From Madison Square Garden in New York, NY
March 31, 1985
To all things, a beginning. Fans weaned on the modern, well-produced WrestleManias with the Clark Griswold lighting jobs would find the setting of WrestleMania I to be rather primitive. Confined in the dimly lit, archaic atmosphere of Madison Square Garden, nine matches were on the card for the Sunday afternoon spectacular, and there was much on the line.
However, moreso than titles and pride and rite of manhood, what was really on the line was Vince McMahon’s empire. Not that Vinnie Mac had bet the WWF in a game of Texas Hold’em or anything, but McMahon was taking a huge financial risk by producing this flagship event. Over 200 closed-circuit locations across America would be airing the first WrestleMania (this pre-dated McMahon’s longstanding relationship with pay per view), and McMahon was nearing his bottom dollar. If the event failed, so might he.
The key battleground site, other than WWF’s own home base of the USA Network, was the one-time source-of-life for any teenager that didn’t belong to the Bible Club, and that was MTV. Long before Snooki and J-Woww, back when kids would watch videos of Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson, the network gave ample airtime to the World Wrestling Federation. Two specials would air on MTV to increase the brand awareness: The Brawl to End it All in July 1984, and The War to Settle the Score in February 1985. Unlike the territorial ‘rasslin” promotions that were out of touch, the WWF had struck the pop culture pipeline.
In order to reach enough of a monetary failsafe to make WrestleMania a success financially, McMahon and company were going to have to think outside the box. Promoting a simple wrestling show just wouldn’t do; they had to go bigger.
Incorporating WWF Champion Hulk Hogan was a no brainer, especially since he was (even then) the greatest star that the wrestling world had ever seen. Rowdy Roddy Piper was the perfect foil for Hogan, and had enough credibility to stand toe to toe with “The Hulkster” in the main event. However, given that the two just had a World Title match at the February MTV special (which ended in a disqualification win for Hogan), why not jazz things up a bit?
Thus, it was decided to pair up Hogan with television superstar Mr. T to take on Piper and muscular villain “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff in a tag team contest. Each team would also have a corner man to add to the chaos: for the heroes, noneother than “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka. For the baddies, they had Piper’s ambiguously friendly sidekick, “Cowboy” Bob Orton.
But wait, there’s more. McMahon shoehorned in even more figures to make the event as memorable as possible. What’s having one celebrity (Mr. T) when you can have three more? And with that, say hello to guest ring announcer Billy Martin (the famously embattled Yankees manager), guest time keeper Liberace (flamboyant entertainer who’s sold out Las Vegas more than you’ve changed clothes), and as a guest outside enforcer, Muhammad Ali (the greatest boxer of all time).
Nowadays, WrestleMania wouldn’t be the same if a few famous faces didn’t cameo. In 1985, however, the very notion of all of these men being in the same room was too much to bear (and it probably was for Liberace).
The undercard was given its share of attractions as well. Andre the Giant, two months removed from having his head shaved by Bobby Heenan’s minions, would be putting his career on the line against Big John Studd (who was wagering $15,000) in a Body Slam contest. The prospect of seeing Andre, still a lifelong good guy and an incredibly attraction, possibly have his final match surely pushed a few extra viewers into searching for a closed circuit location.
Another celebrity, at-the-time chart-topping songstress Cyndi Lauper, would continue her grudge with the Fabulous Moolah. The women would be seconding popular women’s wrestling sensation Wendi Richter and WWF Women’s Champion Leilani Kai, respectively, in their title bout.
Speaking of title matches, WWF Intercontinental Champion Greg Valentine would be putting his gold up for grabs against crowd favorite Junkyard Dog. In addition, WWF World Tag Team Champions Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo would defend against the hated duo of The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff.
Just to round things out a bit, Gorilla Monsoon provided the commentary with somewhat-nervous first timer Jesse Ventura, Lord Alfred Hayes provided awkward segues to interview sessions, and Mean Gene Okerlund provided the National Anthem for the first (and last) time.
