Moments that Changed Wrestling History: Wrestlemania

Craig Wilson

For 28 years the biggest night of the wrestling calendar for many has been Wrestlemania and Craig Wilson looks at how important that event has been on the history of wrestling in his latest column on Moments that Changed Wrestling History.

In last week’s column I addressed the importance of Hulkamania is altering wrestling forever and taking Vince McMahon’s then WWF to the next level. Another factor in that meteoric for the WWF from a regional company to an international phenomenon is undoubtedly the Superbowl of wrestling: Wrestlemania.

The Granddaddy of Them All

Since 1985 the highlight of the wrestling year for many wrestling fan has taken place at the end of March/beginning of April in the form of Wrestlemania. This event has become a flagship of the WWE programming and over the course of the best part of three decades has becoming the longest running professional wrestling event in history.

As well as the longevity of Wrestlemania, it has cross appeal like no other event in the history of wrestling and played a very significant part in attracting new fans to the WWE and wrestling in general as well as making the promotion the success that it is.

For wrestling fans the event has become part and parcel of the wrestling calendar and generally the end point of many high profile WWE feuds while also incorporating a level of glitz and glamor not present at other wrestling events. But the scene was so different back in late 1984.

The Birth of Wrestlemania

Towards the end of 1984, Vince McMahon called into his then humble office twelve of his top aides to discuss his latest big idea, hosting a new event.

The WWF were making very reasonable revenue at the time and as a result McMahon was able to secure television deals meaning that his promotion was being shown across the United States. As well as angering other promoters, it forced other promotions to come into direct competition with Vince’s.

However, if McMahon was to truly turn his promotion into a national one then he would need to have WWF touring the United States. That said, that was impossible for the WWF at that time with the revenue that it had. For Vince to obtain such funding, and for his dream of touring the USA to become a reality, Vince needed an event to bring in the money and dreamed of hosting his own supercard.

His supercard would not be the first, however. The NWA had, in November 1983, hosted its first Starrcade event with the main event seeing a 34 year old Ric Flair defeating Harley Race for the NWA Championship in a bloody steel cage match. This match is seen as the passing off a torch from the 20 year ring veteran Race and in turn making Flair a reputable champion in the eyes of the fans.

However, what interested McMahon about the event was the use of closed-circuit television broadcasting which simulcast the event to two dozen theaters across the Southeast of America – it was Starrcade that popularized the concept.

However, Vince’s aides had a series of doubts over his latest venture as he wanted to do a show ten times bigger than Starrcade and broadcast it nationally. What made his aides as skeptical were Vince’s previous closed-circuit endeavors – Evel Knievel’s 1974 jump over Snake River and the Muhammad Aliversus Antonio Inoki match from 1976 – which had both been fiascos. As well as this, Vince was paying around $10,000 a week to some stations to guarantee that All-Star Wrestling and its siblings had berths on television stations.

Much to the frustration of his aides, but to the benefit of the history of wrestling, Vince wasn’t listening to these protests. To have a truly national promotion he needed a national event. Vince’s risky all-or-nothing gamble on a supercard was WrestleMania.

Risk of the first event

However, with around two months to go until the inaugural Wrestlemania, it was looking very much that the event would be Snake River Canyon mark II as ticket sales weren’t event of a level to cover the deposits on the two hundred theaters that the WWF had booked. Were Vince’s senior advisers to be proved correct on this latest venture?

McMahon’s ego would not have allowed this and with time running out, he contacted the New York PR firm Bozell & Jacobs and armed with a check, urged them to make his event a success. What made Mark Holler, the publicist Vince approached, job a whole lot easier was the interest that MTV were taking in the WWF at the time. The Brawl to end it All, which MTV had broadcast, had been a huge success and the station was keen to keep this fledgling relationship going.

The recording artist Cyndi Lauper was heavily involved with the WWF as part of the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection that saw the WWF and MTV use cross-promotion to attract viewers. The WWF’s Captain Lou Albano had appeared in Lauper’s music video for “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” as Lauper’s father.

