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CIRCA
WrestleMania I
March 4, 2005

by Denny Burkholder
Courtesy of WrestleLine.com

 

Let's go back to the WrestleMania that started it all for WWE in terms of pay-per-view (or closed-circuit TV) shows with a discernable feel of being a huge, can't-miss event. Before I get into the card, a few notes about the event in general: 
-- WWE ran a PPV event called the "Wrestling Classic" prior to WrestleMania, so despite the frequent misconception that WrestleMania I was the WWF's first PPV event, it was not. Of the PPVs that WWE still runs to this day, WrestleMania was the first... but overall, it was second. And if you want to involve other promotions in the discussion, 

Starrcade preceded both shows in the running for first supercard on PPV.

-- Vince McMahon broke the bank putting this show together, and by most reports, it *had* to succeed because Vince needed the profit that badly. At this point, McMahon's bank account wasn't nearly as large as his ambition.

-- The might be pop culture trivia questions today, but make no mistake about it: Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T were two of the biggest stars in the entertainment industry in 1985. Huge.

-- Conspicuous by his absence: Don Muraco. "Magnificent" Muraco was one of the fastest-rising heels in the WWF for years leading up to WrestleMania, but he was taking some time off when this event happened. He'd be back soon thereafter.

-- Your commentators are Jesse "The Body" Ventura and Gorilla Monsoon, whom Jesse keeps calling by his real name "Gino" throughout the broadcast. Backstage interviews are done by "Mean" Gene Okerlund, who also sang the national anthem to kick things off.

TITO SANTANA vs. THE EXECUTIONER

This was the glory period for Tito Santana, as he was right in the midst of his career-defining Intercontinental Title feud with Greg "The Hammer" Valentine. Santana looked and performed as though he were in the best shape of his entire wrestling tenure. Fans really liked Santana at the IC Title level. In the 1980s, the Intercontinental Title gained a reputation for spawning the best pure wrestling matches on the card. The upper card was Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and a bunch of other large, muscular guys who - while entertaining in their own right - usually couldn't put on the type of mat classics that any combination of Santana, Valentine, Randy Savage, Rick Steamboat, a young Jake Roberts, and others could.

Around the time of WrestleMania I, Santana was known for extended, exhaustive matches with Valentine. This being the curtain-jerker of a televised event, there wasn't enough time to give the fans that kind of match. Instead, the wildly popular (but less cardiovascularly fit) Junkyard Dog got the IC Title shot against Valentine and Santana got himself a cushy squash match to open the show, remind people why he was so good, and get some abbreviated camera time. The Executioner would do the honors for Tito here. It's well known that this was "Playboy" Buddy Rose under a black mask. The match was rather uneventful, with Santana nailing the patented flying forearm, and then locking on the figure four leglock for the submission. The use of the figure four as the finisher in Santana's match was no doubt a reference to Santana's ongoing battle with "The Hammer," because the only time Santana ever used the figure four as a finisher was during his feud with Valentine.

S.D. "SPECIAL DELIVERY" JONES vs. KING KONG BUNDY (w/JIMMY HART)

For my money, S.D. "Special Delivery" Jones might be the most beloved jobber of all time. The man was gracious to the fans and he had enough personality to get the audience behind him (even when they knew he was doomed to lose). Here, he does the job for the 450-pound King Kong Bundy, a gigantic heel managed by Jimmy Hart. Bundy was a WWF newcomer at this point, but depending on what you consider a "newcomer," over half of McMahon's roster in 1985 could be considered newcomers. Remember, he'd been signing the best talent he could steal from competing territories for a couple of years leading into this event.

McMahon's dream was to assemble the absolute best roster imaginable so that when he put the WWF on national television claiming to be the major league of wrestling, he might actually have the product to back up his claim. In fact, McMahon reportedly got his own personal "top guys" - about two dozen of them - together for a backstage meeting in 1984 and essentially told them they were the elite crew he intended to use in taking the WWF to the next level. But that's a whole other topic.

Back to this squash, which is the infamous "9 second" match won by Bundy after the avalanche. The match was really over 20 seconds long, but the kayfabed time was more impressive and served a purpose of building King Kong Bundy a reputation as an unbeatable beast. One year later, Bundy (now managed by Bobby Heenan) would main event in a steel cage vs. Hulk Hogan for the WWF Title at WrestleMania II. S.D. Jones takes yet another one for the team on the biggest stage of them all, and a new monster heel is born.

