29 years ago today history was made as the first WWE WrestleMania was held in Madison Square Garden. Vince McMahon mortgaged his home and his business in a gamble that has made him a billionaire 29 years later.
There are two people that don’t get enough credit for the success of the first Mania in my opinion. Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T are probably more responsible for the success of the event than anyone on the card including Hulk Hogan. T and Lauper helped the WWE crossover into popular culture garnering media attention from global outlets and daily coverage on MTV. Without those two celebrities I doubt MTV or anyone else outside of the northeast pro wrestling audience would have cared.
It is fun to bash Hogan in 2014 but I can’t imagine anyone else as the captain of the WWE ship at this time. The audience Vince was trying to market to wouldn’t have gravitated to anyone else in the industry at this time the way they did Hogan. Dusty Rhodes claims in his book that he was offered Hogan’s spot before Hogan. I won’t call the Dream a liar but if that were true I don’t think the WWE or Mania would have taken off the way it did in 1985.
Every good hero needs a diabolical villain and there was none better than Roddy Piper. Take a look around the industry back then and try and come up with someone better for this role. The preamble to WrestleMania, the “War to Settle the Score” featured Hogan vs. Piper and aired on MTV. The event did a gigantic 9.1 rating. Could Hogan or Piper have done that kind of rating on MTV with anyone else? Would MTV have given the WWE that slot if it were a different match? I think the answer to both questions is a resounding no.
I remember as a kid sneaking out to turn on the television for the 11PM news to find out what happened at the show. Channel 11 out of New York ran teasers about the story and while I was supposed to be fast asleep for school, I couldn’t sit still. I was so pumped for the results that I couldn’t sit still. With my parents asleep I slowly turned on the news and waited patiently for a story that lasted all of about 45 seconds.
The event itself wasn’t even that good. In the annuls of WrestleMania history there are no matches from the show that crack a top 10 or maybe even top 20 of greatest Mania matches ever. The main-event was great from an intensity standpoint but otherwise was pretty dull compared to most of Hogan and Piper’s matches back then. Yet ironically it didn’t matter. The fans saw what they paid to see and they had a great time from opening bell to the end of the night. The New York crowd popped for everything and enjoyed their part in wrestling history.
I had the chance to talk to Paul Orndorff a few years back on the impact of WrestleMania. I asked Mr. Wonderful if he was surprised at how big Mania has become?
“Well you know Bill Watts had that same vision when he ran the Super Dome, and I was in the main-event of two of those and worked with Bruiser Brody and I can’t think of the other go. That’s got to mean something when you are in the first WrestleMania, out of all of the people there that they could have picked. I was one of them, and that’s who they wanted in it. Then well I don’t need to get into this thing you know, the belt. The belt, you know I should have had that belt. There’s no doubt about it.”
Orndorff’s partner Roddy Piper recently revealed on Steve Austin’s podcast the pressure he had going into WrestleMania.
“Vince’s house, he put his house up (for WrestleMania). Here’s something that I never circled around much here. Hey, there was a responsibility on my shoulders and everybody else. Orndorff, Hoga, Orton, they were all great. But I’ve got a guy that’s putting his house up? That means something to me, I’ve got to make this work. Sometimes I don’t think Vince realizes what we had to do to make that work. It was really difficult.”
The booking of WrestleMania was much different than how the event is booked today. A deeper look at the booking reveals a much different strategy in 1985. It was obvious that certain matches weren’t given away in the interest of house show business. Greg Valentine vs. Junkyard Dog for the intercontinental title is a perfect example of this. The big feud at the time was Tito Santana vs. Greg Valentine and yet Santana was in the opening match. Volkoff and Sheik beating Windham and Rotunda was set up for the house shows. Even the finish of the main-event was booked to set up house shows with Paul Orndorff turning to headline vs. Roddy Piper and later team with Hogan on house shows to wrestle Orton and Piper. Today everything is booked to culminate at WrestleMania. In 1985 the emphasis was still on house shows.
Mr. T will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame which is certainly fitting. Yet as much of a hero as he was in participating in the event, he almost ruined it. It is well documented that T had cold feet and there was a legitimate fear that he wouldn’t show up. Imagine what would have happened if he didn’t? The fans already purchased the event but what would have happened moving forward?
It is truly amazing to see what WrestleMania has become in 2014. It has become so big that the WWE won’t even consider an arena hosting the event. It is now a stadium show filled with special effects, numerous guest stars and celebrities, and a gigantic revenue generator for host cities. Seeing a celebrity at WrestleMania is no longer special which is ironic since that is what made it so special in the first place.
Vince McMahon certainly wasn’t the first promoter to book a super card. He wasn’t even the first promoter to book a show on closed circuit television around the country. His own father did it with Inoki vs. Ali. Yet the timing and right mix of celebrity and hype elevated WrestleMania into popular culture which is something no promoter had done in decades.
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