REQUESTING FLYBY: The Wrestlemania Dailies - (Redux) Wrestlemania I - Wrestlemania VII
Feb 28, 2017 - 6:35:53 AM
The Wrestlemania Dailies - Wrestlemania I to VII (Redux)
WRITER’S NOTE: As we are in Wrestlemania season, I thought it was about time we talked some history here on Requesting Flyby. This is an updated and much improved version of a daily series I ran in the Columns Forum on the RTWM in 2014. Each day, I take a prominent issue from that particular Wrestlemania and break it down. The idea is not to talk about everything that happened, but to take a talking point from the evening in question that I have a take on. There will be a new entry edited into the thread daily. Please feel free to comment below, and I hope you enjoy it!
Wrestlemania VII: America Blank Yeah?
In the Autumn of 1990, with tensions brewing in the Persian Gulf, Vince McMahon decided to roll the dice on a controversial storyline. It wasn’t the first time that wrestling had used political or cultural trends to make a buck and cause a stir, but it was the first truly high profile example since the WWF’s elevation to pop culture phenomenon. The posturing of the Iraqis over Kuwait led Vince to pick up the phone and call Sergeant Slaughter. “Sarge?” he is alleged to have said simply “It’s Vince.” Slaughter didn’t have to ask which Vince it was. Through the late 70s and early 80s, Sarge was the prototypical All-American babyface who fought for the honour of Old Glory. He’d been semi-retired since the mid-80s after a wrangle about action figures caused him to leave the Fed the first time, but now McMahon pitched him a storyline: to come back as an Iraqi sympathiser and garner mega heel heat.
At first, Slaughter’s new gimmick caught on in exactly the way McMahon wanted. Listening to the heat he got at Survivor Series ’90, where Sarge performed admirably, in the ring and on the stick, all seemed to be proceeding to plan. McMahon even booked the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in anticipation of setting an attendance record of 100,000 paying spectators. However, following the Rumble, where Slaughter dethroned the Warrior after interference from the Macho King, WWF had huge trouble selling the tickets available and downgraded to the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, which held a mere 16,000. The Fed tried to spin this as being due to bomb threats and various nebulous “security concerns” but this was widely sneered at by commentators even at the time. The truth, as Bret Hart points out in his autobiography, was that the Gulf War was over quickly and any heat from the Iraq vs. USA angle had largely dissipated by the time Hogan and Slaughter locked up at Wrestlemania.
Vince had built his company on the back of an All-American hero, and Hogan had birthed Hulkamania by defeating the Iron Sheik, an ethnic Iranian whose own gimmick had played off the Carter administration’s Iranian Hostage Crisis. The triumph of Hulkamania was also the triumph of America. Throughout The Hulkster’s reign as top dog, the Stars and Stripes was never far from his hand, if not always literally, than certainly figuratively. However, the 1980s Reagan patriotism that took Hogan to the summit of the mountain was waning. Vince McMahon did not realise this for a long time, indeed, despite the relative failure of the Wrestlemania angle, he booked a tag match involving Slaughter and his stable against Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior which was infamous for Warrior holding Vince to ransom for more money and for Slaughter and Hogan offering to take care of the matter physically for McMahon.
In the years after Hulk left the company, McMahon consistently tried to make currency from pro-USA wrestlers and “evil” foreigners, with very limited success. Lex Luger was saddled with the All American gimmick in a programme with the “Japanese” Yokozuna (almost fifty years after the end of World War II, you couldn’t make it up), whilst The Patriot, Del Wilkes, was brought in for the Border Wars angle between The Hart Foundation and the rest of the Federation, again with little impact, even though the actual angle was as hot as you like. The thing was, the reason Bret Hart succeeded with an Anti-American gimmick was because it was far more real. What the Attitude Era did was to actually take plausible shoot happenings and work them into storylines. The truth was that Canada did have subsidised healthcare, good living standards and gun controls. That was why it worked; Hart was shooting on real problems in American society. The problem was that the “heroic” American cartoon represented by The Patriot had no place in the late 90s product. The “new” hero was actually Austin, who represented a new set of wish fulfilment in every day Americans in that he stunned people first and asked questions later, did what he wanted, and told the boss to go screw himself. When McMahon realised that 90s audiences wanted something different from a top babyface, Austin was pushed to the moon and made him a tonne of cash.
Therefore, Wrestlemania VII’s main event stands in history as the moment where Vince McMahon’s vision of what wrestling could be began to crack. The formula he had exploited so well was losing its potency, and though it would take him a while to realise this, it had a profound impact on the product later down the line. Interestingly though, I’ll leave you today with the idea that all ideas in wrestling are recycled, so it was that come 2006, John Cena was playing a marine, wearing cut off camo and dog tags, and saluting at the camera. By 2011, he was announcing the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death to an arena full of wrestling fans. I guess that for as long as Vince is alive, there will always be some measure of “America F-Yeah!” about WWE, even if the commercial potential of such storylines waxes and wanes.
