WrestleMania – The Night the History of Wrestling Changed Forever
The date March 31st 1985, the venue Madison Square Garden, New York City. A date that has become famous with wrestling fans across the world as the day history was made. Not just history for that year but an event that would shape the wrestling landscape for years and even decades to come. It was the day wrestling would change forever and it would never look back, it was the day the first WrestleMania took place.
It’s important to look at history before discussing the event itself, to understand the seismic change that would occur in professional wrestling.
Vince McMahon Jr. purchased (what was then known as) the World Wrestling Federation now called World Wrestling Entertainment from his father Vince McMahon Sr. in 1982. During the time that led up to the McMahon Jr’s takeover wrestling was largely a regional affair with individually owned and run territories. These were run across America by various different promoters, for example, Sam Mushnick, Jim Barnett and Jim Crockett amongst others, under the banner of the National Wrestling Alliance, formed in 1948 by Pinkie George. Initially as the Capitol Wrestling Corporation and later the World Wide Wrestling Federation, the McMahon organisation had two terms of membership with the NWA. As the CWC, they were members from 1953 to 1963 before splitting from the NWA and becoming the WWWF because of a championship dispute involving the NWA champion Buddy Rogers and his challenger legendary wrestler Lou Thesz. The WWWF/WWE would rejoin the NWA from 1971 to 1983. Vince McMahon Jr. who now owned the WWE withdrew from the NWA in order to pursue his own path and create his vision of sports entertainment that is still going strong today.
The contrast is relatively simple, the NWA an organisation which was now mostly consumed by Jim Crockett Promotions (after purchasing a number of NWA territories and who would become Vince McMahon’s main rival for a few years) had an emphasis on in-ring match quality. Wrestlers like Ric Flair who could go out every night and wrestle for an hour and put on mat classics with opponents such as Ricky Steamboat, Sting, Harley Race, Magnum T.A and Dusty Rhodes. McMahon Jr. had a new and very different vision for the wrestling business, a new business model that had less emphasis on in-ring wrestling more focussed on ‘sports entertainment’. Also compared to the NWA/JCP the WWE put a very strong emphasis on production values. They were able to do this because of their working relationship with Dick Ebersol at NBC who was able to demonstrate how to increase production values by lighting up arenas to show off their large crowds.
This vision would be spearheaded by Terry Bollea known by wrestling fans everywhere as Hulk Hogan. Having noticed that Hogan was becoming very popular and his brand ‘Hulkamania’ was gaining traction in the rival promotion, the AWA (headed by Verne Gagne), McMahon Jr. signed Hogan from Gagne in 1983. Hogan would reappear on WWE television on December 27th 1983, different from his first WWWF run in 1979 where he was a little known villain. Hogan returned as a larger than life, superhero-like individual who could be cheered on by adults and children alike. Standing over 6 foot tall with blonde hair a Fu Manchu that became one of his trademarks and built like a Greek Adonis with the famous 24-inch pythons (the name he gave to the muscles in his arms) he was cheered on by literally thousands across the arenas throughout the United States. What was also vital to McMahon’s vision was the marketability of a star and Hogan had the full marketing capability of the WWE behind him as his ability to generate income not only by ticket sales but also in the sale of merchandise (I for one remember having the Hulk Hogan wrestling buddy as a child) would take the WWE to new levels of popularity never before seen. Hogan and McMahon together created levels of merchandise rarely before seen in professional wrestling anything you could name had Hogan’s name on it.
Hogan would become WWE Heavyweight Champion when he defeated the Iron Sheik on the 23rd January 1984 in Madison Square Garden, and this was the moment when Hulkamania was truly born and the Hulkamaniacs (the name for Hogan’s legions of fans) were right behind him every step of the way increasing his popularity over the years that were to follow. However this revolution was not down to Hogan alone, McMahon had at his disposal a who’s who of stars to support the WWE’s rise to the top of the wrestling world. These stars included “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, :Cowboy” Bob Orton, The Iron Sheik, “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka, Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat, King Kong Bundy, Wendi Richter, Leilani Kai, Andre the Giant, Big John Studd and other non wrestling talent like the interviewer “Mean” Gene Okerlund and manager Bobby “the Brain” Heenan. 1984 came to a close with the WWE now more popular than ever and going into the start of 1985, McMahon decided he needed a wrestling super show a onetime event to supersede all others, an event that would be a spectacle and would leave every fan going home with a smile on their face.
