Sunday Sermon: Biggest Moments in Wrestling History

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Craig Wilson, Jamie Lithgow, Brian Damage, John Carbery, Amerigo Diehl & Earl Marx

In today’s Sunday Sermon we go old-school and take a look at some of the biggest moments and superstars in the history of the business. Moments that have changed wrestling for the good and superstars that have revolutionised the business. Continue reading

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He Said…He Said: The Can Am Disconnection

canam

Brian Damage

There are two sides to every story. One side may be more truthful than the other, it all depends who you believe. Such is the case with a rising tag team in the WWF known as the Can-Am Connection. One minute they are being positioned to be the next WWF tag team champions and the next minute…they no longer exist. What happened? Depends on which story you believe. Continue reading

Moments that Changed Wrestling History: Monday Night Wars

Craig Wilson

90s wrestling can best be remembered for the Monday Night Wars that reignited interest in wrestling and saw the top two promotions, the WWE and WCW, go head to head for ratings every Monday night with their flagship shows – Raw and Nitro respectively.

The Birth of the Monday Night Wars

In 1993 the WWE’s then main television output ‘Prime Time Wrestling’ was cancelled by USA due to falling ratings. After its cancellation, the WWE decided that it should use its television time to showcase original matches and develop storylines that would serve as the major build-up to the then quarterly pay-per-view broadcasts.

Raw broke new ground in televised professional wrestling. Previously, wrestling shows were taped on sound stages with small audiences or at large arena shows. The Raw formula was very different than that of its predecessor, Prime Time Wrestling: instead of taped matches, with studio voice-overs and taped chat, Raw was a show shot to a live audience, with storylines unfolding as they happened.

Changes were also afoot in the WCW in 1993 where the former commentator Eric Bischoff was promoted to the position of Executive Vice President. While the first year can be written off as a disaster, what was to follow changed the WCW.

In 1994 Bischoff declared open war on Vince McMahon’s WWE and aggressively began recruiting Vince’s former stars. The two most high profile early additions to the WCW roster were Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage who, as well as excessive salaries, demanded creative control over their booking something that would come back to haunt the WCW.

Hogan’s first PPV appearance, at Bash at the Beach 1994, saw him cleanly pin Ric Flair to life the WCW Championship in a bout wrestling fans had long dreamed of. Despite the financial success of the event, the match was a one-off with no long term feud between the two superstars.

At their mid-1995 meeting, Ted Turner, the owner of WCW, asked Bischoff how the promotion could compete with McMahon’s WWE. Bischoff, not expecting Turner to comply with his request, said that the only way would be a primetime slot on a weekday night, directly against Monday Night Raw. Turner granted him a live hour on TNT every Monday night, which overlapped with Raw.

The very first episode of WCW Nitro was broadcast from the Mall of America on 4 September 1995. That show featured Brian Pillman v Jushin Liger, Ric Flair v WCW US Champion Sting, and WCW World Champion Hulk Hogan taking on the artist formerly known as the Big Boss Man, Big Bubba Rogers.

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One of the big surprises from first Nitro as Lex Lugar returns to the WCW

However, the biggest talking point of that show was the return of Lex Luger who had spent the previous two years wrestling for the WWE, where he had been one of the promotion’s top stars. Luger’s appearance was particularly jarring for the WWE because he had just wrestled a match for them the evening before. This event set the tone for Nitro’s “anything can happen” atmosphere, something that the promotion would visit time and time again and set the tone for the Monday Night Wars.

Luger’s defection to the WCW created speculation among fans as to which other big-name stars would join him. This helped spark a great deal of interest in the show, which was broadcast live, from fans wanting to see what the next superstar would be. Notably, Luger was followed by former WWE Women’s Champion Alundra Blayze. She marked her appearance on the December 18, 1995 edition by insulting former employers before throwing the WWE Women’s title belt in the garbage bin.

In the early stages, Raw and Nitro both traded wins in the ratings before the rivalry really heated up. A segment was aired on Nitro featuring stock footage of then WWE stars performing as jobbers in WCW. At the same time Bischoff began giving away the results of Raw matches owing to the fact it was not live.