Wrestlemania VI: Did Hogan Crash Warrior’s Plane?
In professional wrestling, the passing of the torch between the fading star of one generation and the rising one of the next is a time honoured tradition. Truthfully, it isn’t as simple as that at all, because it’s rare that the defeated party actually exits stage left after they’ve put over the young buck. To give you a recent example, Triple H looked at the lights for Batista and John Cena at successive Wrestlemanias but I don’t think anybody doubted his character’s ability to bounce back from those high profile losses. Nevertheless, in the 1980s, when the champion was truly the face of the company, commanded the highest purses and received the best perks, giving up the title to the next guy was a big step to take.
Hulk Hogan had been on top of the wrestling landscape for six years by 1990. If his act was familiar and had barely changed, that made no difference whatsoever to live audiences, who continued to buy the merchandise and cheer the pose down with no questions asked. However, Hogan worked for Vince McMahon, who had an instinct for shooting down stars who were getting too big for their boots, and clearly this was what the boss was feeling at the beginning of 1990. Wary of eventually being held to ransom- a paranoia that he nursed well into the 1990s with tragic results for Bret Hart- Vince decided that he was going to put the belt on The Ultimate Warrior, whose meteoric rise coincided with Hogan falling out of favour. In a classic piece of wrestling politics, McMahon dared The Hulkster to put Warrior over clean in an “Ultimate Challenge” match where both the WWF and Intercontinental straps were on the line in a gigantic babyface vs. babyface match. There were all manner of backstage issues at stake here; Hogan’s pride and concern over his future, Warrior’s alleged prima donna locker room behaviour and Vince deciding that a changing of the guard would benefit both him personally and his business.
The thing is, despite the fact that Hulkamania was still running wild, McMahon was probably right. Hogan’s reign atop the business had been going on a long time and attention spans in this new decade were getting shorter. Nobody had turned on Hogan yet, but by Wrestlemania VIII and IX, he felt like an irrelevance to a degree, or at the very least, a bit of a dinosaur. The Hulkster himself has sought to propagate a mythology whereby he saved the WWF from a disastrous Ultimate Warrior title reign by stepping back into the top babyface shoes in time for Wrestlemania VII, but that ignores an awful lot of cold, hard evidence that suggests that Hogan fared no better than Warrior once he took the belt from Slaughter. The boom period in wrestling was subtly lurching to a close, and by 1993, steroid scandals and sexual harassment suits would cause serious embarrassment for the WWF and precipitate a steep decline in business.
That, however, is not to say that The Ultimate Warrior escapes blame. His poor attitude and egomania between late-1990 and mid-1991 is infamous for good reason. However, I’ve often wondered how Warrior might have done as a top draw had certain things not happened in the title match itself. After the match, Hogan allegedly said to Bret Hart “You watch. Warrior will fail. And Vince’ll be calling me begging me to come back.” What many, including myself, have often wondered is to what extent The Hulkster was planning that failure from the very beginning. Because whatever his faults as a human being, The Ultimate Warrior should not have failed as a top draw. He was as over as it is possible to be. If you watch the Hall of Fame video package for Warrior, you’ll see what I mean. The guy was just insanely popular with live crowds of the time. If that popularity didn’t translate to a successful title reign, we have to wonder why. Yes, he was a limited in-ring worker, but then again Hogan wasn’t exactly Dean Malenko either. Warrior had a lousy attitude, but anyone that knows the smallest thing about professional wrestling knows that Hulk Hogan is one of the biggest politicians ever to lace up a pair of boots. In an infamous promo given in the build to Toronto, The Ultimate Warrior uttered the following: “Assume the controls, Hulk Hogan. Shove that control into a nosedive, Hulk Hogan!” The question we have to ask is this: was it in fact The Ultimate Warrior’s plane that Hogan crashed that night in Toronto?
Item one is the “kicking out at three” controversy. Watching it back today, it looks worse than it ever has done, to me. Hogan misses a leg drop, Warrior comes back off the ropes with the splash, and as the referee’s hand comes down for three, Hulkster clearly and obviously kicks out a fraction too late. Although the new champion technically wins clean, the shine is taken off that victory through the inference that Hogan was only beaten because he mistimed a kick out. It looks like a lucky break for The Ultimate Warrior, and even Jesse Ventura on commentary sounds unsure as to what has just happened. The second piece of evidence suggesting that Warrior’s moment was comprehensively tarnished is the aftermath of the match, when his celebrations are infringed upon by The Hulkster’s histrionics, pacing about the ring and pointing to the sky at the God who let him down. Hogan then steps out of the ring, with a hang dog expression etched on his face, collects the WWF Title from Finkel and walks into the ring with it hanging over his shoulder. Hogan thus symbolically aligns himself as the rightful champion still. Walking into the ring, he hands over the belt, shakes his opponent’s hand and the two embrace. Now, you tell me, whose moment was that, Warrior’s or Hogan’s? I’ve mentioned before that Wrestlemania VI was the first one I ever watched, and at the time, I was too young to recognise it. I thought it was a pretty cool piece of sportsmanship. But six years later at Wrestlemania XII, Shawn Michaels muttered to Earl Hebner of Bret Hart “get him out of the f'in ring” and you know what? Even Bret says that Shawn was right to remind Hebner to do that. A new babyface champion should have the spotlight all to himself. Hogan made damn sure that wouldn’t be the case with The Ultimate Warrior.