RICKY STEAMBOAT vs. MATT BORNE

Anyone who reads me regularly knows I'm a huge Rick Steamboat mark. Steamboat was another newcomer to the WWF in 1985 with impressive credentials from his work in Georgia and North Carolina. There was little doubt that Steamboat was primed to make an impact at least at the IC Title level, if not the main event as well. All that the WWF had to do was get the fans interested in Steamboat and let them learn to love him.

Matt Borne was actually a talented guy out of Georgia who had run into some legal problems while in the south. He had been tag team champions with a pre-Horsemen Arn Anderson and was also fairly new to the WWF in this match. Borne wound up with a short stay this time, but came back as the original Doink the Clown in the early 1990s (after a run as Big Josh in WCW). This is essentially a Rick Steamboat showcase, but if you look past the booking, Borne did a very good job here. For as good as Steamboat was, Borne did a great job selling Steamboat's offense.

Steamboat wins with the flying bodypress, and shortly after WrestleMania, the WWF spices up his character with a martial arts gimmick and a new nickname: "The Dragon."

DAVID SAMMARTINO (w/BRUNO SAMMARTINO) vs. BRUTUS BEEFCAKE (w/JOHNNY VALIANT)

This is a real interesting match to watch in retrospect, even though it basically sucked. Up until 1985 (and not yet knowing how large Hulk Hogan's legacy would grow over the years), Bruno Sammartino was the WWF's biggest star of all time. Particularly in this arena, MSG, the "Living Legend" had a tremendous amount of fan support, even though his in-ring career was basically over by this point (he did wrestle sporadically over the next few years, most notably against Roddy Piper and Randy Savage in 1986 and '87, but his full-time wrestling days were long gone).

In comes Bruno's son David, with aspirations to be a successful pro wrestling star like his daddy, but with an enormous set of shoes to fill. David is still a rookie here. He is visibly inexperienced in just about every way, from working the crowd to showing charisma to flat-out knowing how to wrestle an entertaining match. David Sammartino was as cursed by his family name as he was blessed. Blessed because it opened the door for a high-profile WrestleMania feud that other rookies would have killed for, and cursed because it gave him that chance on the unfair condition that he become the next Bruno. This was really the only time David Sammartino ever saw major airtime in a WWF angle, but he did wrestle for them off an on through 1987. David's final departure into obscurity happened around the time his father disowned the WWF and denounced pro wrestling, an attitude Bruno carries to this day.

Nonetheless, Bruno was at ringside for David's big night, and the fans at Madison Square Garden erupted for him just like they always did. His opponent, Brutus Beefcake, is another example of an inexperienced guy getting farther than he should have because of his relationship to a much bigger star. Beefcake and Hulk Hogan had been friends for a long time, so when the Hulk Hogan gravy train barreled through the WWF in the 1980s, Beefcake (previously "Dizzy" Ed Boulder in the AWA) came along for the ride.

Fun bit of trivia about the "Brutus Beefcake" gimmick: it was reportedly the idea of Vince McMahon, who in the 1980s had a habit of coming up with gimmicks and then hiring someone specifically to play the role (as opposed to hiring a good worker and then finding him a gimmick, which is more common today). The wrestler originally set to play the part of Brutus Beefcake in the WWF was Wayne Ferris, but when something came up that made Ferris unable to take the job, it was given to Ed Leslie, who remains best known as Brutus Beefcake to this day. Wayne Ferris entered the WWF a couple of years later to fill the role of the Honky Tonk Man.

David Sammartino vs. Brutus Beefcake was not a good match. It ended in a double-DQ when Bruno and Johnny Valiant (Beefcake's manager) got involved and the proverbial pier six brawl commenced. considering Bruno and Johnny Valiant were both bigger names at MSG than Beefcake or young David, I guess the booking saved the match. It mercifully ended the in-ring action and gave the fans a chance to cheer for Bruno one more time, so I guess the ending was as good as it could have been.

WWF INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIP:
GREG "THE HAMMER" VALENTINE (w/JIMMY HART) vs. THE JUNKYARD DOG

As noted above, Valentine was heavy into his feud with Tito Santana over the Intercontinental Title. Valentine was a tremendous second-generation wrestler who peaked in the early 80s, but could still work long, intense matches with Santana in 1985. The Junkyard Dog was new to the WWF from Bill Watts' Mid South, where he was incredibly popular as the top babyface of that territory. Unfortunately, Junkyard Dog's wrestling prime was in Mid South, so unbeknownst to the WWF, JYD was all downhill pretty much from the day they signed him. His charisma was almost second to none, though, which allowed JYD a very good run as a babyface sidekick of Hogan and Santana for a few years.