As expected, these moves prompted the WWE to retaliate with a series of skits of their own. These videos titled ‘Billionaire Ted’s Rasslin’ Warroom’ showed scathing parodies of Ted Turner(Billionaire Ted), Hogan (The Huckster), Savage (The Nacho Man), and Mean Gene Okerlund (Scheme Gene). They eventually stopped being aired on the USA Network at the request of network president Kay Koplovitz and were ended permanently after Wrestlemania XII, an event that featured one of the skits.

WCW takes control

The WCW however would gain the upper hand on the ratings war in 1996. On the episode of Nitro on May 27 Scott Hall interrupted a match between The Mauler and Steve Doll and delivered the now-famous speech stating that he and unnamed allies had a challenge for WCW Executive Vice-President Eric Bischoff and any WCW superstar. This promo has since been called the “you want a war?” speech and by God did it heat up the Monday Night War.

After promising WCW superstar Sting a “big surprise” Hall introduced Kevin Nash to the WCW audience a few weeks later.

Despite having left the WWE and signing contracts with WCW, the storyline implied that both were WWE employees and that their presence in WCW represented an invasion. In fact, the WWE was so concerned that they considered legal action with the bulk of their concerns focussed on Hall who continued to mirror the antics of the Razor Ramon character by speaking with a Cuban accent and referring to other wrestlers as “chico.”

Soon the duo would be joined Hulk Hogan, turning heel for the first time in eighteen years, and together the three would play a pivotal role in bringing success to the WCW as the New World Order (NWO). The June 10 episode of WWE Raw would be the last one that would beat Nitro in the ratings war for nearly two years.

Constant attempts were made by the WWE to break the momentum of Nitro and in 1997 they entered a cross-promotional agreement with ECW. Raw commentator Jerry Lawler insulted and “challenged” ECW on the show’s February 17 episode, and in the weeks to come, several ECW wrestlers appeared on Raw in a story mirroring, but with much less success, the nWo storyline.

Throughout the year, the now titled Raw Is War began to move in a more controversial direction storyline wise. Although these angles, including racist graffiti towards the Nation of Domination stable, the gang warfare feuds and the revealing attire worn by divas, helped the WWE recover slightly the WCW remained in control.

WCW demise and advantage WWE

The ratings for Raw is War continued to improve and the WWE capitalized by introducing the new ‘Attitude’ concept, in which the family friendly and clear-cut dynamic the company had traditionally favoured was replaced by a more adult themed wrestling show with less emphasis placed on faces and heels and more placed on more ambiguous characters. Matches were now shorter with greater prominence for backstage events with a shock factor heavily stressed. Greater prominence was given to the company’s newest star, Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Vince McMahon capitalized on fans’ genuine dislike for him following the Montreal Screwjob, blurred the lines between kayfabe and reality by creating the “Mr. McMahon” character, an exaggeration of his public persona, and would begin a lengthy – and commercially successful – feud with Austin.

Desperate to stay ahead of the WWE, in an attempt to keep viewers interested in their product the WCW reformed the Four Horseman and hired the Ultimate Warrior to feud with Hogan. In addition they marketed ex-NFL player Bill Goldberg as an invincible monster with a record-breaking winning streak of 173 matches.

However, cracks began to appear. During this period it is widely believed that Kevin Nash was behind many of the booking decisions and he would go on to abuse that power. Not only did he book himself to win the World War 3 battle royal in November 1998 and the title at Starrcade 1998, it was also Nash that ended Goldberg’s winning streak.

Another problem for the WCW during this period was other questionable booking decisions. Such was Bischoff’s desperation to win the ratings war that matches that could and should have headlined PPVs were being shown on Nitro, the prime example being the bout where Goldberg defeated Hogan to win the WCW title. Whilst this undoubtedly aided the WCW significantly in the ratings battle, it created problems for them when it came to pay per view events.

By November of 1998 the momentum was firmly in the WWE’s favour and would remain that way for the rest of the war. As 1999 began, both shows were consistently getting ratings of at least 5.0 meaning that more than ten million people watched Raw Is War and Nitro every week.

On the January 4 edition of Nitro, broadcast live, Eric Bischoff, who had learned of the results of the taped Raw Is War that was airing that night, ordered announcer Tony Schiavone to give away the title change.

The official ratings indicated that after Schiavone made those comments, some 600,000 people switched channels from Nitro to Raw to see Mankind win the WWF Championship before switching back to Nitro. The final ratings for the night were 5.7 for Raw Is War and 5.0 for Nitro.