Whatever might have been going on backstage and whatever might have happened over the next few years, a period of time where it became clear that Vince’s patented model for drawing crowds was falling perilously out of date, Wrestlemania VI was an amazing occasion, a truly massive event that is justly remembered as one of the great pageants of sports entertainment history. At its centre though was a fascinating spectacle that determined a great deal of what was to follow, for both men in the ring, and for Vince McMahon’s chosen method of storytelling.
Wrestlemania V: A Ravishing Midcard Title Feud
Today I again eschew what might be a more obvious topic of conversation in the headlining “Mega Powers Explode” main event. That match was painstakingly built over the course of an entire calendar year, with Macho Man’s kayfabe insecurity in his status as top dog and his insane jealousy over Elizabeth’s friendship with Hogan (which some will tell you was based on shoot happenings backstage) creating huge interest in the “explosion” when it came. Needless to say, it was a massive draw and probably the best match of Hogan’s babyface prime as Macho carried him to something that transcended the formula I discussed in part two of this daily series.
However, the second most high profile pairing on the card retains more historical interest for me, both objectively as a critic, and in a partisan sense as a fan. At the moment where I was inducted into wrestling, The Ultimate Warrior was the WWF champion and therefore, when looking back at company history, I was naturally far more interested in him than Hogan, who seemed to my ten-year-old eyes to represent the past. Now, we all know how Jim Hellwig actually worked out as top dog, but that’s looking back with 20:20 hindsight. To me and to many other British youngsters, Warrior was the top babyface we could get onboard with. At my school, in fact, Hogan was notably unpopular. I remember distinctly my friends and I discussing how stupid it was that he wore all yellow, talked about “prayers” and told people to take “vitamins” (pronounced with the long i of California English, which we found hilarious). Not to offend any devout Christians or pill poppers out there, but my friends and I thought that stuff was pretty hokey and just patently un-cool. Warrior though, that was a different story altogether. As well as being jacked, he wore coloured tassels tied to his arms, had some sort of arcane design painted on his face and sprinted to the ring to shake the ropes like an escapee from a nineteenth century lunatic asylum. And the promos! Goodness gracious, has complete mumbo jumbo ever been as entertaining as that? Even as a kid I privileged work rate and technical ability- what a horrible little proto-smark bastard I was- but Warrior was the exception to me. I thought he was awesome. To this day, friends of mine who have long since stopped watching wrestling fondly reminisce with me about The Ultimate Warrior. One particular friend often makes drunken promises to get the Warrior symbol tattooed on his posterior. One day, I’ll make sure he keeps that promise.
Then there was Ravishing Rick Rude. As I wrote about a month ago or so, Rick Rude was the first wrestler I ever called my favourite. He would still make a top five now. In an era of amazing characters and larger than life performers, Ravishing Rick Rude stood out even more than my other favourites like DiBiase and Roberts. There was the formidable curly mullet, the anchor tattoo, the porn star moustache, the robe, the most garish tights in the business…I loved how his saxophone led music was obviously that of a male stripper, and how he would get on the mic, say “cut the music” and then proceed to insult the fans of whatever city he happened to be in, before taking off his robe and showing off those rock hard abs to everybody. He was an arrogant, preening Adonis, but he could get it done in the ring too. That was all part and parcel of his character and I loved it. Rude’s two year feud with Warrior remains one of my favourite rivalries in all of wrestling history, and it illustrates to me a lot of important points about midcard booking and the elevation of talent that remain relevant to this day.
First of all, the way that the feud was set up was brilliantly high profile and convincing in terms of the characters’ respective motivations. In Vince McMahon’s 1980s World Wrestling Federation, the body was king, and the two wrestlers who most represented that ideal went head to head in a pose down at the 1989 Royal Rumble. Fearing he would lose and perhaps feeling a spasm of jealousy, Rude attacked Warrior with an iron posing bar, encouraged by his manager Bobby Heenan. Classic heel work from both men, and an interesting chink in the armour of the seemingly unstoppable Warrior was opened. Until that point, the man from Parts Unknown had been booked as a force of nature, and Rude was really the first heel opponent to steal a march on him. It was the ideal pairing really; Warrior was the midcard champion on the verge of breaking into the next level, and Rude was the heel who could elevate him through a series of very good matches over the Intercontinental Title. When people talk about the former importance and lineage of that belt, this is the kind of thing they mean. Within a year, The Ultimate Warrior was winning the WWF Title in the main event of Wrestlemania VI, all while still carrying the Intercontinental Title. A year or two ago, WWE got into the very bad habit of throwing together title vs. title matches with no build whatsoever, with no sense of stage or occasion, but when your midcard belt is functioning well, it should be just a tiny step down from the world title.