JYD was one of those rare talents with so much charisma that it almost didn't matter whether he was a good wrestler or not, because fans were still entertained. His promos were funny and his personality was fantastic. He had enough left in the tank at this point to pose a serious threat to Greg Valentine's IC Title, even if it became quickly obvious that JYD wasn't going anywhere near the world title scene in the WWF.

Strangely, this match served as another tool to keep the Santana feud cooking. Valentine pinned JYD while holding the ropes and tried to call it a night, but Santana ran in to explain to the referee that "The Hammer" cheated his friend JYD. In a departure from the usual "if I didn't see it, I can't call it" rule of refereeing, the ref actually agrees to restart the match on Tito's word. Valentine gets counted out for refusing to get back in the ring, and - here's the part I love - JYD and Valentine both REACT to the finish as though it MEANT something. JYD wins the match by countout but doesn't win the Intercontinental Title, and Valentine - still the champ - is absolutely LIVID about it. In contrast, JYD is celebrating in the ring like he just won the lottery. Both Valentine and JYD sold the fact that winning (and losing) this match MEANT something, even without the belt changing hands.

Sometimes I think if more wrestlers sold the importance of winning and losing regardless of titles or "moral victories," today's matches might have more drama, and more viewers might put down the remote. What if Val Venis defeated Maven via countout on an episode of Heat and celebrated the way JYD did, while Maven was visibly irate outside the ring? What if winning the fight was actually important to the wrestlers?

WWF TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP:
BARRY WINDHAM & MIKE ROTUNDO (C) vs. THE IRON SHEIK & NIKOLAI VOLKOFF (w/FREDDIE BLASSIE)

This was a young Windham and Rotundo during the first of four brief WWF stints by Windham, who throughout his career had a habit of showing up in the WWF with big plans and then leaving with a whimper, only to do much better elsewhere (Florida, Georgia and Carolina, to be specific). I guess New York just wasn't for Barry. Rotundo gained a lot of his early fame in Florida, but was actually a great amateur wrestler at Syracuse University before going pro. Windham, of course, was the son of Blackjack Mulligan, who had all of his father's height, none of his girth, and would eventually have a lot more mat skills than his father ever did.

We're also seeing "Classy" Freddie Blassie's swansong as a manager in the WWF, as he was becoming less mobile by the month and the road schedule was wearing on him. In 1986, Blassie would retire from managing due to the schedule becoming too much to handle, but he remained on the WWF payroll and made sporadic appearances for the McMahons off and on right up until his death in 2003. Here, Blassie manages The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff, and I'd imagine the current crop of fans probably remember him best for that.

The Iron Sheik was a great heel for a number of reasons. His Iranian heritage was obviously exploited to create his heel shtick, which fans ate up in the 1970s and 1980s. Wrestling fans traditionally reacted to heels that embodied a country or culture of American ire, which explains the wealth of goose-stepping German heels in the golden era (such as Baron Von Raschke or Fritz Von Erich). Wrestlers knew it would get them heat, and promoters knew fans would buy tickets to watch an all-American boy thump on a foreign menace. Hence, the Iron Sheik and his pal Nikolai, who embellished his Russian communist gimmick by singing the Soviet national anthem before his matches, daring the fans to jeer him down.

Between the fresh-faced youngsters Windham and Rotundo and the evil foreign heels, this match had a lot of crowd interaction, which is always a good thing. Not a bad in-ring contest either, with Sheik and Volkoff winning the tag titles after Sheik knocked out Windham with Blassie's cane. Windham would soon be back in Florida. Rotundo stuck around for a while to team up with Windham's replacement, "Golden Boy" Dan Spivey, and then left for Florida himself. Both eventually wound up working for Jim Crockett, with Rotundo returning to the WWF as evil tax accountant Irwin R. Schyster in the 1990s. Sheik and Volkoff were pretty much career WWF guys at that point, and while Sheik did have a stint in WCW years later, both men have remained pretty faithful to the company that made them most famous.