The same evening’s Nitro main event was supposed to feature Goldberg again Kevin Nash for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, a heavily hyped and much anticipated rematch of their Starrcade 1998 bout.

Horrific booking saw Goldberg kayfabe arrested and Hollywood Hogan return to WCW after a hiatus. Hogan then challenged Nash to a match, which Nash accepted. This led to the now infamous moment when Hogan poked Nash in the chest with his finger, causing Nash to fall to the matt, and Hogan to win the title.

This event heavily damaged the company’s credibility – after all they did not present the match that had been advertised. This non-match is seen by many as the starting point of the decline of the WCW. After this episode, Nitro only got a 5.0 rating on two further occasions.

With Raw heavily ensconced in pole position in the ratings war, the WCW made a series of desperate attempts to stem the tide. The company brought in a series of “stars” such as Master P and well as music acts such as KISS and Megadeath to perform concerts on Nitro – all of which were ratings flops.

In September 1998 Bischoff was finally removed from his position of power within the company. Around the same time a 25 minute skit on Raw featuring Mankind performing a This Is Your Life tribute to The Rock drew a staggering 8.4 rating. A rating record still to this day and with the current state of the WWE programming, shows no sign of being beaten any time soon.

In another move to turn their fortunes around – but in the end only aided the decline – Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara, the head writers of WWF television programs, signed with WCW. Unfortunately for the WCW, Russo and Ferrara were unable to recreate the magic they did in the WWE. At the same time, the company was in the midst of crippling financial and creative depressions, and neither would improve.

In January of 2000, both writers were suspended and Kevin Sullivan was promoted to the position of head booker in a move that caused alarm in the locker-room. Despite lifting the WCW title, Chris Benoit quit the company and along with Eddie Guerrero, Perry Saturn and Dean Malenko showed up on Raw Is War’s just over two weeks after Benoit’s title win.

It is often said that desperate times call for desperate measures and no measure in wrestling history can be seen as more desperate than when the WCW placed the World Heavyweight Championship on actor David Arquette, who was making promotional appearances for the WCW film Ready to Rumble – itself a commercial flop.

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A low point in WCW history: Actor David Arquette wins the WCW title

In January 2001, a group led by Eric Bischoff, announced plans to buy WCW but the deal was dependent on the Turner networks keeping WCW television on its schedules. Unfortunately for the group, Jamie Kellner took over as CEO of Turner Broadcasting, and removed all WCW programming from the network.

With no national television outlet to air the shows, the group dropped their offer to purchase the promotion and the WWE made their offer. On March 23, 2001, all of WCW’s trademarks and archived video library, as well as the contracts of twenty-five contracts performers, were sold to Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Federation Entertainment, Inc. for a mere $3m.

TNT did permit the final Nitro show to air which had been scheduled for March 26. Vince McMahon opened the show with a speech declaring that the war is over. At the end of the show, Vince appeared on Raw Is War to close Nitro and to declare victory in the Monday night wars. However, Vince’s son Shane showed up on Nitro, declaring that it was actually he who had bought WCW.

This act kicked-off the Invasion angle which lasted from March to November 2001 with the end of that storyline also marking the end of WCW as a brand. The final episode of Nitro drew a rating of 3.0.

In the end Raw won the ratings war 154 times – including 122 straight from November 1998 until the war ended, 112 wins for Nitro – including 84 consecutive weeks, and three ties.

Legacy

The Monday Night Wars were instrumental in generating increased interest in professional wrestling and forced both companies to up the ante in terms of their product.

Although it nearly killed the WWE, in all reality it ended up saving the company. Gone were the cartoon gimmick storylines of the mid-nineties and in their place a beer swilling anti-hero in Stone Cold Steve Austin and a supporting cast of edgier performers that made up the promotion’s roster during the Attitude era.

Millions of new viewers began watching wrestling during this period as WWE superstars such as Austin and The Rock were joined by WCW stars Sting and Bill Goldberg in becoming household names.

The shows themselves redefined wrestling on television. Gone were the 2 and 3 minute squash matches of old and in their place fans witnessed pay-per view quality bouts every Monday for free on their TV screens.

