commonly seen in WrestleMania highlights packages as well. 6'10" Studd weighed in at 367 at the time, while Andre tipped the scales at 476. If you're one of those "workrate" types, you won't enjoy this match. I happen to not give a damn about "workrate", so this match was enjoyable to me for what it was; a good "big man" match. The stipulations: if Andre slams Studd, he wins the money. If he goes the time limit and doesn't slam him, Andre would be forced to retire. Of course, Andre gave Studd the slam, and the crowd at MSG and in the Boston Garden popped incredibly loudly. Andre then throws the money out to the fans, until Bobby Heenan grabs the money bag and hightails it. Interesting side note: two years before this, when the bodyslam prize was set at $10,000, Andre promised to give the money to the fans if he slammed Studd. Looks like Andre followed through on that promise.
WINNER: ANDRE THE GIANT
LEILANI KAI (Champion) vs. WENDI RICHTER (Challenger) I liked Wendi a lot as a kid. She was talented, cute, and had star quality to her. It's too bad she ended up getting canned the way she did, such an injustice. If I had to name a women's dream match, it would absolutely be Wendi Richter vs. Trish Stratus. I'd go with Trish to win the match, but I would still love to see the match as it unfolded. It would be very entertaining to watch. Trish, might I add, later noted that she was a fan of Wendi's as a kid. Interesting.
Poor Alfred gets kisses from the Fabulous Moolah (in Kai's corner) and
from the champion Leilani Kai, before the match. We then go to
prematch interviews with Mean Gene, where Wendi's manager Cyndi Lauper
says, "Schmoolah (yes, Schmoolah), 'lani Kai, you better watch out,
because these are powerful words, because this is a powerful woman!
And I'm a powerful manager now, because I was taught by Captain Lou
Albano, just how to manage!" I hope he didn't teach you how to blade
too, Cyndi. Wendi, Cyndi, Cyndi's manager Dave Wolff, and some guy in
an '80s style beret head towards the ring to "Girls Just Want to Have
Fun". It's hilarious to watch referee Dick Kroll's reactions to these
newfangled entrances. He looks panicked every time, like there's an
earthquake erupting. Anyway onto the match: very good Women's Title
match to be seen here. Both ladies give a great effort, although I
have to laugh seeing Cyndi try to fight Moolah off when she's
interfering. If Moolah wanted to, she could have ripped poor Cyndi's
vocal chords out and choke her with them. Wendi regains the title
after reversing a Kai flying bodypress. Funny moment after the match
where Moolah tries to enter the ring, but trips on the second rope.
Worked or not, it makes me laugh to this day. Postmatch interview:
Cyndi tells Mean Gene, "(Wendi) has more Olympic ability in her little
pinky than that 'lani Fai, I mean Kai, or whatever...", totally
bumbling her promo. Wonder how Kurt Angle feels knowing Wendi has so
much Olympic ability in her pinky finger. Cyndi then tells the world,
"I brought my towel to make sure I brought something, cause (Moolah)'s
bigger than me." I'm sure Moolah would have ran for the exit if she
saw the cotton towel of doom heading in her general direction. Cyndi
must have recieved managerial coaching from Arnold Skaaland, too.
WINNER & NEW CHAMPION: WENDI RICHTER
HULK HOGAN & MR. T vs. ROWDY RODDY PIPER & "MR. WONDERFUL" PAUL ORNDORFF
It was now time for WrestleMania's big main event. By today's standards, this main event would probably headline a RAW, or at best, Unforgiven. But in 1985, this was considered a main event worthy of WrestleMania. Amazing. Still, fans of that era were excited to see this match go down, particularly for the presence of Hogan and Piper. Hogan and Mr. T being there brought in the mainstream media, and Piper and Orndorff brought in traditional wrestling fans who loved their heels. I was just excited to see Hulk Hogan wrestle, and wanted to see him win again. That's all I cared about. Howard Finkel introduces Billy Martin to the crowd, who gets a rousing ovation from the NYC crowd at MSG, but in Boston he was booed loud enough for NYC to hear. If Billy Martin was still alive today and this happened in 2004, no doubt there would be "Yankees suck!" chants all throughout the Boston Garden. But back then, simple boos sufficed. Martin, in a very uninspired voice (I still think the best guest ring announcer for a WrestleMania was Bob Uecker), introduces Liberace, accompained by the Radio City Rockettes. One could hear the collective groan of the old-school fans as they heard "Theme From New York, New York" play over the PA, and watched Liberace high-kickin' it with the Rockettes. What a bizarre sight for a wrestling event that was back then. Today, it wouldn't even get noticed. Then came Muhammad Ali's introduction, who got a great ovation from the fans, and deservedly so. Jesse Ventura said "He looks like he could go 12 right now!" Monsoon calls him "The Greatest", although he was probably thinking to himself, "I dropped this guy on his back in '76." I didn't realize at the time until the match started, but Ali served only as the "special enforcer" outside the ring (think Mike Tyson at WrestleMania XIV). Pat Patterson would work the in-ring officiating duties.