The WWF capitalized on his appearance by creating a storyline feud between the two, in which Albano was portrayed as a sexist. On December 28, 1984, Lauper presented Albano with an award. However, Roddy Piper attacked Lauper and Albano with Hulk Hogan rushing to defense of Lauper which led to a match for Hogan’s WWF Championship at The War to Settle the Score.

McMahon also had a devious streak of his own when it came to getting media attention. In December he allowed the reporter John Stossel into Madison Square Garden to interview several of his stars including David “Dr D.” Shultz. Shultz, when asked if wrestling was fake, knocked the journalist to his knees with a shot to the head. The ensuing press coverage of this incident led to the third MTV special being aired live, and more importantly, on prime time television.

The Hogan v Piper match was the final of the eleven match The War to Settle the Score card – although the only one shown on PPV – and saw Hogan, who was accompanied by both Lauper and Albano, defeat Piper, who had Bob Orton Jr. in his corner, via disqualification. The event itself was such an enormous success that it replaced ‘The Brawl’ as the highest rated show in MTV’s history.

The crossover appeal of the WWF had been significantly boosted by Vince’s promotion’s working relationship with MTV. In many markets the ratings for the WWF’s shows were doubling however it was becoming increasingly clear that all was not well in the relationship. Those higher up in MTV believed that the WWF was getting a lot more out of the relationship than MTV was with the regret being that MTV hadn’t sought a cut of the WWF’s success.

When Vince was called to a meeting at the company’s corporate office and informed that the continuation of the relationship would be based on MTV receiving a share of the WWF’s gross, McMahon was curt and to the point believing that the WWF had been equally good to MTV as MTV had been to the WWF and he wasn’t seeking a piece of MTV and brought to an end that relationship.

But by this stage Vince had what he wanted. Four days prior to the first event, Bozell & Jacobs booked Hogan onto a talk show. During the interview segment, Richard Belzer, the host, asked Hogan to put him in a headlock. After goading the WWF Champion that it wasn’t much of a headlock, Hogan kept applying more and more pressure to the point that when he released the hold Belzer fell to the floor unconscious and cut open his head.

The media coverage that the WWF was receiving by now was off the scale and Hogan, this time accompanied by Mr. T, was the guest host of Saturday Night Live the very night before the first Wrestlemania was to take place. As a result of all this exposure, tens of thousands of people across America rocked up to theaters to pay the fifteen dollars to watch the event and to see for themselves exactly what all the fuss was about.

The Event itself

On the 31 of March 1985, 19, 121 fans packed Madison Square Garden to witness the first ever Wrestlemania, dubbed “The Greatest Wrestling Event of All Time!” with more than one million fans watching the event via closed circuit television, a buyrate of 398,000.

While Wrestlemania I did not quite live up to the very ambitious tag line that it was given, it was like nothing that had been seen before. Along with a motley crew of superstars, a host of top name celebrities appeared. Vince knew that to make Wrestlemania a success it needed to appeal far beyond just the traditional wrestling fans. It needed to create interest in the product and bring in new fans.

Undoubtedly, the coverage that the WWF had garnered in the lead up to the event helped with this aim as did the mixture of celebrities appearing at the event and, in the case of Mr. T, competing. The former New York Yankees manager Billy Martin appeared as a guest ring announcer, Cyndi Lauper accompanied Wendi Richter in the penultimate match of the evening where Richter defeated Leilani Kai, Liberace was guest time keeper for the main event which was refereed by Muhammad Ali and featured Mr. T teaming with Hulk Hogan to defeat the heel team of Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff.

Although the event itself was not the greatest, it made the WWF more than $4m – a figure no one would have thought was possible for a one night wrestling event. Some criticism has been aimed at Mr. T’s participation in the main event for his lack of wrestling ability but that was not the point of his involvement. Vince didn’t want Mr. T because of his ability in the ring; he wanted him, as well as the other stars that appeared, due to their name recognition that would help him reach a new audience.

There are many entertaining moments from the first Wrestlemania: King Kong Bundy defeating SD Jones in 24 seconds, Andre the Giant slamming Big John Studd in the $15,000 Body Slam Challenge and Nikolai Volkoff and The Iron Sheik becoming the new WWF Tag Team Champions by defeating the US Express made up of Mike Rotunda and Barry Windham.