As well as creating millions of new wrestling fans, the Monday Night Wars brought many former fans back to the fold. Personally speaking, my interest in the WWE had waned around the 94 period but was reignited by WWE world of 1999 which, as a fifteen year old boy, appealed to me. Evil clowns and superstars with gimmick second jobs were replaced by anti-authority figures and a host of sultry divas and edgy characters.

Without question the Monday Night Wars was the greatest thing to happen during my time as a wrestling fan. It revolutionized both companies, created a series of new superstars and took wrestling to a wider audience than it had ever had.

Unfortunately for the WWE, even its most ardent fan will admit that the malaise that the WWE is currently in can partly be attributed to the lack of genuine competition the organization has. The gulf between the WWE and its main competitor, in this case TNA, has never been greater and the WWE’s position as top wrestling dog is very safe.

That said, the current state of its product pales in comparison to what we witnessed during the Attitude era and the October 1 2012 episode of Raw recorded its lowest ratings since 1997 – at the height of the Monday Night Wars.

We all remember when Mankind won the title on Raw or when Austin got in Mike Tyson’s face. Those are stand out moments from the history of the WWE. Who can forget when DX invaded Nitro or when they impersonated the Nation of Domination? They are all moments from a period when Raw was unmissible.

Raw has been stale for years and shows no sign of letting up. It is such a shame there is no promotion with a Ted Turner figure out there that can fund an aggressive attempt to challenge the position of Vince McMahon’s WWE.

Ultimately, though, the two lasting legacies of the Monday Night Wars are the fact WWE was pushed headfirst into changing the company for the better and secondly the eventual demise of the WCW, and ECW, leaving the WWE in an unhealthy position of virtually having no competition.

The Monday Night Wars generated unprecedented levels of interest in wrestling, created millions and resulted in a new host of wrestlers becoming house hold names. I can only hope that in my lifetime as a wrestling fan I get the chance to see such a ferocious battle between WWE and a rival competitor. It is what the world of wrestling really needs.

Moments that Changed Wrestling History: The Chris Benoit double murder suicide

Craig Wilson

On Monday 25 June 2007 at around 2.30pm Eastern Time, police entered the home of Chris Benoit and were met with a scene that shocked the entire world, in and out of wrestling circles, and has left a sickening legacy on the world of wrestling as two innocent people lost their lives.

The Chris Benoit double murder suicide

On Sunday 24 June 2007, Christ Benoit was scheduled to face CM Punk on Vengeance Night of the Champions for the ECW Championship, a belt that Stephanie McMahon later stated Benoit was to win.

However, Benoit missed that event, along with that weekend’s house shows, due to, as he claimed, his wife and son vomiting and having to take them to hospital.

But over the course of a few days the full gruesome facts over what had happened at the Benoit house began to emerge causing a ripple of shock to pass through the world of wrestling and at the same time create a media storm like never seen before in wrestling circles.

In the space of three days Chris Benoit went from missing a pay per view event due to a family emergency to being paid tribute to on a Raw special to being removed entirely from the history of the WWE on day three. A quite incredible turn of events for a wrestler with a then glittering career and place in the Hall of Fame a certainty.

When the police entered the Benoit house on the Monday afternoon the full, and very grizzly, facts become apparent. A series of sickening and gruesome acts had taken place as both Nancy and Daniel Benoit were murdered, with bibles placed next to their bodies, before Chris Benoit hung himself from his multi-gym.

The world of professional wrestling is sadly associated with its star passing away far too early. The early deaths of professional wrestlers have been a vastly underreported story for years and the mainstream media in America make no time for it. Had Benoit killed only himself that weekend, the story would have gotten a mere fraction of the coverage it did. Tragically, this incident also involved the death of two innocent family members and led to a number of serious questions being asked about wrestling.

Initial reaction

At first it was believed that the whole family had been murdered which led to the WWE cancelling the arranged storyline Raw and replacing it with a tribute three hour show.

Within 24 hours the picture had changed dramatically, however, and Vince addressed WWE fans via a television taping to state that the name “Chris Benoit” will not be mentioned on WWE television ever again. A promise that the company has rigidly stuck to since that date.

As for the tribute show, a standard tribute show with superstar after superstar lining up to provide a Benoit anecdote with many providing snippets about how much is family mattered to him, something now deeply unsettling to view. One superstar was noticeably different, however, and that wrestler was William Regal.