It was a meeting with ring announcer Howard Finkel and other employees in 1985 that would set the wheels in motion for the event. Finkel is given the credit for coming up with the name WrestleMania, as he describes it as he was thinking of Beatlemania as a huge pop culture explosion and from that he came up with WrestleMania. To pursue his vision it has been a well-documented story over the years that McMahon put everything on the line to make WrestleMania a success. McMahon also used his marketing and P.R skills to create the Rock n Wrestling era that was prominent and some would argue vital in the build-up to WrestleMania 1 and Cyndi Lauper became an integral part of not only WrestleMania but the build-up itself. Fans of a certain age will never forget the time that Rowdy Roddy Piper, the company’s number one heel at the time ‘kicked’ Cyndi Lauper in the face on an episode of NBC’s nationally televised Saturday Night’s Main Event in December of 1984 and attacked her manager/husband Dave Wolfe. These were moments that would make Piper every bit as integral to WrestleMania as Hogan and as popular as Hogan, was Piper was equally hated. It was arguably the Hogan/Piper feud that drove the first WrestleMania and the initial wrestling ‘boom’ from the War to Settle the Score event that took place roughly a month before WrestleMania on the 18th of February 1985. The build continued and to appeal to casual fans and people who had not tuned into wrestling before McMahon started adding other celebrities to the mix one of them being the star of the popular 80’s TV series the A-Team Mr T. Mr T would be instrumental in help reaching a wider audience and helping the marketing push for WrestleMania and of course would also be involved in the WrestleMania main event as Hogan’s tag team partner. Other celebrities of note that were involved were the famous pianist Liberace and the greatest boxer of all time Muhammad Ali. Vince McMahon’s vision of sports entertainment was now in full swing and adding celebrities to the already stacked roster was an impressive marketing strategy that helped promote WrestleMania to people who were not ordinarily wrestling fans.
So with all this in place McMahon was ready for the first WrestleMania with Tito Santana vs. the masked Executioner (Buddy Rose) being given the honour of the first match. From a pure in ring standpoint the card was not spectacular as the matches also included Brutus Beefcake vs. David Sammartino (the son of Bruno), Ricky Steamboat vs. Matt Borne (who would later be the first wrestler to play Doink the Clown). After the early matches the action did pick up the team of the US Express (Mike Rotundo and Barry Windham) lost the WWE Tag Team titles to Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik thanks to interference from their manager Classy Freddie Blassie and his famous cane, and Greg Valentine cheatingly retaining his Intercontinental title against the ever popular Junkyard Dog, only to have the match restarted when Tito Santana appeared at ringside to inform the referee of Valentine’s tactics, JYD would pick up the win via count out. One of the most famous matches was the $15,000 ‘bodyslam’ match as Andre the Giant vs. Big John Studd (managed by Bobby Heenan) would battle for bragging rights as to who was the top giant but also the prize would be $15 grand for the first wrestler to slam the other and win the match. After a reasonably back and forth contest Andre would win and the spectacle of seeing these two giants go at it would impress many people in the audience and those watching on closed circuit TV. The final memorable moment of the match came when Heenan stole the bag of money back from Andre and ran off with the cash!
There was a solid women’s title match that saw Wendi Richter accompanied by Cyndi Lauper defeat Leilani Kai (accompanied by the Fabulous Moolah) to capture the WWE Ladies title. The main event was a tag team bout featuring the team of Hulk Hogan and Mr T, accompanied by Jimmy Snuka vs. Roddy Piper and Mr Wonderful Paul Orndorff accompanied by Bob Orton. The crowd was electric from the minute the entrances started for Piper and Orndorff, the crowd hatred of the heels was evident and boos pretty much drowned out the bagpipe entrance of the Hot Rod. On the flip side however as soon as Eye of the Tiger (Hogan’s entrance theme before Real American) blasted over the sound system the crowd was rocking up on its feet in admiration for the team of Hogan and T, it was clear who the crowd wanted to win. Of course setting up the pattern for future WrestleManias, Hogan got the decisive pinfall on Orndorff after he ducked out of the way f Orton’s cast and the crowd lapped up every second of McMahon’s plan had worked and WrestleMania got bigger and more popular each year and for the next nine years with Hogan as the WWE’s top star.
In conclusion to say WrestleMania 1 was a success would almost be an understatement. Whilst it was not the first big wrestling event to be held in this way (that would be Starrcade 1983) it was up to that point unquestionably the most successful in terms of generated revenue. WrestleMania would sell out Madison Square Garden and go on to make a further 3.8 million in closed circuit television sales (closer to approximately 8 million today adjusting for inflation) and several million in merchandise. McMahon had done, his vision had worked and the pattern for all future WrestleManias was made. The future path the WWE would travel was also set and the WWE would go from strength to strength. In 2001, McMahon bought out his main competition the WCW and the ECW promotions. Some WrestleManias no doubt are better than others but for fans everywhere, WrestleMania season continues to be a special time where they watch live and take in not only the in-ring action but the magic and mystique of the whole event. In recent years we have had a WrestleMania weekend and with the invention of the WWE network the fans get to see the NXT Takeover show and the Hall of Fame ceremony before the big event itself. WrestleMania gets bigger every year, however, we must all remember where it began, where that blueprint was created and that was WrestleMania 1 at the famous Madison Square Garden in New York. I’ve been watching wrestling for 30 years and still, there is nothing quite like WrestleMania.