As for the main event itself, what it lacks in wrestling prowess, it had everything that was required to headline the event. In Hogan, the biggest name in wrestling at the time, celebrity involvement and, in what was to become a staple of Wrestlemania history, the culmination of a very hot feud.

The Legacy of Wrestlemania

WrestleMania is the world’s biggest wrestling event and as a result it is of no surprise that it draws the high annual buyrate that it does.

The bulk of the year’s action is a build-up to the event and the select few that have been fortunate enough to main event the show have cemented their names in the history books forever. But what has caused Wrestlemania to be the success that it is? Undoubtedly it has been the crossover appeal that this event has and part of the reason behind that has been the influence of celebrities on the card that has resulted in people that perhaps would not normally watch wrestling tuning in to see the show.

Since its inception, a host of celebrities have followed in steps of Martin, Ali, Liberace, Mr T and Lauper and have appeared on, what the WWF bill, as the grandest stage of them all. Celebrity involvement has been a major key in the production of WrestleMania events. WWE involves celebrities in the WrestleMania events to gain more hype and media attention for the event which in turn provides a vital boost to ticket sales. A range of celebrities have appeared at WrestleMania events including singers, actors, boxers and models and usually appear in non-wrestling roles, such as singing, promoting a subject, or managing wrestlers at ringside.

As was the case at the first Wrestlemania with Mr. T, There have been exceptions, with celebrities having been involved in a wrestling capacity such as Lawrence Taylor who wrestled in the main event of the 11th installment of Wrestlemania defeating Bam Bam Bigelow. Overall, there have been 99 celebrities involved at WrestleMania: 32 athletes, 29 musicians, 19 actors, and 20 others from different backgrounds.

Some of the biggest matches in wrestling history have also taken place at Wrestlemania as have many of the most iconic moments in WWE history. Few that have seen it will ever forget Hogan slamming Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania 3, also on that card was arguably the greatest Wrestlemania match of all time between Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat.

A number of torches have been passed on this stage from Hogan to the Warrior at Wrestlemania six to Shawn Michaels to Steve Austin at Wrestlemania 14. The event also gave birth to the winning streak of The Undertaker which started with his victory over Jimmy Snuka at Wrestlemania 7 and continues to this day in what is now one of the most eagerly anticipated parts of the event.

Other iconic moments have seen Shawn Michaels crowned WWF Champion at Wrestlemania 12, Austin passing out to Bret Hart’s sharpshooter a year later, the trilogy of matches between The Rock and Austin, Ric Flair retiring at the hands of Michaels, The Undertaker retiring Shawn Michaels and HHH as well as last year’s titanic battle, as generations collided, between John Cena and The Rock.

Wrestlemania has rightly become the longest running event in wrestling history and continues to achieve unrivalled success. Although officially the road to Wrestlemania begins at January’s Royal Rumble event, the event is actually the culmination of a year’s activities within the WWF.

The impact of the event on the city that hosts it cannot be underestimated. Recent figures showed that Wrestlemania 28, the highest grossing event in wrestling history, provided a staggering $100m boost to the local economy in Florida as fans flocked to the event from all over the world.

Wrestlemania has cemented its reputation as the Superbowl of professional wrestling and the grandest stage of them all. Everything that the WWF books centers on the big payoff that is Wrestlemania and next year’s event will be no different. Rumors are already circulating as to what will join Cena v The Rock mark II on the card. What is in no doubt is that the event will be a huge box office success and may even smash the record set by this year’s event.

After tackling the topic of Hulkamania last week, I felt the logical next column would be Wrestlemania, hence two WWF/E topics in a row.

Do feel free to suggest future ‘Moments that changed the face of wrestling’ in the comments section below or better still tweet them to me Ringthedamnbel1

More of my musings on the often crazy world of wrestling can be found on the blog I write with a couple of friends RingtheDamnBell Blog. You can follow the blog on Twitter @Ringthedamnbel1

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