$15,000 BODYSLAM CHALLENGE MATCH:
ANDRE THE GIANT vs. BIG JOHN STUDD (w/BOBBY "THE BRAIN" HEENAN)

Like Ernie Ladd before him, Big John Studd made the perfect heel adversary to Andre the Giant because he was large enough to give Andre problems and he was cocky enough not to fear the Giant. Andre was no spring chicken by 1985. There was a time when Andre the Giant could actually move around the ring pretty well, but by 1985 (and really the 1980s in general), Andre was basically immobile. He was still huge and charismatic, and therefore he was still the object of fans' affection. Andre loved pro wrestling and fans loved Andre, so he wasn't giving it up. All he needed was another large enemy a la Ernie Ladd. More than anyone else in the 1980s, Big John Studd fit that description.

Studd showed no fear of Andre. With the loudmouthed Heenan doing the bulk of the talking for him and partner in crime Ken Patera (until he got arrested) helping him attack Andre, there was enough entertainment to carry the feud. The incident where Andre had his long hair cut in the middle of the ring by Studd, Patera and Heenan remains one of the more memorable storylines of the 1980s. Plenty of wrestlers fell victim to haircut attacks, but Andre the Giant falling victim to ANYTHING was a whole different story. Fans were taken aback anytime Andre wasn't the last man standing.

On top of all else was the storyline that Big John Studd claimed to be unslammable, promising to give $15,000 to anyone that could bodyslam him. Studd had been slammed many times before that and would go on to be slammed many times in the future, so the feat wasn't the issue here. The issue was Studd's ego - fans knew slamming Studd was a highly accomplishable task. They bought tickets because they didn't think Studd himself believed it, and wanted to watch him get brought down to size. If anyone could do it, it was Andre.

That whole storyline dynamic was the reason this match was anticipated and it's the main reason why it's so memorable. The action in the match was not good. Andre was immobile and Studd was limited at best. The match amounted to a couple of huge guys pummeling each other for a few minutes before Andre delivered an authoritative bodyslam to win the match and throw a few handfuls of singles to the crowd from the duffel bag full of cash Bobby Heenan brought to ringside as a gimmick.

Studd had a nice little run at the main event level between his challenges to Andre and Hogan. Even when Studd got de-pushed in 1986, he found himself guest roles in other people's angles, including Paul Orndorff's doublecross of Hulk Hogan.

WWF WOMEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP:
LEILANI KAI (C) (w/THE FABULOUS MOOLAH) vs. WENDI RICHTER (w/CYNDI LAUPER & DAVID WOLF)

Ah yes, Wendi Richter. Say what you want about her, but she was the single most popular lady wrestler in the history of the WWF up to that point, and I dare say that no ACTIVE female on the roster (this excludes Miss Elizabeth) was ever as popular as Wendi Richter until the late-1990s, when you could probably make the argument for Sable or Chyna.

Wendi Richter was lucky enough to be the best female option to take part in a storyline with pop singer Cyndi Lauper at the peak of the Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection. Vince McMahon knew it would bring the WWF tons of mainstream opportunities if they could use Cyndi Lauper in their shows. The single "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" made Lauper a pop culture icon around this time, so it wasn't like the WWF was settling for a washed-up star whose 15 minutes had passed. They had Cyndi Lauper WHILE she was on top of the world, and Dallas, Texas' own Wendi Richter got to call Lauper her manager. Between Lauper and Mr. T, the WWF had come out of nowhere to become the favorite guilty pleasure of some of the 1980s' biggest icons.

With Lauper and Mr. T involved, McMahon got the WWF on MTV, the hip new cable station that had established itself as a measuring stick for all that was cool among American youth. McMahon used the popularity of Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper to piggyback a few of his best wrestling talents along for the ride, and it worked. Two of them were Roddy Piper and Hulk Hogan, who became household names. The other was Wendi Richter, who *might* have become a household name, if not for other factors.

Like Bret Hart years later, Richter was the victim of a WWF screwjob. Unlike Bret Hart, though, Richter's own bad decisions played at least a minor role in her getting screwed. Richter was incredibly popular, though not quite as "huge" as Hulk Hogan. There was some press about whether Richter was actually MORE popular than Hogan, but those claims were exaggerated. Richter, perhaps believing the hype, decided she was worth more than the WWF wanted to pay her when contract renewal came up. Richter played hardball - when she probably shouldn't have - and the WWF returned the favor. They shoved a contract at her as she was heading to the ring for a title defense later that year, and when she didn't sign, she went to the ring and the Spider Lady (Fabulous Moolah under the mask) shot on her and stole back the title. Richter and the WWF were through.