From there, it was time to bring out the participants. Piper, Orndorff, and bodyguard Cowboy Bob Orton came out accompanied by a full bagpipe band, sweet intro for "Hot Rod" and his team. Tremendous heel heat too. Then it was the Hulkamaniacs' turn. "Eye of the Tiger" started up, and out came the Hulkster, Mr. T, and their cornerman Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka. Easily the loudest pop of the night, as Hulkamania was in full swing by this point. The crowd was hot for this entire match, even though it's not really one of my favorite Hogan matches. Piper and Orndorff both did a great job at making "Clubber Lang" look good, and of course Hogan was Hogan. Highlight of the match was when all four men started brawling, bringing Ali, Orton, and Snuka into the ring. Ali actually took a swing at Piper, and it looked like he was about to smash Roddy's skull. Piper and Orndorff tried to pull an Ernie Ladd and take the countout, but Hogan dared them to come back. Of course, they did, and the match resumed. Hogan took an unusual amount of punishment in this match from Piper and Orndorff, thus helping Mr. T look even stronger when he would be in the ring.
I later found out that Mr. T was a complete prima donna about
WrestleMania, complaining about all the promotional appearances he and
Hulk had to make and even threatening to kill the main event if
Madison Square Garden didn't let him bring his entire entourage
backstage with him. Knowing this today, I would not have blamed Piper
and Orndorff at all if they went out there and put knots on his head,
or if Hogan didn't ever bother to tag him in. The three of them showed
total professionalism by helping make Mr. T look credible in the ring,
despite being a pain in the ass to everyone involved. The main thing
that disappointed me that afternoon: I didn't get to see the classic
Hogan finish. Instead, Orton tried to interfere, but Snuka knocked him
over the ropes with a headbutt. Orndorff then grabbed Hogan in a full
nelson for Orton to climb the ropes and come down with his plaster arm
cast, to try and knock the Hulkster out. Hogan spun around, and Orton
ended up hitting Orndorff inadvertantly. Hogan then covered and got
the three count from Patterson. No "Hulk up", no big boot to the face,
no legdrop. Meh. After the match, Piper hit Pat Patterson, and he and
Orton abandoned Orndorff. This would lead to a face turn for "Mr.
Wonderful." Hogan poses after the match as the fans celebrate, and the
celebrites join him in the revelry. Postmatch, T sounded winded as
hell, showing how out of wrestling shape he truly was. Hulk went on to
say, "WrestleMania, Hulk Hogan, Mr. T, 'Superfly' Jimmy Snuka. We
reign supreme, can you dig that?!" Nope, Hogan did not follow that up
WINNERS: HULK HOGAN & MR. T
The show ended with a parting message from Gorilla and Jesse, and with credits rolling over a montage of show stills, set to "Axel Foley's Theme" from Beverly Hills Cop. Oh, groove to the hipness.
AFTER THE SHOW
I went home a happy Hulkamaniac that afternoon, with my dad and my sister headeing home with me. I was pleased with the show then, and I am pretty cool with it now, having re-watched it on tape to do this review. This event cemented wrestling's status as a mainstream sports entertainment attraction, and would also start off an annual tradition which carries on today. I eventually got to see a WrestleMania live before my eyes, which was WrestleMania XIV on March 29, 1998 at the Fleet Center. My review for this WrestleMania is coming soon, and I have many great stories to share about that particular evening.
My friend Jessica Sutherland attended WrestleMania XX live this year at Madison Square Garden. I couldn't help but think about the significance in that; I attended (a live closed-circuit showing of) the first WrestleMania, and there was Jess, at the 20th WrestleMania. The drama she saw unfold that night--Trish Stratus's heel turn, the unceremonious exits of Goldberg and Brock Lesnar, the return of the "Dead Man" Undertaker, and the RAW World Heavyweight Title win of Chris Benoit--gave her the same thrill I felt in 1985, when I saw King Kong Bundy crush S.D. Jones, Bruno Sammartino bring the Garden to its feet again, Andre the Giant slamming Big John Studd, and Hulk Hogan triumph again.
It just goes to show, no matter what year, or what era, WrestleMania is an event like no other. It has been passed down through generations of fans, and is now celebrated as "The Showcase of the Immortals". I am proud to have been witness to the birth of an American classic.