You see, the match that Rude and Warrior put on shows that the title is important to their characters. Facing a dangerous, riled, motivated champion like The Ultimate Warrior forces Rude and Heenan to get creative in thwarting him. It’s a cat and mouse battle of the Tom and Jerry variety; when Rude is caught, he suffers, and bumps like a maniac to make his opponent look good. On the other hand, the challenger’s superior mental capacity is shown as keeping him from getting squashed in the way previous heels had been, and once the initial storm is weathered, Rude is able to take advantage, putting the knees up on a splash attempt and proceeding to physically dissect the Warrior with piledrivers and suplexes, all the while selling the initial onslaught of the Warrior, holding his back and grimacing in pain. Rude even sells his pain straight after his signature pose down is used to mock the downed champion! Everybody gains from this sort of bout; the heel gets to show his chops, the face gains audience sympathy after their initial shine is stopped in its tracks. Just as with the tag matches we looked at the past two days, Warrior gets a hot face comeback, with all the special little touches he added to that trope. Watching Rude clinging onto then champion’s back for dear life as he shakes the ropes with ever increasing intensity is a wonderful moment, one that illustrates all that was great about the rise of The Ultimate Warrior. Ditto the power out of the Rude Awakening, which I was reminded of when Roman Reigns did the same thing to Sister Abigail the other week! Most badass babyface moments have a precedent, after all.
The finish is as well thought out as everything else in the match, with Rude falling on top of Warrior in a pinning predicament and Heenan sneakily holding the legs to stop the champ kicking out. This piece of booking strikes me as interesting for a few reasons. Not only did it fit the tone of the contest perfectly, it also reminded me that sometimes, it’s important for an up and coming hero to lose, something which the IWC in particular has lost sight of in recent months. What is a babyface? Somebody who has the support and sympathy of the crowd. How does one gain the second of those two things? Through either coming up short in a heroic effort or through being cheated out of the victory. Warrior was the hottest property in all of wrestling and yet he lost at Wrestlemania. Nowadays, I don’t doubt that fans would be hooting in derision, sounding off about “burial” and complaining about a screwy finish. But look what happened to Warrior after this, his first pinfall loss in the WWF; he regained his Intercontinental Title from Rude at Summerslam and roared into 1990 with all the momentum in the world behind him. It just shows you that men on the rise don’t always need to win every match to keep rising.
Wrestlemania IV: The Glory of the Tag Team Championships (Further Reflections)
Last time, I discussed my experiences with the video cassette of Wrestlemania III, which I bought in the autumn of 1990 in the name of educating myself about the history of my new fascination. What can I say; I was pretty precocious for a ten-year-old. Looming large in my future plans was saving enough pennies to buy Wrestlemania IV, which exercised a feverish hold upon my imagination. You see, it was a double VHS, meaning it was over four hours long. Four hours! I can’t describe to you how exciting the idea of that much wrestling was to me at the time. Moreover, the main thrust of that edition of the Show of Shows was a tournament to decide the WWF champion. Being pretty ignorant of pro wrestling history, I had no idea who the eventual winner was, so that was a strong draw for me.
However, the match that has retains the most rewatchability to me today is, in fact, the tag team title bout, so I’m continuing the thread I started to pull on yesterday about the position and importance of tag team wrestling in the 1980s. I’m sure I don’t need to explain to anybody bar the very youngest of you how stacked the division was at the close of that decade, and on March 27th 1988 at the Trump Plaza, a minor classic took place for the belts, one which has been cruelly forgotten amidst the brouhaha over the WWF strap and the Mega Powers angle that it ultimately spawned. The champions were Strike Force, consisting of yesterday’s hero Rick Martel, and Tito Santana, the high flying Mexican technician who remained one of the few babyfaces I really liked well into the early 90s. Strike Force had held the belts a long time, since October of 1987 in fact, and essentially played off the same “good looking jocks” vibe as Martel’s previous tag team had. They had taken on all comers, but their challenge at Wrestlemania was very different…
Demolition was formed out of a direct desire of Vince McMahon to imitate the success of The Road Warriors. Bill Eadie (Ax) and Barry Darsow (Smash) bedecked themselves in Kiss style face paint, intimidating masks and studded leather. In a word, they were badass. I loved Demolition. I love them to this day, and their aesthetic and power based offense made them genuinely intimidating rather than camp. They also happened to have one of the very best theme tunes in wrestling history. Particularly in this first heel run, they were booked extremely strongly, as an unstoppable force mowing down rival tag teams, making Strike Force an obvious underdog.