Moolah had actually been in the Guinness Book of World Records for her 28-year reign as WWF Women's Champion, a belt she wore until Wendi Richter came along. When Richter beat Moolah, it revived the basically dormant women's scene. Leilani Kai, Venus Williams, Velvet McIntyre, Susan Star and other women were brought in to enhance the scene surrounding Moolah and Richter. Kai, as a protégé of Moolah's, won the title from Richter prior to WrestleMania. With a rollthrough off a cross body, Richter regained the title at the first WrestleMania.

It wouldn't be accurate to say the Richter/Moolah WWF women's division revival in the mid-80s led directly to the women's scene we have today, because the women's scene died again a few years later. But it would be accurate to say the Richter/Moolah era proved that female wrestlers could become pretty big stars under the right circumstances, thus providing some incentive for giving latter-day "Divas" the chance they've received in the past 10 years or so. Before Richter/Moolah, women's wrestling in the U.S. had been treading water for years as a sideshow act with about as much status as the midgets. They might still be a sideshow most of the time today, but Trish Stratus is a lot bigger star than half of the men in WWE. That's an improvement, at least.

MAIN EVENT:
HULK HOGAN & MR. T (w/SUPERFLY JIMMY SNUKA) vs. "ROWDY" RODDY PIPER & PAUL "MR. WONDERFUL" ORNDORFF (w/COWBOY BOB ORTON)
Referee: Pat Patterson
Guest Outside Referee: Muhammad Ali
Guest Ring Announcer: Billy Martin
Guest Timekeeper: Liberace (w/Radio City Music Hall Rockettes)

See all of that text up there surrounding the wrestlers in the match? That's called overbooking. That's called taking a simple tag team main event match and making it into a spectacle. That's called being extravagant just to prove that you're extravagant. Three dynamic workers in the match. One pop culture celebrity in the match. One of the biggest babyface workers in the company in the face corner, due to his own feud with the heels. Cowboy Bob Orton with the heels. Recently-retired WWF star Pat Patterson is the in-ring referee. Boxing god Muhammad Ali is the outside referee. New York Yankees manager Billy Martin showed up just to pull ring announcer duty. Glitzy pianist Liberace shows up with the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes just to ring the damn bell.

This was more than the blowoff of a big feud. This was Vince McMahon's statement to the world. This was Vince McMahon spending everything he had and then some to prove that the WWF was the place to be... to prove that his wrestlers were stars, by virtue of all the mainstream stars that were spending the evening at HIS wrestling show.

Nobody thought for a second that wrestling fans cared about Liberace, or vice versa. Whether fans liked Liberace or not was irrelevant. The point was that they knew who Liberace was, and they saw him at a WWF show. WrestleMania is the place to be. THAT was the purpose of all those extra names on the payroll.

Given all that was said about Cyndi Lauper above, it bears repeating that Mr. T was one of the absolute biggest pop culture icons of the 1980s, and he was still huge in 1985. Primetime stardom on The A-Team. Cartoons. Cereal. T-shirts. Action figures. Mr. T was a highly marketable commodity. And there he is, exchanging technical holds with Roddy Piper in a wrestling ring. Mr. T's whole image circled the idea that he was a tough guy, so he was a natural as Hulk Hogan's famous buddy that wanted to help shut up Piper and his cronies once and for all. So Piper, Orndorff and Hogan taught Mr. T just enough about wrestling to have a passable match, and there you had the main event of the first-ever WrestleMania.

The crowd went absolutely nuts for this match. Piper had a ridiculous level of heel heat, from the moment he came down the aisle with a full bagpipe marching band playing him to the ring. And of course everybody went bonkers for Hogan and T. It really was a must-see, if not for the quality of the wrestling than for the bigger picture... the spectacle of it all. You had Piper and Orndorff switching back and forth between mat wrestling against Mr. T to damn near turning the whole Garden into a riot scene. You had Bob Orton coming *this* close to getting knocked the F out by Muhammad Ali for trying to interfere. Superfly Jimmy Snuka was getting involved. Fans were erupting at everything Hogan did. It was just insanity. And what the hell was Liberace doing there? Even if you didn't quite "get it," it was too damn compelling NOT to watch.

And so it went, that Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff was the first person ever to be pinned in the main event match at a WrestleMania, as Bob Orton accidentally smashed him in the back of the head with his forearm cast. Hulk Hogan made the pin, and all hell broke loose. Again.

Was WrestleMania I the greatest wrestling show of all time? Doubtful. Was it even the greatest WrestleMania of all time? Highly unlikely.

But still... you just had to be there.

 
E-MAIL DENNY
BROWSE THE CIRCA ARCHIVES


  
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