It is clear from Regal’s choice of words and his body language that he is completely uncomfortable with reaction to the situation so early without the full facts being known and speaks only of Benoit’s work rate, not of him as a person or as a family man. Something it is very difficult to find as anything other than telling.

Another case of roid-rage?

The media queued up to blame Benoit’s use of steroids on what happened, something not helped by a bizarre statement being released by the WWE stating that steroids played no part in this tragedy.

Many media outlets, supported by former wrestlers touring that circuit, simply attributed what happened to just another roided up wrestler. The toxicology reports go a long way to supporting that view.

When these reports were released they showed that Benoit had significantly elevated levels of testosterone in his system. His 220 pound frame was absolutely pumped full of it. A normal person has a testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio of 1:1, an athlete tends to have a ratio of 1:4 while the WWE allows 10:1. The ratio for Chris Benoit at the time of his death was a staggering 59:1. While Benoit tested positive for testosterone but negative for anabolic steroids he was not flagged up as a WWE wellness policy fail. It seems that while the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency considers testosterone and anabolic steroids to be the same thing, the WWE do not. It is therefore little wonder that Daily News sportswriter Christian Red declared that the WWE was “in full spin control”.

Even more remarkably both Linda and Vince McMahon appeared on television to back the company’s wellness policy with interviewers unable to land any significant blows on the pair. That is despite the evidence stacking up to show that the wellness policy was not the success the WWE were claiming.

While the toxicology reports indicated that Benoit did indeed have steroids as well as other drugs in his system at the time of his death they did not prove that the steroids were behind the murders or offer any reason to why Benoit committed the acts.

Nobody should defend steroid use, and Benoit almost certainly used them during the course of his career. But was roid rage the sole reason behind this tragedy? Roid rage is not known for being spread out over the course of multiple days so this gruesome act has roots that ran deeper that just steroid abuse.

The role of head trauma

Tests conducted on Benoit’s brain showed that it was “so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient” while also showing the advanced stages of dementia.

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One of Benoit’s most famous moves, used part in homage to one of his heroes the Dynamite Kid, was a diving headbutt from the top rope. Benoit used this move even after returning from a year off with a broken neck. As well as that, Benoit is noted as being one of the few superstars that would take the dangerous chair shots to the back of the head. Both of these played a significant part in the concussions and other head problems that he suffered from. The whole point of professional wrestling is to give the impression you are being hurt while remaining pain free.

But what of Benoit’s mental state? Many of his co-workers refer to him being somewhat lost after the passing of his close friend Eddie Guerrero with other anecdotal evidence also raising serious concerns.

His former colleague William Regal recalls being invited around to Benoit’s house to watch wrestling matches but when he arrived at his house, Benoit failed to recall issuing the invite and refused to allow him to enter his property. Chris Jericho also tells a story about being offered a rose by Benoit to throw on Eddie Guerrero’s coffin at his funeral but Benoit walking away, after a lengthy discussion on the significance of the rose, without actually giving it to him.

Benoit suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a form of brain damage that includes depression, cognitive impairment, dementia, Parkinsonism and erratic behavior. The texts messages sent by Benoit on the weekend of the tragedy also highlight a deeply troubling mental state:

Text Message 1 to two co-workers (sent 6/24 at 3:53am)- Chris Benoit’s cell phone
“My physical address is 130 Green Meadow Lane, Fayetteville Georgia. 30215″
Text Message 2 to two co-workers (sent 6/24 at 3:53am)- Chris Benoit’s cell phone
“The dogs are in the enclosed pool area. Garage side door is open”
Text Message 3 to two co-workers (sent 6/24 at 3:54am)- Nancy Benoit’ cell phone
“My physical address is 130 Green Meadow Lane. Fayetteville Georgia.”
Text Message 4 to two co-workers (sent 6/24 at 3:55am)- Nancy Benoit’s cell phone
“My physical address is 130 Green Meadow Lane. Fayetteville Georgia. 30215″
Text Message 5 to one co-worker (sent 6/24 at 3:58am)- Nancy Benoit’s cell phone
“My address is 130 Green Meadow Lane. Fayetteville Georgia. 30215″

These texts are as unsettling and are a clear call for authorities to turn up at the scene. They also pose more questions than they provide answers. It is also worth noting that no attempts were made to hide the steroids. While other evidence such as his own diaries as well as Nancy’s photographs taken in the aftermath of claims of physical abuse towards her were destroyed, the steroids remained at the scene.