It’s simple storytelling really, but it’s very effective. The team of good looking, sporting high fliers have to take on the tough, unscrupulous heels backed by their dastardly manager, The Devious One, Mr Fuji. Jesse Ventura is already passing a moratorium on their chances as the bell rings, and yet through the next twelve and a half minutes, the plucky babyfaces make one believe that they really can retain their titles. For me, it truly is a beautiful example of how to make the tag team titles feel important, something that has often been forgotten since those great teams - The Hart Foundation, The Brainbusters, The British Bulldogs, Strike Force, The Rockers, The Fabulous Rougeaus- departed.
The opening stanzas immediately draw attention to the respective strengths of the two teams, with Smash coming out of the gate with repeated double axe handles to drive Martel to one knee, and when the French-Canadian goes for a crossbody, the larger man is able to catch him, showing admirable power. However, the face team seem to have the better honed teamwork, as Santana dashes into the fray to dropkick the body of Martel so that he falls onto Smash. A brief melee results in Strike Force holding the aces, much to the disgust of The Body on commentary, who spent this entire era bemoaning referee favouritism towards babyfaces (he kind of had a point on that). The heels know how to double team too though, and they inevitably show this as Smash catches Santana in a bear hug for Ax to viciously clothesline one half of the tag champs to the mat. What follows is classic heel tag wrestling, with a distraught Martel trying to help his partner and being stopped from doing so by the official, whose turned back ironically allows Demolition the opportunity to pound away on the hapless Mexican. Those of you who have enjoyed the recent work of Erick Rowan and Luke Harper will find a lot to love about Demolition.
Tito takes an absolute pounding through the next passage of action and plays the face in peril to perfection, while Ax and Smash look like a million dollars hitting power move after power move, living up to their gimmick and their reputation coming into the match. The structure of the contest is that of the classical tag encounter, but performed so well that it becomes more than that. Watch how the hot tag is teased time and again, only for a member of Demolition to drag Santana away. When that separation is finally achieved by Tito with his patented flying forearm, the crowd go wild, and Martel is on fire when he heads into the ring, taking on both members of the heel team with alacrity, upping the pace to suit his own ring game. This rally by the heroes cannot last long though, as we head into a finish which remains one of my favourites ever. As Martel twists Smash into the Boston Crab and Santana sallies forth to deal with Ax, Mr Fuji steps onto the ring apron. The Mexican grappler switches his attention to the Devious One, who throws his cane to Ax, who, with the referee distracted, is free to crack Martel over the back of the neck with it. Smash falls onto the cover for the three count and new champions are crowned.
Quite apart from the beautiful simplicity of the match structure, the sound tag psychology and the excellent ring work by four all-time favourites of mine, what most stands out to me to this day is how seriously the titles are taken. They are a major, major prize and a draw in and of themselves; the bout actually went on second to last, so could be considered a semi-main event, technically speaking. When The Brotherhood took Reigns and Rollins’ titles the night after Battleground ‘13, I suddenly felt like all the work done by Hell No and The Shield in the two years prior had come to fruition because the belts meant something again. Recently, the best tag wrestling in the company has taken place on NXT, with the series between The Revival and American Alpha being followed up with an almost as superlative series between The Revival and DIY. What needs to happen next is for those young teams to force WWE’s hand and continue producing the goods so that the tag straps can become a ‘Mania fixture again.
Wrestlemania III: The Beauty of Tag Team Wrestling (A Personal Reflection)
In this series, I’m going to seek, at various junctures, to shine a light upon less heralded Wrestlemania moments. For so many, the third edition of Vince McMahon’s sports entertainment extravaganza is chiefly memorable for two matches- a scintillating workrate classic between Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat vs. ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage and a blockbuster dream bout between former friends in Hulk Hogan vs. Andre ‘The Giant’- but let’s be honest, I and a thousand other critics have talked those contests into the ground by now. Instead, I’m going to discuss what I believe to be a criminally forgotten example of how to work a tag match on the grandest stage of all.
Some context, first of all. Wrestlemania III was one of the first wrestling tapes I ever owned. After being inducted into wrestling fandom around the rise of The Ultimate Warrior in 1990, I eagerly delved into the history of my new found obsession. In those days, any provincial Woolworths the length and breadth of the United Kingdom was packed with row upon row of wrestling videos. It’s a treasured memory for me, walking up and down that aisle, longingly gazing at those covers, at the larger than life figures represented upon them, and then flipping the case over to pore over the card listing. When I’d saved up the requisite tenner, I marched to the counter with the Wrestlemania III case, and the anticipation I felt as the shop assistant stuffed the VHS into it is something I still remember to this day.