With over one million views on closed circuit, as well as over 19,000 fans in attendance at MSG to see the event take place, WrestleMania was a success, and set the stage for the WWF to change the course of how we viewed professional wrestling, for good and bad.
-Tito Santana def. The Executioner in 4:50
(Good way to warm up the crowd, as Santana has seemingly never had a bad match in his life. The highlight was Executioner (the late Buddy Rose under a mask) getting kicked over the top rope and landing safely in a chair at ringside)
-King Kong Bundy def. SD Jones in 23 seconds
(History has shorn down the official time to nine seconds, but it was still a historic moment for Bundy, and this dominant win would come in handy a year later)
-Ricky Steamboat def. Matt Borne in 4:37
(An extended workout for Steamboat to get noticed by a wider audience. Short as it was, much like the opener, it was never boring)
-David Sammartino went to a double disqualification with Brutus Beefcake in 12:43
(One of the low points of the original event was Sammartino, son of the legendary Bruno Sammartino, arthritically going through the motions with a very green not-yet-Barber. The crowd was rewarded for sitting through this by getting to watch Bruno himself beat up Beefcake and Johnny Valiant)
-WWF Intercontinental: Junkyard Dog def. Greg Valentine by count out in 7:05
(Not a great match, but it served its purpose of getting the crowd to hate “The Hammer” and cheer for Dog. Besides, Tito Santana showed up afterward, dressed exactly as one would if they were going to the club in 1985. Get JYD a fedora and a snazzy jacket, and it’s off to score some E!)
-WWF World Tag Team: Nikolai Volkoff/Iron Sheik def. Barry Windham/Mike Rotundo in 6:55 to win the belts
(This is back when it was marginally acceptable to play on national stereotypes for negative effect. I always said that for comic effect, if they build an actual Hall of Fame, Freddie Blassie’s plaque should say “SIDED WITH COMMUNISTS AND THE SHAH”)
-$15,000 Bodyslam Match: Andre the Giant def. Big John Studd in 5:53
(About as exciting as two big guys kicking each other could be, but at least the right guy won to keep the crowd happy. TNA should recycle this match for a running feud involving Ric Flair trying to retire, but he keeps getting slammed)
-WWF Women’s: Wendi Richter def. Leilani Kai in 6:12 to win the title
(Historical for the involvement of Cyndi Lauper and Fabulous Moolah; Lauper would cross promote by using several WWF stars (Piper, Blassie) in her “Goonies R Good Enough” video. Sign #1 that Vince was going to win the territorial war: no wrestling promoter could cross-promote like him)
(Featured all the celebrities and corner interference mentioned earlier, and The Garden seemed like an absolute madhouse when this maelstrom came together. Hogan scored the pin on Orndorff after Orton’s interference went awry)
ITS PLACE IN HISTORY
Bret Hart revealed in his 2007 memoir, “Hitman”, that McMahon kept the performers’ paychecks for the event in a high interest account for several months, just to collect a huge premium on top of what he already made. Nobody was complaining, however, for two reasons: one, those checks that the performers received were likely higher than anything they had ever received and, two, as long as Vince McMahon was easily making bank, there would be more carrots dangled in the future for all.
WrestleMania, although ancient looking by 2011 standards, is what got the ball rolling. McMahon’s gamble gave him the confidence to try similar ventures in the future. Seven months later, McMahon would roll out the first official pay per view, Wrestling Classic, in Chicago. Five months after that, WrestleMania would be on pay per view for the first time (but we’ll get to that later).
A month after this first WrestleMania, WWF broke onto network TV for the first time in years with Saturday Night’s Main Event, and it was yet another success.
WrestleMania I set the template: big stars, big matches, big hype, broadcasted worldwide. It’s a formula that, with few modifications, McMahon will swear by forever.
Justin Henry has been an occasional contributor to Camel Clutch Blog since 2009. His other work can be found at WrestleCrap.com and ColdHardFootballFacts.com. He can be found on Twitter, so give him a follow.