The former professional wrestler turned anti-concussion campaigner Christopher Nowinski stated that Benoit may have been suffering from repeated, untreated concussions throughout his wrestling career which ultimately leading to an unstable mental state.

The tests conducted on Benoit’s brain showed how damaged his brain was while tests conducted on the brain tissue revealed he did in fact suffer from severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy and had brain damage in all four lobes of the brain and brain stem. The conclusion from these tests was that repeated concussions can lead todementia, which can contribute to severe behavioral problems. Chris Benoit’s father suggests that brain damage may have been the leading cause of the double murder-suicide, a view derided as “speculative” by the WWE.

In Benoit, while at the end he was still lucid enough to wrestle brilliantly and complete the tasks of everyday living, his brain was damaged to the extent that his impulse and emotional control and restraint, and his rationality, were severely impaired.

Will Benoit’s in-ring achievements ever be recognized?

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In 2003, Benoit was inducted into the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame. After the double murder-suicide, his induction underwent a recall election in 2008. However, Benoit’s place in that Hall of Fame was retained as a member. While 53.6% supported his removal, that figure fell below the necessary 60% threshold.

The reaction from the WWE in the aftermath of the incident was a mess. The news of the deaths broke a few hours before Monday Night RAW was due to air and a clearly shaken Vince McMahon made an announcement that RAW would celebrate the career of Benoit, showing some of his best matches and moments.

Of course, this was before the details of the case broke, before it was known that Chris Benoit himself had committed these horrendous acts. Perhaps it was an emotional decision, but Vince McMahon again appeared at the start of the next TV taping, retracting his previous remarks and stating that Benoit would never be mentioned again in the WWE. It has been now more than five years since this tragedy and the promotion has not veered from that policy announced by McMahon on that night.

Will the WWE recognize Benoit’s achievements? I find that highly unlikely. Despite all of these championship wins, and many other honors in a glittering wrestling career, many of these successes have simply been airbrushed from history. What’s more, any video footage that does contain Benoit has him blacked out of the picture.

Few believed that Benoit, at his peak, would not have entered into the WWE Hall of Fame but not now. The image of Benoit and Guerrero celebrating in the ring at Wrestlemania 20 is one of the most iconic pictures in recent wrestling history as it showed that two smaller guys could indeed ascend to the top of the wrestling world. Yet within a few years both of those superstars had passed away.

Chris Benoit will be remembered as one of the greatest wrestlers ever to set foot inside the squared circle but because of the heinous acts committed in and around the 24th of June 2007, it will be as a superstar that many fans will not feel right remembering fondly ever again.

One this is for sure, the debate will continue for years to come whether or not the WWE is correct to remove the Benoit from their record books and history. While it’s easy to just dismiss the murders as another wrestler with uncontrollable ‘roid rage, the nuances changed the course of wrestling forever.

The wider impact of this tragedy

It’s been a half decade since one of the WWE’s blackest days. It was an event that would truly change the landscape of the company and tarnish its all-important public image.

No one will ever know exactly what happened in the Benoit household. The actions of Benoit over the course of that June weekend highlighted the very worst of what excessive brain damage could do. The research that came from the incident started a series of studies that determined just how serious concussions could be. The Benoit murders occurred in June and by August of the same year the NFL had released its first new policy on concussions.

Personally speaking, I am still completely unsure over many aspects of this in a wrestling sense. I find it very difficult to watch his matches and that is a shame considering how many stand out matches he had. One of my favorite Benoit matches, against Bret Hart as a tribute to Owen, is a match I have not watched since the incident.

That is a purely selfish view from a wrestling fan. Ultimately, however, the impact was more seriously felt outside of wrestling with the tragic and needless loss of two lives. The remainder of the Benoit family will have to live the rest of their lives with the stigma associated with the heinous actions committed over that weekend in June 2007. At the heart of this tragedy is the fact that an innocent woman and her son were murdered in cold blood.

R.I.P to Nancy and Daniel Benoit.

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

Lauper

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.

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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 Bob Orton Jr.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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