When I got it home- it was a Saturday afternoon- I immediately fed it into the VCR and sat back for the next three hours to drink it all in. Little did I know that the match that would stay with me the most over the next two decades was the very first one on the card, a tag team bout involving three workers I didn’t even know and one working under a completely different gimmick. I should probably stop dancing around the point: the bout I speak of is the Wrestlemania III curtain jerker, The Can-Am Connection against The Magnificent Muraco and ‘Cowboy’ Bob Orton. There are a few intangibles that stood out to me straight away. For one thing, the contrast between the beaming, high energy, suntanned babyfaces in their white trunks and their more rugged heel opponents created an instant intrigue for me. Furthermore, the presence of Rick Martel, who was one of my favourites, working in an era before his ‘Model’ gimmick was one of my first experiences of character shifts in pro wrestling. Here was someone I knew from my contemporary experiences of the product acting completely differently. That was a revelation. Finally, the experience of seeing the enormity of the Pontiac Silverdome in broad daylight made clear what a special occasion this match was cutting the ribbon for.
As a young wrestling fan, I adored the technical guys and the high fliers, and this contest provides both of those elements in spades. As the bell rings, Zenk is seemingly intimidated by the enormous muscularity of Muraco, but surprisingly manages to knock his bigger opponent down with a shoulder block, giving the early shine to the sprightly young babyfaces. The commentary is another pleasure that I recall distinctly, the chemistry between Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura and Gorilla Monsoon sparking off the airwaves, as the talent of both teams is talked up and sold. I particularly love Ventura’s assertion of Orton’s technical skills, “he can wrestle with anybody”, whetting the appetite for his eventual entry. That’s how you do pro wrestling commentary, JBL and Ranallo. Inevitably, the story whenever Muraco is in the ring is one of power vs. speed, and Zenk continues to make light of The Magnificent One’s strength advantage, escaping the big man with agility, hitting pleasing fan favourite offense- an early North American attempt at appropriating the huracanrana, a pair of hip tosses- and then some well-choreographed double team manoeuvres which force the villainous team to think again outside the ring. It truly is classic tag team psychology, and I adore it.
As the face ascendance continues, Bob Orton shows a command of selling which would utterly shame his son, staggering to the wrong corner to take a right hand from Martel. It’s only when Muraco is tagged back in that the heels finally gain the advantage with a sneaky knee to the back by Orton on the sending Zenk down like a sack of potatoes, but this bout moves at a staggering speed for the 1980s, and Martel is soon in off the hot tag to clean house, sending Muraco up and over the turnbuckle, and credit should be given to the big man here, seeing as that bump became a trademark of Shawn Michaels of all people. At that, The Cowboy rushes into the fray to help his partner, meaning that Zenk does the same. After a brief melee, the Can-Am Connection rid themselves of Orton and set up a schoolboy trip high crossbody that gains them the victory. It’s a finish that’s beautiful in its simplicity and elegance, a picture perfect end to a hot opener worthy of the name.
Back in the early 1990s, when I re-watched this match time and time again, I often wondered what happened to The Can-Am Connection. I knew that Rick Martel went on to team with Tito Santana in Strike Force less than a year after the encounter with Muraco and Orton and of course, I was watching him camp it up as The Model on a near weekly basis, but I didn’t have that missing piece of the puzzle. These were the days before the internet, or indeed, very many books about pro-wrestling, so it was many years later that I found out that Tom Zenk suddenly realised that Martel was paid far more than he, and quit pretty much on the spot. It’s a pity that their team shoot split acrimoniously, as watching this footage back today, it was clear to me that they were being positioned for a crack at The Hart Foundation’s tag straps. Such is pro wrestling.
My enduring love for the Wrestlemania III opener has caused me to be a huge advocate of tag wrestling at the Show of Shows. A few years ago, I despaired at the tag belts not even making it onto the main card, but now, it seems that the old school beauty of two pairs of grapplers taking each other on has finally been recognised again by the powers that be. Rumour has it, of course, that Triple H is behind this regrowth in the genre. At Wrestlemania XXIX, when I saw Daniel Bryan and Kane stand in the middle of the ring and YES their hearts out after defeating Big E. Langston and Dolph Ziggler in a seven minute gem, I smiled broadly to myself and recalled the match I’ve spoken about today. So next time you think about Wrestlemania III, spare a thought for my pick. It’s well worth your time, dear readers.
Wrestlemania II: The Patented Hogan Formula
I mentioned in yesterday’s first installment that the special attraction main event would be replaced at future Wrestlemanias by headlining matches for the WWF title. The top star of the 1980s and early 1990s, as I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, was Hulk Hogan, and his matches followed a very specific pattern, particularly when he went on last at the Show of Shows. The superhero formula that McMahon and Hogan patented demanded a very specific narrative focus for the feud going in and for the booking of the match. Each time, The Hulkster would face an opponent who offered a never before seen threat to Hulkamania. Hogan would bear some sort of physical or emotional wound which led fans to doubt whether their hero could overcome the challenge. The early stages of the match would involve Hulk being beaten down by his foe, but the power of Hulkamania ran through his veins and at a key stage, he would “Hulk Up” and use the inspiration of his Hulkamaniacs to dig deep and vanquish the dastardly heel in front of him.
It’s a simple story, and it’s interesting to note that John Cena has mined the same formula to one degree or another for so long that a large proportion of the audience rejected it entirely, forcing Cena to switch up his game somewhat. Hogan was able to wrestle his matches in this way all the way up to Wrestlemania IX and well into his WCW tenure. It was only after the negative reaction to he and Randy Savage going through the entire heel roster like ripe cheese at Uncensored ’96 that executives in Atlanta began to realise how rotten the routine had become. It was not what wrestling fans in the 1990s wanted to see, that was for sure. The 1980s were a different matter though. McMahon exploited the renewed patriotism and embracing of family values of the Reagan Era to push the likes of Hogan, and later, The Ultimate Warrior, as cartoon heroes for children to idolise. They weren’t mere babyfaces anymore; they existed outside of wrestling arenas as larger than life figures. The advent of the ‘Hulk Hogan’s Rock and Wrestling’ cartoon was just one way in which Vince pursued this vision. Hulkamania was not just a slogan, it was a philosophy, where adherents said their prayers, drank their milk and took their vitamins. And if they did those things, they could overcome any challenge placed in front of them…
All of which segues us quite nicely into Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy at Wrestlemania II, which was the first time the Hogan formula was introduced to the Showcase of the Immortals. Bundy was an enormous man mountain of pale white flesh, bald as an egg and twice as ugly. His massive bulk and sheer physicality overwhelmed opponents and his 24 second squash of SD Jones at Wrestlemania I was part and parcel of grooming him for a future clash with Hogan. The first part of the formula for the title bout was put in place when Bundy assaulted Hogan at Saturday Night’s Main Event with his Avalanche finisher, breaking the Hulkster’s ribs in kayfabe. A mocking Bundy and his manager, Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan, then goaded Hogan into accepting a title challenge in the Los Angeles portion of Wrestlemania II. With such a serious kayfabe injury and with a mountainous opponent, the deck was stacked against the heroic babyface, and to make matters worse, the action was to take place inside a steel cage, at the time the most frightening and most serious gimmick match available.
The blue bars of the old school steel cage are a nostalgic sight to make the heart swell as the camera swoops down to ringside, and when the guest ring announcer (the GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers) finally gets around to announcing King Kong Bundy’s entrance, there is a chorus of jeers which is loud even by modern standards. The low angle camera shot as Bundy makes his way down the aisle gives us a sense of his massiveness and when the angle switches to show him from the back, one gets to see where the idea for Mark Henry’s current entrance came from. The intimacy I described yesterday with Wrestlemania I is present again, with fans close enough to reach out and touch the monster and his manager. Hogan’s entry into the fray is entirely different and a large part of what made him special; Rick Derringer’s ‘Real American’ is pumped around the arena as the champ appears, bronzed, clad all in yellow, with the title belt around his waist. He looks like a title holder should, although that is perhaps a measure of how much Vince has conditioned us all over the years. Shaking each side of the cage, Hogan gets the crowd instantly invested in his fate and allows them to believe he will overcome the odds, climbing to the top of the cage to rip his vest, another trademark that made him one of the most over professional wrestlers of all time.
As the bell rings, the two combatants circle each other, the taped rips prominently sold on commentary. Immediately, a duel of rights and lefts commences, with Hogan initially getting the better of things, with the audience behind every single punch, Irish whip and corner clothesline; this of course allows the pride that caused Hogan to go into the match with an injury to have that much more impact. Bundy’s focus on the ribs is psychologically admirable for the time and this beat down segment serves to be the pattern for every other heel challenge to Hulkamania for the next seven or eight years. The only difference with this bout is that it’s a cage match and thus has that cat and mouse element to it that works so well. Hogan stops Bundy from exiting the door several times, but Bundy exacts a heavy toll, choking the champion with his own bandages; it’s excellent heel work that sells the cage match as a lawless environment, but Hulk can play that game too, and does so by using the steel bars as an equaliser, ramming King Kong Bundy’s head into them time and again and attempting the climb out of the cage, even trying to choke his opponent on the top rope as he does so, but as the action spills back to the floor, Hogan’s hubris gets the better of him and he attempts a body slam that backfires, with Bundy’s bulk falling on top of him. This is, of course, the exact spot that had such an impact in the even bigger battle with Andre The Giant the next year.
The Avalanche followed by the big splash seem to have Hogan down and out, but this is where the key part of the Hogan formula comes into play. A second Avalanche has Hogan respond with that trademark no-sell headshake. An Irish whip is reversed, Bundy is powerslammed to the mat and Hogan hits the patented leg drop. Moments later, he is up over the top of the cage to the floor to retain his title, where he proceeds to exact retribution on Bobby Heenan. I think the interesting thing about Hogan matches is always how swiftly they end. Hulk up, Irish whip, body slam or big boot, leg drop. It’s the original “moves of doom” and barely any matches the champ wrestles through the 1980s deviate from that. Nowadays, of course, we have more sophisticated tastes, which is exactly why John Cena has been heavily criticised for his “five moves of doom” and indeed why that same wrester has switched up his game so much over the past five years or so.
So, for this writer, the importance of Wrestlemania II lay in its establishment of a Hulk Hogan formula for title matches that would draw huge through the rest of the decade and beyond. The apex of this wrestling match as marketing strategy came the next year with Andre The Giant and then in 1989 with Randy Savage, two matches which go down in history as two of the biggest main events in wrestling history. But every new product needs a beta test, and King Kong Bundy’s efforts inside the blue steel cage allowed the formula to be perfected over the next few years.
Wrestlemania I: The Blueprint
Those of you who have watched Wrestlemania I will know that the fundamental thing about it is that it doesn’t truly feel like Wrestlemania. It’s low key, short on bombast, even intimate in its execution. We’ve grown so used to the military grade pyro, the stadiums, the thirty minute epic main events, the smorgasbord of rock and rap acts performing live, and above all, the hype, that going back to more innocent times is deeply strange to modern eyes. However, if we take a more Structuralist approach to the event, we find that actually, most of what we expect from Wrestlemania was established all the way back in 1985 and runs in an unbroken line all the way to the modern day. There have been many innovations along the way, some of which became tradition themselves, some of which were abandoned as ill-conceived experiments, but ultimately there are certain non-negotiables with Wrestlemania which start with the construction of the card.
When we look at the line-up of the first Wrestlemania, a few things become apparent. The curtain jerker features one of the best technical workers of the time in Tito Santana, who was trusted to get the crowd going; this is of course a fundamental of any wrestling show to this day, but particularly with wrestling’s Super Bowl. Think about Wrestrlemania XXIX, with The Shield marching through the MetLife Stadium’s audience to battle three main event talents in a hot six man opener, or JBL and Finlay’s weapons filled Belfast Brawl from Wrestlemania XXIV. The next match on the inaugural ‘Mania’s card was a squash between King Kong Bundy and SD Jones; this is, again, a tradition which has endured, with Kane’s eleven second destruction of Chavo Guerrero and Rey Mysterio’s stealth humiliation of JBL both recent examples. Going deeper into that evening of wrestling in the spring of ’85, we find lots more to recognise. Variously, we have an Intercontinental Title match between two prominent midcarders in Greg Valentine and JYD, a tag team title match between American babyfaces and foreign villains (a trope which would define the 1980s and early 1990s) and a special attraction match with an odd stipulation. Ah yes, the “Bodyslam Challenge” between Andre The Giant and Big John Studd; I’m not quite sure why they thought such an odd gimmick match would work except for the fact that the thought of somebody slamming Andre would be impressive enough to carry the action for the crowd. However, there is no doubt that The Giant was a huge draw and using him in this way masked his limitations better than a traditional singles match. The special attraction match as a genre does just what it says on the tin; for many of his first appearances at the Show of Shows, The Undertaker found himself cast in this role, and in latter Wrestlemanias, Vince McMahon himself took up the baton. The idea is that the audience get to see something different than they could see on a typical night of wrestling…and who, in 1985, could have imagined seeing Vince climb a ladder and drive Hulk Hogan through a table in a semi-main event eighteen years later?
The main event of Wrestlemania shows a tranche of tropes that would define future events but is also quite different from most of the headlining bouts that followed. From Wrestlemanias II to VII, the WWF Title match went on last, but here, the title holder and face of the company was in a main event tag match featuring Mr T as his partner. Now, in 1985 I knew absolutely nothing about wrestling; I was five years old and Vince’s circus had yet to make it to the UK. However, ‘The A-Team’ was my favourite television programme and I absolutely adored Mr T, or B.A Barracus as he was in the show. I imagine many young Americans felt the same way, so putting Mr T in the storylines was an absolute genius move on McMahon’s part. Hogan had of course played a cameo role in ‘Rocky III’ as ‘Thunderlips’ so the screen association of the two men was already established. Set them up against two gifted heels in Piper and Orndorff, with potential interference from Bob Orton, and you had guaranteed money. For the first ‘Mania, it made sense to put on such a match rather than a title bout. Celebrity involvement is indeed what most people would point to as the key part of Vince McMahon’s vision of what professional wrestling could become. We all know by now that Vince didn’t want to play by the rules of the regional territory system; he foresaw a national and international promotion which had mainstream appeal; no longer would professional wrestling have a niche appeal. As far as he was concerned, it was evolve or die, and the staging of a supercard packed with MTV and Hollywood talent was an important part of that evolution. In every single Showcase of the Immortals since, actors, sportsmen and musicians have played an integral role on the evening, drawing in casual fans and enhancing the big time feel of the evening. That is the enduring legacy of the first Wrestlemania.
For a modern viewer, this first attempt of Vince Mc Mahon at writing his name in the history books does not offer a great deal other than curiosity, but it’s important to understand how we got to where we are today. Wrestlemania I may not have the pyro, the bombast, or the epic matches but it sure as hell has the formula, and you may be surprised to find just how faithfully the company has followed that formula over the past twenty-nine years.